Arthur Haupt

 

Twelve Eternities

 

 

I always love you.

Gazing out through the gauzy curtains, looking for you everywhere. Rushing down Main Street's buckled sidewalk, past people waiting for the stoplight to change, the whole morning sky reflected in the drugstore window. Searching every sun-dappled street in case you're there.

You must be. Maybe today's the day, maybe you're already back in town and I just don't know it yet.

Remembering the town park on that warm Saturday night that lies back at the beginning of the world. What it was like, standing awkwardly with you under the dense, breathless tree. Safe from the party lights, the sheltered patch of darkness starting to feel all ours, while dance music drifted over from the outdoor bandstand. Aimless talk about summer vacation soon and how your football practice would start in August—oh yeah, I heard 'bout that.

Songs floating on the air, the smell of the leaves close around us. Holding our pop bottles, shifting from one foot to the other. Night blossoms. Soda-pop fizz.

That I had a chance with you.

How can all that be gone from the world? Once you were just a boy who lived on the far side of town. Somebody I barely knew in grade school, though one year I told you with little-girl prissiness to be "grown-up" and not cut through people's yards anymore.

Yet here I am, doing it! Today, sheets on backyard clotheslines blaze white in the sparkling air. A radio plays through an open window. Beyond the last house on Fayette Street, Sid's Texaco garage comes into view. Then the Mickel Funeral Home, where Mr. Mickel used to wait, anxiously pacing the parking lot in his dark suit, hands clasped behind him. Waiting.

And now the park, where a green-rusted cannon still aims across the empty space where the bandstand used to be. From the tree's cool shade come shrieks of laughter. Kids! So small and silly-acting, and I envy them. The tree hasn't changed at all. Why aren't you here?

 

* * *

 

One school afternoon a hundred years ago, old Mrs. Haughton tried for the last time to teach us about great poetry. Reading aloud from the worn-out book in her hands " . . . sans eyes sans teeth sans everything . . . " while the junior-English class tittered or doodled or looked out the window or waited in dread for the inevitable interrogation. "Sans" meant Without—important to know that—and the blinding lance of sunlight from outside filled up with dancing motes of chalk dust.

I fidgeted in my seat, hardly listening, too feverish with hope and hopelessness about last Saturday night. Wondering whether anything more would ever happen with us. And as that class about poems and "sans" droned on and on, all of a sudden I took out my school pen and wrote out two lines to you. And passed the folded scrap of paper behind me, waiting and waiting until Mrs. H. turned to the blackboard again before I dared look back and sneak a glimpse of your face, that hot June day.

And that was the most important thing that ever happened.

Then the school year was over. You had a summer job at the farm-implement dealer and you came over to see me just the way you said you would. You took me to the movies, too—the only thing you could think of for us to do, and I'd always say yes to anything. The movies were all make-believe, cartoon carnivals followed by a Western where men in cowboy hats got shot and tumbled down motionless on the saloon floor. But you were fascinated, you chomped down strawberry twists and forgot all about me next to you in the dark.

Your kisses gave you away, though. I could tell when you were happy, or just practicing your technique, or felt dazed like I felt because everything had happened so fast. And sometimes there'd be a pause when suddenly you were unreachable. Distracted by something silent and far away from where we stood pressed against each other on the unlit street corner, where we'd stopped just a moment ago.

But when our walk resumed, our hands slipped back together again. My hand would nestle back in your warm, safe grip, and if you got ahead of me a little, one or two fingers would stay linked, as though something would happen to us if the chain broke even for a minute. Amazing how quickly I got the hang of it. Like I'd always known how to do it.

Back in the spring, I'd stood before the mirror at home and wished and wished I could be somebody else. Now without warning, everything was so changed there was nothing I could be but myself. I'd go to the store for my mother and sense everyone's eyes watching me different. Because they knew, they knew. Though all anybody ever said to me was, Don't moon so, child. I wanted to keep secret from the town, keep my eyes lowered, yet my face burned so that people couldn't help but see, this new happy-sad pride. But soon you'd make it all OK again—only twelve eternities to go!

I was taller and older, yet never felt so small and weak. Because all around me, the telephone poles, the housetops, the clouds soared twice as high as before.

 

* * *

 

The July afternoon we escaped into the countryside. Breezes played all around us in the empty, new-mown hayfield. Nobody knew. And matching you stride for stride, for a second I felt like the next step would be on the air itself, invisible right before us but surely solid just the same. I didn't tell you then because I was so afraid of sounding silly—was that silly of me? High above us dashed small, darting, happy birds. Swallows chased each other, flew down the sky.

I can't remember who started playing tag that day under the high sun. Or why. Only that we didn't get tired for ages and you never got tired, anyway. You were It, or maybe I was, both of us laughing, too dizzy to stand anymore, falling down together in a heap. You squeezed my neck and rubbed my bare tanned arm like one fellow athlete kidding another, then kissed me on the mouth.

The wild grass felt dry and prickly. Well, now what? What's going to happen next?

Autumn, and we were official. I could walk beside you down the school corridor, cheer with everybody else in the bleachers while uniformed players milled beneath the far-off goalpost and you were one of the uniforms. High school stuff. But what I remember is the stinging-cold Saturday I went over to your house, and they told me you'd already left to do chores at your uncle's farm. But they'd take me along when they went to pick you up, OK?

And in the barnyard I saw you streaming with blood. But you were way too busy with the slaughtered hogs to pay me any heed—helping to hoist their slippery, stone-heavy carcasses up by the hocks to be scalded and scraped and butchered and rendered down. And their eyes were milky, lashes all matted, their blood smoked in the trampled mud. Strong, you derided me—What? What'd you say? Did you say 'ICKY!'?? Laughing, though.

And one Sunday after church—still cold then, or had winter passed?—saying Hi to you on the church steps. But casual, because I was with my parents and for all their guessing, all they knew for sure was that you were the football player who took me to homecoming dances and movies—and that you came from good family and had your license and were supposed to be a responsible driver and all. Already you were talking up becoming a mechanic and saving to buy some truck and get it running for your business, when you had a business. (And the truck came to be, just as you'd said. And I was happy to sit beside you in it, and when you cut the engine and set the brake, that meant we were going to make out in about two seconds.)

I followed you off to a quiet part of the churchyard, and it didn't matter what we talked about as long as we were talking. But you abruptly changed the subject to, Would you spend the night here? I didn't know what to say to that, and you went on, Are you scared of spirits, like Somebody the Friendly Ghost in the comix? And I answered right back, I'd spend a thousand nights here if you were with me. And your kidding oh-yeah grin—Ooh-oooh-Wooooo . . . And me—Quit that, be nice.

But a minute later, Daddy's harsh whisper was calling me down, the only thing I remember about him anymore. Because I'd been trying to prove something or get your attention, dashing around the graves, prancing right in front of the tombstones when I should be respectful, act my age—Don't be so giddy, girl!

I felt shamed. I really did want to be respectful and good the way he wanted—and despite everything, deep inside I liked being with my family, belonging with them there and sure the day would come when I'd have my own family and magically know the right things to do, as they had known, and all of us would go on and on . . .

But that Sunday it was hard to be grown-up and polite and say good morning back to people when they were invisible to me—in their stuffy clothes, wheezing and tiresome and old and their hearing aids showing—and all I wanted was to keep my eye peeled to make sure you hadn't left yet. As a result I got sneak-attacked by a smacking kiss from the rouged wheezy lips of Great Aunt Mia, who surrounded me in a stifling bath‑powder and false-teeth cloud. I couldn't breathe and kept staring at the bulbous hairy mole that was always a landmark on her wrinkled cheek. And her eyes like frosted glass, earnestly searching my face for—what?

I had no idea, then, the reasons grownups did things like that. Why they dress in their Sunday best or lay out churchyards and are drawn to them. Years would pass before I truly understood why they take so seriously what happens to people in the end. The way people are taken away from us at the same time everything is taken away from them, and yet this must nonetheless be treated as "natural" and "inevitable" and "a sign" and "our cross to bear" and all like that, until our turn. All of them so quiet and forbearing about it, this thing worse than anything .

They were in no hurry to leave and chatted on in that placid noontime. But I had stopped noticing them, and the churchyard, and where you'd vanished to—because while I stood by myself on the walk there, a hot and cold feeling had begun to pour through me. My knees turned to water and none of the people nearby could tell because they were so blind. Suddenly I was standing in a silent wind that only I felt, and the wind was so sure and powerful it could bend me like a sapling, make me do something crazy—anything at all. And this feeling was connected with my need for you but it was more than that, it was bigger than you or me or anything. And it had been here all the time, pouring through me without ceasing, the same way it poured past the trees and sky—too big to be seen, the secret behind everything, and I had just discovered it a moment ago.

Did I already know that a year later I'd wear a wedding dress on that same ground? Or that our parents would oppose us every inch of the way, then one day start talking about helping us to rent the rundown farmhouse you found? Maybe the only thing I knew for certain was that a day without you made my hands and breast turn to ice.

For no matter how the invisible wind had changed me, I could never completely shake my doubts and fears—about you and what might happen whenever you left my sight to work on windrowers and harvesters all over the county. And more than once in the months after we married, walking through town I would glimpse that battered truck of yours going along Main. I kept it in view as long as I could. Where had you been? Where were you headed? The truck moved on, slowed at the light and turned and disappeared. What about me? What was going to happen to me? Why not take me too? And in moments like that the mask slipped from our shining future and revealed it as vast and sad.

Like our afternoon in the July hayfield turned out. Stretched out in the stubble, you looked off at the summer trees. How tall's a tree, I heard you say. A hundred feet? A hundred and fifty feet? I couldn't answer that one. You looked back at me, your brow furrowed, puzzling at your own question.

Shading our eyes, we gazed up into that zenith blue so bottomless it seemed like night . . . And those clouds? How far away are they? The huge blooming white ones that swell ever higher to catch the sunlight raying across the gigantic emptiness up there. What would they feel like if we could touch them? Do clouds feel like anything, is there anything there to touch? . . .

But the longer I looked, the farther away I could see they really were. Thousands of miles high, they march in from the horizon, more enormous than any mountain range. Only their hugeness makes them seem close, their puffed, titanic peaks and towers utterly beyond our reach. The ground darkened by their great shadows all the way from the farthest field to right here, bright and warm a second ago.

Time to go home.

 

* * *

 

Maybe you were always false deep down. Maybe in the years we lived together you never loved me. Maybe you always had some little roadhouse girl in your back pocket.

Or maybe the sky feeling—my very caring about you, my wanting the best to shower down upon you—drove you away. Though love's not supposed to destroy itself that way. "Love Makes the World Go Round" is the way it's supposed to be. "Love You Till the Day I Die" on the radio.

But as time went on, you stayed away from home more and more. Our constant need for money kept you on the move, and other days you'd just . . . wander. And explode at me when I asked you polite to please come home earlier or stay home just this one day, or I complained about the blueblack grease crammed under your fingernails while across the table you wolfed down your supper in silence. You seemed happiest behind the wheel of the truck, tools rattling in back, or during our evenings, standing in our kitchen with a cup of coffee telling me about people you'd seen, places you wanted to go, the bright prospects ahead for us. But there were other nights, nights that stretched later and later and still you weren't home, and I imagined I must have this rival or that rival, or some calamity must have befallen you. Nothing had happened, of course. As you said, it was just another of my false alarms—as you said, you could take care of yourself very well. But why did you need to go out at all? No answer, and my heart sank like a stone and I began to fear the future and what it would be.

I lay alone in our narrow bed staring uselessly at the repeating-flowers wallpaper—flower, vine, flower—the silent-striped moonlight filling the room, the blotted-out darkness outside framed in the window. Positive that the things which had haunted me so long had at last come true.

And with that dread, fell asleep.

And the next moment awoke in panic in full morning light, and one second later found you curled up next to me, with your sleeping smile that seemed to say, Don't worry, why should you ever worry? Outside, the truck sat parked under the young green oak tree, front wheels cut sharp the way they'd taught you in driver's ed.

But there was one other night.

A night when I persisted and persisted, pouring out everything that had gone wrong with our life together. Until finally you admitted it—you'd been thinking, thinking a lot, how it might be better for both of us if you left for good. And when those words came out, it was like a deafening lightning bolt had split the room. And you were more ashamed and angry and baffled at what you'd said than I was, hearing it.

But you couldn't take it back. Despite all the vows and good intentions in the world, it was clear to both of us that you wanted more than anything to tear away from that sad, echoing, reproach-filled room. There was nothing I could answer, my tongue was paralyzed against the roof of my mouth. And so I lost my last chance for you.

In the months that followed, I tried every trick I could think of to bring you back. I racked my memory for clues of your faithlessness, I picked over all the things I'd done—hair-curlers I'd worn around the house, impossible demands I had made—until I couldn't tell which of us I hated more. And I thought and thought about who Miss X could be, because it was so hard to imagine how anybody could be a rival to what we had . . .

Yet all that time, my rival had been the horizon.

It took me forever to comprehend that, and so realize you were gone for good. And in the end all I had was this. That even though you were lost to me, knowing you were in the world still made each leaf outside glow brighter—at the same time that I wanted to be dead.

On the long-ago day when I sat in Mrs. H.'s junior‑English class, something inside had made me write that note to you and pass it back. When a minute before, I hadn't known I was going to do anything at all.

 

Only one you and only one me

And we were meant to be, see?

 

Yet that feeling, which had seemed so strong it could make me do anything . . . had turned out to be the weakest thing in the world. So weak that all the feeling in the world couldn't hold back a dandelion's tiny parachute zigzagging wind-borne through the sunny air. Maybe that's why an achingness was always a part of it. A teary falling-apart flush.

And you can't be blamed too terribly. Maybe our aloneness is too deep ever to be really fixed. Maybe soon as it is given us, the feeling itself starts to die away, fading and fading regardless of what we do. I was no exception. I was absent-minded about you, cross with you, got you to do things for me just to see if I could. I was bored, I went through the motions. I was giddy and precocious, I outsmarted myself, I got in over my head, I just wanted somebody to kiss and you were available, so . . .

And Great Aunt Mia went crazy and used to wander town, wasn't that the story that was told around? That's what I heard once, third or fourth hand, though I wasn't paying much attention at the time and now can't ever be sure.

 

* * *

 

You were right, too. About this town, about everybody—too small for what you needed, even when you didn't know what it was, only that it lay somewhere beyond the rim of our world.

If you hated being here, I began to hate it too. Shut in, stifled by this small, petty, grasping, inquisitive place that, without you, was just a collection of slack-faced strangers. The stunted streets that ended too soon at the edge of town. I felt like you must have felt—pack a suitcase and leave. It was the least I could do for you! If nothing else, I wanted to be like you and wander through nowhere on my own, no matter if we never saw each other again.

But I never was strong like you. In the end—you must be laughing at this, too—I returned to where I grew up because it was the only thing that belonged to me. I arrived on Main on a frigid spring night with a ring around the moon. And two days later the news came about what had happened to you in some far and nameless place, and when I heard, I knew I would not have to get any older, anymore.

I'm not sorry to be back—this is where I should be. I'm glad I was myself and nobody else, not my parents or Mrs. H. or anybody who ever lived. I have no choice but to be grateful for anything that ever happened to me. I just wish I wasn't alone.

 

* * *

 

And so I'm home.

But it's all made of glass. As I pass through the house where I was born, down the street whose every corner reminds me of you, out past the grain elevators and the railroad tracks—the pair of bluewhite rails reaching to the horizon like a rifle shot. Beyond the town to where the first fields begin, the new day's warmth reaching down into the dark cold earth.

And like every day, I can't help but hope that just when I'm not thinking about it, you'll suddenly appear next to me, newly arrived from the other side of the world, fresh and smiling at my worry. Lord, but you gave me a fright.

Time is so vast.

Yet I know now that it doesn't close in blackly the way I always imagined, blotting out everything so that nothing ever was. Instead, it opens out and out without ceasing. Overwhelming all the careful little plans we make for ourselves, hopes and yearnings for "the future" that now will never, never, never happen.

I know we are left without anything in the end. Sans possessions. Sans eyes. Sans teeth. Sans breath. Like the words of that half-heard poem in a hot classroom a million years ago, when I learned "sans" meant Without. But what I never knew—what nobody knew to tell me—was that when everything else gets taken away, it remains, like a flame that burns so pure it's invisible until dusk makes it shine forth.

The sky feeling.

Wheeee! And I fly through people's backyards where blazing white sheets flap on the line.

I see them downtown. Faces I used to know so well—but older, and they can't return my gaze, of course. Haven't for years. If any of them pity me, it's the memory of me they pity, and that too has dimmed as fewer and fewer recollect either of us anymore. They talk of other matters, of crops and families and youngsters advancing another grade at the new consolidated school, and it's been ages since your name was so much as mentioned on Main.

Each day they seem to recede further, become more distant.

A wise gray mockingbird perches on a mailbox, cocking its head.

A radio plays in the daytime.

The world is bright and hard and small like a diamond.

I was so happy once.

The shade tree stands in the park, no one under its shelter now. Bearing the deepest green of summer on its broad shoulders, each leaf luminous and distinct, outstretched and aching.

And all around me, sunlight glows in the shadowless grass . . .

No one misses me, I am sure of that. Just as I'm sure you're not anywhere near. You must be somewhere, though, wandering behind the horizon, maybe almost home. Even if you're invisible too, I'll know when you are here.

That everything would someday be like this—who could have guessed? Yet everything I ever knew was just a prelude to now.

They can't know. Their eyes don't see me as they pass along the street. They don't remember what we had, how deep and strong it was, and I wish I could just reach out and remind them we were together once and how I love you. Remind them, however fleetingly, of the feeling that pours through them and through everything every moment whether they know it or not, the feeling I am now part of. Yet no matter how hard I might try, the only thing they'd notice would be a momentary quiet as they continue about their town business—and squinting a little against the high sun, feel a freshening shift in the warm summer air.

 * * *

Arthur Haupt is a D.C. copy editor with a background in population reporting who also occasionally write stories.