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.



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."


"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.


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.