It was already that kind of day.
“Maybe your dad will spend some time with you today since I was up with you all night,” Tanya, my wife, said attitudinally to Audrey, our one-year-old daughter, though she was really saying it to me, just through the baby, which is what she tends to do more and more lately.
“Hey Audrey, why don’t you tell your mommy I was in Kevin’s bed getting kicked in the ribs all night.”
I guess we both tend to speak through the baby lately. Kevin is our three-year-old son. My wife just rolled her eyes, which drives me crazy.
“Hey Audrey, also tell your mom I’m going for a run. Kevin is with your parents. Your parents, Tanya. Not Audrey’s.”
Tanya chuckled despite herself. We don’t spend all our time fighting, it just sometimes seems that way these days. It’s hard with two, and it’s inevitably, exponentially, harder when we’re not at home. Which Tanya will agree with unless we are at her parents’, which is where we are now, at her parents’ house in the Pocono Mountains. When I say it when we’re at her parents’ house, I’m just complaining, and it’s what I said last night right before I went in to sleep with Kevin.
I leave the house to run. It’s fall and the air is crisp. I can feel it gather in my lungs as I trot along. It’s quiet and I pass no one. Still, I imagine I’m being watched, as a performer might be. I consider the lengths of my strides, the effortless pumping of my arms, my outfit. What it all says about me. I do this all the time without necessarily meaning to. On walks around the neighborhood with my kids, through the halls at work, in meetings. I wonder if it’s just me or if this feeling of being on a stage is a symptom of our time, this information age, with our endless access and ubiquitous cameras and phones and camera phones, a time when irony is currency and cool detachment an ethic. I’m sure no one’s watching, but what if they were? What would they see? What would they think?
It’s beautiful up here in the mountains and seems possible, possibly, to feel uninformed, in a good way. To be not connected. I start to worry less about how I look. The sky is big and blue. The trees are big and variegated. The crisp air tastes clean. The road I’m running on is a dirt road. It feels like all I need to know. My pace is steady, though my breathing is shallower than I’d like to admit. A hawk soars overhead and it’s gorgeous. Majestic, even.
Tanya struck me that way once. Gorgeous. Majestic, even. She still does on occasion. But the hawk is separate from myself; Tanya, my wife, no longer is.
Underfoot is no longer the dirt road. Not under my right foot at least. It’s a rock is my guess, but it’s too late when I look down. Wish I had known. I hear a crack in my ankle that to me sounds like the crack of a forest branch, just in a minor key, and down I go. I am now on my back on the dirt road, off to the side where the road pitches downward. It’d make a shallow grave. The pain is indescribable, so I won’t try; yet I’m still able to notice how quiet it remains around me. If anyone was indeed watching me, maybe they laughed initially, but no doubt they’d come over to see if I am okay. No one comes. I am indeed alone. I sit up and grab my ankle. It’s already swelling. I remove my sweatshirt and then my t-shirt. I put my sweatshirt back on and wrap my t-shirt tightly around my ankle to slow the swelling and because the pressure relieves the pain a bit.
I lay back down on the cold, unforgiving dirt road. The ground is hard. Life is, too. Under my head, some dry, browning leaves crackle. I think about death because all of a sudden it feels like a distinct possibility and because it’s impossible to deny that the shriveled leaves are in a way metaphoric. Also melodramatic perhaps, but also fact. I’m too young yet to complain about the indignities of getting older, but the process is in place and the gears are greased. It’s happening. Ten years earlier, at twenty-five, a light jog on an empty dirt road doesn’t end in a graceless tumble down into a shallow ditch. That much I can say with certainty.
I take a deep breath and look straight ahead, which in my current position is straight up, skyward. I can’t help but notice the lack of white noise. Birdsong cuts through nothing and sounds closer to its source. I think of the ceaseless, low-level hum of buildings in use and of how I never think of that when I’m in those buildings. A squirrel moves confidently across a lolling branch. Lying here reminds me of the many times I’ve sat at my desk at work, bored, enervated, feeling completely uninvested and wanting only to disappear, to slide away from all the noise and clutter, and to cut off from all the connectivity. What I work on comes back to me in no meaningful way. Other than a paycheck, of course, which I appreciate. But I often wish I could separate myself from the endless cycle that is office work. And, as a fly on the wall, observe it with no stake in it.
If I could, I imagine this is what it’d feel like. I lay motionless and unnoticed, eavesdropping on insects of all kinds on all sides. To my left are a million ants doing whatever ants do, with purpose, their lives and their tasks inseparable. I envy that. Writers, I imagine, artists of any kind, and craftsmen, too, they with their lives and their output, each being the reflection of the other, probably have that, too. I don’t.
On my back, I’m in pain but I’m also oddly at peace in a way I haven’t been in a long time. I literally can’t move right now and maybe that’s something I’ve longed for. I think of James Joyce’s classic story, “The Dead,” and of the snow that falls at the end over the living and the no longer. I imagine it falling also over me, the wounded. I’m a reader, not a writer, but I’ve mused on occasion that if I did write, I’d write a memoir and call it Distant Music in a nod to Joyce’s genius. In “The Dead,” the protagonist watches his wife atop some stairs, her attention drawn to music she hears being played behind a door down the hall. He views the expression on her face and finds it beautiful, and he thinks if what he’s looking at were a painting, it’d be called Distant Music. I love that. A true memoir of my life would be so boring, except I’d make the focus of it all the things that could have been or almost were, the possibilities that came and went because I never really stuck my neck out, never really stood up for anything, not such that it put me in the direct line of fire. You know? I never gave myself over, never zeroed in on something, anything, and knew, honestly, I would give anything. I always feared looking foolish. My morals were easy morals. My excuses never seemed like excuses. I’ve done what I was supposed to do, got educated, got a job, and now I support my family, and there’s satisfaction in that. Even honor, I think. But my lips have never quivered. I’ve never risked enough to be truly overcome, and how do you really know who you are when you’re always in control like that?
There’s no story there, no interesting one anyway. The story’s in the other room, down the hall, behind the door; I know that as well as anyone.
I don’t know what I would have done or should have done, maybe dated more or tried out for the high school musical instead of being scared I’d be made fun of. I don’t know, I’ve always loved dolphins and sometimes I think it’d have been cool to have become a dolphin trainer, but how does one even begin to embark on a dolphin training career? Who knows? Besides dolphin trainers, I guess.
I try to get up on it and limp, but right back down I go. I’m in so much pain. I also feel ridiculous. I don’t know which is worse.
Trees have more detail than I ever would have thought. I don’t know how to say it better than that. I wish I could because it really is beautiful here. There’s a great French writer from the 1920s named Jules Renard, who said: “Your page on autumn must give as much pleasure as a walk through fallen leaves.” That’s why I’m a reader. Some leaves start falling, a bunch at once, from some branches directly above me. It looks like tossed money swerving unhurriedly on its descent. It’s not money, though; it’s nothing so crude as dollar bills but is more ethereal than that. It’s of the world, but purely so. It’s like, I don’t know, some kind of soul currency. I stay lying down and let it wash over me, and in my stillness I converse with Jules Renard one hundred years after he wrote about fallen leaves.
I tried my hand at autumn once, in college, when I was writing bad poetry like a lot of people do during that time in their lives. I wrote:
I think of you every autumn when I look up at the trees
Beautiful foliage soon to become just fallen leaves
Too good to be true, you were gone before too long
And now you’re just baggage at the edge of my lawn
It was about a girlfriend at the time who wasn’t even really a girlfriend, just a cool girl I went out with a few times before she decided she didn’t like me in the same way I liked her. I liked the poem better than most of the stuff I wrote then, and I actually still like it, though I read it more now as a reference to the endless possibilities of my youth, before I knew the meaning of compromise, and the necessity of it. Before I fell into this life I’ve fallen into. A good life, without a doubt, but it must be stated: my life is more than anything the result of inertia. I fell, like a lot of people fall, and this is where I landed.
I think of Kevin and Audrey and I miss them with a sudden intensity that doesn’t correspond at all to the alacrity with which I left them this morning. I love them and their endless possibilities so much. Even though their possibilities aren’t endless. They’ll end. They’ll have their time on the mountain when they realize about the mountain. But, is there more mercy in helping them stave off the acknowledgement of that truth or in stemming their expectations from the start?
The pain in that question, a parent’s pain, is all but unbearable.
David Foster Wallace, another great writer, in his great story “Incantations of Burned Children” wrote: “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”
My eyes moisten at the beauty of that sentence and the truth in it, at the thought of my own children, and at the knowledge that I’d never be able to write something as piercing and powerful, as succinct and perfect as that.
I create only an audience for it. I don’t know, maybe that’s my art.
After a certain amount of time, although how long I’m not sure, my peace turns to anxiety. I left the house without a phone, to disconnect and make myself inaccessible, and now I don’t know how I’m going to make my way back but by crawling. Tanya is going to be so mad thinking I purposely stuck her with the kids all day while I took a nice, long, peaceful run. I don’t want her mad at me, but I also don’t want her to think I’d do that.
So I start back, making my way slowly on all fours, palms and knees. It’s painful and ludicrous. I’m all but certain each “step” on this trek back will leave a mark, but that’s good. I could use a few.
My lungs as I was running felt like I ran five miles, though I probably made it less than one before I fell. Nonetheless, on my hands and knees, I might as well be returning from California. I don’t get far before there’s blood. And I’m thirsty. But, I’m determined. In fact, I am enlivened by something that could even pass for a passion for getting home. I get only a little bit further, though, before I see someone coming my way. A man, who stops and asks,
“Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I stammer, “it’s okay. Keep going.” I’m not really in the mood for conversation here.
“What are you doing? Can I help you?”
“No. It’s fine, I think I broke my ankle is all. But really, it’s fine.”
“Jeez, well, let me help.” He leans down to offer a hand.
“Really, it’s fine,” I say, pushing his hand away. “I have to do this. I just… I have to get back just like this.” Only as I’m saying it do I realize why it’s true.
“That’s ridiculous,” he says, not nonsensically.
“You’re ridiculous,” I say in response, nonsensically. I want to tell him how this, my crawling back on my hands and knees, is Joycean in scope, that I’m channeling my inner Jules Renard and embodying the words of David Foster Wallace. But how do you really say that, ever, not to mention on bloodied hands and knees, and not sound ridiculous?
“Okay,” he chuckles. “Carry on then.” I nod my thanks. “But I’m going to follow you,” he adds, I guess because he’s not a jerk. “I can’t just let you go on your way like that.”
I nod again and keep going. This man keeps a pace or two behind me the whole way. Which is embarrassing.
It takes a long while, but I’m slowly going as fast as I can, no longer taking in the beauty of my surroundings but also no longer feeling the cold. I am my body, and I am right now in a way I haven’t been in a long time, if ever. With each movement comes a horrible, stabbing pain, but it also feels kind of good. I’m in the middle of something real. I think of the hawk and wonder if I look like easy prey in my current, weakened state, if I look like a kind of fast food in the natural world. I try to imagine what it must be like to occupy a different link in the food chain. Even if it’s as an early dinner, I prefer to think of the hawk’s impression of me than that of the man behind me. Which no doubt says something about me that I’m not overly anxious to parse out.
Eventually, finally, I get to the edge of my in-laws’ crushed stone driveway.
“That’s really going to hurt,” the guy tells me.
“Yeah, it is,” I laugh.
I’ve often thought about how I hope my kids view me, how they’ll come to view me. I want them to think that I’ve gotten it together, figured some things out. I want them to be proud of me and to feel like they can come to me with their questions about life. I think now of Kevin seeing me crawling on the road and across the driveway, barely able to conceal the pain I’m in. How to explain why I’m doing it? Even to a three-year-old, I must look like a fool.
I lay down again on my back before proceeding. The guy tells me he’ll go to the door for me.
“Thank you,” I say. “And hey,” I add. He stops and turns back to me. “Just, you know, thank you.”
He nods graciously, then goes to the front door of my in-laws’ mountain house.
Moments later I hear, “Honey, what are you doing?” It’s Tanya, and she says this with genuine concern in her voice. Of course she does. Because we love each other. We have a family together.
“Daddy!” She’s come out with Kevin.
At his voice, a single tear streaks my cheek. But I decide not to wipe it away. I don’t stand up either. I get back into my crawling position and hope there’s a message there. We will laugh about this for years to come, and I’ll embrace my role as the fool in the story. I’ll do it in the hopes that Kevin, and Audrey too when she hears it, will think of their dad as someone who lived actively, and sometimes that led him into a ditch from which he had to crawl a mile back home.
“What happened?” Tanya asks.
I pause. I want to get it right, especially with Kevin there. I want to take my time because I want how I relay what happened to offer more than just the details of when I fell, but of what happens when you fall.
“Long story,” I respond.
I want my story, when I tell it, to somehow tell my kids to stand up, even when you’re unsure, especially when you’re unsure. Stand up for love, for opportunity, for yourself, for others. For whatever you feel is worth it. It’s worth it. Don’t be afraid to want. To need. To find your passion and be it. Wholly. Put yourself out there. Make your sins sins of commission not omission. Even if it means sometimes coming home on your hands and knees.
Play the music, or at least get in there and dance to it, even if you can’t dance, especially if you can’t dance. Desire makes fools of us all. Play the fool. Play the fool. Play the fool.
Billy Thompson's stories have appeared in The Louisville Review, Word Riot, Philadelphia Stories and Oak Bend Review. He lives in Media, Pennsylvania, with his wife Abby and their two young sons, Joey and Declan. "The Fall" is dedicated his boys.