by Matt Lang
There’s sleet hitting my window. It’s 6:38 in the morning. The alarm is set for 6:45, but I guess I’ll get up and make tea.
The first step of the day is the hardest. When I was twenty, I did the Appalachian Trail in a summer. Ultra light, I ran much of it. Now my knees threaten to give out on the way down the hall to the bathroom. It takes all morning to untie the knot in my back, which could snap with a cough or a sneeze. My shoulders are painful connections. It hurts when I lift my arms to wash my face. I have Plantar’s Fasciitis in my left foot. But my heart is well, and free.
I pull my robe tight across my chest with one hand and light the stove with the other. As the water warms towards boiling, I go to check the mail, which I didn’t check yesterday.
Once a year, for the past twenty-five years, I have received a postcard from a different part of the world. The first was from Burlington, Vermont, another was from Gibraltar, still another from Auckland, with others from points in between. This one is from India.
The early sun is fighting its way through the clouds and sleet. I sink into the chair near my front window. Some of the outside air is sneaking in. I’m grateful for my robe.
On the front is a picture of my heart (they all have pictures of my heart, how she makes these postcards, I don’t know) in front of the Taj Mahal. She is not always in the picture, but in this I see her red hair is now gray. She looks twenty pounds leaner than she was the day she left, with muscles I don’t remember, but which must have been there all along, underneath everything. She is in the foreground, the Taj Mahal in the distance, and a reflecting pool is in between. The perspective is such that it looks like she is taller than the building. She is holding my heart in the air, above the dome, and, in two dimensions, it looks as if it, my heart, could either balance, if she chose to let it go, or get pierced on the tip of the spire. The look on her face hints that she is contemplating the possibilities. But they’re just thoughts, she won’t let it go, she will pack my heart away and carry it to the next place.
I hear a whistle. The water must be ready.
He is one hundred feet from his front door, almost to the sidewalk. He is wearing grey trousers and a black wool overcoat, which is buttoned to fight the cold, with help from a scarf, which is also grey. Underneath the coat he’s wearing a light blue shirt with the top button undone, bits of the collar peaking from under the scarf, two wedges of sky on an otherwise overcast outfit. He has on his nicest shoes, which he shined earlier in the day. His hair is slicked tight against his head, parted and combed from right to left. His face is thin and clean-shaven. He is wearing black gloves. He is standing completely still.
Five minutes before he left his house, he hung up the phone. Five minutes before he hung up the phone, he listened to what was said to him. Before he listened, he took five minutes to say what he’d meant to say, and five minutes before he said what he’d meant to say, he took a drink, combed his hair and reached for the phone.
A neighbor sits in her living room across the street and watches him. His feet are slightly more than shoulder width apart as he stands there near the sidewalk. It seems, to her, an unnatural way to stand. She wonders what he is doing, where he might be going, as she watches him slick his hair down with his right hand. She is worried but not sure why. She wants to keep her eye on him, but now her view is blocked by a moving van heading west.
A cat lies on her lap and wonders and worries about nothing as she scratches it behind the ears.
Inside his house, all the dishes are washed, dried and put away. His bed is made. All the lights are off. The thermostat is turned down to an efficient 64 degrees. The rooms are vacuumed, even under the sofas and desks and bookshelves. The backdoor is locked. The front door, to make this one thing easier for his friends and family, he has left unlocked. They will find a note on his laptop, in the middle of his dining room table next to his phone, wallet, keys, and relevant papers.
Ol’ Jack he had a plan, he said, to paint the town he lived in red. He’d take the place by storm, by God! But first he needed water.
To fetch the drink, he’d need a hand; it’s not a job for just a man. It takes two strong, brave, beating hearts to get the sought-for water.
So Jack got on the telephone, and he called Jill, she was at home. “Jill, come with me, and bring your pail. Why? To fetch some water.”
Fair Jill, she liked his way with words, his eyes when he would look at her. “Jack, I’ve got my pail right here. It’s ready for the water.”
They both met up at the bottom of the hill where the grass was green and the air was still. Side by side they stood there tall and looked at the top of the hill and all they thought about was life and how it was going to change.
“Jill, you never looked so grand, I am a goddamn lucky man to have you hold my steady hand. We are going to change this town or burn the fucker to the ground with the friction of our efforts. Today is today. It will end with today. Tomorrow will last forever.”
“Jack, you handsome, toothy bastard, this place is made of glass and plaster, the two of us could never last here. You and I are young and free, sunlight carried by a breeze that always finds the window. We’ll climb up this hill, drop our pail in the well, then pull it back up together.”
Now we can see young Jack and Jill, standing there on top of the hill. The houses wait below their feet. Their pail is full of water.
We know of course that Jack will fall, tumble down like an egg-shaped ball. His head will find a patient rock. The sound will fill the valley.
Jill’s feet will also let her down, she’ll roll along the sloping ground, and when she stops, she’ll hold the pail. The pail will hold no water.
But as for now they’re side by side, so let them think today has died. They’ve almost raised the pail back up. Can almost taste the water.
When you were seventeen, Ras saw you drop acid and try to go fishing in the pond on the edge of town. Ras twinkled just above the trees on the far side of the pond while you, Shane and Clark laughed and cried as you tried to cast your bait into the sky.
“I can catch them,” you insisted, “because the stars are like fish in the pond of the air. They don’t twinkle, they don’t twinkle, look closer, they ripple. That’s water.” You’d cast the bait high into the sky, only to watch it come down with a plop.
Yed was there when you were twenty-one and you sat next to Megan Hourigan on the porch at your Uncle George’s cottage. You might not have seen him, he was kind of behind you, but he watched you creep your hand toward her as she told you about her mother’s last visit to the doctor.
You! Here was a twenty-year-old girl who was about to lose her mother and you saw it as a chance to get laid.
You! You put your arm around her shoulder and you reached under her shirt. Yed saw you!
You. You pulled away. You weren’t like that you said to yourself, with thoughts that Yed could hear.
She. She wished you hadn’t stopped.
In your thirties, you had a thing for hookers. It’s cool. Alrakis never judged you. She didn’t even judge you when she saw you pulled over on the side of the road, screaming into your cell phone, wiping your nose with the back of your rolled-up sleeve, begging Fred to help you make this go away, as your high-priced companion hemorrhaged in the passenger seat of your Mazda Miata.
Fred came through, he was good like that. Only he and Alrakis know the truth.
Chort shined on you off the coast of St. Thomas while you and your third wife took a honeymoon cruise. Do you remember meeting the couple from South Africa? Yes. The four of you had dinner together on the second night. By the time Chort took notice, it was clear your wife was going to sleep with the two of them while you kneeled by the toilet, felled by seasickness and an open bar. This marriage would last three weeks.
You should have asked Chort, she of the heavenly perspective. She would have told you about what had been and what would be. She could see beyond the horizon and was unaffected by the waves.
On your last night on earth, Hydrobius alone was visible through the clouds and city lights. He had such high hopes for you, and it broke his celestial heart to see you broken in the alley. He worried when you stepped onto the railing of the balcony and tried to jump to the next balcony over. You should not have gone out on the balcony, you should have answered the door and gone with the officers. For insider trading you would have done five years, less with good behavior.
What made you think you could make such a jump? It must have been fifteen feet to that other balcony. And it had rained!
Poor Hydrobius, he loved you so much and all he could do was watch you leap and fall. He yelled, but he was so far away, and sound travels so slowly, that his warning was too late.
History was made on the night the supervisors of Duncan Township voted to build the highest high dive in Dayton County, and in so doing finally stick it to the supervisors and residents of Smithfield Township, who thought they were so great. The vote was 6-1. To pay for the high dive, they voted to close the library and sell the fire department’s lone fire truck. Volunteers, using their own trucks and their own hoses, would fight any future fires. The residents of Duncan were thrilled.
The high dive was supposed to be forty-five feet high. That’s high! But after the fire truck brought in less money than expected, the plans were scaled back to thirty-five. Still high! It was completed in time for summer, and a driver driving along Route 77 could see it poke above the pool house. The whole county was talking about it, and people from as far away as Ricksburg came for the grand opening.
The high school marching band played, a veteran of a foreign war spoke, and then Robert Drinkwalter climbed the ladder and walked to the edge of the board. Robert was chosen for the inaugural leap because he was retarded and therefore inspirational. He jumped from the board, smacked the water, and sank like a stone. The quarterback of the football team, Jeremy Burrows, swam him to safety and the gathered citizens applauded politely as Robert twitched and coughed near the gutter. The local priest, Father Michael Thyme, offered a closing prayer before dismissing the crowd. Even the few residents of Smithfield Township who had come to cast a wary eye on the proceedings had to admit it was something.
In fact, Smithfield Township had no choice but to come up with its own plan for a higher high dive, paid for by eliminating all parks, all schools, all libraries and any and all public safety providers. It was unveiled at a ceremony in which returning vets executed an accused pornographer and the official first jump was made by Tammy Henderson, a child so disabled that she had to be raised up in a basket and thrown from the board by her sister, Tabitha. Pastor Steven Cash, a Baptist with a lovely wife and two darling boys delivered the closing prayer. Grown men wept, mothers kissed their daughters on their foreheads.
Years from now, the occasional tourist will stop to see the high dives that they read about on billboard after billboard after billboard. These tourists might pull their cars or vans over and get out and get their picture taken. Or not. They might buy a snow globe or some postcards. Who knows? Some may choose to have a drink at the High Dive Bar and Grill where the beer will be cheap and they might meet Quarterback Jeremy Burrows. He will drink there most days. Whatever they do, these tourists will all remark, to themselves or out loud, not so much about the high dives in Duncan or Smithfield, but about the dazzling sunsets, the result, some will say, of all the large fires that burn across Dayton County.
I remember riding in a boat on the South China Sea. Beautiful day, that day was. There were just a few clouds in the sky and the water was flat, like a big-ass turquoise tabletop. Seven of us were skim, skim, skimming over the surface of the ocean and every few minutes I would belt out, “Her name is Rio/and she dances on the sand!” My friends grew tired of this, but our guide, Don-Don, kept saying, “Oh, you are a singer. That’s good.” Don-Don knew what he was talking about.
Out in the ocean, far from land, we saw flying fish. Flying fish. That’s some shit. And we saw many flying fish. If you’ve never seen flying fish do their thing, know this: they glitter. On days when the sun is high and the clouds are gone, when they arc from Ocean Point A to Ocean Point B, they glitter and glisten like crystals.
Some of these fish could make it over the boat. Think of it: you’re sitting there in a motorboat with six other people, you’re skipping over the ocean and a sparkly fish flies past your face. Life is amazing, I tell you.
One fish didn’t quite make it. It left the water and landed in the middle of our boat. Don-Don grabbed it by the tail, bashed its head on the railing, and stashed it in a small Styrofoam cooler with his San Miguel beer.
There were two groups on the boat. There were those who thought the fish should have known better, who said that this is what happens when fish try to fly, who felt that flying was only meant for birds, insects and creatures that can build airplanes; and there were the rest of us who loved the fish for trying.