In the car, his immense and hairless hands melding with the steering wheel, David accelerated into the bank of the curve, weight shifting, the outside wheels lifting, giddying him for a moment with gravity’s loss, caught as if in a morning dream of flight, his fear giving way to intimations of immortality; not an idea but a feeling, an hormonal surge: mistakes couldn’t be made . . . this was real. Invincible then, the car held the curve, flexing rubber and steel, gathering momentum for the straightaway; then righting itself, it flung down the highway like a sure stroke across canvas or like a spring thaw’s river rush, sluicing through the scoured channels, cutting across the stone shadows of the valley, beneath the tilting, rock-strewn pastures and their never-startled cows, Hindu with tranquility. David drew in a breath, his perfect moment burst by pulses of self-consciousness: it had been real, and “beauty” was a word for the feeling, or “fate” for philosophizing men; “grace” had an even nicer ring, every prop in its appointed place, an artist’s eye directing things. But Carol, no child of light, couldn’t understand the seductive promise of sunrise on a mountain road.
“Would you please slow down?”
Her glance was accusing, but drained of surprise; an old argument, not a new one — the shorthand fights of long-lived marriages. And she couldn’t really turn to him anyway, Del curled on her lap, safe and womb-wrapped, as if he had never been born. (A painting: Madonna and Child; all womankind, with wanly luminous skin tones and worried eyes, protecting the boy-child. In chiaroscuro, faint heaven beams irradiating the family; a stranger in the darker foreground, though, whose very shadow was the promise of a cross, of split palms and a crown of thorns. One couldn’t paint it now, of course; sentimental, they’d say. But a mother, even Carol, was an artist anyway, and traditional, sculpting herself despite what was fashionable into all the age-old poses: “protecting the boy-child.” Someday, David thought, someday the drama will be perfected and we won’t be forced to act it out.)
“We’re late,” he said.
“Better late . . .” Carol snapped, then paused, panicking (“step on the crack and you’ll break your back”), avoiding the words; and they hung in the air like a bad joke between them. To see her like this, unsure and hesitant — Carol, career rationalist, suddenly superstitious — was to lose one’s compass, the North Star slipping, Newton purged by Relativity; nothing certain anymore. She won’t make it through this, David suddenly thought, stunned by the thought: that he should prove the stronger one. His right hand, paint-daubed, reached out, crossing the seat, touching her arm, feeling the slight tremor of her silent sobbing; quiet comfort, a measure of sharing as the car slipped past a stretch of forest. Removing his hand to make a turn, he listened dully to the rustling of Kleenex within her purse. The surge was gone now, not a trace of immortality left, and he felt awkward and small, an insect dodging the wrath of God, his hands wrapped tightly around the steering wheel as if afraid he’d lose control. Early morning light flickered through the valley, the sun flirting with the mountainous skyline, the car one moment bright and warm, then cast between stone walls, cliff-sides veined with quartz and moss, David drowning in their dark wet shadows as though sunk to the bottom of a well. He would accelerate then, surfacing for air, urging the car forward toward the next patch of light, and there, warming his skin like some priestly palm of ritual forgiveness, the sun would calm him. It would end quickly, his relief always transient, the highway’s insinuating ribbon — an abstraction of the river running beside it — soon shrouded in shadows again. But time was on his side in this at least, the sun rising above the shading ridge.
They drove on in silence, past landmarks grown familiar on their twice-weekly trips to the city: Top Hat Rock, strips of pine-redolent forest, and eventually, Mantle Falls, which had been frozen solid just six weeks ago, tucked away then in a nave of the cliff-face like some church figurine; pure, white, chaste spirituality — a Brancusi rendering of the Virgin Mary. But it was melted now, rent and violated, water bruising the rocks with its suicidal plunge, spraying even the road. Last week, David had told Del that a little bearded man lived behind the falls (Carol frowning all along: just another Santa Claus myth to be debunked later on). God’s gremlin, he’d called him; an habitual mischief-maker and tormentor of adults, who fed on the feathery gills beneath mushroom caps, who thrived on surprise and practical jokes, stealing pies from window sills, thwarting all the well-laid plans of mice and men. Wide-eyed, Del, who’d met his first mouse the day before, an occasion then for solemn awe, had absorbed it all. And when David glanced at him now (curled, thumb to his lips, oblivious to the roar of the gremlin’s den, to his last cruel trick, so safe it seemed), he floated, momentarily dislocated, his eye denying the mind’s authority: no, this couldn’t be happening.
“Which one is it going to be this time?” he said, eyes on the road again.
Carol sighed, stared straight ahead. “Don’t you know by now?”
“I don’t care about the names, the chemicals — it’s what they do.” He waited, but she wasn’t going to answer him. “Is it the one that makes him sick?” he finally asked.
“I gave you the pamphlets; the least you could do is read them, remember the names.”
“Why? Because he’s your son, because . . .” Del stirred with the rise in Carol’s voice, blinked open eyes too big for his body, overweening almost; like a cave animal’s at night, luminous and watchful. David smiled at him. Carol pulled him closer, cast a reproachful, silencing glance in David’s direction: now look what you’ve done. “You go back to sleep now, Honey.”
Minutes passed, sun-bathed, as they crossed a stretch of open land; the river slowed, the valley wider, furrowed fields flanking the highway, an erumpent green from rich black soil. The heat of the day, fuel for the new hay, rippled the air, the valley coiled and swelling in the unlit morning like a poised bud on the verge of unfolding. A thousand paintings here; the key was to capture the incipient violence behind the sun-steamed stillness. (“Floral,” Gertz would sneer to his pallid coterie, “rebaked Turner; rural romanticism.”) A sign, directing skiers to an “internationally famous” beef-and-beer restaurant, jutted from a field like a cartoon tag on a Ruisdael landscape.
“I did read them,” David said at last, trying to acquit himself. The charge had been absurd but hurt anyway. Guilt worked like that, as unreasonable as love; he watched with amazement the things it made him do, an actor still, driven through these scenes even as he sensed their futility. The competition between them now; more Carol’s doing, but his fault too: who would put Del to bed, who would make his dinner or dress him in the morning — a reward in heaven for the more attentive parent. But at heart their game was a self-made penance, a desperate hope that duty made a difference.
“Let’s not get into it,” Carol said.
“It’s just that the reasons don’t matter; the physiology, the terms, they don’t sink in. It’s the effect; it’s what’s happening to . . .”
“David,” Carol warned, glancing toward Del; seemed with a subtle shift of her arms and lap to brandish him like a threat: protecting the boy-child.
“He knows, damn it,” David said, not angry but impatient, sorry though that he had spoken. The illusion, after all, was for their own sake, for the parents — the pretense that they were shielding him. Del knew, all right, and better than they did; not the idea but the reality. It was happening to him, for him it was real, without the terms, the Latin-stiff phraseology; like the sun on his arm: felt. But watching himself and amazed by it, David played Carol’s game, uttered his lie automatically when he saw Del stirring, coming awake.
“You do know the farm song, don’t you, Del?”
Del rubbed his eyes, sitting up in his mother’s lat. “Sheep,” he said.
“That’s right,” David nodded, then cleared his throat, waving his arm, a massive blond-flecked baton, directing his family in a diverting song as if this were vacation time. Carol’s soprano, clean and note-perfect; David’s baritone a barroom bellow; Del, as always, hopelessly out of tune, improvising the words as he went along, half-asleep still:
The sheep lay low
In the fields at night;
The shepherds watch over them
While they sleep tight.
The cows lay low
In the fields at night . . .
A lullaby, child-simple, its verses virtually endless in number; a Noah’s ark of possibilities sung to David by his paternal grandmother. And now passed on, quatrained comfort, from father to son, a tradition of sorts . . . ending. Glancing toward Carol, noting her false cheer, her pretended smile, the only kind she gave him now — and for Del’s sake — David sang louder, a mere mortal, awkward and small, for a moment a child himself again, focusing on the words of his grandmother’s song: The horses lay low / in the fields at night . . .
(A painting: The Lullaby; a grandmother rocking a cradle-hidden child, her face averted, everything shown by the line of her shoulders — the weight of sadness, age’s erosion. Beyond them, dwarfing the cupped shell of their intimacy, an infinite backdrop, a tundra-bare moonscape of desolation, of unfocused danger; all the implied threat of di Chirico. [“Allegorical, Gertz would groan while painting beige squares on an off-white background.]) If he . . . if he could only paint it, he might understand, might believe that this was happening: Del lying down on his mother’s lap, falling back asleep with the sheep and the cows, the two shepherds watching over him songless now, everything shown by their averted eyes, their dying smiles, by the shepherd’s-crook slump of Carol’s neck.
Speeding through the last tapering stem of the valley, up a serpentine stretch of highway, the car reached the top of the last mountain pass, pausing there as if to catch its breath, the air through its vents palpably cooler. From that vantage point, one could see miles to the south and west; trace the slow death of the mountain range through a series of ever diminishing hills to a flattened, fertile river plain. A reticle of roads — gray filaments, conduits of motion — cut the land there into the patterned plots of suburbia, where trees, sparse and pruned, were individual monuments instead of riotous colonies. Breathless, as though he had climbed and not driven to this spot above the last tree tops, David thrilled to the expanse of scenery. In the past, living in the city, he had tended to forget about waterfalls and sunsets, their sensual reality; and now, living in the mountains, he tended to forget about the paved face of civilization. But here, midway, brought to the top of the range’s last peak, overlooking suburbia, the city’s spire-pricked haze hanging in the distance, here one could see them all, the contrasting styles, the landscapes of living. It overwhelmed David, moved him, this visual panoply, its scope and complexity, its wash of colors and multiple forms, a world more varied and subtle than the mind could absorb. Theories evaporated given a view like this; And forced twice a week now to make this trip he felt like some ultimate commuter, a latter-day Odysseus: starting in the country, in their mountain cabin, its knotty pine walls lined with partridge feathers; speeding through the suburbs, reason’s dreamland, where every block was a perfect garden; on to the city, that hot hub of violence and creativity, Prometheus unbound, man indifferent to the will of the gods forging a life in his own tragic image. The canvas complete, everything seen in a three-hour ride from mountains to city.
As he gazed to the south over the steering wheel, David felt that surge again, safe and invincible, his awe filling the open spaces in an extension of himself. There was secret order here, a hint of Providence, the sky itself describing, defining the scene below with a natural metaphor in light and motion: from the east, the sun, immense and rising; from the west, a squat gray line of advancing clouds, consuming the sky’s cerulean field like locust swarms. Imminent collision — light and dark, fire and water — all the range of possibilities laid out before him. That this sky could exist, and above this scene, fitting it so well, that David could see it and make the connection, seemed a reason for hope, an assurance of meaning, the world a better place — all the promises of beauty. But made aware again of Del and Carol, David suddenly checked his enthusiasm: life was not just a distant, silent panorama, but here and now, and in motion, his family caught up in the irresistible propulsion of their own small drama.
Pushed past the peak, the car began its winding descent, gravity-drawn a bit too fast, momentum checked by stabs at the brake; and laden with guilt, David sank too, trying to conceal the slight smile that had shaped his lips. Perhaps Carol hadn’t noticed, but he was afraid to look, knowing all too well the expression on her face, its accusing rage: how dare, how dare you enjoy yourself! That night, months ago now, when they had taken a walk across the snow, the sky ice-clear, infinite with stars, that was the night she had begun her rule of gloom, the night she had started resenting him. He had smiled then, too, had dared a child’s response to the clarity of the stars — simple awe — but Carol couldn’t forgive him for it, or forgive the sky. They were crucifying her boy, you see, and as in some cinematic version of the Easter story, she demanded earthquake tremors, rage from heaven, thunder and lightning over Calvary. The whole world should mourn her loss, rent hair, wear sackcloth; but instead, either dumb or unattending, life continued on, not a single beat missed, like the industrious ship in Breughel’s Icarus: indifferent to the fall. It wasn’t David’s fault that the stars shone on; he was a witness, not a cause He loved Del too, as much as Carol, would do anything to make him well again (absurd, absurd the things guilt made him say and do, the over-explaining, the self-justifications); it was just that he knew what couldn’t be done, an expert in mankind’s impotence.
“What time is it?” David said, desperate for small talk, one shepherd to another; although they constantly fought now, they still shared the same flock, the same space, fate — lonely together.
“Ten to eight.”
“We’ll make it on time then if the traffic’s not bad.”
“Depends on the bridge.”
“I suppose so. They should have finished paving it by now, though.”
Carol nodded, David gestured with his free hand, the car flew out of the mountain’s last curve, spiraling down to the level of the sea. A domestic scene, they were playing at normality, pretending they were in control of things; but meanwhile, perched on their shoulders, with the singsong taunting of a playground bully, the gremlin undid their tapestried lies, his whispers haunting their uneasy silences: “Nothing is certain, nothing is certain!” Systems were illusions, cockalorum bluffs against the darkness; chaos ruled everywhere, gyrating chance and random disaster; justice was the joke of vulpine tyrants, a rationale for their power. David shook his head, picked at azure flecks of paint on his hand, squeezed the wheel harder when Carol mentioned the treatment again. (“Nothing is certain, nothing is certain!”) They said, David remembered, that Del’s hair might fall out.
“Dr. Stein brought up that Seattle experiment again,” Carol said, cautious, testing him; wanting, David thought, for him to respond with optimism. Trying to please, he nodded his head.
“It’s just a matter of time, he said. They’re on the right track, Dr. Stein thinks.” Carol caught her breath; her voice, tinsel-bright at first, was asthmatic and quick “But just how long it will take, no one can say.” Another pause, a plummet into panicking. “You can’t put science on a preset timetable.”
Awful, her parroting of these waiting room nostrums, hollow phrases for the layman’s comfort; it made David feel sad and small, and he turned to Carol now, afraid that she might break down again. His glance, though, was sun-blinded, Carol’s hair an Impressionist burst of reflected light; color routing form, boundaries exploded with golds and reds that were textured, warm — the eye’s first blur on a fine fall morning. But then came the focusing — surface wasn’t everything — dazzle giving way to the etched lines of suffering. She wasn’t taking it well, this gremlin’s prank; cosmic jokes were beyond her, black humor not in her repertoire, helplessness a state she refused to believe in, preferring the idol of Modern Medicine. She was better with people, with the politics of living; Carol would have never, for example, let Gertz force her from the university as David had. But when it came to the universe — her father’s funeral, Del’s diagnosis — problems not solvable by ad hoc committees or tireless lobbying, she was as lost as David at a faculty meeting. Yes, David thought, sure of it now, he was the stronger one here; within their marriage, following the efficient logic of specialization, catastrophes were his responsibility. But how to comfort her and Del, how to get through these months himself? There would be no pamphlet explaining that, he knew; no imminent Seattle miracle.
“They’ve made more progress,” Carol said, looking away from him, “they’ve made more progress in the last two years than in the entire decade preceding them.”
It was an article of faith, her new catechism; David heard it at least once a day, knew the lines by heart, stanza after stanza (the sheep lay low in the fields at night) of Carol’s personal lullaby.
“Yes, I remember Dr. Stein saying that.”
“And they say that the Anselm treatment has possibilities.”
“Yes,” David said (what else could he do?), “I saw that in the article you gave me.”
Carol glanced at him quickly, seeming to doubt her own illusions, seeming to sense their sure futility. She struggled, though, to maintain her front, her self-protecting desperate bluff, asking herself, “Does he really believe that?”, wanting him to because if he did, then she might too. Her accusation was a self-accusation now, unreasonable guilt better than an unreasonable world. She had been a working mother, conscientious teacher; the style of the times, of course, but in their family the arrangement seemed natural, David home painting and the more patient of the two anyway. But then the judgment had been rendered, a grave condemnation from the prophet doctors who bore clipboard reports like Mt. Sinai tablets, and she had turned on herself, a suddenly backsliding feminist. Her fault, her fault — a woman of reason, who had to have causes, began with herself; hating her job now as if it were the proved carcinogen, bearing her career like a scarlet letter. And when she stared at him like this, David knew that she half wanted him to express her silent guilt, to voice the bitter accusation inside herself (Bad mother, bad mother!); knew, too, though, that to do so would be kinder than to tell her what he really suspected, than to whisper sadly what the gremlin chanted: You had, you have, no control, no control; nothing you could have done would have mattered at all. But David refused to believe it himself, his eye denying what his mind knew to be true. And so he said nothing, ignored these invitations, forfeited his responsibility — painted pictures of silence, frame after frame, in their speeding car.
“Dr. Stein says that the Russians are trying a different approach.”
“Yes,” David said, nodding his head, the car growing dim, the sun smothered by the first froward cloud, “yes, I remember him saying that.”
(A painting: The Rush Hour; gray cement and granite squares, right angular order everywhere; simple slash strokes for the crowds of people, angled forward in frenetic motion. Any yet, a watercolor, its forms dissolving, seen as if through a rain-streaked window; all Platonic shadows, an opiate dreamland, with the city melting into puddles of color, its pastels fading to a wan chimera . . . this is not happening!) Del stirred again on his mother’s lap; David’s eyes flicked between the road and his son; the pavement stretched on, taut and resolute; a solitary cow, Chagall-surreal, pathetic remnant of the valley farms, chewed grass beside a split-level house. (Were there causes to all of this?) Lot after lot, stroke by stroke, the suburban streets adjacent to the road described themselves: eighteenth-century optimism mass-produced.
“Mommy,” Del said, “could I have some apple?”
His parents, co-conspirators, exchanged warning glances, silent reminders to play their game, to deny without telling why, hoping Del wouldn’t figure it out.
“Mommy . . .”
“You wait a little bit, Honey.”
“Now, Mommy, I want some apple now.”
“Did you see your mouse this morning, Del?” David interrupted.
Del shook his head. Already a manipulator, he knew he should keep his eyes on Carol, but the bait too tempting, he vacillated, his head rotating between his parents.
“I think he was looking for you,” David added.
The hook was set; Del turned on his mother’s lap. “In the barn?”
Del considered this, glancing over Carol’s shoulder as if their barn might still be glimpsed through the wide back window. “Is that his home?”
“I think so. He seems to spend a lot of time in there.”
Del frowned, a parent himself now, worrying. “But won’t he get cold at night?”
“He’s got fur to keep him warm. And all that straw to burrow in. You remember his fur, don’t you, Del?”
Del nodded his head. David sighed, relaxing inside; the diversion was working. If they could keep Del preoccupied, he might forget that he couldn’t eat, might not deduce the reason why — until the bridge at least. There, David’s strategies never worked; there, Del’s cries would begin in earnest, aware of what would happen to him.
“I tell you, Del, you and that mouse are getting so close, it’s about time we came up with a name for him.”
Del liked the idea; Carol too — grateful that the crisis had been averted, but jealous as well, David knew. It should have been her game that Del wanted to play, Carol still competing, still trying to earn her expiation with proven acts of motherhood . . . but there wasn’t much time to amass good deeds. And when the time came, she had no God, beyond her own conscience, to present them to. David grew silent, let Carol take over, the game’s emcee, a concession to her anxiety. Instead, he drove on, entranced, withdrawn, the highway’s stripes his only guide, their broken lines pulsing before him like some endlessly repeated Morse code mantra (“nothing is certain, nothing is certain, all is illusion”). Above him, on either side of the highway, hidden by fences and flowering shrubbery, middle-class houses peeked out at the morning, the lanes now thick with their commuting owners who were drawn like filings to the magnet city. No control, no control; caught in a stream and surrendering to its flow; no control at all, it seemed. (“Whiskers,” Carol suggested, but Del resisted, searching for something more appropriate.) Hearing them like this, Madonna and Child in a scene so normal, so domestic that he could hardly believe that . . . remission was the term that they used; not remission of sins but of symptoms, the signs that made the diagnoses seem true. Fool’s gold, false hope, being held in abeyance like this, poised for the fall; always, ever in the waiting room. And Carol clinging to these scientific journals; on her knees, praying to Seattle. What would happen to her when the cures fell through, when the symptoms reappeared as they were predicted to? His job, it was his job to get them through this, to handle the universe, to come out of the studio and guide his family, his responsibility to be the realist. But that wasn’t a style that he painted in.
“David,” Carol said.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“Del wants to know what you think of ‘Wiggles’ as a name.”
David glanced down, a mock stern father, paterfamilias, considering a plea from one of his subjects; Del’s eyes were wide, his brows raised, locked into silent, solemn expectation. Such a serious little boy — but then, who could blame him?
“You mean like this?” David said, reaching out, tickling Del in his vulnerable spot, beneath the arm. Del wriggled wildly, let out a hilarious scream — “Daaadeee!” — even Carol laughing with him; but their perfect moment was ended quickly with a warning cry from the family’s sentry.
“Oh, God,” Carol said, staring through the windshield, pointing ahead, “they haven’t finished paving it yet.”
David looked up; they were still two miles away from “it,” the bridge, a word not mentioned when Del was awake; he knew what it meant: just fifteen minutes to the hospital. The traffic had already slowed, the three lanes filled, and from their vantage point atop the last suburban hill, they could see the lines of motionless cars leading up to the river, the city’s border. Carol glanced at her watch nervously.
“How much tie have we got?”
“Forty minutes,” she said.
David sped up, maneuvered the car, switching lanes, darting quickly for the open spaces, his role now reduced to this specific task — getting Del to the clinic on time. But for all his efforts, his sudden turns and yanking accelerations, they barely gained on the surrounding cars; the traffic slowly clotted around them until, at last, they were forced to a stop.
“Damn it,” Carol said as the lane to their left started moving again. David drummed the steering wheel, shifted in his seat impatiently — stuck at the gate, heart beating fast, unable to race, and there was nothing he could do about it. No control, trapped in this stream, a prisoner to its flow, Del confused and staring at him, worried by their sudden shift in mood. They said, David remembered while glancing at him, that Del would lose his hair, become a little old man, bald and sere, the course of a lifetime in one short year; nature tricked, disease an attack on its symmetry.
“Why don’t you lie down?” David said to Del, affecting a smile, afraid that he would soon catch sight of the bridge. Carol reached out, took Del in her arms, but he twisted, resisting, refused to put his head on her lap. Perhaps he already knew, but David couldn’t be sure as the traffic began moving in fits and starts, the lanes merging from three to two, cars directed by flashing arrows. They were descending now, past the peak of the hill, the city stretching below them on the flattened lowlands like a tablet set with brick and concrete, a bittersweet, smoke-streaming feast of achievement and excess. Carol struggled to keep Del on her lap; the breeze through the vents was tinged with exhaust; the clouds, racing ahead, had broken ranks, the ground mottled with their silhouettes. In his mind’s eye, David suddenly saw Gertz — his larva lips, wet-white and curling, the raised brow of his triumphant cynicism — and he reached out then, unaccountably afraid, caressing Del with a clumsy stroke, a dog’s-paw groping of his thigh; conscience-struck: Bad father, bad father! He should be able to do something more, should, with a flick of his brush, a knowing stroke, be able to change the canvas before them. Dumb instinct, Gertz would call the urge; others would say love. But the words didn’t matter; whichever was used, he still had to, wanted to, play the part, act it out. A parent, father. “Protecting the boy-child.”
“Sssh,” Carol said. “You try to sleep now.”
The traffic edged forward with a kind of surly insistence, bumper to bumper, no space spared, territorial warfare, the lanes reduced again from two to one. Sealed behind glass and steel, commuters smoked cigarettes and checked their watches, shifted nervously in their suit jacket uniforms as they were funneled slowly toward the umbilical bridge. Rats, Gertz would say, performing in their maze; ritual frustration — but there were paintings here, stories. David kept his eyes on Del as the car drew closer, on a plane now with the city and dwarfed by it: if Del raised his head above the dash, he would see the bridge and the play would be finished, their pretense of happiness smashed. (“We lie like this because we love you, Son.” But there would be no “someday” when Del would understand them.)
They stopped again, two hundred yards before the bridge, the wind suddenly dead, the air humming with the squelched explosion of idling engines; rank combustion, diesel stench. Two of the bridge’s three lanes were closed; and there, men leaned on shovels, trucks dumping gravel, a jackhammer busting pavement, thundering the morning; cops kibitzed with hard-hat foremen. A boy, power-drunk, with a tyrant’s strut, waved an orange flag, controlling the traffic like a water tap: on, then off; forward, then stopped. Here, in the city again, amid all these people, all these engines, diminished by the abstract and angular skyline before them . . . David waited, an uneasy vigil, eyes rotating between the bridge and his son, who struggled now on Carol’s lap, wanting to sit up, wanting to see, to know; a child’s curiosity, the killer of innocence. Outside, flanking the bridge, the river’s wide green channel was tinged with gray, and funereally still, a few boats, their sails deflated, waiting for gusts to fill them again. A pause, life for a moment not moving on; the stillness guarded by the sentinel clouds, squatting separate and full above the city.
Trapped there, distracted by his worrying, by a sinking suspicion that everything around him would collapse, disintegrate (“Don’t look, don’t look, Del! What you can’t see, you won’t know, so close your eyes, keep your head down — it’s all illusion anyway” . . . this is not happening!), David’s eye was drawn back to the sky, the lighting changed, the river cast in an odd and haunting atmosphere. An artist by habit, he noted the difference, how the air, suddenly dimmed and color-tinged, was caught in a visual paradox: the morning twilit. Low in the sky, an immense and billowing cloud had formed, veiling the sun, its bellied center faintly roseate and glowing, a halo quality about its edges. The surrounding sky was fissured with blue, its smaller clouds, partial mirrors, pink-cast too, and shimmering, as if suffused with imminent divinity — as in those religious paintings of the Early Renaissance where angels burst from resplendent clouds like winged seeds from a ripe pod, announcing miracles. David stared, struck by his own revelation: those skies, those skies in the paintings were real! One forgot, one tended to forget . . . God, to have a canvas now, to hold a brush, to capture this light, its aura of ominousness . . . Soaring now, David turned on his seat; the experience not shared or painted was incomplete; but there, a more sobering vision greeted him. Wrenched from the air and plummeting, the wax wings of his immortality, the smile on his lips shriveling: how dare, how dare you . . .
Carol clutched a Kleenex in her fist, head slumped, lips pursed. Del had won their battle, bitten the apple; sitting up beside her now, he knew where he was, knew what would soon happen to him: a little old man, homunculus, facing premature indignities. Sad but brave, he tried not to cry, the brunt of a joke he was helpless to fight; just a passenger, after all, in the car, in life; in remission now, waiting for a sign, given his window, the world streaming by. David glanced from the boy to the sky, from the sky to the boy, the traffic on, then off; forward, then stopped / on, then off; forward, then stopped. Within one sweep of his eye, the limits were defined, joy and despair, a continuum implied: one picture after another, one more luminescent cloud or romantic setting, one more rat-bitten child or vomit-spewed canvas, Renoir and Brueghel, everything included. It was real, all of it — the mountains, the suburbs, the city, all the “schools,” the styles of living, even Gertz with his tepid beige squares, his academic nihilism — real, all of it, incredibly, all part of the picture: Del was dying.
Stopped by the bridge, by the substance of things, David stared as the world waited on: the boats, their slackened sails; the clouds overhead; his wife’s impatience (where was the miracle?); the worm of disease, the gremlin’s planted seed, still uncurling. A thousand dramas incomplete. Behind him, car after car began to honk, the pompous flagman waving him on, the path now cleared, the bridge in all its inevitability waiting for them. But David refused to move on, gathering awe, his eyes still rotating between his son and the sky, his response to be drawn. A song-maker, picture-painter, witness to it all (“I saw this and it was real!”) — an artist of amazement. But a shepherd, a father too. And now given this cloud, the cup of his senses overflowing.
With a sweep of his arm, he gathered Del up, the herd of cars bleating their horns, the furious flagman waving them on — impatient life, the world unaware that a boy was falling from the sky. Carol called his name. David nodded his head, had a message for them, his wife and son, as his finger pointed to the sky above.
“Look at the cloud,” he said, lifting Del up, guiding his sight (in the car, beside the still waters, before the city of his enemies); an artist and father playing his part. “Look at the light.”
(Originally published in “Ploughshares” and collected in The Death of Descartes)