It’s early, the marine layer still a veneer over the city, when we park the car just shy of the suspension bridge. The day promises to be hot but, at this hour, the sun hasn’t gained full expression. It remains a suggestion of itself, arcing somewhere low and behind us. Jayde is dressed like an eight-year-old wholly unaccustomed to hiking. It’s my urban failing, and arrears are still owed to the campfire gods for Jayde’s lack of trailhead savvy. Although Jayde’s green, he’s earnest in his preparations. He’s packed some trail mix for the morning outing and also carries a thermos of water, heavier than is wieldy. Jayde’s chosen a nylon drawstring knapsack to carry all his collected wares. It’s emblazoned with a smiling Pooh decal and Jayde gets tangled in Winnie’s ropes stumbling out of the car.
“The suspension bridge — awesome, Daddy!” I thought Jayde may’ve been disappointed, but an adventure’s an adventure and I’m only five days out of the hospital.
The current light, the muted heat, is a consequence of the low-lying but evaporative clouds that overhang the mesas. The neighborhood is quiet both here and across the canyon, and the morning jetliners are rare.
Jayde slams the door of the car, and the jacaranda tree we’ve parked beneath releases a lavender sepal in response.
Foot-traffic is at a minimum this time of morning, so the suspension bridge is relatively staid. It can be known as the “Wiggly Bridge,” an unfortunate though accurate moniker: it’s a 375-foot span suspended by only two steel wires and two concrete piers. The fewer the pediments, the more uncertain the movement. It’s 70 feet to the bottom of the arroyo.
Jayde runs to the first pier and looks down. On a bridge no one glances up to see how close they are to the overhead; instead they look to see how far they are from the ground.
Below, the arroyo basin is an unwelcome sight, a litter of green and amber bottles, spent cigarette packs around a sign that proclaims it’s against the law to litter.
A silver-haired gentleman walks by and doesn’t even displace the air in passing. He is wispy, shinbones in sharp relief south of his gym shorts, tibial and saphenous veins coursing rice-paper legs. The man’s shirt advertises some 5K and the shirt is designed to wick moisture away from his body.
Sad Bill wore similar shirts in the hospital, most his time spent in bed half-dressed. The athletic tunics he wore stretched across broad shoulders and suggested an oarsman’s past. His wife had left him after 40 years, his house half-evacuated in a slow and figurative fire.
Sad Bill’s Librium sleep moved in catch, drive, and release; dreams in lurch, the relentless slapping of water against the rigger; the repetitive sound of oarlocks carrying him through a sea of troublesome delta waves. Always asleep, always sad, Sad Bill.
The silver-haired man brushes past, out on his morning constitution. He’s most likely a resident of the deep canyon, where the houses are singular and identifiable, trophies of successful careers. The canyon is called Arroyo Canyon, a near redundancy when translated, a dry riverbed so dry as to feature only drought-tolerant plants, woody things shot through with bright flashes of color.
Jayde runs a spell, then hopscotches the bridge’s planks.
Silver Man disappears into the neighborhood behind us, having crossed the bridge. His house is maybe a concrete-and-stucco construct, an Irving Gill affair. I imagine a pea-gravel driveway, cabinets full of Heath ceramic; pantries of wheat germ and wormy quinoa; a labial orchid in every room.
His nylon breaker swishes in determined retreat.
“Hold up, kid.”
Jayde sways on the newly vacant bridge and looks back, pointing.
“There’s a trail down there, Daddy.”
“We have to get across the bridge, first.”
“We can get down there from across the bridge, though, right?” Jayde looks at me with a pleading face.
I figure the Silver Man emerged from somewhere up the gully. In the distance below is the sound of a landscaper’s hedge-trimmer, a morning mosquito in its persistent nuisance. There has to be a way down.
“Sure, kid. I’m sure there is.”
Jayde rearranges his knapsack straps into greater knots before happily trouncing down the bridge.
I sigh. I’d just wanted to take the kid to the bridge and wasn’t expecting a tromp into the underbrush. “Hike” was a term to get us both out of bed. I never could sleep like Sad Bill, but I’m expert at staying beneath the covers.
“Here’s some Temezepam,” the nurse said, ripping the velcro of the sphygmomanometer loose from my bicep. “You’re a bit tense — blood pressure’s a little high.”
I was in jeans, no shirt, restless and clammy. Didn’t anyone else notice that the clock hummed, that if you concentrated on its incessant buzz, you could tell its batteries were awry, that there was a wasteful arc of electricity seeking a bent contact point somewhere? Anyone could hear this.
I accepted the pill, a small thing in a corrugated paper cup. Temezepam, benzodiazepine, Prozac: all these Zs but no sleep. The hospital was, despite the buzzing clock, quiet.
I pressed my eyes to see stars. Sad Bill oared magnificently to somewhere far and away from shore, flipping his pillow and resettling into the bed sheets.
“What’re these locks, Daddy?” The bridge cables are decorated with promise locks, initialed things left there by young lovers symbolically fastening their love into place. The bridge, precipitous and suspended, becomes a place where names linger defiantly in the air over threat of canyon-fall.
I say, “The locks mean people love each other. They’re like wedding rings you don’t wear.”
This is sufficient explanation.
“You almost kissed Mommy here.”
“You’re right, Jayde. Good memory.” It’s part of our family’s history, long-ago nights and places. There were warm coats and upturned collars and the same eucalyptus trees Jayde and I currently regard, only moon-illumined. The skyway had been empty and fingers brushed shyly; on our first date, my lips had grazed my wife’s neck.
“If you didn’t have a wife, would you fuck me in that closet?” Janet whispered, and she pointed with her eyes to an auxiliary room just left of group conference. The front-desk nurses were bored at their station, and the vitals monitors were white and plastic, parked in current disuse in the hallway. It was a time of night marked by infrequent speech; the dry-erase board featuring a dead and alcoholic idiom; the coffee table littered with crosswords and coloring books.
There was a water dispenser with floating lemon slices.
I looked straight ahead and gaped, grunion-like, then exhaled. I pulled Janet into my shoulder and kissed the part of her hair placatively. I rested my temple against the crown of her head.
“That’s not allowed,” said the nurse, shaking her head. “Not allowed,” while the vitals machines sat continually plastic.
“Janet, you go to your room, I’ll go to mine.” We excused ourselves from the common room. This wasn’t a romance; we were due for pills in an hour — it couldn’t have been a romance. I did like, however, the smell of her hair, her particular and Roman nose.
Jayde jumps two more paces and the bridge swings. Winnie the Pooh is so confused on Jayde’s back, the one decaled eye is almost pleading for help. Jayde sits and swings his legs over the gully, as if debating a playground slide.
“We can go down there if you want,” I finally decide.
Jayde takes a draw from the thermos, replaces it in his bag, and wipes his mouth.
The doctor palpated my lower left. He nodded approvingly.
“Yes.” He undid my covering, examined my collar.
“Some spidering — this should fade,” he remarked, tracing the angiomas like brachia branching upward out my sternum.
He patted my shoulder.
“You’re good.” I readjusted on the crinkly paper.
But I’m in detox.
“You’re good,” he said again, “Enzymes are fine.”
Enzymes break down things, so my negatives are a positive.
“Okay...,” I said, readjusting the neckline of my gown.
“It’s early — go have breakfast.” The physician’s face was a cherubic and pink marshmallow, a Hostess cake. There were the floating wafts of sweetened coffee that informed the otherwise aspirin hallways. I left the exam room, relieved if a bit confused.
Jayde is already halfway down the hill, scooting on his bottom. I follow suit. We land and look up. The bridge is above us, a now silhouetted thing, sun shining through the slats. We’re among the broken glass and trailers of volunteer grass. “No Littering” the signs says again, just closer, and there are Pall Malls in the crabweeds.
“Where, to, kid? Left?”
“No,” he says. “Right,” with undue emphasis, and he scrambles off.
“You think of trying sobriety instead?” Dr. Morrow asked, sighing over my petition for antidepressants, the line he may or may not fill out on Box 2. His key fob sports a BMW insignia and why couldn’t he have just put the keys in his pocket. It was 6 a.m.
He double-clicked his pen.
“It’s a long-standing joke, Doctor. In my family runs anxiety, depression, bipolarity…”
He double-clicked again.
I took comedic pause: “Longevity, too. Rimshot.” I’m very funny.
He sighed and put an “X” in the box. The morning’s too short for long suffering, especially if you have a tee time and no gallow’s sense of humor.
“They’ll start you on Lexapro by the afternoon.” He sported a bad haircut (considering his means) and he gathered his keys in a fashioned swipe.
I said, “Have a good one,” before he could. Dr. Morrow paused, words taken out of his mouth. He finally nodded agreement.
“Yes. Try not to drink so much.” Click-click. That easy. Like a Par 3.
He walked out before coffee was available, and I rejoined Sad Bill in our room.
The hedge-trimmer, it turns out, is manned by someone in apiarist gear, white netting draped over his face as protection. The plumbago is innocent but gets the Jacobin treatment anyway, blue-lavender blossoms falling away in spent heads.
The squared hedges release buggy things, paper and triangular moths, chartreuse grasshoppers. The moths are flitty and choppy fliers in the mid-morning sun.
Jayde picks up sticks and beats at things, his knapsack sagging beneath the weight of the thermos. There’s an enviable bounce to his step, incongruent like the exodus of moths. He’s growing up too fast, still the child in him is on full display. Were that I could reclaim that myself — the noontime of youth — this could all be different.
“How would you describe this?” Peg asked from her therapist’s chair.
I rotated my cup of coffee counter-clockwise, sitting in a pantomime of ease while looking down at the carpet.
“This?” I asked. She nodded.
“This,” I sighed. I tapped the rim of my mug. “This…” I trailed off.
I chose to describe a clock, which years ago was mounted in my parents’ kitchen. It was a kitsch plastic thing, an owl with a clock-belly and glinty orange eyes. There were plastic owlets on a plastic branch, the whole tchotchke shaped much like the state of Kentucky, with unreliable clock hands and a yellowed clock face.
“I remember these things, suddenly. And then think how long ago that was.” I readjusted my posture.
“Else I become suddenly aware of how fast Jayde’s growing up, and everything I think of becomes painful. Like I’m tearing off calendar pages and they instantly burst into flames.
“I get nostalgic, Peg.”
“But nostalgia’s sweet, right?” Peg said, nodding.
“No. Latin. Means: pain of remembrance. Nostalgia’s being fucking homesick in your head and I feel it all the goddamn time.”
Jayde and I pause in front of a wooden sign that welcomes us to the neighborhood — Arroyo Canyon. We’re just as quickly unwelcomed by the list of rules regarding trespassing, parking, where you’re not supposed to walk. A butterfly alights on the sign, a six-legged postcard of an insect. The wooden sign is carved in bas-relief and the butterfly navigates its surfaces effortlessly with flitting wings.
“Can I ask you something?” I said, leaning over the front desk, meeting eyes with the head nurse before looking conspiratorially sideways. I had just helped my floor mate Roberto with his paperwork and was getting used to this place.
She looked up, smiling, and tilted her head to the left, a suggested “yes.”
“Do you have my bloodwork on file?” She looked behind her at the other attendants working their stations, then returned to her keyboard. She held up a finger and clicked through a few screens. She adjusted the monitor toward me.
“Thanks, Sister,” I said. She turned the monitor back to its appropriate position after I finished scanning, tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear, and continued working.
What the hell? I just called the nurse “Sister” as if she were the concierge.
Back in the room, Sad Bill was asleep, his running shoes inexplicably on.
I sat upright in bed and crossed my arms, watched the second hand of the clock click; I tapped the flesh of my left arm with the fingers of my right hand and looked to the ceiling. I imagined my lipids un-emulsified in the blood, like yellow capsules swimming in capillaries, amoeboid and moving, my heart a fleshy muscle flapping stupidly and sending beads of amber down their uncertain avenues. It’s how I get to sleep.
Roberto had said I looked smart when proffering me a pen. I helped him with his information, the triplicate forms, while I wore glasses and we manned the group table. There were pink papers, yellow ones, and white ones.
“Sign this here,” I pointed. “Your initials in this box. There — finito.”
We sat up simultaneously when all paperwork was done.
“Thanks, man!” Roberto beamed as we shuffled the rainbow of paper into a neat pile.
I didn’t know what to do — I gave him a hug. He had briefly died on fentanyl and needed a halfway-house.
“It’s hard coming back to life,” either one of us could’ve said as I took off my glasses.
The second house Jayde and I come across has a running fountain, three stuccoed stories, and lavender surrounding the perimeter.
“Wow!” Jayde remarks, and he pauses with his stick because the lavender is full of bees. There’s an actual arcade running the side of the house and any minute I expect Lady Godiva to emerge from the porticos, long red hair shielding crème-colored breasts, in desperate need of a horse. This is a house where you recline naked, a Titian half-shell existence, no need for clothes. The house is sealed off, and the fountain runs its circulated course.
“The bees, Daddy.”
“What about them, dude?”
He prods a lavender bush, and the bees buzz their discontent.
“Don’t bother them, Jayde.”
Lady Godiva never makes an appearance, and the hollow porticos speak of absence.
Nervous Luke had his own horse — an aluminum one — which he was mandated to use. He was a “fall risk.” Luke would sit in the group room when most everyone had gone to bed. He hated his walker — was embarrassed by it — but he had passed out violently drunk before being admitted, ingloriously smacking the soft of his neck on the porcelain lip of the tub. He bruised the tender spot where his brain stem was busy that night being drowned. The doctors, being cautious, gave him a walker. They worried that he might experience delayed seizures.
He hated being here, hated having to scoot around manacled to something so convalescent, so beyond his obviously young age. He only came out at night. He’d shuffle past the nurses with his aluminum horse, then drag it clatteringly behind him when corners were turned, hitching it, always, to his post in the group room.
“So long as I keep it near me,” he shrugged, gesturing to his walker while Janet, Luke, and I sat around the table. It was nighttime tea time, packets of decaffeinated oolong and mint fanned out on the table, a carafe of hot water at easy reach.
I was elbows with Janet and we were trying to convince Luke to come down for meals, at least. He still had sandwiches routinely dropped off at his always-closed door.
“We’re all in here for the same reason,” Janet said. She’d occasionally rouche the cuffs of her cardigan to the elbow and replace her arm casually against mine. I was busy scratching away at some writings.
“’S true, friend,” I said, marking up some margins, Janet and I suddenly Good Cop and Good Cop.
Luke fingered the fuzz of his upper lip, a blond and anemic mustache, considering.
“It’s got to where I can’t eat,” he eventually said. In the medical manuals, it’s said that alcoholism is ultimately a nutritional disease. I glanced up, frowning.
Janet was acting funny. She’d received permission to lotion this evening (these permissions and substances that must be granted) and she was fastidiously applying her ablutions. I continued talking with Luke, and Janet again readjusted her sleeves, quietly laughing to herself. She dabbed my exposed knee with a dot of moisturizer and began rubbing it clockwise into my skin with one finger. I tried hard to keep my eyes trained on Luke.
“These meds are making me feel weird,” Janet announced, and she excused herself to punch at the group-room console. “What are we on again?” she called out from the keyboard.
“Librium, lady. Unless you’re on Ativan, but that’s more for the DT cases.”
“How do you spell Librium?” Janet queried from across the room, pecking at the keys.
“L-i-b-r-i-u-m. Librium,” I repeated, as if winning the hospital spelling bee.
“Maybe I will come to lunch,” Luke finally said. “I just gotta bring this goddamn thing with me,” he cursed, nodding sidelong to his walker.
Janet returned to the chair next to me.
“I knew it,” she announced, smiling.
Janet slid a paper from my portfolio, turning it over. She stole my pen, wrote something, then pushed it back into my stack.
Luke decided to go to bed. Tea time was almost over anyway, the carafe now lukewarm. I glanced over at Janet.
“What’d you find out?” I nervously laughed, feeling suddenly flushed.
Side effects may include altered sex drive.
I shuffled my writings back into their binder. The one turned-over paper read, “I’m pierced” and it was signed with a heart.
Chemicals do strange, sometimes libidinal, things. Janet had been right. We were all in here for the same reason. Chemicals had a definite way with us.
The third house is maybe where Silver Man lives. It’s a Cubist affair with punched-up windows, minimal, without the villa plantings. I’m more impressed with this house than Jayde is. I appreciate its restraint, the hedges of Japanese boxwood and the asymmetrical slats for windows. The light inside must be focused and well-thought-out. Why I imagine Silver Man has a collection of orchids punctuating his living spaces.
“What’re you thinking, Daddy?”
“Oh, nothing, kid.”
I wonder what Jayde thinks. It’s not every day you suddenly disappear. I had checked out, checked myself in. It was one bridge crossed, but there were multiplicities of them stringing canyons. It was Luke embarrassed by his aluminum horse and wanting two legs back. It was Sad Bill sad, trying to row his skiff to shore. It was me who drank six pints in quick succession at 10 a.m. hoping that at least one would hit its mark, that one would finally correct the misaligned chemicals and quell the constant feeling of simultaneous explosion and implosion.
“What happens if you feel you can’t make it another day?” Peg asked from her leather chair.
“I’ll still be there the next day?”
“So, what if there are five days?”
“I hate to think.”
“But you can get through this.”
“Then get through it first.”
On the last day before I disappeared, I hunkered behind the mini-van in the driveway, hiding. Jayde, from his couch-perch inside, hit the panic button on the van’s key, driving me, startled, from my roost.
I met him at the back door. “Why’d you do that, dude?” my voice quavering. He just shrugged and walked away while I guiltily retreated into the bathroom. I gripped the washbasin and shook, first a tremor, then a full-on body-quake.
“No, please no.” I slipped my perch and had to sit on the tiles. I held up my hands, palms down, and assessed their inability to quit a bird-like shaking. I sat shivering for ten minutes, my foot planted against the door.
“You okay?” my wife asked from outside.
“Fine,” I managed.
Fine, however, is not exploding into pieces, pieces hastening to the floor.
Sometimes you become a shell of yourself. Sometimes that shell, once husked, quickly fossilizes into weight before having completely separated from the soft parts. You are left swimming in rock, stuck to an unshed skeleton.
“Rock bottom,” I said when the check-in nurse prodded at my various edemas, my swollen feet. She registered my blood pressure as concerning. I was ashamed. I couldn’t get through it; I couldn’t get through the five days; it hurt too much. I swam in rock.
We crunch through another driveway in the dry gulley, and Jayde stops to look at bees again. He peers at a worker deftly navigating the petals of a lantana’s impossibly small flowers, collecting pollen on the hair of its legs. Jayde’s bangs fall into his right eye, which he closes instinctively. Makes him look more studious, as if scrutinizing the world through a magnifying glass. He grips the drawstrings of his Pooh rucksack at the shoulders and follows the bee’s peripatetic buzzing with the whole of his head, neck swiveling comically as the bee dances flower-to-flower.
“It’s amazing to think, Daddy, that something so small is helping the world a million.” I’m not sure what Jayde means by “a million,” but I get his drift. He looks skyward as the bee floats off, pollen-laden and hive-bound.
Jayde loses the bee in the sun and turns to squint at me. His right eye is still closed, bangs caught in his lashes. He’s the love of my life, there among the bees and pea gravel.
He’s the love of my life. I feel nothing.
My bridge is only halfway crossed at this point, toxins having evacuated enough room for the otherwise nothingness to settle in. It’s expected. The serotonin is gone from my system, a string of chemical pearls unstrung. There will be 30 more days of this. Thirty more days, minimum, before the light comes back on.
Sad Bill greeted me when I threw my rucksack on the hospital bed. The room was Antarctic cold. I espied the thin blankets and sighed. I wanted pills, pabulums of sleep.
“Was just napping,” Sad Bill remarked with a yawn.
“Sorry,” I offered, an apology that he waved off with one hand while stifling his yawn with the other.
“No, no. ’S almost dinner anyways.” Sad Bill cleared his throat of sleep and rubbed the back of his close-cropped head. He widened his eyes to rid them of slumber. “You’re fine.”
I looked around, taking inventory of the drawers and cabinets. I felt a supreme need to put everything away. It was the only measure of control I had remaining.
Sad Bill pushed himself off his bed and arched his back. He was maybe 60 but still exuded a young man’s athleticism, a purposeful manner of movement. I wondered what was locked into his muscle memory and decided he had been a rower, crew.
“What’re you in for?” he asked.
I searched for an answer.
He waved again. “I’m kidding. People round here want your diagnosis like it’s a jail sentence. You don’t have to answer.”
Sad Bill looked at me knowingly. You don’t check into detox because you’re sad, no matter the barrel you’re scraping.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” Jayde says. I sweep the bangs from his eyes and cup the back of his head.
“I’m sure, kid.” I point up the path. “This’ll take us back into the neighborhood. We can get some breakfast. Sound good?”
We empty out into Mission Hills west of the bridge. The avenues here have the same names as the avenues east of the arroyo. They just lie differently with slightly different orientation. The imaginary lines connecting Third from Third, Redwood from Redwood, are crooked things, some civil engineer’s ricochet. It confuses Jayde. He doesn’t know where he is in space and harbors, meanwhile, a growing mistrust of street signs.
“Are we lost, Daddy?”
I point left, up the hill. “Not exactly. We have to go that way, back up.”
We begin our march.
The nurse began to draw an “F” on my chart.
“What’s that mean?” I asked while the blood-pressure cuff constricted my left bicep. The vitals machine ran through a series of numbers, looking to land on my particular metrics.
Nurse Carter paused. “Fall risk,” he said, meeting my eyes. “You said you was falling.”
“No, no — I said I felt like I was falling upwards,” I corrected. “Upwards — I mean the Librium has me floaty. I’m fine.”
Nurse Carter looked down, slowly scratching the “F” off the clipboard, then looked up, double-checking my eyes before setting the pen down.
“All right, brother. Just tell me if you get too dizzy.” He shifted in his stool, ripping the cuff off my arm once the vitals machine had finished its lottery.
“154 over 89.” He punched numbers into the console.
“What do I win?”
“Klonopin. Maybe Ativan.” Replacing the cuff, he said, “Meantime, I get you some more Librium. It’s your first night — you gonna need it.”
Nurse Carter weightily pushed himself off the stool and offered me knucks. He was a good 250, thick in the paunch.
“You’re good, brother. I take care of you. I’ll getchoo that Librium.”
Librium is a benzodiazepine, cousin to Xanax. It’s an anti-anxiety med, straight avenue to nod, and used clinically to curb acute alcohol withdrawal. Librium’s also addictive, the paradox of detox. You have to hook yourself on a drug to get off another.
Michael in 324 was on suboxone to taper his fentanyl addiction. Sandy in 332 was on Lorezapam to calm the shakes.
I was on a slow taper of chlordiazepoxide, an elevator forever creeping upward through an unspecified tower of floors. The doors never opened to any penthouse but for my entire stay, it was as if my ghost was in perpetual levitation, hovering always two inches above my skin. I was complacently high in the rerouting of my lows, the paradox of regaining sea level.
Jayde and I crest the uphill. We have the momentary elation of having made our suburban summit.
“Are we there yet?” Jayde asks.
The novelty of the hike is wearing off for Jayde and, despite medications to the contrary, I feel a slight rise in anxiety. Things are wearing off for the both of us. I’d like to be home, but I’m hoping Jayde doesn’t. Not yet, at least.
I’d planned this outing in flatness, the Librium having ceased its effect upon Odysseal return home. There were nights I lay awake next to my wife, my hand resting on the small of her back. I could almost sense through my fingertips the chemicals that coursed correct and aligned beneath her bedclothes. I’d told her I didn’t want to fucking be sober — those words — though I’d willingly checked myself in. Truth is I didn’t want to feel the anhedonia upon my return, that unbearable joylessness sure to replace whatever numbness I could otherwise muster imbibing, lotus-eating, sleeping chemical sleep.
I was a practiced lotus-eater. The flowers had just become toxic.
Jayde had to have noticed. I spent every waking day with him until, suddenly, I didn’t. I disappeared. I promised to return in a few days but disappeared regardless. Upon my return, Jayde held me tight round the waist and I stooped to bury my nose in his boyish tangles. He cried, assuring me it was because he was so happy to see me. I believed him to a certain degree while I kissed his head, but not every spirit is a blithe spirit — there’s always a measure of disquiet when seeing a ghost. I imagined, in the doorway of our house, that Jayde hugged me, and right through me.
“We’ll cross over the bridge to get back to the car,” I tell Jayde.
“Okay, Daddy.” He hasn’t complained about the sun, which has since burned through the marine layer, but I anxiously await his first grumbles, any proof that this hike is a failure, that I’d somehow lost a piece of my dad-ness in the hospital.
Jayde doesn’t complain, though. I relish his joy best I can, try to muster my own. I’m at least more comfortable in this neighborhood with its more homogenous dwellings. Unlike the vanity homes that island the arroyo, the neighborhood bungalows are predictable.
The houses are early-century affairs like our own back home. Most have gables overhanging the front doors. This pleases me: I’ve always like recessed entries. They provide once-remove from the street. How better to hide from the outside world than to lengthen the distance to one’s front door?
I study Jayde as he trounces ahead of me, legs having to work twice as fast as mine while traversing the cross-streets. He has a boyish flounce still, though his limbs are coming into their own and will soon slow to match mine. More and more, I wish to suspend Jayde’s boyhood as if in amber. I’d like to keep him golden, shining like his bangs today in the mid-morning sun.
I sat in my hospital bed regretting what I’d said to my wife. That I didn’t want to be sober. We’d sat in the courtyard on a bench next to the penniless fountain with its recycled water and white noise. It was a hands-folded visit, though secretly we were both pawing the air as if testing the elements. We had a practiced geometry and our bodies were touching in align, shoulder to knee. “I don’t want to fucking be sober” was my way of saying, “I can handle this.” The fountain with its lack of currency, the plastic wristband I wore, said otherwise.
My wife may have looked crestfallen; I didn’t check to see. I instead felt our bodies touch as they did that night we almost kissed on the suspension bridge. I’ve since fastened my padlock to the bridge’s cable, figuratively stenciled our initials, but bridge-fall is always the threat. Cables can and do break.
Sad Bill was asleep. Before retiring to his pillow he had talked about his divorce — a hollow story, really. Marriages are sometimes broken with an insipid snap, and his had bowed like a wet twig well before its impotent surrender. His wife finally moved out. Forty years of marriage, more than half spent speaking the language of ghosts. No wonder he was so practiced at sleeping.
Bill never snored, so reading was easy. I had a copy of Cheever’s Falconer cracked, the side lamp on. I stopped at a passage: “I find it difficult to imagine cleanliness. I can claim to imagine this, but it would be false. It would be as though I had claimed to reinstall myself in some afternoon of youth.”
Christ. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be sober — maybe I couldn’t. Sobriety seemed an imaginary thing now that I had aged well beyond my first drink and into middle age. Here I was, birthdate on a hospital wristband, four decades distant from the cradle. At every pill distribution, I was asked my name, my birthdate. Every distribution wound up being an exercise in arithmetic, reminder of my age. My afternoon was already half-spent. What lunch had I missed while languoring at the bar, and could I ever rejoin the table?
Jayde pauses in the half-shade, the crossroads of Brant and Spruce, and there are jacarandas in full flower outside a concrete tenement. Spruce trees are non-existent. Spruce is just another street in a north-south line of arboreal-themed avenues, most having their interruptions in canyons. The bridge, though, connects the west end of Spruce to its eastern counterpart: it makes for one of the few thoroughfares west of Balboa Park. I explain this to Jayde, but he’s only interested that we’ve come full circle, that the bridge is magical conduit to the other side.
“Can we go down into the canyon again?” Jayde asks as we walk through the sodden carpet of jacaranda flowers and toward the bridge.
“I thought you were hungry.”
The sun shines through the trees and though not yet afternoon, it’s still bordering on hot. I glance sidelong at Jayde — we’re now walking side-by-side — and he remains agreeable.
“All right, Daddy. Let’s go eat.”
I’m concerned that his sudden agreeability is, at heart, some manifestation of worry — that he’s being placative to avoid upsetting me. Kids are divining rods to tension, their antennae always on point. I try to readjust my face to mirror his agreeability, but joylessness is already a mask, and it’s hard staring through two sets of eyeholes at once.
“AnhedooOOonia,” Peg said from her therapist’s chair. “Feels like it sounds. Like a ghost.”
It’s actually the state of unfeeling, but at the heart of a ghost story is a simple, apparitional fact: ghosts don’t exist in the afternoon and, without haunt, their number is up.
I knucked Nurse Carter on the way out.
“Don’t come back now, y’hear?” he joked. The head nurse acquiesced a smile, having heard this joke a thousand times. I kissed her on the cheek in apology as she cut my wristband.
She smiled and adjusted her glasses. The elevator yawned open, didn’t turn its panels as would a revolving door.
I left a book with Janet; I left Sad Bill alone, asleep at the tiller. I entered the elevator and left.
Jayde runs half the length of the suspension bridge to its middle. On either side of the bridge is old-growth eucalyptus but, underneath the lowest sag of the bridge, there are only freeway shrubs, acacia, and cigarette flowers. Admonishing signs repeat: “Don’t.” “Don’t trespass.” “Don’t litter.” The ground beneath is a depressing thing, parched and mud-cracked. Scales of earth peel back from the gully floor.
Jayde and I take a seat, legs dangling over the bridge’s edge. He wears his deflated Winnie like a lackluster cape.
The airways course their mid-morning traffic and I pick at my fingernails.
“You okay, kid?”
I tousle his hair and look back to the gray tenement up the street, the Silver Man surely home by now having his soya, Godiva meanwhile enjoying her porticos.
I look up, measuring the sky’s distance, and the bridge sways slightly
“Let’s go, kid,” I say, hoisting myself up. “Trail done.”
Jayde agrees. The eucalyptus sway, noontime’s first push of relief; and though I feel nothing, nothing, upon crossing the bridge, the asphalt of the other side is reassuring. Jayde walks ahead of me. The marine layer is evaporating, the bridge is unreasonably steady in our wake, and, on the way back to the car, I shed a face, smooth my hair, and watch as Jayde plucks open the car door, the click of re-entry, re-entry and a jangle as, digging into my pocket, I remember myself the pilot and ready my keys.