Authors: Mark Ferguson
“What happened?” said Henry. He grimaced as his own voice sent a jolt of pain through the front of his forehead and deep into his skull.
80 rested a hand on one of the taut steel cables. “What did he say?” He took a deep, shuddering gulp of air and then, in one short exhalation, he said, “What did he say to you this morning?”
“What do you mean?” said Henry.
80 lowered his head, seemingly too exhausted to try again.
“What do you mean, what did he say? You know what he said. You remember. You have to know.”
80 shook his head, then lowered himself to his knees.
“Where did he go?” said Henry. “You must know. You have to.”
80 looked up. Silent tears had saturated the deep tributaries beneath his eyes. He looked back at the spot on the bridge where 41 had been dancing, and when he turned around he appeared to be even more stricken than before.
Henry stood up slowly. He held his hands away from his body, not wanting to touch the runny mess he’d fallen down in. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not supposed to know what’s going on. That’s what you’re here for.”
80’s only response was a miserable whimper and a shake of his head.
Henry screamed. “Why am I here?”
“It’s over,” said 80. “I’m a relic. I’m gone.”
abe’s dreams were
so vivid and visceral that they bled into his days. In waking life, as in sleep, he interrogated his memory and questioned each detail. He searched for alternative explanations for what he’d seen, anything that might counter the only theory that seemed plausible: he was having a psychotic episode. Henry was somehow contagious and Gabe had been infected.
Compounding his fear of going crazy was his total solitude. Gabe knew he should tell someone what had happened, but he feared hearing himself say aloud all that he was thinking. Even worse, he didn’t know who would care. His parents would only overreact. The bridge between himself and Jan was still smoldering. Cal would be sympathetic but too logical—he’d propose a solution, Gabe knew, but it was unlikely to be a good one and in the end the conversation would just be deeply unsatisfying.
Val was the only one left, and she’d purposely removed herself from Gabe’s life more than a year before. She might not be able to help him, and she might even resent him reaching out, but once the idea of speaking with her took hold, Gabe knew he wouldn’t be able to resist for long.
It was more than allegiance to Henry that had kept Gabe from getting in touch with her before. There was, perhaps, an element of pride. She’d broken up with him, too, in a way. He didn’t want to go crawling back like some lovesick baby.
It also felt dangerous to think too much about her. It had never been easy for him to ignore the way she made him feel. Mostly he succeeded. He could always see and appreciate Val’s beauty, but the pain he sometimes felt when he looked at her grew less intense over time. That pain belonged to a fantasy girl who had never existed, a mythical Val who never opened her mouth except to kiss and who didn’t do things like trip and fall and laugh in embarrassment or force her friends to pause a movie while she went to the bathroom.
But then she left and Gabe wasn’t confronted with the
Val any longer. And maybe, if he was being honest with himself, he’d allowed the fantasy version of her to take hold again. A few times, late at night, he imagined her calling him up to talk over all they’d been through, to explain to Gabe why she’d left and how she wished she could still see him. That was always how it started. What happened after that first meeting was variable. That was the fun part. It made Gabe feel guilty, especially now, to think about it. He hadn’t ever wished for Henry to disappear, not really. But in his fantasies that disappearance had been a precondition for everything that he secretly wished would come after. Now that Henry was really gone, Gabe was stuck regretting all the ways in which he’d imagined his best friend out of the picture for the sake of some masturbatory delusion.
But he was desperate, maybe insane. He needed to talk to someone who understood him.
He was home when he finally called her. It was late afternoon, cloudy but dry, the sun’s light wasted for no good reason. He’d spent most of the day looking in the general direction of the television. It was on, but it would have been fine with him if it hadn’t been. TV had become little more than an excuse to stare at the corner of the room. Cal wasn’t cool with cigarettes indoors, so Gabe went out on the porch to smoke his anxiety into submission. He found her name in his phone and breathed in. He’d learned to shoot rifles in Boy Scouts, and he pressed down on her entry in his contacts list the same way he’d been taught to fire a gun: breathe out slowly, focus on the target, and press softly, just enough to engage the trigger—don’t jerk in anticipation of the kickback.
He lifted the phone to his ear and Val’s line rang.
Gabe wondered how she’d reacted when she heard about Henry. He pictured her shrugging her shoulders, sad but detached, but that didn’t seem right. Then he imagined her distraught, crying alone in her bedroom in New York City for days, destroying herself with regret for having left Henry to deal with his illness alone. That didn’t make sense either.
It rang again. He imagined Val walking around deserted city streets at odd hours, confused and melancholic. Just like him. That felt better, but not quite believable.
“I was wondering when I’d hear from you,” said Val. Gabe hadn’t even heard her pick up the phone. She was teasing him. She sounded happy.
“Hi, Val.” For a moment, he was happy too.
There was silence, awkward but not unpleasant. “I’m glad you called,” she said. “I felt like I shouldn’t call you, you know? Like I didn’t have a right or something. I’ve wanted to, though.”
“It’s okay,” said Gabe. It seemed like what she wanted to hear.
“So,” she said.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Good. Um…how are
” she said, and she laughed. “I’m sorry. This is just weird.”
Gabe laughed too. “It’s definitely weird,” he said, wondering which of a thousand aspects of the conversation she was referring to.
Something about her reaction to the call didn’t make sense. He sighed and his breath was amplified by the phone’s microphone. It came through his own earpiece as a roar of white noise.
“Gabe, why are you so quiet? What’s going on?” She was still bubbly, teasing, actually curious about why he’d called her.
Gabe understood then. She had no idea. Not even just that Henry was missing. She had no idea that there was anything wrong with him at all. He reconfigured all of his expectations for the conversation and nearly panicked at the thought of where to begin. “Jan didn’t call you?” he asked.
call me?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
Gabe felt bad for leaving her in suspense, but he couldn’t think of what to say. It sounded like she was outside; he heard a light swish of traffic punctuated by bits of voices and short honks. This would forever be the moment when she found out. Gabe’s memories of Henry’s transition made it seem gradual and ambiguous. But Val’s understanding of what had happened would be immediate and certain, and Gabe would be the reason. He saw her walking down a crowded sidewalk. Probably wearing clothes he’d never seen before, which felt sad. She might have even dyed her hair or gotten some new piercing. Gabe didn’t know, and it bothered him. He just wanted to be able to imagine the Valerie Mitchell he knew. He wanted to know how she would remember this moment, what she would recall about the second the world turned upside down. He wished he could feel it with her.
“Is Henry okay?”
Again, Gabe heard her, but there was no answer to that question that fit the circumstance.
“Gabe!” Her voice hit his eardrum in a digitized squall.
He focused, wet his lips, and lit a cigarette. “What was the last thing you heard from him?”
Forty-five minutes and two dropped calls later, Val knew what Gabe knew.
“I can’t believe Jan didn’t call you,” said Gabe.
“Jan’s too in love with her boy,” she said. “She’ll never talk to me again. But I kind of can’t believe
didn’t call me.”
Gabe knew she didn’t mean it to hurt, but it did. “Like you said. I wanted to. I just felt like I shouldn’t. I figured you’d find out from somebody else.”
“He called me,” she said. “Once. I should have known. He was saying the worst things. He sounded crazy, like someone else. I hung up on him, I thought he was drunk. God—I’m so sorry, Gabe.”
Gabe didn’t respond. He’d heard
from so many people. It was only slightly less disappointing and pointless when coming from Val.
But then, as if sensing how inadequate her words had been, she said, “I know how much you love him.”
It felt like forgiveness to hear that, but his relief came with a real physical pain. Not the poetic kind that burns or purifies, t
he medical kind of pain made of blood and bile and shit
. He wanted to run from it, to pound his hands into concrete and metal until they bled and shattered and fell apart. He muted the phone and emptied his lungs until he felt a deep, underwater kind of breathlessness. And then he cried.
Minutes later, when his sadness got prettier, Gabe unmuted the phone. Val had waited patiently. She was home by then. The connection was better, and she told him she’d gotten into bed. Gabe imagined flannel sheets and downy pillows.
“I must have ruined your day,” he said, his voice still wavering.
“How are you doing besides all this? There must be other stuff going on for you.”
“Not really.” He thought of the man and the bridge. He had meant to tell her, but it suddenly seemed meaningless. Val and he had passed through something since he picked up the phone. He felt clearheaded. Her attention was like the light of day chasing away the odd nightmare of the bearded man and the bridge. Henry was not living in Buccleuch Park. He was not some vagabond or archetypal traveler. Wherever he was, he was speaking in non sequiturs, forgetting to eat, fearing everyone, and completely alone.
Another hour passed. They mostly talked about Val. School, the city, her parents, how different New York was from New Brunswick. Gabe left the porch and went inside to lie on the couch. He listened to her voice as the living room darkened around him.
When he asked if she missed Rutgers, she scoffed, then apologized.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” he said. “I feel pretty much the same. I’m just not smart enough to get myself out of here, I guess.”
“You should come see me sometime,” said Val. “If New Brunswick is so horrible.”
Gabe knew that it was the kind of thing anyone would say, like the “Bless you” after a sneeze, but there was nothing he wanted more. “How about next weekend?” he said, and he felt his stomach float up into his chest.
In the brief pause before she answered, Gabe pictured appearing at Val’s door, allowed himself to feel the thrill that had accompanied his fantasies.
“Seriously?” she said. And she laughed.
Gabe interrogated her tone for proof of his own stupidity. Had she seriously said
Was that joy or awkwardness in her voice? He opened his mouth to take it back—to let her off the hook—but she interrupted him.
“That would be great,” she said. “I can’t wait.”
his is not
The voice in Henry’s mind—the voice that was
he supposed—it sang this ode to his confusion on a constant loop. He did not feel his age. He didn’t even know what it meant to be forty-one. It was a biological fact, nothing more, totally divorced from his identity.
This is not my life.
It was usually a whispered mantra, but there were melodies, too. Sometimes the song was bittersweet and schmaltzy. Sometimes it was frantic, repetitive. The tune depended on his mood, the weather, how empty his stomach was. But always accompanying the words was a sensation that Henry now accepted as an enduring amendment to his body’s constitution: a nasty little rush that shot from his sternum to his fingertips and back and set all his muscles into rigor.
This is my life.
Coming to terms with his own strange flavor of immortality was his life. It always would be, forever and forever.
After his first break at nineteen, Henry had a handful of episodes. Each was unique in its severity and specific delusions, but there were four notable constants.
First, the voices.
Second, the fear. The voices fed on it, and they got louder, more sadistic, until they were fully grown—his own private monsters.
The third was his hallucinations of those monsters and the forces they used to carry out their will. Forces such as the bright green spastic low vibration. Or the music, that great song of everything.
The fourth constant was different. It was more seductive. If Henry wasn’t vigilant, he would find himself meditating on what had happened to him when he was nineteen. His recollections felt one hundred percent genuine; they lacked the too-vivid sheen of the rest of his hallucinations. He
seen himself in the practice room. Twice. Taken together, his two memories of that singular moment fit seamlessly. And in order for those memories to be real, what had happened to him on the GW had to be real too. But there was so much he didn’t understand, and that made it worse. The mystery was too compelling for him to resist. It dragged him under.
Most of the time he could manage his sporadic symptoms with little tweaks in his medication and lots of sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. Staying close to Val (and later, Annie) helped too. His family centered him, and the daily expectation of his sanity was a powerful force for the good. Val and Annie kept the voices from becoming monsters. They kept the questions from becoming full-blown mysteries.
But there were two episodes that he had not been able to avoid. Most laymen would call them breaks. Collapses, crack-ups, decompensations, disturbances, deteriorations—the name meant little. Henry’s favorite had always been
He liked it best on account of its quaint baroque undertones and inherent musical connotation.
The first of these fugues occurred when he was twenty-nine and on tour with a rock singer. He slept at odd hours and ate like shit, and though he saw the warning signs he didn’t heed them. He felt he had to press on. Val had just learned that she was pregnant with Annie and they needed the money. The tour was scheduled for just over ten weeks. Henry lasted two-thirds of the way through before he was forced to make his way home and then back to Lung-Ta Mountains, the Massachusetts treatment center that had seen him through the first time around. At Lung-Ta, he took the drugs he was given. He talked to a psychiatrist, a social worker, various residents and researchers. He talked until he felt emptied out, but he went to bed feeling as though he’d said nothing at all. When he wasn’t talking he imagined Val and her growing belly. He pictured her doing soothingly mundane things: drinking herbal tea, reading a book, or laughing at the TV. He returned home excited to fuss over her in the final months of her pregnancy, but she was not as thrilled to see him as he had hoped.
Before Val let him unpack his duffel bag she sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that if he ever again refused treatment or put himself in a position to lose control, she would leave him. They were going to be parents. She would not allow their child to suffer on account of his stubbornness.
Henry believed her. It hurt, but he knew he couldn’t fault her. He promised it would never come to that.
But, of course, it did.
Henry’s second fugue began just after his forty-first birthday.
He had an idea for a composition inspired by the music he’d heard on the George Washington Bridge twenty years before.
as he named it, was something he’d always wanted to create, but the choice to pursue it at that particular moment was as cynical as it was artistic. They needed money and there were a couple of composition grants he’d been chasing for years. What judge wouldn’t be taken in by the story of his musical hallucinations? It was a bit of a dirty trick, sure—people were intrigued by the mythology surrounding insanity, particularly when it came to artists. Henry’s history of institutionalization gave him an unmatched patina. He’d never wanted to exploit it before, but now he was middle-aged with a child to support. He told himself that his years of suffering had earned him the right to use his mental illness to his advantage.
required that Henry travel around the city and gather snippets of found noise to be parsed and layered and looped in his home studio. Val warned him to be careful. She’d long before made peace with who he was, his particular challenges, but her concern was not unfounded. Henry told her it would be a useful framework for a piece of music, nothing more. To prove his good intentions he took Annie along on his sound-gathering trips. He packed a splitter and an extra set of big studio headphones so they could both listen to the feed coming from his microphone. They walked hand in hand through Times Square and along the Brooklyn, George Washington, and Fifty-Ninth Street Bridges. He took her to Broadway and Spring on a Saturday afternoon when shopping was in full swing, then to the Brooklyn Promenade and Hudson River Park and the High Line. They rode the subways together, and the ferries, and even a red double-decker bus. They stood at the piers in Red Hook, in the sand at Brighton Beach. They marched down Canal Street.
Henry liked to picture how they looked to strangers. A grown man and an eleven-year-old girl holding hands and standing as still as possible while the rest of the world moved around them, the oversized headphones making their shadows look like Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
After a few minutes of listening, Henry would remove his headphones.
“What do you think?” he would say, and then he would watch her face scrunch with concentration. There was nothing practiced or affected about her expression. The bright little orbs of her cheeks lifted, turning her eyes into deep crescents. Her mouth dropped open, revealing awkward gaps between adult teeth that still looked too big to be hers. It took effort not to laugh or scoop her up and squeeze her, but he didn’t want to interrupt her. It would prevent him from hearing whatever incredible thing she was trying to figure out how to say.
“There’s that guy calling out about water bottles,” she said once. “He said the same words over and over and over and it sounded funny. Like they weren’t words anymore.”
Or, “The bus makes a
sound right after it stops to pick people up. I can’t hear anything else for a second and then? I can again.” She laughed.
After collecting, Henry got to work editing and mixing.
He isolated the screech of the 4 train as it traveled along the curved platform at Union Square. It reminded him of how the bridge had screamed. He mixed the rhythmic thumping of rush-hour traffic over the seams of the GW with the blast of the Circle Line ferry’
horn to evoke the driving foundation of the song he remembered. Then, to add depth, he recorded a low b-flat, played with a felt mallet on the marimba. He trimmed off the percussive inception of the tone and its gradual ebbing, which left only the solid resonance itself. When looped, it provided a mellifluous foothold for the mechanical ruckus of everything else.
It wasn’t exact—it never could be—but when Henry played everything together for the first time he felt a jagged twitch of that distant but familiar thrill. He was back on the bridge, running for his life, spittle flying up from his burning chest as he pounded out deep primordial chords with the soles of his feet. The feeling drove him to work harder, and he spent hours alone adding, shifting, modulating. He skipped dinner, he skipped sleep. When Val confronted him he barely even bothered to defend himself.
“This isn’t worth your sanity,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “But the money—”
“We’ll find the money,” she said. “But you need to stop.”
“I know,” he said. “I will,” he said. And he meant it. She hugged him and he held her. She told him she’d been scared, he told her he was sorry. They talked about how he might find more students, get more studio gigs.
But then, the next day, Val went to work and Annie went to school, and Henry could hear the music from the basement. It begged to be completed, pleaded with him to be set free. Perhaps he could have resisted, but he didn’t truly want to. So he worked throughout the day, then showered in time to pick up Annie from school and get dinner ready. He knew he was close to the edge. It was scary but empowering. He could do it, he knew—he was finally confident and mature enough to hunt down his monsters without fear of being overcome.
One day he dropped off Annie and got to work. No lunch, no water, no need for a bathroom break—he sat in his office chair and swiveled back and forth to the rhythm of the music. He tweaked the sound of ocean waves, added a light sprinkling of taxicab tickers, then sat back again to listen. He was so close. The feeling was there. All he had to do was refine it and give it shape. It needed a beginning. It needed an end. He listened again, and this time he heard a faint vibration that hadn’t been there before. He took off his headphones and the vibration resolved into a heavy pounding on the door upstairs, so hard that it shook the walls of the house and set framed photographs buzzing against the drywall.
Henry threw down the headphones, angry at being interrupted, and ambled up the steps, his legs sore from sitting.
“What?” he yelled. Another knock came in response. He opened the door.
“Mr. Edwards?” Henry saw in front of him a bulky man in a beige suit and shiny tie. One of the man’s hands was resting on Annie’s shoulder.
“Annie,” said Henry. “What are you doing here?” Then, to the man, “Is she okay?”
“It’s four thirty,” said the man. Henry remembered him now. A principal, associate principal, something like that. “She’s been waiting on the steps of the school for over an hour.”
“Four—what? Annie, come inside, okay?” He knelt to her level and held out his arms. In the moment before she ran into them he saw that her eyelids had ballooned out from tears. Her nose was red. She looked frightened and angry, embarrassed and sad—her face a collage of all the things Henry couldn’t bear to see her feel.
“Mr. Edwards, I’m obligated to—”
“Thank you,” said Henry. He stood up, lifting Annie, and closed the door. He could hear the man speaking outside, the words
intermingled with a meaningless murmur. “It’s okay,” Henry whispered into Annie’s ear. She was too big to hold, really—her sneakers reached all the way down to his knees—and Henry strained to walk while carrying her weight, but he didn’t want to let her go. She held on to his neck with animal urgency and cried as he crashed down onto the couch with her still attached.
Eventually her wounded silence lifted. “Where were you?” she said, over and over.
She pounded his chest with a tiny fist and he laughed as he said,
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry…”
She couldn’t help herself, she laughed too, though she did a fine job of keeping the corners of her mouth turned down.
They made dinner. Henry let her cut the vegetables for salad, had her stand on a chair with an apron on. They were singing together when Val walked in from work. Henry moved to greet her but stopped when he saw the look in her eyes.
“I got a phone call,” she said.
Henry started to speak, but she held up her hand.
They ate. Val didn’t ask the usual questions about everyone’s day. Annie jabbered on about her art project, a new boy in her class, a birthday party, her teacher, a cartoon she’d seen. Val and Henry directed all their attention to her.
And then Annie went to bed. What happened after that couldn’t properly be called a fight. It was too one-sided for that. Val said she’d had a feeling Henry was still working on
but she let it go because she knew he would do the right thing. But now he’d forgotten their daughter. He looked like shit. He was distant. He’d lied to her and she’d let him because—she couldn’t even remember why. But no more. She’d made him a promise before Annie was born, and now he was forcing her to keep it.
Henry said he could control it. That she needed only to trust him, to help him, to give him the room he needed. He tried to explain about the voices, the monsters, how he was finally going to tame them, but instead of reassuring her, his desperate sincerity scared Val into action. That Saturday, Val packed for herself and Annie. She told him she would be back in a week to help him if he decided to recover or to move some of his stuff out if he chose to continue driving himself into the ground. Then she marched Annie out the door, en route to her parents’ house.
Henry worked even harder then. He slept only when it was a physical inevitability. Food and hygiene were distractions he had no problem ignoring. Rather than shaking him loose of his obsession, the temporary loss of Annie and Val only added new urgency to his quest. Once
was complete he would clean himself up. He would do anything Val asked and they’d come back. But first he had to finish. It was his life’s work, the only thing that would heal him once and for all.