11 July 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 2
The Weight of Things
Mid-spring and the trees bloom haphazardly—rich, dense, thick—so lush that standing beneath them, we cannot see the sky clanging against the hills. In a blue car, a radio plays; a man's thumb drums a steering wheel; a woman, her legs folded under her in a practiced N, blows her hot breath onto the window, takes her fist and presses the pinky side onto the fog her breath has made. With her index finger, she forms five perfect toes above the fist. A baby's foot—a trick her mother taught her when she was young. She wipes the spot away.
The car passes a red-winged blackbird, a green mile marker, a wooden shed with a wooden sign. The woman thinks the man will ask if there's supposed to be an E on the sign, but then there are light poles and waterfalls. Water falling, very quiet and cold, drenching the side of the mountain.
"You hungry?" the man asks, and she is starving, empty; she shakes her head no. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices a boy, up on the hill, naked and darting from tree to tree.
"We need to get there before dark," she says.
A mild chill clings to the air; the woman undoes her seatbelt, turns on her knees and picks through the backseat pile: three barely bruised clementines, a can half-emptied of fried potato sticks, and a hooded sweatshirt.
She pulls the hood up over her head, tugs the strings tight—her face, an oval floating in Carolina blue. She turns back to the window. "These trees make me feel like I'm suffocating," she says.
Hot breath, closed fist.
The cold that began as a numbness in her toes has crawled up her calves and settled deep inside of her. The runaway truck area is deserted. She wants the man to jerk the car into it, wants the seatbelt to dig into her, wants him to grab her, almost hurt her, but not quite hurt her. He rubs her thigh with the palm of his hand. She flinches and searches for the boy in the hills.
In the parking lot of the roadside store, the gray car kicks up a veil of dust and gravel. The windows are covered with hand-printed signs. Real Indian Arrowheads, one sign reads—the A, an arrowhead. Livest Tackle this side of the Mississippi reads another. Honey with Combs! is scrawled onto yellow poster paper and accompanied by a drawing of what looks like a jarred baby.
The woman is out of the car before the man puts on the emergency break. She knocks her elbow hard on the corner of the door; later she will wonder how she got the bruise. The wind blows around her, searching for someone or something else. She rubs at her sore place, walks inside, rubs as she stands staring at the glossy corn and quartered birds in the glass and stainless steel display case.
She wanders to the back of the store, trying to remember how they agreed to this trip. The pastor suggested they take a few days. They had been through a lot, he said, his mouth opening and closing like a fat yellow fish. And so, the three prayed, the woman staring at the thick wooden planks of the hollow, echoing sanctuary.
The woman picks up a silver and turquoise necklace, searches for a mirror. A little girl tugs at her sweatshirt sleeve. The woman notices the girl's dirty, crooked part, the tops of her freckled ears. In the girl's palm is a single jawbreaker; the woman takes it, walks toward the woven blankets, smells the musk of them.
"Babe, you all right?" The man slides his hand around her waist.
"I hate when you touch me there." The speakers muffle the music. She turns to him; he has finished nearly half of his chicken leg. "I'm sorry," she says and places her hand on his chest, stares out past the bags of flour, sugar, boxes of powdered milk, salt. "I'm just tired is all."
"Hey, look at me," he says, but she doesn't.
She works her tongue at the chicken between the bones of his unfinished leg; her left cheek is bloated with the jawbreaker. She wanders around the store, gets a diet coke and a paper bag of boiled peanuts.
"Somebody said snow," somebody says.
"Not a chance," says the man. "It's almost May."
"You never know what you're gonna get in these parts, son."
The woman puts her things on the counter, waits; the man pays the two fat men behind the counter who never rise from their chairs. He is always talking to strangers, never to her. The men are nearly twins—twin chins and caps and guts and hands. The woman imagines that the older one has a birthmark that runs down his left leg and that he lives in the back of the store where he falls asleep on his cot drinking Dickle from a Dixie cup. The younger one comes in mornings and cleans him up before they open.
"It's real romantic up there," the other one says.
"Well, you know women." The man points towards the woman, who smiles, tries to smile. She walks out the door, walks in tight circles in the parking lot, watches the men nod, laugh, nod, wave. Her husband puts his change in his wallet, laughs again. He looks so alive through the unwashed window. The door dings open, shut.
She breathes. She will smile, is smiling. It is not difficult to smile; she has put on lip-gloss and is smiling. She waves, the ding still ringing in her ears. "Hey you."
"Hey you. You warming up?"
"Getting there. Want me to drive?"
"We're close. Just an hour." The car smells like old french fries and butterscotch Lifesavers. "Those brothers said it's true—things really do fly back at you."
"I love you," she says.
His hand, her knee. His hand, the place above her knee. "Oh do you? Well, I just might have to throw you off and see if you come back."
"You wish," she says, but maybe it is her who is wishing.
The dark of the trees closes in around the blue car; the man and the woman are in shadows, are shadows of themselves, each other. She traces the barely visible sun-streak that runs down his left cheek; he will throw me off, she thinks, but it doesn't truly matter what she is thinking. This is not about what she is thinking or he is thinking or the weatherman over in Asheville is thinking; this is about the mountain: the Blowing Rock. Or maybe it is about the red-winged blackbird; no, it is about the mountain. It is about the dirt that the mountain is made of and the roots that crawl through the dirt and thicken at the base of the trees, the trees that push through the earth, pressing skyward, their leaves opening, falling, returning, and again.
From very far away, the mountain looks like any mountain, but come closer—not too close—and notice the top. It is a hook, a disjointed thumb, an almost-curl on the top of a Dairy Queen soft serve:
We are not, however, concerned so much with the hook—the Blowing Rock, the witch's nipple—as we are concerned with the space beneath the hook: the emptiness, the fist of wind. Shown in the above diagram by the space inside and around the star [*], it is this star-space that allows for the reversal of the law of gravity: here, everything that falls must rise.
As we move closer to the mountain, indeed onto the mountain and up the mountain, we find ourselves at the edge of the hook. The wind swirls upwards and sounds not unlike the cries of the Chickasaw princess who stood in the place where you now stand, stood while the snow flew up into her face, and the spring rain rose, stood, waiting. I imagine she clutched a turquoise stone as she waited for the sky to redden with July, waited for the fist of wind to fling her lover back to her.
I would not be telling you this if her lover never returned, if she had died or fallen or fallen in love with a stranger or simply given up, grown old—but it is a thousand years later, and in a blue car, a man and a woman laughed for a few moments but now sit silently, again. There are no more channels on the radio; he spins the dial every few minutes, searching through the static until finally she grabs his hand, brings it to her mouth and kisses it. "Been a while since you've done that," he says.
"No, it feels good. Keep going." She places his hand on her lap and pats it; again, out of the corner of her eye, the boy darts from tree to tree. She imagines taking the boy home and keeping him in secret; she would wait until the man left for work, and then, with spoonfuls of peanut butter, she would coax the boy out from under the bed, feed him ham and cream cheese roll-ups, boil the bottles and nipples, let him suckle milk until dusk.
"Bobcat," the man says, lifting his hand and pointing, placing it back into her lap; she returns it to him. Above them, above the sagging blue cloth of the ceiling of the car, above the blue metal of the roof, above the thin branches and thick leaves, the clouds grow heavier; snow begins to fall but dissipates before hitting the leaves. The woman pulls up her right pant leg and begins picking at an ingrown hair on her thigh; the man searches for music.
"You're not going to find any," she says. "We're even further away now," but then through a crackle of electricity, music comes through the speakers; nothing the man recognizes—nothing anyone except the green-eyed teenage boy with the fiddle who lives on the other side of Crowder's Mountain recognizes—but it is music.
"Music," the man says, and she stops herself from putting her hand over his mouth, puts her hand on her own mouth instead. Bridges Ice Before Roads, she reads, and the car fishtails slightly; she watches the water disappear beneath the bridge.
The water knows things neither the man nor the woman knows, knows about the boy, how last spring he found the nest of the red-winged blackbird, how he held one egg on his palm, then shook it, placed it in his mouth and sucked it like a hard candy. The water knows the snow is coming.
The man's thumb drums the steering wheel. The beat seems somehow off to the woman; she can't ask him to stop, of course, so she puts her left hand on the back of his neck, a little rub, a little harder—"What the hell was that for?"
"I didn't realize."
He shifts hard into fifth gear. The woman works the zipper of her sweatshirt up and down, taking comfort in the smallness of the sliver teeth, how they cling to each other and part, cling and part.
"Would you mind not doing that with your zipper?" She does it one last time, stops. He reaches over to her, takes her hand in his, kisses her knuckles. Soon, the thin air will surround them. "I know you hurt," he says. The woman turns towards him, but his eyes are on the road. "I hurt, too." She turns back to the window. His words barely make it over the fiddle, something about trying again. "We're going to be okay," he says, too loud for the small space, and they are; they have to be; this is just how life plays out: a man and a woman fall in love, and good things happen, and bad things happen, and not so many years later they have to remind themselves why they ever fell in love in the first place, so they get in a car and go throw stones off cliffs. They want the miracle of the stones flying back at them—want to say they saw the miracle—but don't want the chance of all that pain. "Maybe we should start by throwing paper."
"I don't know if it works that way," she says, and she couldn't be more right.
In the late 19th century an Austro-Hungarian physicist by the name of Mychal traveled to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to examine the phenomenon of Blowing Rock and its relation to gravity. Gravity, as most of us became terribly aware of in adolescence, is the attraction between two bodies. Mychal was not as concerned with:
F = Gm1m2/R2
(where R equals the distance between the two bodies)
as he was concerned with the weight of things.
Standing at the edge of Blowing Rock, Mychal began his study by throwing objects that weighed very little: a kernel of corn, a child's lost tooth, a petal-less flower, a drop of blood taken from a bird. The less something weighed, he discovered, the less likely its probability of returning. Gradually Mychal progressed: a bobcat, a bastard child, his dark-eyed lover, his wife. As they returned to him, one by one, he lined them up like soda bottles on a fence, and then, in his greatest test of faith, their glass eyes looking on, he spread his arms and flung himself into the wind. Some scientists believe that had Mychal not neglected to weigh himself he may have attempted to live forever.
Over a hundred years later, the trees splinter as the car drives higher into the mountains; finally—light, air, sky—the woman breathes. Two hundred yards, and they make a left; the gravel sprays up onto the underside of the car; the car rings with its opening doors, and they walk hand in hand, the man and the woman, towards the hook.
Rows of hip-height bushes line the very steep path; tiny red flowers bloom like strings of Christmas lights. The sky has settled into the white that the ground will soon become. The man's thumb rubs the woman's thumb, and, finding a hangnail, he brings the thumb to his mouth, kisses it, wants to keep it.
"What's that sound?" she asks, but neither of them know; they listen to the oak-a-lee and climb. The wind gusts. The woman wraps the sweatshirt tighter around her body, tugs the zipper up past her collarbone. She is afraid she will fall—she is not always so strong—break her ankle, die; the man squeezes her hand tighter.
Finally, the couple stands at the edge of the cliff. The snow has just begun to rise; it twists itself up in pinwheels. Snowflakes cling to the woman's lashes, the man's cheeks, the blonde hairs on the back of his hand. It has been years since he has pulled her this close to him. So close, that she can feel his heart beating—through her sweatshirt and his flannel, through the bones of his ribs and the marrow of his bones—beating with the rhythm of the unknown call.
For a moment we can believe that the snow is simply getting heavier; we can pretend not to notice how it grows wild and un-alone. It begins with a simple sapphire hairpin that once belonged to Mychal's lover. Only a trained eye could distinguish this hairpin from the seventh side of a snowflake, but then there is more: the missing E, two dozen hollowed-out eggs, the Dickle brother's sawed-off shotgun, the freckled-ear girl's hairbrush, a baby's blanket—never used, but warm as sun. Everything, it seems, rising with the snow, until the man and the woman and even the mountain lift from the earth, rising, and the bird, left with nothing but its red-tipped wings, flaps twice and flies.
About the author:
Nicole Callihan's poems, stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly, Salt Hill, InDigest, New York Quarterly, cream city review, and La Petite Zine. She was a finalist for the Iowa Review's Award for Literary Nonfiction and was named Notable Reading for Best American Non-required Reading. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at New York University as well as in schools and hospitals throughout New York City. You can find out far too much about her at thebluepitcher.com.
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 2, where "The Weight of Things" ran on July 11, 2009. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.