At a quarter to six, Kennen Cass begins his day on the roof of an eighteen-story building. After he gauges the speed of the wind (ten miles an hour from the southeast) he pauses to look out over the city of Vancouver, the predictable grid of its streets, right angles and parallels converging just before the Canadian horizon. At his feet tiny red suns blaze in the windshields of a dozen cars that speckle the gray plain of a parking lot. Up in the heights of the city, away from the heat of the pavement, the breezes brush coolly by, strained through his outstretched fingers. Kennen straightens, lifts his chin, inhales twice, and jumps. Three and a half seconds later the air cushion blossoms up around him. He sinks down, opening his eyes in time to see the sky disappear into the yellow folds and then spread out overhead again like a gauzy stain. He exhales. Efficient hands reach down and bat away the bright plastic billows, clearing a space for him to stand.
They want the shot again. Assistants rush in to reset the nets and cameras, and Kennen walks to the corner stand to buy the Times and a coffee from a tired-looking man who stands behind stacks of newspapers thick with headlines. Before Kennen finishes the first few sips, they want him back up again. They’re rushing through the takes; the director wants another one while the light still filters through the skyline at an acute angle and a bloody red still suffuses the air. Kennen pours his cup out on the sidewalk; the coffee will be cold by the time he gets down to the ground to reclaim it. He strides off toward the hotel where he’ll spend the next two hours jumping and falling.
This entails four more run-throughs and then a fifth jump that is not strictly necessary but they have the time and the director likes to play it safe. (The phrase is one of the man’s motifs. He is without irony.) By the time Kennen reaches the roof for his final leap, the city is stirring, a gradual accretion of vehicles and bodies like thoughts collecting and struggling into momentum. Doors open and shut far below him in countless synaptic flurries. A cluster of observers has congregated along the perimeter of the movie set, faces tilted upward to witness his descent from the sky. The small gathering of them shines blandly up at him like coins, and he notices then from their golden cast that the portentous quality of the early-morning light is quickly dwindling away.
Kennen looks at them once, not again. He lines up his toes along the edge of the roof, that sharp right angle pressed tight against the emptiness of open space. A few seeds, somehow blown miraculously skyward, have taken root in the grit of the cement, and Kennen steps around the spindly plants with care, trying not to crush them with his feet. He stares straight down, chin to his chest, to the yellow target below him, crosshatched to a center, that very specific point in the universe he must strike and not miss. He fixes his eyes upon it, just for a moment, and then launches himself breathlessly outward and down.
No one really believes the stunt double will misgauge his jumps, that he will plummet to his death, be run over by the wheels of a cargo truck or a train, that his parachute will malfunction. Still, Kennen knows that the film crew and bystanders hold their breath while he’s in the air. It seems to be a universal superstition: bracing for the unthinkable keeps it at bay. By withholding their exhalations they pay homage to the possibility of disaster, their helplessness in the face of it.
In the first half-second of his fall, he knows something is amiss. He has miscalculated the speed of the wind, which has gained strength and amplified the updraft, or perhaps he dragged his legs in the push-off. He should be upright, leading with his feet, but he is not. His body tilts; he feels the weight of his chest pitching forward, pulling his head down with it. He should see the sky. Instead, he sees the ground. Balconies, flowerpots, window-washers, clouds, flicker between his knees. He does not know what he is headed toward. His arms swim easily through the insubstantial air, grasping for something – anything – he knows is not there.
As he hits the air cushion, he retches up a burning puddle. For several seconds his body can neither draw in nor expel air, so he simply lies stunned in the suffocating nylon mesh that enfolds him.
After a minute one of the lighting assistants appears in his peripheral vision, leans over, and slaps him on the back a few times. “Man,” he says, “your life must flash in front of your eyes whenever you do that kind of shit.”
At last, at last, Kennen breathes out. Somewhere nearby the director raves about the flailing and uncontrolled quality of the fall, how spectacular, how much he loved it and Kennen realizes then that not one of them understood anything was wrong. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and swallows the bile back down. “Not really,” he says. And he climbs to his feet.
After that they’re done with him. Kennen is free to buy brunch, to check out of his room, hail a cab, board a flight back to Los Angeles.
As he waits in the checkout line at the airport he thinks ahead to his next job, a stunt that will require him to hang glide into a landing on the roof of a Ford Explorer. The filming is almost a month away. Kennen had plans for this four-week interim of freedom, but now he cannot remember them. He shifts the strap chafing his collarbone and, before he can restrain himself, he sighs so heavily that the woman in front of him glances back and then steps forward pointedly as if he’s just done something obscene. Kennen moves up and stares at the back of her head daring her to turn around and say something, but she does not.
Strangers brush past and each jostle against his elbow causes Kennen’s teeth to clench. He shrinks to the side in an attempt to ward off the unnecessary contact but to no avail. Somewhere behind him a toddler shrieks a shrill articulation of delight and the startling sound lingers painfully in his eardrums. As he looks around, he observes how the florescent lights cast stark shadows that relentlessly underline each irregularity, no matter how faint, on every face. They have all been waiting for so long, Kennen thinks, for days, for years, in some grey time zone – it’s like seeing what the future will bring and it will not be kind to any of them. He cannot bear the ugly repetition any longer so he casts his eyes to the floor, holds them there, and watches the incremental progress of his feet across the tiles. And still the people continue to bump on by.
Even after he enters the confines of the plane and folds himself into the window seat he cannot relax. Every joint in his body aches. All those projecting bones – his heels, his elbows, his shoulders – they articulate the pain of decades of landings. Each one mumbles its own distinct complaint. Someday, they remind him, he will have to stop.
Not until the plane glides onto the runway and the acceleration of takeoff presses him into his chair – his body again in the grip of physical forces beyond his control – does Kennen think through the last fall of the morning, recalling that salty taste of panic in his mouth, and only against his will. Close calls are a requisite part of his work; he tries not to let them stay with him. The sooner the details fade away the better.
But the words spoken by the lighting assistant ring in his ears. People have expressed that cliché to him before. He supposes it could happen; he knows that the brain can work at astonishing speeds. He can’t guess what those dying people see, what pattern the flicker of moments might create as they cascade down upon one another. It seems too much to hope for, still, he has always thought it might be something unspeakably beautiful. All he remembers from this morning, though, is the sharpness of the light and the air passing between his fingers with a thin, almost slippery ease. Nothing else.
At the sound of a faint chime, Kennen shifts in his seat. He slept longer than he realized and he has dreamed. As with most dreams, his are nothing like life. They resemble paintings: everything in them flat and still.
The Californian landscape rises beneath him, becoming ever more complex the closer it comes. The flight is almost over, the wings of the plane now low enough to cast shadow blades upon the earth.
When he disembarks at LAX, Elizabeth is waiting for him, fresh off her own flight from New York. Her luggage sits at her feet, and she rests her chin on the knobby top of her cello case watching passengers stream along moving her eyes from left to right but not turning her head. Her hair is looped up into a messy knot and pastel crescents underscore her tired eyes, but it doesn’t matter. Even in Los Angeles, land of the false and the beautiful, men and women turn their heads as they pass her by. It wasn’t until Elizabeth began to grow up that Kennen realized that extraordinarily lovely people share the same fate as the deformed – the inability to travel through the world unnoticed even for a second. The flawless quality of her symmetry makes her as much of a freak as a man with flippers for feet. When Kennen introduces her to his friends and colleagues, here’s my daughter now, their heads snap back. They look again in disbelief.
He wonders what it must feel like and how much Elizabeth knows. Surely she must. The two of them have never discussed it.
She disentangles herself from the cello and embraces him.
“How was your flight?” Kennen shoulders her bag with his free arm and she hefts her unwieldy instrument.
“Terrible,” she says. She has been waiting for this question. “The woman next to me was absolutely certain we would never make it here. Halfway into the flight we hit some turbulence and I had to hold her hand the rest of the way. I kept patting her head and saying, shh, there, there.” With her free arm she reaches up and brushes Kennen’s thinning hair, demonstrating.
“Poor thing.” Elizabeth’s ease with people always startles him. She certainly did not acquire it from him.
“I hope you’re referring to me.”
“Of course. There, there.” He pats her shoulder and manages a small grin before he turns and glances around for an exit. “Let’s find a cab and get the hell out of here.”
He doesn’t have a chance to really look at her again until they are settled into the taxi and hurtling along a congested freeway. She stares out through the scratches and smudges of the window, all eyes, then smiles when she sees him watching her.
“You miss it at all?”
She tips her head. “I forget how bright it is here,” she says. “Even with the haze, you know? There’s so much color.” She looks away again. “I can’t believe I didn’t remember.”
Kennen stares out past her profile. He has no idea what she’s talking about.
By eight-thirty they’re home, bags dropped on the stones in the foyer, drinking wine out of glasses so large that the rims dig into the bridges of their noses when they tip them for the last dregs. Elizabeth sits like a little girl when she comes home, legs hanging over one arm of the chair, her long skirt wadded between her knees. After they open the second bottle of pinot, after Elizabeth has determinedly steered the conversation through the fall program of the New York Philharmonic, the eccentricities of guest conductors, and the dissolute nature of brass players, there is a moment of silence. Kennen cautiously asks about her mother.
“She’s fine,” Elizabeth says. “Working on another book.”
“Another book on loving yourself.” Kennen whirls his wine; it almost slips over the edge. He calls Harriet a charlatan. If this hurts Elizabeth she doesn’t give it away. She drops her gaze to her lap; he catches the twist of her half-smile not meant for him, gone as soon as she looks up again.
“You might try reading one some time,” she says.
“Oh, oh.” He settles back in his chair and raises his half-empty glass as if in a prelude to a toast. “Here it comes.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Let’s hear it.” In the distance the Pacific rushes in, rushes out, a soft blurring sound.
“Thanks. I only have so much breath to waste.” She runs a hand up and down along her forearm and sighs. “I’ve come to terms with my limitations. Cello playing only. I don’t try to preach to the resigned.”
Kennen’s head is fuzzy. That expression is not correct, he knows, but the right word fails to present itself as it should. His eyes wander across the darkening windowpane in front of him as if they might somehow capture the phrase and pin it there against the slippery glass but it eludes him, sliding away again and again until finally he gives up and lets it go.
“Talk to me.” In her last syllable he catches an undertone, a huskiness to the long e that threatens to undermine the lightness of her mocking command. She clears her throat. “It’s how this works, you know. Now that I’ve talked, you’re supposed to tell me something. Something I don’t know.” She reaches out and fills her glass. “Tell me how the business of death-defying is going.”
“Oh, it’s going along, I suppose. Same old, same old.” As he stares out into the accumulating dusk, Kennen feels the weight of the day taking shape in his chest, his headlong fall turning into words that rise and press up against his soft palate. But just as he opens his mouth he turns his head and catches a glimpse of her upturned face, bright as one of those careless bystanders’, and he thinks, no, better not. So he shrugs his shoulders, tips his hand in a side-to-side motion and says nothing else.
“Succinct as ever, I see.” With her fingernail she scratches at the suede upholstery covering her chair. “The other day I –”
“So tell me.” Kennen cuts her off. “Why the cello?” He’s startled by his own question and its inflection – too quick, too earnest – and before it even dies away he regrets it. “I’m just curious, that’s all.”
She sets her glass on the end table between them and stares at him quizzically. “Why do I play? I don’t know. Why do you jump off buildings?”
Kennen shifts impatiently. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not the same thing at all.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just – I’m not used to –.” He watches the chase of thoughts flitting past, one after another, in the subtle workings of her features. “It’s just strange hearing you ask the question. I wasn’t prepared.”
“Fair enough.” Restlessly, he rolls his right arm around in its socket. The shoulder hurts the worst. He must have hit it coming down this morning.
Elizabeth laughs once – a flat sound – and swings her feet over the arm of the chair to floor in a fluid motion of skirt and legs. “I’m cutting us off.” She stands and lifts the glass from his hand but she hesitates before she heads into the kitchen. “Loving is too straightforward of a word, maybe,” she says slowly. She studies the picture hanging on the wall just above his head and does not meet his eyes. “It’s more like swinging both your fists in the dark and hoping –.” A flush slips up her neck then recedes and she doesn’t leave a space for his response. “I’m ready to keel over, Dad. I’ll see you in the morning, OK?” And she slides through the doorway and disappears.
After his daughter climbs upstairs to bed (to dream about strings, to dream about fermatas, and the flash of bows under stage lights) Kennen turns out the lamps and roams stride by stride across the smooth floors in the dark, up and down the staircase. The vaulted ceilings vanish somewhere up above his head; the walls recede and the corners startle him by leaping out like elbows to bring him up short, forcing him to turn.
His pacing brings him back into the living room. Floodlights radiating from the neighboring houses fill the space with their strange bright exhalations, and even with the lights off the outline of the chairs and tables remain distinct, each form trailing a diffuse shadow across the hardwood floor. From the middle of the room, he can almost discern the photographs hanging on the opposite wall. Whenever Kennen looks at them he thinks about the stunt performers of seventy-five or a hundred years ago, the ones who performed without the air cushions, harnesses, and safety glass, before an era of health insurance. Those men were proud of their broken limbs and concussions, talismans of their courage, however misplaced. The whole science that Kennen has learned by heart – all those points where the body can absorb shock, the way it can maintain speed, hold a straight line against the wind, describe a trajectory, roll away the force of a landing – those men disregarded utterly. Clint Trucks, whose career came to a close not long after the invention of the X-ray, framed his own ghostly prints and hung them in his home for his visitors to admire. Kennen purchased the reproductions almost fifteen years ago, not long after his divorce.
He steps closer to examine them, trying to make them out for what they are rather than how he remembers them to be, studying the femurs and tibia. Unless you know their origins, the framed shapes are nothing more than striking abstractions – lean white lines swollen with burls where the bones have broken then come back together again. An orthopedist once told Kennen that after a bone breaks and knits together, it thickens and becomes stronger than before. If that’s true, Kennen thinks, those men who survived a decade of work must have had skeletons that were nearly unbreakable. His own would not compare so well.
At the sound of the ceiling creaking over his head, Kennen blinks, looks up from the planks beneath his feet. His gaze has fallen; he’s been studying the cracks, running his eyes along the parallels as if the diagonals will reconcile themselves and come together. When Elizabeth was born, Kennen promised Harriet he would guard what he said to their daughter about his profession and keep the subjunctive to himself. There would be no hairsbreadths for Elizabeth, Harriet said, no narrow brushes or close escapes. Well, he has kept his word although Harriet is now hundreds of miles away and will not know the difference. Let no one say he say he does not honor those agreements into which he enters.
A hot splinter of pain pulses once beneath his scapula and subsides. Kennen turns away, walks slowly down the hall, and climbs the stairs as quietly as he can, one at a time, to bed.
He awakens at six-thirty, later than he intends, to the vibrations of Elizabeth’s practice seeping up through two floors and under the gap beneath his door. All he can hear in his bedroom are the high notes. The low ones dissolve into the studs and drywall despite how forcefully she strikes them.
They swell up around him, though, as he descends the stairs. She’s playing in the front room, and Kennen pauses in the doorway to watch her. She doesn’t look up, and he isn’t sure if she realizes that he’s there or not. The music broods like a dirge and then quickens – probably something nineteenth-century. Schumann? Brahms? His ignorance is profound. The pins are slipping out of her blonde hair; tendrils spill over her bowing arm, which churns, the sharp angle of her elbow thrusting in and out as if she is attempting to uproot a stone from the earth or bail herself out of an incoming tide. The dusky tones swirl together, bursting into high splashes that slide over a brink and slip away.
Kennen means to steal off so as not to distract her but the inexorable momentum of the music holds him there waiting for the peak it strains toward. Notes rush forward, the following swelling up before the preceding fade, filling the air like a watery rise in the depths of a stone canyon, a skyward surge toward the expanse of a diluvial plain overhead. Crescendos cascade around him, phrases so clear that even their softest ripples pierce and ring across the membranous surface of his inner ear. Beneath them, undertones churn in persistent iterations like murky currents crossing and merging, their pull strangely familiar.
Unable to stir he remains there, listening, his hands growing cold, his legs taking on weight. He knows this piece, has heard it somewhere before – the score to a yawing drop panning out at his feet, perhaps, or a song played at his wedding years ago. Or before that – the accompaniment to a stranger’s hand pressed on his sleeve at a funeral for a passing he has forgotten until this moment. Or maybe the strains take him back even earlier – an afternoon in his infancy when he was left alone for the first time on the grass beneath an open window to watch the shadows fall through the leaves before the knowledge of the coming silence filled those resonances with sadness.
And finally she reaches it; her fingers slide along the neck of the cello, falling through octaves, reach their position and bear down. They quiver under the strain, holding their arc like a breath, impossibly long, meting out the final low note, sustaining it, until its last tremors fade away.
In a tidy flourish she pulls off the bow, but she does not glance up. Sweat gleams in her collarbone. She breathes hard. When she shifts the instrument from her shoulder, she sees him for the first time and smiles, and he suddenly wishes that the joy in her look had something to do with him. “There you are,” she says. “Sorry I woke you.”
He releases his hold on the doorframe and looks at his stinging hands. The wooden corners have bitten blue welts into his palms, straight cuts that blot out the subtler pattern of his skin and impose an ugly new design against the grain. Bringing them into focus causes the room beyond them to tilt precariously, perpendicular angles becoming acute, edges gathering shadows as if taking on dusk.
“Hey.” Elizabeth starts up from her chair. The bow clatters against the cello and the instrument’s polished recesses resound with a startling depth. In two strides she reaches him and places her hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Kennen shakes his head. “There are worse things to wake up to.” He rubs his hands across his blue jeans and looks down at her face. It contains an expression he has never seen before. Beneath the concern and the tightness of her forced smile, he thinks she looks moved. “No,” he says. “It wasn’t bad at all, actually. I guess I just forgot I was breathing there for a second. You know, people get old and they can only do one thing at a time.”
She attempts to guide him toward the couch, urging him into a sitting position. “Elizabeth, please – ” Kennen tries to extricate himself, but he has not yet recovered from the moment of vertigo and now she is both faster and stronger than he is.
“This is ridiculous,” she says. They are halfway across the room – how did she get him so far? “What’s the matter with you? Just sit down for a minute.” The sofa cushions press against the back of his knees.
“One minute, Dad. Just give it one minute.” She pulls on his elbow but he continues to resist. “If standing in the living room makes you dizzy, I really hate to think of you up on the edge of–”
“Goddamn it, Elizabeth!” He flings her arm away and she steps back and does not try to touch him again. “There’s nothing wrong with me. You don’t always have to make a big deal out of every little thing.”
He takes a tentative step and, sure enough, the world has regained its normal equilibrium, everything solid and steady. He does not turn to look back at her, but as he leaves the room he tries to cast his parting words in a conciliatory tone. “There isn’t anything here for breakfast so I’m going to go to the store – I was thinking omelets. Is that all right with you?”
“Whatever you want,” she says and the stiffness in her response pains him. As he makes his way out the door, keys in hand, he hears her playing resume once again, a roughened and frustrated edge to the notes that was not there before.
The route from his house to the closest grocery store runs almost entirely uphill, bending back around on itself east and then west in deference to the bluffs that overlook the Pacific. Kennen has guided his Toyota around these parabolic curves more times than he can count with just a tilt of his arm on the steering wheel, not a thought in his head. Now, however, something vibrates along his nerve endings like a delayed reaction, possibly a residual effect of his earlier lightheadedness that heightens his awareness of physical forces, the power of friction and velocity and speed. The window next to him fluctuate with every car that hurtles past, metal masses separated by mere inches, there and then gone. He stares at the asphalt churning in front of him, the sleek yellow dashes flowing past and concentrates on maintaining a constant margin of space.
After half a mile, he has almost gained enough altitude to see over the roofs of the houses that jostle along the beach for the tiniest sliver of a view – a precious blue glint between fences over a three-car garage – to where a narrow strip of sand suns itself below. The light catching and reflecting in his mirrors causes his eyes to smart and water, blurring the scene in front of him, and he brushes them angrily with the back of his hands, one and then the other.
So that he is what he is doing then – that hasty and irritated gesture – when, just above him, a flaming red sports car dips over the crest of the hill and collides headlong into him. He swings his gaze around just in time to see the impact as it occurs: the sky breaking into shards, the red hood wrinkling, a spray of glass and sparks. The centrifugal spin and the airbag exploding out from the steering column drive him back into his seat, and he feels the Toyota slipping out of the vortex into the open space where the ocean shines. The vehicle strikes the guardrail, which resists, bows, tears away with a metallic sound, screws and solder shuddering defeat. He feels the earth slither out from under the rear tires; caught on the edge, the car hangs, wobbles, wavers in a strange equilibrium like that between hope and despair.
No film could capture all these excruciating, these astonishing details, each one faceted with a thousand others: the clouds snagged in the sparkling blue fragments of the passenger window, the parenthetical grass blades fluttering skyward, the filament jutting from a headlight gone blind. A refrain sings through his head, five repeating tones, a piercing iteration so sustained that at first he thinks what he hears is just the sound of the crash ringing on in his ears. But no, it’s a fragment of music from just half an hour earlier when he stood in the doorway and watched the early morning light burn a rim around Elizabeth’s head, a phrase he doesn’t even remember retaining.
Over and over the notes bear down, rise, then descend again, the pattern breaking off before it resolves. Each time the sequence begins anew Kennen remembers to take a breath. With each inhalation sharp pains radiate outward from his sternum along the fragile branches of his ribs, thousands of microscopic fibers conflagrating in spreading rings like a grass fire. Flames flicker in the gloom behind his eyelids. He opens them. The sun catches in his lashes; he blinks furiously and bright spangles flash and scatter everywhere he looks. Beyond that everything is dark.
But when he lifts his head and focuses his dilated pupils, the other driver emerges slowly in the haze. She’s a young woman – about Elizabeth’s age – although her pale and unexceptional face in no way resembles his daughter’s. And yet the shadows from the interior of her car distill the strange girl’s features – the hollows beneath her cheekbones, the flush of her lips, the square angle of her jaw – into something exquisite in its own right. Her head thrusts back against her seat cushion as if she is straining toward a surface for air. Then she opens her eyes; she watches him through the empty space where their windshields existed mere seconds earlier.
The woman stares on and on as if she wants to speak and would if she only could while those notes burrow further and further into him, rising in volume, threatening to overwhelm him. He wants to close his eyes again, but he can’t bring himself to look away from her. There’s something so knowing in the gaze fixed upon him that Kennen wonders if she can’t hear it too somehow, that maddening irresolution. If he could only get out of this car, he might know for certain.
How many times has he found himself on a brink, ready to pass over the edge? Kennen estimates the time of the required motions and the effect of their momentum on the car’s sway – the kind of calculations where he holds expertise although it’s an imprecise science at best. He thinks he might make it. With his left hand, he flings open the driver’s side door; water or maybe sand lies below but he doesn’t spare a glance to find out. With the dead fingers of his right, he fumbles with the clasp on his seatbelt. It springs away easily under his touch.
Kennen performs each movement with deliberation and care. Not because he should but because he must – slowly the feeling in his extremities is ebbing away. With each second that passes he is astounded. The Toyota should already be on its way down, and yet here it stays – oscillating in a terrifying pitch – but still it is something. He can reach out and grasp a post of the guardrail and, one slow inch at a time, he can pull himself free. The effort forces the blood back where it needs to go and he feels his fingers and toes again aching along to the same tempo that drums in his head.
This should be painful, and it is, but it isn’t so terrible. That’s what Kennen wants to tell her, so he lifts himself up and struggles slowly across the pavement and sandy topsoil to the mangled sports car. Jagged teeth of glass still hang in the driver’s window making it difficult to fit his hand in, but with a bit of effort he reaches through, brushes his palm across the young woman’s clammy forehead, and pats her damp hair while she closes her eyes and sits very still, waiting. From where he stands, just back behind the edge, the view is astonishing: the effusive air, grains of sand taking flight in the wind, the water stretching across an expanse of miles.
Now that he’s here, he can’t think of how to ask the question or to describe what he knows. It isn’t what he expected, it’s not the way anyone else guessed, flashing not right, not even coming close, but rather each second of his life unfurling at once. It’s as if the ocean’s every brief and fluid fold – every blazing peak and shaded trough – has paused before him and somehow he can see each of them, now one at a time, too many to count, and now all merging together in startling coruscations of light. Strangers gather somewhere in the background and all his words are failing him, dying soundless and insufficient on his dry lips. So Kennen offers her the first sounds that come to him. Shh, shh, he says. There, there.