Saturday, November 17, 2007

Over the Dam

Feeling squeezed for time. Need to develop, take chances, instead of settling where you do languish, funneling your energy into the fruitless, like twidddling while the dam roars, the ice caps melt. I wake up sometimes in the night feeling like the water is rising and I need to get out. The green monster looms closer swallowing the living and the already gone. Norman Mailer,,,Ira Levin. i can imagine them in heaven for a time, but eternity is a concept I have a hard time fathoming sometimes. Do the souls of the dead ever feel like they are drowning, or is everything still, or maybe in constant predictable motion so that it's just as if. As a collective, global consciousness do we imagine that we cheat death, that we create a kind of heaven on earth, a virtual reality where everything is forgiven, becomes banal, crystalizes into some unimagined beauty for the pleasure of God? The way sex with a loved One cleanses after becoming more than one's self, it tells of a hereafter, a subconscious, a mirror that one carries inside of the eternal like a permanent ID. This is interesting to me as an artist, the relationship between the two sides, the most impermanent and transient, sensory experience and an intimation of possible eternal Joy.

After the rain the cat hunkers by the door, nervously pacing. Winnie still smells Alice’s body. It reminds him of the lard room in the old farm at the top of Ray Road, although Alice was frail, almost bird-like in her skeletal structure. There is so much that comes flooding back to him now that she is in the car. The culvert on West Main Road has washed out which explains the air of stillness, the lack of traffic that has provided a backdrop to his despondent huffing through the small hours of the night. Since it is light Winnie thinks it is time for a drive. For Alice’s sake he hauls himself to his swollen feet.
The inside of the house, he sees, is collapsing. The overstuffed sofa cushions, super plush in a fabric Alice once hailed as a technological breakthrough, are splitting at the seams like sausages too long in the pan, spilling out a doughy substance that has spread throughout the first floor. The cat has some stuck on her tail. The picture on the wall, brought up from Alice’s old place out in the country, only miles from where Winnie himself grew up, a blue-tinted print of a cardinal on a pine bough, seems indelibly in shadow, as if Alice’s passing has granted it permission to give up the ghost. Cutlery lies on chairs. The world is melting, it said in the news. Winnie feels light on his feet, belying the fact that they are puffy and there is no sensation coming from them. He has stopped taking the Cumadin blood thinners. Paradoxically he feels younger, although tired. Last night was a long night and today is not quite started. The digital clock on the coffee table says 6:38. But it is November and there is light out the back window across the road, behind the Bin Luc’s red dragon.
He grabs for his glasses on the card table and knocks over the snow globe.
“The dragon,” he thinks, “is to blame.”
The penguins are slowly buried while Winnie adjusts the glasses to his nose. It helps to have something to focus his anger on. The restaurant dragon makes a convenient target. Winnie is like Saddam Hussein, railing at his fate, twirling his moustache at his captors.
He didn’t think it would happen. Honestly, he’d thought she would never die. He’d almost believed the angels had accorded them a special grant of immunity from that final sting. Alice’s muscle control grew ever worse. Her tremors sometimes shook the floor, but her eyes, always blue as sky and calm as spring rain, looked upwards and beyond forever. She was the thinker, the forward planner who had sold off the rest of the Cowen farm and bought this place on the Rockwood Estates, a development of trailer homes in the spillover from the fancy malls, the strip of fast food, Indian motels and adult video stores eternally in the last decade
Winnie, contemplative, moves slowly through the debris of her final pangs: bookshelves imploded of their mementoes, pill trays, unopened window envelopes blocking the doorway as if she had intended with her ruthless departure to stop time in its tracks, a final favor for entropy and for Winnie. And then her eyes had opened, the light had died, the gurgling in her throat had finally ceased. Her last words, “water” and then “ugh,” which Winnie had interpreted as “falls”, setting him up with his final duty and beyond that an emptiness he wouldn’t even begin to contemplate. But he’d finally gotten her in the car.
The wind is blowing as is common, he has noticed, after a hard rain as if the earth intended to dry itself in good time. The car is parked in the street with leaves stuck to the windshield. Alice is slumped on the floor in the passenger seat, wrapped in the light blue quilt they had bought at Wal-Mart the day after Christmas last year, a special indulgence that had warmed their days and nights. Another car, a grey SUV is pulling up behind as Winnie gets inside. He sticks the key in the ignition and starts the motor after a couple of cranks, set to ignore her. She knocks on the window and has that beaming, goofy smile as if to say “I may seem incompetent like you, but who knows?” and he must roll down the window and submit to her presence. Her blond hair is blowing about her face like whipcord.
“Hi, Winnie. Just checking in to make sure you and Alice are okay. Does she have her prescriptions filled?”
“That’s not where we’re going.”
“Oh, where are you going?”
“For a drive.”
“Don’t keep her out too long. How are you, Alice? Why are you on the floor?”
“She can’t hear you.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s fine.”
“Alice? She doesn’t seem fine. I’ll need to report this if she’s not okay.”
Winnie rolls up the window. He presses on the accelerator with more force than he has since he was fifty and late for work at the liquor store in Meriden where he labored for a number of years for a despotic Italian-American of roughly his same age who eventually died in a boating accident. The store was sold off by his siblings. He was unmarried, recalls Winnie. And the store became a Mexican restaurant and eventually the entire block of shops was razed and the large warehouse outlets went up sometime in the nineties. Winnie rolls down the empty street unperturbed.
“We’re on the road again, Alice. Don’t be nervous. No backseat driving.”
Winnie smiles at his own joke and remembers Alice’s distaste for his ironic comments, how she encouraged him to value silence. She hated television shows, for instance. Winnie thinks he might like to own a television, but then feels sick at the very thought of a television. It’s too soon for such disloyalty. Then he cuts up the hill on Quarry Road to avoid the washout which he heard about on the radio.
When he came back from Meriden he was sixty-two, divorced for fifteen years, a father to a daughter, Shania, who worked for the Coast Guard in some land-based capacity in Alabama. He wrote Shania for a few years and then just stopped except for a Christmas card it seemed every other year or so until recently. They were never returned. Shania’s mother moved down to Florida to be near her daughter, he dimly remembered.
He remembered Alice from Sunday school teaching together in the seventies when he spotted her at the country store in Warner, fifty pounds heavier, bluish-grey hair in a perm, walking with great difficulty by the dairy freezer.
“Alice?”
“Ye-es?”
“Do you remember me?”
“Winston. You’ve been away.” She said this as if he’d disappointed her with such an absence, but the smile on her face provided a wry counterpoint.
“I have. I’m living in town now.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Last time, Alice. Gee, it must have been, it was Easter. Must have been 1971.”
“Haven’t been to church in years, Winston. Not since Frank died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Alice.”
“Oh, he’s better off where he is now. He don’t have no roofs to fix, cows to milk or Alices to nag at him.”
“Well.”
In the first flush of their time together, Winnie had taken Alice back to the Valley Community Church, now advertising itself as Love-Centered, Purpose Driven, with the new pastor, the Rev. Jinni Stockmayer. They had once taught Sunday school to second to fifth graders when it was still the Contoocook Church of Christ. But none of the old people went anymore. They were mostly younger families from all over, New Jersey, Manchester, some Spanish speaking dark-skinned people. The pastor, from Philadelphia, had a live-in girlfriend and there was some evident embarrassment, but not so much that it was a problem. Alice disapproved. It was a shame none of the old crowd went anymore. Some of the young families, intent on service, came and helped Winnie and Alice with chores, mowing, pruning the overgrown lilacs, but the roof had been too long without mending in the southeast corner, and the years of collecting refuse in the attic added up over a hundred. When she sold it, to a couple from California, the husband worked for Raytheon and was handy with a Sawzall, they were happy to walk away, in a manner of speaking. To be honest, Alice’s legs hardly supported her any more. She enjoyed the trailer with its ramp and fringe of grass in front of Pear Street. All the streets in the development were named after familiar fruits. There were no mangos, kiwis or clementines.
Winnie himself is in bad shape and feeling the effects of last night’s exertions. His lungs are half filled with fluid and scar tissue, and the doctor has expressed fears an embolism could put an end to it all, hence the blood thinners. Winnie is more tired of waiting for this potential scenario than he has been of anything else in his previous experience, although he has had some doozies. His first wife, for instance, threatened constantly to kill him for betraying their marriage vows, and for a few years, he’d feared she might knife him in bed, while he lay there. Even when drunk, or maybe especially when drunk, he slept fitfully. He did have a girlfriend who used to come around and take him for a ride in her Impala. But his performance suffered from the alcohol, the worries about his marriage and loss of employment always hanging over his head. She drifted away.
He had three hundred dollars on him when he came back to Merrimack County, and he knew he had to give up the booze if he was to live. Alice and Frank were both teetotalers. Frank had been well-known for writing editorials on the evils of liquor and rock and roll music to the local paper, the Sharon Star-Eagle. To Winnie, it was God’s hand that she reappear in his life. He credited his survival to Alice’s certainties, her bed-rock presumption that the best was ahead, no matter what. Now with her gone he squints down the road, afraid of the inevitable beating he will take from spread-eagled destiny.
He is over the crest of the land looking westward into the Minks. He can see Mt. Sunapee beyond where the highway rises to the north in a stand of spruce. A line of utility poles look like circus strong men, maintaining vigil, the nation gone blind with their might. Two police cruisers confer head to tail in a median clearing.
Winnie takes the exit for the Blackwater River and stops at the Harvester Market. The wind has picked up again. Ice films over the rain puddles, and there is a skin of road dust on the cars. The high school girl at the checkout counter gives him a worried look behind his back as he limps off with the six pack. He drinks two in the car. Still no tears, he thinks. He takes a chance on the Salisbury Road past the dam. It’s not in bad shape, but before the trailhead for the waterfall there is nothing but water. He pulls over and parks.
It was important to Alice. The family that first homesteaded here were distant cousins and she could name some of the names in the small plot with the all but faded headstones above the road, now a flat disc of pulsing energy, curiously destructive. The roar comes from the falls. The trail is a rushing torrent washing away mud and rocks. Winnie stands by the car and surveys the scene. A spume of white foam can be seen above the trees where the head of the falls is usually hidden. Winnie’s insides feel like a dry riverbed, like the reverberating flood has stripped him; all that is left are the bare rocks of I, me, her, she, the irreducible pronouns without story or end. He calls out for Alice, but can’t remember her name.
He opens the door on the passenger side. Her upper body rolls to the outside, then wedges into place, her legs jammed between the floor and the seat. The sight of her brings him momentarily back.
“The road’s washed away, Alice.”
Her face, drained of expressiveness, is the color of oatmeal, and her open mouth reveals a swollen tongue. Winnie is amazed at how much she weighs, the odd massiveness of her arms and flesh, pulling to get her back upright in the seat. He finally gets her back in the seat with her mouth closed. Then he pees into the water running now under the wheels.
He hears a car as it pulls up behind on the road. It’s a Sutton police car, and out steps a lady officer in her high pants and stripes. Winnie puts the beer down on the floor of the passenger side and protectively bends over Alice, covering her with the quilt.
“Sir. It’s too dangerous here now. I don’t know if you can see it. But the dam’s about to go. You’ll have to turn around and leave.”
Winnie turns around and straightens as much as he can at his age. He thinks it could be Shania or one of her friends.
“She just wants to hear the waterfall.”
“It’s not a good idea.”
“I guess not.”
“You’ll have to turn the car around and leave, sir.”
Winnie closes Alice’s door and walks slowly around and gets in the driver’s side. The lady officer speaks on her two way radio. The car fails to start, giving the whining, dismal sound of engine dysfunction. The lady officer knocks on the window with her radio, somewhat desperately. Winnie doesn’t see her, just hears her knocking. He locks the door.
When he was a child, his mother knocked on the door of the bedroom he slept in. When he was twelve, the teacher knocked on the desk. When he was eighteen he knocked on the barracks door late one night but nobody answered. A lot of those people were dead now. Let them knock while they can.
“It’s just us now, Alice,” he says.
The officer is gone. Winnie finishes the beers. He pees again. The water is higher, rushing around his ankles, and he holds onto the door. He gets back in the car. There is a loud rumble. For a long time Winnie thinks of nothing. When he wakes up there is a pull at the rear of the car. A tow truck is hauling them away. Winnie slumps forward, hitting his head on the steering wheel. He bleeds while he cries. The noise of the fall recedes.
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