The rain was bullets. Arthur Adler watched the cat on the ledge trapped under the dry awning. He saw the shadow of the horses in the stable and he remembered the time it rained rough like this, all of a sudden, a great rush of noise and cold salted water, wind: buckets tumbling, clanking on the porch, rakes and shovels thrown down, windows rattling, leaves, hundreds whirling up from the dead ground in a heavy wet frenzy. That time lightening divided the large white pine on the ridge. Sliced the bleached, splintered bark with the force of a butcher cleaver. The flash came with a crack of thunder loud enough to snatch the glass from his hand, smash it to the floor and then a ringing in his ear an empty farmhouse filled with cracking, shattered crystal.
"This will strip the last of them, " he said. It was October 30, 1976. Trees black, tall grass on the hillside toward the ridge, the side of the barn from what he could see pushing the lace-trimmed curtain aside, both hands on the sill all of it darkened, brown dipped, trees barren.
Ten years ago to the dayhe turned to see the wall clock above the sink at the end the narrow hallway: "It was two o'clock, ten years ago, I stood in a tuxedo next to a woman in a bridal gown." He couldn't say marriage.
It was to this area he lived now that they honeymooned; New England coast. Hardwood mountains: ash, spiraling old oak, bending white birch giving way quickly to reed slopes, then boulders and rough ocean waves. There were lobsters in weathered traps, and organic maple syrup, wheels of sharp cheddar cheese covered in wax. There was a photograph of him, Arthur Adler, back bowed, hands stretching around a large pumpkin, wide and squat like a squashed beer keg, looking heavier than he was then. The short haircut. The big smile. Nothing like the other photographs we found twenty-five years later. Where were the snapshots of the fights that followed with our mother? Should have kept a scrapbook of that.
It might have made it easier to give up the delusions. The perfect picture, the conception of things expected, in particularly his idea of marriage. It had been a birthright to do this, and Arthur believed it would be as it was for his father's generation. As a kid he must've been embarrassed by his daydreams, a secret he told no one and could only be deciphered by meticulous study of the small body of work he left behind. He'd lie on the grass near the fishing lake, watching the red and white bob on the water's surface imagining the kind of women he'd marry one day. His was mostly hopes of domesticity, not wealth. Boys in the sixties thought about becoming secret agents, super heros, astronauts or rock stars. For so long he held this picture of his unknown wife: he'd see a woman taking fresh baked bread from the oven, long haired and slender, soft-spoken and kind. There would be a basket of yarn for the homemade sweaters she would knit, her working her needles near the fireplace as he polished off a poem or read from thick leather-bound anthologies. But that was twenty years ago, even then in 1976, before man walked on the moon, before there were gas shortages, war protests, a president resigning and women burning bras.
He stayed leaning that late autumn day, looking out the window watching the orange cat called Egypt taking swipes at the raindrops. Arthur Adler had gained thirty pounds in the last two years since the start of the separation, light brown hair longer, always at least a week's worth of beard before shavings. He had fallen into the habit of drinking cheap wine from gallon jugs after classes. He had made an outlined proposal for a non-fiction book concerning the mythology of the great literary minds who had a propensity for the cheap wine. But his writing had dwindled to where he could barely rewrite old poems that had already been published.
One evening, just a few weeks ago, he carted the boxes of his early works, the notebooks and paper-bundles from the attic, six overflowing string-tied cartons of them. He had a notion to find a common theme, the truest of his voices. He thumbed constantly through the only volume he had published, a product of the Yale Series for Younger Poets. He poured wine on it, on everything, on all the sheaves, an ankle-deep emptied dumpster of writings on the wooden floor of the small living room. It was like the stuffing of a great, oversized scarecrow mugged and ripped down from its pole, its paper-guts kicked and trampled. In sweeping armfuls he gathered the pages and tossed them into the fireplace, the flames turning bright from the blue ink and purple wine stains. He laughed, then fell backwards onto the couch and wanted to cry. But couldn't. Would never break that code of honor.
Sofia and the baby left because of the cheap wine, or so it was stated in the court papers. She actually wrote that: periodic bouts of excessive alcohol consumption. But it was not that, only a symptom of some fear, a form of sadness he could not touch, or explain or capture in any one of his thousand and thousand scratching of notes. They lived in the city at first, a fifth floor walk up on St. Marks Place.
"If I had horses," he had told her. "Wouldn't you like to ride through the fields?" The apartment was tight, no more than a long hallway of rooms, a railroad apartment they called it from a time when that term must've held a romantic marketing appeal: chipped plaster walls and clanking radiators. Sofia was boiling tea, mint leaves in a saucer.
"We'll go. We'll move." She had brown curly hair then and wore an Indian blouse with circular mica mirrors stitched on with bright embroidery. Like she was humoring a child: "We'll just pick up and go." Coils of thin silver bracelets chimed as she stirred the tea. "You'll have tenure in the city college system in two years. But we'll go."
"Horses running through the breaking point of waves and hard sand."
"I signed up a new client this morning."
"A dream, the way life is supposed to be. Simpler. North of here, someplace north where there's mountains and ocean." He looked at her blouse as she stood at the stove. Braless of course the outline of her breasts and the dark circles of her nipples through the flimsy light cotton. "We can come for our cultural dose of the city on weekends."
"Horses?" she said.
He had never owned a horse but was convinced he would like to. He knew he liked the woods and the dark nights, the cool, crispy air and the absence of wolf-wailing car horns, boom-boxes and the smell of urine in the subways.
"With a sky filled with stars. You remember where we went after the wedding?"
"The Smithsonian has a planetarium."
"You'd be lucky if you see the moon. Think of living in a Victorian house with a telescope on the top floor."
"Have some tea." Sofia was always drinking tea, burning incense. "Check out the stars from here. A hobby might be good for you."
For a few weeks then, Adler took out books from the library on astrology and purchased a pair of strong binoculars. He walked to the park, found the deepest part, sat on a stump in a weed tangle off a jogging path and began a journal for observation. But he couldn't see much and he felt foolish sitting there, flashlight under his chin pointed at the blank page of a new journal. Soon he started back to the apartment. He stopped in a bar for a beer. When he got home Sofia began to cry and said that he couldn't even do this without drinking. She laid on the bed, her face in the pillow. When he didn't go to her and instead just sat at his desk, opening a folder of things in progress she flew at him and pounded her fists against his back.
That was the first time she hit him. And it was never the same after that. It all became a game testing duration, measuring each other's patience and drawing and redrawing boundary lines across their lives. Even the pregnancy that followed was a misconceived attempt at reforging a bond already severed. He began to criticize her ways, shunned her family, even when he didn't want to, disappointed with himself for sounding mean and hardened. But apologies were tricky to articulate without opening other wounds. Bouquets of flowers he gave her she did not place in the vase before they wilted. Poems left on her pillow unread. He hoped for spontaneity in their love again. Instead he stayed inside, in the closed boxcar of his room as much as possible, stared at the fish tank, drinking her tea, holding back from gagging on the incense.
"There's something wrong." Sofia said with tea cup in hand. "There's this encounter group I know of..."
They moved, bought a farmhouse in need of repair on twenty-five acres. He got a job as a creative writing teacher at a small college, the slim volume from the Yale series as his credentials, the eight years at CCNY his track record. The busyness of packing and buying and moving, hauling, taping boxes, new roads and stores to learn, the initial, all-consuming care the new infant required kept them preoccupied for a time. Sofia tried to keep up with her clients by phone and special delivery mail. A half-hearted effort until she finally left, within the first year after the baby girl was born, back to the city. He wrote her many letters.
When the rain had gone to a drizzle Adler put on his boots and went to the horses in their stalls. Rochester was a brown horse with a black mane and full tail. The horse sneezed, lips flapped out air, pink-gray gums showing as Adler straightened the straps of the rein. There was the smell of damp straw and its hoof hitting the wood side sounded like a brick. He edged alongside the horse and draped over the blanket, put on the saddle. He tightened the leather belts. He patted the horse with a firm hand on the neck and told it that the storm was over. The other horse was Sofia's. He fed it but would not ride it. A local girl, whom Sofia had hired, came for grooming and exercise.
He swung back the gates and yaahed them both out into the corral.
The horse saddled and ready to go, Adler changed his mind, watched the big brown eye of the animal straining to see what he'd do next, as if sensing some apprehension, some indecision again. Rochester had been through this before.
"Maybe later," he slapped the horse kindly and scratched behind its ears. "The sun's breaking through. It'll be warm soon. You stay out in the yard awhile." Adler removed the bit, but left the saddle on. He watched the horses get dirty fast in the mud.
Before he reached the first lopsided wooden step of the porch he heard a car coming down his driveway from the main road. No one came that way too often. He turned around and squared himself off. A popular Eagles' song playing everywhere was blasting from the car's radio, heard clearly before he could see who was driving. The horses skirted, humps rubbing against the planks of the far side of the corral.
As soon as the car appeared from behind the blind spot of the fallen, lightning split pine he saw masked faces stuck out of the pale yellow Dodge Dart's windows: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, an Uncle Sam from the Bicentennialrubber, exaggerated. They were yelling and hooting out things Adler couldn't understand. And then he saw Marleny, the girl who took care of the horses, wiggle her way out from the back seat. She was smiling, wearing tight black jeans and a denim shirt tucked in. She laughed and stood away from the masked heads, shooed them to go, back down the road, the radio getting farther and farther through the wet trees until it was just the horses. She still had her back to Adler. Long black hair she pushed behind her ears when she turned to wave.
"Halloween," she said.
Adler just nodded. He went up the two more steps, across the porch and had his hand on the front door knob.
"Mr. Adler. Can I talk to you?"
He was thinking about going down into the basement and sort through all the boxes of stuff left behind, stow them in a room and seal them off, padlock it, call a realtor to rent the damn house, write a resignation letter to the college and edit it after he had a few glasses of wine and could tell them what he really wanted to say.
"About?" He spoke down at the straw mat that had a faded welcome nearly worn out. He tried not to look at the girl too much; she looked like she was twenty, twenty-one, dark skin, fine pretty featuresInstinctively he knew to avoid her. But he used to like to glance for a moment through the curtain, when she rode, an easy natural fluidity, her legs clutched around the animals' sides riding them bareback or with saddle. She'd sing when she brushed the horses, rake the stable. During the last two years he had seen her mature, her hips swell out, wearing a light colored lipstick sometimes, a clear, pure complexion, innocent, large brown eyes. A happiness to her body and movements.
"Would you ever think of selling that horse, not yours, your wife's...Snowflake?"
She stood at the bottom of the porch landing, hands clasped behind her back.
He came to the edge of the porch and put his hand high up on the post. She looked at his dark corduroy jacket caught on his arm and his white shirt, eyes glancing, brushing over his worn jeans to his boots. She liked his short masculine beard and his wild hair. She read his book, but never told him, talked with girls who had been in his classes. They said he was quiet but could become excited and contagious from the potential of a student's line of a poem. Though, they said, the girls huddled and laughing, when he read from Keatsthey said he liked Beowulf and Thoreau he'd get deep and mysterious. Or Dylan Thomas or Theodore Roethke. Marleny was working for an associates in fine arts at another community college. She could draw horses perfectly, but nothing else with as much perception.
"I never thought about it. You want to buy her?"
"I've saved up enough money from coming here. I think I could pay you..."
"How much do you have?"
"Egypt!" Marleny laughed. The cat had braved from its perch and wove between the sides of her calf-high riding boots.
Adler looked at the horses now edged to the near side of the gate waiting for Marleny to pamper them. "You got five hundred?"
"I have more, they cost more than..."
"Take them. Take them both." He turned to go back into the house. "Take them now."
She ran up the steps and reached out to grab his arm, pulled his hand back from the door knob. He turned as an animal would turn that hadn't been touched, like a barn-soured horse, he held himself from rearing back. She leaned up and kissed him near his mouth and then ran down the steps toward the corral.
"Thank you. Thank you. Did you hear that?" she said to the horses.
He spoke again to the worn welcome mat again before going inside. "Bring the money when you can."
"Let your imagination become a chalkboard. Now really, Alex."
Adler stretched the kitchen phone to edge of the stairs. Looked down into the dank basement, the smell of stacked newspapers, boxes, oil from the furnace.
"Barrels of cotton catching fire on a plantation? Do you realize the racial implications of that lesson?" It was the department head from the college. Adler was sorry he answered. Thought it might be Sofia about his daughter. "And then you blindfold the students and take them outside."
"Getting them to use their intuitive abilities," said Adler, sorry he sounded defensive, sorry he started. That place was always making him have regrets. "They'll write better when they're using, observing with all of their senses."
"Hey nothing, I'm your friend, or I wouldn't be calling."
Adler saw a silverfish on the stone ledge near jars of screws and washers, above the narrow, steep steps to the basement. The DH wrote experimental fiction, or so he called it. "You're administration, man. You'll make a good dean someday."
"Damn right. I vouched for you, Adler. I cover for you."
"Where are you calling from?" Adler asked. He thought about hauling all those boxes from the basement, things from their marriage, wedding gifts, the plastic bride and groom from the top of the cake. He was looking forward to sweating, thinking about nothing else, filling up the spare bedroom with cartons and nailing it shut. "You're in the office on a Saturday morning. Listening in on the intercom to whichever room has classes."
"Tying the tether." Adler calculated how much money he had left in the bank, how much he could get from renting the farmhouse, how much he needed for child support.
"What? Fragments from yet another uncompleted of your pieces. I left you a memo in your box. You didn't come in on Friday, so I'm calling you today about breaching college liability policies. If you want to make this official."
"Too many politics at this place. I'm bailing."
Adler could see the DH pushing up at the bridge of his black frame glasses with the tip of an ultra-sharp pencil point, wondering how he was going to explain why an instructor under his charge left in mid-stream. "We'll talk Monday, Alex."
Adler stretched the phone cord to the other side of the kitchen, shuffled at the bill envelopes, fanned them out on the counter. A piece of torn yellow note paper fell to the floor. Adler had forgotten all about the message from his old college roommate, Bobby Zarlinsky.
"Ballooning,"Adler said. "Zarlinsky and balloon festival. That's it."
"You got to stop speaking in fragments. Your students are lost half the time."
"Ballooning is not a fragment, but a whole, it's filled with helium and it rises up."
Western New York Balloon FestivalBobby Zarlinsky, a phone number, a date. A new beginning, if such a thing was possible.
"Talk to you Monday, nine a.m. sharp, Alex."
Take the farmhouse and build a great straw basket around it, cable it to the rings of a helium balloon, use the boxes in storage as counter weights. Toss out the carton of photo albums: Sofia on his lap, long dangling earrings, her arm squeezing around his neck like she'd never let go. Him with the oversize pumpkin, the other 3x5 faded color pictures of their time. High winds: toss the box with the silver knife used to slice the wedding cake; there goes the plastic bride and groom, perched on the tiny stage, blank-faced, frozen, swept up and tumbling, heading into the heart of a storm cloud.
"I should write that down," he said. But he knew he wouldn't. Everything had already been said. He held the beam and went down the narrow stairs to the basement. There was a pathway between boxes. He pushed some, grabbed and lifted others into stacks. A few more silverfish long as eyebrows scurried, disappeared. He made his way to a small arch at the far end of the hand-laid stone foundation. He knew there was a light switch there, a bulb hanging from a cord. "Let's do this, at least, in an orderly fashion," he said. "Half this stuff is junk, no point saving it."
He turned on the light, the shadow of it moving across the small back room. He began taking items from the back shelf: an old clock that had a frayed cord bound around it, a part of a lamp, a pair of rusted shears, two baby jars of screws, orange electrical caps. Then he saw a metal box pushed all the way into the dark of the shelf's cubbyhole. It was his tackle box from when he was a kid. It was locked. He brought it near the hanging light bulb and placed it on the slab of wood work bench. He moved a stack of magazines aside and found a screwdriver. He placed the flat part of the screwdriver against the small tackle box lock and with one quick whack with his palm the rusted lock fell off. When he opened the tackle box two tiers cascaded open, small compartments filled with corroded hooks, bobs, some discolored lures. On the bottom there was monofilament in bird nests. When he lifted that away he saw his father's gun. He then remembered he had locked it in there and put it away many years ago. He picked up the gun. His father had been a policeman and when he died his mother had given it to him. He hadn't seen it since then. He didn't think of his father, how he died. He thought about all the junk he had to sought through if he were truly going to make a change, start a new life, go to a festival in New York. He playfully aimed the gun to his head like one would the pointing finger and thumb. It seemed lighter than he remembered, almost like a toy. He pulled the trigger. Although rusted, it went off; the old lead bullet in the chamber fired into his head.
The horses pricked back their ears at the faint echo of it. The young woman stoking the horses didn't know. She had told us the last words he had said to her. We pieced some of it together after all this time.
© by Michael Largo