Authors: Mark Ferguson
On the fifth day, he addressed his empty house. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll be done soon.”
“Go for a walk,” said the house, and Henry didn’t think it strange. “Sometimes you need to get some distance. Good for perspective.”
Henry bit his lip and nodded thoughtfully. It was a good suggestion, he knew, but he ignored it. He was too busy. He didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but the house took offense and its encouraging tone was replaced with a bitterness edging closer and closer to violence. Soon it was yelling and Henry was yelling back until, exhausted and scared and wanting to placate his demanding new companion, he walked out the front door in his slippers.
It was daytime. Bright afternoon. Henry hadn’t realized.
The neighborhood was still, its denizens at work or school or shuttered behind closed doors watching talk shows or twenty-four-hour news channels. Henry’s slippers flopped softly on the sidewalk. Annie had given them to him for Father’s Day. They were backless and lined with some synthetic version of sheep’s wool. He hadn’t really wanted them at first, but then he put them on to please her and found that he liked them after all.
He was very tired. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now it seemed like the defining feature of his existence. He lifted a hand to rub his eye and got a strong waft of raw onion and dried mushroom. He was confused for an instant, unable to fathom that the stink was his own. It was like smelling salts for his psyche. In the light of the afternoon, his skin tickled by a warm breeze, he saw the truth of his situation with astonishing clarity. He was fucked up, and it was time to turn it around.
He kept walking.
Up ahead, the road crossed a nameless stream winding down from the Oradell Reservoir. It was little more than a ditch and a trickle, but the city had erected a fifteen-foot span of concrete to cross it. Henry moved toward it mournfully, each step strengthening his resolve. The bridge was a sad reminder of what he’d been chasing, what had made him willing to let go of the two people he loved most. He wanted to do the right thing, but he wondered if it wasn’t too late. There was no guarantee that Val would take him back. Annie might forgive him, but her trust, the thing he coveted most, had suffered irreparably. Still, his choice was clear. He would go to his old psychiatrist and therapist. If he had to he’d even go back to Lung-Ta to be deadened, chemically lobotomized, depressed and cajoled into normalcy.
He approached the bridge as if it were the physical embodiment of his fate. It wasn’t the source of some mystical power—it couldn’t transport him to another life. It was metal and paste. Ordinary just like him.
A vibration passed through his body. It tickled each of his teeth at their roots. He thought it was just exhaustion, but then it became audible and Henry shuddered. The sound was dull and deep, unlike anything he’d heard before—the cement of this structure offered none of the romantic harmonies that the GWB had played so many years ago, but the feeling that grew inside of him was the same. The bridge was singing, and the moment Henry’s foot landed on it he heard the sound he’d been hunting, that great merging of leaves and birds and cars and trees and the barking of dogs and a jet overhead.
It’s so easy
he thought, and he closed his eyes and let the world dissolve around him.
He awoke on cold cement. At first he took the lightly glowing sky for dusk, but quickly reconsidered. It was too quiet to be evening. Had he really slept on the sidewalk through the night? Had nobody noticed? His got up on his feet and assessed himself for damage. Finding none, he started back to the house. The music, the very experience he’d been chasing through his experimental composition, he had found it. Not a digitized simulation, but the real thing. And yet as he walked, Henry felt nothing close to vindication. He felt sad. It was noise, that was all, and the mystery was no more solved than it had been before. It was just a high. It didn’t change a thing.
He quickened his pace. The damp slippers made it difficult to walk fast, so Henry took them off and trotted on the rough sidewalk. He’d thought that finishing the piece would be a way to heal himself. In a way he was right, though the healing only came through understanding that the music itself was meaningless. It was simply his most persistent hallucination, no more or less real than any other.
Back home, he bounded to the door. The knob didn’t turn and Henry rolled his eyes, chastising himself for his own stupidity. He stepped around to the side of the house. A key was hidden underneath a ceramic frog that was a foot high and deep green, a selection of Annie’s that had helped ease her boredom the day she’d been forced to endure an hour in the garden section at the hardware store. The frog was at the back of a flower bed, leaning against the cement foundation of the house. Henry stepped gingerly onto the exposed soil, bent over, and paused when he heard a sound he recognized. Now that he was closer he could tell that one of the basement windows was glowing with a soft, shifting light. The glow came from his office. The sound was his
. The window was just a few feet away, half blocked by a healthy little bush of rosemary. Henry pushed the bush out of the way and peered inside.
In the chemical glow of the computer screen sat a man.
Henry froze. He didn’t need to open the door to his house and walk down the stairs, didn’t want to see his own face staring back at him. The whole idea was so repugnant that his lip curled and his nose trembled. He sprinted from the yard and onto the street, back toward the spot where he’d woken up. He hadn’t slept or eaten properly for days, and his body was far beyond its limits, but still he pressed on, holding tightly the spot between his ribs where a stitch like a burning stake throbbed and threatened to double him over. When the bridge came into view Henry felt nothing—no vibrations, no warm buzz—and the few sounds he could hear in the quiet dawn remained mundane and distinct. When he stepped onto the bridge’s surface the cement remained unmoved, not speaking or singing or even so much as whispering. Henry pounded with his feet. He lay down and slammed its surface with his open palms. He kicked and banged his head and his hands against the rough sidewalk until spots of blood seeped slowly from small abrasions, then lost the will to fight and succumbed to cramped sobs.
A car engine crescendoed as it approached, then went quiet. Henry heard a car door open and close, quiet shuffling footsteps.
“Let me help you up,” said a man.
“Leave me,” said Henry, his words nearly indistinguishable from his pathetic burbling. “Please.”
“Look at me,” said the man.
Henry rolled onto his back, resigned that this Samaritan wasn’t going to leave a crying man on the sidewalk. Using his already filthy T-shirt, Henry wiped sweat and tears and blood from his face. He breathed through his nose to calm himself, and opened his eyes.
“Thanks for stopping,” said Henry. “Really. I’m okay, though.”
look at me,
” the man repeated.
Henry, still flat on his back, took in the full image of the man above him and instantly understood. It felt like a memory—this vision of himself as an old man—and somehow he knew he’d long expected it.
He rolled onto his side and sobbed even harder than before.
“I don’t want to know,” he said. “I just want to go home. I want my girls.”
The old man moved closer and bent, slowly, to one knee. He placed a hand on Henry’s upper arm.
“If you come with me,” he whispered, “it will be all right.”
Henry didn’t believe it, but he was too broken to do anything but stand and be led to the car. He didn’t even ask where they were going. The man lowered himself into the driver’s seat back first, his hands white-knuckling the handle above the door as he swung his legs inside with a grunt.
“Call me 80,” he said. The old man looked almost as afraid as Henry felt, but he forced a smile to his gray lips before shaking his head and closing the door.
Henry turned from the man and closed his eyes, then rested his head against the window.
80 put the car into gear. “Let’s go.”
of October morning light pulsed through a window off to Gabe’s left. It seemed to be assaulting him from an impossible angle. He shielded his eyes with his hand and peered out through the gaps between his fingers. There was a window, just a couple feet away, wide and tall enough to give the impression that the room was spilling out into the air instead of the outside being allowed in. Past his feet he saw an unfamiliar dresser and a closed door. To his right was the sleeping body of Val. She was pressed to the wall next to her bed, her bare arm on top of the covers, the gray strap of her tank top caught in the crease of her neck. Gabe examined her. He wanted to touch the little round bone at the tip of her shoulder, to put his arm over her, but though he and Val had always been affectionate when she was with Henry, it now seemed impossible that he would ever touch her on purpose. He closed his eyes again and breathed deeply. The faint scent of her sweat registered in his nose and warmth oozed through his chest, as if his blood itself was trying to pound out through his skin just to reach her.
Gabe dozed. A sliver of the dream that had awoken him reappeared in his mind. He had been gasping for air, holding Henry tight as they tumbled down a raging river toward a black hole in the side of a great stone wall.
They were supposed to have talked about Henry. When Gabe considered what it would be like to visit Val, he imagined a tearful conversation over takeout. She was owed a deeper understanding of what had happened, he thought. He wanted to confess to her all the ways in which he’d failed Henry. Gabe wanted forgiveness, and there was no one else who could give it.
He showed up at her apartment to the smell of garlic and onions. Val offered him a fruity, over-carbonated malt beverage in a bottle.
She talked fast. “There’s this bodega on the corner—that’s just a store, I don’t know why I never heard that word before—right down the street, where even though they card all the time the one guy is totally obsessed with Kara, my roommate, so he never checks when I go in there, which is honestly kind of a letdown because I spent like two hundred bucks in the East Village on this amazing fake ID.”
“Huh,” said Gabe. He sipped his drink. It tasted like Jolly Ranchers dissolved in Mountain Dew.
Val talked about how different it was at NYU. Gabe told her how nothing had changed in New Brunswick. Val finished cooking the brown rice and chicken breast. She served it to Gabe on a real plate from an organized cabinet on a clean table in the cutely decorated corner of her small kitchen. He felt as though he’d come in from the wilderness. He unfolded the paper napkin she’d given him and placed it on his lap.
Val smirked. “Be honest,” she said, and Gabe’s heart beat faster. He had tried to prepare for difficult questions, but still he was afraid. “When was the last time you ate something that wasn’t frozen in a box from that horrible little quote-unquote grocery on campus?”
Gabe laughed. It was spontaneous and unforced. It felt clean. He lifted his bottle of alcoholic candy and waited for her to do the same. They clinked. “You disappoint me,” he said. “Their frozen burritos come individually wrapped in plastic bags.”
The food was good. Gabe was at ease. He hadn’t anticipated it, but Val’s apartment felt more private and peaceful than any place he’d found in New Brunswick. He was still expecting his body to be thrown into disarray once their conversation turned to Henry, but they acted as though the phone call that brought them back together had never happened.
After dinner they cleaned up, and Gabe imagined Henry watching as they did the dishes, wondered whether they would act differently if he were there. Gabe hugged Val and thanked her for dinner, and in his mind’s eye he saw the way Henry’s hands used to rest on the small of her back when they kissed. They turned on a movie, and Gabe had to remind himself that it was now and not then, that Henry was gone. Even the earrings Val wore conjured him. They were a high school graduation gift. Henry had dragged Gabe to the mall two weekends in a row to help pick them out.
It was late when the movie ended. Gabe wasn’t shocked when she told him that he could stay over. It didn’t matter that the couch was too small and that the only place for him to stay was in her bed. The boundary between them was still firmly in place. It was safe. Gabe borrowed some oversized sweatpants and changed in the bathroom. When he came back out he saw that Val had put on loose, low-rise pajama bottoms and a tank top. Henry was in the room again, giving Gabe a look of warning, telling him not to gaze at her braless chest or the little hollows above her clavicle.
Gabe got in her bed and was glad when she turned off the lights and climbed in next to him. They traded memories and laughed quietly to each other. In the dark, Gabe could focus on her voice. He could almost forget how the thin cotton of her clothing draped over her body.
The morning sun wasn’t so merciful. It lit up her skin as if from the inside, cast shadows in beautiful places. The previous twelve hours had changed something, he knew. For five years he’d made himself forget what Val made him feel. Now, in a single night, all that work was rendered moot. He turned onto his side to face her back, then cradled his hands in front of his chest. He moved his right hand forward until the back of his fingers rested on the soft gray fabric between her shoulder blades.
He pulled back, chastened himself silently, then got out of bed with as little motion as he could. He changed back into his clothes and tiptoed out to the living room, where he grabbed a crisp copy of
Franny and Zooey
from the bookshelf and sat down on the couch. He couldn’t muster the focus required to actually read, so he rested his eyes on the book’s open pages and listened to the city. It was quieter than he expected.
Val came out half an hour later. Gabe watched her stretch in her doorway—arms reached up to the doorframe, face contorted, a long stale sigh. Her tank top slid over her breasts as it rose up on her shoulders, and a thin band of soft white belly revealed itself for just a moment before disappearing as she lowered her arms.
“Hey,” she said. “You sleep all right?”
“Slept great,” he said. His desire was forceful and insistent. He wondered how he had ever been able to speak to her without parsing each word.
She walked to the bathroom. Gabe stood up and gathered his things. He could hear her brushing her teeth. The water ran in the sink, the toilet flushed. He found his socks and hopped them on while still standing, then kicked his feet into his shoes.
Val came out of the bathroom, her hair bundled in an alligator clip. She looked even better than before.
“I gotta get back,” he said. “Work tonight.”
She squinted, questioning, then softened her face and said, brightly, “Well, thanks for coming.”
“Thanks for having me.”
They hugged. She gripped him tighter than he had expected, and he reciprocated. Underneath his fingertips the skin of her back rolled over her vertebrae. His lips were so close to her neck, and the tang of her sleep-washed skin urged him to bury his face deeper. The moment she showed signs of letting go, he released his grip entirely and stepped past her to the door.
“Talk soon?” she said.
Gabe nodded as he went through the doorway and out into the hall.
It took him three attempts to buy the right ticket to get back to New Brunswick. He could see the words on the touch screen vending machine but couldn’t retain their meaning for long enough to follow the process from beginning to end. The first time he pressed Start Over, a man in a Giants jersey sucked his teeth. The second time, Gabe heard a plaintive “Come on now.”
Ticket in hand, he went to the long corridor that served as a waiting area. He sat on the ground, back against a pillar, and watched the departures board. In front of him a glass wall protected a bizarre diorama of famous New Jersey locales. Miniature floats hung from an elliptical track in the ceiling that turned as if on perpetual parade: three women holding a giant piece of saltwater taffy above their heads, carousel horses, a dirigible, a cadre of revolutionary soldiers standing atop a freighter, an old courthouse. Gabe had been in and out of the city a handful of times since he started at Rutgers, and he wondered how it was possible that he’d never noticed it before. It looked like a papier-mâché hell-scape, fascinating only insomuch as it was grotesque. He wondered who had commissioned it and how long it had been intended to last. Even kids would find it stupid or scary or both, and yet there it was, the only attempt at making Jersey look special in all of New York City.
Its aesthetic qualities aside, it was a welcome distraction. Val had been Gabe’s last hope for maintaining some normalcy. He’d expected to leave her place feeling clearheaded, but now that hope had sweetly been destroyed. He slept with her, and even though it was just sleep, the euphemistic significance of the phrase tingled through him.
The pillar on which he leaned was in the middle of a wide hallway with platform entrances on either side. Reflected in the glass that protected the mobile were all the people around him. He wondered whose problems were bigger than his, whose were smaller. Some walked left. Some walked right. He tracked these strangers in both directions until his attention was snagged by a skinny bearded man with a black backpack. His face was mostly hidden by a swoop of long hair, but Gabe recognized the man’s gait. Suddenly his breath felt thin. He sat up to get a better look, but the bearded stranger turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
Gabe wanted to stand up and follow the man, but instead he closed his eyes, sank back down, and rested his head against the pillar.
It wasn’t him,
he told himself.
It wasn’t him wasn’t him wasn’t him.
Eyes closed, he breathed until his heart slowed. A voice came over the loudspeaker to announce that his train was boarding.
Gabe snagged a three-person bench in the middle of a mostly abandoned car and threw his shoulder bag onto the seat closest to the aisle, staking his claim. Once the train was speeding through the tunnel under the Hudson, he leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.
Some time later he awoke to the sound of a man’s voice. He assumed it wasn’t directed at him, and he tried to drift back off into sleep, but then he heard it again.
“Hey. Wake up,” said the voice. It was close. “Can you move your bag so I can sit down, please?”
Gabe wanted to pretend to still be sleeping, but he’d never been good at that sort of thing. He was resentful but not brave enough to show it. He opened his eyes just enough to get a sense of how far away his bag was, then tucked it under his arm and gathered the long strap in his fist. He leaned against the window again and felt the bench shift.
“Thanks. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
Gabe responded with a half nod.
“I was hoping we could talk.”
Gabe looked toward the voice, preparing himself to say something brisk and dismissive, anything to get this lonely loser to leave him alone. But the sight of the man’s face arrested his senses. He was smiling again; this time Gabe was close enough to tell for sure. He hadn’t changed his clothing since the last time Gabe had seen him, when he was flying in slow motion over Route Eighteen.
“What the fuck?” Gabe’s mouth formed the phrase almost involuntarily.
“I’m sorry,” said the man.
“Are you following me?”
Gabe had expected the stranger to say no, had already done the instantaneous mental prep work required for the conversation that would follow a denial. Now he was left speechless. Looking into the man’s eyes, this close up, Gabe was struck with a vertiginous déjà vu.
“I know you,” said Gabe.
“How do I know you?”
“You chased me the other day,” he said. “I’m sure you remember it.”
“I know you, too,” said the man. He was still smiling, but now it was toothy, specks of white shining out from the overhang of his bushy mustache.
“You’re crazy,” said Gabe.
“Leave me alone.”
“Tell me what you saw on the bridge.”
Gabe looked out the window. The train was soaring on elevated tracks out over the Meadowlands. Ahead was a huge tangle of highways. It would be a while before they reached another station, and he considered his options. He’d been followed all the way to New York, then watched when he went to Val’s, then followed back to the train station and onto this train. Whoever this man was, he had worked very hard to have this conversation. There was certainly something scary about that, but it was intriguing, too.
“You knew I would chase you,” said Gabe. “You wanted me to.”
“Probably? You were stretching. Why didn’t you just do your little dance right then? Why make me run after you for a mile?”
“That’s just the way it happened,” said the man. “What did you see?”
Gabe had no reason to trust in the man’s intentions, but, inexplicably, he didn’t feel afraid. “When we got to the top of that staircase you started dancing.” He sat up straight and glanced around the car, gauging how quietly he should talk so as not to be heard. “It was like everything…came together.”
The man nodded, his eyes and mouth crinkled with bemused expectation.
“It was like…everything around me was choreographed. On purpose. Like some crazy musical number in a movie.” Gabe knew he wasn’t getting it right.
“I hate that,” said the man. “Why does everything have to be like a movie? Try harder.”
“I don’t know. Jesus. You were there,” said Gabe. “You obviously know more about it than I do. What does it matter?”
The man turned his body in the seat and fixed his eyes on Gabe. When he spoke it was fast, without hesitation, and almost monotone. “The entire world condensed into a tiny space that was simultaneously infinite and finite, eternal and momentary. All the elements of the universe pushed so close together that in order to squeeze through your mind they had to lock in to one another and finally merge.”