"Pillar of Cloud"

I am told that I suffer from low blood pressure, high cholesterol, too much caffeine, not enough exercise. I have significant inner ear problems, or my short-term memory is shot. Or else I am psychotic. Of course, since this all began, I have been to several doctors. They have told me various things.

But it was over a year before I had my first episode, and it had seemed cruel to tell Rachel before I had some kind of concrete proof. She had taken to sleeping naked after the baby was born. Her breasts hung heavy and dark as udders and sweated on their bottoms in the heat of those nights. I couldn’t bring myself to spoil her happiness. Later, when they did come, the episodes each one of them presented another opportunity to wait. It happened in the shower, first of all, and I had always been inclined towards too-hot showers that made me feel dizzy and unable to breathe. The steam in the air made my vision so foggy, the mirror so blurred, so that I couldn’t see properly when the tiles began to swoop and contort and I found myself slipping, slipping on the soap and then slammed against the porcelain tub all caught up in the shower curtain. But I sat up astonished, perfectly unhurt, and thankful that Rachel was gone, had (for once) put her clothes on to grocery shop with the baby in a Baby Bjorn. Her hair used to frizz in the air conditioning in a way that I hated. She walked around naked in the house sometimes; she cooked naked, and her skin glistened with the rapture of the baby’s chubby hands, and I sat on the other side of the doorway and stared at her stretch marks.

There were things that were entirely her doing, like her old library that she changed into a nursery. I still felt hesitant to enter, had been conditioned in other days to Stay Out so that I seldom went in of my own volition, only to fetch the baby bottle, Rachel’s purse, diaper cream for the diaper rash. The sunlight swarmed into the room and festered there that produced a heady smell of dust and sunlight and mashed banana. It made me want to vomit. The baby’s books were made of pastel-colored cardboard pages that it had stuck with jam; it loved to rip out the pop-up scenes on the pages. When Rachel was not there I read to it in the rocking chair I made when she learned she was pregnant, which clicked when it rocked and no matter which way I read the damn manual I never did figure out what I’d done wrong, I read to it from these books, even though not all of the words were left unblemished on the pages. Rachel knew better how to do it because she had memorized Good Night Moon, Pat The Bunny, and she liked to feel like it was a secret language, proof that she was, in spite of everything, a good mother. She was a good mother even though she left her child alone, alone with its father who could not even read the words on the page, who tried hard but had temples that throbbed when presented with the thick dust and hot sweet smell of that awful room.

The tremors came again, but not soon. I was cheerful, playfully squeezing the flesh on Rachel’s hips, because I thought perhaps the episodes had unhooked themselves from me permanently. I was interested in touching her but not in making love. The toughened coloration of her nipples and her sweaty smell were things I couldn’t separate from the earlier memory of her frying eggs, which at once enticed and nauseated me. She, oblivious, nakedly reveled in the attention, but she could not have loved me then, because she was unable to tell the difference from when I was happy to when I was not. She thought only about the baby. She was concerned, it was teething and it chewed and clawed everything. When I tried to hold her she thrusted it into my hands, look, here we are, what a family. She was involved with her brother David, who lived on our street, and her father, who was in the process of moving into a Home down in Charlotte, and she often talked about her visits there and to his old house. He had built it there with his own hands, together with his dead wife, who he could not bear to leave. Together, they had added the “new wing” ten years into their marriage. They decorated a piano room. Rachel brought back worm-eaten sheet music and pressed it into my hands, imploring me to start practicing again.

I was making myself a sandwich, and I felt hot, and as if the refrigerator was humming too loudly. A loud ringing commenced in my right ear, and when I shook my head, I lost my balance completely and fell to the floor, losing consciousness. Then after a few more minutes, I suppose I came to, I was still alone. I stood and neatly peeled my six flattened tomato slices off the floor, then padded upstairs to look in on the baby. It slept. When I crept down the hallway to our bedroom the electricity in the carpet crackled against my socks with the impeccable memory of possibility. I remembered the fleeting ecstasy of sliding across hardwood floors, one the baby would never know in our groomed halls.

The child patted its soft paws around her softest parts, parts that since the birth I had avoided. She had her vulnerable under-shoulders, which flapped a little and which they did not do before; she would never again put her arms above her head in my presence. But the child cackled, and deftly crawled, and stuck its jam hands into the deep belly where I used to warm my hands at night, to make her scream. And I unhooked the spice rack that I had put in, all uneven, to find out where the problem lay, took it apart, back together, apart again, back together, finally gave up and lined up the spices in alphabetical order by the sink and threw the cursed thing in the trash. She waved the tiny feet in my face and I kissed the toenails. I remembered the birth when they placed the awkward bundle in my arms, which looked up at me as if to demand what I thought the big idea was? These days she stretched out like a planet beneath and seemed determined that it would take its first steps on her flesh. It grabbed her unceremoniously and tried to stand, the chubby legs wobbled and the belly wobbled and together they wobbled and fell. Again and again, the experiment never got old until she was bruised and the child asleep. I watched it the way a cat watches the light of a laser beam.

Maternity leave mercifully came to an end. She went back to work; I do not have a job, because I have been laid off from my position as a cell physiologist, which is not as complicated as it sounds, and essentially requires steady hands. The fact that I was laid off has nothing to do with my condition. I know this because I was laid off two weeks after my most recent diagnosis, during which period I was exhibiting no symptoms. There was no way anyone could have known, least of all Rachel. On the weekends she went to Charlotte to see her father, and came home with a hint of her old southern twang in her speech. This was greatly distasteful to me, and the worst was the way I felt about it, so sure she would be sorry one day when I was really sick.

Meanwhile, I sat at home with the baby, who regarded me with skepticism. I walked with it into its nursery, where it rarely slept unless Rachel was away. The baby disliked the room. It screamed when I put on its footie pajamas, when I rocked it furiously in the rocking chair, I tried to pry a bottle into its mouth but still it screamed. I was concerned but it did not have a fever, nor was it bleeding or choking. The contortion of its face was so large, too large for the dark room, it must have known something, or smelled the sick on me. I picked it up under its armpits and tried to gauge the ways in which it looked at me. Was something the matter with its ears?

“I’ll have to be calling Carlisle again,” Rachel said, poking the lemon slice in her glass with the end of her straw. “Father says there are wasps in the corner by the fireplace though they’ve already been exterminated once. And the man who came that time said that in order to really be rid of them we’d have to kill the queen, and it was Carlisle who didn’t want to pay for that. Well, we tried smoking them out, and after that most of the wasps tending to frequent the outer layers of the hive seemed to be gone, so I thought perhaps the smoking would prove sufficient, in spite of the exterminator. I guess they’re back though it wouldn’t have made any of a difference if Carlisle hadn’t gotten involved. We were touring the garden and he saw it peeping out underneath the eaves by the kitchen. ‘What’s that?” he said. ‘Oh, bees,’ said I meekly. Well, he’s going to be the one to explain the situation to the exterminator. I never heard of anyone selling a house with a dug out brick wall in the kitchen though I don’t suppose we’ve got a lot of choice. It’ll be worse than that time with David, though those were ground bees. Wasps are awfully frightening to look at, you know, but ground bees are simply vengeful. Well, I was down there with Mother when I got the phone call from David, saying they were buzzing around the deck stinging him when he went out to barbeque. Then one night they followed him back to his bedroom and stung him while he was asleep. Well, that was the last straw. You don’t know what it’s like,” (she sipped), “to have a biologist for a brother. And you know perhaps that these wasps are carnivorous; well, he went right out and bought them a piece of salmon. Then he dug all the tripods out of the attic he had from a photography jaunt he had when we were children and he set them all up in the yard and on the deck. Then he cut the salmon up into little cubes and hung the cubes from the center of the bottom of the tripods with little pieces of string. Beneath each of these he placed a pie tray filled with water he mixed with some kind of chemical solution that causes anything landing on the surface to sink—sort of sucks it down—his idea being that the bees would eat up all the meat until they were so full that they would float on down to rest on the water’s surface and would then drown. Well, perhaps you are more familiar with the science of water cohesion than I, but it appears that in order for this trap to properly work conditions must be warm and sunny. And this weekend it happened to storm. Well, I came back up home and found David quite sullen. ‘It hasn’t worked,’ he said, ‘But if it gets sunny it still might. You’ll probably have to call an exterminator.’” She sighed heavily, clearly troubled, and dialed the phone.

“I’m not an imbecile, I’m not a child,” I told myself. “And furthermore, my other senses are getting sharper.” But I knew the progression of my disease ever clearer in the outside world away from the house, which had itself a buzzing that was difficult for me to separate from my own growing problem. I was scared to drive, which was the first way I knew. I had stopped drinking coffee in the morning without Rachel noticing but by the time the baby screamed after its afternoon nap my resolve would weaken. And then Rachel wanted to talk about her father, who was difficult. He would try to bring everything from the old house into his one room, which was too white and new for all that china and all those holes he tacked in the walls. She didn’t know how to say that she didn’t trust his dementia; what if another man in the Home were to feebly make off with her father’s wife’s porcelain baby doll? She didn’t even know how to say it to me. She wanted to keep it all, and bring it home, and flatten out the old address books and report cards and save them, for what?

David, who is a layabout, is being supported by a woman while he finishes his dissertation and he will not take anything from his father’s house, not even the candelabra his father plans to eave him in his will. His woman is called Marjorie and Rachel despises her for living with a man who is not her husband, though she won’t say so. Once David came to me in tears, he had red rough fingers and jagged nails on the tips of his outstretched hands, and wanted to know why, why his sister was so brisk with Marjorie and didn’t love him anymore, and I could only shrug and say, the thing I know about Rachel, and it’s the only thing I know about Rachel, you know, she’s a woman who likes to play by rules. The taste in my mouth was vile from opening up to that sun-stench and dust that hung in the house and so we walked together to a gas station two blocks from home, in the sharp wind. We didn’t talk about my wife anymore and instead I handed him a candy bar. He ate the chocolate off it first like a child, which I was glad Rachel wasn’t there to see.

I left them one day to continue sleeping without me. Sometimes she slept with it in her arms, both of them folded around in each other in a secret society to which only the nude were privy. The baby’s tiny palms were placed outstretched on her flesh, indenting it, as if to know by feeling. I watched them, afraid that if I were to fall asleep I would roll over the both of them and crush the tiny thing. I watched them for a little while and then I left. I did not drive because I enjoy walking, and because I am afraid that my ears are plugging without my noticing it and I will not be able to hear the cars coming. On the morning when I rolled off the bed and inadvertently pulled the covers off of my sleeping wife and child, I beheld them, to see the things I had not seen about their bodies. I thought I saw a new dimple, the new Rachel-like inflection of the baby’s sleeping eyebrow. My wife slept on her side with her golden belly protruding and her hair all over her face. I thought she was beautiful and that I loved her.

David sat outside, bitten cheeks and flannel-covered hanging gut, sat on the stoop, fingers red and raw numbly thumbing the unlit end of his cigarette. He offered me one too but I didn’t bother since I was off my morning coffee in the first place. There were a few patches of old snow on the pavement around us that looked like dirty little mountains, though it was barely winter. The station, nothing fancy, stood at the corner of an intersection. I went in because by that time it was too cold outside while David was pacing the curb with the yellow end of the cigarette. On the opposite side of the street sat many fixtures: the library, the swimming hall, the movie rentals. They all sat together in little-town brick colors and the same dirty snow that hugged my station where I now selected a doughnut and ate. It was the kind of station with a few chairs in the corner. David came to sit and inspect the interstate maps.

My favorite of the maps was a serious yellow one with bold blue lines that reminded me of David’s forehead as he stared down, after a long period of muddy work, or of the shadow of a woman’s dirty make-up. He likes to tell stories, so he told me about Rachel, most of which I already knew but some that I didn’t, like a time when they were living together and she left an apple for two days on the first stair; eventually he ate it and he claims she never forgave him. He would go back and back to this spot in time; I told him that I had not heard this story before but it felt as if I had, and I wanted him to shut up about it. I wanted to tell him to forget the entire thing, and that I felt sorry for him, because he is disgruntled like an old out-of-work scientist. The whole morning felt expectant and laden and we stood inside of it kicking at the dirty ground. And David kicked at it in his mind, and he kicked himself for being so crass, scarcely remembering the true story, though I’ve told him enough times that it’s exactly something she would do.

Before then, I could guess when but who knows, a lit cigarette in the Men’s room sauna ignited and started to grow. The smoke must have gathered then but it could have been nothing more but a large significant cloud, which came out of the building all the time anyway in filtered chlorinated puffs. It could well have been an excuse, or something new for David and I to worry like hang-nails on future gray mornings. But in any case the sirens took us by surprise and we winced at the wails outside of three trucks, and all out of harmony. The kid behind the counter stared slack jawed, then rushed to the window and pulled a camera out of his apron, screaming hey, hey look man, the fucking pool is on fire, come and look at this. David immediately burst into tears. I stood and walked out the doors, where I found that the noise we had heard inside had been a believable though not quite loud enough version of the real trucks.

The pool was certainly in flames though I could see only a swimming-hall shaped building of gray smoke, the sound of sprinklers and excited talking, furrowed shapes, people rushing up and down, professional and serious and lookers-on: a teenage girl with a jangling metal key chain and a German Shepard on a leash watching coolly. Everyone inside was in and out, and in various stages of dress, and various water aerobics friends stood together and laughed jitteringly and wore flip-flops. There stood old men in gym shorts, dignified ladies with unbrushed hair, and they had been thrown ungraciously onto the street in an immature joke, they all looked as if they had been at the swimming-hall precisely to avoid this kind of nuisance. The only quiet now was above, where the rising swimming-hall-shaped cloud was mixing with the sky.

I didn’t notice but David had joined me with his hood up, with a shaky, dismissive “christ, man” and he pointed out to me the showstopper of the entire performance, a row of girls in sopping towels filing of a side door. They were coming from a swimming lesson and they shrunk upon contact with the cold air; their tender feet cut by the ground and the dirt and snow stuck to their heels while they walked and walked. They tried hard to cover themselves though their towels were little more than washcloths and their skinny legs were inevitably added to the whole display of disarray parading there alongside the smoky black building, though most of the smoke had cleared at least at eye level. Then there was the ash with its frayed posters and calendars, its cleansing fans beginning to blow into the cold outside air, and there they walked and snapped up their feet from the frozen ground. One of the children looked like Rachel, with blonde curls matted to the top of its head, and it was calling its parents, who I saw were down the street coming out of a vegetarian restaurant, and appeared to have only just then realized what was happening. The two parents, neither of whom resembled my wife the slightest bit, began to run towards the Rachel-child. No, they galloped, as dignified adults never should run, as I could never imagine Rachel running. They ran clicking, bleary eyed, purses pinned against their sides, like horses consumed by a herd.

The line of those wet people, sweaty people peered out, and as it seemed, up at me through the smoky mess, too stunned to move anywhere. The mother and father of the child began to rub its shoulder and red, stiff cheeks and cast around for someplace inside to take her inside. The last sirens fizzled and went out and then began the process of clearing the building, and searching it, which I could not understand and was less interested in than watching the girl as she nestled her wet body into her father’s oversized dark coats, and every other girl, I saw, was doing the same. David had gotten bored and gone back in the station; then when I thought I caught the eye of the young Rachelmother I also slunk inside and stayed by the back wall, horribly afraid that one of them would come in here.

“Then he said to me: ‘Rachel,’” she said, “ ‘I don’t have any good news for you today. It’s just that the house is a risk that no one these days wants to take, but I just don’t know where to go from here. You remember that Carlisle’s been pushing for the Baptists to buy up the property, but I don’t think they will after all. We hoped they might, but they don’t want to pay for the gardener; you know there are thirteen acres and they all go positively wild when they don’t have a professional to wrangle them. Though there was a woman the other day from Myrtle Beach who wanted the land, but she wouldn’t buy the house. I suppose that’s what some folks like, just a patch of woods back away somewhere that no one else can get their hands on, and she wouldn’t hear of a gardener, though Carlisle assures me that the land would be a snap for a lady like here. We met this weekend, though I don’t think we’ll sell the land without the house. That house is the sort that gets unfriendly when it isn’t lived in, so I assume it’ll only get harder the longer we wait. I’ve been there, and of course Carlisle’s there, but I just feel disheartened every time I pull up the drive in the dark. Of course when my parents lived there they used to hang lights outside in the winter, and the porch lamp hasn’t had a light in it for years, and people just can’t understand the way it used to be. Well, I hope we can find someone soon. Carlisle tries hard, that’s why we hired him in the first place. The house gets gloomier every day, but at least Carlisle tries,” she said sadly, “At least he tries.” Rachel put up candles in the windows and liked the way they looked, so though it was February still they blazed when I climbed the dark steps with my heavy boots. They were just inside, the baby and my wife, both dressed and clean-looking and Rachel’s head in some papers. I admired her ability to hold onto the baby while thinking about other things, clucking absentmindedly as it grabbed at her earrings and her hair, which was tied closely at the base of her neck. Rachel had absolute control over her curls. They were completely irrepressible when she allowed them to be, a bubbling halo of blonde fire that flashed around her face when she was feeling daring, when she was wearing a swimsuit, when she had just outsmarted a man. The baby was beginning to show signs of the same curls. Today Rachel was sleek and adult, she was writing in cursive, holding on to the baby with one hand and me with her eyes when I shut the door. The child punctuated her eyes with coos and surprised shouts. It had large eyes that seemed untrusting to me and immensely sophisticated. Rachel stood.

“I’m going to Dad’s for a few days,” she said.

I had forgotten that she was going to do that. She kissed me, kissed the baby, smoothed the top of its head, and deeply inhaled the smell of its scalp before she left. I did not speak with her that night, but her presence felt extremely important in the house even when she was not there. It was difficult to miss her, and equally difficult not to think of her. I thought of her all the time when she was out of the house, of nothing in particular, to no particular end. I thought about the doctor, and the sickness, and the capable lines on her forehead that appeared whenever the baby had a fever. I determined not to tell her for at least a few more days. The thing that was the strangest about this baby, I realized looking at it now, was it often appeared not to have pupils in its eyes, and I found myself perpetually under its eerie aimless gaze. Had Rachel noticed? It watched me with its dark eyes, asking me how I had managed to create this thing so old-feeling and complicated, impossible to get rid of.