August 25th, 2014
Huevos rancheros and grape juice.
August 25th, 2014
August 25th, 2014
Huevos rancheros and grape juice.
Diary of a Changing Man
by David Huntington
August 25th, 2014
Huevos rancheros and grape juice.
The last of the Cinnamon Life and then a couple fried eggs. Remember when mom used to cut out the middles of bread slices and fry an egg inside? She called it a Hen-In-The-Pen.
The last year has been one of those withdrawn phases: brooding, plotting, meditating. But now I’ve started writing, apparently. And more than that, yesterday I left the house. Bought some fish at the supermarket. I haven’t had fish in months. I swear, the online delivery grocer always picked the stalest trout they could find. I hated it.
Today, oddly, my house felt small. The radiator clicked like an insect. I watched headlights pass on the road below with a desire I am yet to understand. For the past several months I have contented myself with long novels and the spiritual depth of the Maine forest. There’s always something rustling. Something swaying. Some small creature as afraid of me as I of it. But I’m no longer content merely watching. The forest calls to me.
I have never enjoyed writing, but this . . . there’s a desperation to it. Can’t you feel it in the word choice? Who but a desperate man tries so particularly at a twist of phrase?
I want you to understand. Yes, that’s it. I want you to understand—better than I can possibly make you understand—who I am.
Who am I? . . .
If anything, I’m changing. But everyone changes, right? Sure. But not like me. I can’t help it. It’s like multipolar disorder (they diagnosed me once) except the changes are slow and subtle. Month to month my temperament shifts in gentle gradation: agoraphobic to misanthropic, shy to quiet, friendly to bold. From greedy to stingy, frugal to rash. From spiritual to not-so-spiritual to spiritual all over again.
Now . . . in this new self . . . I feel a boldness within me. A surging. More alive than I have ever been. Dare I say, after all this metamorphosis, that I at last am ripe?
There must be something wrong with my diet, but for the life of me I can’t tell what. I tried giving up the usual suspects each for a week: dairy, meat, fruit, wheat, coffee . . . but to no result. Alcohol is next, though I rarely drink as it is.
The sensation . . . as if my organs were gradually transmogrifying. As if my psychological changes were physical, working from the inside out. I would not be surprised to find my cheekbones a centimeter higher one morning, my earlobes detached, my chin dolphin smooth.
Typically I read until the changes fade or I fade despite them. Other times I’ll listen to dark music and imagine sleep as a legion of dust mites pulsing around me. But last night, mid-mutation, I wandered into the pasture in front of my house. My property, like most around here, is a fragment of an old dairy farm. Though I stopped caring some time ago, my pasture is rather impressive. It sweeps down from the house like a gown. A thicket of cattails occludes a frog pond by the forest. Some mornings and late afternoons a family of whitetail deer grazes there. When they perk their heads they look like jackals.
But last night it was I who stood there perked. The clouds hung over me and the weeds stung my feet. I wore boxers and an old sweater. I listened to the trees.
At first the grass chilled my thighs. I turned my ear to the ground and a cold blade slid up it. I listened to my rhythms. I closed my eyes. The sky grew heavy. I rubbed my belly as if to soothe it. As some insect fingered my nose I heard, long and far away, a deep and beautiful groan. I felt warm and lovely. I imagined sleep as a legion of ants marching across me, burrowing into my navel like a hill. They lay their colony in my gut and when they hatched they ate. Soon their tunnels wove through me. With each generation I became a little less. Until there was nothing.
Satiated, I crawled off into a million Lilliputian holes.
I awoke wet with dew, craving root vegetables. I returned to the supermarket where I purchased the weight of a small child in potatoes, carrots, and succulent beets. Upon returning home I boiled a hearty stew.
I slept contentedly that night and woke at dawn. I scrubbed myself thoroughly, shaved, and tried to do something with my hair that ended up, I’m afraid, rather silly. I wore a good green jacket, a heavy plaid shirt, and khakis.
I am healthy. Thin. A little dark in the eyes, an old English look, but above average for forty, I would think.
I drove to a diner I passed on my way to the supermarket. It had that linoleum look that was not only cheap but appropriate. A real American place. I chose a booth by the window. The smell of onions and coffee. I’m sitting in a latticed parallelogram of warming light. A refrigerator hums.
Other than the waitress and someone chopping in the back, the place was empty. The waitress poured me coffee from a stained pot and brought it over. Out of nowhere, I asked if she cared to join me, half joking. Out of nowhere, she agreed.
I asked if her boss would mind, she said no, disappearing for a moment, returning with her own mug.
We met eyes and I surged with questions, the canyons of her life yawing before me. What depth! What personhood!
She must have been in her twenties, not pretty, but magnetic. She seemed always to be thinking of someone else, such that when she acknowledged my words, or caught me with her eyes, I felt important and put-upon like a merchant before the queen. Most of the time, while her gaze fell distant, my attention was drawn to her black nose ring, her lengthy face, and her hair: three inches of auburn growing into six inches of dirty blonde, a streak of faded pink like panties left in the sun.
The prospect of conversation lit up my nerves like something dangerous. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and she seemed simultaneously amused and distracted. In a surge of courage I asked if her life was boring. She said it wasn’t. I said mine was sometimes, but not always. Not lately.
She asked if I lived around here, and I explained that I lived on Tuttle Road, a notoriously wealthy strip of town, having earned my money from a fleet of garbage trucks I built up in Massachusetts when I was a different man. But now my money was running out.
She asked what I would do next. Start another company? Get another job? They were hiring waiters, she said; her grandfather owned the place.
I laughed and complimented the question. I don’t know, I said. Perhaps I’ll try to live in the moment. I hear that’s good.
So I hear, she said.
A woman called from the kitchen and she excused herself.
I ordered hash browns, eggs, and toast.
I drove to a South Portland joint called Old Alby’s. Their logo was a fat, anthropomorphized albatross with an eye patch and a pint. It celebrated old Portland with ropes and anchors on the walls, a big old boat motor mounted like a moose head.
I sat at the bar and ordered a Jameson. It turned out the surly, white haired individual sitting next to me was in the waste management business himself. He worked middle management at the dump, a reasonable job for a reasonable man, he said. To be honest, he informed me, you speak kind of funny. Kind of literary.
I laughed. Yes, I’ve noticed that too. It’s come on recently, actually. Just in the past month or so. I’m not sure why. I used to be such a down to earth sort of fellow.
He was surprised by this. He called me professor. I’m no professor, I told him, far from it.
He asked if I went to college.
I explained that I tried. I lasted six months, but was filled with such a maddening compulsion to travel that I walked straight out of the place to the next state where I got a job as a hotel clerk.
Let me get this straight, he says—chopping up and down with an open hand—you just started talking like a Bostonian aristocrat all of the sudden, out of the blue, just like that?
You know that sounds goddamn crazy?
I mean Christ, you sound like that creep from Lolita. What if I started talking like an Irish gangster tomorrow? What would you think of that?
I didn’t know what I would think of that.
People just don’t do that. People don’t sound pretentious on accident. I don’t believe it for a goddamn minute.
Well, I said, that’s unfortunate, but you’re welcome to your own opinion.
You’re goddamn right I am.
He then apologized for all his bully, said he’s just pulling my chain like he does; he tends to pull a little hard.
After he got another stout in his paw he brought up local politics. I ordered another double and tried to listen, though I really couldn’t. I started thinking about what he said. Sounding literary. Why literary? I’m not literary. And then I remembered this journal. I guess, I thought, I suppose I am a sort of writer now. Writing more and more, actually. I swell with words. I grow sticky with them. But it’s not like I’ve got some big literary point to make. Not like I’ve got some big shifty theme. Just a compulsion. A boundless, urgent compulsion.
He then asked me my opinion of the governor, at which point I was forced to admit I don’t follow local politics, at which point his chopping hand began pounding the table with every word, a slurry of civil responsibility coming at me like a locomotive, and I wondered if his hair was a toupee, but then why would a toupee be white?
And then—here’s the point of this whole thing—I burst into laughter! I swear it! Right there in front of him! He turns communist red and asks what’s so funny but all I can do is spit out half-phrased apologies while I bubble forth like a shaken pop. Like the writing, like the joie de vivre, the laughter surges out of me. I swear!
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I soothe, dropping a fifty on the counter.
As the audience and I tunneled out of the movie theater, our skins born in embryonic light, I felt I could almost speak with them as sisters and brothers. A midwife with a broom told me to have a nice day as we stumbled into the high-windowed lobby. I watched the sky shake and shudder. The people clustered at the hearth.
Once outside God kissed me rather savagely—it was a passionate affair. Electricity filled the air and her wet tongue addressed me thoroughly.
Intimacy is freedom.
Her fulsome moon glowed through the storm.
She trembled loudly.
Life is good, I whispered. I laughed.
I crossed the parking lot up to the street with all the classy stores on it. Silhouetted shopkeepers watched through window displays, camouflaged amongst manikins. Cars made sloppy tearing sounds as they passed. I shimmied between umbrellas and brick storefronts, squinting through the lamp-lit intersections as I forged Nilotic streets.
God spasm’d and shook, hot flashes through the sky.
I turned up the steps of an urban pantheon: the L.L. Bean flagship store. Cedar-clad buildings towered like mountain shrines to the ursine spirit. At the entrance rose a monolithic fiberglass boot. I ran my hand over the squeaky thing and was wondering if I could climb inside when I noticed those civilians huddled in the mudroom, watching Her rivulets curve my breast. They laughed and whispered. It was then that I knew what must be done.
Pretending I didn’t see them, I approached the doorway. She thundered again and I flashed a smile as I threw open the door and shook my hair, not “noticing” them recoil. Through another set of glass doors I entered the central chamber and inhaled the fragrance of cedar, pine, and natural nylon. Aisles of outdoorsy paraphernalia stretched out before me. And behold: at the barycenter, a spiral stair ascends from a murky indoor trout pond.
FOR THE SAFETY OF THE FISH, it declares, PLEASE DO NOT THROW COINS.
I would return here, but first: from the camping department I bought a flexible cooler, non-rolling, easy to carry through the night. From the fishing department I bought a line and hook. I then returned.
Under guise of weariness I sat on the rocks surrounding the trout pond, tactically positioned under the rising stair. I dipped my cooler in the water, filling it. I wrapped a fishing line around my wrist and allowed a simple hook and worm to drop behind me. I made casual like a highschooler in a skate park.
I felt brilliant. I no longer pondered my life but performed it like a naughty Shakespearean.
A tug on my wrist and a splash. It’s a foot long and muddy silver—Yank! Smack! Sploosh! The thing convulsed in the air like a botched hanging. I slapped it in the cooler, zipped it, and stood.
I marched out of the place, a rather noisy bag at my side, and gave my friends by the door a nice howdy-do before Lady God took me back with a mighty flash and cry. I rubbed the giant Bean Boot as I passed and looked up into the deep of the night. Time to go home, I think. Time for dinner.
Oh, what’s the point of a diary without honesty? I made a childish mistake that night. My plan never was to eat the fish, it was to set it free, but in my excitement I forgot that a freshwater trout won’t make it in the nearby ocean. It would surely suffocate before I found a lake. I hadn’t saved it, I had killed it. I stood there on the steps of that pagan store and felt very small for a while.
At least, I think, there are worse bodies of water to swim in than mine.
I wonder, are we parents to our future selves? Am I not a sort of father to the man I am tomorrow?
I say this because perhaps I have not been the best parent. When I visited the county fair today I spoke with farmers, clowns, and pretty girls with the facility of my recent change; I lay in corn fields amongst God’s hot and sodden breath; I wrestled a piglet in the mud and won a prize; but through all this my heart never beat above half fever. I wandered in a halcyon daze through the thousand bulbs of fair-light and the swirling screams of children. Though I avoided it the entire night, after encountering the waitress from the diner in line for a funnel cake, I ended up on the damn Ferris wheel.
I asked her if she would like to split the pastry, since I really wasn’t in the mood for a whole one, in fact, I was eating it more out of novelty than desire. She felt the same. We talked about sitting at a picnic table but decided against it. Instead we strolled, side-by-side. Without speaking, we seemed to settle on an understanding: that she would use me to hide from someone and I wouldn’t mind.
By the time we were standing in front of the Ferris wheel, by the time she said “why not,” it was already too late. The attendant opened the door of our carriage and gestured like an Elizabethan chauffeur. I tipped my imaginary hat and we sat in opposite corners, gazing out opposite windows, over opposite horizons.
Nevertheless, that sensual, celestial rhythm united us. I looked at the waitress and knew she was a heroine. I wanted to cross the carriage, sit next to her, fall asleep on her shoulder, and imagine the wondrous things she would conquer as she left this un-destined wheel at its zenith, continuing to rise as I went round again.
I have not slept in two days. It all began with a poorly executed batch of scrambled eggs and a blank expression. Yesterday morning I sat over this diary for a while with a blank mind before wandering around my property, blankly. It was one of those days when you keep noticing your breathing and it gets terribly annoying. There, look, I’ve gone and done it again. Do I always breathe so loudly?
I went to the diner around ten and there she was, but different. The place was packed. Singles, couples, and families, old and young, rich and poor, they filled every table in the joint. My waitress grinned like a celebrity. She sat with them. Half the tables, it seemed, she joined for a moment, stared deeply into the people’s eyes, and laughed.
In our brief exchange she said that this is a small town. Even if you aren’t friends, you’re friendly.
I drove home and lay in bed staring at my diary again. I went and saw a comedy film and drove back. In bed my stomach churned. I twisted about, tried reading, counted everything I could. I kept thinking about the Ferris wheel and its damned twinkly music. Eventually I gave up, pulled on some sweats and went outside.
I lay out in my pasture. I turned my ear to the ground and a cold blade slid up it. I shivered. The wind swelled. My own rhythms.
When I was a boy I used to imagine my heartbeats were footsteps in the fall leaves. Someone was always approaching, just beyond my window.
I arrived early this time, before the crowd. I didn’t have to ask. She smiled and sat down with a fresh mug.
I like this place, I said.
I asked about her.
She was just out of college, she said. She was saving money to get her masters in sociology. She could get a better job, but she was lazy. Her grandparents were good to her here.
Encouraged, I ask about the fair the other night. What was she hiding from?
My mother, she says. Oh, fuck it—I actually lied to you just now. She laughs. I’m not saving money for college. My mom wants to pay for my degree.
My mom already paid.
I went for the first week. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
She said she hated this town and wanted to leave.
I don’t believe it. I think you love it.
Ha. Sure. I like talking to people. But this town is always too rich or too redneck. You’d think it’d be somewhere in the middle after all this time, but no. It’s just two groups of people who hate each other just enough to ignore the problem. Look around this place. The fat locals sit on that side, the doctors and dentists sit on this side.
What about me?
There’s something weird about you, she says. I like it. Like a bad movie.
Apparently her mother’s back in town with the pretext of organizing the grandparents’ basement.
My mom doesn’t care about the basement, she says, fuck that, my grandmother can’t even make it down the stairs anymore. She’s only here to make me miserable.
But I don’t think she’s as upset with the situation as she puts on. I can tell how she mentions specifically the restaurant they always go to: It’s a shitty restaurant, she says. Always that same little shithole. Greasy and fattening and not even good.
After another long night at the bar I miss breakfast. I arrive at noon, just as she’s leaving.
There’s a couple with a baby that won’t stop crying. She makes it stop crying. I compliment her. She says she loves children. Loves them more than anything. If she ever got her masters she would study children. School systems or something. But she could never be a teacher, people get on her nerves too much.
I hate everything. You get that? No. You don’t. Like, it’s not that there aren’t things that I like, but everything, like everything together, that’s what I hate.
She’s excited by the idea of hatred. She sparks with it. To her, hatred is not a weakness; it’s a reason.
It’s true. Breakfast food is the best. It’s like . . . uhh . . . an awesome coat. Yeah! It makes you feel so safe you could wear it forever, even when it’s fucking hot out.
You’ve got, I don’t know, a priestly air.
I’m such a mess, she laughs. How are you always so composed?
by David Huntington
“Well, we climbed the mountain.”
“Well, we did.”
Roland and Mick look out over the purple-hazed peaks to ensure that they indeed stand on the highest in sight.
“Well, that’s good.”
Roland and Mick share little in common.
“Should we eat lunch?”
Mick hops off his boulder, carefully selected for its superior height, and clomps beside Roland.
“Yes, of course.”
They sit and eat, watching the brown-winged hawks fall slowly in the hunt.
“It’s nice to be higher than the hawks for a change.”
“Serves them right.”
“What’s in your sandwich?”
“Fresh sliced turkey, basil and tomato with two squares of swiss cheese and an olive.”
“There was only one left.”
“What’s on yours?”
“Pastrami, lettuce, mayo and scallions.”
“I guess we’re just very different people, aren’t we.”
“Yes, most definitely.”
Indeed, they are nothing alike.
“When do you think it will be safe to go down?”
“Well, not today certainly.”
“Right. But tomorrow?”
“If it smells better.”
“Take a whiff.”
“Heavens. You’re right. Smells like burnt plastic in the updraft.”
“You agree then.”
“Yes, most definitely.”
“Best set up the tents, then.”
They have very tall green backpacks with many instruments and supplies. Mick jaunts about until he lands at a rather painless clearing. They prop their bags on rocks, tear out the tents and wave the droopy poles until they erect enough to thrust through the nylon sleeves. The tents quite finished the gentlemen roll out their sleeping bags, their sleeping mats and their sleeping pillows. Mick then fluffs up an ornamental pillow.
Roland halts to ponder how such a person could ever have sprouted from his seed. Mick places the pillow in his tent and looks at Roland and realizes that Roland must be pondering how his son could possibly have sprouted from his seed.
Mick curls up in his tent, facing away from Roland’s.
Roland looks out at the purple haze. He, too, curls up in his tent, facing the same direction.
And . . .
And Billy Joel’s The Piano Man echoes through the halls of a school building lit but masked in shadows that shift about and promise nothing but nothing more than the walls themselves. There are no people about and it may be that the shadows are where the people should be but Roland skips unconcerned with a lunchbox in hand passed the lockers, some swinging like curtains in the breeze. Small hands slap on the fogged glass of a classroom door and purple gas twists and puffs and curls out the bottom and Roland is having a picnic on the playground. He’s shocked at how good the cafeteria food is but he realizes he is so stupid so silly so foolish because this is his mother’s cooking and he misses it so much so much so much. The gas comes up and out and around and in but he feels somewhat safe because he knows it must fill the shadows before it fills him.
Son can you play me a memory, I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes.
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine, says Mick, but when he turns Bill no longer listens but stares ghoulishly at the hands rolling on the piano and Mick wonders why he hears a harmonica when he sees none (but there are many explanations for that, quite many). He orders another drink and it’s ready so quickly that he feels he must leave an exceptional tip but the bartender seems to have stepped out for a tinkle and the bar is filled with rockstars, or at least people wearing star shaped glasses, who don’t seem to move and seem quite content to forget about life for a while. THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE DRINKS he screams and is running through the offices of the bank building that is so tall so tall a skyscraper where there are many dark spaces underneath the desks where people’s feet go but never come back. He taptaptaptaptaps on the elevator button and rides upupupupupup, sucking the purple gas up the shaft behind him like a hundred story syringe and he lights up the button for the bottom floor and runs away and watches it inject the gas downdowndown into the barrel of the earth and he looks out from the top of the building and thinks what have I done?
“Well, that felt good.”
“Sometimes I wonder why we don’t sleep more often.”
“There’s plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.”
They speak from their sleeping bags, both reluctant to crawl out into the morning chill.
“Did you hear any wild animals last night?
“Why? Did you?”
“I did dream something, though.”
“Billy Joel was there.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s all I remember, yes.”
Roland and Mick both try to recall their dreams and, upon failing, attempt to recall when they last had such quality time together. A memory stirs of a time when the son was an undergraduate far away from home and the father, on a business trip, found a chance to visit and he took his son out to the bar for the first time and the son ordered whatever his father ordered and they spoke haltingly of airports and the difference between zoos and aquariums.
“I’m glad we’re here together.”
“Best wake up and make some breakfast then.”
But when they unseal their tents, zippers sighing, a tendril of purple gas licks at their toes.
Indeed, expanding from their tents to the horizon undulates an ocean of purple fumes, a purple like that of toy dinosaurs or whipped candy. The dawning sun reflects a synthetic violet into their eyes and their mouths and their skin. Their mountain, overnight, became an island.
“Imagine what this would look like from space.”
They take a few steps and admire how the gas swirls and seeps as if fearful.
“I guess we aren’t going down today.”
“I guess we’ll have to see.”
They pull the tent stakes, turning their faces aside from the violet tendrils. They lug the tents up to the summit and drop them on rocky, lumpy ground.
“I think it’s most definitely stopped rising.”
“I do. Do you?”
“Yes, I think it has. Or it will.”
“Oh, it hasn’t?”
“It’s over that rock now.”
“You can’t see it now. But you could. Before.”
“Oh. But anyway. It will stop.”
“Yes, most definitely. It’s . . . geometry, right? The surface area of the sphere increases exponentially in relation to the radius.”
“That sounds right.”
“So just to get even a little higher, at this point, it would take way more gas.”
“Is that how gas works?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
They find it difficult to hold their thoughts from being sucked out to that thin and perfect horizon where the purple and blue heave against each other, bulk to bulk, ilk to ilk, cream to cream.
“How . . . how much water do we have?”
“I have a liter.”
“Half a liter.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll ration.”
“Even so. It will only last a couple days.”
“No worries. A few days, the wind will blow, the clouds will pass, we’ll hike back down and find that stream. Remember that stream? Only a half hour down the trail.”
“I’m not sure I want the wind to blow.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. What if the wind blows all this purpleness right up into our faces? What if the purple starts mixing with the rest of the air and a little bit of it is everywhere, swirling about? Then we’ll never get away from it.”
“It won’t happen like that.”
“It will dissipate.”
“I’m sure of it. Trust me.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Well, what now?”
“I have a deck of cards.”
“I don’t want to play cards.”
“Let’s eat something then.”
“Fine, but only a little bit.”
They sit down on some boulders and nibble a precise quantity of trail mix. They seal up their bags and zip them away in pockets.
“I see you had apricots in yours.”
“I decided on banana chips.”
Roland then stands and walks off a ways by himself. He gazes into the fog. He remembers being told that lingerie stores sell more purple garments than any other color. It’s the color of sex. One might give such a title to red at first, but red is too obvious. Purple is both sensual and mysterious. And there’s nothing sexier than a mystery.
And a hot ball of sour tears rises in Roland’s throat and he opens his mouth to let it out but it’s stubborn and soon his cheeks are damp. He tries to focus on why he is crying but instead his mind keeps drifting to the question of why humans cry at all. It’s a biological adaptation for a social species, he thinks, we cry as a way to signal to others that we are in need of help. But that doesn’t work, because people don’t only cry when they are injured, they cry when they are sad. Perhaps, then, we are built with a biological response to existential injuries. But what about crying when we are happy? Perhaps, then, he thinks, we are built to never be happy alone.
And this only makes him cry harder.
And his son watches and thinks about whether he is ready to commit to the advert symbolism of consolation at that very moment. But then he begins to worry about the symbolism inherent in not offering his aid. Then he too begins to cry so he scampers into his tent which has been haphazardly set on several large, uneven, and pointy rocks and sits there and it hurts and he just doesn’t care.
They soon cease crying but remain gazing into the fog and sitting uncomfortably, respectively, for quite some time. Meanwhile, the gaseous color creeps, creeps, creeps and the wind does blow, but softly, and the fog stagnates with such heaviness that the wind does little to move it.
And then Roland notices the woman in the black gas mask.
“Who’s there? Who are you?”
The masked woman stares at him.
“Mick!” he says.
Mick exits the tent, approaches, and stops upon sight of the woman.
“Who are you? Take off your mask.”
“It’s safe to breathe here.”
“Don’t come any closer.”
“Take it off.”
The woman twists a dial on a tube running from her muzzle to a tank, peeling away the mask. Her mouth still closed, she observes the two men. She parts her lips and inhales. She waits expectantly. She releases her breath and expels a great heaviness.
“Irene,” she says.
Father and son stand above her.
“Well met,” she says.
A long silence.
“How long have you been here?” she says.
“We had just begun hiking when it happened.”
“You know what happened?”
“No,” she says. She steps closer. “I didn’t expect it to reach this high. I was getting worried I’d never climb out of it.”
“We woke up this morning, and just, there it was. Right?”
“I see,” she says. “Maybe I could join you? I have some food.”
“Do you have any water?”
“A liter and a half,” she says.
“Well, that’s something.”
“Come on. We have an extra tent.”
“That’s good news,” she says.
They all return to the top of the mountain and with the glorious power of teamwork roll the stones around to make a clearing for the tents. All of the food and water is set out in a pile and separated into two meals for each of three days. Mick moves his sleeping bag, sleeping mat, sleeping pillow and ornamental pillow to Roland’s tent.
“Thank you so much,” says Irene.
Chores completed, they sit in an equilateral triangle and attempt to shoot the shit.
A long silence.
“I have a deck of cards.”
Mick looks at him with the expression of sour grapes.
“Let’s play,” she says.
Roland deals and they play Crazy Eights, which involves pattern recognition and a minimum of critical thought. But time passes well. And Roland wins.
“Well, that’s over with.”
“I think it’s noon.”
“Irene, what do you think?”
“I think it’s noon,” she says.
“It must be noon.”
“When does the sun set?”
“It sets later on mountains.”
“Because you’re higher. You can see further around the Earth.”
“I never thought of that.”
“Should we play again?” she says.
Mick has the expression of kiwis.
“You have the expression of sour grapes,” she tells him. “We could do something else.”
“No, no! I was just thinking. If you want to play, let’s play.”
“I don’t want to play if you don’t want to play.”
“But I do want to play.”
“Hm,” says Roland, who deals.
“Let’s play again,” says Mick.
“I thought you didn’t like this game?”
“I never said that. Come on, let’s play.”
“But only if you want to, of course.”
“Who, me?” she says.
“Yes, he means you.”
“Sure, I don’t care.”
“But do you want to?”
“I think that’s a yes,” says Roland, who deals.
“You’re very good at this,” says Irene.
“It’s just luck.”
“It’s just luck.”
“If we played again, would you win again?” she asks and then a great gust of wind (which grew from a mediocre gust spurred by a breeze developed from a softer breeze instigated by the flap of the wings of a monarch butterfly which is now dead) rushes towards them trailing ripples and eddies in the purple fog and buffets them sideways casting the cards into the air like twenty-two butterflies (Roland throws his hands over the other thirty) flipping and flapping up and up and . . . gone.
A long silence.
“You probably would have won,” she says.
Mick shifts on his rock, trying very hard not to smile.
“You have the expression of a watermelon,” she says.
Then he smiles. And she smiles. And they laugh.
That night Roland and Mick lie in the same tent.
“This isn’t so bad. Being in the same tent.”
“Who said it would be bad?”
“Oh, no one. Nothing.”
“Right. It’s just, how different we are.”
“You do have a lot of your mother in you.”
“She should be here.”
“Irene seems nice.”
“We should go to sleep.”
They close their eyes and wait for a shift in consciousness.
“We’re going to die up here.”
“No, we’re not.”
“We’re probably going to die tonight.”
“No, we won’t.”
“How do you know that?”
“Just trust me.”
Someone is whispering in Mick’s ear and he can’t understand so he leans closer and still can’t hear so he leans closer and keeps leaning until he leans in a full circle and a woman says, “sing us a song, you’re the piano man,” he can’t stop leaning, “sing us a song tonight,” and a gust of wind carries him into the sky while he sings laa la di de daa, la la di de daa, de dum and when he falls he is not scared because he knows his mother will catch him and the comfort of such a thought and the singing of the warm wind over his ears lulls him to sleep.
“It’s slowing down.”
“But will it stop?”
The fog rose two yards in the night, leaving five yards between the tide and the tent. Roland and Mick watch the dawn while Irene sleeps.
“I really dislike that color.”
“Really? I don’t mind it.”
“It reminds me of poison.”
“It is poison.”
Irene wakes and they eat trail mix and cheese. They each take two sips of water.
“I’ve never been this thirsty before.”
“It makes swallowing unpleasant.”
“You know, we could get more water,” she says.
“What, you mean if it rains?”
“Rain would be good.”
“It doesn’t look like rain.”
“No, there’s a stream a half hour hike down. I could go with the oxygen.”
“I remember that stream.”
“Should I go?”
“How much oxygen do you have?”
“Plenty. I think about eight hours worth.”
“No, no. Sorry. It’s just . . . only I can touch my oxygen stuff. It’s nothing personal, just . . . you understand?”
“Right, of course.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Great, thanks. I’ll go tomorrow. So drink all you want. I’ll fill up everything I can.”
“We could live here forever like this.”
“Want to see something?” says Mick.
“What?” says Irene.
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
He leads her to a far corner of the sky island and crouches beside a rock and an alpine spruce. Between the two lies a carefully woven patch of twigs and in it a young hawk, all fuzz and no feathers. Irene draws a slow, elated breath.
“You have the expression of a star fruit,” he says.
“The smog will be up here by nightfall. I think he’s our responsibility now.”
“I think he is,” she whispers.
He watches her watch the hawkling. She leans closer. Very slowly she opens three fingers and caresses the hawkling’s back.
“Shhh. Mama’s here. Shhh.”
“He’s named Sam,” she says.
Mick doesn’t argue.
“He’s very brave.” She holds out her knuckle and Sam nips it. Rosy blood, a drop. “Just like his mother.”
Mick squeezes her hand.
“I think I’d like to hear music before I die,” he says.
“Especially the harmonica. People breathe into it and it makes their breathing beautiful.”
“I know,” she says.
“When I hear music sometimes I don’t realize how much an effect it has on me. Like a trumpet. I don’t know what it’s saying; I don’t speak trumpet. But then later on it’s still stuck in my head and I realize it had been saying something it was just to the me inside me and he never tells me anything.”
She hugs him. He presses the warm sides of their heads together. There’s something about the feeling of a warm head that calms them both.
“Sam must be hungry,” he says.
“He’s famished,” says Irene.
“We’ll take him back to the tents and feed him.”
“What does he eat? I’m his mother and I don’t know what he eats.”
“It probably doesn’t matter just as long as you feed him out of your mouth.”
“What have you got there?” says Roland.
“His name is Sam,” she says.
“I think we saw his parents earlier,” says Roland.
“I think so.”
“Before—,“ he gestures.
“But we’re his parents now, aren’t we?” She caresses him with her finger again.
“Yes, we are.”
Irene chews up bits of beef jerky and drops them in the hawkling’s gaping beak. Soon they all eat and not much later the sun sets.
And the horizon burns purple.
And the three people soak it all in; they absorb that purple light through their skin and through their blood and breathe it through their lungs and hallelujah, glory, glory, amen.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
“It has the expression of strawberries.”
“Breaking the rules.”
“Beating its wings.”
“Inside of me.”
“It’s warm and cold.”
“It has the expression of artichokes in the rain.”
“What a sad thing to say.”
“Stand in front of the sunset.”
She stands in front of the sunset.
“One time I fell asleep on the beach and my skin blistered.”
“Would our burns be purple?”
“Who could say?”
“You two are such very different people.”
“Doesn’t hurt my eyes like it used to.”
“Is that the sun?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I don’t know.”
“I want to die fighting.”
“I want to survive.”
“I’m already dead.”
“The second coming?”
A long silence.
They all burst out laughing and slapping knees and slapping each other’s knees and return to their tents for bed.
But they don’t fall asleep.
Roland and Mick lie side-by-side in the tent, feeling packaged, as tents often make one feel, and quiet, and shallow-breathed. Though the air is dry and cool they are kept awake by a discomfort not unlike that of a subduing humidity, reluctant to move, to relax. There is only the motion of eyelids and shadows. The tent shivers in the wind.
He stares at the roof of the tent and appreciates its geometry. How it curves around him and the shadows curve upon it and how it flexes so tightly from its contents, from, he imagines, his own expanding thoughts. He imagines how his winged whims ricochet off the vinyl like motion blurs in a comic whipping faster and faster and hotter and hotter with a swelling ferocity. It occurs to him that he cannot see the sky and that he can no longer breathe so he gasps and flails in his clingy cocoon and his father cries out and finally free he crowns from the tent and tumbles into the night.
Where it is quiet.
The air still tastes of smoky plastic but the night sky says “ahhh” like God at the dentist.
“Zip the tent,” says Roland.
Mick looks over the rising murk. At night it is no longer purple but a dark bulk embossed in moonlight. Mick is calm. The weight of his thoughts, so wild before, evaporates; only his feet feel heavy, as they should. The fog has risen considerably, like a strange hand sliding up a thigh.
“Zip the tent.”
He almost speaks, urging his father to rise and face the cloud and feel the calm-at-long-last-calm beside him, but instead he zips the tent.
He hears a noise.
Irene emerges beside him. He watches her moonlit skin. He turns back to the fog.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he almost says, but doesn’t.
He can see more stars tonight than he knew was possible. Grains of light, upon focused inspection, populate even the blackest swathes of space. And while he knows he should feel inconsequential observing the immense depths of the universe, he swells with a mysterious significance. He thinks, if this were a musical, I would now begin to sing.
It occurs to him that true, pure silence can only exist where there are no atoms to shiver, no aural membranes to quake.
“How sad,” he says.
“What is?” she says. “Sam or the silence?”
She watches him.
She is hugging him and her face is buried in his shirt. For a moment he stands like a scarecrow; then he presses his nose in her hair. There’s something about the feel of a warm head that calms them both. She shakes. He sings:
“Laa la di de daa,
La la di de daa,
De dum . . .”
A long silence.
She pulls herself from him and clears her eyes with her wrists. He reaches for her hand and laces their fingers. She smiles the way sad people smile.
“Sorry, I’m tone deaf.”
“It was just what I needed.”
She squeezes his hand.
“I don’t want to die in my sleep,” he says, “I can’t sleep because I don’t want to die in my sleep.”
She thinks for a moment. “I’m already dead.”
“Ha!” she says.
They ache with moonlight, not sleepy but tired, hungry as if their stomachs are caving, cold like their skin is not theirs.
“I died when Sam died.”
He can’t read her expression. Her hand refuses to speak. She looks like dusk. He picks up a cold stone. With his thumb he pets the smooth side and scratches at the edge where it broke from its parent. “Who was Sam? Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.”
She doesn’t want to.
“Sorry.” He throws the stone and imagines it skipping across the sea of gas. He wants to let go of her hand, but he’s afraid of what that would symbolize. So he proposes they tour the coast.
But before he can let go she starts walking, dragging him along. Every few steps they trip or stumble, mistaking shadows for rocks or rocks for shadows. In order to step over things they begin to hop from foothold to foothold. And as they improve at hopping, they get faster. Soon they are gliding over the rocks as an ancient woodland people would pursue a fleeing deer, yet still she holds his hand. They circle the island once, twice, three times before stumbling to a heaving stop.
“That felt good.”
“That felt great.”
“You’re a good runner.”
“So are you.”
When she lets go he casts an arm over her shoulder and they sag together.
“Imagine if all the gas giants were once planets like ours. Like beneath Neptune’s blue fog is a frozen metropolis. Or Jupiter. Thousands and thousands of miles into its core are the wind-swept remains of a fossilized civilization.”
“I like that idea.”
“I wonder if that’s what’s happening to us.”
“Even if it isn’t, let’s pretend that it is.”
Several hours later he watches as she descends with a backpack full of water bottles and oxygen into the fog.
“She’ll be alright,” says Roland.
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
They sit by the tents and stare at things. Mick stacks rocks into cairns. Roland starts doing the same. They turn it into a little game, tossing stones to crumble the opponent’s fortress. Roland wins every time.
“I’m tired of this game.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
A long silence.
“What do you think her story is?” says Roland.
“I don’t know. I asked her. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
“But what do you think it is.”
“A very sad story.”
“Well that’s obvious.”
“Everyone’s story is sad now.”
“But what if sadness is relative?”
“What do you mean?”
“Us three, we’re alive, so as sad as our story may be, it’s happier than everyone else’s. Us three, we have the happiest stories in the world. As far as we know, that is.”
“But is sadness relative?”
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “But we can make it relative.”
“I suppose we could.”
“Yeah, if we’re the last of humanity, we can make sadness mean anything we want.”
“That’s kind of exciting.”
“So no matter what happens to us, it’s a happy ending.”
“No matter what happens,” says Roland.
Irene returns with the water. She and Mick play the stone game he invented with his father. Irene invites Roland to join in and Mick says he needs to take a break. He walks to the other end of the island and unzips his pants and pisses over the end of the known world.
Roland pieces his fortress together while Irene adjusts her own.
“The gas will reach us by the morning,” says Roland.
She looks at him with the expression of an acorn.
Mick returns letting his eyelids sag with every blink. He yawns and the weight in his gut rises into his heart. His eyes open and meet Irene’s and Roland’s stare.
“What?” says Mick.
Roland looks down.
“What is it?”
Irene looks to Roland.
“We’ve decided something,” he says.
“We want you to have the oxygen mask.”
“There’s enough for you to get down the mountain,” she says.
“You can get to the bottom. Find town. If you make it to the fire station there should be enough oxygen tanks to last you another day or two.”
“I don’t want it,” says Mick.
“You said it yourself.”
“You want to die fighting.”
“Besides . . . “
“You’re the youngest.”
“No, that’s . . . that’s wrong. We . . . ” Mick struggles to think. He imagines the gas now, seeping through his father’s lungs. “We’ll pass it around. Hold our breaths. Together, we’ll last as long as we can.”
“I’m ready to die,” says Roland.
“So am I,” says Mick.
“No. You’re not.”
By dusk the purple fog is at their feet. Mick, seeing the undulating shadows of the gas against the base of the tent, emerges. Irene stands a few steps down, the fumes at her knees. Roland sits, appreciating how gently the gas breathes. There’s little space to move amongst their supplies, so Mick, in silence, digs up the pins of the tent and casts it into the mist.
“Goodbye, tent,” says Irene.
Irene trips and Mick leaps to catch her.
“Don’t do that.”
He slowly lets go of her.
They find it difficult to look at each other, so instead they gaze out in three directions like three sentinels of something ancient. In turns they each think of saying goodbye, but decide that they must wait. It wouldn’t do to say goodbye too early. It cheapens things.
The sun meets tangentially with the horizon and the first beams of flaming purple radiate over the cloud-scape.
“It would be best for you to start going down before the sun sets.”
“I’m not leaving until the end.”
The fog rises to their knees. The sun becomes a hemisphere. They are cast in plastic purple. Their thoughts drift from memory to memory, never lingering on one for too long, in fear of giving it unfair recognition and significance. They all imagine that there is one memory waiting at the tip of the mind that will put all in perspective, that they can cling to at their moment of transmogrification and thus find harmony in their personal instant of atemporal satisfaction. But they soon give up and worry again about saying goodbye.
“I’m taller than you. Perhaps you should stand on something so we go at the same time.”
“That’s a good idea,” she says.
They shuffle some rocks around with their feet until she has something to stand on. She and Roland share a nervous smile. Mick gathers up a backpack with all the oxygen gear.
The sun wanes.
“It will be dark soon,” she says.
“Seems we won’t be dead until midnight.”
A long silence.
“The stars will be bright enough,” says Mick.
Roland stares into the lingering sliver of fiery purple. He stares longer than he’s ever stared at the sun before. It hurts, and then it doesn’t hurt.
Irene takes his hand. He closes his eyes.
“Mick?” says Roland.
“Time for what?”
“You know what.”
“I’d rather I didn’t.”
“Right.” He thinks. “Well I wanted to tell you that I’m glad you’re my son and that I love you and that everything will be all right.”
Mick is crying. “Well, I wanted to tell you that . . . I’m grateful.”
“I wanted to say that I’m glad it was you two I found up here. Thank you.”
Mick hugs Irene. Irene hugs Roland. Roland hugs Mick.
“Best not waste a good goodbye.”
And they smile like lemons and turn around and the mist jumps up with each step and too quickly they are gone and the wind blows and Mick thinks that perhaps he sees a hand—did he?—and the sun sets and the light dies and the gray murk rises.
He relives that fading moment. Fearing what he saw. A crying, crescent hand. But then again, he saw no such thing. He thinks he thinks.
He takes out a flashlight and secures the mask to his face. He places his teeth over the rubber mouthpiece and turns a dial until he hears a gentle hiss. He inhales and the air tastes stale and almost sweet.
He looks at the fog. In only two steps it nears his chin. He sweeps his hand to watch it swirl and, feeling nothing, he wonders if it really exists at all. But then he remembers that plastic smell. You can’t imagine that. Like gasoline or a toy car fresh out of the packaging. The smell had depth like a cave. But now, in the mask, Mick can smell nothing.
He sees a moony hand reach and vanish in the fog.
“Now that’s a happy ending.”