Contents | October 2003
More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 2003
Pursuits & Retreats
hen the city enters another torpid and simmering May. Parents grimace while pulling their kids through the Museum of Westward Expansion, and barges moan down the Mississippi. Something erupted at the Dowling Industrial factory, and the gases are making our sunsets plum and plutonium orange.
What we think is a gesture of freedom is a symptom of our cage
by Nicolas Pizzolatto
I work from eleven at night until six in the morning. The park is deserted, and I keep watch from a small window in a wall of steel 630 feet above the ground. Ninety acres of grass and trees below, bridges over the river to the east, and the lights of St. Louis to the west. I patrol under purple sky (you can't see stars this month), and after surveying the grounds with my official National Park Service binoculars, I squeeze out my window and drop off the top of the St. Louis arch.
I use a Perigee II, a Velcro-closed, single-parachute container made by Consolidated Rigging. It holds an Ace 240-square-foot canopy, and my gear is black: helmet, knee and elbow pads, scarf for my nose and mouth. My goggles, however, are the blue glass of fourth-generation night-vision. The arch, made of Pittsburgh steel, is called the Gateway to the West, and when my leg hangs out the window and high winds break on my face, I can stare down at the dark forest or turn to a far window beyond which St. Louis smolders. In that moment I feel I might be straddling the sleeping intersection of a country's dreams. Gichin Funakoshi tells us that all truth is contained in dreams.
Wind explodes so hard and loud I might be disintegrating. Three seconds of free fall, about twenty more guiding the canopy down. Sometimes I spiral in descent, like water going down a drain.
The Museum of Westward Expansion, at the base of the arch, has the dimensions of a football field. In its lobby I keep a gear bag and a ranger uniform; I hustle in after a jump and emerge moments later as Ethan Landry, park ranger. Those times I depend on the quiet darkness to remind me that the park is closed, and I am alone.
The stairs to the top ascend in darkness, and I climb them two at a time.
A radio plays music, and I listen to breaks in static on the black call box. Hours crawl toward morning. Since I don't drink anymore, I break up the tedium by reading stuff like The Book of Five Rings; Hagakure: Way of the Samurai; The Tao Te Ching. I enjoy the writings of Black Elk and some of Emerson's essays, but the Eastern mind seems a lot clearer to me. Clarity, I think, is the chief thing. Find a road and walk it.
Which as much as anything explains my jumps. The literal definition of base jump is to parachute off a stationary object (building, antenna, span, or earth), but for me it means narrowing your senses and joining the void. The great samurai Miyamoto Musashi says it is necessary to lose the self and become one with Mu, the emptiness at the heart of existence to which everything returns. Thus the warrior finds life in death. That's tougher than it sounds, and I've come close only once. Three years ago, kayaking on the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas, I overturned and kicked loose. I smacked into a rock and the kayak shot at me, broke my ankle, whipped around and knocked out a molar and vanished downstream. Pounded by waves, swallowing water and nearly blind from pain, I clung to the rock, knowing that if I got washed away, I was gone. On the bank of the river I noticed a squirrel staring at me. It cocked its head, as if asking what I thought I was doing, and spiraled up a tree, where I lost it in the branches. I remember a sense of calm, stillness, and thinking, This is my death. Interesting.
That moment was a glimpse of the true universe, a galactic procession that marched on without me. What Dogen calls "The Ten Thousand Things." My ankle healed, but kayaking lacked something after that, and I discovered skydiving, which led to base jumping. I started kayaking in the first place because one of the basics they tell you in rehab is that if you're going to stay sober, you have to get physically active.
But if none of that makes much sense, let's just say that with the hours I keep, my main relationship is with gravity, and we're intimate every moonless night around 3:00 a.m.
And we're in May. The skies are hued amethyst and green and, as I said, I can see no stars. At night the woods take on a flatness and seem to stretch out in a single plain, like the overgrown grazing fields on the farm where I grew up. The two spotlights at the bottom of the arch aren't a problem—I fall between them. Though there's no moon tonight, I'm a little wary of the illumination the strange sky creates. BASE jumping is effectively illegal in the United States. Many jumpers take falls in national parks, and park rangers are their traditional nemeses. The irony of my life is so obvious that I don't even think it's irony.
Before I jump, I check the park with my binoculars: clipped grass, patches of pine and broadleaf poplars, concrete walkways converging at the Old Courthouse, to the west. A gleam—behind a tree I spot a shining flash. I zoom in and see at least two people huddled in the shadows. I'm about to call it in on the radio, but then I see what was gleaming: glass lenses. One of them is looking up at the arch with binoculars. Three o'clock has brought something new tonight; I shed my rigging and become a park ranger.
The elevator chugs me down, and I creep between trees and crouch behind tall shrubs. I find three people—a girl and two boys. They're pretty young, and I remind myself to take it easy on them. At twenty-eight I can still remember the thrill of sneaking around at night. I once had a girlfriend who loved exploring forbidden places. Our nerves humming along on whatever we copped, Mabel would lead me through dark spaces crammed with steam pipes and no-trespassing signs, up staircases to rooftops that ended in a kiss. I hold off on my flashlight and move closer, because I can hear voices and I want to know what they're saying.
A burly kid with fat cheeks and glasses is speaking to a thinner boy in a baseball cap and a trenchcoat.
The girl, who has the binoculars, lowers them and interrupts the boys: "I think I saw a ranger up there."
Then a human moan breaches the air. I look around and see outcroppings of shadow everywhere. Beyond this grove people dot the park, at least a dozen of them. A girl and a boy are lying on their backs, the girl pointing to the sky. Another couple, making out against a pine tree, explains the moan I heard. I've stumbled on some dream of youth and lust. For vague reasons this angers me—these young people intruding on my sacred and necessary moment.
The flashlight ignites, and my deepest voice comes with it. "What's going on here? The park is closed." I trap these three in my beam; everybody else bolts. Leaves rustle, and the dull reverberations of footsteps run through the ground.
The boy in the trenchcoat raises his hands, slowly lowers them, and steps forward. "Um, hi. We know the park is closed. We're sorry. We're on assignment for a class. We all go to Washington University." Over his shoulder the girl watches me.
I'm still angry, and as the boy steps into my circle of power, I ponder various angles of kokyu nage I could use to throw his body over the shrubbery. "You're all trespassing."
"We're in this class, Modern American Myth and Legend, and, um, we're working on our final project ... see ..."
Now the girl speaks up. "There's this urban legend that on moonless nights something flies down from the arch." I can't make out the shade of her eyes, but they're pale. "Frank thinks it's a guy with a parachute, but the descriptions sound like a ghost-bird."
"Ghost-birds. Native American thunder spirits. Gigantic, black with glowing eyes. People have seen them for centuries."
"Nothing flies off the arch."
Frank (I guess) interjects, "I personally know three people, who never met each other, who told me stories of seeing this thing fly off the arch. All three described something all in black, with glowing eyes. Another connection? No moon on those three nights. I researched this. Six hundred feet is a totally plausible BASE jump. You can't be watching all the time."
"Listen, kids. You are trespassing. This is illegal. You're on government property."
"We're sorry. Really. It was just—you know."
"We wanted to see if it was true."
"It's not," I say. "You need to leave the park."
They shuffle off, mumbling apologies. The girl turns her head and glances at me. Soft things gleam on her face—eyes, lips. Then the students vanish.
I trudge back to my office with memories of my own college experience in mind. I was the first person in my family to attend a university, and I remember the students there, so like these kids—tan, smiling, walking through stone quadrangles holding hands, and they all had haircuts different from mine, different clothes. I learned that I did not know how to talk, or dress, or even smile.
I remember feeling like a fraud that first year, picturing conspiracies all around me, but I had a roommate who bought pot in bulk, and he showed me ways to relax and let the world go. A shiver runs down my spine as I remember those days, before I learned the necessity of control and found my path.
As the elevator takes me up, my mind keeps replaying the girl's parting glance. Miyamoto says the true bushi divorces himself from desire, but in tonight's shadows her eyes tugged at something that ran down to the place in my abdomen where chi is stored, and I'm compelled to think of Mabel, so I spend the rest of my shift practicing guided meditation. In the lotus position I close my eyes and focus on the Blue Triangle, where I store the egoless self, trying not to remember Mabel's laugh and the cleft at the base of her spine, the taste of her sweat or the purple bath water that covered her on our last night together. Static from the call box hisses, and I block it out.
Morning is a loud wash of white sun, and I hear St. Louis waking up as I ride the tram down. Birds wake, barges wake, everything calling to everything else. A girl stands at the bottom of the arch in a sleeveless white blouse, wind wrapping brown hair around her face, and even before she brushes it away I know who she is.
"The park doesn't open until nine," I say. She looks at me with bleached green eyes; her hair is streaked with shades of orange. "Can I help you, ma'am?"
"It's you, isn't it?" she says.
The wind keeps playing with her hair. "You're the ghost-bird, aren't you? You know there's a Web site about you?"
The morning gets louder and feels too bright. "What?" If I keep lying, what are my odds? She's much smaller than I am, and I consider a yonkyo nerve pinch to make her unconscious. But I'd still have a problem when she woke up. "What do you want?"
"I'll tell you in a second." She looks around at the park and up at the arch. "Can we go talk somewhere?"
A coffee shop that smells like butter and icing. She wears a lot of silver, and rope bracelets on one arm; dusky freckles spot her nose and cheekbones. Her name is Erica Gleason, and she's telling me the history of phoenixes and thunderbirds, working toward an explanation for something she hasn't said yet. "In our class one of the myths we studied was how throughout history, in every culture, an unexplained thing that people see is black ornithologic figures, enormous bird things with glowing eyes. They're called different things, but a lot of theory insists names are meaningless."
"I mean, angels, demons, monsters, whatever."
"Erica." I lean over the table. "What do you want?"
She deflates a little, and I'm instantly sorry I interrupted what's clearly a passion of hers. She sips coffee and looks out the window. People bustle under traffic lights. Horns bleat, brakes squeal. I'm usually in bed right now, preparing to sleep through the day.
She turns back to me. "I'm just saying, I was disappointed when I figured out it was only you."
"How did you know, by the way?"
She bows her head and stirs her coffee. "I could tell by the way you acted ... And I saw a guy dressed all in black looking at me with binoculars from a window in the arch." Her eyes meet me with consolation. "I didn't tell anybody."
"Right. So. What do you want?"
"Okay. Here's the thing." She puts her spoon down. "I want you to teach me."
I try to tell her it doesn't work like that. "You don't just go out and BASE jump. It takes years to accumulate the knowledge for your first jump. It's a continual learning process. I still walk away sometimes."
"I've skydived before."
"How many times?"
"Jeez." I'm wrong to describe her hair as brown. It's more like burnt wheat, with copper and russet highlights. "This sport isn't about proving anything. It's very personal. People get killed. Very experienced people get seriously injured and killed. Why do you even want to do this?"
"Why do you do it?" she asks, and the image of Mabel floating lifeless beneath lavender soap bubbles flashes across my mind.
"You have to master skydiving first. Even after, there are other people who can teach you."
"Look, I didn't say anything to anybody, okay? I didn't turn you in or anything. I mean, then why are you talking to me about it? What are you waiting for?"
She knows that by deliberating, I've already agreed. Silver jangles on her wrist; her lips are thin and faded; her collarbone spreads like a shadowy albatross above her chest. I'm thinking, Blue Triangle, Blue Triangle.
t my apartment the answering machine blinks, showing several messages, which makes me uneasy, because I don't know who could be calling. After ten months in St. Louis, I know a landlord, a mailman, and two park rangers, who think I'm crazy for pulling the hours I do. In Hagakure, Tsunetomo writes that there is deep power in the solitary man.
It's my father's voice on the machine. "Ethan, it's your dad. I can't find your mother, son, and I been trying to get hold of you. You need to bring the horses in."
The next message is from an hour later, his voice guttural and slow, twanging words out. "Ethan, it's your dad. I can't find your mother, son, and I been trying to get hold of you. You need to bring the horses in. It looks like rain." Three other messages say roughly the same thing, along with suggesting that I gather up some potatoes and carrots so my mother can make vegetable soup. Our farm was sold some time ago, after my mother died.
I call Green Grove and speak to the head nurse about these messages. She puts me on hold, and then comes back and explains that a temporary nurse was working my father's floor yesterday, and that's why he was able to make so many phone calls. She apologizes for the inconvenience. In my room I lie on a bamboo mat in the center of the floor and put a sleep mask over my eyes to block out the sun that filters through the blinds. When I try to envision a beach where I can align my heartbeat with the breaking of waves, I instead see my father one particular morning during my first summer home from college: at dawn my mother and I found him standing in a field of scrub grass with only a blanket wrapping him, staring at the sun. Brightness engulfed him that morning. We thought he was kidding around at first, but in the intervening years I've wondered what, exactly, he was seeing.
So the ocean in my mind becomes the sound of warblers and wrens at dawn on my father's farm, and then Erica starts lecturing me about spirits disguised as birds while unbuttoning her white blouse. Unable to sleep, what I really want to do is jump off something.
e enter an AFF course—accelerated free fall. It's a seven-step program designed to teach skydiving basics; after that she has twenty jumps till she's a novice jumpmaster. She has money for all this. Her father is a litigator for Dowling Industrial. We start on a small single-engine Cessna whose air tastes like aluminum and petrol. Our bench rattles and dips; the engine sputters. Beyond the door is a roaring radiance. While we're waiting to be flagged out, Erica eyes her static line and says, "Here we go. Geronimo."
"Don't say that. Everybody says that."
"What do you say?"
I admit, reluctantly, "Banzai."
She nods and keeps her gaze steady, being tough, betraying no awe or excitement or fear.
At 12,500 feet a jump doesn't even feel like falling; it's more like being at the center of a cold explosion. You can see the curvature of the planet, the spherical surface that tugs you down. I watch her body tumble, bright-red jumpsuit, limbs arched back in perfect form. She shrinks and breaks into white clouds, and I lose her. My arms go straight at my sides and I dive. At about 140 miles an hour I see her canopy, a ruffled red square below me. My cheeks billow with wind.
On the ground she can't stop smiling, looking up at what we traversed. She cheers and laughs and suggests we go do some shots. I explain that it's just the adrenaline rush, and that I don't drink.
May's air is thick and heavy, trapped under this purple vapor we're enduring. At night I worry. Surveying the park grounds, I wonder who's out there, watching for me. Erica has told me about the Web site: Bird Man of St. Louis. There's a picture on it of a fanged black bird with burning eyes, along with message boards and testimonials from people who have seen me. You can order a T-shirt.
Skydiving doesn't compare to BASE. Out of a plane you're too high and have no real sense of the bottom. Mu, the void, is not so immediate; you can't even glimpse it, and gravity's embrace is more like a hug than a violent thrall. I press my hands against the glass and ponder the fall, and the dream life of a sleeping city seems awfully far away as my reflection looks back in the window and parallel light beams shine up from the arch's base like a Zen ladder.
Five jumps later Erica tells me that her mother is an artist who gives lessons at their home, and who lost her left breast to cancer three years ago. We're eating ice cream, walking in the mall, because she wanted to get new shoes. She says, "You know, I was really hoping you were some undiscovered animal, like a ghost-bird."
"I know. You believe in that stuff?"
She shrugs and licks her cone, swinging her bag from Foot Locker. "I guess. Probably. There's always stuff we don't know about. Once, in the 1920s, in Texas, there was a series of sightings of a black bird as big as a city, perched on the moon. I love that."
She wipes caramel off her lip with a finger that she licks while grinning at me, and my chi thrums against my abdomen as if I've swallowed a tiny bomb.
Her school lets out for the summer, so we start diving more. Three times a week. Evening sets in as we walk off the airfield. She says her father is working long hours now. The EPA is giving Dowling Industrial hell.
"What is that stuff anyway?" I ask, tracing an arc across the lavender sky.
She takes my hand, and we stop walking. "I don't know what it is."
t first I'm embarrassed, because I don't have any furniture in my apartment, and my bed is a bamboo mat with a single thin blanket. In fading light from the window the fuzz on her chest and stomach is lucent and blonde. Sweat gathers in a salty pool at her navel. Her skin is darker than Mabel's, and she weighs less.
A certain anxiety dissipates as we progress. The touching is fine. As I remembered, but different.
"Tell me about your first time," she says, face flushed and glistening, tips of her hair sticking to my chest.
I tell her about jumping off Bethel Bridge, in Cypress Park. I don't mention my perverse curiosity that cold morning, the clear idea I had, as I dangled my foot off the bridge, to hold on to the bundled chute the whole way down and never release it from my hand.
"Really," she says. "Why did you start doing this?"
I shrug and feign sleepiness. I don't mention the night four years ago when I bought Mabel half a gram of heroin and she passed out and slipped under the bath water we were going to share when I got home.
I want to explain that I'm not just some thrill-seeker—that the arch is the nexus of civilization and wilderness, and there I inhabit a space between spaces, where city and forest are separated by a perfect geometry of solid steel. But we don't talk, and when I close my eyes, burning scarlet fissures erupt and crack the perfect symmetry of my Blue Triangle.
The next morning I call my father at Green Grove. He asks the same two questions four times.
rica wants me to come meet her mother and "see something." I can guess what.
Her mother, Carol, has hair the same color as Erica's, but much shorter. She asks me what working for the Park Service is like and looks at me softly when I explain myself as a nature lover. Erica is quiet. When she looks at her mother, they don't make eye contact for long, and I find some similarities in their faces. Carol asks me about my hobbies and has a distant look in her eyes. Her voice seems to tremble when she speaks; she absently fingers an earring, as if she's worried about something but doesn't want to trouble anyone. I remember that she lost a breast when she was ill.
A garden in their back yard is elaborate and well pruned. A tiny creek burbles through it. I take a deep breath and confess, "I don't want you to do this."
Her mouth opens, but before she can answer I say, "It's too dangerous," and I reach for her hand.
She crosses her arms and steps back. "I'm good. What are you talking about?" In the kitchen window the back of her mother's head is visible. "Where's this coming from?"
"It's too soon. It's too soon and it's too dangerous. I don't want anything to happen to you." What I don't mention is that I can't possibly handle killing another girl.
The little creek sloshes between us. "No," she says. "I'm still doing it. Forget it. I'm going." Then she breaks our date at 10,000 feet, and I know we won't be up in any more airplanes. She leads me to her bedroom, where her equipment is sprawled on the floor.
"This is what you wanted me to see?"
It's an Ace 240 canopy and a Perigee II container. Black. "Just like yours," she says, moving toward me. "I know how to do it," she says. "And I will. But I'm asking you to."
"Please, Erica, c'mon." I'm allowed to hold her hand.
"I'm doing it regardless, okay? Whether you do this for me or not. But I trust you." She puts her head on my chest. "I'm still doing it, but I trust you, okay?"
I rotate the Perigee II on the floor, harness down, and stow the break lines solemnly. It is grim business. I divide the line groups and run the slider up toward the canopy, observing that the leading edge of the canopy is hanging at my knees while the trailing edge faces away from me. She sits on the bed, watching over my shoulder. The room smells like her, like a young, living girl: some combination of flora and powder, lotion and fruit.
I work the fabric between the line groups to the outside of the lines, and continue flaking it that way for all sections of the canopy. It's like folding an accordion. The idea is to keep all the line-attachment points toward the center of the packjob, with the fabric folded to the outside. The bed squeaks behind me, and her fingertips rub the back of my head. I carefully redefine my previous folds. I bring the center of the trailing edge up and hold it under my thumb. Next I dress the tail and fold it around itself. I stow the lines in the tail pocket and place the canopy into the container. Then I breathe.
She kisses the top of my head. "Thank you."
We sleep apart this night, and I spend two hours in a straight-backed lotus position, mentally defining my circle of power, trying to reconstruct my Blue Triangle.
he very beginning of sunrise. False dawn after the moon vanishes. By now the gases in the air have finally begun to settle, so although the sky is a fairly normal indigo, a thick fog under the Bethel Bridge is opalescent, sparkling with pinks and purples. She wears loose black pants and a tank top, with the Perigee hunched on her back, pads on her knees, her hair tucked under a helmet. I've got my gear on too.
We both look down at the fog, which twinkles and undulates beneath the bridge. Pine trees and shrubbery are hushed; everything exists under a thin, obfuscating coat of colored air that sifts between us.
"You can't even see the bottom," I tell her.
She's looking down. "So? I count off three seconds, right? I'll see it when I get down there."
"I wouldn't do this." My hands start twitching as she climbs onto the railing. "Erica—"
"You don't have to do it. I am. I'll see you down there."
She's taking quick, shallow breaths and can't stop looking down. Her eyes are panicked, and remind me of her mother's. Then, when I see that similarity, I understand what it is between us, what must have drawn her to me and why we're really out here.
"Erica, wait. If you think this will keep you from being afraid—it won't. The fear doesn't stop. It never does."
She looks confused and shakes her head. "What? I don't—I never said that." Her eyes remain fixed on the sparkling fog. "I never said that."
Background noises rise: twittering birds, things scraping in trees and rustling the grass. The trestle begins to rumble from far-off automobiles.
Atop the railing she grips her pilot chute, her knuckles white. She glances at me and fakes a smile. "Okay. I'll see you at the bottom." She takes one giant breath and steps off, leaving a splash of fog lingering where she split it.
I rush to the rail and look down. No, listen, I want to say. What we think is a gesture of freedom, see, is a symptom of our cage. But she's gone. I can't see beyond the mist, already closing the hole she made, and I climb on top of the railing.
What can I do but follow her down?
Before human beings a deep river lived here, carrying tons of life between oceans. Now fog below the bridge conceals only a pebbled canyon of cool, dry stone. A garden under purple gas. Rocks thump against my feet as I stick the landing.
At the bottom she's on her knees, the canopy flapping around her. My chute trails like a black flag. We're small among giant ferns and ivy growing inside the jagged walls of this chasm. I lift her and start undoing her harness. She's shaking. She reaches around my back to undo mine. A tear streaks behind her goggles. She says she thought she was going to die. The straps slide down, and I feel the dead drag of my own chute drop away.
We promise never to do it again.
I buy a gel-filled mattress that promises to conform to the contours of my spine. I buy cotton sheets. Erica brings me more pillows than anyone could ever need. I change my schedule so that I'm working only three graveyard shifts.
Erica wants me to teach her martial arts, so I use my empty living room to show her what aikido I know. All the kokyu nage body throws end up with us wrestling and then getting pretty dirty on the carpet.
At work I still appreciate the view, but when I contemplate Mu and the bushi's goal of joining the void, my feet feel heavy. There's a nervous rumble in my stomach and slight vertigo as I gaze down from my office window. Concerning my relationship with gravity: I start to wonder if it even exists, since "gravity," after all, is just one name assigned to a particular phenomenon. I ponder isolation as the governing physics of this universe: mass attracts mass because singularity isn't natural, sentience or no, and the basic unit of life isn't one but two. Planets and moons form, and people stick to them because something in the cosmos is trying to keep itself company. Below the arch a slight lilac tinting of air is all that remains of the once heavy cloud that distorted our skies these past two months. Dowling Industrial ended up settling with the EPA for five million dollars and a new system of air vents that could suck the eyes out of your head.
Near the end of July, Erica's father leaves her mother.
he lobby at Green Grove is antiseptic in a deceitful way. The rosy wallpaper and carpet are okay, but the plants are plastic, and Muzak plays at a hushed volume. Ms. Teschmaucher, the head nurse, approaches me sympathetically. The nurses at Green Grove wear light-blue uniforms with navy aprons, and they smell like nurses, like Ivory soap and rubbing alcohol.
She takes my arm as she escorts me past the smiling elderly, who gaze up as if I might be someone they once loved. "I just want you to be prepared," she says, patting my elbow.
My father's room is an eight-by-fifteen space with beige walls and a salmon-colored carpet. Two tall chairs form a V to the left of the television, which sits on a standard wooden dresser. A bookshelf stands against one wall, with pictures of my mother and me and his own parents, a Bible, and some flowers. His bed is made in military style, the sheets so tight that you could bounce change off them. He made his bed like that my entire life, and I wonder if certain things never go away, actions that feel so right they can never be unlearned, no matter what else you forget.
He sits in a rocking chair, wearing his robe and pajamas, staring out the window at the far side of the room.
"Jacob?" Ms. Teschmaucher says, guiding me toward him. "Ethan's here. Your son, Ethan."
He turns from the window and looks up at me. My father's face is a lost expanse of wrinkled flesh and liver spots; he has a still noble jaw and a white crew cut thinning at the crown. His blue eyes search the space where we stand. He smiles slowly and nods. His hand, dry, stretched taut, reaches out and takes mine.
"It's good to see you—really good," he says, with the kind of emotional tone you wouldn't use unless you were faking it.
He turns back to the window and inspects the bucolic, parklike area that exists at the heart of Green Grove's compound. Ms. Teschmaucher and I exchange glances, and then my father touches my hand.
"I'm worried about the grass out there. It looks dry this season."
I crouch beside him and stare out the window. "It's not so bad." He smells the same: traces of the Brut cologne he splashed on every day I ever knew him. I put my arm around him.
He asks, "Do you know Susie Frenesi?"
"No," I say.
He turns back to the window and then again looks at me. His eyes blaze with sudden joy. "Bill? Where have you been?"
I used to have an uncle named Bill, my father's younger brother.
"Around. You know."
"I'm worried about the grass out there."
On the way to the lobby Ms. Teschmaucher says that this deterioration will continue and I shouldn't let myself feel hurt by his inability to remember me. I don't feel hurt. He's the one who's having everything gradually peeled from him, his identity falling away, years dropping like skin being shed in preparation for a new spring. As I pull away from the building, I glimpse my father standing at his window, inspecting the grass, and I have a sudden vision of Mu claiming him, its bright void drawing him closer with the deftest and most sinister grasp, taking everything he ever was into its light.
It's a time when things are taken away.
A time when I find a brochure for Bridge Day among Erica's textbooks. Bridge Day is an annual gathering of BASE jumpers in Fayetteville, West Virginia. For one day in October BASE jumping is made legal off the New River Gorge Bridge.
She walks back into her room wearing a black tank top and jeans, her hair tied back and her cheeks slightly sunken. She's lost weight.
I brandish the advertisement. "You're not really going to do this, are you?"
She shrugs and starts picking things up, moving loose clothes around and stuffing them into drawers.
"Hey. You're not doing this, are you?"
She looks at me and plops on her bed, throwing an arm over her eyes. "I don't know. I was thinking about it."
"I thought we stopped all this. I thought we talked about it."
She keeps her arm over her eyes. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to," she says. Not changing position, with one hand she uses a remote control to turn on her stereo. The Pixies start playing too loud for conversation.
That night I toss and turn on my new, obscenely comfortable mattress. My thoughts center on a girl's body falling through space, on a chute that opens a split second too late to slow her fall. Her body breaks on rocks and stone, the canopy drifting delicately down upon her. People crowd around, and when that shroud is pulled away, the face I see is Mabel's. My stomach hurts, a cramping I haven't felt since I first went cold turkey, four years ago.
I sleep on the floor.
t's a time of transition, when the eyes of summer close and autumn begins. The I Ching says my dominant Yin is Earth over Fire, which means "Injury to the Enlightened." Confucius advises, "It will be beneficial to be steadfast and break through distress."
Because she asked me to, I pack Erica's chute in preparation for Bridge Day. Then I explain that we can't see each other anymore.
She gets angry. "What? Are you serious? Just because I won't do what you tell me?"
That's meant to goad me, but in my mind I am a perfect Blue Triangle, and my heart is the steady, slow lapping of waves on an inner shore. "Because I don't want to be there when you die."
"What? When I—" She raises her arms. "Nobody's ever died at a Bridge Day."
"That's not true. 1983 and 1987."
Erica puts her hands on her hips and stares with mock disgust. "Whatever. I'm not going to be, like, some mad BASE jumper. I mean, look who's talking. What's your problem?"
My Triangle holds. I am three lines of perfect order, beating with a cool sapphire glow. "I can't handle losing you," and what I'm thinking is, I am so tired of everyone disappearing.
"So, okay, wait." She sits on the bed and makes a tiny box with her hands. "To keep from losing me, you're breaking up with me?"
I don't expect her to understand the logic. She calls me a coward. She says that I'm the one who's afraid. I turn to leave, and she says I'm like an addict: I can't deal with life so I insulate myself with habit and ideas. She says I'm a Frankenstein of Eastern philosophy. I don't turn around, because I can't think of anything else to say.
What can you say to someone you love who won't abide her own fear?
take to driving past Green Grove during the day, spotting my father sitting at his window, where he watches tree limbs rustle with squirrels. I don't often think of her.
One day my father isn't at his window. I look, make a U-turn, and pass by again, but in his place I see only a bright pane of glass that reflects the sun. I know he must be in a different part of Green Grove at the moment, yet I stop to stare, and in that window's flat, radiant square I feel I'm seeing my father, perhaps for the first time, with utter clarity.
I get my old schedule back at work.
I stand at the window when 3:00 a.m. comes, tightening my harness. Through the glass the woods are still and mysterious, stretching boundlessly into darkness, while on the other side of the arch a city beats brightly, steaming and vibrating with implied movement. I raise the scarf over my nose and lower the blue glass of my NVGs, and the world becomes a hazy impression of emerald specters. Now I tell myself that I don't straddle the dreams of my culture but stand within them.
I'm like the giant black bird perched on the moon, an idea existing between rumor and imagination, the shape you hope to see when you chance to look up after a late night.
Now I'm like a myth, a UFO, a thunderbird, and this role carries its own concessions, its promise of ritual and reverence, while below, somewhere in the wilderness or in apartments across the river, with telescopes pointed out windows, people wait to see, ready to mold me into whatever they decide to believe I am. I raise the window and let my leg slip out. Wind caresses me. I clutch the pilot chute.
Now I am a ghost.
Nicolas Pizzolatto is a Walton Fellow at the University of Arkansas, where he is completing a novel and a collection of stories.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2003; Ghost-Birds; Volume 292, No. 3; 147-158.