June 2011

Lightning

“Everything’s beautiful, every day’s a holiday…” Aimee Mann

The air was so thick you could feel it and the sky was darkening: it was going to rain. Juliana had her youngest boy, Ronnie, in an Epsom salt bath to soothe his eczema. The hot, humid weather always aggravated it. She was alone with her two sons, at the house they bought upstate a few years ago, to give the boys some fresh air, to get out of the city in the summertime. The property was bordered by an acre big pond on the right and Sherman Creek, a trout filled stream that fed into the Delaware river, in the back. It was a damp, lush part of the world, almost jungley with trees, wet grass, overgrown bushes, loudly croaking frogs and all sorts of animal life: bears, deer, groundhogs, foxes.

Juliana was on her third vodka. Her husband, Nick, was in the city- they would pick him up on Friday night from the bus stop in Hancock. She, like always, was indulging in the “I’m all alone taking care of these kids all week” feeling. This was her excuse for drinking heavily, although she’d easily find another one if need be. Bath and dinner was the worst time. Trying to get her sons fed and clean and put to sleep. The liquor was softening her now, though, and the boys were fed and whenever Ronnie got eczema, she felt badly and worried. She went into the bathroom and there he was, with his fire red hair damp and curled on his head, pale and immersed in the warm, salty bath. She got down on her knees and rubbed a washcloth on his tender, pale skin. He was soft and compliant, floating ever so slightly. Something stabbed at her, suddenly, out of nowhere, while she touched her son in the tub and she realized how much was lost, how wrong she was ever to be irritated. “God,” she thought. “It’s all going away. Their childhoods. They go away.” She stood quickly, the vodka making her sway a bit, and tried to close the door inside herself to whatever had opened her up like this. “Here, Ronnie,” she said, “Here’s a towel. Go get your PJs on.”

It was dark, so suddenly, in the house. The rain, like a switch had been pulled, roared down in a torrent. She turned on lights, first in the living room and then she walked into the kitchen and turned on those lights and then she went upstairs and turned on the lights there, too. She was shaking a bit. Hell, she needed another drink to steady herself. A storm. A fucking storm. Just what she needed, all alone, with her boys. Where was Nick when she needed him? Jesse, her nine year old, was in his bunkbed reading. His blond hair had turned dark recently and sometimes she wondered who he was, her son. He was a mystery to her, in a way he wasn’t when he was a baby. Juliana’s tongue loosened in her mouth and she whispered to herself, there in the hallway, looking in at her firstborn in his bunk, “I don’t deserve him.” Then, a crack of thunder, so nearby she jumped and Jesse cried out, sitting up in bed. Not far off- it must have been on their own eight acres- they heard a tree fall, a small, almost human sound, after the enormity of the thunder.

“Oh Lord,” Juliana said, and Jesse ran into her arms. “Why don’t you boys sleep in my room tonight?” She turned to go downstairs to get Ronnie, but he was there in front of her on the landing. He’d run up on his own, a towel falling off him, tears in his eyes. “Come, we’ll all sleep in my big bed tonight.” The rain was wildly loud now, and she ushered her sons to her room in the deafening noise of it all. It’s a strange thing, not to hear your own feet on the ground, the whimpering of your children. She didn’t do this often- let them in her bed- but it wasn’t the first time, either. They spent a lot of time away from Nick, it was often just the three of them, and if someone had a nightmare, or during a bad storm like this night, she often let them in the enormous, king size bed they had in the country.

“When are you coming to bed, Mommy?” Ronnie asked.

“Soon, soon, go to sleep,” Juliana answered, the familiar impatience creeping back into her voice. A wave of shame crossed her face, but the emotional distance that impatience afforded her- it was like the booze. A buffer from something, that something that had loosened her tongue earlier, that something that was so uncomfortable, frightening even.

She went downstairs, to have a moment alone, maybe to call Nick. When she got into the kitchen, all the lights went out. The house, which she had so carefully lit up to feel safer in the storm, suddenly went black. Irritation fought with fear, but nothing was going to stop her from pouring herself another vodka. She groped along the walls to get to the pantry, her empty glass in hand. A blast of light from the heavens illuminated the house abruptly and she reached for the vodka in that flash, bracing herself for the impending thunder. It came: It was deafening, and the house shook violently. Jesus Lord, thought Juliana, the vodka tight in her hand. The silence following the thunder was as upsetting as the thunder itself and then she heard the wailing of both her sons, in chorus. Her ears rang and her eyes saw spots from the lightning, but she’d seen the candles and the matches in the pantry and, putting the vodka bottle in the pit of her arm, she made a blind man’s grope for where she thought they were. She felt the candles, long and smooth and she put three of them in the crook of her arm next to the bottle and went back to grope for the large box of matches. Success.

A candle lit, she went upstairs, slowly, as her hands were full and all sorts of things were balanced in her armpit. The rain was deafening now, falling in sheets thick as glass outside her window. Well, the basement would flood. Of that she was certain.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she cooed as she entered her bedroom. Both boys were sitting up, huddled against each other. She sat at the edge of the bed, giving the candle to her older boy, and poured herself a tall glass of booze. She then drank half of it one gulp. Damn, it burned. She loved the burn. “Everything is going to be fine. I know it’s loud and scary, but we are as safe as can be.”

“How can we fall asleep? It’s so loud,” asked Jesse.

“Just try,” she said. “Rain can be comforting.”

“The thunder isn’t comforting,” said Jesse. His eyes were wet with tears and his lip quivered and Juliana could tell he was trying so hard to be brave. Why? Why, she wanted to say, but she wouldn’t say it. Why not be vulnerable? Bravery was a lie.

“I know, I know.” She leaned back on her pillow, a candle in one hand, her drink in the other. “Just try to fall asleep.”

“Ronnie said, “Come to bed now, Mommy.”

Juliana looked at her little boy. He was terrified. Stricken. He didn’t yet try to be brave, God bless him. “I’ll be up in five minutes. Here, I’ll leave this candle here and light another one for me, OK?” She got up and went to the bookshelf. There was an old, tarnished silver candleholder there. There were a few around the house. Blackouts were not so uncommon, so they were somewhat prepared. She put the candle in the holder, and lit the other two off of it. Then she kissed her boys, assuring them she’d be back in five minutes, and the rain seemed to subside for a tiny moment so she could hear their breaths, smell their cheeks. I need to go downstairs, call Nick, bitch and drink, she thought, trying to shake off the strange, sentimental interjections that kept pushing themselves into her mind. It was the storm, she told herself, shaking her head as if she could physically shake out her thoughts.  Storms always affected her.

Glass in one hand, bottle back in her armpit, lit candles in the other, she silently padded down the carpeted stairs. When she got to the couch, she nearly collapsed. She poured a drink, put the other candles in holders that sat normally empty on the coffee table in front of the couch. It had a harsh beauty, a majestic power, the storm did. After another drink, she’d call Nick, she told herself. That’s when she saw him.

“Careful, that stuff can catch on fire,” he said, calmly, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. He was leaning gently against the framed, open doorway, one leg casually crossed against the other. There was nothing immediately impressive about him, except for the miracle of his appearace in her house. He had on rather fitted blue jeans that oddly were not wet, light brown cowboy boots, a thick brown workman’s jacket. His hair was wavy and close cropped, a bit darker in color than his jacket. He smiled, one hand fiddling with a toothpick in his mouth.

Stunned, Juliana’s hand shook upward, up-righting the bottle; she’d been pouring vodka on the table. “Holy Mother of God. Help,” She gasped, standing in her pale blue nightgown, and grabbed the grey sweater she had on tightly around herself as a lame gesture of protection.

“Shush, shush,” He pointed up the stairs, casually, and that was when she noticed he had a gun in his right hand, the hand that didn’t fiddle with a toothpick in his mouth. “The kids. You don’t want to wake them, do you?”

The gun was a 357 Magnum. She’d shot one, years ago, on vacation in California. Shot at Coor’s beer cans that her old college friend had lined up for her. It was a big pistol, a classic. It had a sort of beauty to it, even though it was clearly a thing of destruction.

“What do you want,” she said, grabbing a candle. “Take whatever you want.”

“The man smiled even more broadly, chuckled nearly silently and languidly re-crossed his legs as he leant on the doorframe. “I’ll get what I want, don’t you worry.” She looked at his mouth and in the candlelight she saw his glittering teeth, gold rimmed around their broken edges. In that instant, the rain seemed to subside and stunned by the sudden quieting, Juliana looked out the living room window, a large picture window; she’d forgotten to close the curtains, which she did every night. The storm had confused her. It had gotten so dark so quickly. A car could drive by and see her. See that she was in distress? She stood, wanting to edge toward the window.

“Sit down, Juliana, sit down.”

She looked out the window. The yard seemed dimly lit, as if all the earlier lightning had diffused and spread. Tied to one of the large maples in her yard was a large, roan horse, somewhat restless, pawing the ground. Someone could see the horse, know something was amiss. She didn’t have a horse. The neighbors would notice, someone would notice. It wasn’t right.

“I have neighbors, you know”, she said. “They’ll see your horse. They’ll call the police.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed richly, a laugh part molasses, part suffocating, rotten, river sludge. He hitched his left hand into his belt, leaving the toothpick sticking out of his lips, stuck in between his teeth. “I don’t think so.”

“What do you want?” The children, the children, she thought. “Do I know you?” Was this some bitter person from her past? “Did we go to Boston College together?” Her voice was tiny, confused.

That glittering smile, the mouth full of shining ores. “No.”

Juliana’s mind lit up, an electric current of thought coursed into her hard and bright. “I have a diamond! Let me get you my diamond. You’ll be rich! I will…I will get it! It’s yours! It’s worth at least ten grand. Upstairs. I promise I’ll bring it back, please let me…”

She lurched for the stairs. She had to save the children. Her ears rang: could she hear them? The children. Oh, God no. She then sprinted for the stairs; he grabbed her.

“I promise. I promise I’ll bring the diamond down to you. It’s worth tons! You’ll be rich. Please. I promise. Please.”

His grip softened on her arm. His eyes were as dark as cinder, surrounded by milky whiteness. His nose small in his broad face. He seemed amused, but not altogether without feeling. “You do that, you come right down with that diamond,” he said.

He let her go and she ran, ran up the stairs. The boys sat up, half asleep.  “Jesse, Ronnie, get up.Get up…”

“Mommy?” Ronnie asked.

She grabbed them, stood them up. “Come.” She pulled them over to the window in her bedroom that sat above the porch roof. The rain was still coming down, but not  hard at all. She yanked the screen open and turned to Jesse. “You have to take your brother. You can get down from the porch roof. You can do it. Remember how we practiced once, in case of a fire?”

“Is there a fire?” Jesse asked, very awake now.

“Yes! There’s a fire. I’ll be with you in a minute. Go. Just walk to the neighbor’s house. Keep walking. You can do it. Tell them to call the police.”

“Mom?” Jesse.

“Now!” She said and she pushed at him.

“Mommy?” Ronnie started to cry.

“Go with your brother. Go,” she was yelling and pushing violently, treating her sons as she hated to treat them but as she did sometimes, which always filled her heart with a shoveling deep regret, and in that minute, in that split second that she managed to push her little one, her baby, out the window, slamming the screen at the edge of his pants, she turned to see him standing in the bedroom doorway, suddenly, quietly, as if his feet didn’t touch the ground.

“Please not them, please not them,” she said and lunged for the diamond ring, sitting on her dresser, in the beautiful flowered ceramic dish where she always kept it. “Here it is. Ten grand, or something like that, you can get for this. Please let them be.” Could she hear the boys, scurrying on the roof? Were they down yet? The  neighbors weren’t that far. Please God, she thought. Please. She stood there, her hand outstretched to this demon, a sparkling diamond in her grasp.

He carefully took the ring out of her hand, turned it around in his own, examining it. It glittered wastefully in the candlelight. He slipped it in his pocket as if it were a pack of gum or a lighter or a train ticket, the gun in his other hand casually at his side.

“You want me to spare your children?” He asked.

“Yes,” she said. The rain drummed quietly now on the roof. She heard no feet, no children’s voices. She was silent then, remembering how she chose to be on the same tiny, bumper plane, as they were called, with her sons, when they were in the Dominican Republic on vacation, making Nick fly separately, on a different plane. She had just wanted for whatever to happen to herself and the children together.

He stood there, so relaxed, as if this was what he did all of his days. All reason left her, that bright light of thought, the thing that drove her up to get her kids out, to offer her sparkling, corrupt jewel to this man in her house, this man with a gun, the thing that had given her a moment of cunning and calculation. Gone, gone it was now.  She crumbled to the floor and begged, “What now? The diamond is the only thing I have. Please, I beg you. Oh God, my children. I just want to see their faces…”

“You’ll see their faces for all of eternity, just as they were tonight. They’ll never grow up for you. Consider yourself lucky.”

She fell to her knees. “No, God, please no. I’m so young…” Here was that moment that she always meant to live in. There was no not living in the moment. Her life flooded her, her impatient childhood, her degrading adolescence, the fucking and searching in her twenties, then Nick, then Jesse and Ronnie. Oh, Jesse and Ronnie. The nightmares she’d had when they were little, the haunting in her sleep, the dream images of leaving them at bus stations, failing to take care of them, and then waking, her heart racing, realizing they were safe in bed. They were not safe in bed now. No, but were they safe?  And the real ways in which she had failed them, the shameful moments of losing her temper, the yelling, the grabbing, the losing control. She’d never felt worthy and now she could answer for that. Oh, everything was so beautiful, every day had been a holiday. Life was a gift. And yet, she never knew it. Never until now. And now seemed too late.

“Why me? Who are you?,” she was crying now a bit, softly. “Are you some sort of devil?”

“Not exactly,” he said. He cocked his head to the side.

“I’ll sell my soul to you,” she said, not knowing why. “Anything. Anything for more time…”

“I wish I could help you, but I can’t.” He said.

A feeling as if she’d been knifed in her heart came over her and she pushed her hands into her chest. Just when you think the pain is over, another pain shows up. The pain of seeing that her boys had grown so much, that they were not her infants anymore, turns into the pain of not being able to see them grow into adults. She had never been grateful enough. How could she be? She was human, after all.

She looked out the window. The sky remained oddly lit, a post storm lightness; the rain was coming to an end. They were safe, somewhere, they must be. She saw the man’s horse, moving his hooves slowly around in the wet grass. She looked up at him again.

“You’ll take me with you? We’ll ride off together?” She asked, her hands clasped in prayer. “Just, just…have mercy on me.”

He smiled. “Sure baby, let’s ride.” He pointed the gun at her head.

“We’ll ride?”

“Yeah! We’ll ride.”

She looked down the barrel of the gun. It was a black hole, too, like his eyes, like a third, all seeing eye. She tried to look into his eyes, tried to find some human compassion, but they were endless in their darkness now, two glittering coals. Then she looked down the barrel of his gun, then at all three black holes, the three tunnels to somewhere, to God knows where. “Oh Lord, save me,” she whispered and for that split second, that moment in time and space, when we cease to exist on this earth, her heart was filled with fear.  But in a flash, like lightning, it was over.