Friday, February 27, 2009

Chuck Berry's Sense of Humor

One of my favorite Chuck Berry songs is "Promised Land," a succinct tale of pilgrimage to the West as experienced by a modernized "poor boy" of American folk myth. The poor boy yearns for California. He leaves Virginia and makes his way there by bus, train and airplane, assisted at each obstacle by strangers. Here are the first two verses:

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia
California on my mind
I straddled that Greyhound and rode it past Raleigh
And on across Caroline

We stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill
And we never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rollin' 'cross Georgia state

I've always thought "bypassed Rock Hill" was a particularly great, and intriguing, lyric. Why mention a place you don't go? And why did they bypass Rock Hill, anyway? There's a note of mystery there. It works on a lot of other levels, of course - the contrast between a place you stop and a place you don't adds to the propulsive rhythm of the song; it foreshadows coming obstacles; it supports the theme of a perilous, uncertain journey. And there's a breezy, whimsical quality to it: bypassed Rock Hill, just like that. Troubles may lie ahead, but not there. It was bypassed.

Why might the poor boy want to avoid that particular bus depot?

I was reading David Remnick's recent piece in the New Yorker about Barack Obama and John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, and was stunned to find this:

As Lewis walked around the Mall last week, shaking hands, posing for hundreds of photographs, a young African-American introduced himself as the police chief of Rock Hill, South Carolina. "Imagine that," Lewis said. "I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is black."


I wondered whether "Promised Land" was written after 1961. Well, turns out it came out in 1964. The way songwriting goes, I'd say that means Chuck wrote it in '62 or '63. I'd like to commend him on his sense of humor.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The hotel was about a mile down a pitted, dirt road that wound around construction sites and through a brambly wood. The sites were in various states but all seemed incomplete, perhaps abandoned: a condominium complex, advertised by banners along the road that promised happiness or riches; a foundation, ringed by surveyor markers, waiting for its walls and roof; elsewhere, piles of plastic-wrapped concrete bricks sat unattended in a clearing.

The grounds formed a drowsy enclave, a place where you're not meant to know what day it is. People drifted from their rooms and to the pool, and from the pool and to the beach, and from the beach and to the bar. Waves sighing as they broke upon the sand. The main reason people love the beach is for the sound.

A hippie couple. An older woman at the bar, eating deliberately. A loud, young French family, kids yelling at each other from across the pool. A stout woman with curly hair, two pre-anorexic girls in tow.

Dinner under the thatched roof was strangely muted, an obligatory episode lacking joy. Sara said the staff seemed a little bit unhappy.

Our last morning it rained hard. As I lay in bed I wondered how anything could happen after this, how the dining space and bar and pool could possibly remain intact. But when we went out it was as though the rain had never come. Waiters were clearing breakfast tables. The bartender was getting ready to open. The French kids occupied the pool. People came and went the way they did before.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Streak - 17

Exiting the players' exit used to be a happy rite. A brief, barricaded parade between cheering throngs; an opportunity to grandly sign an autograph or two before vanishing into the anonymity of a tinted-window Town Car. Yet since about week three of the streak it had become a daunting gauntlet of drunk, enraged fans; of tortured souls seeking some catharsis in the heaping of rage upon tormentors. Evan paused briefly inside the door. A grave, young cop named Maurice held a crackling walkie-talkie in his left hand and the exit bar in his right.

"Sir?"

"Just a second Maurice. OK."

Maurice pushed the bar down and opened the door while leaning back a little, a posture that was meant to signal deference but that seemed to say: I ain't goin' out there. Immediately, Evan was bathing in a raucous clamor. The car beckoned from across the abyss, Jimmy the driver holding the back door open with a black-gloved hand. Some words could be discerned among the boos:

"Fuck you!"

"Fuck you, Evan!"

"Asshole!"

"Fucking loser!"

"Loser!"

"Fucking asshole!"

"Fuck you, Evan!"

"Fuck you!"

Evan put on an expression of stoic acceptance and placed one foot before the other. There was an art to times like these. You couldn't appear to be a dick about it. That would make it worse. You had to look a little like a kid who knows the medicine is coming. That meant looking down, but not too far. Acknowledging the crowd with a fleeting sweep of mildly contrite eye contact. Clenching your jaw and pursing your lips a bit to indicate modest and mute resolve. Don't overdo it. And most of all, keep walking.

"Thanks Jimmy."

"You're welcome, sir," said Jimmy. That was what he always said. Evan was grateful for Jimmy's almost comical disregard for the din of profane hectoring that hounded him into the car. There were certain things you could count on.

Jimmy closed the door and Evan stretched out in the pine-fresh cool of the backseat for a blissful moment. Then his pants vibrated. He knew exactly who it was.

"Denise?"

"Hi Evan. Sorry you lost."

"Right, right, right. Thanks."

"Did you hear about the crash?"

"I saw the smoke and then I saw it on TV. What are they saying about it?"

"Uh, it was a plane, there's no survivors. They have ruled out terrorism. Or maybe they have not ruled out terrorism. I forget. The rescue operation's underway."

"Why?"

"What do you mean, why? Why what?"

"Why is a rescue operation underway?"

"This is what they fucking do when there's a crash, Evan. Christ."

"But you said there's no survivors."

"I don't know. Maybe they have to rescue the streets and buildings and shit. Christ, Evan, what do I know? Why do you have to be an asshole about everything?"

"Sorry, never mind. Is Ryan there?"

"Of course he's here. He's been waiting to talk to you. He's a little upset today."

After every day game Evan spoke to his seven-year-old son.

"Daddy?"

"Hi Ryan, how's it goin'?"

"Good."

"Are you crying?"

"No," Ryan sobbed. The word "crying" seemed to intensify the flow of tears.

"Aw, Ryan. Why are you crying?"

"Because you lost and you hit into a triple play!" Ryan said chokingly, betraying a trace of reproach.

"I know, I know. I know. Hey, it's tough. Sometimes bad things happen. The next day you have to try even harder, right?"

"But you haven't won a game in forever!" Ryan wailed.

"I know, Ryan. The game is tough, you know?" Evan felt himself grow irritated. Reasoning with a seven-year-old about something unreasonable in the first place was a double pain in the ass.

"But Daddy! When are you gonna win? When are you gonna win, Daddy?"

Evan sighed and tried to keep his temper. "Ryan, Daddy's trying real, real hard. I promise we'll win again but sometimes you have to be patient. OK?"

Silence.

"Ryan, speak up."

Silence.

"Ryan, Daddy loves..."

"It's me," said Denise, brusquely.

"Alright. I hope he's OK."

"It'd help if you didn't lose a thousand games in a row."

"Jesus, I have to fucking hear it from you?"

Denise sighed. "Never mind. It's just tough on this side of the world, you know what I mean?"

"Did you get the check?"

"Yup, got the check. Thanks. When are you gonna pick up Ryan next?"

"We have a West Coast road trip. Then it's the All-Star Game. After that."

"OK. Try not to get syphilis."

"Very funny. Bye."

Evan hung up as the car crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge. He looked out the windshield and wondered what the future was.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No Bullshit on the Train

When I got on the downtown train I perceived a vague commotion at the end of the car. An exchange of words, bodies in contraposition. But there was no shouting and there were no blows; soon the man who seemed to be the subject of it all turned and walked my way bearing an airy, warm expression. Well dressed. Clean. White guy in his forties with a mustache of some sort. He hit a mark right by the door and turned to address the car as best he could. I pretended to listen to my iPhone but I was dying to hear.

The first part of his rant concerned the Stimulus Bill and I wondered whether this was my first encounter with an anti-Obama nut. It soon devolved, however: "They say the stimulus has a fifty or somethin' percent chance of workin'. How many people you know who work a hundred percent at their job? Huh? Insteada talkin' to their girlfriends on da phone, talkin' to their friends when they's supposeta work. Huh? How many of you right here give your all to your job?"

No hands shot up.

"Exactly!" he exclaimed, with all the emphasis that vindication might permit.

I steeled myself for an accusatory diatribe, but his speech took another curious turn, more consistent with his sunny demeanor.

"Dontcha realize how important love is? I want you all ta jus' hug each other right now. Turn to the person next to you and give 'em a hug."

Two young, black men were sitting across from me, swathed in oversize, bubble-padded North Face. The younger one was sitting to my left, leaning back across two seats. He sat up a little and opened a wary eye.

"I ain't givin' no hugs."

The man was undeterred.

"Hugging, tender compassion, love for the neighbor," he pleaded. "They say it's perverted, but it's not!"

The other black guy was stirred from his reverie too. He sat up and looked straight ahead.

"C'mon. No bullshit on the train, son. I wanna chill." He shook his head. "I don't want no bullshit, son. No motherfuckin' bullshit on the train."

Friday, February 13, 2009

75 Varick

They sit at desks or stand around, sucking on Life Savers. The woman at the front who pointed me to check-in. The woman who verified my name and pointed me around the corner. The standing man who said, "Down the hall and to the left."

A haphazard group of adults, a focus group for nothing. We sat at several institutional tables with a gross of pencils at each end. 4099-Y yellow hexagon golf pencils. I thought this didn't seem to be the right kind of pencil for the occasion but someone must have thought the other way.

They had a little bit of trouble with the projector.

They showed a PowerPoint with a male voice dutifully narrating every last, bullet-pointed phrase, enunciating a bit too clearly, laboriously spelling out e-mail addresses and URLs.

There was the distribution of materials: some stapled, others merely collated. The taking of one and passing all the rest along. Thank you. Thanks. Job workshops and their descriptions: How to outclass the competition: turn a "No" into a "Yes." The 3 secrets of communicating with confidence. 5 traits of highly effective networkers. Sad printouts from the Web with all the links turned ghostly and inert. There was confusion regarding pages one and two. I had a two but not a one; others had a one but not a two. We played the game of requesting missing pages and acting satisfied when they were given.

A kindly, absentminded old lady took questions, if there were any. Someone in the back didn't get his benefits last week. We sat fidgeting with golf pencils. Some looked down into their laps as though they were introspecting deeply and despondently, the telltale pose of surreptitious BlackBerry or iPhone use.

There was a younger woman with dark hair. "You won't get credit for attending if I don't get your forms. Make sure I get your forms."

After some time there was a tremor of unrest. The old lady was talking to the man in back. She turned around to face the room with a lost and airy expression.

"Oh, you can all go. You can go now."

We gathered our handouts and got up. The rustling of coats, sliding of chairs and burble of elated small talk formed the familiar, elated cacophony of class dismissal.

The dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway with a clutch of papers.

"You can't go yet. No one can go yet. We're going to be calling names."

We sat back down with the chastened resignation of those who knew it must be too good to be true. Names were called.

"It ain't necessarily a bad thing if your name gets called," a black woman sitting next to me said to the woman across the table. "Sometimes it's like, there's something wrong on your benefits and you won't get more until they fix it." The other woman did not seem convinced. One by one they went.

A paunchy Hispanic man walked in to recite the list of names of that were not on the list.

"If I say your name, let me know you heard me. You're free to go."

He did not call my name. More were called by counselors, leaning through the door. I hung my head and read my phone. Eventually a young, black woman and an Englishman remained. She was a lawyer; he was in "finance." They chatted flirtatiously, ludicrously pledged to stay in touch, and wished each other luck. Finally, I was alone. They called my name.

Another older lady led me to her desk. I spent most of the time trying to tell her what I did.

"Project managing, for software products."

"Is that the Internet?"

"Yes, on the Internet. Products on the Internet."

"Do you call that e-commerce?"

It went like that for a quarter of an hour. I realized that my role was to make her feel like she was doing her job. I tried hard to think of things to say that might accomplish this. She printed out an editorial job description from some jobs site and I thanked her profusely. I asked her for the name of the site; she told me and I thanked her again. From a stack of papers on her desk, she found a faint Xerox of a job resource for writers and handed it to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And when I thought I'd finally made her happy I thanked her once again and left.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

April 23rd, 1985

The era in which we now live began on April 23rd, 1985. On that morning, word of a momentous event spread through the halls and classes of my high school like a virus: New Coke was here.

It was a Tuesday - how could it not be? And April - of course. And it had to be 1985. The day, month and year bespeak a radical mundanity. April 23rd, 1985 is a date that wanted to be forgotten even as it loomed. It's a date we all might have skipped by accident. Tuesday. Nothing day. Neither Monday nor Wednesday, neither fish nor fowl. The day of low blood sugar. A day not to be lived so much as endured. April. The month of cold, gray rain; of ambiguous, uncertain spring. The doldrums in every pupil's odyssey to recess. 1985. A year in which it might well be said that nothing whatsoever happened. April 23rd, 1985 was the sort of date that was in danger of falling off the calendar. And such dates, of course, are ideal for mass exposure and response to a seismic event, be it glorious or cataclysmic.

The news itself hung in the air like a vaporous mist - it seemed we began to talk about it before we'd even heard. "Hey, New Coke." "Did you try New Coke?" "I heard Mark had some already." "Some what, New Coke?" "New Coke." The marketing really was brilliant, if it wasn't completely disastrous. New! Coke! What melodious and sunny syllables to set upon the lips of a nation.

There was another aspect of our reaction to the event, and this is why I know it was the moment in our history that became now: we didn't really care. Even as we chirped the brand message, there was a wryness in our voices, sly smiles on our faces. For this virus had a second, unintended component: irony. Perhaps it was a product of the phrase itself: New Coke. Or perhaps it just happened to be hanging in the air that morning too, also waiting for this non-day when there'd be a break in our defenses. In any case, we now knew two things: New Coke was here, and New Coke was here. These two truths were antagonistic but not incompatible; they were the manifestation of a nascent reality. Yes, we bought it; yes, we drank it. But not the way we did before. Not automatically, but knowingly. Not with alacrity, but nonchalantly. Coca-Cola thought they were the mama bird and we would be her babies, letting her belch into our eager gullets. In the past, we'd given every indication we would play that role. But not on April 23rd, 1985.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Day the World Turned Upside Down

There was some kind of parade going on outside.

"What is it?" she said.

A muffled cacophony of whistles, drums and tubas.

"I don't know. Italian Day?"

"There's no such thing as Italian Day."

"I was only joking."

From their perspective on the bed they saw the Star-Spangled Banner floating by. A little jumpily so you could tell someone was holding it up.

"There goes the American flag anyway," she said.

A moment passed.

"Should we check it out?" he said.

"I can't move," she said. "I'm full to bursting with banana pancake."

Another moment. Then –

"Do you think –" he said, but then and there they were plunged toward the ceiling that they had for many months beheld together; they fell heavily upon it, the plaster cool and hard beneath their naked flesh, and the futon and frame bounced once on their backs, and came to a smothering rest upon them. He hit his nose and mouth, unable in his bewilderment to put his arms before his face. She fell a bit more on her shoulder, as she'd been facing him a little in their bed, her hand on his chest. They thrashed and cursed beneath their burden.

"Jesus!"

"Fuck!"

They managed to crawl out either side and face each other above the bottom of the frame. A deep murmur of dismay and terror emerged within her and rolled into a moan. The sound of someone sliding over a precipice.

"What the fuck just happened?!" she said.

He got up on his knees without an answer. She crawled around the mattress to him and was momentarily distracted from her dread by the sight of blood dripping down his chin and falling in rich drops upon the milky white ceiling, wispy with webs.

"Are you OK, baby?"

"Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah."

"Baby," she said, "we're upside down."

He shuffled to the window and stood up to it, terrified by what might have darkened the morning. He looked up at what he thought would be the sky and saw a ceiling of grass, ornamented with bands of cement and wider ones of tar. Trees and bushes hung down, their leaves and branches reaching toward the dark.

He looked down. There was an immense chasm, a vast, gray maw; it made a sound everywhere like a great inhalation.

He turned away from the window and walked back across the ceiling toward her. His legs shook so badly he had to get down on his knees. He crawled the last few feet to where she sat.

"Baby, I think the world turned upside down."

"What?"

"Everything is upside down."

"What do you mean, everything is upside down?" she asked, sobbing.

"I... I..." he stammered, searching for words he could never have imagined saying. "Everything that's down is up," he said finally.

"Are we dreaming?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. I hope so."

"We must be crazy, baby."

They held each other, shaking and crying. The gasping sound outside had gone away and now there was a strange, new quiet everywhere. They laid down together, closed their eyes and willed themselves to sleep.




He awoke to a faint, familiar sound. A voice. He turned to look through the window. The terrible darkness had gone and left behind the ordinary light of day.

"Hey!" went the voice. Urgently. "Hey!"

He walked to the window and saw his neighbor John across the way, upside-down too, leaning out his window under a ceiling of bushes and grass.

"Hey!" John said, waving. "Tom!"

Tom pushed the top pane of the window up toward the floor.

"Hey John!"

"What happened?"

"God... I don't know!"

"My God."

"Are you OK?"

"I guess I'm OK. Are you OK?"

"I'm OK."

"How's Annie? She OK?"

"She's OK. She's asleep," Tom said. Asleep seemed to be the best place to be.

"OK!"

They stared at each other in silence for awhile. Tom felt as though he'd never seen another human being before.

"I'm going to listen to the radio," John said.

"OK. Good luck."

"See you in a while."

Tom turned and looked at Annie on the mattress. He didn't want to ever wake her up.

In the living room, the TV had fallen hard but the screen seemed intact. Tom turned it over and plugged it back into an extension cord that hung from an outlet, now high up on the wall. He made sure the cables and the box were still connected. No clock. No reassuring lights. He found the remote and pressed the power but no warm, enchanting world appeared onscreen. No test pattern. No roiling haze of static. No nothing.

His clock radio had backup batteries that he'd never had to use. He walked back to the bedroom and found it hanging from the wall above the clutter of clothes and dresser drawers, shoes, night-reading, trash and toiletries, the disordered artifacts of a reliable and cozy world. He clicked the dial on and turned it up. Static. He spun the tuner up and down the spectrum but the sound was uniform, the terminal hissing of a dead world. He clicked on AM and heard the same dreary sound at a different pitch. He spun past the old, familiar frequencies, the news with the traffic and the weather on the eights and the news with the traffic and the weather on the tens. The all-day sports. He finally found a spot where hopeful silence held out against the noise. He adjusted the dial a bit and heard a signal, a steady beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. He listened for a few minutes but that's all it was. A beacon warning nobody of nothing.

Tom stepped over the doorway to the kitchen. Piles of plates had slid off of shelves and lay splayed upside down in a rubble of broken glass, spice jars, sugar and fruit. The fridge leaned across the narrow space and rested on the cupboards. He turned to the door and reached across to the doorknob, chest-high and to the left. He opened it and looked up at the wooden porch and the stairs that led into the back yard, a sight he'd seen a thousand times that now seemed sinister and strange. He lowered his head slowly. There was a pale patch of grass where the sandbox had been; the swing set had completely vanished. All that remained of the playground was the seesaw, its board now parallel to the ground above. The patch of forest behind the yard remained but all the branches bent the other way, revealing the pale undersides of leaves. Occasionally things came loose - rocks and leaves and weak, old trees - and plummeted away. Finally, he looked down. There was nothing there. An infinite, pale chasm. A white void.

He drifted to the bedroom like a ghost and lay back down with Annie. He shut his eyes and held her, hoping to escape from nightmare into dream. And after some time he did.

He was in the house where he grew up, a split-level ranch in Wilmington, Delaware. But he wasn't. It was then but it was now; it was there but somewhere else. It was his home but it was someone else's. He was a child but he was a man.

He was late for school.

He looked out the picture window to the front yard and the road and saw the yellow tail of his school bus disappear behind the trees.

"Mom!" he called out. "Mom! I need a ride to school!"

He tried to gather his books and notebooks from the chair beside the door, but one or two kept sliding to the floor. As he picked one up, two more would fall. The pile grew and grew, hopelessly unsteady; books kept falling off the teetering top and landing awfully, faces open, pages folded, pages pressed into the dust. They kept falling, falling; he'd pick them up but they kept falling.

Finally, he replaced the last book without incident. There were now way too many to fit into his backpack. He knew his mom was coming and she'd scold him if he wasn't ready. Panicking, he stuck as many in as he could. He envisioned the complications that would occur in each class if he turned up without texts; he furiously tried to calculate which ones would bring him the most grief and recrimination if he left them home. So now he had to empty his backpack and start again.

His mom was there. He perceived her stern presence before he saw her. When he turned around she was standing on the ceiling, upside down. Right away he remembered she was dead; in fact, in his waking life she'd died about a year ago. He realized this is what it meant to be dead: you walked upside down. They could not speak to each other. He detected an air of impatience and mild scorn in her, emotions familiar from childhood. But she also seemed to be preparing him for some momentous journey. She wanted to advise him. He found that the only way he could communicate with her was by drawing hats. He drew a bowler in blue ballpoint on a piece of blue-lined notebook paper. She followed each line he made like she was reading. Someday she'd say something in return, a message that was all he'd ever need to know.

Tom awoke in a jolt of noise and pain again - and darkness - and wondered whether consciousness was worth the trouble. Blood pooled between his nose and mouth and some familiar but forbidding surface. Still, he began to realize that something new had just occurred, something important. What was it? They had been upside down. Now what? He felt the same, strange, suffocating weight as he had felt before. The mattress. Annie, where's Annie? Suddenly there she was beside him, kneeling. She pulled him by the arm. He slid out and struggled to his knees to face her. The entire room seemed to shake and heave. He held her by the arms to fix himself in time and space. Now what?

"Baby!" she said. Tom observed blood streaming down her chin onto her shirt. "Baby! We're back on the floor! We're on the floor!"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it's over! We're back!"

"We're back on the floor?"

"We're back!"

"It's over?"

"It's over!"

They held each other for a minute, trembling. They were back on the floor and so were the dressers and the broken mirror, the books and lamps and clothes. No scene of devastation ever made someone as happy. Of course there would be things to fix. Things in their world and the world outside. But at least they could live lives like this, feet planted on the ground and sky above.

He perceived a faint whistling and thought it might be in his head. It grew louder.

"Honey, do you hear that?" Annie said.

"Yeah. I'm glad it's not just me."

"Where's it coming from?"

"I don't know. Outside?"

"What is it? A siren?"

"I don't know. Let me go look."

He staggered to the window and saw the grass below, the trees and houses and the road. He lifted the window and leaned out. The whistling seemed to come from everywhere. He noticed something else, something disconcerting: the afternoon light was dimming perceptibly. Too fast for the sunset. He looked up, expecting to see a storm expanding through the sky. Instead he saw a uniformly dull and darkening gray. As he stared longer, the expanse resolved into discrete points. Some grew larger, some remained the same. Something like a shooting star struck somewhere past the line of trees. And another, then another. Something tore through the roof across the way, leaving a smoking hole. A ball of fire crashed into the lawn, shot dirt in every direction, bounced fifty feet into the air and came to a rest, aflame, between the houses. It was a car. For on the the day the world turned upside down, the world turned right-side up again, and everything that had departed now returned.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 7

Tom drifted to the bedroom like a ghost and lay back down with Annie. He shut his eyes and held her, hoping to escape from nightmare into dream. And after some time he did.

He was in the house where he grew up, a split-level ranch in Wilmington, Delaware. But he wasn't. It was then but it was now; it was there but somewhere else. It was his home but it was someone else's. He was a child but he was a man.

He was late for school.

He looked out the picture window to the front yard and the road and saw the yellow tail of his school bus disappear behind the trees.

"Mom!" he called out. "Mom! I need a ride to school!"

He tried to gather his books and notebooks from the chair beside the door, but one or two kept sliding to the floor. As he picked one up, two more would fall. The pile grew and grew, hopelessly unsteady; books kept falling off the teetering top and landing awfully, faces open, pages folded, pages pressed into the dust. They kept falling, falling; he'd pick them up but they kept falling.

Finally, he replaced the last book without incident. There were now way too many to fit into his backpack. He knew his mom was coming and she'd scold him if he wasn't ready. Panicking, he stuck as many in as he could. He envisioned the complications that would occur in each class if he turned up without texts; he furiously tried to calculate which ones would bring him the most grief and recrimination if he left them home. So now he had to empty his backpack and start again.

His mom was there. He perceived her stern presence before he saw her. When he turned around she was standing on the ceiling, upside down. Right away he remembered she was dead; in fact, in his waking life she'd died about a year ago. He realized this is what it meant to be dead: you walked upside down. They could not speak to each other. He detected an air of impatience and mild scorn in her, emotions familiar from childhood. But she also seemed to be preparing him for some momentous journey. She wanted to advise him. He found that the only way he could communicate with her was by drawing hats. He drew a bowler in blue ballpoint on a piece of blue-lined notebook paper. She followed each line he made like she was reading. Someday she'd say something in return, a message that was all he'd ever need to know.

Tom awoke in a jolt of noise and pain again - and darkness - and wondered whether consciousness was worth the trouble. Blood pooled between his nose and mouth and some familiar but forbidding surface. Still, he began to realize that something new had just occurred, something important. What was it? They had been upside down. Now what? He felt the same, strange, suffocating weight as he had felt before. The mattress. Annie, where's Annie? Suddenly there she was beside him, kneeling. She pulled him by the arm. He slid out and struggled to his knees to face her. The entire room seemed to shake and heave. He held her by the arms to fix himself in time and space. Now what?

"Baby!" she said. Tom observed blood streaming down her chin onto her shirt. "Baby! We're back on the floor! We're on the floor!"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it's over! We're back!"

"We're back on the floor?"

"We're back!"

"It's over?"

"It's over!"

They held each other for a minute, trembling. They were back on the floor and so were the dressers and the broken mirror, the books and lamps and clothes. No scene of devastation ever made someone as happy. Of course there would be things to fix. Things in their world and the world outside. But at least they could live lives like this, feet planted on the ground and sky above.

He perceived a faint whistling and thought it might be in his head. It grew louder.

"Honey, do you hear that?" Annie said.

"Yeah. I'm glad it's not just me."

"Where's it coming from?"

"I don't know. Outside?"

"What is it? A siren?"

"I don't know. Let me go look."

He staggered to the window and saw the grass below, the trees and houses and the road. He lifted the window and leaned out. The whistling seemed to come from everywhere. He noticed something else, something disconcerting: the afternoon light was dimming perceptibly. Too fast for the sunset. He looked up, expecting to see a storm expanding through the sky. Instead he saw a uniformly dull and darkening gray. As he stared longer, the expanse resolved into discrete points. Some grew larger, some remained the same. Something like a shooting star struck somewhere past the line of trees. And another, then another. Something tore through the roof across the way, leaving a smoking hole. A ball of fire crashed into the lawn, shot dirt in every direction, bounced fifty feet into the air and came to a rest, aflame, between the houses. It was a car. For on the the day the world turned upside down, the world turned right-side up again, and everything that had departed now returned.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 6

Tom stepped over the doorway to the kitchen. Piles of plates had slid off of shelves and lay splayed upside down in a rubble of broken glass, spice jars, sugar and fruit. The fridge leaned across the narrow space and rested on the cupboards. He turned to the door and reached across to the doorknob, chest-high and to the left. He opened it and looked up at the wooden porch and the stairs that led into the back yard, a sight he'd seen a thousand times that now seemed sinister and strange. He lowered his head slowly. There was a pale patch of grass where the sandbox had been; the swing set had completely vanished. All that remained of the playground was the seesaw, its board now parallel to the ground above. The patch of forest behind the yard remained but all the branches bent the other way, revealing the pale undersides of leaves. Occasionally things came loose - rocks and leaves and weak, old trees - and plummeted away. Finally, he looked down. There was nothing there. An infinite, pale chasm. A white void.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 5

In the living room, the TV had fallen hard but the screen seemed intact. Tom turned it over and plugged it back into an extension cord that hung from an outlet, now high up on the wall. He made sure the cables and the box were still connected. No clock. No reassuring lights. He found the remote and pressed the power but no warm, enchanting world appeared onscreen. No test pattern. No roiling haze of static. No nothing.

His clock radio had backup batteries that he'd never had to use. He walked back to the bedroom and found it hanging from the wall above the clutter of clothes and dresser drawers, shoes, night-reading, trash and toiletries, the disordered artifacts of a reliable and cozy world. He clicked the dial on and turned it up. Static. He spun the tuner up and down the spectrum but the sound was uniform, the terminal hissing of a dead world. He clicked on AM and heard the same dreary sound at a different pitch. He spun past the old, familiar frequencies, the news with the traffic and the weather on the eights and the news with the traffic and the weather on the tens. The all-day sports. He finally found a spot where hopeful silence held out against the noise. He adjusted the dial a bit and heard a signal, a steady beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. He listened for a few minutes but that's all it was. A beacon warning nobody of nothing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 4

He awoke to a faint, familiar sound. A voice. He turned to look through the window. The terrible darkness had gone and left behind the ordinary light of day.

"Hey!" went the voice. Urgently. "Hey!"

He walked to the window and saw his neighbor John across the way, upside-down too, leaning out his window under a ceiling of bushes and grass.

"Hey!" John said, waving. "Tom!"

Tom pushed the top pane of the window up toward the floor.

"Hey John!"

"What happened?"

"God... I don't know!"

"My God."

"Are you OK?"

"I guess I'm OK. Are you OK?"

"I'm OK."

"How's Annie? She OK?"

"She's OK. She's asleep," Tom said. Asleep seemed to be the best place to be.

"OK!"

They stared at each other in silence for awhile. Tom felt as though he'd never seen another human being before.

"I'm going to listen to the radio," John said.

"OK. Good luck."

"See you in a while."

Tom turned and looked at Annie on the mattress. He didn't want to ever wake her up.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 3

He turned away from the window and walked back across the ceiling toward her. His legs shook so badly he had to get down on his knees. He crawled the last few feet to where she sat.

"Baby, I think the world turned upside down."

"What?"

"Everything is upside down."

"What do you mean, everything is upside down?" she asked, sobbing.

"I... I..." he stammered, searching for words he could never have imagined saying. "Everything that's down is up," he said finally.

"Are we dreaming?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. I hope so."

"We must be crazy, baby."

They held each other, shaking and crying. The gasping sound outside had gone away and now there was a strange, new quiet everywhere. They laid down together, closed their eyes and willed themselves to sleep.
I woke up someplace in Utah or Colorado or Nevada someplace. The road went up and down like big waves on the open sea. I looked out the window at the roadside, dusted with snow, and a rock wall, dynamite-blasted, higher than the sky. The van crept along at the edge of traction. I tried to get a sense of where we were. Where I was. Farther west than I'd ever been.

We entered a tunnel.