10 April 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 1
Missing the Point
Or, At the Edgewood Home for Girls I Learned Many Things, Some Applicable to the World at Large
"Don't look down."
The one in charge was the one who said it, though that changed depending on who brought the best toys. We started with rocks. Then bottles, plates, fly-fishing lures, paper airplanes and doll heads. One day we'd fling ourselves.
First it was smoothest plunk into the black waters of the reservoir. Then longest drop, furthest throw, best loop or bounce. Eventually we moved on to night flights, so of course there was lighter fluid.
Flaming baby heads and yo-yos arced into the darkness below, leaving smeary trails of light and toxic smoke. It was like every fireworks display and nighttime parade you ever saw, but better, more festive, each of us like firemen who run the show. Sometimes we even wore red plastic hats.
You'd think these were children's games but they were not.
Flight, it's a strange thing. We aren't built to do it. There are only approximations. Twenty tons of steel, a duct-taped piggy bank—as they drop from the sky the mechanics are the same. Birds have been known to die mid-flight. They must look graceful as they plummet.
Sometimes the toys kept burning even after they hit. We could see them underwater, blue babydoll eyes looking up at us, their gods, no time to question—one last flash in the deep.
Stand on the edge regardless of warnings, toetips reaching into air. We'd risk anything then to watch them go.
Downstairs the furnace swelled. The heat never reached up where we slept, our single beds in a row under the peaked roof. In the spring we pressed against the perimeter to watch birds nest in the gaps under the eaves. In winter we spent our lives avoiding the same drafty edges, inching toward the center of the room even in sleep. The rain made it colder. It streamed down the roof and puddled in places; we placed buckets to catch the drips.
When would it snow? Never when we wanted it, that quiet blanket. Snow blankets worked in reverse: cold first, but then shivering made us warm. Thin fingers plucked at the icy air. In shivering, we found warmth. In mourning, we found succor. Who said that? One of us, perhaps, once we'd grown old enough to spell it.
Sucker! That's the word we used, yelling and crowding up the stairs before bed. Last one in was the sucker, closest to the edges and the whispering eaves. Running as if hell were at our heels to avoid that fate.
In the morning we'd find the sucker: driven downstairs to the couch, feet poking from under thin blankets. The scratchy velvet upholstery stiff with age and dried spills—wine, coffee, vomit, unmentionables.
The furnace was cold by then, but not cold enough to shiver. Only cold enough to tense our muscles as if just being there were exertion. We'd wait—so patiently!—for someone to wake and make the heat blow.
"When will the birds come?" The young ask the old, and the old scratch their bellies and yawn and say, "Don't hold your breath."
I had to leave the car behind. A tricky starter, troublesome plates.
Weeks had passed since leaving the home. I decided to try trading it in at a lonely service station on the edge of town. The mechanic took me into the lot behind the station and popped the hood while I watched a crumpled paper bag blow over black oil spills and rusty beer tabs. He shook his head as he straightened, looked me up and down and offered fifty bucks—to junk it, no trade.
"It's not enough," I said. There was a rolled up girlie magazine in his back pocket. Pink flesh was visible in the gleaming curve, along with some red hair and blue fabric. He saw me looking and slammed the trunk, shrugging.
"We've got something in the shop," he said, "might fit the bill." He led the way through the back door into a dim room smelling of burnt rubber and gasoline. The wall was gritty. My hand brushed something smooth and hard. A fire bell. I saw it when he turned on the light: shiny and candy red just like the ones on the wall at school.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Cathy." A lie.
"I'm Eric," he said, though the label on his shirt read 'Wayne.' His fingers tapped his chest. "Got fired," he said by way of explanation. His irises were no particular color. What was that called?
Another car pulled into the front lot. A horn sounded. "Look at that," he said, waving his hand at a car against the far wall and walking toward the front of the shop. The rolling garage door was wide open, but light stopped about three feet over the threshold.
I went where he'd waved: an Oldsmobile with rusted fenders, a slightly crumpled hood. Something had happened to the upholstery on the back seat. It was torn in three-inch swaths, white cotton batting puffed out of the gaps. Tried the door, found it unlocked and got in. The hood through the windshield looked unmarred. No rust or dents from this angle. It was bigger than the tricky car, not quite as old.
Eric drew my attention by tapping keys on glass. He was back. I opened the door and got out on the driver's side. No sounds now from outside. "She ain't pretty, but she runs fine," he said. Then, "A trade," setting the keys onto the roof between us. His eyes were a bit bulgy. Hazel. A woman's name.
Weeks had passed. He would look small in the rearview mirror as I pulled away. Dug into my pocket and set the old keys next to his. "Okay."
Which is how I found myself in the rain two nights later, dead smoking Oldsmobile a mile down the road, sheltering under an overpass until oncoming lights cued me to step into the wet dark and raise a thumb.
Someone said, Don't look down. And we didn't, for a time. We followed certain rules until we couldn't. Don't get too close to the edge. Swing, release, and step back.
It was about the flames then, and about our height, looming over black water. Velvety smoke and dwindling sparks. But I missed the point. I thought we were playing at gods when really we were playing at love.
How did I misread so much: the ledge, the fire, the dark, the birds. All of it?
Cupid's arrow, someone whispered. Referring, we thought, to the arc of flame and we snorted with laughter. I glanced over and the one who spoke was looking overhead at dark clouds parting: the trail of a comet, glow unmatched by anything we could muster up below.
That night my favorite stolen silver lighter slipped through a hole in my jacket pocket, never to be seen again. Eyes cast upward, I felt it going and didn't care.
About the author:
Genanne Walsh lives in San Francisco. "Missing the Point" was inspired by several songs on Neko Case's album, Blacklisted. Another story from the same series appeared in Dirt Press. Other work has appeared in Swink, Blackbird, and Puerto del Sol.
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 1, where "Missing the Point
Or, At the Edgewood Home for Girls I Learned Many Things, Some Applicable to the World at Large" ran on April 10, 2007. List other work with these same labels: fiction, flash fiction.