I stand at the side of the road.
My fingers are intertwined with
my wife’s. The infernal roar
of a victory crowd fills the
thoroughfare. Italy victorious.
Flags wave like stunted grasses
in a wasteland. My wife smiles.
Prague, Czech Republic:
I rest in the cheap hotel room.
My flesh crawls with rivulets of
sweat, a consequence of the heat
wave. Outside of my window, random
Slavs, Armenians, and Germans scream
and curse in their dialects. My eyes
roll back in my head and I dream of
water. My wife sleeps.
I kneel on the castle parapet,
surrounded by ancient cannons.
Dark clouds thunder and boil
like a cauldron in the distance.
I hear the sobs of refugees.
Atrocities echo from the Alps
and the ghost of my living father
speaks in tongues behind me.
My wife screams.
I reconstitute myself. My palms
are covered with ash. I look down
and ages slither across them.
A breeze flits about my neck
as the cliff crumbles from below.
I float in air and the fire and
water have vanished. I descend into a
Golgotha, the bones bleached white
by the sun. I smile and know the
bones are my own.
And checked myself: machine in start-up mode;
not green-light-ready yet. Still, bits of me
tried blinking, eating paper (breakfast, please);
made intermittent efforts, fretfully:
emitted high-pitched noises — all for naught.
Electrons dribbled; static-energy
Chewed out thrust corners. And since most of me
Was stuck like that for hours, I think I showed
heroic tolerance. Consider me
prepared for action, poised — then paper-jammed,
while all my lights were blinking, angrily.
Did the woman aim for bushes, the grass, rather than concrete? Did she spend time looking down first, planning exactly where she wanted to land, mark a scarlet bull’s-eye? Did she think, that lilac tree, so colorless in fall, that’s the place I want to die. Give it a November bloom.
The jumper could have come from any top floor window Cleo sees. She looks at her newspaper, but the details are just as black and white. One paragraph. 8:00 at night. Cold. A numbing cold? Neighbors heard a scream. One? A long scream? No note. No drugs.
Cleo would do drugs. LSD. So the fall would beautiful, the air feathers of breeze, her body a finger touching it. The final touch a brush of red velvet, flesh dissolving against ground, a soft smudge made of glassy stars.
She stares hard at one window, frost gathering along its edges, and a shiver runs along her spine. A woman is standing there, red hair blurred in motion, then gone. The wrong window. Or is she just imagining things, a woman with blood-tinted hair, a ghost trapped in the throes of falling?
There’s a sharp creek, metal pulled taut. The apartment building’s front door opens. Just a few paces away. A tall man walks out, draws his collar up, stares ahead into somewhere else, anywhere else but here where a woman just died three days ago in his frost bitten yard while he was sleeping. Cleo tucks the paper in her coat’s inside pocket and swiftly walks up the steps, catches the heavy, black aluminum door with one hand before it closes.
She stands in the threshold and tries not to grin at her good fortune. Reaches out to the gritty brick with her other hand, slides it back and forth against the rough texture until she feels friction’s heat. A little harder and she draws blood. A small drop on the her thumb’s tip. She kisses it, takes a deep breath of cold air, watches it stream out white in front of her, and looks straight up the building. Top floor.
Then has an urge to jump. But jump up, so high she could execute the fall in reverse, like rewinding Faces of Death, a movie made up of collaged footage some sick bastards put together. Actual shots of people jumping from burning buildings, thrashing as they’re mauled by dogs, screaming from speeding cars smashed like bugs against walls. Dr. Gross, they claimed, researching the nature of death. An absurd name, the fictional embodiment of man’s grotesque, voyeuristic urge to understand what you cannot ever see, no matter how hard you look.
She’s here, she tells herself, not to study death, but reassemble a life, piece by piece. Continues to imagine the fall reversed, blood and bone restored into a body, warm scream and breath put back into the open mouth, soon filling with another breath, another. A lift upward, a woman’s resurrection onto her icy eighth story apartment windowsill, and back into her apartment, into her life. Cleo sees glass shards hover around the jumper briefly like a halo. Then come together again, her life fitting back into place rather than breaking apart. Did she feel relief as she broke through, leaped? Finality’s pleasure? Escape?
But Cleo doubts the woman actually crashed out the window, shattered it like a stunt double fracturing sugarglass. She’s romanticizing. This is a problem of hers. Was it the dead woman’s problem, too? Expecting life’s inevitable decline better sped up rather than lived out? She wants to know.
In Faces of Death, footage is faked. You watch partly to guess which is real, which isn’t. Sometimes it’s obvious: the bad actors standing in a rocking boat, worried about a fifteen-foot alligator circling. Would the cameraman, just feet away from his own death, really zoom in closer, lock so seamlessly onto a thrashing, toothy, blood-stained dragon jaw? And who would have caught, from such a perfect angle, a hunched, hurried bicyclist on a busy highway colliding with a jet black semi, dark, angry smoke plume wafting as if on cue from its smoke stack, hoarse, deep horn sounding its useless warning?
These are the cheapest thrills. The shots of real people falling to their deaths, those are dull, lackluster, nearly bloodless. There’s little finesse in their presentation. They’re poorly filmed. The skydiver, parachute unable to fully open, falling rapidly to his death at an airshow. No slow motion. The camera missing half the fall, jerking, a shocked zigzag. A woman identified as Mary Allen Brighton jumping from a building not unlike this one, leaving a small dark pool of blood on the pavement. Her body on the cement, limp, limbs outstretched and unseemly. More embarrassing than gross. It happened fast. Unspectacular. Dixieland jazz reeling in the background.
Inside, the building is surprisingly warm. The door closes behind Cleo with a tinny click, and she feels comforted after the harsh cold, her breath invisible again. The air smells like crock-pot soup, mold, the acrid tinge of stale insecticide collected in corners. She ascends the stairs slowly, smoothly, rising up.
The building’s windows are tall vertical sash windows, double-hung, and the panes, trimmed with a dark chocolate wood, shake in the wind. She’s drawn to the one on the landing between floors two and three. A cold wind whistles through the frame. She comes so close her face is almost pressed up against the pane. A face that stares back and almost through her. Shakes. The window’s not well sealed. Not on a smooth track. There would friction, a struggle to open it, remove the barrier between herself and the next world, invite its cold bite before she jumped.
Cleo backs away, imagines the woman in reverse again, closing off the cold, backing into warmth. Backing into the adrenalin surge that solidified the decision, now, as it tapers off into the suicidal miasma, the swirl of poisonous decisions that launched her out. Returning to a mind already broken before it will hit the ground.
She puts a hand to her own head, imagines those breaks like cracks filled with the black tar road workers squeeze to fill in fissures in pavement. But not to glue things together. In the mind, it’s a noxious, cloying black filler that lodges in the blank spaces where things have already begun falling apart, the vulnerable seams where, when she hits the ground, dark material dissolves.
It’s five more flights to the topmost level of the building. When she arrives, legs aching, there’s an old, mahogany stained door at the top of the staircase. It has a glass knob, a sudden bright luster she grabs and turns. Why such a delicate object would be on a common door is a mystery. Its beauty seems inexplicable, out of place. Overlooked.
In the hallway, the police tape is obvious, the third door down. Not far at all. From the other rooms, six on each side, she hears a hair dryer, someone doing dishes. A television blaring. A couple arguing. The smell of steak hangs in the air. The place is bustling on a late Saturday afternoon as it darkens towards night. Strangely alive, and she’s disappointed. They’re disturbing the peace. Her peace. As if this day old death would require everyone else to be as contemplative, as reverent.
The tape marks off the place as sacred, a holy icon, flimsy and bold, an inner sanctum. This is where to look. Caution. Come close. But do not cross over. To where the answers lie. And the mystery that goes with them.
This doorknob is a dull metal, somber, lackluster. Cleo puts her gloves back on before she touches it, she’s not stupid. Jiggles it. The lock’s obviously been broken to get inside. No one bothered to put it back together. Why would they? Cleo puts her ear to the door and hears nothing, feels nothing but stillness, and she breathes in a deep sense of peace and calm. Reaches out and needs only to push, not even turn the handle. Too easy. She closes the door firmly behind her. Turns on the light.
She’s staring at the window itself. It’s right in front of her. The closed window at dusk, reflecting the room behind her. A rear view. Into the past, the other woman’s, which is closer than it appears, reflecting, glaring. Staring her in the face. She breaths in, imagines the urgency the woman felt staring at herself standing there, in her life, not wanting to see any of it. Be in it anymore. This is no clear Windexed window, made pure.
Windows suggest you’re seeing things as they are. The tree across the street bent by wind. The passersby pulling their coats tighter. But there’s also the brief rush of red brake lights over the pane. Light shards that create bookshelf, couch, her body hovering like a ghost, looking at her, expectant. Fill me. Make me real. It’s the windows that are the problem. They deceive you, shady mirrors, captors of thought and borrowed light.
The dead girl’s relatives should sue the glass manufacturers. She smiles at her absurd thought, watches her reflection respond. Maybe it would make them feel better to try, anyway. Some lawyer might do it pro-bono. She imagines she’s the lawyer. Arguing the case, convincing the jury. It’s not about what you see, but what you see through, she tells them. Window as opportunity? Bull. There’s the sky itself, trapped inside a tall rectangle and fragile, a wall of blue blurred by touch, scratched by time’s accidents. What opportunities are open to you when you see your own face, caught between a cloud and a closed closet door, looking out from some space that’s nowhere. Clearly.
Cleo hears a siren, draws her coat around her shoulders. She’s glad she put her gloves on again. The heat’s not on, and she’s shaking.
What is she thinking? She’s no lawyer. She could never be a lawyer. She’s just wasting time again. Barging into a crime scene that isn’t hers, and wanting to make it hers. An opportunity. To be dead? To save herself? Somehow both?
She looks out the window again. Where she could stand on air. Where someone took her last step out into breeze. A rattling, and wind whistling in from the poorly sealed frame. She senses the whole apartment right now shuddering with cold. Feels a headache come on, fingers of pain splitting her head in two, the dark material crawling along fault lines, cracks grating. She gets headaches when she stays too long, lingers at a scene. Two other stories are circled in the paper, but it’s getting late.
She’s not sick like those Faces of Death creeps. How did they get the footage, when it happened as it happened—the real dog’s teeth biting into the real leg? The real tongues of flame licking the charred and writhing bodies? Not just a reflection. Not this story, this sanctuary, the aftermath outlined with police tape. A platform to honor the dead, a reverent retrospect. But death. The real thing.
Death as present, not as past.
Could she? Kill herself. Then become a lawyer and compensate her grieving family? Something’s not right about that sequence, obviously. What is she looking for? She wants to see in. But windows are dangerous. Seductive to you, baseballs, birds. The jury would agree. But the best any judge could do would be to rule there should be a warning label on every window, from now on. Windows could be hazardous to your health.
She looks at her expression reflected in front of her. Curious. Detached, far off. As if she’s seeing herself far away as she comes closer, all the way to the glass. I’m here, she tells herself. Right here. But she feels disembodied, as if some part of her has already gone. How much further to go the rest of the way? Face the inevitable.
It’s even darker now. The sirens are getting close, very close. Will there be wild lights soon? A flurry of activity, commotion, people looking up. Who wouldn’t? A still figure on the ledge, wind in her hair, seen only as a silhouette, a dark outline of a body. Could be anyone. Another day, another place, it could be any one of them. She presses her knee against the wooden windowsill. Feels an adrenalin rush. There’s a handle, burnished metal, at the window frame’s base. It’s a tall window, taller than her. She would barely have to duck before she jumped.
Why didn’t she wear a skirt today? She can’t imagine herself falling without one billowing around her. Would this be a better death than most, following another’s? Less lonely. Like following a trend, a fad. Falling in sync with someone else who blazed the path before you.
Sheopens the window and it comes up smooth, not even a squeak. Takes a deep breath in, where the woman took one of her last. Looks out into a still night. No bright lights flashing, no spotlight, no flashing camera on the window. On her. Just her alone, her knees pressed against the dark wood siding, pinched and aching. Sirens dissipating into the distance. The ghostly whistling gone from the cracks. Just silence. A long, bleak, lonely drop. And her breath, finally visible again in the startling cold.