|Long After the Sons Go Missing|
To mangle a line from Faulkner, Karl could just remember that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time. And in the last few moments remember It All.
He has plummeted 15 feet from his stand and has only a few minutes ago reawakened to an intermittent early November snow, the cold fat flakes melting on contact with his face. It is streaked black and green and brown. Otherwise he detects no bodily sensation anywhere, not the slightest pulse or tingling, his legs spreadeagle, his arms limp at his sides. For a few additional seconds he doesn’t even recognize or remember where he is, as if he has just exited a strange and lingering dream and can’t yet determine if he is hurt or bruised or marked in any way, if his bones or vertebrae are still intact.
Except for the faint murmuring of his heart, Karl Radoszkowicz wonders, without any physical pain or panic, if he is alive. Yes, he thinks. Yes I am, because when he attempts to say this he can move his lips, his tongue, and when he tries to speak his wife’s name floats up in a thin breath-cloud and disappears: Irena, whispered so softly he can barely hear it, his throat gone tight with the effort.
Karl’s quiver is still attached to the bow, the bow to the dangling rope, the arrows’ incandescent orange and blue fletching turning soundlessly in a slow-motion circle above him. Like candle flames, he thinks, aglow in the dying light at the swamp edge where he sits every evening, all season long, whenever the wind conditions are right. It’s the old ache of being invisible and alone that he craves, sealed off from the steady low-grade buzz and clatter of his life, though he has never actually articulated this, not really, other than to let the deer pass and pass more often now that he has turned 60.
He is an even six feet tall and just overweight enough so that he can’t quite see the toe-tips of his hunting boots beyond his stomach. But he can, by shifting his eyes, focus on how his fingerless gloves remain cupped, as though frozen stiff or perhaps still clutching onto that snapped oak branch that has always, in his confident outward lean, supported him in the past. Just this morning at breakfast, when Irena reminded him that he wasn’t a kid anymore, he shrugged it off, a gesture of pretense that served only to remind him how agile he still feels—all flex and bend—each time he climbs or descends that natural ladder of limbs. She should see me, he thought, this graceful up and down dance he’s performed so many times in the pitch dark that he could do it blindfolded. The way he makes love to her some nights with his eyes squeezed shut, imagining not another woman but the sweep of his own wife’s wavy auburn hair. And the airy bones of her back and the open wings of her shoulder blades hovering above him on the bed as he remembers her just 10 years ago, before their marriage turned recalcitrant and remote and entered what Karl recognizes now to be survival mode.
Sometimes full days vanish with barely a spoken word between them. Entire conversations orchestrated with their eyes, like sign language they pretend not to understand, though there are those other moments, too, when one of them smiles or nods and everything solitary and distant begins to dispel into the simulated patterns of an enduring and
They talk. They sleep again in the same bed, carefully touching, less fearful of their affections; to the extent that Karl speculates about the solvency of their marriage, he’s almost certain at such junctures that he can save it.
The more he believes this, the more he relaxes on that same 30-minute drive outside the town limits. Past corn-stubble fields and that long-abandoned landfill stretch straight west to County Line, where he turns off the loose gravel and left onto a rutted overgrown two-track and then left again before quick-swinging in four-wheel partway down the narrow logging cut and out of sight. And there, staring into the rearview mirror, he streaks his cheeks and nose with camo grease, then hides his car keys on the left front tire and, out of habit, checks his watch. Every detail timed so that he’ll be settled in his stand before that first deer splashes across Hall Creek on its slow forage toward him. Karl hasn’t yet this season drawn back, but he has daydreamed that trophy 10-point he’s seen three times already into perfect, broadside kill-shot range.
By design no one has a clue as to Karl’s whereabouts, and he has never—not once in the sudden popularity of this ancient and solemn rite—seen another hunter happen by. Nor has he ever encountered a game warden waiting for him out by the road, wanting to check his license. So the odds of quick rescue, Karl knows, now that he has regained full consciousness, appear far-fetched, the temperature dropping fast, and his camouflaged clothes too lightweight for the night ahead, his jacket still partly unzipped.
He wonders if he has started to shiver or if his lips are turning blue, his naked fingertips inviting frostbite. And why, when he closes his eyes against the snow, does he conjure up the image of his only son, Sam, who lives in California, the person, Karl believes, least likely in the entire world to walk out at dusk into this northern Michigan outback in search of him.
The two haven’t spoken in nearly a decade. Not since Sam arrived home that Christmas with his partner, a clean-cut, early-30s loan officer or mortgage banker or something like that named Gil, a USC graduate, and the notion of them spending the weekend shacked up in the same bedroom had proved impossible for Karl to abide. Somehow the teak-framed waterbed he’d always hated made it seem even worse, that sudden imagined undulation of waves awash in his mind. There was, after all, the foldout sofa in the den, which had in the past served as an overflow guestroom when his folks were both alive but hard-pressed to negotiate the staircase to the second floor—his mom’s cataracts, his dad’s diabetic legs. Had Karl been home at the time he would have assumed the obvious, as he would have even if Sam’s would-be had been female, and ushered whoever it was in that direction, into separate sleeping quarters.
He never could decide for certain whether or not Irena had known ahead of Sam’s arrival that he’d be accompanied by this other and, as far as Karl knew, uninvited, never-before-mentioned stranger. Had Irena, in collusion with their son, sneaked behind Karl’s back, consenting to such an arrangement and then remaining mute, leaving whatever transpired to chance? Had she, in essence, made and measured and left him to fend for himself, the odd man out? She who’d greeted these two young men at the Grand Rapids airport and driven them the two and a half hours back to the house while Karl, at work, calculated the benefits and risks of a counter-offer on that single-story warehouse over on Canal Street?
There was no question about the necessity for additional space. Old World Window & Door, which he’d founded, had prospered and grown, making him if not a wealthy man then at least a respected and mainstay member of the small business community in this small but slowly expanding throwback town. He was proud of the service plaques that hung in a straight line on the wall behind his desk and of the company’s reputation for never once having been litigated or, as far as he knew, anywhere maligned, not even by his competitors. Karl Radoszkowicz, owner and company president, employer of seven full-time installers, has from day one stood behind his products with a certified lifetime warranty and a handshake. The same way he had always, as he once believed, stood firmly in the image of himself as a loving husband and father: honest, even-tempered, undefined by haste or recklessness or intolerance. It wasn’t a posture. Karl was what he appeared, a square shooter whose easy demeanor and straight-ahead talk put others immediately at ease, and so whenever he spoke people listened.
But it was Sam doing most of the talking, about his medium: not job or occupation but medium in fabric design. “Leisure fashion,” as he said, his silk collarless white shirt accented with silver buttons the size of quarters, and the billowy sleeves flared out like a carnival knife-thrower’s, his bleach-job highlighted some shade between orangeade and khaki. He seemed thinner, too, narrower-faced, the forced inflections of his voice awkwardly arranged. Like he was in a play, Karl thought, the gay and witty lighthearted lead in this contemporary family holiday comedy where everyone long absent and therefore changed gets reacquainted and closer than ever. And wasn’t that the correct message for the season? Rejoice, Rejoice? Karl thought no, possibly not, the Christmas tree up and decorated and the fiber-optic angel on top turning brilliant pewter. Then platinum. Then blue bleeding into lavender, into magenta, the different hues like vapors spreading out and dissolving in every direction across the fleck-textured ceiling. A dozen or more presents were wrapped and stacked underneath, shiny gold lamé stick-on bows and an oversized wreath with spray-painted white pinecones accenting the front door, artificial icicles hanging from the eaves.
At no point had Karl been clued in on his son’s scheduled departure, and although he didn’t inquire he secretly hoped it would be sooner than later and, insofar as their stay might possibly be open-ended, he thought, No way. Not on his watch it wouldn’t, not under the existing circumstances, and given how he’d arrived home to find his house guests not so much comfortably settled in as having taken the place over. Gil, in black-clad vintage Johnny Cash, had, in advance of the dinner hour, showered and shaved and poured himself a Jameson’s on the rocks from the cut-glass decanter and was relaxing, legs up and crossed at the ankles, in Karl’s recliner, from which position he shook his host’s outstretched hand, canted back, smiling, and, Karl sensed, sizing him up. The new professionals, and who’d believe it: just a single generation removed. Was it the malfunction of the cerebrum or the cortex or was it some cultural disinclination that made a person want to fancy up and react with such stern disregard for everything that preceded them?
Karl had never known anyone named Gil before, as in girl without the r, a consideration he kept to himself but later wondered if Gil had been the one who’d cranked the thermostat up like that. Eighty degrees at least when Karl had first stepped inside out of the cold, his brain made suddenly noisy and hot by the odd and pervasive festivity filling the house, that buzzy open laughter and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” assailing him through the stereo speakers. And turn that down, Karl then said to himself, uncharacteristically assertive; Grinch-like and without explanation or apology, he requested that the heat be left where he had set it and the audio volume as well, simple, fundamental domestic matters these young men from Sausalito would either warm to or not.
As a joke they put on matching sweatshirts with the hoods up, drawstrings pulled tight, and sat down side by side at the dining-room table, the candle flames adrift in that middle distance between Karl and his guests each time they shivered and blew into their close-cupped palms. And Irena all swoons and giggles as if the mere sight of them clowning and cajoling like that defined, to its full extension, a deeply profound delight long absent from her life.
The antics abated not one iota, each new ad lib stagier than the last, which might partly explain why, midway through the meal, Karl tapped his wine glass with the outside of his wedding ring and announced in the resounding quiet, “I think it best that the two of you pack up and be on your way. Right now,” he said. Just like that, from one to the other, his voice oddly calm after the taut and silent gritting of his teeth while he’d feigned, all evening,
polite if distant accord.
It was of course the most reckless, wrongheaded thing he could have said, which Karl reflexively understood even before Irena touched his elbow and implored him not to overreact. “Don’t,” she said, her face flushed red. “Please. You’re blowing this all out of proportion. They’re only having fun. They’re mocking themselves, for gracious sakes; can’t you see that?” And to Sam, “Your father, he’s . . . He doesn’t mean it the way you think.”
But he did mean it, every carefully enunciated syllable, and in that same inflamed but quiet rage he pressed the issue by pushing himself slowly up from the table, his pulse thrumming in his neck
as he stood and leaned as far forward as he could, fixing first on Sam and then on Gil with a stare that startled and frightened even him.
Neither uttered another word, their eyes averted, and Karl himself—as he has since and often—might have conceded right then that each of them had in turn politely passed on the backstraps he’d marinated overnight and grilled on the flagstone patio, the sudden updrafts of wind heaving so hard that the whole house creaked and moaned around him. Inside, not 10 feet removed through the glass slider, he had watched the three of them raise one showy boisterous toast after another, laughing and leaning in so close together each time they clinked glasses that their foreheads touched.
Okay, Karl had thought, hugging himself against the gusts and the cold. And then, as he reentered the dining room, Fine. But why hadn’t they said in advance they were vegans? Wasn’t that the correct term—vegans? Leaf and seed eaters, scone-heads as he’d heard his workmen wisecrack about the town’s first macrobiotic restaurant, and he found it not only discourteous but also cowardly that Sam and Gil had concealed their aversion to red meat until the very instant Karl had begun to serve it, rare and seared perfectly in its juices. A feast, an offering as he saw it, and Judas Priest, wasn’t some forewarning all he would have needed to stay if not neutral then at least tolerant enough not to have unloaded on them full-bore the way he did?
“It’s the wine speaking,” Irena had said in his
defense, but it wasn’t any such thing. In or out of the moment, Karl would have considered alcohol the flimsiest, most cowardly excuse of all. He had never in his life stumbled tipsy into provoking an argument or altercation, and he wasn’t about to duck and ditch to ameliorate the situation with trumped-up pretenses, not even to win back the already reluctant trust of his one and only son.
No, it wasn’t the wine. It was bow season then, too, the brutally frigid and demanding after-firearms stretch that had just reopened, and the fresh, fat-marbled venison ribs in the fridge had somehow entered the conversation. Gross, that bold and
nakedly stated remark that Karl has never forgotten, though he can’t swear who said it, Sam or Gil, as if they’d coupled as a single marauding voice set loose to berate everything that Karl’s life had become, everything Neanderthal and Midwestern.
And that, more than anything else, was what set him reeling, that queasy, over-willed, single-word assessment of this pursuit he loved and respected and that every succeeding year had less and less to do with killing. Yet it was the killing he described, calculated to disturb, something else he’d never before done or imagined doing. But there it was, entirely Jekyll-and-Hyde, and Karl didn’t dial it down, detailing instead the circular incision around the anus, and the gutting-out of the animal, and how his arm had disappeared elbow-deep into the slick blue-veined chest cavity, the steaming arterial blood glowing crimson in the snow.
Gil, hands suntanned and folded on the table edge, had slow-nodded all doe-eyed when Sam pantomimed a gag. To Karl, the identical slantwise angle of their smirks constituted the crudest, most insensitive gesture of all. “Well then,” Irena had intervened. “Maybe this might be a good time to change the subject,” and it was shortly after that strained lull during which nobody spoke or joked or caught anybody else’s eye that Karl had said and done what he did. It was, after all, his house, his right, and, that settled, need he say anything more?
Within the hour Irena was back from the Super 8 motel where she’d left Sam and his partner, a MasterCard charge that Karl refused the following month to pay or to acknowledge even to his own wife that anyone he knew and cared about had ever visited them from as far away as the dream coast only to end up staying the night in a cut-rate establishment like that.
When Karl opens his eyes it has stopped snowing. Although he can’t see them in the dark cavernous amphitheater of the sky, he can hear the faint fugue-like barking of Canada geese far overhead, and those first few pinpricks of stars appearing not just distant but numb, like something viewed through water or frost. He assumes he is still breathing, although he can’t feel the shallow rise and decline of his chest, his body weightless as if he might any second dissolve into millions of invisible particles and vanish forever into the thin winter-pure air.
He can taste its coldness, like pure oxygen, and it comes to him that this might not be such a terrible way to go. No slow freezing to death or writhing through mud and scrub all night toward his SUV; more like entering into a peaceful dream, where, lying back, he might simply watch as his soul vaulted upward and away. He is almost giddy with the thought. Yes, he tells himself, alone in the sudden moonlight, its dull sphere close to full—a hunter’s moon—its feathery halo illuminating the snowy-bluish ground all around him.
And so Karl lets himself go, adrift into a far-distant quietness so big he almost doesn’t hear his mom’s disembodied voice. But there’s no mistaking it: much louder now, and she’s scaring the life out of Karl who is jolted back awake, trying to clear his mind while turning on the bedside lamp. They’re on the phone, and Karl keeps pleading with her to slow down. “Slow down,” he says, while his mom backslides faster and faster into those same raspy, harsh gutturals of inconsolable human grief that he knows well. All he can glean is that his dad has had a massive stroke, and as if in the immediate aftermath of some blinding flashpoint inside his own brain Karl registers not individual words or moans anymore but only the violent white light of his mom’s inarticulate terror.
There’s so much pressure at the back of Karl’s throat that when he tries to swallow he can’t, and nearly gags after hanging up and whispering in constricting gulps to Irena this horrible, unspeakable news. Sam, of course, is still at home. He’s 10, a quiet inward kid immured in sleep so deep that he hasn’t even stirred, his bedroom door slightly ajar and his paternal grandfather dying just minutes before Karl—driving nonstop and crazed throughout the night into the pre-dawn to be there by his hospital bedside—arrives.
What was it he needed to say to him? And what would he say right now, in this stricken condition, to Sam who might this instant be on the phone with Irena. She calls him only when his father is at work or out in the woods, not so much in conscious deception as in the essential privacy of his absence. They talk often. Karl knows this, and sometimes while up in his stand he’ll imagine eavesdropping, whereas all he really ever hears is the silent, hypnotic drone and murmur of his own convoluted thinking, the line gone dead again and Karl whispering, Hello? Karl whispering, Please, anything at all. But what stands—what has always stood—is Sam’s repeated refusal ever again to speak to his father, as if every door and window that Karl has ever sold has been slammed and nailed permanently shut.
Although he has never openly admitted it, Karl so badly wanted a son that he believed he had, by some act of divination, willed him to be a boy and secretly sought out far back in his mind, months before Sam was born, how they’d pal around, just the two of them, an unbreakable father-son allegiance in which every daydreamed escapade unfolded in perfect sync.
Factored big time was that when Sam turned 14 they’d bow-hunt together, devising plans and strategies as Karl had done with his dad, scouting preseason for runways and sign and lopping off branches to create open shooting lanes, shadowed tunnel shafts where their broadheads would spiral down at light speed.
He remembers best helping skin and stretch and tan the hides, and the sound the knife blade made feathered across the whetstone, slowly back and forth until the steel edge could—as his dad used to say—trim the sidewalls right off a Fleetwood. “A Cadillac,” he’d say to Karl, with leather seats and a vinyl top that he promised himself in retirement but never owned. He only ever drove used pickups, half- and three-quarter-ton Fords in constant need of repairs, which on the weekends he’d make himself, the ashtrays always stuffed with the stubbed-out butt ends of Pall Malls. Depression vehicles, as Karl’s mom referred to them, with or without a capital D, which his dad joked gave her something to both fret and dream about. “You betcha,” he’d say, “a shiny new midnight blue Fleetwood right off the showroom floor.” Then he’d light another cigarette before leaning full weight above the hand drill, the 5/16-inch bit slow-boring a single hole through the partial skull plate. “There,” he’d say, and blow the bone dust away and screw that newest set of antlers to the back wall of the garage. Some nights in the flood of the high beams, the door opening overhead, it looked like a whole herd of ghost bucks huddled up in there.
“Missed,” Sam would say, his mantra no matter the amount of patient instruction Karl provided. Regardless the number of practice tries, Sam remained incapable of hitting any part of the Delta deer. A mere 15 stationary yards away—a distance difficult to misjudge—and yet every shot zinging high or low or so far wide of the backstop haybales that Karl speculated, even then, that his son might be missing on purpose. One evening, a massive purple- bruised cloudbank moving in, Karl’s exasperation tempted him to point up and say to Sam—a dare, really—There. See if you can hit that.
At 12 Karl could bull’s-eye any target at twice that range, the cedar shafts grouped so tightly he’d grab a whole fistful at once, the circumference no bigger around than his skinny wrist. He loved that solid flat thawp the field tips made—as he does still—and how hard they were to pull back out, his forearm muscles trembling.
“Just relax. The key is to get comfortable,” he’d insist to Sam, “and not to blink or flinch. Firm grip, but there’s no need to squeeze like you’re trying to strangle it. The bow is merely an extension of your arm, okay? It’s part of you. So draw back like I showed you, and remember, same anchor point every single time. That’s better. That’s it. Now concentrate not on the whole deer but on an imaginary spot right behind the front shoulder, and when your pin’s dead on hold for another three-count, and then easy as you can into the shot. Go ahead. It’ll happen, you’ll see. You’ll get it.”
But he didn’t get it, every release as jerky and uncoordinated as the last. And so it came to Karl as no real surprise when Sam, on that long-anticipated opening October morning, made apparent in no uncertain terms what he thought about the whole stupid and pointless validation that his dad had concocted such a private primitive compulsion to be.
The exercise of rousting Sam at any hour was never a single-effort ordeal, and at five in the morning he had tunneled even farther under the blankets and pillows.
“C’mon, rise and shine,” Karl had said, gently shaking him. “The Bigfoot Special’s just about ready.” Meaning blueberry pancakes and Canadian bacon and orange juice freshly squeezed. “Five minutes,” he said, and when Sam didn’t register in any way Karl hauled the heavy bedcovers back with a single swoop. “Hey, snap to, Natty Bumppo,” he said. “Do you hear me? Let’s move it. We gotta go.”
Karl had laid out his son’s new scent-proof hunting clothes and insulated waterproof boots the previous night, but when Sam finally padded into the kitchen he was barefoot and still wearing his pajamas, his eyelids half mast as he squinted and blinked at the day’s dark and premature arrival, as if to demonstrate his displeasure at trading away his dream time for this.
“What’s the deal?” Karl said. “What’s up?” Meaning, he knows now, what in the hell, his voice trailing off, holding back, yet the admonition of annoyance in his tone no doubt unmistakable. “Why aren’t you dressed? Fifteen minutes max and we’re out of here. Otherwise,” he said and shrugged, fingers splayed, palms up.
“I don’t want to go,” Sam said. “I don’t want to hunt deer or anything else. Not this morning and not ever.”
At first Karl only nodded as he turned away and moved the two simmering skillets to the off-burners, the breakfast plates side by side on the counter. Then he turned back to Sam and said, “That true? You mean that?”
“Yes,” Sam said, and Karl said back, “Since when?”
“Since always,” Sam said. “Since forever,” which by Karl’s calculations constituted pretty poor reaction time, an entire growing-up’s worth to finally come to this, and he might have uttered something to that effect—a last-minute appeal for Sam to reconsider—had he not noticed him holding one of his homemade papier-mâché masks. He and Irena would spend endless hours making and painting them, like faces for a children’s theater—dimpled and rosy-cheeked, nothing a boy who owned a compound bow and a drag rope would be caught dead wearing—and when Sam put it on Karl told him, “Stop. Take that off,” its lips fat and lacquered pink, its eyeslits so closeset and narrow that he could see only Sam’s dark pupils dilating and staring out, leering, his wheat-colored bangs spilling over the high forehead.
Outside Karl could hear a car slow and then the folded-up newspaper skipping in its orange plastic sack across the driveway, much earlier than usual, and the car speeding up again and out of earshot. Somebody else, Karl guessed, in a hurry to get done and into the woods.
He wanted to tell Sam that two of his installers, an entire year in advance, had put in to get this day off. As Karl’s dad always had, then working a double shift and keeping his son out of school if the opener fell on a weekday. A double bonus, and Karl so adrenalin-primed that he barely slept, up and dressed and downstairs before the alarm even sounded. He wanted to say that, too: just in case. I mean who knows for sure, right? One time, that’s all I ask. A trial run, and then whatever you decide stands. Scout’s honor. But far from removing the mask and sitting down to breakfast, Sam hung back, making no move other than to adjust the elasticized strap for a better fit. And then it hit Karl in a kind of spitfire flash that by whatever terms he might coerce his son into compliance he would only, in the long run, make things even worse between them.
He trusted that Irena would get the gory details from Sam sometime after first light, listening without interruption as she shredded cheddar or provolone into their omelets. On the QT, Karl presumed, and never to be mentioned again, leastwise not to him. In her way Irena had tried to prepare Karl, at first intoning subtle overtures half under her breath. Spare me, he’d think, and sometimes, without him ever asking, she would, but only to broach the subject again, and always more audibly. Advice he didn’t want or need, his patience worn thin by her invented anxieties.
“All I’m suggesting is that you give him a wider berth,” she’d say. “That’s all,” alluding to Sam’s other interests and to his subdued or, as she put it, repressed inclinations to be himself around his dad. “Have you considered that he might not want to sit outside in the dark?” she’d say. “Have you, all alone high up on some perch?” as if she were describing
a caged parrot or cockatoo. Utter nonsense, Karl insisted, plain and simple. She was dead wrong in a dozen different ways, and he took exception to her mantra that he of course “meant” well, but . . . Inferring not that Karl was a bad father—she would never think that way—but rather that, like a lot of fathers who loved their sons, he’d been blinded by his own willed misperceptions. “Make room in your life for Sam to be himself, Karl,” she’d say. “Do that for all of us, and before it’s too late.”
Maybe it always had been fated right from the get-go, although to Karl that seemed an easy and convenient exoneration. Not that he needed reasons to either condemn or condone but only to concede that something had, on a certain opening morning, come to its inevitable end. If so, he thought, if that’s the final verdict, at least let it be said face to face, without any more disguises. Clean slate and move on.
But reaching out to remove the mask he felt suddenly lightheaded, like vertigo, the whole room seeming to shift and tilt as if he’d placed the wrong end of his binoculars tight to his eyes, the reverse magnification making Sam appear tiny, a hazy wavering outline so far distant that he all but disappeared. There and gone and never more than a literal arm’s length away. It took only a few seconds for Karl to steady himself and blink the morning back into view: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, the kitchen vacant and Sam nowhere in sight. Not a sign of him, as if he’d vanished into thicker cover, the way Karl, season after season, had seen those older, warier bucks do. Mere phantoms or figments, perhaps, and yet he could always feel them out there, invisible and watching him.
He didn’t call after or follow Sam back upstairs. Instead he poured a cup of coffee for the road and put on his hunting hat and jacket and faltered outside, not in the direction of his car but into the backyard where the window to Sam’s bedroom was pitch dark. And Karl’s and Irena’s bedroom, too. Dark enough, he believed, for a face to be pressed against the pane without him even knowing. And yet he imagined so clearly the slight inward curve of her thighs and her bare knees pressed to the floor that he pointed up, just in case, at the constellation of the deer, as if to say, Look. Right there, the patterns of our lives mirrored all around us. Karl’s dad had taught him that. God’s light and compass, he’d called it, for all the night prowlers disoriented or lost.
Karl is in and out of dreams. They overlap and mutate and he lets them come. In this one he steps so lightly that his feet don’t make a sound, like he’s floating through the house from room to room, completely unaware of his body. He can dim the lights simply by willing it, or steady the stepladder while Irena damp-wipes the ceiling fan’s slightly canted blades into a softer glaze. He likes looking up at her singing to herself, something melancholy, something made up, her hemline waltz-length though it’s been half a lifetime since they’ve danced cheek to cheek. But he can stop the clock now, the hard edge of every tick gone silent like the inside of that glass globe he used to hold up and shake. It’s by far the best dream he has ever had.
But sad, too, and phantasmagoric, every domestic break and fracture fused, every painful curvature reversed and healed like uprooted trees tilting back upright into their original shapes. Falling slow motion from one of them, Karl holds out his arms and upon impact another powdery snow angel explodes all around him. But this time he can’t get up. He can’t even push himself into a sitting position. He’s that exhausted, a kid again, completely worn out and the world everywhere white-rimmed except for the moon’s blue aurora, his childhood house illuminated right there in front of him.
The picture window is as big as a movie screen, the light so brightly projected that he almost closes his eyes. But there’s his dad stoking the woodstove and his mom pacing back and forth, hugging that same brightly colored afghan shawl around her shoulders, the floor seeming to tremble beneath her footsteps. The temperature has continued to fall, a few more bone-chilling degrees each night. It must be below zero by now and this woman of a thousand hopes gone south, or whatever that phrase his dad sometimes uses to describe her winter moods. A thousand hopes. At this moment Karl has one hope only: that she’ll stop and stare outside to where he’s lying on his back, wishing he could wave to her and that she would see him and wave back. Or that he could somehow be standing right there in front her, tap-tapping on the glass. But there’s no way to unlock his wrist or fingers or raise his arm like his dad just did, lifting a bottle of beer to his lips—a Pabst Blue Ribbon, which has never before made Karl thirsty but now he is, like he’s been eating salted peanuts all day. He’s so thirsty he can’t even swallow, his tongue tip dry and pressed against the back of his teeth, the chalky skin of his throat closing over. And there’s a faint but unmistakable odor of urine. He feels no warm dampness, but of course there’s no way he can check himself to be sure.
All he can summon are names, and they come to him easily—that handful he loves and misses and mourns every day. Their faces waver just beyond the spotlight that surrounds and, if he doesn’t avert his eyes, blinds him. Like somebody jacking deer, freezing them in their tracks. But there are no shots fired, and through the noisy wind-chop a voice like God keeps calling down to him: We’re here. We’ve found you. Stay awake, Karl, stay with us. We’re taking you away, as if they mean to beam him up as soon as those who have gathered have said goodbye.
The first to lean in is his dad, two decades beyond his stroke and wearing the same suit and shoes he was buried in, older by far than any memory Karl has of him. Wizened and pallid, his face lopsided and tilted upward to where a man on a rope ladder lowers himself through the roaring turbo of light and wind, Karl’s jacket billowing out and snapping.
And look, there’s Karl’s mom, propped up by a walker, smiling at him, but Oh, sweet God Jesus, her eyes—they’re taped over with cotton and gauze. Karl prays she won’t remove the bandages. Not here, not again, the whites so red-veined and vascular the first time that he believed they were tiny twin hearts staring out at him. And then his dad, sobbing and gently kissing her lids. A miracle, he’d said, that she could see at all, everything occluded but with some luck and corrective lenses just maybe, over time, she would sit on the edge of Karl’s bed and read to him. Like before, minus the magnifying glass and that cold compress pressed to her forehead, and always looking either left or right, nothing straight on ever quite in focus, nothing staying put. It’s true, Karl thinks: The world really does move in half circles. First in one direction and then in the other, exactly like this, back and forth, snow blowing every which way off the ground and the branches as he slowly ascends beyond the treetops towards a rescue helicopter where Karl wonders if Irena is waiting.
He is on a sled, strapped and wrapped in blankets. Or it could be a hammock or a bed, a giant pod or a cocoon, a crib or a cradle suspended in the stone-white sky above these woods and countryside he loves. Had Sam asked even once, Karl would have described how sometimes the silver light of the star-lanes shines so luminescent you can see the shadows and the silhouettes of deer moving through long after nightfall. Through the interstellar dust of everything already dead millions of years and still falling back to us. Come see for yourself. That’s all Karl ever meant to say: Yes, just stay here and talk to me. Please, stay here and be my son. n
Jack Driscoll lives and writes in northern Michigan. He is the author of a collection of short stories and four novels, most recently How Like an Angel.