~This piece previously appeared in The Florida Review (2006)
On the night they died, the Wynn family, each in his or her bed on the second floor of their house on Maiden Lane, dreamed of the children—of Tina Wynn, the girl, and Brandon Wynn, the boy—flying, clockwise, through the rooms and hallways that formed a loop on the first floor. It was the same loop the children had run when they were small, chasing one another or being chased by their father or their mother or, on occasion, both. But tonight they did so in their dreams, and they did so in the air, without touching the ground. And all the while the gas from the cracked furnace seeped up the stairwells and through the floorboards and vents, which brought the heat from the furnace’s flame to the rest of the house.
C-O, the father, Gordon Wynn, would have thought, had he been awake rather than asleep, had CO been the sort of gas one could smell or taste. But he knew, of course, that CO was not that sort of gas. He knew, in fact, if he had been conscious, that he would have become sleepy—so sleepy that he would have become unconscious, and that would have been his only clue something was wrong. And who didn’t get sleepy in the middle of the night, when all was dark and quiet?
CO. Such an innocent formula. Drop an O off a substance as harmless as carbon dioxide, and it’s suddenly poison? But, sure enough, one by one, each member of the Wynn family ceased to breathe.
But before they did, they dreamed.
Gordon Wynn, who was asleep on the pull-out cot in the study, dreamed that the children were young—that the girl was five and the boy was two. And if he had woken from this sleep, Gordon might have interpreted this dream as one of longing for those days when they were a real family, a tight unit, rather than the loose web into which they had collapsed.
But perhaps it was the gas that had brought on the dream in the first place. It would have made sense to an observer, if one had been present that night, strapped to an oxygen tank, like a scuba diver, moving stealthily from room to room, watching each Wynn breathing his or her last breaths, and, if one could, inspecting each Wynn’s dream. It wasn’t so far-fetched that the presence of carbon monoxide in the house might have prompted simultaneous dreams from close relations. Surely in the history of humankind stranger things had happened.
Gordon’s eyes twitched, and, in his mind’s eye his children flew from family room to living room, to foyer, to dining room, to kitchen, and back to the family room; the first-floor loop. The boy, Brandon, who was now ten, a competitive swimmer, who had learned a flip turn the previous summer, while the furnace had sat idle, who had incorporated into the flip turn a dolphin kick, which he used underwater once he pushed off the wall before resuming his stroke, used this same dolphin kick as he flew through the air, in Gordon’s dream. And the girl, Tina, who was now thirteen and confused the way thirteen year olds were often confused—by algebra and the Internet, by their parents and their teachers, by the magazines they read and the TV programs they watched, by puberty, by the kids at school who were having such a great time, the ones with boyfriends and girlfriends, the ones who got As and Bs—flew through the front hall, and turned in the air, clockwise, like a figure skater, a sport the girl had given up on years before. The boy kicked like a dolphin, and the girl spun like a skater practicing jumps, a bit tentatively and awkwardly, because the girl had never demonstrated a great deal of coordination, so much so that Gordon, before the girl had given up on figure skating, had wondered aloud more often than he would have cared to admit why he was paying thirty dollars a week for lessons. Gordon watched his young children, flying, from a vantage point in the corner of the kitchen, by the stove, beside the counter, upon which he had prepared most of the meals since he and his wife, Sarah, had purchased the house fifteen years before.
And Sarah dreamed, too. She dreamed of the children, flying through the house, but the house in her dream was her parents’ house, long-since sold, the house in which Sarah had been raised. And the children, in Sarah’s dream, were the same children who slept in their beds, breathing the same gas that was suffocating Sarah, destroying her organs. There was thirteen-year-old Tina and ten-year-old
, racing from room to room, the loop made natural by the presence of the stairwell in the center hall. And had she woken from this dream, Sarah might have noticed that the layout of her childhood home was nearly identical to the one in which she was raising her own family. In each house you entered into a center hall. There was a dining room to the left and a living room to the right. Behind the dining room was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen, and adjoining the living room, was a family room. All the same. Except that her childhood home was bigger. Much bigger. With an added hallway that ran from the foyer back to the kitchen. And a half-bath on the first floor. And each room was larger. The house had a bigger footprint. That was what they called it now. And it had occurred to her, years ago, when Tina was in third grade and Brandon was just beginning kindergarten, that her house would never be as large as her parents’ house, and the sigh that accompanied this insight was like air escaping from a balloon. It had made everything seem that much smaller. Brandon
Sarah had grown up in a house with two sisters and a brother—four children, a family of six. This was the way families once were, larger than today. And Sarah often thought about this, with a sense of nostalgia. She supposed she was deluding herself, because they hadn’t seemed like such good-old days at the time. She had hated sharing a room with her sister, Brenda, the other middle child. The eldest got her own room because she was the eldest; the brother got his own room because he was the brother. These were the facts, which had merely seemed unfair and arbitrary. Yet Sarah and Brenda had grown close in a way that the other siblings hadn’t, and it was Brenda who Sarah had turned to when Gordon moved out. Not out of the house, of course, but out of their bedroom and into the study, which was small and closetless, with a floral-patterned chair that pulled out into a cot and a desk in a corner and metal filing drawers and a stereo cabinet, part of which Gordon now utilized as his dresser. It was an interim step, she supposed, until the kids grew older and could better cope with parents who were separated.
And when Sarah had confided in her sister, Brenda had asked, What do you want? And Sarah had answered, I want my husband back. I want my Gordon. And Brenda had asked, Have you talked to him? And Sarah, who was loath to show anything toward Gordon other than indifference, who was loath to do anything that would hasten the process of separation now that it had begun, said, I’m afraid to. Then she let herself be held by her sister, and it reminded Sarah of an embrace the sisters had shared in Brenda’s hotel room before Sarah’s wedding. Long ago. And now, when they released one another, Brenda asked, What do you think is wrong between you and Gordon? What’s happened? And Sarah thought of the wall that had been erected between them—the metaphorical wall—more impenetrable than the drywall and two-by-fours that comprised the partition separating the rooms where each now slept. It was Gordon who had left her, physically, with the lame excuse that he liked to stay up late, that he didn’t want to disturb Sarah’s sleep. But Sarah had let him go without protest, and she realized then—speaking with Brenda—that the wall was largely one she had built. It was one of silence, constructed of melancholy and disappointment. And Brenda, who seemed to be able to see through Sarah’s skin and bones, inside of her head and her heart, suggested counseling, and Sarah had smiled at her sister, in a way that must have looked sad, and said, That’s what you’re here for. And though Sarah often cried for no apparent reason, she couldn’t bring herself to do so now. What’s happened? Brenda asked again, but Sarah didn’t answer. She was thinking of her children—how Tina had withdrawn, how
would soon. Wasn’t that the nature of things? Time lulled you with its pendulum arm, with its big hand and its little hand that refused to budge until you turned away. Brenda and Sarah had once been children, too, curled together in one or the other’s bed. Brandon
But tonight, with the poison leeching into her blood, Brenda didn’t appear in Sarah’s dream. It was just her children, flying in loops around the center stairwell of Brenda and Sarah’s childhood home, and Sarah, of course, standing in one corner of the kitchen, in the same approximate spot as Gordon in his dream, in his own head, mere feet from where Sarah’s lay atop two pillows. But what of Gordon, in this dream? She couldn’t see him, though she sensed his presence. It cast a pall of dread, to which the children—with their pasted smiles on their moon-shaped faces—were oblivious. She waited for him to appear from behind some corner and blame her for years wasted.
Tina was swimming in her dream, deep underwater, twenty or twenty-five feet. The sunlight was white above the surface. The water grew dark and murky as the light filtered to where Tina swam near the smooth bottom. It was a pool, a deep well, with solid walls around which she swam. She didn’t associate the space with that of her house, but, if she had thought about it in that context, she would have recognized it as such. There was a thick, concrete pillar in the middle of the well, and she swam around it, clockwise, following her brother, Brandon, who swam near the surface. She would have liked to have swum to the surface, but she was unable to. It was as though she were tethered to the bottom, and the harder she tried to swim up, the tighter the grasp of whatever it was that was holding her. She didn’t want to tire herself. She wanted desperately not to breathe. If she had breathed, she would have drowned. So she swam near the bottom and followed
and watched him with an envy that, if she had woken from this dream, she would have recognized but could not have named. Brandon
Tina didn’t know the names of things. In science, they were learning the names of the animal kingdom. Phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. The other kids were learning the names of things, but Tina didn’t care to. And because of her indifference she was failing science. She did her homework in the morning, when she arrived at school. In first period, science, Anna Howard let Tina copy her homework. And Tina would buy Anna a chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria. Anna had refused initially, but Tina had insisted, because she didn’t want to owe anything like friendship to Anna Howard, who was fat and sat at a lunch table with two fat friends. And because Anna was fat she accepted the cookies Tina bought for her. Each day, Tina left a cookie with Anna at the table where Anna sat with her fat friends. Then Tina walked across the lunchroom to a round table, where the most popular girls sat, and if there was an empty chair at this table Tina sat in it. And she said hello to these girls, and they said hello back. But then she didn’t speak, nor did they to her. Tina sat and ate and listened to their conversations, and she noticed how the boys—the most popular boys—paid attention to these girls, how they walked past with their lunch trays and sat at a table nearby. And Tina watched the boys watch the girls. She watched the girls who got the attention, and she thought, This (meaning the boys) is my final hurdle. She was on a quest to become popular. She had come this far, to sit at this table with these girls. Tina wasn’t sure about their experiences with boys, but she was almost certain theirs wasn’t like hers with the man in the woods.
When the girls finished lunch, they wandered the halls, or, if the weather was nice, they went outside to the blacktop to play basketball or hang out. And Tina would tag along, not really with them but near them, as though proximity would eventually make Tina one of them, or, at least, would allow someone somewhere to perceive Tina in that light.
One day after lunch, the week before she dreamed she was swimming at the bottom of a deep pool, Tina tagged along behind two girls, Gretchen D’Angelo and Trudy Flagg. Gretchen’s black hair fell in curls to the small of her back. There was a basketball game on this particular afternoon, so Gretchen wore her cheerleader uniform. Trudy, who had played on the soccer team in the fall, wore her jersey. Tina wasn’t fat, like Anna Howard. In fact, Tina was too thin. She hadn’t grown boobs; she hadn’t grown hair. And so when she had tried out for soccer, she was knocked off her feet. When she had tried out for cheerleading, the uniform hung on her frame like on a little girl.
The middle school was configured in a square around a courtyard. The hall went past the office and the media center, English classrooms and art classrooms, science classrooms and math classrooms and social studies classrooms, and rows upon rows of lockers, painted green and white, the school colors, until, finally, one circled back to the school store just outside of the cafeteria. And it was here, as they approached the school store, after having completed the loop around the hallway, that Gretchen glanced over her shoulder, to where Tina was trailing, and said, Tina’s gone, and Trudy, who looked at Gretchen and smiled with her straight teeth, already free of their braces, said, Tina follows you? And Gretchen said, All the time.
Tina stopped. She froze in the middle of the hallway, while her peripheral vision closed. There were just the two girls—the one in the cheerleading outfit, her white skirt swishing, and the other in the faded jeans and the green soccer jersey, number two—walking down the hall, growing smaller and dimmer under the fluorescent lights. Tina watched as they faded, completely, or perhaps turned right, down the next hall to begin another loop. It didn’t matter. They were gone. She began walking again, only slowly. There was no sound. Or maybe there was too much sound. She was transparent, a ghost. She saw no one, and no one saw her.
Tina didn’t know the names of things. If you’d asked her if she was smart, she’d say, No, in fact, I’m stupid. In fact, she’d say, as though this were today’s lesson. The counselors and therapists had heard it often. In fact, Tina didn’t know why she had spent her afternoons with
and his friends. They rode bikes in the woods along dirt trails. In math, Tina had been learning exponents. The boys rode fast through the woods, not because they were stronger than Tina, but because they were exponentially more daring. They raced ahead. First, she would lose sight of them. Soon the hum of their tires on the dirt path would fade. Then their voices, until all that was left was the hum of her tires, the songs of birds, her raspy breaths, and the drone of traffic from some distant road. Brandon
The last time, the prior spring, she had followed the drone. It was her own little adventure. She hoped to get lost, to ride until the trail narrowed and disappeared completely. She hoped to hide until
and maybe even their mother missed her and wondered what had become of her. She hoped to discover whatever road was ahead, and find her way back to her neighborhood. It was a warm day in late April. The trees had budded and now were leafing. The sky was gray and close. She followed the trail up a hill, which became steep. She tried to shift gears but too late. The chain turned and chunked. Her momentum ceased and she dismounted and pushed her bike up the trail. Perspiration glistened at the edge of her helmet. Through the trees she picked out a white wall, above which shards of metal raced past. The road was a highway, raised on pylons above the floor of the woods. She pushed her bike, wondering whether the trail led beneath the highway, wondering what was on the other side. The cars and trucks buzzed like swarming mosquitoes. South and north. Or east and west. After a few more feet, the hill leveled off. She straddled her bike and placed a foot on the pedal but froze. Something ugly and out of place stopped her, brought her attention to the foreground, to the woods and a small clearing before the looming highway. Tarps had been laid over the branches of a pine tree to form a tent. Garbage was strewn about. The campsite was empty. The trail skirted it. She turned her handlebars and took one more step before she saw him, squatting behind a tree fifty feet away. He was a dirty man, with a red beard and thin wisps of blonde hair that fell to his shoulders. He wore an army jacket. “Hey!” he said. He stood, his pants around his ankles. He wore no underwear. He picked up a rock and threw it at her. It skipped on the ground and hit her spokes. She pushed off and steered the bicycle back down the hill. “Come back here!” he yelled. Leaves rustled. She pushed the pedal, but it jerked forward. The bike was out of gear. It tipped, but she righted it. She pushed the pedal again, but it spun uselessly. The chain hung loose from the sprocket. She was coasting. The hill pitched forward. She placed one foot on the ground and pushed, the way one rides a scooter or a skateboard. One push, and another. A hand landed on her shoulder and pulled her from the bike. She fell on the ground. The man fell on the bike. He stood, bleeding from his elbow and cheek. His pants were gone. His penis hung from the blonde tuft. His sneakers were canvas, the faded pink of bubblegum. Their laces undone. The tips lay in the dirt. His ankle was tattooed with a bird—an eagle or a hawk. She climbed to her feet, but he was on her. His hands squeezed the knobs of her shoulders. He forced her to her knees and he knelt before her. “Who are you?” he asked, and she wanted to say, Please, as in, Please, don’t hurt me. She tried to say, Please, but instead she gasped, and he said, “Don’t tell me!” And then he cupped his hand over her mouth, and he lay on top of her with enough of his weight so that he pinned her. He smelled of oil and sulfur. He pushed himself against her. He bit her neck and then her chin, and all the while he pushed and pushed, the hard lump of his groin into hers. The fledgling leaves had greened at the tips of branches. She watched them, watching her. Birds dashed across the sky. The cars on the highway whined. He released his hand from her mouth, and placed it on top of her helmet. He pulled against her, released, groaned. He pulled again, and he was done. Brandon
He rolled off and stood, facing the highway. He breathed and breathed. He wiped himself with his shirt. Then he walked away, to where his pants lay heaped in the dirt. They were blue workpants. He stepped into them. Then he turned and looked at her with an expression one might reserve for a deer, clipped by an arrow. She lay on her back. Brittle leaves crackled beneath her. She tried not to move. She supposed he might kill her, but she couldn’t risk picking herself up and running from him again.
He stepped toward her, but then veered to where her bike lay in last year’s leaves. He lifted it and swept debris from its spokes. He stood in front of the bike, facing the handlebars. He straddled the front tire, pinched it with his knees, then straightened the handlebars in line with the wheels. He leaned the bicycle against a tree, facing downhill, and he moved some distance away.
“Go on, then,” he said.
She sat up. Her shorts and shirt were darkened, wet with his stuff. She stood, stiff and cold. She went for her bike. She placed one hand on the seat, the other on a handlebar grip. She ran down the hill, which was steep—too steep—and the hard bottoms of her sandals skidded across loose rocks. Again, her bike fell, and she fell over it. She sprang up, and chanced one last look up the hill, but the man had turned his back and was heading toward his campsite with slow, heavy steps.
Tina had no name for what had happened to her with the stranger in the woods, and so she chose not to try to explain it. And, because she chose not to try,
became even more brilliant in relation to her. That summer he excelled on the swim team, winning relays, breaststrokes, backstrokes, even butterflies, while Tina merely quit. He was the toast of the house. He grew tall, while his body grew lithe, while Tina grew pale and spent the hot afternoons in the basement rec room making up dice games on her father’s trick-track board. And while Tina’s parents noticed the change in the girl, Brandon never did. Call it naiveté. Call it self-centeredness. Call it dumb, youthful luck. Because he never did learn what happened that afternoon the prior spring when he and his friends had ditched his sister in the woods. Brandon
But Tina was more than aware. If she had woken from her dream, she could have easily explained why she was tethered in the murky depths, why
swum easily near the light-filled surface, why she followed him as he circled above, and why her parents were nowhere to be seen. She could have easily explained it, if only to herself. Brandon
The prior August, during the family’s beach vacation, Brandon and Gordon had spent a blistering afternoon at a sports park, with batting cages and miniature golf, with pinball machines and video games. But the real attraction, at least for
, was the sand track with the four-wheel ATVs, with throttles and handbrakes like real motorcycles. He was tall enough, this year, to ride one. And so they left Sarah poolside after lunch, and they left Tina sulking in her air-conditioned room with the door closed, and his father paid fifteen dollars for two rides, and they each strapped on helmets. Gordon chose a blue vehicle and Brandon chose a red one. The seat was plastic, black, and the boy screamed from the burn when he sat on it. The man who took Gordon’s money pulled a dripping rag from a bucket of water and wiped the seats. He motioned for Brandon Brandon to sit, and did, wincing from the still-fresh memory of the burn on the backs of his thighs. But the heat was gone. The man inserted a key and turned the ignition, and the engine sputtered. He revved the throttle, and the engine roared, loud enough so that Brandon winced again. The man showed him the transmission—drive, neutral, reverse. The man pushed the lever forward with his thumb. Drive. He closed his hand, and rapped his knuckles on Brandon ’s helmet. The man left the boy to attend to Gordon’s vehicle. Brandon
And then Gordon shot by the boy, one arm cocked in an ironic sort of wave, one that showed the back of his hand, which grew smaller, until Gordon disappeared completely behind a mound of sand.
turned the throttle again. The engine raced. The machine dashed ahead but only for an instant because the surge, both in terms of volume and velocity, was greater than Brandon had expected, was more, in fact, than he had felt in anything he had ever held, and so he let the throttle go and the tires ground into the sand and stopped. The boy was thrown into the handlebars, was nearly thrown over them. He glanced back at the man, but the man was running a hose over his head. Brandon sat on the four-wheeler. Its engine spat. He’d waited for this moment for months, but now he was frightened by the noise, by the day’s heat, by the torque an infinitesimal turn of his thin wrist could produce. Brandon
Gordon raced around the bend, his T-shirt loose and waving like a flag. He sped to
and braked. Brandon
“What’s wrong? It doesn’t work?”
Gordon raised his chin. “Let’s go!” His engine revved and his tires kicked sand into the air. He stopped and turned his head and waited for
. But he wasn’t looking at Brandon . He was looking behind Brandon Brandon, and so turned to look, too. Paying customers had queued up. The man with no shirt was taking their money, wiping the wet rag on their seats, turning keys in ignitions. There were four of them, high school kids, Brandon believed, a few years older than Tina. The boys were tall and lanky, with blonde hair shaved close on the sides and the back. They wore shorts that rode their hips. The girls were small and thin. They wore cut-offs over their swimsuits, bikini tops with no shirts. Brandon glanced back at his dad, who was waiting, but for whom? And so Brandon pulled the throttle and steered past Gordon successfully. Brandon
The course was marked with orange flags and tape, which blurred with speed and the tears that formed in his eyes, a product of his adrenaline and the hot wind that rushed at him. He reached the first turn, a hard right. Then a quick jog left, and he was on a long straight-away, a gradual uphill. He heard a whine behind him. The hill crested, and he was going down now, a steeper descent and the vehicle accelerated. He came to another turn, another hard right. Something black flashed in his periphery. He pulled the throttle, and came out of the turn wide. Gordon passed him on the inside, ahead now by thirty feet by the time
got the four-wheeler back up to speed. Then came the third right turn, the hardest yet, and if Brandon had known geometry, he would have been able to identify the approximate angle as one hundred twenty degrees. But he didn’t know geometry, nor did he know the physics of steering an ATV on a sand track through a hard right turn. He didn’t know to slow down. And so, instead of slowing, he sped up, because he was gaining on his father. But then his father was gone, and Brandon ’s tires broke the orange tape as he steered off the course and into a dune. He slid off the side of the machine, which rolled over and settled upside down on his back and slid off. A tire landed on his foot. Brandon
In his dream,
’s boat was swept into the fast current, which swirled and dipped and swelled past rocks. The river narrowed, and the more it narrowed, the faster it ran. The trees on either bank hung overhead and blotted the sun, and soon the branches touched one another so that a squirrel on one bank could cross the fast river high overhead. And then the river ended, not into land, but into air, the way the top of a dining table ends at its edge. It was the sort of vision fifteenth-century explorers must have expected, had hoped against, when they wondered whether the world might be flat. The river rushed toward the lip. Brandon dipped his paddle into the water and tried to reverse direction, like in a cartoon where the characters inch toward the rim of the falls. Brandon managed only to spin the raft around. It accelerated, and then soared off the edge. Brandon
But there was no impact. No repercussions.
Instead it floated high above the river. His raft was an airplane. It dipped to the river’s surface, then rose to the trees, and, when it seemed impossible to clear them, it went through them.
His dream was a video game, where one races cars or boats or bikes or pods, passing one after another, while the soundtrack roars and the computer tallies points in millions, until the speed becomes too great or the navigation too tricky and the player hits a wall, or another vehicle, and the screen flashes to suggest the impact, but that’s all it is, a suggestion, because there are no physical consequences. The screen flashes. The game pauses. The game resumes.
The prior August, as
stood on all fours in the hot sand, stunned from his fall, disoriented, his forehead throbbing, he wondered if this was what it was like to be hurt. He had never broken a bone, had never even had a cut that required stitches. The throttle of the ATV poked his back. He licked sand from his lips. The whine of engines grew louder, then was upon him. Brandon
“Buddy?” Gordon stood. “What happened?” He turned the bike upright.
“I was going too fast, I guess.”
Gordon slapped the seat. “Let’s get you back on this sled.”
The guys on the course roared past. Then the girls. Gordon watched them go. Then he watched the place where they’d vanished.
“You should go,”
Gordon slapped the seat again. “Come on, big man.”
Engines whined behind the dune.
“You were looking forward to this,” Gordon said, which jabbed something sharp into
’s chest—if not in his heart, then near it, and produced a quicker pain than that of the dull ache in his head. It brought the swift pain of something tearing—something essential, like muscle. He gasped. He supposed he might cry, but there were more engines, louder engines. Brandon
“You’re sure,” Gordon said, and
nodded, yes, because he couldn’t say it. Brandon
Gordon straddled his seat just as the girls swung past, and, like the cop on the motorbike, the one in the cartoon who waits behind the rock for his prey, he opened the throttle and his tires found their tracks.
They ran the course—five of them in a tight knot.
watched from the edge. He cringed with each lap, with the volume they chorused. Their exhaust stirred the air. The sun beat on his neck, on the gold helmet he didn’t dare remove. He remembered prior summers, when he wasn’t tall enough to ride alone, sitting in front of his father, resting his hands, his fingers loose on the handlebars, enveloped by Gordon’s arms. They puttered around the track like that. Sometimes Tina came. And Sarah, too. They watched from the fence, or took turns. Brandon
The shirtless man waved the riders in, and
followed on foot. He ducked beneath the tape. He pinched the chinstrap and handed the helmet to the man, who gave Brandon an unreadable look behind the lenses of his sunglasses. “That was fun,” Gordon said. He slapped Brandon ’s back like he had the seat of the bike. He led him out the gate and into the heat that hung above the asphalt. Brandon
Do dreams hold heat? Around and around Brandon floated, first on the shallow stream, then on the fast river, then over the falls and onto the air currents, which swept him up, into the thick branches, through which he flew, untouched, as though the trees were mere images projected against the sky.
Around and around he floated. Water, air, sky. He floated. Water, air, sky.
If you had met Gordon, if you had asked him about his best quality, he might have answered that he was a responsible man, a dependable husband and father. It would have occurred to Gordon that, perhaps, dependability didn’t make him a good husband, but it certainly made him a good father. He wasn’t going to shirk his parental responsibilities, and, for Gordon, that meant he wasn’t going to leave his family. Even his move next door to the spare room wasn’t designed to leave anyone. Rather, he’d hoped it would merely serve to snap Sarah out of whatever funk was consuming her. When that didn’t happen, when, in fact, the funk grew larger, and she retreated further, he acknowledged to himself he’d miscalculated. Yet he had his pride; he wasn’t going back.
And if you had asked Gordon about his worst quality, he might have answered, depending on his mood or the circumstances, his pride. Or, just as likely, he might have given an answer that was, for Gordon, nearly the opposite of pride: his inability to fix things. His lack of mechanical skills had been a source of embarrassment since shop class in eighth grade, and he knew, of course, that these sorts of skills were in the job description for the ideal husband and father. Gordon knew, and would have readily admitted, he wasn’t the complete package.
The week before the furnace broke, before the invisible cloud of carbon monoxide crept up the stairs and filled the hallways and, finally, the bedrooms where the Wynns slept, Gordon had heard a strange noise, a clunk, clunk, clunk, which trailed off once the furnace’s fan had cut off. He was standing in the hall by the basement door. He decided to investigate.
The furnace hissed, a sound like water running through pipes on a different floor. Then the hissing ceased. Then it began again.
There was a metal panel, which opened on a hinge mounted on the side of the furnace. This was Gordon’s window into the furnace, one he dreaded opening. He and Sarah had lived in the house for fifteen years, and in that time the pilot had gone out twice. The instructions for re-lighting the pilot were printed on poster board that had once hung on a hook affixed to the side panel. The paper had since torn, and the instructions now sat on top of the furnace and gathered dust and lint from the dryer. They were complicated instructions, which required a nimbleness, a dexterity, with switches, knobs and matches—all three, it seemed, at once—that was beyond Gordon’s abilities. Worse were the warnings, dire and calamitous, for anyone who failed to execute the instructions exactly as written. “DANGER!” they said.
He opened the panel, and was relieved to find the pilot still lit. But it was the flame that hissed. It danced and bowed, like a boxer pummeled before the referee steps in to stop the fight, to save the loser from permanent injury. Gordon wondered whether there might be some liquid dripping on the flame. He studied it. But he didn’t dare stick his fingers inside to test it, because now he discovered something else: a wire, glowing by the dim light of the flame. It sparked. He could have sworn it sparked and smoked. He put his nose in the opening and sniffed. Was it there, the burnt rubber smell of bad wiring? The flame dipped and hissed.
He closed the cover and climbed the stairs. He turned the thermostat in the dining room, and held his breath while the burners lit and the fan blew air from the vents. He stood at the top of the stairs for a good ten minutes, listening to the furnace’s steady hum before sliding the thermostat back to seventy, and, with his good ear turned toward the open basement door, he contemplated the clunk of the machine as it shut down.
There was a time, when he was a young homeowner, a young husband, a young father, when Gordon would have obsessed about the furnace, about the tenuous pilot, about the possibility of an unidentified liquid dripping onto it, about the wires glowing and sparking, about the dangers such things portended. But now he had lived in this house a long time. He knew calamities were rare. He knew, if there were a problem, it was one he was unable to diagnose, to fix, and attempting to do so would only risk greater damage to the machine, frustration for himself, bruises to his ego. Best to let the safeguards built into the appliance do their jobs. If the furnace broke, it broke. He would hire someone to fix it. No use obsessing about something that hadn’t yet happened.
The machine was fine. It no longer hissed. He breathed, and listened to the quiet in his house. He was alone at home, something that was once rare. Now that the kids were older, more independent, now that he and Sarah were sleeping separately, were nearly estranged, what was once rare was now common. Wasn’t that the nature of things? Rare things were exotic, and exotic things were desired. The truth hung in the silence, as obvious as if spoken: He didn’t enjoy being alone.
He sat on the couch in the family room. It was an opportunity to put his feet up and read. He had supposed earlier in the day, if given the opportunity, he would have done just that. But now he found he was unable to get up and retrieve his book. And so he sat on the couch with his feet on the floor and listened to the house’s language—its ticks and clicks and tocks and thumps. In the kitchen, the refrigerator ran. He waited for the furnace to kick back on. He waited for several minutes when something scratched the front door. It was the key in the lock. The deadbolt slid. Shopping bags rustled. Shoes thumped the floor. A shard of a voice, a “yeah” or a “neah.” He stood. He heard: “Okay.”
He went to see them. He walked from the family room through the living room, where he encountered
walking the opposite direction. “Hey there,” Gordon said. “Hey, Dad.” The boy went past to the family room, to its TV and joystick. In the foyer Gordon smelled Tina, a syrupy mix of lavender soap and cinnamon gum. He could have put his nose to the floor and followed her scent, like a dog, up the stairs, to the threshold where her door now shut. Gordon stood in the hall. The bags rustled in the kitchen, their items unloaded onto counters, stacked into cupboards, slid onto refrigerator shelves. It was his duty, wasn’t it, to help with the groceries? It was his food, too. He would eat it, same as the rest. Brandon
The TV boomed, the thunder of engines. It angered Gordon. They’d raised the sort of boy who let his mother work while he lazed on the sofa. It angered Gordon that Tina was unreachable behind the vault of her bedroom door. She was unhappy, and that made Gordon sad. Yet he felt as though he were being punished, unjustly, for an unexplained transgression. He wished to ask her what it was, but he didn’t wish to frighten her, and he didn’t wish to frighten himself. Gunshots, now, from the TV. Explosions. The furnace cycled on. Sarah had removed herself emotionally, and he had responded physically. It angered him. They hadn’t talked it through. There was still time. They stood at opposite ends of the house, at twelve and six. There was still time to fix it.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I’m blessed with vivid dreams, and I get many of my story ideas from them. “Clockwise” came from one, where my kids were flying around our house, which is a colonial with a center stairwell, a configuration that forms a loop on the first floor. At the time our house had an ancient furnace—a boiler—that was more than sixty years old. It was a huge, hulking thing, stuffed with asbestos and wires. Occasionally, the pilot would go out, and I’d need to relight it, a task that I always suspected had a high probability of ending badly. Living with this furnace was like living with a monster in the basement. I’d check it from time to time to make sure it was still breathing and shackled to the chimney.
In life, time is constant. It needn't be in storytelling. Writers exploit time for their own purposes. In "Clockwise," time wears down the furnace and the family. We mark time in seconds, minutes, hours, months and seasons. Even years, with their numbers turning like an odometer on a dashboard, are tallied in loops.
And what about those dreams? We wake from them each morning only to dream again tomorrow. In college I took a creative writing class, where I wrote a particularly grisly poem in which fingers were cleaved. My professor loved the poem until the sophomoric (literally) last line: the protagonist wakes from his dream. I learned my lesson then, and was determined writing “Clockwise” not to allow the Wynns to wake from theirs. ~~ Dana Cann
ABOUT DANA CANN
Dana Cann's stories have appeared in The Sun, The Gettysburg Review, Bethesda Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He teaches fiction workshops at The Writer's Center, and lives with his wife and their two children in Bethesda, Maryland. He's currently at work on a novel.