Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Burning the Leaves
David Kranes (DFA, Yale U) is a fiction writer and playwright. Recent fiction credits include American Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly, and Image. He is working on a play, Blue Cello.
This should be sweet. It's not. Although I try. I rake the copper beech and Japanese maple from my lawn, and it's a gathering—in not unlike the Atlantic where my lawn stops—at this house which I call my house, on this shore of Marshfield, here in Massachusetts. My eleven-year-old son, Elijah, plays in the already-gathered mounds, understanding that I will regather any of his spills. He is excited to dive; the leaves, for him, like sea which, now in early October, he finds too chill. His play is a bubble: it has a world outside; but he is in and in entirely and trusts its skein. Somewhere in play, too, there is the fuel of knowledge that, come dark, we—two, father and son—will burn. We will burn these leaves…together. And I will allow him the grand lighting of matches. And we will stand, watching the flames mount their colors, imitating the day and the still-fastened leaves. While, beyond, the Atlantic will insist, grow louder…simply because there's less light and that happens. Five hours ago I had my final scene with the woman who has been my lover for seven years. Up the slope of lawn from where I rake and from where my son plays and inside my less-than-modest house, my wife, my Chloe, in the third day of having stopped taking her;Prozac, moves variously. Perhaps she's rechecking the range to see whether she might, carelessly, have left it on. Perhaps she's in our garage, measuring the Saab for some telling dent, where she might—in some mischance of vision—have hit a jogger. Perhaps she's simply writing notes, reminders of any of the thousand of duties she could forget. The air is Indian summer, warm. Nearly. There's very little wind. It's a perfect dusk. It's the sort of dusk, once, I hiked in—not much older than my son along arroyos and scrambling up flesh-colored, grainy redrock just beyond my parents' ranch property in Monticello, Utah.
Still: the sea is not the desert. One needs, surely, to say that. The desert is what the sea abandoned. So that ascending the hip bones of Navajo sandstone plays very differently than, at the Atlantic's edge, diving into leaves. As well, the kingdom of the adult governs differently. I know, for instance, that—at my son's age; moody, remote, happening upon, say, a snowy, owl on a stand of yucca—though I might have been bathed in an appropriate runtish melancholy, wishing a particular girl hadn't glanced away, my adulthood rips its adhesions with far different force: like an organ tom from an inner wall. And of course medical science—then, in the owl-shaped and copper-chimnied desert—had no Prozac…so that its discontinuance by a person needing it had no meaning.
It's Saturday. There'll be no school tomorrow. No work for me beyond, of course, what I might manufacture, so that the full imagery of this time—my son's, mine—is here—here in this dusk, on this shore for us only to unlock.
"Hey, Dad!" he calls—his voice from an unstable burial mound. "Hey, yourself!" I return. I check my watch. It's five thirty. Nearly. I have a bottle of Rubesco, opened and placed on a redwood table. I give myself permission to drink. The grape feels meaty; the grape feels pulpy and of my own body nearly, inside my mouth. I drink again and set the bottle aside. "Pachebel Canon" rises from within the house, too loud, held for a moment, then down. From another direction, the tide sounds more shells and stones: more calcium and quartz tumbling. In and out of the leaves—appearing and then gone; lifting and then falling—my son repeats the word, monster! ...monster!…a word naming his indestructibility. A light turns on in my study. It swings—harsh to pale, pale to harsh. It's, I suppose, the rheostat. I hear a window opening. I think I see my wife in the darkened sunroom, framed…but it may be only the particular gathering, in this light, fading, of the room's curtains.
When I was a boy, up on the high-canyon shelves, sometimes I would stumble upon evidence. Prints: footprints, bare footprints. Of history. Suddenly, there where the sandstone, I guessed, had once been only sand, there would be…human prints, hard as bone—toes, arches, heels—frozen in the redrock. It seemed amazing. Thrilling: to think of people being where I then stood…and so long ago. Ancestors.
The woman who has been my lover lives in a small town between where I rake and Boston. She's dear. She's trusting. There is a play of beauty about her smile and in her laugh. She is like girls I knew in the desert, girls for whom sudden rainstorms, jackrabbits, trout, the lifting of…whatever…a blue heron, the coil even of a snake, were all miracles! There are, I suppose, too few clothes in her closet, too few best sellers on her shelves. Instead, the surfaces of her small space bear only treasures: a cone carried South from Maine, a fossil printed with the rosy spine of a fish, a black length of cedar bark I once teased to be the torn pelt of a bear. Five hours ago, this woman cried. She struck out at my face—once, twice—and when I blocked her hands, she beat repeatedly on the top of my head. Her voice, in her throat, made the kind of sound I have heard, camped out, late at night: mink kestrel, porcupine. Neither of us wanted our love over. Why? It was so soft, most times. So good. Yet a kind of craziness came, a scream neither of us could stop, nor one which could be retracted: it went that far. Pisshead! she shouted; cock! pisshead! And all I could seem to say was: Go ahead!…go ahead!…if it's what you want! And she kicked at me. And I clutched her and cried, involuntarily. And then we both struck at each other. Then held. Then quieted. Then neither of us could speak. I felt so weak. She felt so tired…at least the what-of-her that I could feel set against my wrists. And then we were, both, taking enormous breaths, peeling back any lingering contact, me finding my hand sweeping for her door. It was so emptied: the moment.
"So..." she said.
"So..." I said. "So, I guess…right?…what?"
And those were our last words.
Inside—I can see no room lighted now—my wife begins; I can hear the piano playing. It's Dvorak. A sonata. My son rises from a knoll of Japanese maple entirely naked. Where are his clothes? Have I not been attending? Which reef of leaves has he left them in? Surprise! he crows. Surprise! I say. Agreeing. He believes us to have the kind of relationship where such brazen moves will delight me. He thinks me a person to outdo. So I start unfastening my shirt, but he yells no, too late! no; too late! and I stop. Because he's right: it's no; it's no; too late.
It's his birth, partly—this boy, my son—which spells the center of my wife's…one physician calls it deficit. And though she was thorough, no duty ever seemed unremitting until he lay in our nursery and then…then every fact of her life seemed to become a clue shrieking to be tracked into neglect and neglect's prehistory. At first I smiled: a phase, a brief change in chemistry. Then I felt: life gives tests; fine. Then I met my lover and said no then yes then no then yes again. And…then yes entirely, with no revisions. And then Prozac came: name only, then journaled. Then, before FDA approval—pirated. Then available chemistry: the ceaseless chasing of error and obsession sent away miraculously by medical science, put to sleep.
I draw these leaves. I draw them again. I find a rhythm. My son is invisible. Only a bubbling sound—a submerged animal—bleating low and to the ground. I can see less.
I move to the Rubesco: uncork, tug once, tug twice, set it back—my left hand never leaving the throat of the rake. The phone rings…inside. Unanswered: it will not be. I draw the leaves. It rings. My son rises, a dolphin now—sleek, lit, barely pubic. His sound is entirely sonic. Then he's gone. I think of the prints I found in the desert. The human feet. Four years ago, I went back, searched; they were gone. How was that? How was that so? They'd been there, hardened into rock. Perhaps they escaped me.
I check my pocket for matches, and they're there. I check the tide. A figure—form or shape—stands fifty—sixty perhaps, feet out: a woman, in what's becoming the dark. She's dense and sculptural; the sea axis cuts her at about her chest. She seems my lover. But, of course, no. So I carry my rake and move. Closer. To see who the woman is who might look like my lover and stand here tonight in this water, in a pose of such consideration. Behind me abruptly, like ice—my wife calls. It's in fear; it's in panic; I know this voice: she calls my name. L myself, call…out and into the roll of surf, toward the still—waiting shape: Sweetheart?…and then my lover's name. Aloud…a question. And wonder, then, if my son—rising, falling, awaiting the close moment soon when he will light the matches—might possibly hear.
But my wife's voice bears no competition. It's pained and stricken. It has a force of its own, sounding off the rear of the house and flagstones. And so I turn and begin to walk. Hurry! she says, Hurry!…the word losing one or the other of its syllables, so that it becomes the word—repeated hurt…hurt!
Behind, my son asks of me: "Dad?"
I say: "I'll be back."
And he, who has lived, after all, eleven years in this house, says only quietly, "Oh…Mom."
"I've done a thing which is terribly wrong," my wife says, when I'm close.
"I don't think so," I say. I try to smile.
She moves her hands or…they move without her—it's hard saying: "They know," she says. This is not new. "Someone found the evidence."
"Of what?" I ask. I set a hand on and work a nerve between her neck and shoulder. "Evidence of what?" I ask again.
"I can't say," she says.
"Sweetie..." I begin.
"Don't call me Sweetie," she insists.
"Why are you saying these things?" I ask.
She looks mystified. She's not sure. Then she thinks: "They were on the phone," she says.
"Did you talk?" I ask. "Did you speak to them?"
"I couldn't," she says.
"There's nothing terrible you've done," I tell her. "You've not left where we are for a week."
"But before..." she begins. "Before."
I stop her. "No," I say. "No. You've done nothing terrible. There isn't any before. There's no evidence. All anyone knows is that you're a very kind, very loving, very careful and considerate person."
Something in her eyes atomizes. The shapes of notions break up there like spring ice. It's a movement I've learned happens: the weather of confusion sweeping into the weather of relief.
"Next time the phone rings," I say, "I'll answer. I'll answer it. And everything will be fine."
She thinks. She thanks me. She starts to move left. She moves toward me: there's some idea, I think, of an embrace. But she stops. Turns. Then moves left again and stops, then reenters the house.
Something in me dislocates; tears brim. "Why don't you let me get you your medication?" I all-but-yell. But…no: she's through the door, and I want to hurl my rake, take her by the throat, throw her onto the rug, stuff the Prozac under her tongue and clamp her jaw shut until she swallows. I have this fury. I have this rage. But then I feel so ashamed.
"Is it time yet?!" my son calls from behind. He still hasn't found his clothes.
And although the dark, like tide, is in nearly, nearly with us, I say: "I think…just a while!"
You know…nothing matters. I mean…to him: nothing matters to him it seems. Elijah. He takes up diving. He takes his naked pleasure in the sea of leaves, and I wander again toward the shore so that I might try to plumb, somehow, the figure there: left in the tide, patient by stance, still, and waiting: the woman. It almost seems as though, fixed there, she awaits something in me, some decision.
And then, walking, I remember. Two things. I remember being a boy in the sandstone and being, as well, only six hours before, in this dreadful and unwanted scene. Is there such a thing as a 'last time'? my lover had asked. Is there such a thing as a last time? There's no answer.
But what I remember also—rake in hand, moving to the ocean—about being a boy is simply this: a sense of pressure. A sense of pressure and grain against my hands. Also heat. And porousness. Breathing heat, I suppose. And what I am doing—in this memory—is…what I did then so often…climbing. Frolicking. Scrambling. Very much in motion. But none of that is what I most retain: the climb or frolic. More, it's more the sense of…what a certain warm and veined-it-seems-now-in-memory, lined at least…texture feels like against my hands, my palms. And the joy, of course, of it all: the play! The delicious heat!
And the other memory—though hardly: so close—is this final scene, what got said: Is there such a thing as a last time? I couldn't answer. I reached for her instead. She stepped back and unbuttoned the top of her silk robe. I saw the body-lotion dispenser on her nightstand and lifted it, pressed a half-dozen spurts. She moved forward, took the dispenser, tossed it to a comer. What are you planning to do with that? she asked. She knew. I stared at the body lotion in my hand and started to cry. I had no place to put any of it, so I rubbed it into my other hand…my face, but it all seemed so stupid. And lonely. What do you suppose it would feel like if we both knew it was a last time? she asked: Could you do that? Could you finish it? And that was when her stare took on a hardness I had never ever seen and she said cock!... pisshead! then kicked at me.
And yet the two nearer lover moments, in me now, feel different: the one with the lotion and the one, kicking. They seem, in fact, separated and with two different people, not at all following. God, I miss her! I do. I just miss her is what I think—the tide, finally, at my cuffs and in my shoes. How is it that life happens in this way…so that she's gone?
But perhaps she's not. Is that possible? Maybe I tend to finalize beforehand. Because…someone's out there…certainly something. In the tide: dark…carved…curved very much like a woman. Who?
I start walking. I can discover. I'll wade out. She's no deeper than my chest, clearly, and these are work clothes. And I'm about to build a fire, anyway, on my lawn, so that the heat, the flames (right?) will dry me. Behind, my son yells: "Where are you going?" and I shout, "water!" And he runs, soundless, to the shore, naked still, and re-asks. I repeat my answer.
Where are you going?
I love, somehow, that he's watching—standing there, his feet bare on the shells and sand and pebbles; his skin shining in the dark: it's right somehow: him there as a witness.
I move. I slosh through the tide. It's at my calves, knees, drinking (it feels) my thighs. The woman—though it's hard to tell now—stays uncomfortably constant. I say hello then, again, try my lover's name. There's no answer.
And then, of course, the truth speaks. She's not a woman at all—but a stripped and uprooted tree, snagged somehow on a sandbar: not whole; a torso—like a strange, lone, haunting cactus—though there's what appears to be silver, something like an earring snagged on one of her branches. So I'm relieved…in ways; though disappointed. Is there 'a last time'? I was hoping, in part, to be able to throw my hands up into the dark and laugh and say: No…see?…See? You're being silly.... No.
"Dad? What is ?!" My son's voice reaches me.
I pause. I'm not sure I know what to say. "A trunk. A tree," I try. A trunk…a tree? Are they interchangeable? I touch the stripped and washed, white-even-in-the-dark body/flesh of it, her, and it's awful; my touch chills me. Brutal. It seems incredibly selfish. Who do I think I am? What do I think I've waded out to? I should be over my head. I should be drowning. Not at some point where I can simply rotate myself and turn back.
But of course I do. I reverse, and my son is waiting.
"A trunk a tree?" he asks.
"A trunk a tree," I say.
We burn. I spend a moment though, first, cleaning up, regathering. And then:
"Do you think you might feel a bit warmer with your clothes on?" I say.
"No," he says, "no." And then: "Why?"
"I don't know," I tell him.
He doesn't ask. I hand him the matches; he smiles.
Lights go on and off, off and on, in the house—my wife on some path up and down, everywhere, through the structure. The phone rings: it rings; it stops. It's all some very definition, it seems, in my head—the phone, the soon-to-be flames, the tree in the tide—of randomness.
My son—my son, Elijah—closes the cover. He looks sure; he looks smug almost, even in the shadows, chosen. He strikes the match: one stroke, one strike; the fire vaults up. He touches the leaves. First pile…second…third…fourth before the flare burns his fingers. He gets the last three on a second match. The tide scours the shore…louder. The tree, the woman on the sandbar, virtually disappears…though I know she remains. Something like Vivaldi or Vivaldi-gone-mad—trumpets—punches out across the black of the lawn from inside.
The leaves boom. The leaves roil into flame. Some blacker-than-night smoke spirals up. The tide crashes. My son slips his hand into my hand. "Take your clothes off," he says. "Take them off. Be like me."
And I do. He laughs. And though I sneak my hand from his hand to strip, his flesh never leaves my flesh...somewhere, and when I'm done, there we are, hand-in-hand again, weaving a course around the leaf pyres. How I love this! How I love this: smell! He remarks, as well. It's like night. It's like Fall. It's like some sort of concentrate of evaporation on your tongue after a flash electrical rain in the desert. It's like the smell of ionized heat in a woman's hair after she's blown it.
Inside, my wife is screaming: I can't!…I can't! but her words are thin; they're swallowed by the music and end barely reaching us. "Whirl me," my son looks up, expectantly, and asks.
Whirl me…whirl me and for a moment I can't even think what the words mean. But I do.
I have one hand; I take the other in my own and begin to spin. He trills. He lifts and gloats and warbles—his throat a sounding tremolo, entirely guttural. He's in the air. We're both flesh only, no clothes. He flies out into the dark…into the flames. In my eyes, he appears and disappears: in a kind of wish, in a kind of terror, in a kind of inevitability. But he's laughing. He's crazy. Filled with and spilling out his own boy-kind of savage joy. "Are
you going to let me go?" he asks.
Am I going to let him go? Am I going to let him go? "Of course!" I say.
"No, you're not!" he yells.
"Here it comes!"
"No!" he shrieks. "No!…Don't!" But he wants it!
"Here it comes!" I say. "Here it comes! Get ready!"
"Daddy!" he cries.
So I trick him. I play. I pull my elbows in, fight to my ribs, then let them fly out again. He screams. It's worked. For a flash—only, he's had the feel of having been let go. And curiously, for an instant, I'm not even sure: I can't tell: Have I?…have I released him?…is it possible? But then, first he, then L know. We see. And the play is on. I keep the spinning and repeat the pulling close then the throwing out: again and again.
"I'll burn up!" he shouts. Then laughs. Then says: "Okay; good! Okay; good; again! do it! See!?"
And that may be what my wife stares, shrieking to herself, out at: her husband hurling her firstborn into flames at the ocean's brink, while her husband's lover, standing in the tide, encourages.
But what I feel, in a kind of blindness, is myself, only myself—leaping from redrock to redrock in the most abundant light, alone. Inevitable yet blazing! My hands final and sure, gripping, never giving up their contact. I pull my fists to my chest. I hurl them out. My son bleats like a birthed calf. Some day—older, alone—he will come across this moment. And he will stare at it and not remember it at first…but then he will: a set of footprints, his, his only, stamped deep into the night.