How often has she wakened with just this sense of impending disaster, of needing to leave but not knowing how to go? This time leaving the bedroom, even for the garden, brings no relief. The pressure of ceiling on crown remains the same, leaving her just enough room to stand tall with head erect, but what about the next day?
On the staircase, in the hallway, rubbing the eyes. Something in them that will not go away–or missing.
Downstairs, on the way to the garden, where she goes when she wants to get away, she is not surprised not to find them. Have they left her behind?
Perhaps she’s only wakened at the wrong time of day, an evening, spent a night, a day, in bed as years ago she did. But breakfast is over: it is time for a cleaning.
How do we know? By the absence of feeling, good or bad, in her stomach. And other parts? The sense of short time since rising. The knowledge of a sun out there, but lower than usual. Not yet, perhaps never to be, a ball on the horizon. Were she to look out a window, clouds would cover it.
Ceiling, twenty thousand, two thousand, two hundred, two. Visibility zero. But the ceiling makes no difference any more anyhow–not in modern flight or warfare. We do it with instruments, Father says.
With Father did you ever take in the factory?
Of course. There was a tour.
And did you know what they made there?
I was too young. And I just smelled, never tasted.
Well, it wasn’t chocolate.
Wondering why she is so hungry she tries to recall what she ate just an hour ago. But what difference does minute or hour make? Her watch is upstairs, in her room on the chest where she left it.
Someone enters–Mother. Or was she already standing there, blending into the corner, her soft flesh fading, assuming any shape? Her apron still on, her hand grasps a large spoon that should be dirty. The hand is smudged with pancake batter.
What could one say about Mother–that she is a mother like any mother, with her apron, her spoon, her worried mouth, her question? We could not hear her speak to say, what could she want to say: Up at this hour, she said, why aren’t you in bed?
What did Mother see outside through the kitchen cafe-curtained window over the sink that so upset her–a napkin, a dirty sheet, a flag?
How would Mother look with a pan turned over her head in that condition, still holding the spoon but having washed the sticky hand, would she be fit for a party?
But the evening’s almost over. Whoever goes out goes out soon. We watch them go.
And wearing such clothes? Where’s your bathrobe? In fact, where’s your nightie? Perhaps underpants are confining, but surely some decency?
It would matter to Father–her state of mind and body had always mattered, he’d looked at her, he’d listened to her–but not in this present state of alarm. Father, standing in the center of the room, his head short inches away from the ceiling. We missed his obligatory entrance, or, with Mother or without her, he has been here all along.
He touches his hat, straightens his shoulders. The gestures should be–but are they ever?–familiar.
We’re in it, he says. Up to our necks, he says.
He is wearing a tie, the wrong colored tie, but it was too dark in the closet to see what he was putting on. Under the circumstances he’s in excellent shape. All the buttons shut tight on his uniform. Cardboard lunch tucked under his arm, comforting. From the In-flight Kitchen, not Mother–or is it the Open Mess?
She should be in bed asleep
Don’t worry, he reassures, the descent of the ceiling makes everything darker, but we anticipated as always, we prepared. Deployed ourselves with strategy.
Has he really grown these three inches and lost the belly of his age?
But our necks?
Mine’s on the line, he says. Or on the dot. The smile of his knowledge. (At last, a prime target.) Or it will be when I go out the door. Yours will be protected, swathed, muffled below.
But isn’t one ceiling enough?
Only for me, he says, and runs through the door before the roar of ceiling falling.
Her lids falling are unsupportably heavy, but she cannot lie down again, can only stumble through the house, bruising her toe on the stairs, her knee on the bannister, as she goes down. (No wonder she is unaware of her partial nakedness.)
Through the crack at the bottom of her eyes, she sees Mother holding the spoon about to stir.
Will Mother understand when she says–
This dream woke me in the night, she says.
I told you.
Even without being told, she’ll find out soon enough where Father is. She falls into his waiting arms. The last tension of restraint abandoned, she sobs in his arms. Does he cry, too? Her head against his throat, she cannot see.
Can’t she go with him? She cannot go with him.
Where I go, I go alone, he says. That’s the way it’s always been.
Washing her hands, Mother watches them. She has stopped asking a long time ago.
Father draws back, straightens his hat, shakes off the rough nails that catch on his sleeve. Despite his look of regret, his pallor, the nervous excitement of his eyes and hands, the feet in their waxed but unshined shoes, we cannot intuit his sentiments and sympathies. No predominant or unambiguous emotion claims his face.
Does his necktie feel too tight? He loosens it, but we can infer nothing from the gesture.
Where is he going precisely? Only he knows, if he knows.
There is always time for one last question, but this is the last time.
What will I do? she asks.
What you want.
Like all of us.
But some more than others.
Myself, for example.
But I can’t go with you.
But you don’t want to.
She would argue, but he wouldn’t be convinced: May I go with you to a party, on a boat, on a bicycle, in the car, to a museum, to a park, on a vacation–or is that asking too much?
It’s asking what everyone asks.
He extends his hand as if offering it to shake. Mother has disappeared.
What will you give me?
He laughs. The same old question, but notice she no longer says bring.
How about a gun?
To think he could be amused at a time like this. He isn’t quite, but seldom have we seen him so nearly.
You’d want an obsolete weapon, he says. Be my guest. It won’t do you any good, you know–against anyone else. But you can embrace it, cling to it, wrap yourself around it as if it were a tree or something else. If you do that, be careful, unload it first.
I’ll be careful.
The closet is in the basement, but in these perilous times half its contents have been moved upstairs to a triangular cabinet in the corner that used to hold china. Father reaches for the handle, his hand mirrored two or three times in the diamond panes.
The cabinet just fits into the space between floor and ceiling. The door so long and narrow rattles as if all its forty panes are ready to fall out, louder than dice and harder than bones. So dark is the room one can scarcely see what’s inside.
It’s been in the family for years.
Longer than she has. Longer even than Mother?
No one really likes it.
Her tongue stretches out, moves around her mouth. She tastes the sweet syrup on her cheeks. Oh, what pancakes. She remembers now having had them for breakfast, however long ago, though now she feels empty with no prospect of relief. Did she ever really like them? Is there time left to find out?
Father is on his knees, the first time she’s seen him in such a position, fumbling with some cases of scuffed black leather. He is just rearranging (even at this late hour), that is all, not really looking. The stars, the shells, the bars, the ribbons–not for her to see, and he is allowed them only once a decade.
She imagines he is weeping, but she knows one can never read Father’s face from his back, or his feelings from his face.
He stands up, straighter than before, tie, hat, everything in place, ready to go.
Reaching past muskets and carbines–she would want something longer–for an old thirty ought six.
It’s all yours, he says. Their arms stretch toward each other, hands grasp the barrel but do not touch.
He bends again, comes up with a box of cartridges.
Don’t spend them all in one place, he says.
The door rattles for the last time as he shuts it. He touches the key in the lock. It doesn’t matter.
Do you know how to use it?
Did he teach her once upon a time.
He looks once more at the cabinet in the corner. Merely a game, one of the few remaining, but so much pleasure. She remembers rabbit blood on the carpet (what’s black and white and red all over–a blood-stained newspaper), the limp-feathered birds she turned her head from and later enjoyed. The hoarse horn, the dog panting. A gun for each, lots of guns to go around. How long ago was it–five years, ten, fifteen–that she knelt after Brother at the wooden bench and sighted down the barrel. Her shoulder shook after she pulled the trigger. No more, thanks. Later at rows of picnic tables they ate turkey and ribs.
Her last glimpse of him, cardboard lunch under his arm, tie lifting three inches off his chest, face looking away from the house, away from the door toward wherever he goes, helpless, unarmed. His hand lingers a moment on the doorknob, but his feet do not hesitate or his breath quicken.
Not knowing how to say it, he has not said it. Had he heard them listening for it? (Some of us know better.)
How does the house feel without him? Empty.
How do their eyes look as he walks away? Cheated.
Defenseless? They don’t think about that anymore.
Now that he’s left, she’s aware of her nakedness under the bathrobe she now removes. She loads her rifle and points it at the window, gray-spotted, beside the door. Through a sheet of gray, outside and in, she sees him a block and a half away. She would run after him but for her lack of suitable clothing.
Two eyelids together, the others apart, she aims at the arrogant fatherly flesh. So much easier than she’d remembered. She touches but does not squeeze the trigger, and lowers her weapon.
Her imagination follows him but not very far. She stops it lest it press beyond its limits. (Her common error.)
There’s still time to leave, but then there’s always time to leave. As long as bones support meat covered with skin. But perhaps at the same time the time to leave has passed. When is, was, our time?
She holds it at her side. She does not loverly caress it, she does not examine it with eyes and fingers to find what she’s forgot: the lessons Father taught her.
I can see her framed in the doorway grasping the barrel. Her head appears to meet the frame, not enough white space, or gray.
She will not retreat into the bedroom, but is she audacious enough to leave the house, to walk down the stairs, out the door, beyond the garden entirely? The turning of her back does not satisfy me.
Once again she enters the living room. She finds Mother crouched in a corner of the couch, looking at a photograph on the wall.
You know him better than I, she accuses.
I knew him not at all.
Mother has nothing to say.
The gold-rimmed oval holds Mother in white or dull ivory. How she’s changed. How long has it been since we’ve seen that over-eager smile, those long, pearly teeth. And Father looking much as he looked today. Hale and confident, a little nervous in his new uniform, about to embark on a new adventure for better or for worse.
She holds the weapon extended, sensing for the first time its uselessness, yet uncertain whether to take it or to leave it. She opens the door and looks out through descending blackness. She would go now, but it is growing late.
Dropping the weapon, she grasps a head that feels too full to support itself. She bears the whole weight of a ceiling that presses inexorably to the floor.
Somewhere does Father still sit, stand, kneel?
This is how it is from now on, something tells her. From now on, but not for long?
Perhaps to protect them or to keep inside her head what must not leave, she holds her ears. On the hassock across from Mother she rocks back and forth, robe modestly covering her knees.
The gun, forgotten, stands in the corner. They would sit like this forever, it seems. But sooner or later one of them will start supper, when the time comes.
-- Kathryn Paulsen has been published in New Letters, Cottonwood Review, Cedar Rock, New York Times, L.A. Times, Boston Globe, Newark Star-Ledger, and various magazines. She has been awarded residence at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, and other artists’ retreats. Though she currently lives in New York, she grew up all over the country as a part of an Air Force family.