Monday, October 24, 2011

#6: "Black Hole" by Walter Cummins

 ~~This piece previously appeared in Outerbridge (1993)
                                      
            The cloud cover thickened just as the cable car began its ascent, lifting off from the wooden boarding shed and skimming the tall spruces on the mountainside. Paul knew they had lost the sun for the day; only a small circle of blue sky remained far in the distance.  When they reached the peak, even the nearby ranges would be swallowed in grey.
            "We won't see a goddamn thing."  Paul kicked a boot at the side of the car.
            "Stop pouting," Leslie told him. 
            "I came here for mountains."
            Their eyes locked, and Paul quivered with resentment.  An hour before, maids clattering outside their hotel room, they had thrashed in lovemaking, not caring that their cries could be heard in the hallway.  Now he found her lips thin and mean as she clenched her jaw.  We're only good in the dark, he wanted to tell her but instead turned away from her face.
            Below the dangling car, the village and its lake shrank into postcard perspective.  But the plastic windows of the car were yellowed and scratched, blurring his view.
            Perhaps most people had known clouds would ruin the midday brightness.  Only a few others were in the car with them, pressed against the sides and peering outward: a very old man in hiking breeches with a gnarled walking stick; a mother and young daughter with the same plump sullen face, side by side but saying nothing to each other; a middle‑aged couple in shorts and thick boots over heavy woolen socks, their legs tanned and muscled.
            When the car reached the first of the towering pylons that braced the cable, it rumbled over the metal base and pitched sideways.  Paul panicked: the wires were snapping, they would plummet.  He gripped a handrail and then‑‑an instant later‑‑felt foolish, wondering if Leslie had noticed.  She stared out at the treetops.
            "The top of the world," he scoffed.      
            Leslie turned to meet his gaze.  "I'm as disappointed as you are." 
          
            "Seh!"  The woman in shorts called out to her husband, then pointed out at the trees below.  The two of them broke into a grin, the man pointing too.
            "What is it?"  Paul tried to follow the direction of their fingers, seeing nothing.  But the others in the car were excited. The old man leaned forward on his stick.  "Steinbock," he muttered.  The mother and daughter began talking in urgent whispers.
            "There!"  Leslie tugged at Paul's sleeve.  "On that ledge."
            "What?  Where?"  Then he saw the great sweep of horns, the brown body of an animal.  Now two.  Perhaps three or four.  Just for an instant on a promontory of rock jutting out six thousand feet above the valley.  Then they were gone, plunging back into the trees.
            "How many did you count?" Leslie asked him.
            "I don't know.  It was all so sudden."
            The couple in shorts was still smiling, as if they had just enjoyed a rare treat.  They spoke enthusiastically, but neither Paul nor Leslie could comprehend their German.
            "I guess that was special," Leslie said.
            "I barely saw a thing."  Paul resented her pleasure, the picture she would carry from this spoiled day.
            The car reached its final pylon, then leveled off and edged slowly into a wooden shed at the mountaintop.  Paul looked back but could barely make out the lake far beneath them.  The old man pushed through the door first, digging his stick into the plank flooring as if on an urgent journey.
            Immediately outside the shed was a skiers' hotel with windows shuttered for the summer and, across the way, a cafe surrounded by an open deck that faced the distant ranges.  It too seemed closed, but Paul noticed a figure moving behind a window.
            Where the footpath began, a panoramic map named the peaks now shrouded in mist.
            "Is it worth taking pictures?" Leslie said.
            "Of what?  Shades of grey?"
            "The clouds are interesting."
            She unsnapped the case and aimed the lens at dark shapes across the empty space.  Snap.  The motor wound a frame forward.  Another snap.  "They'll help us remember."
            "The day we didn't see the Alps."
            "But we did see steinbock."
            "You did.  All I got was a flash of hide."
            "You live in such a disappointing world," Leslie said.
            "How can you say that, my love?"
            She turned away from him.  "We're here. So we might as well walk."
            A yellow wanderweg marker pointed directions and estimated times of journey: 3 Stunden here, 4 Stunden and 20 Minuten there.
             "Let's just do a circle," Paul called to her.  "There's no point in having a destination when you can't see."
            He noticed the others behind them, the couple and the mother and daughter, but not the old man.  At first the path was broad and open; but after a quarter mile it began to narrow and hug the rockface, the surface varying from stone to mud to snow.  During a long icy stretch they had to clutch at the rough boulders for fear of sliding down an embankment.  "Be careful!" Leslie warned.  Her fear made his blood surge.
            Paul looked out into the mist and felt his heart pounding.  He wondered how far he would plunge if he let go.  The grey seemed bottomless, a portal to absolute nothing.  What would Leslie say if he vanished?  If his hand reached out and pulled her after him?    
            Suddenly a cloud parted, for just a few seconds, and they glimpsed a snowcapped peak towering directly across the valley.  Leslie cried out, and he stood there beside her, boots sunk in mud, trying to extract a deep memory from the moment.  Then the grey swept back like a curtain closing.
            Paul shook his head.  "I can't stand being teased.  I want to see."
            "What's the point of this?" Leslie said.  "Why don't we head back?"
            "Let's get up to that curve first."  He strode ahead, striking out as if his boot heels were wedges.
            The path began to rise, at first gradually and then a steep climb.  Paul found himself sweating even though the day was dank and chill.  He half imagined they would round the bend and discover something wonderful, a sudden clarity that would illuminate the world around them.  But they turned past a protruding edge of rock and stepped into a wall of white fog.  Only shadows lay beyond.  Paul thought he saw the old man with the stick outlined in the distance.
            "Let's just stop," Leslie insisted.
            Paul nodded and silently cursed the day.  "It couldn't get any worse."
            They reversed direction and followed the path back toward the cable car shed.  Paul expected to meet the others who had come up to the mountain with them.  Yet they encountered only three young men with loaded backpacks and pressed against the rock to let them pass.  One, his expression very serious, said something long and elaborate in German.  Paul nodded as if he understood.
            "Maybe he was trying to warn us about something," Leslie said.
            "He was lamenting the wonders we've missed."     
            She shook her head.  "They know what they're doing.  We don't."
            "With us it's just one blunder after another."
            Back at the cafe they chose a table on the deck.  Against the opposite railing sat the mother and daughter, and two tables from them the couple in shorts.  Paul needed coffee to take off the chill, impatient for someone to wait on them, until he finally pushed back the chair and went inside where a group of people worked busily in the kitchen.  A shaggy black dog sniffed his hand and curled up under a table again.  Paul was puzzled by all the preparations.  No other cable cars would arrive on this day.  The mountaintop was almost empty.  Who would they serve?
            He ordered two cups of coffee to carry back out to the deck.
            "How long do you want to stay?" he asked Leslie, wondering what he would do if she told him to go back alone.
            "I want to sit for a while.  The clouds are soothing."
            "You're not serious."
            "We should try to imagine what's behind them."     
            "Maybe there's nothing."  Paul leaned sideways off his chair and peered over the deck's railing.  "If we stepped out there, we'd fall over the edge."
            "Of what?"
            "The universe.  Beneath that layer of clouds, there's a black hole swallowing anything that comes close."  Paul made a loud slurping noise.
            Attracted by the sound, the black dog come out onto the deck to sit at Paul's boots and slap the planks with its tail.  Paul reached down to scratch its ears, but kept his eyes on Leslie.  "Absolute total annihilation."  He slurped again.
            "It's terrible when you get this way," Leslie said.
            "What way am I?"
            "Weird.  Still sulking over the clouds."
            "You'd sulk too if you were poised over a black hole."
            "I'm sitting here with you."
            "A black hole is a private experience."
            The dog braced paws on Paul's knees and reached its snout up to lick his face.  Paul hugged the dog and smacked a mock kiss on the top of its head.  "And I love you too," he said.
            Leslie stood so quickly she knocked over her chair.  "I'm going back to the village."
            Paul pushed the dog away and stepped after her, expecting the animal to follow.  But it turned into the restaurant.  Paul noticed all the tables were empty now.  He hadn't seen the people get up.
            When they entered the cable car shed, no one was inside.  Though it was not yet evening, wooden clock hands indicated the day's final descent was ten minutes away.  Paul wondered where the others were; the mountaintop had no overnight accommodations.  The cable car waited beside the turnstile, the door shut tight.  The operator was not in sight.
            "Do you think they canceled the last trip?" Paul said.    
            "Why don't you call someone?"
            He cupped hands to his mouth and bellowed "Helloooo," the tone waving as he turned his head from one side to the other.  When no one answered, Paul stepped out the back of the shed and found a bearded man digging in a long trench that came up to his waist.
            "We" ‑‑ Paul pointed to himself and back inside toward Leslie ‑‑ "want to ride down."
            The man dug out three more shovels full, working with a slow steady rhythm, wiped his hands on the back of his trousers, and used the shovel for leverage to climb from the hole.  He gestured for Paul to follow as if annoyed at the interruption.
            Inside the shed, he unlocked the car door, motioned Paul and Leslie aboard and locked it again even though it was still five minutes before the departure time on the sign.  He pressed a row of four buttons one by one.  Indicator lights for the first three changed from red to green, but the fourth blinked amber.  The man went though the series again, then just the last button several times.  The blinking continued.
            He gave Paul an angry look as if the problem were his fault and stood staring at the control panel.
            "What's wrong?" Leslie said.
            "Black hole alert."
            For an instant, Paul thought she would slap him, but she turned and walked to the opposite end of the car.
            The operator unlocked a metal door beside the buttons and took out a telephone receiver, speaking German and running fingers over the controls as if in response to instructions.  The light continued to blink amber, and he shook his head.  He hung up and unlocked the car door.  "Kein gehen," he told Paul.
            "What?"
            The man shrugged.  "Kaput."  He broke into a sudden grin.
            "What happens to us?"
            The man gave him a puzzled look, thought for a moment, and began to mimic walking, standing in one spot and lifting his knees one after the other.
            "This is crazy." Paul waved two slips of paper in the man's face.  "We have tickets."
            The man laughed.
            "It's not funny.  We paid for a cable car."  He reached out toward the row of buttons, but the man, face suddenly grim, blocked his hand with a forearm. 
            "Paul!"  Leslie pulled him away.  "There's something wrong.  It's probably dangerous."
            "So what's your solution?"
            "We walk.  I saw a footpath on the way up."
            Immediately outside the shed a yellow arrow pointed toward the village below, indicating a two‑hour hike.  Before they began, the operator was already back in the trench tossing shovels of dirt at the trees behind them.
            The path spiraled in broad sweeping arcs that doubled backwards to make a gradual descent down the steep incline.  At a plateau below the cable car shed where cattle grazed among the wild flowers, the path broadened into the width of an automobile.  Paul and Leslie walked side by side, their boots crunching down on fresh tire tracks; but they saw no vehicles or people, just a few slate-roofed outbuildings and dozens of tan cows munching with lowered heads.  A shallow stream followed the contours of the path, here and there cows standing in the rocky bed, switching tails, the twisting flow of water covering their hooves.
            Paul mooed whenever they passed close to one of the animals.
            "Leave them alone," Leslie said.
            "Afraid of a charge?  What would people say?  Paul and Leslie gored by a Guernsey."
            "I'd rather be gored than bored."
            He gripped her shoulder to shove her off the path, then squeezed the wrist of the hand that lashed back.  "Just saving you from the cow doo, dear."  The path was littered with puddles of dung, most caked dry, but some dark and fresh.
            She stopped still with her feet planted together.
            "Paul and Leslie," he said as if addressing an audience.  "They expected to have their spirits soar with the peaks.  But all they found was cow shit."
            "But they didn't have to come all this way to discover manure," she said.
            "That's it, my love.  You're getting into the spirit of the day."
            They walked carefully to avoid the dung, fixing their eyes on the path, stepping around onto the grass.  When they reached the trees at the end of the field, the path suddenly narrowed into a rock-strewn trail and, at several spots, almost disappeared.  They had to choose which direction to follow, which way was the actual path and which a random line of bare ground. 
            The descent turned arduous.  They gripped roots and branches not to lose their footing.  As the tree cover thickened, they moved from pale haze into darkness.  In the shadow, the temperature dropped what felt like twenty degrees.  Paul rolled down his sleeves, and Leslie buttoned her collar.
            She tripped on a rock and landed on hands and knees in a bed of damp moss.  Paul thought she might cry, but she pulled herself up and sat back against a tree.
            He watched for a moment and then decided to kneel beside her.  "You ok?"
            "I stunned myself."
            He leaned across, took her chin in his hand to kiss her, intending a mocking touch of lips, but pressing hard, feeling the shape of her teeth.  She sank against him, and he wondered what to do next, how far she expected him to go.  Then he heard footsteps.
            Leslie pulled away.  "What was that?"
            They heard more steps, loud and clear, a heavy trudging, the cracking of twigs.  Paul saw a dark shape, perhaps two, fifty yards ahead.  "There!"  He pointed.
            "I didn't see," she said.
            Paul held her absolutely still and was sure he heard another sound.  "Now I see something," she said, excited, standing and leaning forward into the shadows.
            "What was it?"
            "I don't know."
            "How many?"
            "I couldn't be sure.  It was just movement."
            "A steinbock?" he said, not certain if he should make it a joke.
            She took him seriously.  "It wasn't that big.  What other animals do they have here?"
            "It didn't sound like an animal.  It may have been the couple."
            "What couple?" she said.
            "The people in shorts.  They looked like the type who'd walk down.  Should I call to them?"
            She pressed her hand his mouth.  "No."
            "Why not?  They seemed friendly enough."
            "What if it wasn't them?"
            Paul thought she was joking, until he saw her eyes.  Her fright excited him with possibility.  "Do you think we're in danger?"    
            She shook her head.  "I don't know.  It's so odd here."
            He held himself still and breathed in a damp vegetable odor, heard the distant rush of a waterfall deep in the trees.  "So what do we do now?  Just stand and tremble?"
            "Keep heading for the village.  We don't have a choice."
            Paul took long strides on the brown strip of path, his boots sinking into the soft earth with each step.  Right behind him he could hear Leslie panting, inhaling with great gulps.  But he didn't slow down, wouldn't until she pleaded with him.     
            He imagined stopping abruptly, twisting his face into a hideous mask, and suddenly turning upon her with a roar.  Would she scream?  Faint?  The victim could die of heart failure.  It would be a foolproof way to get rid of a wife ‑‑ if the wife had a weak heart and you wanted to get rid of her.  That would be the most important thing to know ‑‑ how much you really wanted her out of your life.    
            The wife murderer would begin running down the mountainside, stumbling off the path many times until his clothes were torn, his hands and face bleeding.  He would call for help, distraught, irrational.  When he finally encountered people, he would cry out "My wife! Meine Frau!" and babble incoherently.  Or another type of man might drag the body deep into the woods, wedge it into a cavity in the rocks, cover it with layers of branches and dead leaves.  He would burn her passport, perhaps his own, turn away from the village in a totally opposite direction and disappear into another life.
            "Please," Leslie finally said, breathless, face slick with a chill sweat.  "I can't keep up."
            "You're the one so eager to get away from this place."
            "I have to rest."  She sank against a tree.
            Paul reached down to pick up a thick branch at his feet.  It was waterlogged, crumbling when he lifted it over his head.  The roar of the waterfall was loud now.  He could make it out through the trees, white twists plunging from the cliff above, exploding into a rocky current.  "Look."  He pointed, imagining how it would feel to be swept over the edge: a great ripping pain, a crush of bone, and then nothing.
            At first Paul thought the scream belonged to his fantasy, a piercing cry that lasted only a few seconds and then wavered in an echo.  But Leslie seized his arm.  "What was that?"
            "He threw her over the edge," he said.
            "What!  Who did?"
            "The man in shorts.  His wife."
            She backed away from him.  "Don't!  That was a scream."
            "Or a bird.  Maybe an animal.  The mating cry of the steinbock."
            "Someone's in trouble.  Terribly hurt."
            He wasn't sure.  "Where?  Which way should we go?"
            "I can't tell where the noise came from."
            "Then let's just follow the path until we see something."
            Several yards ahead they had to clutch at a great rock that blocked the way, the footing no wider than the soles of their boots, a steep drop into a pool of grey water below them.  Paul peered down for the signs of a body but saw only trees reflected in the still surface.
            When they rounded a bend, the woods suddenly stopped and they found themselves in a clearing staring directly at the falls.  From their previous angle through the leaves, he hadn't realized how wide it was, how deep it plunged.  "No one could survive," he said.
            Leslie wrapped her arms around her chest and shivered.  "I'm so cold."
            "It's the falls‑‑like a gigantic icicle.  We'd better keep moving."
            Now the path followed the edge of a valley, a hundred feet above the rushing stream.  In the haze they could barely make out the hill shapes across the narrow valley.  Paul had no way of knowing how far they were from the village.
            A roll of thunder sounded, faint, as if many miles away.  But the sky before them cracked with lightning; rain splattered the leaves.  Paul pulled his shirt over his head, exposing his back to the chill, wet wind.  "Can you run?" he shouted over the roar of the storm.
            "It's too late."  She was already drenched, strands of hair plastered to her cheeks.
            Paul kept lashing out with open hands as if the raindrops were insects swarming his face.  More rockface suddenly loomed in front of them.  Leslie sprawled against a large boulder, arms outstretched, as if embracing it.  He gripped her waist and squeezed her through a cleft into a small clearing. 
            There on a promontory a small square cabin of weathered logs jutted out over the valley.  Large holes in the roof exposed cracked lathing; splinters of glass hung from empty window frames.
            "Our lucky day," he said.
            "I don't want to go in."  Leslie stood rigid in the middle of the path. 
            Paul pushed at the cabin door.  The knob just wobbled in his grip.  He put his shoulder to the wood, then kicked backwards with the heels of his boots until he bent the door sideways, forcing enough space to enter. 
            Leslie stiffened at his hand on her arm and gripped the doorframe when he tried to push her inside.
            "What the hell's the matter with you?"   He pried at her fingers, furious at her resistance, twisting to give her pain.
            When she released the wood, he heaved his weight against her, and she collapsed onto the floorboards, head buried between her knees, shaking with sobs. 
            Paul began coughing as soon as he followed inside.  The cabin, barren except for a bleached wooden table tilted against one wall, was coated with a thick layer of dust.  He kneeled beside her and seized her shoulders.  But she only cried more frantically.
            When he reached back to slap her, she sprawled limp on the splintered wood.  In an instant he was beside her, fixing her sour mouth with a fierce kiss, wriggling his body on top of hers.  He expected a furious response, fists beating his back, nails digging into his flesh.  But her weight was so slack he opened his eyes and found her face squeezed into a grimace, tangled hair dripping onto the wood.
            "I know who screamed," she said.
            "Yes?"
            "It was me."
            "That's crazy.  I was standing right beside you.  You didn't make a sound."
            "I've been screaming all day."
            Paul pulled away from her with an impulse to vanish into the fog.  But he stopped at the doorway.  Thunder roared and a new surge of storm pounded the roof, lashed through the windows.  He pointed out at the thick grey haze.  "The village is down below.  We'll wait till the rain slows and get there by nightfall."
            "It doesn't matter."  Leslie huddled against the overturned table.  "Wherever we go, we'll never be found."
*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Steinbock and Growing Up to Write “Black Hole”
        This all happened around twenty years ago, but I still recall the glimpse of a steinbock or two, brown fur perched on an edge of Alpine rock, the sweep of notched, oversized horns, and the murmured excitement of the others in the cable car.  In seconds the car ascended and the creatures were gone.  Since then my wife, Alison, and I have used the exclamation, “Steinbock!” when we think we’re seeing something rare and wonderful or even in an ironic sense to mock the mundane.
            That day in the Swiss Alps became the germ of the story “Black Hole,” an excuse to write about the experience of those spectacular mountains.  Place fascinates me, and throughout our travels I’ve made it a challenge to come up with a plot that puts a human presence in a specific location.  The places in those stories are always real, the central characters fabricated.
            Usually, those made-up people are based on someone I’ve seen on a train or a cafĂ© or just on a street.  In the case of “Black Hole,” my wife and I, through a momentary flare up, became the basis of Leslie and Paul.  That day was sunless, the mountain shrouded in clouds, and I was whining about the cheating weather that deprived me of distant peaks.  Alison said something to the effect of “Grow up.”  We glared at each other for a moment but were quickly diverted, healed by the thrill of seeing the steinbock.  Not so for poor Leslie and Paul.  Their hostility escalated into meanness and stifled rage.  For Alison and me, the day proved very pleasant as soon as I grew up and forgot about the haze.
            I’ve forgotten many details but assume the other people in the story, the bit players such as the old man, the couple in shorts, and the mother and daughter, were actually people with us in the cable car.  The bearded man digging in a trench existed too.  But the cable car was operating, not kaput.  I verified that fact with Alison, and she has a steel-trap memory.  We chose to walk back down to the village.
            The rigors of the descent were real as was the waterfall, though I don’t recall rain that day.  I must have integrated a storm from another walk, perhaps the one that hit when we were overlooking a glacier and had to grab a ski lift down to shelter.  The cows were definitely there.  I took photos of three lying peacefully on a grassy spot, chewing cud, and gazing at us with limpid eyes.  Like the steinbock, they are often in our thoughts—Die Kuh.
            Unlike Leslie and Paul we made it back to the village although I got us lost and we had to backtrack a few times.  I’m frequently getting us lost on long walks in unmarked places, several times in the Alps, twice on Hampstead Heath, and in other locations, sure a church steeple was a landmark that would get us back to our point of origin, only to end up somewhere else.
            That’s emblematic of my characters, people existentially thrown into a place that bewilders them, not sure of a way out, and often ending up lost.  Alison and I, on the other hand, find our way to a flat or hotel, take warm showers, and go out for an excellent meal, pictures of steinbock and kuh filling our heads. ~~Walter Cummins
*****         
ABOUT WALTER CUMMINS
Walter Cummins has published more than 100 short stories in literary journals, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews.  His story collections are Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, and The End of the Circle.  For 20 years, he was editor of The Literary Review, and is now co-publisher of Serving House Books.  He teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in creative writing program. You can read more about Walter Cummins at http://www.waltercummins.com/.

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