Prone

David Huddle Click to read more...

david-huddle-sofest-2016David Huddle is from Ivanhoe, Virginia, and he taught at the University of Vermont for 38 years. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Shenandoah, and Green Mountains Review. In 2012 his novel Nothing Can Make Me Do This won the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction, and his collection Black Snake at the Family Reunion won the 2013 Pen New England Award for Poetry. His most recent books are Dream Sender, a poetry collection published in 2015 by LSU Press, and a novel, My Immaculate Assassin, published in September 2016 by Tupelo Press.

Prone to a mildly paranoid view of the universe and her place in it, Ms. Hicks figures the weather is out to teach her a lesson.  She can’t imagine what she’s supposed to learn, but she thinks it probably has to do with her daily harvest of hope and despair.  Heavy on the despair side.

Ms. Hicks has self-diagnosed herself as everyday bi-polar.  A sunny morning with the city’s crabapple trees dropping blossoms on the sidewalk stupefies her with spiritual yearning.  Sleet slapping her face from a February wind makes her wish somebody would shoot heroin into her veins.

She’s learned weather has its own code of conduct and most likely it won’t kill her or even make her crazy enough to kill herself.  Don’t like the weather?  Just wait a few minutes.  Ms. Hicks thinks the local folk say this as a mantra against their uneasiness with ever-changing weather.

A lesson from the weather could be okay.  Depending on the content.  She doesn’t like the way she is–how she thinks, feels, or behaves.  Problem is, even if she could change, there are no role models.  Male or female.  Lots of lousy ones.  At least she can say I’m glad I’m not so-and-so.

A man stands on a street corner asking pretty women who walk by him, “Wanna fuck?”  He gets dirty looks, he gets kicked, slapped, punched, kneed in the balls.  Somebody asks him, “Why do you do this?  You’re taking a hell of a beating.”  The man says, “Yes, but I get a lot of fucks.”

Ms. Hicks thinks that joke is almost the story of her life.  I’m taking a beating because I really want something.  It’s not exactly a fuck, but I think it’s similar. I’m okay with the beating, it’s just that I’d like to get a little of whatever it is that I want.  I wish I could say what it is.

Ms. Hicks has her house and her badly tended flower garden out back.  She knows she’s done little to deserve these benefits.  She won’t say blessings–she’s purged that word from her vocabulary.  If she were homeless she’d kill herself as dramatically as possible.  Set herself on fire.

The roof over her head is her defense against everything.  When big storms rampage through her city at night, Ms. Hicks wakes up and feels her house shaking.  Sometimes she goes out to her garden and squints up at the sky.  Go away, she whispers.  Take your nastiness off of my property.

Fact is, she respects weather.  Especially lightning.  Only an idiot wouldn’t take lightning seriously.  Thunder makes dogs tremble.  Cats run under the bed.  Ms. Hicks thinks even elephants must get nervous when they see lightning.  Giraffes are probably the most afraid of all.  Poor dears.

Ms. Hicks put in a crop of begonias.  Dug up dirt to make shallow holes, added store-bought manure, gingerly removed the young plants from their plastic cartons, gently placed them roots down, lightly packed dirt around them.  Got her hands dirty.  Did her best to savor the dirt fragrance.

No children but I’ve got my garden.  No husband but I’ve got weather.  Weather’s faithful.  It lies to me, but it stays by my side wherever I go.  Flatters me in April.  Takes me to the beach in August.  Then in February it kicks me around the house and tells me I’m an ugly old hag.

She entertains herself.  Like eating her croissant topless.  Warms it up while she’s still half asleep, goes to the bathroom, pulls off her nightgown and dines in front of the mirror.  Nice boobs, Ms. Hicks tells her mirror self.  Don’t talk with your mouth full, her mirror self tells her.

When she first went to college and read D.H. Lawrence she took to walking in thunderstorms.  That must have been when she and weather started up their bad romance.  She’d come back into her dormitory soaking wet, shivering, teeth chattering.  Maybe she was daring the lightning to hit her.

Maybe lightning would have struck her if she’d been pretty, but she was plain then and more so now.  She had a few months of prettiness as a sophomore in high school.  Like her physical self was trying to make up its mind which way to go.  She wasn’t pretty long enough to get her hopes up.

Plain is better.  Plain girls develop stronger inner resources.  Ms. Hicks thinks maybe she overdid it.  Her own thoughts seem so much more intriguing and funny than those of anyone she knows.  Whenever she tries to lower her standards and socialize, people give her funny looks.

Being plain doesn’t bother her.  What rankles her is wanting something desperately without being able to figure out what it is.  Not Jesus.  Not even full-time ecstasy.  She spends a lot of time staring out her window.  The birds that come to her garden won’t put up with her pouty ways.

Birds persuade her that Science is a whimsical genius.  And that maybe when the weather does teach her a lesson, it’ll be kind to her.  It’s not kind to the birds, but if they’re unhappy it doesn’t show.  When she sees a junco or a chickadee riding a gusty wind she wishes she could do that.

She’s eating lunch by her bird-watching window when she sees a scruffy man just walk into her back yard.  She can’t see her gate, but he must have unlatched it.  His dark jacket and pants have that shaggy, long-unwashed look of the homeless.  But he’s focused on something back there.

He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, so she can’t see his face, but she sees that his scraggly hair has long needed cutting.  He’s taking slow steps as if he’s trying to sneak up on something.  Well of course, now she sees it!  A little wing flapping over in the back corner.

You can’t just walk into somebody’s garden, she’ll tell him.  She leaves her sandwich on its plate and fetches her warm sweater from the closet.  It’s April and not yet warm.  When she steps out her back door, she feels her heartbeat.  The man must be drunk or crazy, but she’s not afraid.

She’s not so much angry as she is curious about why somebody would trespass so openly.  And why her back yard?  Ms. Hicks’s house looks respectable, but it’s small and ordinary.  It’s a house that makes a statement.  Not much money here, it says.  Who lives here isn’t worth robbing.

“Hey!” she says.  Staccato but not quite a shout.  Startles herself more than she does him.  He’s right there, maybe ten yards away.  Without turning to face her he uses one hand to make a palms-down gesture in her direction.  He’s no taller than she is but shapeless in his lumpy clothes.

She can’t tell if he’s skinny or fat.  The thought occurs to her that this person could be a woman.  She squints and looks carefully and decides it’s a man.  A darned nervy fellow to shush her and not even look at her.  But at least he’s not threatening.  She looks where he’s looking.

It’s a house finch having a sort of seizure.  She’s never seen a bird act like this.  She’s also never seen anybody so interested in a bird they’d trespass on private property to watch one die.  Yes, it’s a pretty thing, reddish head and neck, grey striped breast, but finches are common.

Ms. Hicks sees no need to sentimentalize the death of such a creature.  There are probably three or four house finches hatched for every one that dies.  What’s their life-span anyway?  A couple of years?  This is a part of herself she doesn’t admire.  To herself she admits she has a stunted soul.

To get a better look at the dying finch, she steps toward it.  Which short journey takes her almost alongside the homeless man.  My intruder, she thinks.  My intruder could use a bath.  The bird flops onto its back and twitches.  Ms. Hicks thinks it’s obviously in its final moments.

The man takes three strides, bends, and scoops up the creature.  He stands and gingerly works at clasping its wings to its body.  He seems unaware of Ms. Hicks.  She’s barely aware of herself.  With both hands he holds the finch so that its head pokes out between his forefingers.

The bird blinks, but it also looks calm, maybe even comfortable in the trap of the man’s hands.  It makes no sound.  Maybe the little thing thinks it’s dead and this is how it goes in bird afterlife.  A giant comes along, picks you up and holds you carefully in its warm palms. 

This is one of the ten thousand silly thoughts that visit Ms. Hicks all the time.  She knows she’s smarter than most people, but she also knows her mind can be that of an unruly five-year old.  She’s noticing that her intruder’s hands are big but not clean.  Then her eyes meet his eyes.

His face is pie-shaped, oddly pink, and bigger than she expected.  His eyes, nose, and mouth are too small for such a face.  He looks like a character in a children’s book.  His expression is mindlessly sweet and alert but also suspicious.  He squints at her.  He’s damaged, she thinks.

Evidently he’s sized her up and decided he doesn’t need to account for himself or what he’s doing.  He glances around, taking in her weedy little garden, the back of her house with its peeling paint.  Also her windows are filthy.  Who is he to be making judgments about her and how she lives?

He heads for her rag-tag lawn furniture, a metal table and two battered metal-and-wood beach chairs–pieces on the sidewalk with “Free” signs on them she found on her walks.  No one but her ever sits out here.  Holding the finch with both hands her intruder plops himself down with a grunt.

She’s followed him to her makeshift patio arrangement.  Now that he’s sitting down she expects he’ll speak.  She stands and waits.  He says nothing, doesn’t look at her.  He’s a rag pile.  She’s five feet away, near enough to take in his garbagy smell.  He studies the bird like it’s a book.

“My house,” she says, lifting her arm in what she intends to be the gesture of a person who’s made something of herself.  She considers making another gesture toward his dilapidated shoes and saying, “My land.”  The rag pile doesn’t quite shrug, but she knows he’s thinking about it.

Now Ms. Hicks glances around her garden, her house, her neighborhood.  It’s not much of a place.  Her parents scrimped and saved to pay off the mortgage and leave it to her.  She’s made no improvements.  She can barely pay the taxes.  She knows the neighbors sneer at it and her.

The rag pile begins whistling softly and tunelessly.  He’s looking at the finch, but surely he’s not whistling for the bird’s benefit.  Ms. Hicks sits down in the other chair.  Her intruder has taken the one she usually sits in, and she hopes this one won’t collapse under her.  She watches him.

It’s mid-April, a fickle time of year in Vermont, but this afternoon the sun feels pleasant to her.  The rag pile is not what she’d consider human company, but she finds herself relaxing as if he were an old college friend who’s come to visit.  She’s never known a homeless person.

Because she lives by herself, with her imagination serving as something like a companion, Ms. Hicks isn’t surprised when she falls into a peculiar spell.  She envisions taking on the rag pile as a project.  Cleaning him up, sharing her food with him, coaxing him into communicating with her.

Ms. Hicks is also long accustomed to entertaining ridiculous notions, and as she studies her intruder–who seems to be wearing at least five layers of clothing–she recognizes the thought of taking him in as ranking among her all-time worst ideas.  I’d kill him or he’d kill me.

 She sees his eyes flick up toward her face, and she could swear the corners of his mouth twitch into about a five-second grin.  He lifts his hands with the bird in them up and slightly toward Ms. Hicks as if he’s offering it to her.  She sits up straight and prepares to receive it.

Does he really mean to give it to her?  Is she really going to accept it?  The rag pile ever so slowly opens his hands.  The bird fluffs its wings slightly but remains sitting in the rag pile’s two palms as if nesting.  It blinks, then stands up on its legs that are like twigs with tiny talons.

Ms. Hicks is enthralled by the sight of the finch swiveling its head like a beautiful toy.  She’s never been this close to one.  There’s a sudden soft pft! as the bird streaks off and away.  In an instant it’s gone.  Ms. Hicks is both exhilarated and bereft.  Her intruder watches her intently.

She’s a little stunned by the intimate presence of the finch followed quickly by its absence–as if an exquisite painting she’d begun examining had been whisked out of her sight.  Also the strangeness of her intruder and his behavior feel like a dream from which she can’t wake up.

Ms. Hicks remembers a sixth-grade classmate, a loud and obstreperous boy, whose nickname among the children was “Big Face.”  She gives her head a little shake and instructs herself to focus.  She realizes she’s defenseless and not a very competent person.  She’s has zero survival instincts.

The two of them are watching each other now, but she thinks they aren’t really exchanging looks as people do who want to communicate.  This is two animals, each estimating its chances of overcoming the other.  She remembers a saying of her mother’s:  It’s so easy to be nice to people.

She never thought her mother had much common sense, but she’s about to ask her intruder if he’d like something to eat when he stands up and shakes himself.  Like a dog or a horse, Ms. Hicks thinks.  Then the man actually smiles at her.  He’s beaming, she thinks.  He’s beaming down on me.

He pats her shoulder as he steps past her.  Then he’s out the gate and gone.  He’s very good at exits, she thinks.  The unappealing smell of him lingers around her, but she’s not ready to move.  Her feelings are in an uproar.  At the moment they are mostly a mix of sadness and well-being.

And that’s what I’ve been wanting? she asks herself.  It’s the well-being part of it she means.  The sadness is to be expected.  In fact she expects it to expand and bully the other feeling until it goes away.  I’m too easy, she thinks.  All I need is a smile and a pat on the shoulder.

The sun keeps her warm, and she hears bird song, though the birds keep themselves out of sight.  She thinks that’s as it should be.  After all, the look she just had at that finch may last her for the rest of her days.  Finally, though, the air turns chilly.  She shivers and stands up.

2.

Mornings now, Ms. Hicks awakes and rises from bed without her daily measure of fury.  It’s not that her days entirely lack occasions for bad temper.  When she reads or hears the news, she’s quickly riled up as usual.  If a car drives too fast down her street, she shakes her fist at it and shouts.

But now her rages dissolve.  Her bad temper has no stamina.  Even the loneliness and sorrow that used to keep her simmering seem to have lost their hold on her.  She thinks her new self lacks backbone.  I’ve been upgraded, she says aloud with a little snort.  Against my will, she says.

She accuses herself of being a fool for missing her old unhappiness.  She’d be embarrassed if anyone knew how she’d savored being so irascible.  Maybe I was just putting on a show, she thinks.  But that’s not true.  She doesn’t like admitting it, but she knows she felt hurt all the time.

Afternoons she goes out to her garden.  She actually does a little work out there.  Mostly just weeding, but one day she gets down on her knees and puts in whole row of pansies alongside the fence.  Big pansy plants a bunch of little pansies, she mutters.  She hasn’t lost her sense of irony.

The thing with feathers is screwing up my life becomes her mantra.  She knows the intruder won’t be back, she just wishes she could purge him from her thoughts.  She gets weepy when she brings up the evidence of his taking an interest.  Didn’t he pat my back?! she demands of Science.

Next thing you know I’ll be going to Sunday School, she tells Science.  Their big guy couldn’t possibly pay less attention to me than you do, she says.  More and more it pains her to glance out her window and see the empty beach chairs where they sat.  The sight is the rag pile’s insult.

So she’s almost back to her former self when–wouldn’t you know it?!–she glances back that way and there he is.  Not just sitting but leaning back in the chair with his hands clasped at his belly, his hat off, his face turned to the sun.  He hasn’t changed his clothes since she last saw him.

Ms. Hicks’s first thought is What an odd-shaped head he has!  Her second thought is to call the police.  She’s still got the salt in her for such meanness.  Her third thought is one that’s familiar and hateful.  What if I’m hallucinating?  What if the cops come and think I’m nuts?

She steps closer to the window.  If he evaporates in front of her eyes, she’ll know for sure she’s nuts.  He’s still as a statue.  Or a cadaver.  The mild stink of him comes back to her, though of course she can’t really smell him from where she stands.  She can’t imagine why he came back.

He’s no threat, she tells herself.  If he were knocking on her door she might have a reason to be worried.  She goes to the kitchen to fetch an apple, then tiptoes back to the window.  She’s foolishly pleased to see him still sitting there.  She goes back to the kitchen for a knife.

It’s not exactly a plan she’s thought through, but she feels as if she’s acting decisively.  From the kitchen she takes her paring knife, the apple, and a saucer.  She exits the back door, walks at a normal pace out to her makeshift patio, and sits down in the chair opposite her intruder.

She hasn’t looked directly at him yet.  She’s not sure why.   She sets the dish in her lap and cuts the apple in half.  Now she does look at him.  He’s sitting up straight, scrutinizing her.  He’s completely ready to leave, she thinks.  “Would you like half of this apple?” she asks him.

Ms. Hicks has kept her voice neutral and her face pleasant.  The situation interests her anthropologically.  Voice, tone, facial expression–those signals must have determined the life or death of many a person.  The rag pile doesn’t move, doesn’t stop watching her.  He could just disappear!

Ms. Hicks lowers her eyes to the knife, the dish, and the halves of the apple.  “I know people who eat every bit of an apple,” she says quietly.  “Even the core and the seeds.  If you’d like me to leave the peeling on it, let me know.  I’ve gotten used to peeling each slice before I eat it.”

She prides herself on her ability to peel an apple slice quickly, precisely, and with a certain grace.  No living person could care about such a skill.  Even so, she’s aware that her fingers are performing for her intruder.  The peeling drops onto the plate.  She hands him the slice.

Their eyes meet in the split second of the chunk of apple passing from her fingers to his.  She peels a second slice for herself.  She’s surprised to see him waiting for her.  If it’s manners, she appreciates it.  For some moments they observe each other as they chew their bites of apple.

When she peels another slice, he accepts it.  While they finish up the apple, Ms. Hicks decides that the human face is so unappealing in the act of chewing that it’s odd they’ve studied each other’s faces while they eat.  She’s sure that people at dinner parties don’t behave similarly.

She sets the plate with the knife and the apple scraps on the tottery table beside her.  After some silence, during which they both cast their eyes around the yard, Ms. Hicks folds her hands in her lap and says, “I’ve been wondering what was wrong with that finch you brought back to life.”

The rag pile smacks the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other.  The smack is loud enough that it startles Ms. Hicks.  What interests her is that the smacking hand drops through a foot or so of space with its fingers wriggling slightly.  How the bird fell, she thinks.

“A car?” she asks.  He makes no gesture, though he looks straight at her, and his face tells her she’s right.  Exactly how his face conveys it she can’t say.  He didn’t move his eyes or mouth, didn’t blink, didn’t nod.  It’s as close to mental telepathy as she’s ever experienced.

Nothing comes to her to say or do.  Her intruder leans back in his chair and lets his eyelids droop.  Ms. Hicks feels a little drowsy herself.  It amuses her to think they’re about to take a nap together.  Her thoughts meander as they often do when she’s alone.  She wonders if he can talk.

Something makes her suspect that he can talk but that he’s choosing not to.  Maybe he was someone who used to talk for a living.  An actor, a newscaster, a pastor, an academic.  She detects herself making up a romantic past for him.  Maybe he was a protester who got beaten up by the police.

 When she jerks awake, he’s gone.  She hadn’t meant to fall asleep.  She can’t remember ever having done so like this–outdoors and in the immediate presence of another person.  She finds herself reluctant to move.  As if she’s holding on to the few minutes she and the rag pile spent together.

3.

Ms. Hicks is confident he’ll come back.  The Pattern of Threes applies.  She thinks that pattern is hard-wired into the human brain.  It’s not religion, it’s not fairy tales or myths, it’s Science, she argues against the litigious voice in her that whispers, You’ll never see him again.

All right, it’s a willed confidence.  She doesn’t care if it’s informed by her powerful desire to know more about her intruder.  She’s shameless nowadays, though she has her shame all to herself.  Nobody else knows the rag pile was here.  Only she knows about the finch. Or the apple slices.

Ms. Hicks has had years of training in solitude, more than half a lifetime thinking her thoughts and feeling her feelings without anyone else’s input.  All by my lonesome has come to be her mantra.  Actually, she thinks, it always was my mantra, I’ve just now discovered the words for it. 

She knows she’s her best self when she’s without human company.  The actions and words of others call up the rage that lies dormant within her.  She’s especially vulnerable to Tea Party Republicans.  She has a vocabulary for them that can be activated by even a short quote in the news.

The rag pile, however, hovers in her mind as more spirit than flesh, more creature than human.  Probably because he never said a single word, she thinks.  The last person to whom she granted this ethereal status was Lucy Beth Grosclose in first grade, she of the transcendent pigtails.

Of course no one will ever ask her about Lucy Beth, but if anyone did, Ms. Hicks thinks she’d weep.  The times she’d played with silent Lucy Beth at recess made her whole body resonate with happiness.  Somehow the gleeful look on Lucy Beth’s face made her aware of the wild bliss she felt.

She realizes there must have been other times when she was happy without realizing it.  She was not a sad child, maybe moody and quirky but rarely sad.  She has no use for that word.  But she doesn’t like the words happy or happiness either, especially when spoken aloud.  Hates to hear them.

In the last few minutes she spent in the rag pile’s company she felt contented and aligned with the world.  She felt a kind of rightness about her life.  If I’d been happy I wouldn’t have fallen asleep, she tells herself.  Happiness is for children, and even then it has no staying power.

A word that nags her but that she’d never say aloud is mindful.  It’s a word she associates with extremely self-indulgent people who pay thousands of dollars to talk about themselves to a person who takes notes, sometimes asks questions, but offers neither advice nor opinions.

The ongoing discussion she holds with herself is whether or not she is a mindful person.  She knows she constantly monitors her thoughts and feelings.  She’s so self-aware she sometimes has to remind herself that other people are out there.  That the world and time exist without her.

So does that make her mindful? Does that mean she possesses mindfulness, that quality that only gurus and highly spiritually advanced people are said to have?  Ms. Hicks doubts it.  She sees herself as a self-made spiritual lout. She distrusts all religious thinking.  Even her own.

Her intruder’s first visit was in mid-April, his second in early August.  She’s astonished that she’s continued to believe the rag-pile will return to her garden.  She no longer uses the term back yard for the land behind her house.  She’s tended it enough now to call it a garden.

In November she stops weeding and trimming, though she still takes her walking tours at least twice a day.  If the weather’s decent, she’ll sit a while in her makeshift patio.  She does that even after she needs a sweater.  Then a jacket.  She sits until she starts shivering.

A light snow falls just after Thanksgiving.  The days are shorter.  He’ll come back, she tells herself in the morning when she wakes up.  And she tries to say it just before she falls sleep.  It’s not a prayer!  But she feels like she’s pushing against something she’s not strong enough to move.

4.

Police are investigating the death of a 52-year-old homeless man found inside a tent off the Burlington bike path near Texaco Beach.  At this time there is no evidence of foul play.  There is some indication that the death is related to exposure, according to police. A toxicology test and autopsy will be performed, police say.  An acquaintance of the man notified police, who arrived on the scene shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday evening and found the man unresponsive in his tent.

5.

Unresponsive is how Ms. Hicks begins to think of herself in the days following her reading about the unidentified dead homeless man.  Her custom has been to fetch the paper from her front steps and to read it in her kitchen as she drinks her juice and waits for her coffee to finishing brewing.

She knows it’s him of course.  The knowledge is so absolute and problematic it feels like she’s had major surgery that isn’t healing properly.  For one thing, distasteful as it is to her even to think it, she needs a way to cope with his never coming back.  Knowing so little about him is a help.

She cancels her subscription to the paper, though she has to bring in a week’s worth of papers until the cancellation goes into effect.  She takes them straight to the recycling bin.  Because she knows the dead homeless man will be identified, she doesn’t listen to the radio or watch the news on TV.

Ms. Hicks doesn’t consider what she’s going through as grieving.  I am merely unresponsive she tells herself.  Actually it makes no difference what she calls it, no other human being knows about her visits with the rag pile when he trespassed on her property and sat with her in her garden.

When her parents died she did not grieve.  That’s when she realized that grief was the name other people gave to what she was going through.  A painful period of time from which eventually she would recover.  Out of consideration to her parents’ friends, Ms. Hicks pretended to be troubled and sad.

Both her parents, however, had been old and ill for many days.  They had vaguely wished for an afterlife, but mostly they just wanted their lives to end.  What Ms. Hicks felt about their deaths was exaltation.  They were free of their suffering, and she was free of watching them go through it.

So the pain of grieving as she experienced it was in acting like she felt the opposite of what she actually felt.  That was troublesome, but her performances were limited to the hours she had to spend with the real grievers who brought her casseroles and wanted to reminisce about her parents.

Ms. Hicks suspected most of them were putting on an act for her benefit.  Even so, she’s proud of having done the right thing.  She knows her parents would approve and be grateful to her for it.  They would know that hiding her true feelings was the way she showed the world they’d raised her properly.

Now in these shortened days of January, February, and March, she senses that her flattened-out spirit is an instinctive alignment with the harsh weather and dark season.  There are times when she feels herself about to plummet into despair, but she simply won’t allow it.  She fights it off.

She realizes that I am unresponsive, is what she says now instead of He’ll come back.  She knows her intruder would understand.  She can see his face telling her she’s doing the right thing.  Telling her without a squint, a twitch of his nose, or a tightening of his lips.  Just making her know.

6.

I’ve always thought March was the meanest month, Robert.  I hope you don’t mind that name.  I’ve needed something to call you that would restore the dignity my other names for you never acknowledged.  I’ve liked almost every Robert I’ve known, so that’s why I chose it.  So, as I say, March has always seemed to have it in for me, and it’s been no kinder this year.  But this time I’ve found it illuminating.  Maybe it’s been trying to get through to me all these years, and I’ve finally gotten the message. 

 I woke up very early one morning a few weeks ago and couldn’t get back to sleep.  The wind was whistling around the house, the thermometer said it was 16 degrees out, and I knew I had to do something.  It had rained and snowed and sleeted and then snowed again; the sun seemed to have gone into retirement, and I’d been indoors for I don’t know how long.  I felt like I’d read everything in the house, there wasn’t anything I really wanted to eat or drink, I didn’t want to hear what the radio had to say, and I was determined not to turn on the TV.  

 I felt so desperate it actually made me giggle.  4:30 in the morning, two more hours of darkness, and then another whole day to get through.  That was when I thought of you.  I was so ashamed of myself for being whiny that I felt my face heat up the way it does when I’ve done something stupid or wrong or idiotic.  But the thought of you cleared my mind, and I knew what I had to do.  It was like I’d been wandering in some ridiculous fairy-tale forest, and you came along and just nodded your head toward a path.  I was suddenly “filled with purpose,” as they say. 

 I put on long underwear and two pairs of pants, a vest, a parka, a hat, a scarf, gloves, boots, and Yaktrax.  All that clothing was ridiculous, too, but at least I was doing something other than walking from one room to the next and feeling sorry for myself.  I went out into the snow and wind.  It was dark, but of course the streetlights were on.  The sidewalks hadn’t been plowed, but the street was clear, and there were no cars out.  So I walked out into the middle of the street and headed up the hill toward the University.  I thought the Green up there might be a good place to walk. 

 I was wrong about that, the wind got stronger the farther up the hill I went.  I figured March really had me where it wanted me.  It had been saving up this special punishment for me, and I was really going to get it now.  But I figured I was as ready for it as I was ever going to be.  All those clothes were protecting me except for the skin around my eyes between the scarf over my mouth and my hat and parka hood pulled down to my eyebrows.  I had to walk tilted forward, and I had to take baby steps because it was crazy windy, and the street had a coating of ice and packed snow on it.

 The sidewalks into the green were fairly clear, so I took the one that led straight to the fountain at the very center.  A blast of wind struck me so hard that I actually staggered and had to catch myself with a hand on the back of one of those benches where people sit to watch the fountain in pretty weather.  The thought that I might die did occur to me, but I was so insanely alive right then that it seemed like a trivial idea.  I was eight minutes away from my warm house.  Can a person really freeze to death when she’s fifteen minutes away from a cup of hot tea?

 But March got my attention back with a super blast of wind that seemed aimed directly at me.  It was the weather version of a Mack truck, and it made me sit down on the bench and hunker down over my knees.  My body took the cold and wind more seriously than my mind did.  I actually made myself stay where I was, and when the wind let up a bit, I straightened my back and found myself gazing at the waterless fountain.  The campus lights focused on it with that eerie kind of purple whiteness that turned the whole green into a nightmare landscape.

 But here’s the thing.  The wind was blowing a steady stream of sifting snow over the lip of the fountain.  This flowing grey white condensation rose up in an elegant curl.  It formed a perfect arc, which then dissolved into nothing.  I kept trying to see the exact point where the something turned into a nothing.  It was a vision–or as close to one as I’ve ever witnessed–and the sight was so compelling that I don’t know how long I sat there staring at it.  I could have died and not even noticed it.  Robert, of course the state of mind I was in made me vulnerable to what I was seeing. 

 I knew that curl of sifting snow was telling me a truth about life on the planet.  Or it was demonstrating a fact that was the opposite of uplifting or beautiful or anything like that.  I confess I had you in mind, Robert.  You were part of the trance that held me there until I started shivering.  When I stood up I knew I’d stopped being unresponsive.  That phase of my life was over.  I had also come to terms with the perverse way I’ve been configured by my genetic make-up and the whole history of my life right up until the wind made me sit down on that bench.  I made sense to myself.

 As you know, I can hardly stand the company of other people, and yet–as you can plainly see–I’m someone who needs to talk, someone who needs a particular kind of human contact. I’m not nearly as self-contained as I thought I was.  Which is why–now that April has brought us some civilized weather –I’ll be here in the garden pretty often.  You can count on me, Robert.  There’s work to be done out here.  And there are these chairs just waiting for the two of us.  It’s very kind of you to visit with me here.  I appreciate it.  And I’m looking forward to many more conversations with you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Discussion

3 Responses to Prone

  1. Amy Wright says:

    Watching Ms. Hicks’s mind is like her watching a junco or chickadee ride a gusty wind, making me wish to do that. Sheer delight! Many thanks to Huddle for this piece and to Shenandoah editors for publishing it.

  2. Kirsten Miles says:

    What a lovely rollick through a mental transition. Such careful, loving attention to just enough of the details without lingering or slowing down. I’ll walk with your characters anytime!

  3. joe says:

    This is an utterly wonderful story. Expressed with a special love. …at work so i can’t afford to cry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *