Warp and Weft
by David Ryan
A construction worker falls from the thirty-fourth floor of a high-rise, or, rather, an unfinished thirty-fourth level of iron and concrete girders, bundles of loose cable, wallboard patchwork, and the improvised twist of wind so high up, wind a muscle the altitude flexes just now, just enough to push the man off balance and send him tumbling through the sky. His harness had not been engaged as it should have been, he’d played fast and loose, and he was tired, he’d been up all night with his infant son. And here, at work, he’d gotten used to the sensation of being barely suspended over the earth, of skating over gravity. Along the fall to his death, his wife and baby boy wave from the twenty-seventh floor, she’s holding their favorite book, Frederick, and on the nineteenth floor his son burps quietly on the shoulder of his memory, and their dog is sleeping on the sofa again on the fifteenth, and now taking up the whole bed on the thirteenth. He’s in Miami Beach for a millisecond with sand in his trunks and a pretty bad sunburn on the seventh floor, and then he’s proposing to Mary on the fifth and fourth floors, but then on the third floor he’s a kid and he’s holding his father’s hand, and then—
A crane operator on the street below witnesses his co-worker, really just a little dot of humanity above, slip and descend and in his surprise he pumps the clutch of the cab and leans into the boom’s joystick, instinctually if irrationally, as if trying with the long, raised arm of the crane to catch the falling man but instead sending the arm crashing into the unfinished building. The crane groans like a dying giant, then cocks and tips on its side and topples. The operator is crushed. His final thought, which sparks through him like the final short circuit of a live wire, is of that morning’s egg-and-bacon breakfast sandwich—the best he’d ever had.
A small, arthritic dog who answers with exasperated glee to the name Troubles circles with a permanent tremor, hobbling around the bed of an old woman dreaming, deep in sleep. Troubles barks once, then returns to the kitchenette just outside the woman’s room, to a food bowl where even the crumbs have been lapped away, a thin, dirty puddle of old water in the bowl beside it. Troubles barks three times at the bowls, demanding satisfaction. There is a loud boom outside, then a crack, and then a groan. The dog pauses, cocks its head at the empty bowl, backs away. The old woman wakes.
She was dreaming about her husband in reverse—no, not as if time were reversing so much as falling back, falling away. Just before the dream slips off from consciousness, she recalls holding his cold hand, the warmth having left his dry, slack fingers. The machines turned off. The hospital staff giving her a moment in the room. Then, in the dream, they’re checking into the hospital after she wakes in bed with him seizing. Then, in the dream, they are sharing a sea trout with root vegetables and rosemary, a nice bottle of Lambrusco. And then, dreaming, they’re closing the sale of their house to a young couple—strangers—the mortgage paid off two decades ago. Then, in the dream, their daughter, who had moved out long ago, has passed her bar examination and calls on the phone. Now, the old woman, much younger, is using the slow cooker her daughter gave them for their thirtieth anniversary, and then in the dream she and her husband are fighting about their daughter, who turned thirteen a few weeks ago, arguing not with each other so much as discussing with great angry force their child’s newfound angst over the slightest things, and then in this dream they are fighting about their daughter, aged six, her schooling, the cost of which is unsustainable, but the public system here is so awful. Then, he’s bringing home so little, there’s a brand-new mortgage—what if they want to have kids someday? And then in the dream he is a young man, with a broken ankle from sliding to third base in a college baseball game, so kneeling isn’t possible—the ring extended, will you? but she says yes before he’s finished his marry me. And finally, in the dream, just before she woke, they were driving on a crisp autumn night, circling the Deerfield mansions north of their own neighborhood, the high canopy of tall oaks and maples and chestnuts, the paned windows glowing a safe, warm orange. A spoon is stirring a cup of chocolate milk and in the dream, on this date, the chocolate milk is her electric joy in this car and he’s the stirring spoon and already she’s in love. Boom.
And she woke, and it’s now, the actual now of her life, but she is still feeling the spoon inside her, the spoon stirs and then it dissolves, leaving just a lingering ache. Time before him, she forgets it now, like this dream, in waking. She hears a groan following this spoon into the ether, away, away …
Troubles has stopped barking and left only the sound of her heart like some ritual drum, pulling and pushing in her chest. She rises from the bed with her heart just behind the fear that wakes in her solar plexus. All that remains of the dream now is fear. In the kitchen she pours a bag of dry food into Troubles’s bowl. The dog attacks the bowl with great Chihuahuaic force, or as much force as a Chihuahua with such a fragile tremor in her bones, such rheumy eyes, can muster. The old woman rinses out the water bowl and fills it with clean water, sets it beside the creature at the food bowl. It’s the middle of the afternoon. The room is hot. She’s recalling a time before her husband, or trying to, but lately she just comes up empty, empty like this hot room. This silence, but for an old dog devouring its food and a clock ticking, and her heart in this silence of now, her heart is so loud. The dog finishes eating, and she leashes it and takes her grocery bag from the peg by the door. She steps out, slowly descending the stairs, where memories lie cracked in the plaster walls, curled in whorls of dust and shadow in each shaky step. Troubles sniffs at the wall, hop-hop-hopping down each stair. Below they emerge onto the hot, bright avenue. An unusually windy day, blustery she’d call it were the air not so scorched. Why is she craving chocolate milk? Well. She’ll add that to the grocery list.
At the corner of 14th Street and Second Avenue, a gust flexes and the woman and her little dog Troubles are lifted like cinders spinning in a mote of air, rising together over the traffic, then the buildings, darting in the wind, twirling over the city like lost half-withered balloons. The woman’s wig slides from its pins and she watches it tumble away from her, falling to the grid of streets below. Troubles lunges against the leash as if chasing after some airborne quarry. Now she can see Central Park, the size of a birthmark. It’s cooler, and they rise and rise, until the woman’s head suddenly taps against some kind of resistance, like a ceiling, though the sky is cloudless today, a surface above her, pressing both firm and soft. And then the crown of her relatively bald head pushes through. There he is, wading toward her. On the shore, all these other lost friends. A boom box is blasting “Goodnight Irene.” Her head now, risen above the cool, clear lake water, her face, shining and slick in the sun, the water having washed over her thick black hair, and then her shoulders push up through the surface. He comes over, her husband, her Lancelot. He reaches out, hand extended, and their hands grab hold, and she feels the gravity of the lake release her to him, their Troubles behind them. The three wade a bit, then slowly swim-walk to the shore.“Goodnight Irene” ends and then there’s this lovely silence, like no silence she’s ever heard before. Someone offers her a glass, and she sips, and the silence returns, filling her, sweet and rich in her throat.
A man sits in front of a dead television screen imagining his own suicide so deeply that, though he’s never owned a gun, his reverie—its desperation having dropped him into a kind of lucid dream—has put a dream pistol in his hand. It’s a shining and tragic police revolver, the same his dad had, this dreamed gun that is all the same quite real. His despair gives it mass, substance, heft. The smooth, polished nickel finish gleams, the lacquered hickory handle pebbled and stiff in the palm of his grip. Here it is, a legacy, passed down to this moment. His father, a polished, nickel-plated barrel. The bullet, a copper-and-brass descendant.
Outside there is a boom, and the percussion enters his lucid depression, much as a bullet in a dream enters a brain, so that he believes the dream he holds in his hand has been executed, that he has pulled the trigger of the dream on himself, and when he hears the distant crack and groan, he believes it’s just the sound of life leaving his body. A more proximate groan, his own. The sound of his soul wrenching free of his body. He’s now entered the afterlife and it’s identical to his prior life. He had been outside, twelve years old, in the backyard, playing with their dog, Champ. A firecracker pop came from inside the house. Champ was the smallest dog, wiry hair, bulging soulful eyes. Utterly devoted and unintelligent, Champ never ran for the ball, just stared up at him as if asking, What, please, tell me? From inside the house, his mother’s No!, as if acts could be reversed by simply scolding, and then the sobbing howl that there would be no reversing this bad behavior.
Now, here, in what he believes is the afterlife, he rises from his familiar chair, goes into a kitchen no different from the living kitchen. He takes a glass from the counter and pours tap water into it. He drinks. There is life all around him. He returns to the blank television screen and sits. He takes another sip of the water and feels the afterlife, perhaps colder than before, sliding down his throat.
This couple, they don’t know each other that well really, they’d met at jury duty. Neither had to serve. But they were there, and she was reading Anna Karenina. He’s never read Tolstoy, but he said Tolstoy, as if. And, in truth, they know each other enough because how much do you really need to know? I mean, he’s young and single and she’s young and single. Sometimes attraction just fills in the blanks. She looks a little like that girl in that television show. They are twisted up in bed, the window open to the chatter and hot breath of metal and city trash and jaywalking and exhaust of Sixth Avenue, the clatter and bombast in their ears like a kind of musical experiment. The girl has a lovely birthmark on her left breast and her skin smells like mown grass, and the boy hasn’t smelled mown grass since he was a kid and her skin reminds him of children. A yard full of children splashing in a kiddie pool. They’d bought beer in the bodega below her apartment—to get to her door you have to enter the bodega, it’s like a 24-hour doorman. Nice. They are a little tipsy, sure. It’s nice here. Their bodies fit nicely together. There is an egg inside her. It was nice of that judge to—I mean, basically—hook them up. And what is a stranger anyway? Aren’t we all, forever? Familiar people hide in their lives for years; anniversaries pass married couples like strangers. Lovers die of old age, never realizing they’d spent their lives not knowing one another. That’s life. And life should be lived, ergo.
The egg has just dropped inside her. She’s above, straddling him. But then the egg inside her body says, no, lean down into him, kiss his forehead, then pull away and lie on your back. Then her hands reach and guide him on top. A stripe of damp hair crosses her face, the tip fallen into her parted mouth, and he reaches down and wipes it back behind her ear and this moves her. They’re good together, they seem already to know each other, don’t they? Like how they move together, how they both were sent home by the judge. The court had all the jurors they needed. He knows nothing of her desire for children. She knows nothing of his ambivalence. A siren on Sixth Avenue below passes her window and a truck shudders. He doesn’t want kids, no, but already she maybe would, yeah, probably with the right person, the right situation. Yes, someday.
Boom comes through the open window from somewhere beyond Sixth Avenue—and then a metallic crack and groan. The girl’s body begins to contract and pulse, a flux and pull guiding her now, taking control over her. The urgency of the boom and groan outside presses into this couple, though they’re only vaguely aware of it, and they push deeper into each other, as if the sirens that now pass outside were rushing into their blood, their lives, the sirens a desire heightened and impelled toward some cataclysm. Life is too short, the sirens are saying. She’s pulling at him now and there’s this kind of laughter coming out of her body, the laughter of her musculature releasing, and then he shudders and grabs hold of her. And something between them embraces, something silent and deeper than they know, yet. Another wave of sirens passes through the open window; entering the room like spectators or thieves, then passing back outside and racing away until it sounds like no more than the whine of children’s toys. And at this moment— though this couple doesn’t yet know it—they will never be stranger to each other, or happier again, in their lives.
“‘But Frederick,’ they said, ‘you are a poet!’” A young mother is reading Leo Lionni to her infant son. Frederick the mouse daydreams and composes poetry all day while the other mice gather food for the winter. The child is too young to understand the words, though the mother sings to him as if he can. She wills his favorite book to be any book by Lionni, but in particular this one, because these are her favorites, this is her favorite. This son, their first (though they intend to have more children) has brought such a mortal urgency to every waking moment. Sometimes she sleeps and dreams she is holding him. He’s stroking her face the way an adult might, the way Bill does sometimes. In the dream, his tiny hand is ruddy, his fingers soft with baby perspiration. Nights are often sleepless. She sometimes dreams she’s holding her child even when she’s half asleep, waking frequently to check the boy in the co-sleeper, to change him, feed him, the wall between sleep and wakefulness worn through, she, sitting in that thin membrane between. Bill wakes too, does what he can. She worries about his clumsiness during the day, without enough sleep. The job, so demanding of his body, he’s so high in the sky these days. Manhattan Island is a rock, nearly all of it, and yet how easily it seems that one of these buildings could shift its footing, or he might stumble, or take a false step, or a breeze might wrap around him and throw him out of her life. Why does the city need so many high-rises? These disgusting luxury apartments. She dreams sometimes they’re living on sand, not like a beach with palm trees, just a murky substance their feet sink into, a grounding that slows her, sets her off balance as she tries to get from one place to another. In these dreams, she’s childless, entirely alone. It’s like the earth is embodying the lethargy she feels when she hasn’t had enough sleep. Which is, of course, all the time these days. With his construction job, she knows there are harnesses, guidelines, strict rules about safety. But the men flaunt the rules so often. Bill’s admitted it, he’s told her stories about the risks they take.“‘But Frederick,’ they said,‘you are a poet!’” she whispers again. Her little boy is asleep in her arms as the phone rings and she chooses not to pick it up, not to disturb their sleeping son.
Her dog, asleep on the sofa, wakes, startled. She lays her hands over the child’s little ears. The landline, they need to get rid of it. The only callers are collection agencies, telemarketers, pollsters. The machine answers but the volume is turned down too low for her to hear anything but a murmur, a sober voice, a texture of concern perhaps. Who needs a landline these days? Bill says if a cell tower goes out in an emergency, that’s why. Then the machine finishes recording the sober voice, a voice it now holds for the record. Her sleeping son in her arms. He’s slept through the ringing. He won’t remember this moment, asleep so soundly now. The dog is staring at the phone, as if the call were for him. He’s not supposed to be on the sofa. But she hasn’t the heart to kick him off most of the time.
She re-reads silently to herself the last lines in the book: “When Frederick had finished, they all applauded. ‘But Frederick,’ they said, ‘you are a poet!’ Frederick blushed, took a bow, and said shyly, ‘I know it.’” The phone rings again, and this too her son sleeps through in peace, her hands once more pressed against his ears, so that, as she later sees more clearly, he won’t yet wake to what has just happened, will not hear what is happening to them.
Published on March 10, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 56.
First published in Harvard Review 56.