Now it was September, when other children were laughing down the roads on the way to school, and the days were cool but the sun still quite warm on Mitchs upturned face. Mitch was on his lawn chair, facing the cliff, where he sat from dawn to noon. These were the hours assigned by his wife Anne. She took the noon to sunset shift. Mitch didnt mind; he was working on a story. He had no deadlines. Up the great sloping lawn their house stood, thanks to his killing in IBM stock years back. He didnt really believe in what they were waiting fortheir son washing up from the seabut Anne was convinced it would happen one day.
Anne was on the porch painting oil portraits of Danny at different ages; they just looked like blobs to Mitch, even at a distance, but it was her therapy. Mitch was thinking about writing a story about a man whose lost son returns years later from the sea, not as a ghost but as a real man, one who has sailed the world, skin like jerky, bright blue eyes, and a voice rough from hard times and cigarettes and salt air.
Mitch had his eyes closed, and was startled by Pauls voice. Paul was the neighbor who had liver cancer. He always smelled like pot and air freshener. He sat cross-legged next to Mitch and said, Fine day, eh?
Perfect, said Mitch.
Hows it going with her?
Well, you know. Its hard.
Dont take this the wrong way, but I think when my time comes I might fly off there as well. Your boy, it seemed he soared right to heaven.
The cancer would have gotten Danny if he hadnt taken his flying leap. Just eight years old, hed lost an arm and half his jaw to the cancer; it was awful. The doctors said they were getting ahead of it, though, with the chemo and radiation, but then some lesions showed up in his brain. The stress of Dannys chemo and suffering had exhausted Mitch and Anne, made them crazy, sleepless, and it was during one of their fights that Danny had wandered from the house (they didnt think he had the strength) and, probably given the idea by his pain killers and brain tumors, had run off the cliff. They didnt even know it happened until Paul rang their bell.
For days the coast guard searched, admitting finally that it was impossible, the body could have been taken anywhere by now. After they stopped looking was when Anne decided to keep watch, rain or shine.
Paul reached his cold hand for Mitchs arm. How bout sharing something special with me? He pulled a bag from his pocket.
I cant smoke. I get too paranoid. And Anne would flip.
He held up the bag and shook it gently. Peyote, my friend. A true religious experience.
Mitch shook his head.
Its OK, man. Ill be here with you. Just think of something good. He winked.
You eat them?
Yup. Taste like shit.
Paul ate some, and then showed Mitch how much to take. Here we go, Mitch said. Just dont let me jump.
* * *
Twenty minutes later they were standing arm in arm, toes on the very edge. The breeze pushed them gently. Angry purple clouds were moving in. Some were edged with red like fire. Something bad is coming, said Mitch.
Close your eyes, Paul said.
Mitch felt them soaring over the water, the spray on their faces, Pauls wasted body so light against him. But when he opened his eyes they were still standing. The waves crashed, and Mitch heard a man singing down there, and coughing. The man climbed the cliff easily, and stood next to Mitch, gazing down. Thats quite the drop, he said, in that same voice Mitch had imagined in his story.
Is it you? said Mitch.
Man, what are you seeing? asked Paul, huddling against Mitch.
Its my son.
Dan was a strapping man with red hair, and a great beard hiding his jaw. His face was raw, the blue eyes piercing. He hugged Mitch, his right sleeve empty.
Paul tugged on Mitchs arm. Remember, whatever it is, its not real.
The clouds lowered suddenly, erasing Dan. The rain came sideways into Mitchs face. He found his little shelter, a plastic tent, and kneeled inside. But this storm was like the wrath of God. Lightning flashed and the wind beat the flimsy red plastic sides so he felt he was in a failing see-through heart, or a convulsing uterus which would spit him into a different life. He prayed for his wife and son. The wind lifted the tent, ripped out the stakes, and Mitch was flying, the heart beating faster. In flashes he saw the rocks below, but then felt himself lifted higher. He was not afraid. The wind and rain stopped, and he had a perfect moment of peace, as if in the eye, a brilliant light outside and within him as well.
The tent sucked in on itself, and he plummeted, caught finally by a craggy cliff tree. He swung until he found the zipper, squeezed out and clutched branches and rocks, climbed to the top.
Breathless, he lay face down in the grass.
Paul was gone. His bag was there, still half full. Mitch slipped it into his pocket. He went to the edge and looked down. He thought he saw a man down there, the roaring tide tugging him off a rock. But nothing was real.
He ran up to the house, slowing as he approached the porch, because suddenly the paintings made sense; he saw the faces and the joy and the pain in colors that were heightened, not of this world; recognized the glowing blue eyes and vivid beard in the one.
Anne! he called.
He found her sleeping in Dannys bed. He shook her. I went over the cliff!
She looked frightened.
No, he said. Its OK. I wasnt scared.
She tried to slip around him, but he caught her arm.
Your paintings are wonderful, he said. So beautiful.
Really? She looked at him shyly, like he was a new man, like she didnt know him but wanted to.
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