By Curt Saltzman
Once during PE class, I got kayoed by this kid. I’d just started middle school that day. It was shortly after my father died, and everything went to hell in a handbasket. I was playing catcher in a softball game and the kid, trying to stretch a triple into a home run, collided with me at the plate. He was out, in fact, because I had and held onto the ball. We were both windmilling in a hot rage when he dropped me. I was only out for a second or two. But I had a dream.
I knelt by a brook in a glade, a spot I recognized from hiking in the Sierra Nevada with my dad. Peering down into the clear water, I noticed dozens of trout schooling along the pebbly stream bed. I thrust my hand into the current, and it broke off at the wrist, sinking to the bottom, where it sat like an upturned crab. I wanted to retrieve my hand and reached down with my other arm. But it detached itself at the shoulder and drifted away like some gruesome log. Not daring to move again for fear of losing another anatomical part, I came to with the gym teacher kneeling over me. He was one of those pricks with a crew cut who thought PE was a form of basic training or something.
The other day, looking out my bedroom window, I recalled that dream for some reason. The garbage men in their crumpled truck woke me before dawn, and I rose and watched them in their drab overalls empty bins into the compactor. Later, my next-door neighbor crossed his lawn and swung the front gate open. He lifted the lid on his trash can a crack and glanced inside. He seemed to be verifying the garbage men had actually come as scheduled, though they’d crashed through the neighborhood with the violence of an elephant herd trumpeting through the bush. I’ve lived next door to Gary for over thirty years. Under other circumstances, he’s demonstrated the sensitivity of his auditory process.
“Al,” he said to me some weeks ago, “could you keep the radio down after ten? I’m sleeping light these days with my back acting up again.” He shook his head. “Jesus, it’s a curse getting old, isn’t it?”
We were chatting from yard to yard, a solid hedgerow between us shoulder-high. Autumn had denuded all our trees, and a few damp, variegated leaves were scattered over the ground.
“Sure, Gary, I’ll lower it,” I told him. “I thought I had it below the threshold of audibility for you.” Some skepticism may have colored my voice here.
“Al,” he said, “it’s low. It’s soft as all get out that classical stuff you play. But you know how it is when you’re having trouble sleeping.”
“I do,” I acknowledged. I considered the gamut of minute sounds that invade the mind as a person lies sleepless in a bed. “I’ll use the headphones after ten, how’s that?” I said.
“Thanks, Al. That’d be great.”
Gary dragged the garbage can back up into the garage, grabbed the pair of work gloves hanging from a nail above his table saw, and began digging for bulbs in the flower beds bordering his lawn. He’s a slender man often engaged in some practical activity. One obvious thing we have in common, along with various boundaries, is how thin we both are. In my case, it’s a question of having lost my appetite since my wife died a few years back. A pickup ran a red light and broadsided her car while she was driving home from the supermarket. It happened one peaceful afternoon near the end of August. All summer long Catherine and I had spent the quiet days saying more or less nothing to one another. But it didn’t seem to matter at the time; it felt like the stillness of the season between us, something placid and poised and melancholy in the sweet way that warms you from the inside.
When Gary finished gardening, he became involved in another project in his front yard, so I slipped on an overcoat and wound a muffler around my neck and stepped outside. I sat on the wooden stoop. It was still several hours before noon. That’s the problem with getting up early—the days seem to last forever. The sun shone, though its rays were wintry, feeble. Gary remarked my presence after a moment. He waved and approached the hedgerow, one hand kneading his lower back.
“Any idea what we’re doing here, Gar?” I asked him.
“What we’re doing here?”
“You know, riding the big, blue rock or whatever it is.”
“On the planet, you mean? You got me there, Al. Tell you the truth, I don’t think about that much.”
It was past midnight when the weather came in. Gary had set up his extension ladder and hung strings of colored lights earlier, and they blinked on and off and tapped against the roof eaves as the wind whipped and churned. It began snowing so heavily Gary’s house was completely engulfed. I don’t know why, what impulse moved me, but standing there in the dark observing the scene I flung open the casement windows. The cold came sweeping in like a ghost. I felt lightheaded and fainted. I dreamed again the little time I lay lifeless on the floor. In the dream, I disintegrated, broke into a million fragments, and started merging with the snowflakes falling out of doors. Somehow they were Catherine. We flurried from all points of the sky as glittering and hopeful as the stars.
“I can never be alone,” I thought as we floated together everywhere, spinning like delicate swirls of lace. But awakening in our icy bedroom, not knowing where I found myself or how I had arrived in this inhospitable place, there was only me.