Friday, July 14, 2006

A Distant City: Part I, chapter 1 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Grandpa had spent the entire morning sitting at his desk and tugging restlessly at the gray strands of hair at the tip of his beard. It had clearly been a matter of some gravity that he’d been pondering, some mathematical equation that just wasn’t adding up the way it was supposed to. Or maybe it was the great pain in his gut.

Despite his best efforts at distracting himself, he’d been unable to get it off his mind. The night before he had tried reading, but the letters on the page looked like abstract patterns that lacked meaning. He had paced the room rapidly for an hour hoping he would grow tired and sleepy, but the exertion only made him more tense and alert. He had lit his pipe and puffed on it vigorously, but the smoke only made him mumble and curse. Like the song he later found himself humming absentmindedly, his dilemma stayed on his breath.

Tugging at his beard that morning, he remembered the song. The song that years ago could be heard playing in the house almost every day. And as he tugged at his beard he remembered those days. That time when all commotion was innocent and laughter was free from contempt.

His children were young then. His hair was a lustrous black and he could hold his head high. He had strength, vigor, and felt a passion for every moment. He could walk for miles and never would the thought occur to him that the world didn’t make sense. Yes, he always concluded at the end of one of his many sentimental reveries: those were the days.

But all that had come to an end. And in the years since then Grandpa found himself thinking about those good days. Thinking as the pain in his belly grew stronger and spread. Thinking until pain took the place of the person inside him.

Yet with Grandpa it was always hard to tell exactly what was going on in his mind. Following his thoughts was like wandering blindfolded through a gigantic maze. The different languages—memories of different places and different times—all merged together chaotically in his mind. While the lines around his eyes forked away and faded into the grey hair on his temples.

I had watched him all through the night. Watching his steps as he paced, listening to his words as he mumbled and cursed, taking in the smoke that wafted through the room before his pipe went out—I was well aware that something was wrong. But when he pulled out his gun from the bottom right hand drawer of his desk, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger at this most sentimental of moments, I was surprised. Because in those days I too was driven by sentiment.

It was quite a scene that morning. Grandma ran upstairs when she heard the gunshot. On entering Grandpa’s study she began screaming. I wanted to say, “Don’t worry, Grandma, it’s all for the best.” And though I tried my best to speak, all I could do was cry in silence.

“I’m not sure,” I thought, “but I think he’d been sad for a long time. It was really too much for him to bear.” All the while I slapped the carpet with my hands and kicked my feet up in the air.

Grandma picked up the phone to call an ambulance, even though she knew there was nothing a paramedic or doctor could do. Blood was splattered all over his desk. Several feet away from his motionless body lay the spent pieces of his brain. Grandma looked at me, her blue eyes full of fear, then took me by the hand, leading me downstairs to the living room where Marly sat watching the television. As soon as Grandma let go I ran to the television and turned it off.

Marly looked at me quizzically. “It’s all right, Marly,” I thought as I took her in my arms, patting her on the back to comfort her even though she had no idea what was going on.

Grandma ran upstairs, still screaming and crying. Then came right back down again and opened the front door. Tears were running down her pale cheeks. Like raindrops sliding down a window during a summer thunderstorm. The raindrops which fell during my first moments of life. The raindrops which always seemed to be falling in the days before I was born.

Covering her eyes with her hands, Grandma collapsed to the floor. When the paramedics came she kept her eyes covered. “He’s upstairs,” she sobbed through her hands.

Sometime later they carried Grandpa out the door. Standing outside, Grandma watched as Grandpa’s body, covered by a white sheet, passed before her. With her standing tall and thin, she looked as if she were about to collapse again. Or as if she should.

And at that moment, with the clock in the living room striking noon, her form reminded me of a picture I’d once seen in a book. A picture of a building standing tall in the snow. A building so tall and slender that looking at it astounded you. A building which gave you the sense that you were beholding something which, despite its beauty—or perhaps because of its beauty—would never last. Something which at any moment might collapse, its stone and glass and iron all crumbling into dust in an instant.

That building was in a distant city. A city Grandma and Grandpa had visited several times when they were young, in the beginning of those good days. A city so large that one would have to rise very high in the sky in order to fathom its shape.

The city was built upon a place that was once all stone and sand and dirt. A place that came out of the ground after a great rumbling within the earth. A place where men and women came to gather, setting about their life’s work. Where, bearing guns and knives and other tools, they built majestic shrines to the gods. Shrines where they created those daring concepts of business and commodity.

It was only in the beginning of this Century when true life began. When the photograph of that tall building was taken. Before then all was legend and fiction, stories people told and then embellished in an effort to make sense of the sounds that came out of their mouths.

Realizing that such efforts were futile, they began to use their hands, erecting their shrines and monuments. Digging stones out of the dirt, shaping them into blocks and cylinders, they piled them on top of one another. And upon or within these piles they stood, with many of them ceasing to speak.

Holding knives in their hands, wielding guns or hammers before them, they made strange gestures in the air, moving their fingers, sending nervous signals which were supposed to make the piles rise even higher, bringing up more stone, wiping away the dirt and leaving just sand. At the end of the day they walked between the structures they’d created. Traveling in cars or else going underground beneath the streets where the trains ran, they were like animals who’d lost the use of their legs. Animals who knew what it was to be bored and restless.

Theirs was a world where the air never moved and the stench of men and women never dissipated. A world where pure noise drowned out the voices of those still attempting speech. A world where shrines and monuments took the place of memory. And at the center of that world was the building in the photograph.

Throughout my young years I’d remembered that photograph and all the history it signified. And as Grandma stood silently on the front porch I turned to Marly, and, for the first time in my life, I spoke.

“We’ll be there soon, we’ll be there soon.”

Three days after Grandpa was buried we were on a bus. Riding past the trees, the roadside restaurants and churches, the Jesus Saves signs. Traveling north to places we’d never seen. Places where the tone in people’s voices changed.

In one of the smaller cities we passed through I took out the last two dollars I had left from the money I took from Grandma. Handing them over to a heavy man who couldn’t take his eyes off Marly, I bought a pack of cigarettes. When I took my first drag I coughed and Marly looked up at me. And patted me on the back, her blue eyes looking into mine with a silence which said more than these words ever could.

But still I tried to speak, to bring the words from my mind to my tongue, to my lips.

“This is Vir...” I said, reading the sign. “Vir-gin-i-a... Danville, Virginia.”

Marly’s hair was hanging in her face. As I brushed it behind her ears she parted her lips, her eyes blinking, and for a moment I thought she wanted to say something. But it was more the expression of someone about to take a bite than of someone trying to speak.

“Marly... we’re in... Virginia,” I said in a voice that was remarkably different from that of my father. It was the sort of voice that would have moved Grandma to bend her head down slightly and ask, “Where are you from?”

Marly hooked her arm to mine as her eyes darted from left to right. From a nondescript grocery store to the dark window of a barber shop that had closed for the day. Blowing smoke out from my lungs, I tilted my head upwards.

Somewhere, obscured by even these small buildings, the sun was going down. Off in the distance cicadas were chirping, rattling the air with a din that had long since reached its peak for the season back in Georgia.

But here the sound was still strong. And never left our ears until we were back on the bus and the driver had shut the door. Stepping on the gas, he had us on the highway again in less than a minute, the sky turning a deep blue as the white of the clouds disappeared in the dark.

It was well after midnight when we reached New York. Stepping outside the Port Authority bus terminal, we headed east on 42nd Street. On Broadway we went south until Madison Square Park, where we sat on a bench gazing at the apparition that appeared before us. Or, rather, what had once been an apparition. Because now it was quite real, standing before us like the bow of a great ship.

We sat there in awe, inspired by the knowledge that we were back where it all began. We sat there during what would be one of my last waking moments of silence. We sat there for hours in the still, dank air. Until our weariness took over, slackening the blood in our veins. Until we fell asleep in a huddle, dreaming of stone and sand and dirt, the sound of the cicadas far behind us.