THE SKY MANIFEST
NATHAN PULLED THE CAR onto the narrow shoulder. He drew from beneath his seat a spiralbound notebook, plucked a pencil from the steel coil. Every few seconds the wipers swept across the windscreen, cleansing away a spatter of rain. He wrote quickly, trying to capture the scene before it transformed, as it always did, as it already had.
Plump cloud cruising westward across chinablue sky, churned from the ruffled face of the Atlantic, summoned by the howl of an autumnal gale. In the east, fixed between sky and earth, a curtain of rain and sleet turning the distance to jelly. Clouds the colour of bleached denim, fissured with light. In the northwest a sunbeam has punched through, a searchlight trolling the landscape beside the road, slicing across a paddock, powering the grass an electric green. Two horses near the fence. Nuzzling in the sunshine.
Imagining Lisa’s eyes drifting across those words, Nathan felt lightheaded and almost weightless. Momentary lucid connection. He brought the chewed pencil-end to his mouth and listened to the rain, watched the scene blur before the wipers sawed past, restoring the view. A tanker roared by, shook the car, retreated into the distance, its wheels skirted with spray. He rested his fingertips on the base of the steeringwheel and closed his eyes. The pain almost obscure through this padded hush, like thunder beyond the horizon. But a car horn sliced through the quiet and he seized the handle, rammed through the door, stumbled onto the road, fist aloft, shouting curses at the escaping taillights. The car slowed and he felt a gush of adrenaline behind his breastbone, felt the need to twist and smash, wanting that sensation of ribs collapsing beneath the concussion of his fists. A hand emerged through the window, finger extended, and then the car accelerated beyond a rise, leaving Nathan within a quilt of silence pleated by the patter of rain and the periodic sweep of the wipers.
He looked at the horses, sun gone, rain falling harder. The larger of the two, a sorrel stallion with a broad chest and ivory pall, seemed to nod at him, and the mare pressed her cheek to the stallion’s throat and nickered.
He slid into the car and lifted the notebook, leaned across the gearshift with an elbow on the passenger seat to better study the sky, and the rain surged, a frothing deluge against the windshield. He tossed the notebook onto the heap of foam cups and muffinbags on the floor and sat up, pondering the cascade on the glass, the view momentarily reopened by the swab of the wipers. Clarity every seven seconds. Twin diamonds approached, hard and bright, scooted past, a van’s wheels hurling a gout of rainwater against the car’s door. The sky dimmed. Night falling earlier every day.
Nathan saw his own sad eyes in the rearview mirror. Recalled a woman in a Yarmouth roadhouse, a slurring, halfdrunk nymph with butterscotch hair. You know, she’d said, You’re a bit like an animal you find bleeding on the roadside. You stop to help, but it snarls and tries to chew your fucking hand off. She cackled, and Nathan turned to study her, his cheek pressed to his fist, and she averted her gaze, let it fall to the bulge of his bicep, which flexed involuntarily, as if awakened by her attention. He excused himself to use the washroom and slipped away into the stormy evening, letting the chill rain drench him.
Nathan’s body, which in his teens and twenties was doughy and pale, had transformed. He’d developed limbs like twisted wire, his frame defined by flat, taut muscles built and driven by relentless exercise, the jerk and pump of freeweights and the Nautilus. He didn’t know what had pigmented his skin, age or sorrow or fury, but he now appeared mildly tanned, at times almost sunburned, face flushed, the backs of his hands brown and sprung with coarse tendons, knuckles scabbed from a punch he’d thrown into a man’s teeth on the sidewalk outside the Split Crow pub in Halifax three days before. He touched the welt on his ear where the man’s wife had bit him. She had pounced on Nathan’s back and chomped down there as he’d wound to strike again. He’d been defending her from her husband’s assault.
He clicked the wipers to fast mode and stepped on the clutch, rocked the stick into first. The clouds were rushing dusk down and he needed a place to sleep, but first something to eat, a diner-motel combo would be best, eat and then crash into bed. He accelerated along the slick pavement.
An oncoming truck flashed headlights and he switched on his own, punched and punched the radio seek button, caught the tail of the CBC news. Weather next, a cold front tearing through, ploughing away cloud, polishing the sky to opaque azure, so familiar he could almost write tomorrow’s entry now: blue blue blue, cooling to hazy aquamarine against the horizon, bleached by pale aerosols. He’d read somewhere that pre-industrial skies curved in unfettered blue from rim to rim. If we saw that today we’d sense something was amiss and panic. Our familiar poisons.
Nothing but forest and gas station towns here, the car’s broken antenna an impotent stub, so he hopped along an archipelago of CBC transmitters, stations snuffed by the horizon, leaving him in barren troughs of reception, the digital display careening through the FM band, bottom to top, pausing before repeating the trek at 87.5 megahertz. He tuned to the AM band, found it bloated with signals, cranky parades of 50s and 60s tunes, the hoarse shout of a football commentator, and there, crystal clear among the abrasive frequencies, the cool twang of a preacher somewhere in the midwestern U.S.
. . . keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Twenty-five: Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. Twenty-six: For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.
Nathan stabbed the power button and tried to unravel the relationship between bread and whorish women.
A car on the roadside, hood open. He slowed, saw a figure huddled in the cabin, drew onto the shoulder ahead of the vehicle. Stepped into the rain and walked to the driver’s door, tapped the window which cranked open a few inches, a young woman in a handknit toque peering through the gap.
You need help? Nathan asked.
Are you CAA?
I was just driving by and thought you might need help.
I already called CAA. They said they’re backed up some but should be here shortly.
Nathan heard a voice from the backseat and peered past the woman to see two boys, one about five, the other two or three, both strapped into boosters, watching him. Nathan felt a sting of grief, had to swallow before he could say, Hey there, boys.
I appreciate your kindness, the woman said. But CAA will be here any minute.
Pretty dark and lonely out here, Nathan replied. You alone and just your little ones.
He saw the immediate panic his words struck in her, was searching for a phrase and tone to reassure her when she cranked the window shut. He heard the thunk of the powerlocks. He spread his hands in a helpless shrug, but she turned away, stared straight through the windshield. Nathan stepped backwards onto the blacktop, looked up and down the deserted highway, then called loudly, Listen. I’m going to get into my car and just sit there. Wait for the tow truck. Okay? She ignored him and he strode to his car, stepped in, shut the door. Gripped the steeringwheel, rainwater trickling onto his neck. Hating that his presence was terrifying the woman and her children, but unable to drive away, to leave them unprotected in this dark night. Wanting to help. Not helping. He bent until his forehead rested against the steeringwheel. Clenching his eyes shut. Listening to the rain pounding the car.
A hard rap on his window. A man in his twenties, wearing a Canadian Automobile Association jersey, smoking. Nathan rolled down the window.
You want to move your fucken car, bud? Can’t get the truck in place to hook er up.
Nathan glanced back and saw a white towtruck idling on the highway beside the disabled car.
Did you – does anyone need help? Nathan asked.
It’s all under control, bud. You can screw off now.
A wave of anger swept over Nathan. In a flash he’d calculated the next moments of action: launch open his door, catching the man in the knee, and while he was staggering back Nathan would be out of the car, swinging a fist into the man’s face . . .
All right, Nathan replied, crushing the steeringwheel in both hands to prevent them from acting. Though I believe I’ll stick around until they’re safely on their way.
The driver put a hand on the roof of Nathan’s car and bent to eyelevel. He shot smoke from his nostrils and said, Bud, she says you’re freakin her out. Best to screw off now and leave her be. Bud. Hey bud, you listenin? My next call is 911.
Nathan looked straight ahead into the night, felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead. He could put this guy down in seconds. Assessing the situation. She’d made a call to the CAA. There’d be a record of the dispatch. The greatest risk for her was being ripped off by the garage to which the car would be towed. And then, without taking his eyes off the road, he started the engine, revved it hard, and peeled away, spraying the grille of the disabled car with gravel. He fought to bring his car under control on the slick pavement, then shot away at high speed.
He drove too fast, raindrops slamming into the windshield, the grip of the old tires tenuous in every curve, oncoming headlights flying at him with alarming speed, and still he kept on, converting rage into fear, wanting, begging for the ecstasy of destruction, until at last the car entered a sharp bend with too much speed, quartering away from true and drifting. Nathan steered into the skid, swearing as the car slewed, pressing the brake lightly, and the car still moving without regard to the tires’ orientation. He cranked the wheel, overcorrecting and skidding onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane, ballast pelting the undercarriage, steep drop to a gutter along the treeline and the car raking the edge and somehow remaining atop the berm, spurring avalanches of gravel.
A transport truck was oncoming, the tail of Nathan’s car in its path, and he heard the truck’s horn as it came on, aligned to smash the car’s rear quarterpanel and send Nathan spinning off the embankment into the forest, until the driver at the last instant hauled the truck to the left and as the tractor came abreast the car it veered out far enough that the truck’s front bumper clipped Nathan’s rear bumper so narrowly it was a collision of nothing but paint. Then the truck roared past, driver fighting to bring the vehicle and trailer safely into the bend through which Nathan himself had blundered, Nathan craning about in his seat to watch even as his own vehicle was grating to a halt, watching the strings of orange lights toppling slowly towards the bend’s apex, Nathan holding his breath, bending his body against the tilt. There was a moment at which the tipover seemed inevitable but the driver in a display of skill pivoted the tractor in such a way that it rocked the trailer back onto its wheels, a shudder running through its frame, and then it rolled on, assuming the lane.
A sudden quiet in the car. Nathan opened the door and stepped into the rain, watched the truck slowing as it worked through the bend. He went around to the rear of his car, bent to look but saw nothing in the dark, ran a fingertip along the bumper where it wrapped the fender and felt a shallow abrasion in the finish. Panting, realizing how close it had been. He straightened, noticed that the rig had stopped, heard the throb of its engine. The cab door opened and a dark figure climbed onto the blacktop. Nathan raised a hand to signal that he was okay.
Hey! came a shout across the distance. The figure began to walk his way. Hey, fucker!
Nathan squared himself and balled his fists, took a step towards the approaching figure before he recognized how his yen for combat would aggrieve Lisa. He wanted to fight, wanted desperately to throw punches, to take blows, to settle the apparent indignity he’d dealt to this truck driver. But giving in to an impulse had delivered him here, to the dark curve on this rainslicked road. He’d pledged to resist. He blamed the adrenaline coursing through his body from the near-collision. That he was responding only to chemicals made his rage easier to resist, to disarm.
But to avoid this fight he had to act. His opponent closing the distance. Nathan, hearing the fast knock of the driver’s boots on the blacktop, exhaled and bolted around to his door, threw himself into the seat. The engine had stalled, he tried to start it but neglected to push the clutch, the engine croaked and the car surged forward and died. As he saw the figure approaching at a run he jammed the clutch to the floor and twisted the key, starter cackling and the engine at last stirring. But it failed to start, flooded, and he stomped the gaspedal to the floor and cranked until at last the engine exploded to life. He moved the gearshift, unable to find first gear and at last struck home, gave too much gas as he popped the clutch, rear wheels churning in the gravel, a dark shape in the sideview obscuring view of the stopped rig, and then he was away, again screeching and yawing down the highway until he was able to regain control, the array of truck lights receding in his mirrors.
He let up, drove reasonably now, hoping the driver was not so inspired by revenge that he would bring his rig about and make pursuit.
Wiping his soaked brow, panting. He slammed the heel of his hand into the steeringwheel.
He had no consciousness of driving the next fifty kilometres, his mind busy replaying the events that had almost led to two fights and a crash. It had started, as usual, with his attempt to help. If he wasn’t meant to help, what was he for? Tried to remember his life before the philanthropic impulse had overcome him. He’d been carefree and cavalier once. It was a long time ago.
The rain streaking the windshield and the lustre of oncoming headlights on the wet road made Nathan’s eyes throb. But he had no choice but to push on, rubbing his fatigued eyes, struggling to remain alert.
At last a light appeared above the treetops, filling the sky as if from a stadium or a city, but as he closed he found it was nothing more than a strip motel and a diner fronted by high windows. He was grateful for it, pulled onto the gravel of the lot and shut off the engine.
He listened to the rain against the roof and felt instantly refreshed. Tempted to try another hundred kilometres. Almost forgetting he had nowhere to be. He opened the door and stepped into night.
Cold drops pelted him as he strode to the diner’s door, pulled it open. No one inside, but music on a radio behind the counter, big band, a compliment to the diner itself, a relic from the 40s or 50s. Pitted chrome, split vinyl in burgundy hues, peeling veneer. He sat at the counter and called, Hello?
A woman of thirty in a stained apron entered and without asking turned over his cup and filled it with coffee. She had a hard, bony look, slate-grey eyes, cheeks hollow, a scar under her lip. Hair the colour of dandelions. She pushed out her bottom lip like she’d practised it in the mirror. He looked at the coffee, saw in it a greasy rainbow.
You got anything fresher? he asked.
She turned and dumped the carafe into the sink, poured fresh grounds into a filter, started the machine.
Be a few minutes, she said. You hungry?
I’d look at a menu.
He ran his thumbnail down the typed card.
How’s the omelette? he asked.
It’s fine. But it’s breakfast.
This says allday breakfast.
It’s night. And I don’t do omelettes. How about a burger.
I kinda want an omelette.
Special burger. I’ll lay a fried egg on top.
You’ll lay an egg? he asked without smiling.
On top. Fries too?
He thumbed through a local newspaper while she cooked the burger. The tang of hot fat stirred his appetite. He discovered from the paper’s masthead that he was near Cumberland Bay, New Brunswick.
A story about a baby drowned by its stepfather caught his eye. The account nauseated him, summoned a raw fury of helplessness, forced him into that scene as witness, desperate to throw the villain aside and pull from the bathwater that struggling infant. He came out of this fugue with a gasp, the paper’s margins crushed in his fists, pivoted on the stool and looked into the dark of the lot, panting, watching the rain.
Goddamn pissing down again, the waitress grunted, and Nathan twisted, regarded her, and she stuck out that lip again and turned away, squatted at a cabinet and rummaged inside. He saw his own expression in the mirror behind the counter, forced himself to soften it. He glanced down, studied the burger. The yellow eye of a sunnyside-up egg stared back. He blinded it with condiments, crushed the bun down with enough force to rupture the cornea. He picked it up and shook yolk onto the plate before taking a bite. He was hungry and ate fast. Pushed his plate away with his thumb and stood, unsteady with fatigue.
What time you open for breakfast?
Somebody be here to make me an omelette?
He paid and went outside and stood beneath the overhang and watched rain falling like meteors through the sphere of vapour cast by the lone lightpole.
His navyblue Toyota Supra hunched before him, gleaming, sporty and mean, the scars of twenty years on the road obscured by darkness: skin bubbled and peeling, bones salt-rotted and rusting, suspension soft and palsied. Lately when he stepped off the clutch he would grind his molars in sympathy with the slipping clutchplates. The only exception to these debilities was her engine, which had been tuned and modified by its previous owner to a state of scarcely constrained fury.
This car a distant relative of the vehicle it had replaced, a pearl-grey Toyota Prius. Inverted, roof crushed, nose punched in, and the cabin blighted with pellets of safetyglass. Bladders of spent airbags strewn about like jellyfish.
Before he confronted the victims in that destroyed vehicle he jerked up his collar and stepped into the rain, opened the trunk. Among empty oiljugs and a set of dumbbells lay his old suitcase. He lugged it to the office door, stepped into the panelled interior. No one at the desk, but a cigarette idled in a dish beside the telephone, a cylinder of ash sagging from its tip and smoke unravelling towards the ceiling. He cleared his throat, waited a few moments and noticed a button on the counter, pushed it, and a doorbell rang in the back. A girl came in, she looked about twenty. Nathan blinked. High, polished cheekbones, honeycoloured hair bound in a ponytail, eyes like blue candy. Nathan was immediately vexed by her beauty, the obligation it inflicted when it colluded with his singleness.
Hello, she said, barely glancing at him as she drew a card from beneath the counter and put it on the desk along with a ballpoint pen. Just the night?
He lifted the pen and filled the card, used the Toronto address where someone else now lived.
And your fortune? she asked.
Your fortune. She threw a thumb over her shoulder at a sign on the wall, silver script against midnight blue: Psychic Fortunes Foretold. $5.
Who does the fortunes?
How do you qualify to tell fortunes? You go to school for that?
It’s a gift, she replied, clicking the pen with agitation.
What kind of things will you tell me?
Where you been.
I already know where I’ve been.
Where you’re going.
You can see all that?
What if I don’t want you to know about me?
Too late, she said, smiling. I knew when you walked in the door.
Really. You didn’t even know I was here until I pressed the bell.
Her gaze faltered.
Sure I’ll take that fortune, he said quickly. Please.
He sat on the edge of the bed and untied his shoes, kicked them off. Went to his bag and withdrew the book he was reading, a fat paperback, sat again and opened to a dogeared page, read until But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. That dizzy torque of language, stirring the impulse to douse himself in words, in sentences. Turning away, shutting that book, trying to steady his mind, to reconstitute himself in the now. He set it on the sidetable and lay back, fingers laced behind his head, eying the room. Bland walls, freshly painted. Two framed prints, paintings, trees rising above a mosaic of fallen leaves. He sat up, surprised that these were German forests, painted by Gustav Klimt. Birkenwald, Tannenwald. Tranquil scenes, treetrunks retreating into the depth of the canvas. The kind of place he sought. Except something distressing in the paintings’ titles. One was the name of a Nazi deathcamp, the thought of which raised in him again that terrible helplessness of inaction.
After charging his creditcard she’d taken his right hand across the counter, traced the creases with a fingertip, her head lowered. Studying his life. He’d felt an abrupt panic, wanted her to stop. He closed his palm but she pried it open, gave him an admonishing look. He watched the top of her head, golden hair drawn into an elastic.
Is it . . . no, she muttered. Oh. Oh no, but why would you . . . ?
What do you see?
She didn’t look up, muttered almost inaudibly, Oh, oh I get it. It was all about . . . But then why didn’t you . . . when you could’ve . . .
Nathan saw stars and pinwheels shuttle across his vision, felt the floor pitch, forcing him to grip the counter’s edge with his free hand.
. . . because you should’ve . . . because you didn’t . . .
Do you want to come to my room? he barked.
When she raised her eyes they were brimming with tears.
What would your wife say?
My wife. My wife is dead.
I know. What would she say?
He retrieved his hand, drew a five from his billfold and flattened it on the counter.
It’s five sixty-five, she said, scooping tears from her eyesockets with a fingertip.
I thought it was five.
You know, she replied, sniffling. Tax.
He pressed his head deep into the pillow and looked at the ceiling. After a moment sat up, realizing that a dark stain above the bed roughly the shape of Australia was wetness, and a legion of waterbeads was amassing along the southwestern coast. One broke free and fell, striking him on his cheek below the eye, a cold tear. He pawed it away and rolled off the bed and stood, looking up, listening to rain hammer the roof. Got down and rammed his shoulder into the bed, shoving it to the front of the room.
He awoke once in panic at a sound he thought was the door’s lock, but after a moment recognized it as the plick of waterdrops onto the carpet. He was fearful not of thieves or murderers but the fortuneteller, using her passkey to enter the room, slipping naked into the bed, accepting his offer. The warm delight of her skin, of human touch, what he longed for but could not accept. Must not accept. He gathered the pillows against him, clutched them in his arms.
A band of sunlight on his cheek, warming it. He looked into the room’s centre and saw a swampy pool on the dun carpet between divots from the bed’s feet. A pillow crushed in his embrace. He let it go, rolled onto his back and reached up, pulled the blind’s drawstring, took it hand over hand until sunlight bathed the bed. He threw back the blankets and lay nude in the warmth. Dozed, awoke when a shadow passed across him. He sat up and looked out, but there was no one.
He showered and dressed and stood in the room’s doorway, assessing the day. Much colder, even with the sun on him, the sky a crystal of unmarred blue. High up a checkmark formation of Canada geese, their honking like the stridor of a distant traffic jam. Leaf smell, the spice of decay. Cars and pickups were clustered around the restaurant, two tractortrailers parked along the highway’s shoulder. He stepped onto the mottled gravel, each stone shining pale and grey, the shaded side still wet. He put the suitcase in the trunk, went on to the restaurant.
He entered a babbling din and the reek of frying bacon, burned toast, cigarettes, body odour, lurid perfume, coffee. Scanned the room for an empty table and spotted alone by the window the fortuneteller working the newspaper crossword, shrouded in the vapour of her cigarette. An empty seat across from her but Nathan turned away, watched the backs at the counter, saw a man in an oilskin coat settling his bill. Nathan moved behind him to claim the seat. As the man rose he ripped a percussive fart, turned his head and threw Nathan a grin, then lumbered out. Nathan sat.
A pudgy boy with a mop of red hair stalked behind the counter, banging down plates, refilling coffeecups, collecting dishes. An Asian man laboured among clacking crockery in the kitchen, smashing with his palm a bellhop’s bell as each meal slid beneath the heatlamps, whacking the instrument into a stuttering peal if a plate languished more than a few seconds. A plump and harried waitress with a broad vocabulary of sighs dashed about and bellowed reproaches at the cook’s impatience.
The boy cleared the dirty dishes and set down a coffeecup and filled it. Nathan ordered an omelette. He gazed down the row of diners, seven men, men who worked outdoors or with heavy machinery or both. Nathan watched a chorusline of heads nodding above breakfast plates, saw a fork punch through a stack of thick pancakes smothered with butter and syrup; a chunk of toast used to mop the last yellow sap of a fried egg; a toothpick adorned with a spray of blue cellophane drawn from a Western, the sandwich crushed between stout fingers, lifted to a bearded maw.
The man on his right bowed his considerable torso over his plate as if protecting it from rain, and gripped his fork in his fist as a child does, scooped eggs into his mouth. His hands were rimed with engine grease.
On Nathan’s left a slight fellow with sparse hair on a shiny scalp was reading the Globe and Mail. The waiter served him a saucer of coins and a breathmint and the man muttered his thanks, scooped up his change, left. Nathan leafed through to the sports section, saw that the Leafs had shut out the Sens 6–0.
His omelette arrived – the yellow crescent oozed orange cheese when he broke it with his fork. He ate it, the toast, the bacon, left the homefries for last. As he was salting them someone took the vacant seat. When Nathan looked he saw the fortuneteller watching him.
I’m sorry about last night, she said.
I beg your pardon?
Nathan squeezed ketchup onto the fries. Which part are you apologizing about?
He looked at her, swirling a homefry in ketchup.
I’m sorry I reminded you of something painful.
It’s not like a day goes by I forget. I’ll take the cheque, he told the waiter. He ate the fries quickly, eyes fixed on his plate, could feel her gaze on him.
There’s something else.
He regarded her, said, What’s that.
I don’t know what you need.
Oh. I thought you could see it all.
But you don’t either, she replied as if she hadn’t heard.
He opened his mouth to answer, closed it.
And that makes you dangerous, she continued.
He waited for more, but she pressed her lips together and looked away.
Well, he said, finding his voice. That’s not psychic. It’s psychiatric. And you need more than a handlettered sign on the wall to be practicing that.
I wanted to warn you, she said without looking at him.
He was going to snap back at that, but saw that the man on the stool next to her was eavesdropping. Nathan downed the rest of his coffee. The bill came and he paid it.
I have to go.
Oh, your powers. What do I owe for that bit of shrewd clairvoyance?
Goodbye, she said, and before he could stand she did, then left through the door to the kitchen while Nathan sat wincing at his own asperity.
He sped northwest through the brilliant day along a four-lane highway. The spectrum of fall pigments. He’d intended to drop in on his brother Rex, professor of English literature at the University of New Brunswick, but just ahead of the Fredericton exit Nathan threw the car into third to pass a semi, gnashing the gears while tormenting the engine into a plaintive wail and flinging the tach into the red. The car shuddered and decelerated and the offramp shot by on the truck’s far side. He missed the subsequent exit while fiddling with the radio, and the third was closed for construction. As Fredericton dwindled behind him and he hurtled towards the Quebec border Nathan succumbed to a feeling of powerlessness. Rex’s gruff voice, fading. Nathan would have to phone and explain. Not while driving, of course, but at the next convenient stop. Criticism delayed then, and filtered through the gauze of distance.
He gassed up after Edmunston, pissed, bought a shrinkwrapped tuna sandwich, a jug of lemonade, a box of Smarties, gorging himself like a bird before a seacrossing. He knew just enough French for it to be useless in Quebec and intended to cross the province in one mighty leap. The car could do almost seven hundred kilometres on a full tank, if he kept the speed down and constant, stayed in fifth. With a tailwind.
He was halfway across when he realized he’d forgotten to call Rex. Opened his phone and keyed in a good part of the number before he snapped it shut and tossed it into the seat beside him. The first risk was that Rex’s wife Hester might answer. Last time Nathan had called she’d buttonholed him, demanding to know when he intended to move on with his life, put his dead family behind him and find a new mate. Her word. Like he was a zoo animal, caged for the purpose of procreation. Rex wasn’t much better. There could come from his brother only criticism, no comfort. So like their father, that frank tyrant who insisted that people – especially his sons – were all of a particular hue, and for them to behave outside that character – for example, to try to be generous if you were at heart greedy – could lead only to woe. Be who you are, he always said. Nathan had been many things in his life, and each had brought its own joy and misery.
He drove relentlessly eastward, past French signs, the motels advertising free XXX movies, the towns a procession of saints along the highway: Saint-Octave-de-Métis, Saint-Eugène-de-Ladrière, Saint-Paul-de-la-Croix. The Toyota’s engine grumbling beneath the hood. His greatest fear was breakdown, suffering the injustice of a mechanic’s cultural resentment. If the engine persevered, nothing could stop him.
He was wrong. Near Quebec City a plume of chalky cloud rose into the noonday sky, and somewhere above ten thousand metres the slicing torch of the west wind struck it, forcing a great curling plate of vapour towards the Atlantic. He drove with his head lowered to evade the strip of cobalt tinting along the top of the windshield. He spied red lights at the perimeter of his eyesight, had to jam the brake to avoid striking the car ahead, which had slowed to allow a fueltanker entrance to the highway. He pulled his notebook from the floor of the passenger seat and sequenced his attention between it, the sky, and the traffic, paging to a fresh leaf. He grasped the nub of the pencil’s eraser to draw it out, pressed the notebook to the steeringwheel’s hub.
It was as far as he got before the car before him braked hard. Nathan dropped the notebook, drove his foot into the brakepedal. The wheels locked and the car twisted nauseatingly away from true, the hood’s corner driving towards the tailgate ahead like an axe towards a block. He threw his head into the headrest, bracing for impact.
The car stopped. A cloud of smoke continued on the car’s abandoned vector, struck the Volvo ahead like some presage of what could have been, then split around its chassis, dissipating. Tang of cooked rubber.
The car ahead paused and Nathan braced for – hoped for – confrontation. But the car took off and Nathan followed numbly. A sideroad ahead and he threw on his blinker, took the exit at speed.
The road wound uphill, past a dealer of docks and rafts, wares laid out on a dry lot, a speedboat parked on gravel and moored to an aluminum pier. He crossed railroad tracks, drew into a dirt lot beside a railway spur where rusting boxcars stood in their frocks of graffiti. He shut off the engine and got out, spread the notebook on the car’s roof, and gazed up to watch the towering cloud as it was lazily scalped by the shear of wind across its crest.
Rare autumn cumulonimbus, a fat, undulating column decapitated by the westerlies, torso shuddering in a slowmotion seizure, writhing eastward. His heavy belly bruised, bleeding rain, a long arras of stained light draping the countryside. Snagged on hilltops, drawn taut above hollows and swales. Soaked in the blood of the sky.
Nathan’s vision of Lisa’s hands clutching the notebook as she assessed his words was interrupted when a threewheeled atv leapt from the brush on the lot’s far side, sprawled on the dirt, and rumbled towards him trailing a plume of dust. It slowed as it passed, the driver’s helmeted head cranking around to look, a sinister apparition with chrome eyes, oval grille mouth, a blister of polished acrylic for a nose. A gloved hand rose, thumb raised, and the craft sped away over a crest and into the scrub. Nathan got into the car, corkscrewed it about in a spray of dirt, and recrossed the tracks before racing down to rejoin the highway.
He hit Montreal’s rush hour, boxed in by transport trucks and minivans, sporadic accelerations before taillights flashed on in the long snake of vehicles before him. Fatigued clutch foot, drumming the wheel with fingertips, rolling down the window to combat claustrophobia.
By the time he reached La Station-du-Coteau the fuel gauge was sagging below empty. He stopped reluctantly at a service station, was relieved to be spared the nuisance of human interaction by the pump’s automated creditcard reader.
He got back on the highway and crossed into Ontario, where a sign showing the distance to Toronto sent a wave of dread ripping through his core. A hole in the map to him, a smoking crater offering nothing but the fallout of his destroyed life. So he turned north, zigzagged along rural routes and highways, north then west, north then west, as if tacking into a gale.
He tore along a sideroad of fissured and bleached pavement, crested a swell where the sun low in the sky blinded him through the dusty scrim of the windshield before the car plunged into the shadow of a hill. He passed a leaning henhouse, its boards weathered and roof blushing green beneath a mantle of moss. The car climbed again and the road banked northward then shot straight and flat between the boles of naked bur oak and willow, the sun stuttering through branches. Nathan cracked the window and chill air poured into the car, and he drew deep lungfuls, cooling the heat in his belly. An abandoned structure surrounded by a parkinglot appeared on the side of the highway and Nathan slowed and ducked to study it through the passenger window and saw mounted to an iron pole the sign, an ice cream cone. He drew into the lot in front of the structure’s glassfaced serving counter and shut off the engine. He opened the door and stood, an elbow on the roof and his foot on the doorsill, and sucked in the autumn air, the sweet rot. The quiet interrupted when a gust of wind stirred the poplars, the sound of their jittering leaves like surf on a beach. The little shop appeared handbuilt, framed in wood, sided with strips of stained board, roof of painted tin. He stepped away from the car, shut the door, pushed his hands into his pockets and approached the window, the counter a slab of varnished oak, the wood ornamented with initials and hearts and dates. A crack in the window, its source an impact point like an exploding star surrounding a dimesized hole. Nathan moved an eye over it and peered through, saw a crater in the board on the back wall on which flavours and prices had been handpainted. He turned and looked into the forest across the highway.
Tiger Tail. Bubblegum. Pralines ’n Cream. Low on the back wall a tarnished outlet and a snake of dust, residual path of the freezer’s powercord. Everything pillaged or sold for scrap.
Sydney never tasted ice cream.
This thought burst uninvited into Nathan’s head. Never tasted ice cream. He’d bought her a cone only once, from an ice cream truck that had lumbered stiffshocked onto their street one summer evening bellowing a lurid melody, but as the tip of the girl’s tongue was about to make contact Lisa had plucked it from the girl’s hand and tossed it into the greenbin. Sydney had shrieked in blind outrage while Lisa quietly rebuffed Nathan. He knew better. Refined sugar, absolutely not, this little girl raised on organic applesauce and brown rice. A year and a half of life and never tasted ice cream. What good had it done her, that calculated diet of quinoa and kale?
No, Nathan said aloud. No.
He pressed a palm to the counter in front of the sliding window where cones were once traded for coins, and sensed the ghost of his daughter on his hip, longing for a taste. Nathan watching her first tentative lick. Shocked first by the cold, then as she pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and the cream melted and the taste bloomed, the startle of chocolate-peppermint.
Nathan bowed his head, filled it with whitenoise and blaring nonsense to drown those images polluting his thoughts, pictures of the two of them inside their rotting boxes, bodies succumbing to the corruption of death. The tongue for tasting ice cream a blackened stub within the rictus of her jaw.
Nathan reeled backwards into the parkinglot, came charging with his shoulder as a ram, crashed into the shack with such force it shuddered to its foundation. He backed and launched himself again, struck the same spot, and this time the structure took the blow and leaned backwards, creaking and popping. The third time he struck he was rewarded with a traumatized crack, and the thing began to topple slowmotion away from him before it settled on its broken haunches, a kneeling parallelogram. Nathan jogged away and was ready to rush again to deliver the coup de grace when he heard a car approaching on the roadway. He ran, but this time passed the broken shack and raced between the poplars and into the bush, his shoes slashing through the carpet of newfallen leaf, red whips of dogwood snapping against his jacket and face as he bolted for the forest’s heart, for that silent cradle of forgetting. He ran fulltilt until a purling grew distinct, and he was brought up on the bank of a river, a rapid of churning buttermilk, and he squatted on a flat boulder slick with translucent slime. He watched the flow, felt the bruised cramp of his shoulder as he unfocused his eyes and let the sight of foaming water drone into his subconscious, scouring away thought. He knelt on the rock, wet cold soaking through his jeans, and plunged his hands into the river. The icy water sucked heat from his fingers, made them throb and ache as the cold penetrated to bone, but he maintained them there, froth spuming over his wrists and wetting his jacket’s cuffs, and when the pain grew immense and the impulse to rip his hands from the punishing water surged, he instead jerked his head skywards and bellowed his agony, and only when his back began to spasm and he nearly pitched facefirst into the deluge did he withdraw his hands and fall back on his heels and study his fingers, seized into talons with skin that looked boiled.
When he stood and tucked a hand into each armpit and looked towards the west, the sun lay low beyond the treetrunks, illuminating a pale mist shrouding the forest floor. He stepped from the rock into the sea of leaves and walked towards the road, shading his eyes from the sun. A moment later it fell from view and he felt immediately cold in the shade that rose to fill its absence. The sound of the river diminished and when he stopped walking the hushing of the sibilant leaves left a deep and restive quiet, and when he looked up he noted that sunshine still gilded the trunks and branches above. Fog huffed from his mouth with each breath, and he watched the boundary between night and day against the bark of a birch, saw it slide towards the tree’s crown like a waterline, darkness inundating the woods, drowning him. He went on with growing dread that he might find waiting at that shack its owners, ready to prosecute him for his vandalism. But when he arrived it stood as he’d left it, alone and glum and purposeless, leaning back from the spectre of his car as if with aversion. He had to resist a powerful impulse to finish it off. He got into his car and started the engine, cranked the heater, blew and rubbed his hands. He moved the lever to the defog setting and watched heat from the vents erode the drifts of moisture illustrating the glass. Looking at the structure he felt a sudden rage that it remained a standing, purposeless wreck. Thought about ramming it but feared damaging his car, instead peeled away, leaving its conclusion to rain and wind and rot.
He found a convenience store a few kilometres down the road, bought pop and potato chips and a jellyroll, paused at the magazines and took down the latest Vanity Fair.
He sat under the car’s domelight, chips cracking between his teeth as he flipped through ads and features, reading halfheartedly of ostentation and outrage, skimming bumptious predictions of the next fad, turned the page and was heartstruck by a woman in a perfume ad. She was naked and barely concealing with a bowler hat her alabaster breasts, while a bolt of amber silk snaked across her belly and between her legs, and the sight of her lovely face and perfect skin invoked a nauseating ache in his chest. Without thought he pried open the sample flap and was punished when a toxic vapour of vanilla and lilac flooded the car’s interior. He pressed the flap back and shut the magazine, scrolled it tightly to contain the odour but it was too late, the air was caustic with it, and as he started the car he tossed the magazine into the backseat, the reek his penance.
The approaching headlights along the highway bloomed into spheres of haze and he knew he had to stop, but the two motels he’d passed were closed for the season, so he turned onto a secluded roadway and rushed through a corridor of trees, his own headlights casting a meagre glow on the dirt road until the startling discs of retroreflective markers along a picket of white palings guided him through a curve and down a slope. The road ended at a steel gate beyond which a trail continued into the forest, and he parked, shut off the engine, levered back his seat. Squirming on the cracked vinyl, trying to find comfort. There was none for him, but he was used to that, and he slept.
A clunk awakened him, and he bolted upright, pulse racing, and he saw in the dawn light a fat raccoon tottering on the car’s hood, staring through the glass at him.
Shoo, he said, waving.
It leaned forward until its nose met the glass, then sat back and pondered the smudge it had left. Nathan struck the horn, the sound of it braying through the forest and startling not just the animal but himself. The coon reeled back and bared its teeth, then leapt off the hood, hobbled into the brush.
He looked at his watch: coming up on seven. He put on the domelamp and drew a map from the doorpocket, unfolded it. Stay north, through Algonquin perhaps, on up to North Bay, Sudbury, Elliot Lake, the Soo.
The girl at the drivethrough gave Nathan a wary assessment as she handed him a jumbo coffee and a sack of muffins.
He paused at the parkinglot’s exit to peel open the hatch in the cup’s lid, and he craned the rearview mirror towards him, studied his bloodshot eyes. He passed the back of his hand across them, combed fingers through greasy hair. He appeared to be translucent, studied his hand to gauge his solidity, looked back and realized he was seeing himself reflected in the mirror’s secondary plane, the one for night driving. He met Highway 60, drove westbound and passed through the eastern gate of Algonquin Park. He grew addled by the caffeine and the signs that warned of crossing moose, deer, bear. He slowed to the speed limit, eighty kilometres per hour. It brought a tranquility he rarely felt. In Ontario, where only the decrepit or insane drove the speed limit, Nathan now felt the soothing approbation of Lisa’s gaze. It had twisted her into knots, the highway rush of thirty over the limit, the “speed of traffic,” people called it. Like a universal constant, like pi, but really just a threshold tolerated by the Ontario Provincial Police. Speeding raised her ire not for its illegality, but for the fact that pollution increases significantly, startlingly, with speed. Exponential drag or some such nonsense, Nathan never paid attention, he was too busy speeding. Why don’t you close your eyes, honey, and let me drive. He’d seen her speed herself when her mind wandered, and her sister told him before she’d learned of its environmental impact she was a demon of speed – her good looks enough to convince most traffic cops to excuse her with a wink and a warning.
Now, for Lisa, for the untold legion of wildlife he imagined crouched in the underbrush ready to spring onto the blacktop to be crushed in bloody sacrifice, he kept to the posted limit. Within moments he’d incurred a tailgater, an enormous blue suv. Nathan watched the driver in his rearview, saw no apparent expression of frustration, but at the first clear straightaway the driver swung into the left lane and passed in an explosion of acceleration and exhaust.
Sorry, Earth, Nathan said.
A minivan took its place. When it passed in a similar manner, Nathan again muttered the apology. The van was replaced by a car, then another, and another. The procession extended by car and van and truck until he could see when he rode through a curve a snake of vehicles stretching out of sight. Every clear straightaway resulted in a swarm of passing vehicles, and as each drew abreast Nathan’s resolve to stare straight ahead faltered, and he glanced sideways into glowers and lewd handgestures. These only enhanced his defiance. You want something to get riled at? he shouted. How about poverty? How about famine and genocide!
The road began to twist, the passing lines remaining solid, yet many drivers were willing to risk death for twenty more kilometres an hour. So fucking sorry, Earth! Nathan shouted, glancing at the entourage accumulating behind him.
Sweating, furious, he struggled out of his jacket and threw it into the backseat. The speedometer’s needle glued to the eighty mark. The flesh of his knuckles stretched taut and bloodless over the bones as he gripped the wheel. Rage felt good. He wanted to haul the steeringwheel over, jerk the handbrake so his car pivoted sideways, making a barrier into which that tailgating throng would plough, car and van and truck, in a massive pileup of greedy speeders, his last act, a mortal lesson for those mindless pursuers of velocity. His right hand curled around the handbrake’s stalk, ready to pull.
But he met in his mind’s eye Lisa’s expression of disapproval. For she’d also been a pacifist, a subscriber to the philosophies of Buddha and Gandhi. He realized as he tried to suck calm into his lungs with oxygen that wrecking his own car along with countless others would hardly qualify as an environmental act.
He saw a picnic area ahead, thought it best to shed that great parade. He guided the car along the gravel ramp past bearproof garbage bins, drew up before a pair of outhouses and got out, watched through the treetrunks the surge of vehicles accelerating along the highway like auto racers revelling in the withdrawal of the pace car. Quiet here, feeling the fury drain from his limbs. He drew a breath of air and it was sweet. He spied motion from the corner of his eye and reeled to see a black towtruck rushing at him. He froze as the cylinder of his vision cinched around the sight of the approaching bumper. He thought he might die, and it surprised him to discover his ambivalence at the prospect. In the last year he’d experienced moments when he’d been eager for death, had considered suicide more than once. At other times he’d felt it his duty to live, to survive, to earn penance, to mourn, and, as he had just now with his speed reduction, to propagate Lisa’s good works. But he’d never felt such a clear balance between the two states. Well, he thought, as the truck bore down, this will go one way or the other.
The grill halted a halFMetre from his chest. The driver reeled out, a burly man in black with a meaty gut and an unkempt beard. He wore a baseball cap with the brim to the back, and he drew a wheezy breath.
You fucken fucken fuck.
Nathan remained motionless before the grille, felt the heat from its radiator.
You slow fucken fucker. What the fuck are you fucken doin drivin so fucken slow, you fuck. You slow fuck.
And so on. The man’s harangue went on for a minute or two and ended with a series of questions – do you think you own the fucken road? is your head full of shit? you like guys like me riding your fucken ass? – and as no opportunity to respond was provided, Nathan determined that each was rhetorical.
The man finished, his chest heaving. Nathan hadn’t budged. The driver opened his mouth to continue, but something halted him, perhaps Nathan’s failure to react in any way. They stared at each other for a moment and Nathan felt a sudden inexplicable fellowship with this man, and since grief occupied the foremost chambers of Nathan’s spirit he figured that grief must be something that they shared. Maybe there exists a physiognomy of woe, something recognizable only by kinship of the stricken. Nathan was reaching for words to introduce this topic when the man whirled and climbed into the truck. The hot grille withdrew and as Nathan watched the man’s face through trees and sky reflected in the truck’s windshield he witnessed it again, the grim mien of sorrow.
Hey, Nathan said as the truck pivoted and began to roll towards the highway. Hey, I want to talk to you!
Nathan panicked, watching the truck go. He squatted and cast about on the ground, found a lemonsized rock. The truck was accelerating, already fifty metres away, but Nathan had years ago fielded for a hardball team, had nailed more than one runner at the plate with a colossal hurl from the rightfield fence. He threw hard, expecting the rock’s irregular shape to send it awry, but the throw went true; the cab’s rear window flashed white, a keen crack sounded across the distance, and the glass poured like coarse liquid into the truck’s bed around the tow rig. The vehicle hadn’t quite stopped when the driver tumbled out of the cab and sprinted towards Nathan brandishing a tire iron. Nathan crouched, his mind struggling with how best to ask his attacker if he was also suffering from sorrow and loss. As the man arrived Nathan rose, sidestepped the descending iron, and shot out a turned foot, felt his heel connect with the man’s kneecap. The man pitched forward and Nathan heard the concussion of the iron striking the ground beside him, saw it eject a divot of earth. Nathan’s own knee rose and struck the man’s face with the plate of his patella. The man stumbled backwards, wobbling on his damaged knee, then clamped a hand over his nose, faced Nathan while hefting the iron. He stepped forward, and in a gesture of curious elegance, as if bestowing a blessing, he swung the instrument in an arc which cut the air before Nathan’s eyes. A practiced manoeuvre, Nathan thought, backing away.
I think I know the pain you feel, Nathan said, mortified at his choice of words. The pain of a broken nose? The pain of a shattered kneecap? The man released his nose, wiped it with the back of his hand, smearing blood and mucous across his cheek. When he looked up again Nathan saw in the narrowing of his assailant’s eyes that he was entirely possessed by rage. Fury, Nathan knew, is sorrow’s antidote. The iron swung, swung again, a lethal pendulum. Even without the weapon his attacker had fifty pounds on him and probably dozens of brawls. It was tempting to answer with his own anger, tempting not just because of its effect on grief, but because it made combat a pleasure rather than a chore. But it made you lose.
Nathan stepped through the iron’s orbit as the weapon rose to his attacker’s right, knowing that the man’s control and power were weakest at the outside of the swing. Nathan formed his left hand into a flat fist, fingerjoints sharpened, and fired two fast jabs into the man’s wrist. The hand opened as if Nathan had pressed a button, and the iron fell, struck the ground with a clang. The man was still reacting when Nathan threw a series of swift punches, starting in the soft paunch, rising to the solar plexus. Just as he struck the hollow below the breastbone he boxed the man’s right ear with the flat of his palm.
A torchlight of pain erupted in Nathan’s right foot, and as he reeled away he realized that the man had stomped on his instep. The pain was spectacular, and for seconds his mind seized and anger threatened to erupt, but he took a breath and limped in a semicircle outside his opponent’s reach. His attacker went for the iron.
Nathan kicked with his injured foot because he knew he couldn’t stand on it while kicking with the other. It was a fast, cheap move, less of the judo kick he intended and more like what in the schoolyard would constitute fighting dirty, but they had no audience, and the iron factored in the potential lethality of this contest. Nathan’s shoe caught beneath the man’s chin and fetched him up off the ground. The man rolled onto hands and knees, crawled towards the weapon, and Nathan kicked again, sent him sprawling. A shock of pain ran up Nathan’s leg with each kick that followed, and the man rolled and grunted helplessly. Nathan stopped and the man curled into a ball like a woodlouse rolling into its louvred shell.
Nathan hopped on his good foot, spotted the tire iron, bent, lifted it. He saw the man’s eyes shift, following the motion of the tool. Nathan kneeled and lifted it high above his head, thought the man would rise to parry but he lay still, panting, bleeding into the soil. Nathan brought the tool down hard, struck the earth a hand’s breadth from the man’s ear. The iron’s elbow lay embedded in the soil. He drew it out, climbed wearily to his feet, tested the weight on his bad foot. Then he spun, made two rotations, and released the iron like an Olympic hammer, watched it arc through the trees.
He hobbled to the outhouse and went in, letting the springloaded door whack shut behind him, stood panting in the noxious dark, his eyes upon a slice of daylight penetrating through a gap in the boards. At last he pissed into the rank hole and when he came out he hoped to find the man gone but he lay where he’d fallen. Nathan squatted beside him.
Listen, he said. I’m sorry about what happened here. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t even expect to hit your truck with that rock. A fluke.
The man panted, porcine eyes shifting.
I want to know something. About you.
The response a vicious grunt: Fuck off.
Nathan wet his lips, said, I sense something. I know it’s weird to say, but I have this feeling about you. I think you’re grieving.
It’s a kind of mutual recognition.
But that’s just a theory. I’d need to know if you really are in the same state as me. Then I’d know.
Fuck off! the man roared, and lunged, a fist flying out and cuffing Nathan’ nose, not hard, but enough to knock him back and send his hands to his face, probing for blood.
Nathan stood, brushed off his jeans, eyes watering.
Well, Nathan said. You have a nice day.
The man let out a guttural wail, and twisted so his bloodied face lay in the dirt, and began to howl with what sounded like great whooping sobs. Nathan stepped back, watching for a moment before he backed away.
He pulled onto the highway, flipped his cellphone open against his chin, dialled.
Yes, I’m calling to report an injured person. He’s at the rest stop on the north side of Highway 60, just inside Algonquin’s west gate. A towtruck driver. No, I don’t know his name. He appears to have been beaten. He’s conscious. I don’t know. Maybe a bear attack? No, I am no longer at the scene. I understand but I’m no longer there.
He snapped the phone shut, realized he was offering an incriminating amount of information. Wondered if they had his cell number. Or could they pinpoint his location with the signal? At this last thought he crushed the accelerator to the floor. The speedometer shot through 120, 130, 140. A backhoe was cruising the shoulder ahead, one great wheel turning on the asphalt, and he jerked the car around it, heard the shriek of rubber as he jolted back into his lane. A few minutes later a police cruiser crested a hill and ripped past, lights flashing and siren wailing. Nathan tightened his grip on the wheel. He had to get off this route.
He saw a sideroad ahead and stood on the brake. The magazines strewn across the backseat scuttled into the backs of the chairs. Tires hit the road’s gravel and slid towards the ditch. There was a yellow post and Nathan forced himself to look not at it but in the direction he wanted to travel, and the car’s rear flank struck it with a whump. Then the car was following through the manoeuvre, centring on the new road. A pall of dust rose behind him. He ripped along the gravel road, speeding through sickening descents and rising again to crest hilltops, briefly airborne before crashing down on the suspension. Drifting through turns, scattering gravel, past cottage driveways and mailboxes, the force of concentration and fear required to maintain the road blending with the adrenaline of the fight. When the road T-boned a highway he blew past the stopsign and drifted onto the asphalt and drove hard until he came upon a minivan plodding along at the speed limit. He swung into the oncoming lane and tore past, kept at it until the geography abruptly changed, forest replaced by rolling farmland. He took another sideroad. The country surged in great rolling hills like the backs of whales, the next progressively higher than the last, and when he reached the height of land he stopped the car, launching a hail of gravel into the undercarriage.
He got out and limped around the car and looked at the dent in the rear fender, a smudge of yellow paint filling its trough. He looked at the sky. The silence after the road pressed against his eardrums, and the breadth of the heavens seemed to suck him skywards. He was shaking, panting, sweating, replaying the last hour in his head as he tried to determine what had gone wrong. Holding to the speed limit and suddenly fighting for his life against a madman. Or a man gripped by sorrow, like himself. Or so he’d thought, and he’d thrown the stone to find out, escalating the confrontation. He’d done terrible violence to another human being. In self-defence. Should he have stood passively as that man attacked him with that tire iron? He looked down and saw his own hands splayed, palms up, as if he was pleading for understanding. From Lisa. What way back into her heart?
He studied the clover and crabgrass in the ditch. A farmhouse with a derelict barn stood below him, and as his ears settled he heard the seethe of wind through the grass. He got out his notebook and smoothed it on the car’s roof.
Grainy blue sky. Rushing from the southwest like a fleet dispatched to quash that azure audacity, a flotilla of corrugated cloud. In the gap between sky and land, instances of rain, maybe sleet or snow, falling like a heavy gas. One cloud is a bunched fist, knuckles punching through the heavens. A cold wind climbing to meet me now, smell of rain, scented like earth from an upturned rock. Earthworms and millipedes sprinting for cover.
Eyes shut in the tight whirlpool of his thoughts. Knew he was trying to distract Lisa from that fight. A strong gust of wind poured across the hill, cooling his hot face, and he raised his eyelids, panned the landscape, gnawing the pencil-end. A sparkle of sunlight drew his gaze to something rotating on a distant field, bigger than a windmill, a great turning wheel like a piece of exposed clockwork, like a mechanism of the spinning Earth.
He got in and drove, down now, down, down along washboard roads, past farms and sheds and machinery for sale, heading blindly in the direction of that wheel. He stopped once on a low hill and looked west but he’d lost it, got in and kept driving.
He rounded a bend and there it was, a Ferris wheel rotating against the blueblack cloud, lamps threading its frame like gemstones. He followed a sign for Fairgrounds Road, found its margins clogged with parked cars. He slowed, looking for a spot. The entrance gate, where two codgers in toques and sweaters stood chatting, each identically posed, arms hugging their torsos. One of them waved him through the gate.
It’s seven dollars. You can park on through there.
He drove slowly over the grass past a steel barn, a chain of temporary fencing beyond which teams of horses trotted past, driven by men in canvas coats. Families marched by, heading for the midway, the food concessions, men with eyes like nailheads, hands plunged into jacket pockets, their softfleshed and sulky wives grasping in each hand the hand of a child.
Nathan piloted the car up a slope and through a gap in a treeline to a field of pickups, minivans, horsetrailers. He parked and got out and opened the back door, donned his windbreaker, ambled back through the treeline and into the midway.
He trod the flattened grass past games, backdropped with stuffed toys crucified on display racks. Airgun balloon pop or toss a ring onto a jarneck or two-dollar roulette spin on a clacking wheel. Stepped over cables fed by the chug of generators. Diesel oil, onionrings, frenchfries, cooked meat, trailers and vans with sidehatches propped to make awnings, and beneath them curlyhaired matrons doling out hotdogs in foil, slim packs of mustard, relish, ketchup. Garbage cans overflowing with cardboard and styrofoam, the stubs of hotdog buns, fries in a slush of gravy, pop cans, patrolled by regiments of coldstunned yellowjackets. And then the spinning rides, toddler motorboats in a trough of milky water, mini tractortrailers, motorcycles, gyring cupshaped buckets, tiny dragon rollercoaster, derelict carousel and the clangour of its battered calliope, horses frozen in jaunty poses, oblivious to their marred and peeling skins. And there the Ferris wheel, less substantial than it had appeared from the hilltop. Every ride he realized beginning and ending at the same point, as if an incrimination of leisure, nothing accomplished, no distance conquered. The Conklin clown’s grinning, deadeyed countenance everywhere, the cardinal of some jolly cult.
People here, farmfolk and townfolk, people in workclothes or untidy bests, husbands and wives, kids and teens, grandmothers ambling on their canes or walkers. Nathan met eyes boldly as he walked, he was searching for contact, for acknowledgement of some kind. Some held his eye, most didn’t, and he grew grudgingly resigned that there would be no human touch for him today, maybe ever. The heartpang at this thought sucked the breath from him.
Then Sydney at his knee, taking it in, the little wedge of her hand in his, straining, but when he releases it and she is allowed to surge ahead she pauses, waits for him, springing through her knees in a series of unresolved hops, head whirling with excitement, what next, what next?
Wind rising, whipping from every compass point, bringing first the pink sweetness of cotton candy, then rain. He bought some coupons and waited in the brief line for a ride called the Sizzler, three arms branching from a hub, and upon each arm four cars above which rose fans of yellow lighttubes. He wanted to spin. As he waited with his hand on the galvanized fencerail he watched an acnefaced boy operate the levers that controlled the ride. Anything could happen. The thought exhilarated him. He watched the riders as their cars were thrown towards him in sequence, saw their desperate delight. The ride slowed and stopped, security bars unlatched, riders disembarking. Then the boy opened the gate and collected tickets, muttered Thank-ya identically to each patron. Nathan walked to the far side of the ride and climbed into one of the cars, drew the bar shut. The padded bench was worn along the fore-edge, and on the siderest ballpoint initials and hearts scarred the cushion.
He gazed into the fat clouds above. Sunlight slanted beneath them, warming him through the thin coat. He saw high above him raindrops falling like marbles, each gob of liquid burning with sunlight. They struck around him. One hit the oxidized shell of the car, and when it broke it was nothing but water.
The operator was arguing with four girls in the car ahead of Nathan’s. He could see only the backs of their heads. The boy’s hands shot around him like he was directing traffic as he explained some kind of violation. Finally he popped the safety bar and one of the girls stepped out. The boy approached Nathan with the girl following.
Excuse me sir, but would it be okay if she rode with you?
The girl looked horrified. She turned and saw the other girls with their heads craned around, their coarse grins.
Yes. Certainly, Nathan said, and the boy opened the bar and the girl reluctantly clambered up.
No, sit on this side, Nathan said, moving. Otherwise I’ll squish you.
The girl slid to the far end of the car and Nathan rested his hip against the sidepad.
Thank-ya, the boy said, secured the bar before he returned to the controls.
She crushed her eyes shut then opened them wide and stared imploringly at her friends, who taunted her with gestures before turning to face forward.
The ride powered up, began a slow rotation. Nathan studied his ridemate; she looked to be about sixteen, but who could tell? She might be twelve or twenty-four. She had a chubby face, dirty-blonde hair, much of which was tucked beneath a woollen hat, though strands had struggled free against her cheeks. She wore hoop earrings and dense makeup around the eyes. She turned and saw him studying her, bit her lip, then looked straight ahead as they accelerated. He liked her nose in a way he didn’t usually like noses.
He turned his gaze outwards as centrifugal force began pressing him into the cushion, throwing his mass towards the fence before drawing it back into the ride’s hub. He abruptly felt the girl against him.
Sorry, she giggled as she grasped the bar and hauled herself towards the bench’s far end. The next rotation threw her back into him and again she struggled away with a laugh. He looked out at the midway, the sequence of flashing bulbs atop a haunted house, the stop and go of the Ferris wheel as passengers disembarked and boarded. The lights on its frame brilliant against a backdrop of menacing sky. She was there again and panting from the effort.
It’s all right, he said. Better that you just stay there than keep crashing into me.
Her laughter ceased and she looked away. The raindrops came frequently now and he gazed into the sky, enjoyed the vertigo of those careening drops, felt the pressure of her body against his, the corporeal warmth of her through her jeans and his. That touch felt good, feeding such a terrible longing that it seemed his entire consciousness was gathering along his flank at the points of contact – shoulder, arm, thigh, knee – desperately soaking it in like parched soil drinking rain. Even now mourning his losses, and the loss that would happen when the ride finished. And he loved the ride’s swirling drunkenness even as he wanted to be sober, to be alone with his fury and sorrow, back in his car and driving. And then oh god no, chewing his lip when he found himself getting hard, his cock crushed uncomfortably within his jeans. Furious at the intrusion of sexuality, trying to govern the response with deep breaths, then realizing she could feel every one of them. On an outside orbit he discovered no operator at the controls. He swung his head around, searching the perimeter of the fence, the pockets of people standing on the grass. Panic rising in his belly. Around and around. Nathan’s arm trapped between his body and the girl’s. He pulled it free, stretched it out atop the back of the car, felt the chill of aluminum through his sleeve. The sun vanished behind cloud and a shiver went through him. His cock painfully erect.
The girl raised her head to him and said, Trippy! Only then did he smell the booze on her breath, a thick, sweet aroma of rum.
The kid, he said. The operator. Where is he?
Looks like he fucked off, she said, and cackled. So we ride forever.
Oh hell, he muttered.
After a minute they slowed and Nathan saw the boy again at his station, drawing back the control stick. The pressure of the girl against him subsided, and she scooted down the car away from him. They stopped and the boy made his rounds, opening safety latches and liberating the riders.
Come on, open it up, the girl called as her friends approached.
Nathan’s arms were numb, as on nights when he awoke on his belly clutching his pillow.
She reached over the bar and undid the latch, threw the barrier aside. Her friends were there, babbling, and when Nathan stood he twisted on the footrest as if to step backwards onto the earth, but really to conceal from the girls the distinct bar of his penis within his jeans.
He saw the girl’s eyes light upon it before she looked up, her mouth slightly agape. He stepped down, pushed his hands into the windbreaker’s pockets to conceal his erection, and shuffled out of the ride’s pen. He moved fast, trying to escape the mob of girls. Arousal subsiding. Raindrops against his face. One ran into his mouth. He bought a Coke in a plastic cup, drank half before tossing it into a wastebin. A carnie gestured at him with an airgun. Someone tried to sell him a raffleticket.
He rounded a concession and there they were, in a bunch, chattering and laughing, prodding each other, and then a flask made a round, disappeared. She saw him and he pivoted, strode away. He entered the steel barn he had passed on the way in. The tang of manure filled his nose and beyond a yellow rope a heifer ambled past followed by a teen with a cattleprod. The boy tapped the cow’s haunches as she moved around the ring. The arc-lamps hummed in the ceiling, and a scattering of spectators watched from plank bleachers. He heard the pop of rain on the roof.
The floorboards shifted like piano keys beneath his feet as people walked past. He passed into a bustling chamber with row upon row of tables crowded with produce. He pressed through the crowds, the din of voices submerging him in a fog of dislocation as he looked at the vegetables and fruit on display, much of it oversized or grotesquely deformed. Apples the size of cantaloupes, carrots as long as his forearm, pumpkins and squashes either of elephantine proportions or malformed into hideous, tumorous shapes, blotched skins erupting with barnacles. And there were ribbons adorning some of these, purple, red, gold, Biggest Cucumbers, Ugliest Pumpkin. He moved slowly among them, came to a display of tomatoes that were each as big as his head.
A voice was speaking to him, directed to him but he could not make out the words above the shout and chatter of the room, could not even detect its vector, until he turned and looked down and saw the girl from the ride looking up at him smiling.
Hey, she said. I said how’s it goin?
Nathan looked around, hunting for her friends who were no doubt spurring her on this dare, but she’d come alone into this bellowing mob and when he looked down she was staring at him in breathless expectation.
I didn’t tell them, she said. What I saw.
What did you see? What do you want?
Just, you know. She moved closer and ran her knuckles against his thigh. To do that to you again.
He seized her wrist, pulled her hand away.
What do you want? she asked, not drawing her arm from him, letting it dangle limply in his grasp.
This, he said, pushing his hand into her palm, lacing his fingers through hers. He squeezed her hand staring intently into her eyes, and after a moment she squeezed back. He looked away, looked out above the tables and heads bobbing as people shuffled through the aisles, gazed up into the faint fog shrouding the lights, and felt the quickness of her skin against his, his heart hammering in his chest, and he held on until the precise moment his libido awoke, and then he let go and moved away, shuffling against the crush of bodies, not looking back, hearing above the voices and laughter the clatter of rain on the roof, pressing through to the room’s exit and manoeuvring through the crowd standing in the barn’s entrance. Drops fell in streaks like tracers, beads of hail erupting from the grass. People stood in clusters beneath the game awnings or concessions, gazing out at the rain.
He noticed that the Ferris wheel was still in operation, the gondolas each protected by a canopy. He still had ride coupons, and as there was no lineup he handed a strip to the raincoated girl at the console and climbed aboard. He rose into the turbulent sky, gazed down upon the other rides, tractors and trucks, horses driven by their masters towards trailers, saw into the parkinglot where his own car glinted with raindrops. In the west a breathtaking view, the sun shining defiantly as clouds approached like a mob of bullies. Rain spilling from their guts. He looked away from the sun, and over the landscape arched a rainbow of such insubstantiality he had to blink to be sure it didn’t exist only on the cones of his retina. He reached the apex of the ride and his cellphone rang.
Where are you?
It’s me. Where are you?
There’s a rainbow. Barely there.
But where are you?
You’ll never guess. I’m at the top of a Ferris wheel.
As the gondola dropped a spray of static filled the phone.
Halfway up again the wheel stopped to discharge passengers.
Nathan? Nathan? a voice muttered through the hiss.
I can barely hear you.
The gondola rose one position and the static subsided.
. . . any better? she asked.
Yes. Not perfect, but yes, he replied.
I want to know how you are.
How are you handling things?
I’m just driving. Mostly driving.
Are you ready to come back yet?
The car rose again, and the connection cleared completely. He could hear her breathing.
The ride moved again, reached its peak. The rainbow was gone. Rain falling harder. Wind blowing it beneath the canopy. Hitting his jeans, cold, each drop like a driven nail.
Someone called me dangerous today, he said with a laugh.
She was right.
Who said it was a woman?
He was quiet.
Nathan, there are people who care about you.
Lots of people.
Isn’t that what you need? Nathan. Nathan, are you still there?
Mabel, why do you call me?
I call you because you need me to call you.
Ah. It wouldn’t make any difference to me.
Do you want me to stop?
Silence. The wheel turned, paused. He would lose her soon.
I better go. We’re going to lose this connection.
She hung up but he didn’t lower the phone, pressed it harder to his ear, imagining her standing at her kitchen window, looking down the long gravel drive to the highway. Mabel. Who saw them die.