Flying and falling in dreams is not uncommon, I know. Although it’s been years, I have fallen and flown in many of my own. But the falling was always a good thing, and the landings lucky, if not sublime — soft meadows, gentle slopes, white clouds — a blessing in the face of unexplained dangers. This story, though, is not about that kind of falling. Then again, maybe it is. It is not a great story, heaven knows. In fact, after it was written in 1996 or 1997, it was rejected by editors a total of fourteen times. And yet, for all I know, that might well mean that it is a great story. Either way, it is based very closely on personal experience. The names have been changed. So have the people behind them. Profoundly. Irrevocably. So have I.
I Feel Like I’m Falling
The quiet was almost unbearable. After a terrible, rainy week in San Francisco, and in my hurry to get home from the airport, I had forgotten how lonely our house had become.
My wife’s death greeted me at the door, anxious to know where I had been and what I had been doing. When I couldn’t explain, its fingers retraced the lines in my face, like a blind woman seeking images she can nurture in the dark.
Even with the windows closed, the ocean’s briny smell had found its way inside. The rooms were cold and damp, like the salt-lined caves under the coast highway.
I turned on the lights and built a fire. There was enough wood on the back step to last the night and most of the next day, even if I left the stove open. After that, I would have to bring in more from the old shed at the foot of the property.
Too tired for much else, I opened a can of vegetable soup and put it on to warm. In the refrigerator, I found a crumbling wedge of sharp cheddar, and a plastic container of plain white rice. It wasn’t until I had pried off the lid that I remembered how old the rice was: I had made it a week before my trip south, and eaten only a few bites. I scraped it into the garbage bag under the sink.
When the soup was ready, I sat on the braided rug in front of the stove and started to eat. A stack of unopened mail winked at me from the arm of the couch. A tiny wad of lint, suspended by the heat, floated and bounced across the tile behind the stove. With a gasp, it reached the heat-bleached floorboards near the wall on the other side, where it was left to wait for a gust from the door, or the turbulence of my passing footsteps.
Since my wife’s sudden, horrible, cruel, wasteful death from a brain tumor five weeks earlier, I had been unable to touch the power button on our stereo in the corner of the room. I wanted music, but was afraid of it. I could bear it in someone else’s car, or in the lab at work, but not at home. Twenty-four hours a day, while she was dying, Karen listened to music; and, while I pressed a damp cloth against her cheeks and neck and forehead, and dabbed water on her parched lips, I listened with her. During the last week of her life, I could hear the infinite silence of her pending death between every note that was played. The music helped her rest, and I was grateful for that. But later, when she died, it seemed to lose its purpose. A friend who had been helping us turned off the stereo. For the first time in weeks, I noticed the sound of the wind, and heard the faucet dripping in the bathroom sink. There were footsteps in the gravel alongside the road past our house. A dog barked. The steady rhythm of the surf rose up; it became louder and louder, until it bore the house away like an ark. When I realized we were leaving Karen behind, and that she had already been lost in the mist, I started to cry. For months, I knew she was going to die. Now that she was gone, I knew nothing, nothing at all.
A week before Karen died, my sister and her husband drove up to visit. When my wife heard their voices at the door, she opened her eyes and said, “Carol and Dave.”
As I was letting them in, I said, “You’re right. Carol and Dave are here.”
“Carol and Dave, Carol, Dave are here. Are you here, Carol and Dave are here.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Carol and Dave.”
My sister and her husband came inside. Karen’s hospital bed was in the living room, where she could see the sky and trees through the west-facing windows. They took off their coats and draped them on the chair by the door. By the time they reached her bedside, Karen’s eyes were hidden again behind swollen, puffy lids; when my sister took her hand and said, “Hi, Karen,” a smile tugged at my wife’s lips, but her eyes remained closed.
“Carol and Dave, Carol here, and Dave, Carol and Dave are here.”
Her smile died away, but her lips kept moving, as she repeated the two names over and over again.
The visit lasted an hour. During that time, Dave spoke only once, when he said, “I’m sorry we didn’t come earlier.” After Carol, he held my wife’s hand for several minutes in absolute silence, then watched for the rest of the time from his chair by the window as I tried to keep Karen comfortable.
When the time came for them to leave, Dave and I shook hands, then he hugged me and said, “This is a treasure. Everything happening in this room. Cherish it. Keep it. These moments with Karen are a gift.”
Then he started to cry.
They put on their coats and left. I watched the car as it backed out of the driveway.
When they were gone, I turned around and looked at my wife. Like a baby, she was changing every hour.
“Carol and Dave are gone,” she said, “Carol and Dave, Carol and Dave are gone, gone the Dave, and Carol is gone.”
That night, after returning from my trip to San Francisco, which was arranged out of kindness by my employers, I couldn’t seem to get warm. A wind had come up off the ocean, in anticipation of a new storm. As it raced along under the eaves and whipped through the firs behind the house, all I could think of was Karen’s grave, and her frail, spent body inside the casket made for her by Marty, one of our closest friends. She had on her favorite blue dress, but it was really suitable for summer. I imagined her feeling cold and starting to shiver, and then trying to keep herself from it, and to hide it, so I wouldn’t have to see her suffer. There were goose-bumps on her thin, blotchy skin, and an icy drop of water was suspended on the casket lid above her, waiting to fall between her withered breasts. But the drop of water never fell. In my mind it became an eternal tear, a vessel containing all of the anguish and sorrow ever known to man.
When I was absolutely sure there was no more room for wood in the stove, I swept the tile clean and threw the dust and bark into the flames. I even picked up the lint I had noticed earlier, and watched it ignite simultaneously in a thousand different places before it suddenly vanished.
I walked through the house, stopping to listen in each of our rooms, including the tiny attic space we had converted into a studio for Karen before her headaches began. She did her drawing up there; there were times I’d have to remind her to come down and eat, she became so absorbed in her work.
In the attic, especially, I felt cold, so cold I thought I might have been running a fever. At the same time, I knew I wasn’t sick. I knew it was my mind that was making me cold, and turning me into a ghost inside my own house.
I sat at Karen’s drawing table. It was only the second time I had been upstairs since her death. The first was when I went in search of a small drawing of hers the printer could use for the funeral service. That day, I found a simple ink representation of a lighthouse on a rocky ledge, with its head thrust into a swirl of gulls.
Her pens and pencils, charcoal, paper, brushes — everything was in place, just as she had left it on the afternoon she came downstairs and said she was feeling dizzy. She spent the rest of the evening on the couch with a headache, and the pain was still there in the morning. “It must be a migraine,” she said, when I brought her some tea in bed. “Oh, my eyes hurt. And the top of my head, here.” There were dark circles around her eyes, and her voice was weak. Two days later, still not quite herself, she had another headache, and collapsed in the kitchen. She had been trying to put a new roll of paper towels onto the plastic holder next to the refrigerator.
She never went back upstairs, or touched any of her drawing things again. She wanted to work, I know, but as the weeks passed she lost her ability to focus on what her mind was telling her to do. She listened, but couldn’t act. Her illness ran out of control; the doctors tried their best to shrink the tumor; there were countless lesions on her brain; if the radiation made any disappear, ten, one hundred, one thousand, took their place.
At one end of the table, pinned to the surface by a small, flat stone she had retrieved from the beach, was a piece of paper Karen had torn from her notebook. I picked up the paper and read the words, I feel like I’m falling. The rest of the sheet was blank.
I feel like I’m falling.
There was no way to tell when she had written the note. During our ten years of marriage, she had probably thrown away thousands of scribbles just like it. She called them “reminders,” saying more than once that they constituted the only filing system she could trust. The very act of writing something down was enough to preserve her idea, and to initiate a process of transformation that was eventually revealed in her art.
I feel like I’m falling.
Was the note written a few days before her suffering began, a few months, or a year?
Was falling a good thing, or bad?
What was she feeling?
A strong gust of wind rattled the window at the end of the room. As I got up and walked toward it, the first new drops of rain were being driven against the glass. I looked outside. Below, the light from the kitchen window revealed part of the graveled path that ran along the south end of the house. Strewn with fir needles, leaves, and twigs, it faded into the darkness, and then disappeared altogether.
I turned away, convinced Karen would arrive through the mist at any moment, look up, and find me in the attic.
I went to the door and turned off the light.
I listened a minute or two longer, then closed the door and went back downstairs.
That night, I didn’t go to bed.
I stayed by the fire instead, and waited for the storm to pass.
Early Short Stories, 1996 or 1997