FREE FALL

 

By Isaac Marion
2007

 


 

I jumped out of an airplane, so I should have died, but I didn't. Apparently people do this all the time.

"Skydiving."

People jumping, just running and jumping out into space, thousands of attempted suicides every day. People do this for fun. They do it for bachelor parties and birthdays.

What was I thinking?

People do this all the time.

People do this all the time.

So I jumped, and then I thought, Oh shit.

Watching your parachute float away from you like a lazy kite, limp, useless, drifting in the wind. Feeling gravity wrap its arms around you and pull hard. A sudden change in perspective. A sudden lack of concern for groceries and taxes.

 

Greg in the car on the way there.

"Trust me, man, you're gonna love it."

I look at him suspiciously. It's my birthday, I am the man of the hour, the star of the show. My friends are hell-bent on entertaining me, but I am not getting into the spirit of things. I'm tired. I look out the window, and slowly exhale. "God you guys…"

My friends are driving me to Canada, and I don't know why. A surprise gift. The suspense churns in my stomach, anticipation and fear and bile. I want to make them tell me, force it out of them, but I wait.

 

"Skydiving?"

I stare at the sign on the building we are approaching. I have been sabotaged. This is not my idea of a good time, and they know this. They know me. I say it again.

"Skydiving?"

 

Me in my apartment back in Seattle. My tornado-aftermath apartment, my one-room flea-market. Home to a man who is completely, utterly single. A path cleared through the dishes and debris leads to my desk. I am slumped over it, resting my head on a pile of documents topped with a 1040 EZ tax form. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I am aware that my fridge is empty. I'm hungry. I lift my head a quarter inch off the paper pile, then drop it again.

The phone rings. I pick it up and lay it across the back of my head, with the receiver vaguely near my mouth. "Hello."

"Hello? Jeff?"

"Yeah."

"Hey this is Greg. Are you using speakerphone or something? I can barely hear you."

I speak louder. "Better?"

"A little. Hey, happy birthday, man."

"Thanks." It's a little before noon. I have spent the day so far wrestling with the 1040. I had forgotten all about my birthday. "Thanks, Greg."

"Ok, so me and Brian have a birthday surprise for you."

"Oh, great," I mumble into the desk.

"We'll be by to pick you up in about an hour, then we're off to Canada."

"Canada?"

"That's right. See you in an hour."

 

The skydiving place is located on some kind of small, privately owned airfield. The sign in front is made of unpainted two-by-fours bleached grey from years of rain. The single  hangar is rusty corrugated steel. "Guys," I mutter, looking out at the runway. Pot-holed asphalt like a country road. "I appreciate the gesture but I'm not sure this is…"

"Come on," Greg says. "It's gonna be the thrill of your life."

"Seriously," Brian adds, "a few of my friends have done it and they said it was the most incredible rush they've ever had."

I am silent as Greg finds a parking space. The registration office is a tiny sheet-metal shack raised on cinder blocks. The skydiving gear is housed in an old trailer near the office, a mossy relic with "Road Wanderer" printed on the side. It is propped up with a log under its hitch.

"I just don't know if I want to do this."

"Of course you do," Greg says as he opens his door. "Skydiving is on everyone's list of things to do before they die."

 

The registration guy tells me I have two options. I can jump solo, with the ripcord attached to the plane. My chute will open automatically after a freefall of about thirty feet, then I float the rest of the way down leisurely, like a tourist. Or I can jump with a certified instructor strapped to my ass, with his hand on the ripcord, his hot breath in my ear. We can freefall the whole quarter mile, spooning.

I choose the first option. This is safer anyway. I'm really only falling thirty feet. I start wriggling into my flight suit. Maybe this will actually be fun. A good experience. One of those things you can mention at parties to get attention. A conversation-piece photo on your fridge door.

I am terrified.

 

We are in the air. We are ten thousand feet up and climbing. Brian and Greg are sitting across from me, grinning. I am going to piss myself. I am back in third grade, being dared to eat worms. Seventh grade, being dared to jump off the cliff at Whistle Lake, friends yelling and cheering, everyone having a great time. Come on pussaaay, jump!

I'm twenty-four now. I thought I was done with peer pressure.

I look out the window at the wide open spaces below. From here, trees look like grass and grass looks like velvet.

"Almost there, folks," the pilot yells. "You ready?"

No. No.

 

"Will you just try it once? You've never tried it before, how do you know you hate it?"

"It's just too awkward, I feel ridiculous."

"Who cares? It is ridiculous, it's supposed to be ridiculous!"

Terry is sitting in the passenger seat of my Civic, looking at me in pissed-off disbelief. We're on our way to Seattle to see some friends, and she's trying to convince me to go out to a club with them. She wants to go dancing.

"I'm just...I'm six foot three, I've got these big gangly limbs, it's just not natural for me."

"But you've never even done it before, how do you even know?"

"I can just tell."

"It's not even about that, though, is it? You just have some kind of weird hangup."

"It's just...it just really...isn't me." I look over at her and smile tentatively. "I mean...isn't that ok? Can't you just go dance with the girls and have fun? Do we both have to be into this?"

She is looking at me hard, unblinking. She says, "Jeff...what is you? Is there anything that is you? This is just… I mean, dancing, snowboarding, going to shows, you just don't…"

I don't like the way her eyes roam from point to point on my face, inspecting, examining. Something unknown. A foreign object. "What is wrong with you?" She shakes her head slightly, still studying me. "Are you alive?"

 

Greg and Brian are lined up to my right, elbowing each other and laughing nervously. They'll be jumping right behind me, with instructors strapped to their asses because they want the freefall. How did I meet these people? Why do they know my birthday and have my phone number? Why am I twelve thousand feet above the surface of Canada with them?

The instructor strapped to Greg is suddenly counting. "Five, four, three..."

I'm not ready, oh shit I'm not ready. My suit isn't adjusted right. My underwear are bunched up. The straps are squeezing my testicles. Why am I doing this? Why would anyone do this?

"Two, one..."

I'm going to die. There's still so much I haven't done. I haven't been to Italy. I haven't swam in the tropics or hiked in Nepal. Goddammit, Terry, I haven't…

"Go!"

Fuck.

 

I'm falling. My guts are squished against my spine, oh God I'm falling. Every natural instinct is screaming that it's over, system error, I'm dead, they're screaming what the fuck did you just do?

There is a split second where I manage to contain myself, where I think, You'll be ok. People do this all the time. Then I feel an impact like being kicked in the chest, I hear a snap, drowned out by the wind roaring past me, a sharp sting in my shoulder, then...

Quiet.

Everything is quiet. Time has frozen. The wind is a gentle rustle in my ears. The sun is warming the side of my face. I look up, and see the plane getting smaller and smaller. Disappearing. From somewhere in the warm blue expanse, I hear my voice mumbling, Thirty feet? Thirty feet, right?

I look up again.

I see my parachute drifting away. The backpack hangs from it, straps dangling like arms and legs, like a tiny person.

Something is wrong.

This tiny person has taken my place in the parachute. Given me the old switch. He is waving as I drop out of sight, plummeting toward the grasslands below. My eyes are wide. My hands grasp at the air.

There is an obscene amount of time to realize what is happening, but it never really solidifies in my mind. Agonizing minutes pass in this weightless void, but I just hang there, vaguely aware that something long and difficult is coming to an end. I don't see my life flashing before my eyes, I don't think, I'm going to die! I'm going to die! I just lie there in the sky, daydreaming.

Slowly, I twist around to face the sun, putting my back to the approaching ground. I should be waking up any second now.

I close my eyes. A quick, breathless laugh, and then—

 

Weight.

Kick drum. Kaleidoscope..

Black. 

 

My eyes open for two seconds. I hear no sound, but I see faces hovering over me, anxious faces, crowding in around me. I ignore them. I stare up at the open blue sky. I see something. There's something up there…something I can't quite…what is that?

It's gone.

"What was that?" I whisper, and then I shut my eyes, and die.

 

"Jeff."

I am staring across the room at a girl in a Bellingham pub. I've seen her before, either on campus at Western or in one of the local businesses. Brown hair, bent slightly upwards at the ends, sharp blue eyes, red scarf, antique jacket. Gorgeous.

"Jeff!"

"What?" I don't know how long Greg has been trying to get my attention. He and Brian are sitting across from me at the table, grinning.

"Go talk to her."

"No."

"Why not?"

I shrug.

"Dude, what has it been? Three years?"

I shrug.

"Go fucking talk to that girl!"

I shake my head, and stare at my beer.

 

Outside the bar, a few feet from the exit doors, I see her standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the night sky. It's cold out and I can see her breath in the streetlamp glow.

I told myself I wasn't following her out, that I was just going to my car to go home and it was just coincidence that she left right before I stood up. As proof, I already have my keys in my hand, though my car is still four blocks away. I'm standing about four sidewalk-squares away from her. She notices me.

"It's snowing," she says. I look up and see a few dry bits of ice sprinkling down, nothing that will last more than five minutes.

"I heard we're supposed to get a few inches over the weekend," I say.

"I hope so," she says. "I love snow."

"Me too," I say, although I have no opinion about snow anymore. "I was a big sledder as a kid."

She nods and smiles, and slowly starts to walk. I hesitate, then follow her, jingling my keys self-consciously. I take a shot in the dark. "You work somewhere I go to a lot, I think. Office Max? On Sunset?"

"That's right. The print department."

"How long?"

"About two years."

"Ok. I've been shopping there about three."

She has come to her car. She stops in front of the door and turns to me. She is smiling faintly. I am not really smiling at all. I hear myself ask, "What's your name?"

She unlocks her car and opens the door, then looks back at me. "Terry. We have nametags, you know."

"Ok. So…" I hesitate. I am so tired right now. I need a nap. I need another beer. "Next time I'm at the print department, I'll say, 'Hi, Terry.' "

"Should I just keep calling you 'sir'?"

"I'm Jeff."

"Jeff. Good."

I notice a snowboard case on the roof of her car. My heart sinks a little. Above me, the ice dust has fattened into flakes. I see it sticking to the pavement. I haven't owned a sled in fifteen years. Snow fucks up the roadways.

 

Sounds fade in and out of my awareness. Distant voices. Footsteps on tile. The steady beep of a heart monitor. A hospital.

What?

Why a hospital? Aren't hospitals for people who are hurt, yes, but alive? I jumped out of an airplane. I'm dead.

 

Long ago, before I died:

Green grass lit by yellow spring sun, underneath the gnarled hawthorn tree with its pink blossoms. I'm six years old and I'm convinced I can fly. Or at least float. I'm six years old and the world is vast. Smaller than when I was five, but still vast. I can float. If I try hard enough I can float.

I crouch down to the grass and wrap my arms around my shins. I close my eyes, and squeeze, I clench everything, I strain everything. I don't know what I'm doing, but it feels right. I'm going to float, and someday I'm going to fly. And while I'm having this thought, something happens.

I do.

Eighteen years ago, in those ancients mists of time, in a world now long gone, I float. I tremble a bit, and then my clenched body rises. It hovers three inches above the sunny grass.

 

"Jeff."

I hear the heart monitor again. It sounds much too slow. I can smell medicine and stale flesh. Probably mine, paling and graying under the damp sheets.

"Jeff!"

"What?" I croak, and open my eyes. Greg is crouched at the bedside, looking at me. A doctor is standing over me, watching me closely. Why is he watching me closely? What is there to see? "I'm dead."

Don't you know I'm dead?

"No, man," Greg says, wide-eyed and incredulous. "You're not."

 

A week later, I am sitting at my desk in my apartment in Seattle, staring at the 1040 EZ again. The desk is just as cluttered as it was on my birthday. The floors are still buried. Everything is exactly as I left it, except the milk is sour.

I'm not dead.

I should be, but I'm not. I jumped out of an airplane, I fell from clouds to ground, twelve thousand feet, but I'm not dead.

I'm not even hurt.

No broken bones. No internal injuries. Not even any open cuts. Just a bruised tailbone, some dark purple splotches on my back, and a sore neck. No blood. No foul. It's ridiculous. It's absolutely cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote, and three weeks later I still can't make myself believe it. I know deep inside that this is a dream, some kind of pre-death hallucination, and Jeff Marcus is really still lying embedded six inches in the earth, every bone now crunchy paste, his organs strewn through the grass, his blood forming a huge, star-shaped pool in that good Canadian soil.

And did he see something? As he lay embedded in the earth, did he see something in the sky? Was it a two-story house with wings? Was it a brilliant red hot-air balloon printed with the names of everyone he had ever loved?

 

I shove the tax form under some books and stand up. I don't really know why I'm bothering with it. There is no IRS in the afterlife. I move slowly through my apartment, my feet trailing through clutter like piles of autumn leaves.

I arrived home from the hospital today at 12:00 noon. I remember opening the door and looking at the empty rooms beyond, listening to the profound lack of footsteps running to meet me. The grim silence. I should get a dog or something.

I step out onto my apartment's metal balcony. Its rusty frame creaks under my weight, and I wonder yet again if this is the day it gives way and drops me to my death.

I look down at the pavement below and smile. What is that, maybe a hundred feet? Shit. That's like falling out of bed. You hit your head, you wake up, you get back in bed and sleep. Right?

It's the very end of twilight now. The air is bitterly cold. I stare up at the stars and feel lost. They look different tonight. I can't seem to find the Big Dipper. I see one that looks like a turtle, one like a Spanish galleon, but nothing familiar. I flop onto the couch and pick up the phone. Feeling drunk, eyes barely focusing, I dial Terry's number. It rings several times, and then I hear her voice for the first time in six months.

Hello, this is Terry. I can't get to the phone right now, so leave a message and I'll call you back as soon as I can. Thanks.

I hang up, and slip into bed fully clothed. The rivets on my jeans dig painfully into my bruises, so I lay on my side. I sleep through my alarm, dreaming strange, feverish dreams of burning buildings and skies full of flying bears.

 

It's our five-month anniversary, and I take Terry to see a film starring Bernie Mac. I don't know why I do this, but I do. Afterward I take her to my apartment promising an Italian dinner, and end up serving multi-colored wagon-wheel pasta with Prego. I assume the grimace on her face is for the food, and I am ten percent correct.

I have been incredibly busy with finals. I barely remembered our anniversary moments before going to bed the night before. I have been up late studying Physics and Statistics. I'm swamped.

Now we sit next to each other on the left side of the couch, watching TV. Terry leans away into the couch arm. I flip through a few channels.

"I'm going to go for a walk," Terry says. I notice she isn't even paying attention to the TV show I've landed on. She's looking out the balcony window. The Big Dipper gleams dead-center, framed in the window like a painting.

"It's pretty cold out." I flip the channels again, looking for something Terry would like.

"The stars are out and there's a full moon. I'm going for a walk." She stands up and looks at me.

I mumble something about lows of twenty degrees, and flip a few more channels, looking for the weather. Terry puts on her coat and walks out.

 

I wake up from more feverish dreams and throw my clothes on. I splash water on my face and eat a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats. As I pull into the warehouse parking lot where I work, I happen to glance at my dash clock and see that I am three hours early. It's 4:00 in the morning. It occurs to me that there was no alarm this morning—my eyes simply opened and I got up.

The sky is still mostly black. The parking lot is empty, the warehouse windows are dark. I slip out of my car and shut the door gently, as if trying not to wake someone. What am I doing here?

At the edge of the lot there is a chain link fence, beyond which is Boeing Field. I lean against the fence and stare at the absurdly large hangar buildings, like a giant's city. I notice a group of people standing under a 747 parked in an otherwise deserted airfield. There are about fifty of them, all in white jumpsuits, and they stand linked hand in hand in a wide circle, looking up at the underside of the plane. For a moment I think a few of them have torches, actual wood and pitch torches…but it must be flashlights.

I watch this for just a few seconds—What are they…?—then I turn back to the warehouse. The main door is locked, so I search the perimeter hoping to find a side-door left open. On the far side of the building where no one ever goes I find a curious line of graffiti. It is sprayed on the concrete wall in wide, swooping letters like calligraphy, at a height of about twenty feet.

 

IS IT BIGGER NOW?

 

By the look of the paint, it has been there a very long time, but I've never noticed it before, and none of my co-workers has ever mentioned it. Except for this line, there are no taggings anywhere on the building.

 

That night I find myself at a rock show at the Crocodile Café, downtown. It's been a long time since I've been to a show, longer still since I've just gone to one on my own, by myself, without anyone nagging and dragging me. Domestic beer sloshes in my plastic cup. The band is loud and excellent. I've never even heard of them before tonight. Why am I here?

A few rows in front of me, near the front of the stage, there's a girl dancing. Her hair is short and platinum-bleached, tied back in an amputated ponytail. She wears black tights under a short skirt.  A flimsy sweater hangs off her pale shoulders like it wants to be on someone's floor. She's short, but sparkly gold heels compensate. She dances in wide, swaying arcs, eyes closed, smiling dreamily.

I take little sips of my Miller and watch her. She catches me watching, and my eyes dart away, but too late. A slight smile curves her thin lips. She eyes me sideways.

For a minute I swear the band is singing about skydiving. A lyric here and there, something about a parachute. I hear my name in a raw scream. Jeff! Jeeeeeeeff!

"What?" I scream back unexpectedly, spilling my beer a little. My voice is lost in the noise.

What?

The blonde girl has been dancing in my direction. She spins around and stops, looking straight up at me. My God she's short. I am six-foot-three, she can't be an inch over five-two. She is far, far away.

"Hi," she says. Shouts, actually, to be heard over the music.

"Hi," I shout back. I feel like a gangling giant standing next to her, Frankenstein and his bleached blonde bride.

She grabs my hand and pulls me toward the front of the stage. I can't just pull away, so I go. She starts to dance in front of me, and I stand there, bobbing my head slightly, squirming in my skin.

She doesn't seem to mind my lack of participation. In fact she seems to forget about me as soon as we reach the stage, and just closes her eyes and resumes her strange, swaying movements. A few songs later, I slip away back to the dark corners of the room.

 

At 11:30 that night, I call Terry again. I am sitting on my green velour couch staring at a TV that is not on. Without any premeditation, I pick up the phone and dial her number, 503, that alien Portland area code. As it rings I look at myself in my mind's eye, I see my blankly staring face and my hunched, hunted posture. That starry galleon gleams through the balcony window.

Hello, this is Terry. I can't get to the phone right now…

"Hi Terry." Silence for about twenty seconds. "I'm not sure why I'm calling…"  Fifteen seconds. "How've you been? How's Portland treating you…" I let out a deep breath. "I'm really not sure why I'm calling. I haven't…It just…seems like it's been a long time since we've talked." I am mumbling, my lips are barely moving. I rub my face and run my free hand through my hair. "I've been having a weird month, and I feel like we…well I fell out of an airplane and my parachute came off but I survived, and that was…It really…I don't know, I feel like we should talk again." A long pause. "Anyway I'm not really sure why I'm calling, but…"

I hang up. I fall asleep on the couch, staring at that starry galleon, which is either all in my mind or is a brand new constellation. I wake briefly at 4 am to the sound of many heavy wings flapping by some distance above my apartment roof, and a solitary flute somewhere out in the streets. I press my face into my pillow, and go back to sleep, thinking:

Is it bigger now?

 

And what is "it"?, I ask my sleeping, shadowy mind. What is "it", graffiti man? Your dick? Something as simple as that?

I want to find this person and force the truth out of them. I would resort to violence without hesitation. I know I have it in me.

 

"Jeff."

"Yeah."

"Are you getting enough sleep lately?"

"I doubt it. Why?"

"Well, you're tired just about all the time."

"Sometimes I don't go to bed when I should, yeah."

"Are you stressed?"

"I don't know. Probably. Maybe I just need you to come tuck me in at night."

"Say the word, handsome. You know I will."

"Well, actually…I mean I have to work pretty early."

"Right."

"This job takes more focus than you would think."

"Yeah."

"Maybe next week though…"

"Sure."

 

The wind is arctic, clawing at my face and penetrating my thick ski coat. I crash through a cluster of brush and emerge onto my favorite rock. I am on the peak of Little Mountain, ten minutes from my home in Mount Vernon, Washington. I am Sixteen. I am reeling.

The sun explodes through the clouds on the distant horizon. The colors are not of this world. I stare at it, and the frigid wind peels tears back from my eyes and dries them on my cheeks. My God it's beautiful. Everything. Terrible. Beautiful.

 

"Is it gonna work?"

"Yeah!"

My friend Mike and I look back and forth at each other, grinning. We've tried this a few times, and our moms have told us to stop, but this time, I can feel it.

"One, two, three."

Waving our arms like birds, we jump off the hood of my dad's truck. I squint my eyes shut. I believe it will happen, and yes, it will happen. Why shouldn't it?

We halt a few inches above the grass. We waver, rising and falling a little in the air, then we drop to the grass and erupt with laughter.

 

I run into the girl from the show at a grocery store. She has a six pack of beer in her hand, and she walks right up to me, thrusting it out. "Will you buy this for me?"

"Oh—hi," I say, somewhat stunned.

"Will you buy this?"

"What?"

"I just realized I don't have any money, and I really need a drink. I'll pay you back sometime."

"Um…"

"Come on. I'll be your friend."

I let out a bewildered chuckle. "Ok, sure." I take the beer from her, and buy it. She is waiting for me outside in the parking lot. She grabs a can from me, some kind of cheap domestic shit, and takes a long drink.

"Thanks," she says.

I open one myself and we stand there drinking canned piss in the middle of the dark parking lot. I have no idea what to say.

She drinks her beer like she's taking medicine. Tossing it back, swallowing hard. She finishes it and takes another can, then walks over to the corner of the store and sits down on the curb. Finally I think of something to say. "So what's your name?"

"Ariel."

"Ah. Like the Little Mermaid."

She rests her beer on her knee, dangling it between two fingers, and sings the tune from the Disney movie, a rising scale of "ah"s.

I stare at her, feeling a warm buzz flooding my stomach. Her voice is smooth and smoky, a soft, lazy, jazz purr.

"Wow," I mumble, and take a long drink to hide the weird grin on my face.

"What?"

"Very nice, Ariel."

She smiles and gives me a bird-like little head-tilt. "Why thank you."

She is looking off down the street somewhere, taking occasional sips of beer. I am staring at the side of her face, and I know she can feel it.

"I'm Jeff."

Without acknowledging this she stands up and throws her empty can into a shopping cart. "Thanks for the beer," she says, and starts walking toward the street.

Confused, I say, "Hey!"

She looks back and raises her eyebrows in mock curiosity. "What?" she says, and keeps walking.

I watch her until she disappears around a corner. Her shiny black heels give her walk the same wide swagger as her dance. On the street, something small and strange dashes under the streetlamp, a cat-sized thing with four legs and feathers. It's there for a second and then gone in the shadows. I stare after it, feeling a little drunk, and not nearly as surprised as I should be.

 

The next day Ariel calls me.

"Hello sir," she says.

"Ariel?"

"Of course."

I'm silent for a moment. "How did you…?"

"What?"

I'm fairly positive I never gave her my number, but I don't feel like asking such questions, so I just say, "Nothing. What's up?"

"So Jeff. I like you. Do you want to go to a show tonight?"

"Um…Sure, yeah."

"It's at the Croc again. Patient Patient. Heard of them?"

"Yeah, I think so. I've heard the name."

"Oh my God, Jeff. They're fucking amazing. Meet me there?"

"Yeah. Definitely."

"Ok. Bye."

I meet her at the front door of the venue. She is standing there with her arms crossed, scowling. "Hey," she says.

"Hey. What's wrong?"

"I can't get in."

One of the corner's resident homeless guys approaches us with a paper cup. He is such the archetypal Homeless Man that it's almost comical, tattered rags, toes poking through shoes, he's even wearing a ragged brown top-hat like a nineteenth-century hobo. He says, "Can you spare a dime, brother?"

Ariel ignores him and scans the corner crowd, still scowling.  I stare at him, my eyes narrowed with interest. I'm fairly certain his beard is taped on. It's so bushy it completely covers his mouth.

"Hey man," I say, starting to smile. "Is that a fake beard?"

"I got no choice, brother," he mumbles. "Ain't nothin' underneath it."

"Excuse me?"

He lowers his eyes to the ground, and reaches into his pocket, pulls out a five dollar bill, and stuffs it into my jacket. "God bless you, brother," he mumbles, and walks away.

I watch him until he disappears around a corner.

"Jeff."

Ariel is looking at me, still scowling.

"Yeah?"

"This sucks. I can't get in."

I blink a few times and turn to face her. "What do you mean? Why not?"

"It's fucking twenty-one and up. I thought it was an all-ages show."

"You're not twenty-one?"

"Christ no. I'm seventeen."

I stare at her. I chuckle. "What?"

"Forget it. Come on, let's go." She starts walking back the way I came.

"Um, Ariel…" She's walking, and I follow her.

"Where are you parked?"

"Where are we going?"

"I don't know. Let's go to Gasworks."

"Where?"

"Gasworks park? Don't tell me you've never been there."

"I haven't."

"Jesus Christ, Jeff. Where's your car?"

"Right here."

I unlock my car and she hops in. The remnants of our six-pack from the night before are on the floor, and she grabs one, starts drinking it in the car.

I sit down and look at her. "Listen, Ariel… You're really seventeen?"

"As of August."

I shake my head and chuckle again. "God. Ok. Well, I can't…I can't really hang out with you like this."

"Why not?"

"Well, I'm twenty-four."

"So?"

"So…" I trail off and just look at her.

She smiles. "What? Are you planning on fucking me, Mr. Jeff? You don't want to get arrested for statutory rape, is that it?"

I don't know what to say. I just laugh awkwardly.

"Forget it. Don't worry about it. It's not going to happen, and even if it did it's not illegal. Washington's age of consent is seventeen."

"What?"

"Yep. I just learned it in my Human Sexuality class at ECC."

On the street outside the car, a man in a trenchcoat waves to someone walking by, and for a moment his face becomes dark green and metallic, like old, weathered brass. He looks a lot like the statue in the park near my apartment, in fact the resemblance is uncanny. As soon as he passes the other man, his face returns to normal flesh. He reaches his hand into the brick wall of the alley, and disappears behind a cleverly disguised brick door.

"God, Jeff, you think in such a box, don't you? It's not all about sex and laws and social norms and all that shit. It's not even about science and physics and history…grammar, math, geography, whatever. There's room for way more in this world, right? You of all people should know it's bigger than that."

I stare at her. My mouth opens a little.

"Come on," she says, bucking forward in her seat. "Let's go to the park. It's awesome."

 

So I drive her to Gasworks Park. We sit on an enclosed bench on a pier that overlooks Lake Union and the entire Seattle skyline, surrounding us in a glittering panorama. For the first time in a while, I feel love for this city.

We sit there and drink the last of the six-pack and smoke Kools. She tells me horrific stories about her "childhood", still in progress, of course, the usual modern tale of abuse, divorce, drugs and alcohol. Birds scrape the surface of the water, diving in and out in dark silhouette. I listen in silence.

 Hours later, we stumble back to my car, mildly drunk. Ariel runs through a sprinkler, screaming. I start up my car and she turns on my stereo, but doesn't get in yet. She digs up some Daft Punk on my iPod and stands outside the open car door, dancing in the parking lot. And, well, I dance with her. She does her wild, dreamy sway, spinning in dizzy circles on wobbly stilettos,  and I move next to her, a gangly, awkward man doing gangly, awkward dance moves. But I'm here. I'm smiling, and she's laughing, and I'm here.

"You're quite the dancer, Mr. Jeff!"

"Fucking right I am," I say with dead seriousness, and perform moves somewhere between The Robot and epilepsy.

A meteorite streaks down out of the open sky and strikes the water with a tiny splash and burst of steam. For a moment, in my periphery vision I glimpse the outlines of buildings deep beneath the lake, glassy skyscrapers and strange arches, illuminated briefly by the white-hot glow of the meteorite, then the water goes dark.

 

Ariel sleeps at my apartment that night. She doesn't seem to have any ties to anything. She says she only occasionally stops by her home in Tacoma. She stays out. No job, no school. She goes out, and she stays out. I offer her my bed while I crash in the living room, but after an hour, as I'm nearing sleep, I feel her slide in next to me on my narrow, stiff IKEA futon. Neither of us says anything. We just go to sleep. I hear the wings above the roof again, and the distant flute, joined this time by a clarinet in spooky harmony.

 

I have to work at 7:00 am, so I gingerly slip off the futon and go about my morning activities in careful silence while Ariel lies tucked under the blanket. I make an iTunes playlist called "Ariel is Sleeping" and fill it with gentle music. Sigur Ros. Iron and Wine. It masks the noise of my breakfast and shower, and makes me feel strangely when I look at the small creature snoring softly on my couch.

Work passes in a haze. When I return home, I step in the door to find Ariel sitting at my upright piano, plinking out some simple tunes. She is wearing my black and white striped sweater, and on her tiny frame it becomes a tunic, just barely covering her underwear.

"Hi," she says, and smiles. She plays a simple D scale.

I sit down next to her on the piano bench and look at the side of her face. "Who are you?"

She shrugs, and starts playing something, maybe a Beatles song. She sways slightly from side to side on the bench.

I start playing the low end, trying to match her chords. "Ariel. Something crazy happened to me just before I met you. Did I ever tell you about that?"

She shakes her head, singing softly under her breath.

"I went skydiving, and my parachute came off. I fell twelve thousand feet, and hit the ground, and I barely even got hurt."

She smiles and ruffles my hair. "That's wonderful, Jeff. Really. Good job." She starts playing again.

"Does that make any sense to you?"

"Of course it does."

I stop playing and turn on the bench to face her. "How?"

She sings a few more bars of what I can now tell is "Magical Mystery Tour". Her voice is smooth as skin. "Because look." She gets up and goes over to my window, sweeps open the blinds. Outside, hovering over Elliot Bay, thirty or forty hot-air balloons drift lazily in the golden-red evening light.

I stare in amazement. "Are…those really there?"

"They've been there all day. It's some kind of festival I think."

"This explains how I survived that fall?"

"No…wait a sec."

At that moment, something rises out of the bay. A long snake-like form, dripping water from its ivory white hide, curling upward toward the sun. It ascends hundreds of feet into the sky, above the balloons, and snatches two sea gulls out of the air, then slinks back into the water with barely a ripple. This all takes place in about three seconds.

I stare at the water for a moment, then look at Ariel. "Did that really happen?"

She smiles. "I think so."

"You see this stuff?"

"Yeah."

"Does anyone else see it?"

"I don't think so. Not many."

I point out at the bay. "How could a hundred people not have seen that?"

She opens my window and leans out, resting her elbows on the windowsill and watching the people milling by on Western Ave below. "I think people know when to glance away. They know when to blink."

"Why?"

She shrugs.

"Why do we see it?"

She shrugs, and smiles.

I look out the window again. An airliner moves silently across the sky, cutting it in half with a sharp white line. One of the balloons has my dead mother's name printed on it in white block letters. I swear I can see the pilot waving at me.

 

Ariel sleeps with me again that night. We sit in bed for hours beforehand, drinking vodka and watching a movie. When we shut out the lights, she puts her face right next to me on the bed, and I kiss her. Her lips are firm, and she bites me a little. I taste copper in my mouth.

We clutch at each other there on the futon, and I have the sense  that at seventeen she has done more and been through more than I have at twenty-four, but I find myself unwilling to take anything more from her. This is enough, this is plenty. I press her tiny frame against me, and she's so small she barely exists, she's ephemeral, like a doll, not a person but an idea of a person. A memory, or a premonition.

Eventually we just stop, and the night is over. I lie there looking at the ceiling, somehow satisfied. We lie on our backs and harmonize with the songs on my Sleep Mix, her warm purr blending with my reedy tenor. Our harmonies are brilliant. Unexpected scales, tense, gorgeous fifths and sevenths—we put the original artists to shame.

We sing ourselves to sleep. I dream of falling, free-falling, twelve-thousand feet and then miles, and when I strike the ground I pass right through it, like the surface of water, and continue to fall, deep into the earth, into fire and magma, into the core, and then into outer space, through stars and planets and distant, violent galaxies, through vast reaches of empty black, and into the incomprehensible void beyond everything, the beautiful, terrifying walls of the universe, and then into other worlds, heaven and hell and other places far more wondrous.

In the morning, Ariel is gone.

 

There are no signs or clues. No notes, no clothes or hair pins or any traces that she was ever there. Even the glasses we drank from are all cleaned and stacked back in the cupboard. The vodka, however, is still empty. So is the fifth of Maker's Mark. My head throbs insistently.

I call the number she has been calling me from, and an automated voice tells me it has been disconnected or is no longer in service. I don't know her last name. I don't know where she lives. I don't know anything.

Poof.

 

I realize I haven't gone to work in at least three days. Maybe more. My voicemail is jammed with messages. I probably don't have a job anymore. It doesn't matter. Around noon I get in my car and drive blindly south on I-5. Seattle's awkward mishmash of a skyline fades behind me. The south end's smell of noxious burning rubber floods my car, and I breathe deep.

I stop at a Safeway to get some snacks for the road and to relieve myself. The only restroom is in the cold concrete back-room warehouse, and as I move towards the door, I glimpse from the corner of my eye an employee walking into the small room that must be the manager's office. The room is isolated from the rest of the building, just a square partitioned area in the center of the warehouse, but when the employee opens the door, a square of bright golden sunlight spills out. And I hear the sounds of birds, and running water. The employee steps inside. I dash for the door, but the employee slams it shut behind him. I wrench the handle. It's locked, and feels as solid as a bank safe. I stand there for over an hour, waiting, but no one comes out. I grit my teeth. I slam my fist against the door. My knuckles bleed.

The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away, coming to—

I leave the store without paying for my groceries. I drive south. In one of the more desolate stretches of freeway, I notice an extraordinarily narrow exit that I have never seen before. The mildewy sign above it reads "Exit 0". The street name is "None". From what I can tell, the exit climbs a hill and fades into a forest, concrete dissolving into undergrowth. An ancient, rusty pickup in front of me takes this exit, and disappears, vanishes, among the trees. I flip my blinker and swerve violently across two lanes, but I'm too late, and I'm cut off by the concrete divider.

Everyone is leaving. All the doors are opening and then shutting, and they're all leaving me behind, leaving me here. I grip the steering wheel, and accelerate to 90.

The world flies by me in a smear. Sunlight pierces the freeway's pine tree walls, and the liquid blue sky above is criss-crossed with gleaming white jet trails. What is out there? Where are those jets going? How many constellations have yet to be discovered? Spanish galleons and golden robots and three-headed cats? And no, not discovered, discovery implies ownership and use. Not discovered. Just noticed. How much beautiful madness has yet to be noticed? I accelerate to 100.

The horns of my fellow drivers scream in my ears, then fade to a dull hum.

110.

120.

Finally a cop observes me. His siren joins the chorus, the piercing wail of a mad opera singer. Despite my rapidly advancing speed, he gains on me. His lights are the Fourth of July in my rear view mirror.

My car is a 2002 Hyundai with a gutless 4-cylinder engine, but the digital speedometer continues to rise inexorably. 130. 140. The car shakes like a shuttle launch.

Clinging tenaciously to my bumper, the cop screams at me through his loudspeaker.

"Pull over!"

And at that moment, my phone rings. My eyes leave the road for several long seconds to stare at the caller ID.

Area code 503. It's Terry.

"Hello?" I shout over the whining engine and roar of the road.

"Hi…Jeff?"

"Yeah."

"Jeff…this is Terry."

"I know…Hi Terry."

There's a pause. "Are you driving? What's all that noise?"

I muffle the phone with my hand as the cop rams me lightly from behind. My free hand works the wheel to dodge cars.

"Yeah, I'm driving. Traffic's a mess. Terry, hey…it's really good to hear from you."

"Yeah, well…I got your messages. And you're right. It's been a long time. So…I wanted to see how you've been."

"Pull over! This is your last warning!"

"Terry, I've been…" I search for the word. A flock of geese flies in a V directly above my car, seeming to keep speed with me. Their necks crane downwards, as if watching eagerly. "I've been unbelievable. Amazing."

"Wow," Terry laughs. "I don't think I've ever heard you answer that question with anything but 'Ok'! "

"Well…I guess my vocabulary is bigger now." 

The cop rams me hard. The car shimmies briefly out of control, but I correct it with a twitch of my wrist. Distantly, I wish I had a hands-free set for my phone.

"You said something about a skydiving accidentwhat was that about? You went skydiving?"

I chuckle. "That's a pretty interesting story that I'd love to tell you about in person."

There's a long pause. When she speaks again her voice is tentative. "What are you doing today?"

In my rear view mirror I see the cop pull back for another ram. But as he accelerates, I accelerate. The gas pedal is long-since pressed to the floor, but I watch the speedometer climb like a clock in a world where time has come unhinged.

140.

160.

180.

The car stops shaking. The hiss of wind and crazed snarl of tires on pavement fades into a smooth, harmonic tone. A perfect 5th, with tense, gorgeous overtones.

200.

230.

The cop and his fireworks disappear into the rear distance. The road in front of me is almost entirely empty.

  "Well…I'm not really doing anything, Terry. Just going for a drive."

Terry says, quietly, "Um…would you like to meet for coffee somewhere? I know it's a long drive from Seattle but…"

A road sign flashes by in my periphery vision.

 

ENTERING OREGON

 

I say, "It's not that long of a drive."

"Well, great. So…"

My speedometer has topped out at 300. I am moving at the speed of a human body falling through the atmosphere. I am freefalling, horizontally.

I smile. "I can be there in 5 minutes."

 

We meet at a small café at the base of the Wells Fargo Building, a towering edifice in the center of downtown Portland. I request this. I say, "Let's meet at a tall building somewhere. I want a view. I want to be able to see everything."

"Ok," she says, and there is such a smile in her voice, such pleasant surprise and curiosity, that I wonder just what kind of person I've been. Have I wasted every single year. Have I. Have I. And how do I stop. How do I reverse. What the fuck do I do now.

We meet at the coffee shop. We reunite. She looks exactly like she did in that bar in Bellingham, so many hundreds of years ago. We get our coffee to go, and take the elevator to the top floor of the building. I stare at her while we ascend, and she stares back. We both wear puzzled grins.

At the top of the building, forty-one floors above the earth, we stand on the observation deck and lean against the rail. We sip our scalding hot coffee and look at each other. Time is curling back on itself. I expect that when we get back in the elevator and the doors open on the first floor, it will not be the first floor, it will be somewhere else. But there are so many ways to move up and down…stairs, ladders, parachutes…

   I lean hard against the rail, and chug the rest of my coffee, feeling it scorch the inside of my mouth, savoring the feeling. "Terry," I say. "Do you want to see something?"

"What?"

"Something amazing."

"Sure."

In the building across the street, a few stories down from me, I see Ariel standing in a window, framed dead-center like a portrait. She looks up at me and smiles. She waves. I wave back.

"Watch this, Terry," I say, and I jump off the building.

Now the doors are opening. The locks break and the handles finally turn. The building's windows fling open as I fall, and people lean out and blow kisses at me, they shower me with roses like a conquering matador. I am diving through the stars, and the constellations dive with me, laughing, throwing their spears and shooting their arrows at the empty dark. Ariel sings the Beatles, echoing in space, and Terry claps her hands with delight. I am six, I am sixteen, I am sixty. The world is vast, and I can fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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