There were few light poles in my earliest youth, and given soybeans, rice, and cotton hug the Earth low in Arkansas, the space for stars was effectively doubled. I used to see that sky out our screen door on muggy August nights, just beyond where my mother and aunts sat around a kitchen table telling ghosts stories. It draped the limbs of dusty trees where bats hung like black fruit, and shrouded rickety wooden bridges that stitched together a rural landscape. I have encountered that shade of dark little in adulthood, although it still colors my dreams.
The most horrifying of my dreams revolve around the heavens. In them I lie on the ground and look into the night sky. The force of gravity presses my body uniformly into the cool grass; and like Pascal, my soul recoils from infinity’s touch. I am powerless to resist the sensation, and I fall with no destination in view, where everything is falling relative to me. The stars and galaxies barely flicker from the gentle disturbance as we move together in lockstep: the blind following the blind.
Lights abruptly break against the drift. Their motion shows intelligence and intent. My fear of falling is replaced by a fear of the unknown. We are not alone.
Lights descend in the distance, resembling torches of advancing conquerors slipping down a mountain path. No greeting or warning precedes them—only silence. I awake terrified, but the darkness is too quick to settle into something familiar around my bed. I turn back into sleep under the grayness of reason, yet sense the blackest betrayal lurking in it.
Graduate school seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was with a half-formed scheme the painter entered into the arrangement. To the extent Aloysius thought about the particulars of his life, with regard to stratagems and long-term goals, was infrequent. His life was primarily one of art, and degrees of inconvenience shaded everything else. Resultantly he was forever falling backwards through doors others walked through willingly; and this education was as costly as it was accidental.
He attended a commuter college as an undergraduate, where at any given time half the student population was in transition. The changeable composition of classmates afforded him greater anonymity in his painting and drawing classes, although he did not go unnoticed by professors. One was instrumental in getting him into a top tier graduate painting program, which required a move to another state.
Aloysius lived in his parents’ house until he was twenty-eight, and seldom left his bedroom. The move for school marked the most frightful day of his life, yet once settled he was determined to break with the past and to be more socially engaged. What he found in his new artistic environment was a privileged, insular community that viewed his art as kitsch. (The self-taught painter never heard the term before.) During this period of awakenings, ruder ones awaited him on his first forays into the realm of dating.
He necessarily floundered that first year and was on track to receive no funding for his second year until he rallied at the term’s end with an impressive pre-oral exam. Over that first summer he resolved to absorb as much of the fine arts program’s aesthetic as he could accommodate. He was the only graduate student to paint during the break, and on returning to school with ten new canvases, professors and peers were amazed by the radical transformation of his work.
This notwithstanding, the painter remained an outsider. He was not confrontational or arrogant in his stance, but his continuing invisibility around fellow grads was seen for what it really was: a blind to conceal his contempt for their less imaginative artwork. Being southern, Aloysius believed if he could not say anything nice about something, it was better to say nothing at all, which he did for two years. He left graduate school with a diploma, serviceably polite references, and a mountain of debt. The only practical application of his advanced degree was teaching at the college level, but given his eclectic résumé, his disinclination to exhibit, and lack of political connection, his talent gave him no leverage. The head of his undergraduate program had framed his dilemma early on when he told Aloysius, in all candor, he was a genius; but then geniuses and institutions of higher learning do not traditionally get along.
It was against this mixed history that the MFA graduate thought about the place he would call his new home.
He was so preoccupied with details that last day in Chicago, the traveler left it to the final hour to inform his sister of his impending move. Even though he knew she would not be at home, Aloysius deemed it less emotionally disruptive to walk over to her house and leave a note with his new address.
The brother maintained a minimal profile crossing into the yard, and nimbly navigated one realty sign to reach the porch. A spare house key was hidden under a flowerpot and, using it to enter the foyer, a hasty scribble was tucked under a paperweight on a bureau. He was about to turn back to the door when a woman’s voice sprang from somewhere upstairs. At first he thought it was his sister, but it was more likely a realty agent showing the house to a prospective buyer.
He closed the front door quietly behind him.
Aloysius returned to his apartment after hitching a rental trailer to his car. Everything but a few loose ends was packed up, so he started loading his belongings at the curbside. He was mindful of his neighbor’s movements down the hall, making sure to lock his apartment door with each trip in and out of the house. Near the end he noticed another box (not his) around the corner on the stoop of the vacant apartment: Someone was moving in as he was moving out.
No one was seen inside the dark entryway, and no nametag hung on the mailbox. The concerned neighbor stepped up to toss in a greeting. “Hello?”
Light around a door threw the shadow of a second, larger box onto the wall. With incorrigible curiosity, Aloysius eased forward to peek into its open flaps. The strange object inside resembled a giant piñata, or something boulder-like made of papier mâché.
“Hello?” came the soft reply from the bathroom.
It was too late to undo the trespass. A young Hispanic woman, with a child clinging to her skirt, stepped forthrightly into view. The snoop apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see anyone.”
“Neighbor?” she asked.
“Yes. I mean no. Not anymore.”
Her nervous laugh was gentle. “English not good.”
“No. It isn’t. I mean my English isn’t good, either.”
She was confused.
The shy little girl darted under a black velvet painting of Jesus praying at Gethsemane.
Getting to his point, Aloysius gestured at the nailed-to door, thrusting a finger at the exposed keyhole, and then two back at his eyes. “Neighbor,” he began in Pidgin English, “he spy on you.”
The young mother registered proper alarm. “No.”
“Yes,” he said.
She too pointed, only at the refrigerator. “Drink? Something to drink?”
Her finger glittered in the light of a jostled window curtain. The ring might have been a wedding band, or some other ring; he demurred.
The daughter was now hiding behind drapes, playfully mimicking his facial expressions and mouth movements through the thin weave of the fabric. Distracted, Aloysius glanced at the only bed in the one room apartment and wondered where the child would sleep.
The mother pushed a box aside, ready to entertain company.
Aloysius, never spontaneous in social situations, pawed the floor before retreating from this prospect. He surveyed more boxes in passing to the door, yet could not say what he expected to see in them. His goodbye was awkward; the young woman’s goodbye was air under his shoes. When he looked back from the yard, the window curtain swayed from where the child quit her hiding place.
One of the many ironies of the painter’s life was, in spite of having an affinity for maps, he hated traveling. As indicated by his disinterest in attending college, Aloysius had no desire to learn how to drive until his mother, volunteering her time as instructor, gave him no option. Sedatives were not needed when he drove, although the first occasion of a new route was stressful.
Stonesthrow was admittedly close, and small, yet the worried motorist was determined to map every mile marker and exit ramp along the way before setting out. His fear was being in a wreck, or becoming stranded, so having knowledge about landmarks in his journey gave him a semblance of control. It was also customary for him to perform traveling rituals before departing his apartment, such as knocking on wood or leaving a dirty dish in the sink; a plastic cup of little value was left behind as an offering to the travel gods.
His knuckles were bone white on the steering wheel once he ran out of avenues with presidential names. Road construction greeted him on the Dan Ryan, and he was quickly sandwiched between a line of semis and rebar concrete. Construction work ended before expressway turned to potholed interstate, but he was paying such diligent attention to mile markers that he almost missed the mangled carcass of a dog in the median strip. Signs advertising fireworks and adult movies marked the unofficial end of the suburbs, although the easing terrain did not necessarily calm the driver.
Further south than he was going, over the Indiana State line, was the flattest, windiest landscape known to him from his school days. It was out there in “The Region” where, in Nineteen Ninety-four, a twin engine, French-built prop plane went down on Halloween night near Roselawn, killing everyone aboard. Not far from that location, along the old Forty-one route, was where Cary Grant was buzzed by a crop-duster in a cornfield in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
For a moment the motorist thought another dead animal was coming into view on the shoulder, but it was a scuffed paper grocery sack floating toward him in a gust. It first resembled a somersaulting man, and then a skittering crab as it passed under his wheel. It blew out the back of the car in a shot, though before it was seen to taunt the next driver, Aloysius exited the interstate to begin the last leg of his trip.
He was immediately on a winding two-lane road and stuck, inconveniently, behind a house on a flatbed trailer. The obstacle was wide and impassable, and nothing was visible of the rig hauling it. The traveler saw virtue in trying to acclimate to the slower rural pace. When the highway split, house and car went their separate ways. Aloysius glanced across the widening divide to see tattered curtains blowing from a pane-less window, and thought the chintz fabric, or someone standing just on the other side of it, waved at him.
He did not draw his first full breath until he crossed into the idyllic town.
Chapter Three, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.