April awoke to the hemming and hawing of an electric tooth brush whose battery was running low. The sound reminded her of the spinning top her daddy had given her for her third birthday, a top with airplanes which took off and landed as it jiggled along the pitted linoleum floor of their double wide. It had been her favorite toy until its spring snapped, its hand pump locked, and the airplanes froze in place like butterflies pinned to cardboard. Nothing lasts forever, her daddy said when he couldn’t fix it. To a three year old, everything lasted forever, especially daddies. Stretching, April knocked her book off the night table, Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping which she selected to read on her honeymoon because the cover art of gingham curtains flapping in an open window lured her into the darkness that lay within. The hemming and hawing stopped.
“You did it, again.” Stan Hiller, her husband of less than twenty-four hours, shouted from the bathroom.
Again. April had moved in with Stan the February before their wedding. After waking three consecutive mornings to an open window, bitter cold, snow dunes on the bedroom floor, curlicues of frost on the mirror over the dresser, he designed an experiment to test the hypothesis that April opened the window in her sleep. With the cloth belt of her bathrobe, he tied her wrists to the headboard of the bed. On the window frame he nailed a ribbon of bells which would ring if the window were raised. He set up a video camera with an eight hour recording capacity. April joked she felt like a victim in a slasher movie, but the next morning they awoke to an open window, April still tethered to the bed. If the bells had rung, neither had heard them. For four hours the video camera recorded a closed window, then thirty seconds of static and four hours of an open window. Maybe you’re the somnambulist, April said as Stan untied her.
Now, Stan stood in the bathroom door, backlit by the naked light bulb above the sink. Toothpaste foam rimmed his mouth. He looked like a circus clown not fully made up. “I warned you about this neighborhood,” he said.
April swallowed her laugh and double layered herself inside the blanket.
Because they had an early morning flight, they had spent their wedding night at Tucked Inn, a fleabag on motel row a few miles from New York’s Kennedy airport which catered to pilots having affairs with stewardesses. In addition to desolate motels, motel row featured fast food outlets, bars, bodegas, and vacant lots whose grass was as brown as the beer bottles, many still in greasy paper bags, tossed aside by drunks with enough civic pride not to drop their empties on the sidewalk or street.
Stan recited the other times he had awakened to find a window open, dates, places, times, as if he kept a rap sheet on her like the police do on career criminals. “The first night you slept over. Skiing at Vail. The weekend down the Vineyard. The night you moved in. Christmas eve at my folks.” He sounded like a judge reading a probation report before sentencing her to hard time. If she were such a criminal, why did he marry her?
There were other times as well, ones she did not tell him about, would never tell him about until, maybe their thirtieth or fortieth anniversary. The night of their first date. The night they first made love. The night he asked her to move in with him. And, before those, others. The night of her high school graduation. The senior prom. When she lost her virginity. Her first kiss. Her first period. The night before her daddy’s funeral, the night of, every night for several weeks. The milestones of her life since her daddy’s death were measured by waking to an open window.
Stan retreated into the bathroom to gargle. He gurgled like the water draining from the motel tub after they made love in the shower, contorting their bodies to avoid the shower curtain, paramecia of mildew crawling on threadbare plastic. April knew then, before her orgasm, she would awaken in the morning to an open window and an angry husband. He coughed up a mouthful of rusty yellow phlegm. “We could have been murdered in our sleep. You could have been raped.”
April tightened the blanket around her shoulders.
At university, April supported herself by singing in church coffee houses. She and the church split ticket sales equally and the church kept the proceeds from the coffee, tea, cider, and sweets. At first, she assumed the churches kept an honest count, but after receiving less than she expected on a night when the audience outnumbered the seats she started counting the house, then asked a friend to sit beside the volunteers who sold tickets and tallied the receipts. Her take increased by about one-half.
After several months, she developed a following in the city and surrounding towns. The church coffee houses competed for her because they knew their share, even with an honest count, contributed much needed money to their social programs. She played two repertories, one for children and families on Sunday afternoons, the other for adults on Friday or Saturday nights. Fans asked for a CD, but she did not want to front the cost of renting a recording studio, hiring engineers, or producing the disk. Besides, a CD would create complications, collecting sales tax, for example, filing returns, remitting the tax to the state. She was happy playing the church coffee house circuit where she took home her earnings at the end of the night in cash and what she disclosed to the IRS or the university financial aid office was between herself and her conscience. Life had taught her to be flexible.
Her favorite song, the one she played at every adult concert, was “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” the first song, the last song, her daddy had taught her. It was not the song’s message of social conscience that appealed to her, although like her daddy she sympathized with its point of view, but the experience of the narrator who dreamt he saw Joe Hill ten years after Hill’s execution in1915 for a murder he did not commit, framed by mine owners who considered his efforts to organize mineworkers into a union to be un-American. She especially liked the refrain, “‘I never died,’ says he,” a lyric she sang andante, her hands resting atop her silent guitar, her eyes closed to catch a glimpse of Joe Hill standing in the back of the church’s social hall ‘Alive as you or me.’ Once, she thought, she did, but it was only Manny Hagglund, the church custodian.
When her daddy taught her the words, they sang a cappella, her nasal little girl voice the squawk of a talking mynah bird. After she mastered the words, he showed her how to pick the chords on a guitar he had been given in trade for a day’s work cleaning out someone’s basement. She sang “Joe Hill” at her sixth grade talent show, accompanying herself on the guitar, her mommy and daddy aghast with parental pride; but the school principal did not think it an appropriate song for elementary school children and gave her NIs, Needs Improvement, in behavior and attitude even though she had always received As. Now, an adult, a woman, less than 24 hours a wife, she still blamed that principal for her daddy’s driving his car, windows open, off the jetty into the ocean under the full moon of a glacial January night when ice patches and snow drifts pockmarked the beach like dead jelly fish after a storm surge.
The security line at Kennedy Airport moved slowly, but they had allowed extra time which gave them the luxury of adopting an “it is what it is” attitude. April arched her back and rolled her shoulders to keep from stiffening up. Stan fidgeted with his carry-on, still angry about the open window. She buried herself in Housekeeping, opening it to the eleventh chapter. At university, she developed the strategy of reading the last 10 pages or so of a novel first. Since she did not read mysteries or whodunits, knowing the ending did not detract from her enjoyment. On the contrary, it heightened her appreciation for the writer’s craft and enabled her to see things she would have missed. This approach resulted in an A in the one fiction course she took, Post-Vietnam American novel. With one or two exceptions, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours most notably, it had never failed her.
As Ruth and Sylvie speculated whether they would find Lucille in Boston, there was a commotion at the security gate. A New York state trooper assigned to monitor the passengers in line escorted an elderly man to a chair beside the X-ray machine and ordered him to remove his shoes. The old man was about the age her daddy would be if he were alive and moved as if his nervous system had short-circuited and his joints had fused. Once, April had seen a circus clown move that way. She laughed so hard she almost choked on her popcorn until her daddy slapped her on the back to dislodge what was stuck in her throat. Maybe this old man was that circus clown. Maybe he had not been faking it. Maybe he was scratching out a living the only way he could. She wished she had not laughed at that clown. Now, the old man hovered above a chair as if he were waiting for gravity to seat him. With a hand on the old man’s shoulder, the trooper lowered him. Seated, the old man looked like he was constructed of pickup sticks by a toddler with undeveloped motor control.
“I can’t bend forward,” the old man said.
The skin at the base of the trooper’s neck was rough and raw where the strap of his hat, worn behind the head rather than under the chin, had abraded the skin. It reminded April of the scar at the base of her daddy’s neck. She loved to rub her fingertip along that scar, push in its puffiness, stretch the skin to whiten it into invisibility. An injury from my football helmet, her daddy said. She believed him at the time. She still believed him.
“It’s against regulations to undress the passengers,” the trooper said.
The old man sat there, bewildered, the same look April saw on her daddy’s face when, six or seven, she asked him where babies came from. She did not remember his answer, except it was not the stork, or the morning dew, or any of the other euphemisms parents used to avoid talking about the birds and the bees. It wasn’t mommy and daddy loving each other, either. Whatever he had said, it satisfied her at the time.
“Let me help,” April said. She bookmarked her page in Housekeeping with her forefinger.
“Stay in line,” the trooper ordered.
“He needs help,” April said.
The old man looked toward her. His cheeks sagged, making his eyes too small for their sockets and April feared they would roll out. Her finger slipped from the book.
“Please, hon,” Stan whispered. He squeezed her elbow, but she shook herself free.
“Ma’am.” The trooper hesitated and April sensed he was trying to decide how to deal with a situation never discussed in his training sessions.
“All I’m going to do,” she said, “is unlace his shoes, take them off, and, when you’re done, put them back on, and lace them up. You’ll be right there to watch me.”
The trooper straightened up as if he had been ordered to attention by a superior. “This is a matter of airport security. Do not interfere.”
“I don’t want to interfere. I want to help.”
The trooper barked at her, unintelligible words, like a guard dog frightening off an intruder. The old man tried to raise his foot and rest it on his knee, but he could not lift it more than an inch or two off the ground. Some people stared; most looked away or busied themselves by adjusting the straps of their carry-ons or rooting in purses or pockets for ticket receipts or government issued identification.
The trooper stepped toward April. The brim of his hat cast a shadow across her face. He stared at her book as if he were trying to decide whether it had been hollowed out to hide something sinister. She fanned its pages. Red lines meandered around his right eye. She had eye drops in her purse, but did not wish to chance any sudden movement. Judging by the stubble of his beard, he was at the end of his shift. “He’s someone’s grandfather,” she said. “Somebody’s daddy.”
“So isn’t Osama bin Ladin,” the trooper snapped. “If you do not return to line, you will be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and interfering with a police officer in the lawful performance of his duties.”
“Please, hon.” Stan pulled at her arm.
April slapped his hand away and began to cry, softly at first, little sobs as if she were trying to hide her tears, then loudly until her wails echoed off the glass and steel of the terminal. Everyone turned in her direction with the same curiosity which causes people to slow down when they drive by an accident scene. A security camera rotated, its lens extending. Airline personnel rushed to her side. She gestured at the old man who was still struggling to lift his foot to his knee. “He,” she said, pointing at the trooper, “won’t let me help him.”
Two men pushed their way through the crowd. One of them handed April a business card which identified him as Martin Osgood, Chief of Airport Security. He dressed like a business executive except for the nub of a microphone in his ear and the thin wire descending the side of his neck, burrowing beneath his shirt collar. She explained what happened.
“Take your break,” Osgood ordered the trooper.
“She was acting suspicious,” the trooper said.
“She was just trying to help that old man,” another passenger in line said. “The trooper overreacted.” Several others voiced agreement. Someone whispered ‘Fascist pig.’
Osgood ushered April, and the old man to a private area where after a routine security check they were allowed to proceed.
“If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” Osgood said.
“Picking on helpless old men won’t save lives,” April said.
At breakfast inside security, Stan said, “You could have gotten us on the airline blacklist. Or worse.”
“If he were your daddy, you’d want someone to help him.”
“He’s not my father. And he’s not yours either.”
April reopened Housekeeping, preferring to speculate about Lucille’s whereabouts than continue the conversation. She liked novels with uncertain endings because life itself was so uncertain. She looked forward to page one.
At university, April majored in psychology and submitted a proposal to the department to write her senior honors thesis on “Joe Hill.” “Justify,” Professor Claude St. Aubin, her advisor, said after reading the song’s lyrics. St. Aubin spoke in one word sentences when he spoke at all; or, if he were feeling especially eloquent, in sentence fragments. In his plaid smoking jacket with velvet lapels, his customary classroom costume, he looked like an English gentleman waiting for his manservant to bestow a post-dinner cognac and cigar on him. The last behaviorist in the department, one of the few surviving Skinnerians, St. Aubin had a reputation for being more attentive to his rats than his students. April had requested an advisor whose specialty was compatible with her thesis, but had been denied.
“It’s a visitation dream,” April replied. “A ‘big dream’, to use Jungian terminology. Joe Hill’s execution must have been a transformative experience, a process of disassembly, in Alfred Hayes’s life. I’m betting “Joe Hill” is autobiographical, not historical.”
St. Aubin did not look up from his laptop into which he was entering data from his current experiment, the use of operant conditioning to induce temporary insanity in rats. The Department of Defense, desperate for new methods to break the will of suspected terrorists, had funded his proposal. In the harsh glare of the overhead fluorescents, his lapels had the same soft texture as the coats of the rats he subjected to inconsistent punishment/reward signals. April had declined his offer to be one of his lab assistants even though the weekly stipend would have covered a month’s rent. Torturing rats was as repulsive to her as the rats themselves. “A literary construct. Nothing more.”
“Visitation dreams are so common some cultures internalize them into their mourning rituals. In these cultures, they represent actual encounters with the spirits of deceased loved ones.”
St. Aubin saved his data and put his laptop in sleep mode.
“I plan to read Hayes’s poetry, novels, and short stories. See the movies and TV shows he wrote. Try and find a copy of his play. I’m confident there’s evidence of the Joe Hill dream in his writings.”
As St. Aubin zipped his laptop tote, the zipper jammed, cloth catching in its teeth. He tugged it one way, then the other, entangling more teeth with each attempt.
“It needs a woman’s touch,” April said. Holding the zipper taut, she eased it forward and backward until it opened, freeing the cloth on which it had jammed. “Zip it slowly and make sure the two sides are lined up,” she said, sliding the zipper back and forth.
“Fallback?” St. Aubin asked.
April’s mind supplied the missing words: if you intend to graduate.
Stan noisily slurped the dregs of his coffee and wadded the paper wrapper of his breakfast sandwich into a ball, flicking it into the waste basket with the nonchalance of a circus knife thrower splitting the apple balanced on the head of his buxom assistant. Stan’s body control which extended to the physical world around him was one of the things which attracted her. When he was at his best, concentrating on each move, on the contraction and relaxation of each muscle, on angles of ascension and declension, his lovemaking was other worldly, an out of body experience; but, when he was seeking only his own satisfaction, he was as animalistic as a lower primate in mating season, a dominant male having his way with an available female. At the dawn of their marriage, April was confident she could reprogram him.
“It’s going to be a long flight,” Stan said. He did not handle silence well.
“I have my headphones and my book.”
“I couldn’t get past the first few pages.”
“It’s not a skim read. You have to read it slowly. Word by word.”
“Not worth the time.”
April ate her grapes one by one, trapping the seeds with her tongue, spitting them into a napkin. She still felt shaky from the incident at security, not shaky in the sense of being afraid, but rather in the sense of existing in a physical world in which the laws of physics without warning ceased operating, a world in which gravity did not pull objects downward, in which electrons did not orbit neutrons, planets did not orbit suns, a world in which windows in the dark of night opened by themselves. So much of life depended on the immutability of certain truths, the predictability of cause and effect. She looked out the window at the jets, some landing, others taking off, taxiing toward or away from the gates, tethered to jetways engorging or disgorging passengers. She speared another grape with a plastic toothpick and thought about the old man. Where he was going? Did he catch his plane? Would her daddy have been as infirm if he lived? Her thumb tapped the dark inside the open window on Housekeeping’s cover. She wondered whether Lucille was in Boston.
To research her honors thesis, April had started with the scientific literature. To psychoanalyze Hayes’s writings, she had to become an expert on visitation dreams. She read everything from the work of Carl Jung to papers and books listed on the web site of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. She bookmarked an article which analyzed the similarities and differences between dreaming and waking acts of creativity such as writing fiction, storytelling, or making art, hoping this would rebut St. Aubin’s dismissal of the visitation dream in “Joe Hill” as a literary construct. She marveled at the diary of pseudonymous Ed who for more than 20 years after the death of pseudonymous Mary, his wife, recorded in excruciating detail every visitation dream he had of her. She found compelling the hypothesis of Deidre Barrett who correlated the type and intensity of visitation dreams with the stages of grieving through which the dreamers were passing in their waking lives. She envied the back to life dreams of those whose grief was unabated and inconsolable.
Parsing the scientific literature, she searched for references to open windows. Most were trite, the psychology of entrance and exit, coming and going. A few postulated links to personality types, open or closed. One postulated a connection between whether the dreamer felt safe or at risk in the waking world. Another theorized an intersection where dual personalities dueled for control. April dismissed these papers. They offered no insights into the lyrics of “Joe Hill.” Perhaps through those lyrics Hayes’s brain had rationalized Joe Hill’s death. That seemed a flimsy premise for a thesis.
The plane boarded on time and taxied out to the tarmac. Every seat was occupied.
“Due to heavy traffic,” the pilot announced over the intercom, “they’ll be a slight delay.”
The man sitting beside April shifted in his seat. He dressed like a frequent flyer, loose fitting shirt and pants, slip on moccasins a half-size too big. His fingernails, manicured and sealed with a clear polish, glowed in the beam of the overhead reading light. “JFK over schedules,” the man said. “We won’t be cleared for takeoff for at least 3 hours.” He clicked off his reading light, reclined his seat back, and covered his eyes with a sleeping mask and his ears with noise elimination headphones. “Pleasant dreams,” he said, too loudly because he could not hear his own voice.
My name is Ruth, April read. Word by word, she entered the world of Ruth and Lucille and the rest of the Fosters. Time on the plane slowed to the pace of time in Fingerbone, Idaho. Some sentences she read 2 or 3 times. Others, the short ones, once. The air inside the plane closed in like the winter air in the house built by Edmund Foster, its windows sealed against the weather, the cold and wind and snow, the smells of the kitchen and bathroom accumulating like spider webs in an unkempt cellar or dust balls in an unswept storage room. As the air thickened with the stink of the lavatories, the odors of the other passengers, it made sense to her now, the title of this novel, Housekeeping. After an hour, another announcement, a minor variation on the first. After two hours, the third announcement echoed both, as did the fourth after three hours. April understood now the lure of the glacial lake outside Fingerbone, its promise of escape. It wasn’t just a lake; it was a glacial lake, primitive and prehistoric in its purity, a link to a primordial past. A plunge, April thought, would be so refreshing, so renewing. She reread paragraphs, whole scenes, to immerse herself more fully in the world of Ruth and Lucille.
Beside her, Stan fussed and fidgeted, picking up and putting down the horror novel he had bought at the airport bookstore. On her other side, the man with the shiny fingernails slept as if he were at home in his own bed. Pausing to arch her back, April wondered if this man had visitation dreams, if he was having one now. She wondered if he was being visited by a dead wife, a dead parent, or, God forbid, a dead child. She settled on a dead grandfather because that seemed most in harmony with the natural order of things, Grandpa Ed after the grandfather in Marilynne Robinson’s novel. The first time Grandpa Ed visited he was sitting in the rocking chair beside the bedroom window, as big as life, the breeze through the window scented with his after shave lotion. A corona of moonlight surrounded his head. The man, again a boy, slept soundly. The reflection of the night light danced in Grandpa Ed’s eyes. Grandpa Ed said nothing – he never spoke in these dreams – but April imagined he was aware of the sleeping boy, of where the boy was, of the noises in the house, the boy’s parents talking in the kitchen, the clink of the boy’s mother’s coffee cup as she replaced it on its saucer, the flare of the match as the boy’s father lit a cigarette, the rumble of the city bus as it made its last round of the night. In Grandpa Ed’s presence, the boy felt safe, April imagined, felt protected. When the boy awoke in the morning, the rocking chair would be empty, the bedroom window would be open, and someone, perhaps Grandpa Ed, would have covered the boy with an extra blanket. Did you, mommy, the boy would ask. She scolded him for wasting money by making the heat stay on all night.
The sleeping man grunted. The world of Housekeeping seemed so far away, yet so near, the air in the plane as stifling as the air in the Foster house.
“We’ve been cleared to queue for takeoff,” the pilot announced. “We should be in the air within the hour.”
Stan pumped his fist. The sleeping man sighed. April returned to Fingerbone.
The more research April did for her thesis, the more her brilliant idea became so pedestrian. Much of the visitation dream literature was anecdotal rather than scientific. The act of dreaming, its biochemical effects on the brain, could be measured, mapped, displayed on computer screens, but the actual dream itself could not be viewed in real time by the researchers. They had to rely on the memory of the dreamer to translate dream images into words. If the memory were poor or the dreamer inarticulate, the narration was compromised, the dream’s meaning lost in clouds of irrelevancies, a bright shiny object attractive to crows, not to scientists. Was St. Aubin right? Was her thesis better suited for the English department? But, she persisted, convinced that in writing her thesis on the visitation dream in “Joe Hill” she would solve the mystery of life’s open windows.
It was early morning in Fingerbone, Idaho, before dawn, when Ruth and Sylvie went looking for the boat hidden on the shore of the glacial lake. April rode with them as Sylvie rowed across the lake, passed the day on one shore or another, sat with them that night beside the railroad bridge as they waited for the train, shared Ruth’s discomfort as she saw Helen in Sylvie, Sylvie in Helen, trembled with them as the railroad bridge shook and rumbled, hugged the piling with Ruth as the last of the train roared above their heads. With Sylvie, April peered into the dark water searching for a glimpse, a reflection, of the submerged train, Grandpa Ed’s train, which jumped the tracks so many years before, or the submerged car, Helen’s car, driven into the water with the windows open when they, Ruth and Lucille, were young girls. With them, Sylvie and Ruth, April rode the boxcar of the next morning’s freight back to town, sharing the ride with an Indian woman with an albino patch of skin in the middle of her forehead. She wondered if Ruth and Lucille dreamed of Helen, their mother, somewhere in that glacial lake, still seated behind the wheel of the car she drove into the water after depositing her daughters like the day’s milk delivery on their grandmother’s, Grandpa Ed’s wife, front porch. April wondered if they dreamt of Grandpa Ed and the other passengers of that ill-fated train. She opened Housekeeping to the first page. She would reread it from the beginning, searching for a hint, a scintilla, of a visitation dream, seeking wisdom in the patterns of open and closed windows.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, about the time Ruth and Sylvie set fire to the house Grandpa Ed built and set off to walk across the railroad bridge with three bags of bread for sustenance, April dozed off, lulled to sleep by the thickness of Robinson’s prose and the roar of the jet’s engines. Stan unbuckled his seat belt and mumbled something about needing to stretch his legs. In his place, picking a guitar, sat the old man from the airport, singing “Joe Hill.” His fingers plucked the strings as if the electricity which plagued his nervous system had been discharged.
At the end of the row the window blew out, but the old man continued singing, oblivious to the papers and cups and plastic glasses being sucked out of the cabin. The sleeping man disappeared into the black night, April’s last sight of him being his polished fingernails gripping the frame around the window. A whirlwind of luggage from the overhead bins pinballed from side to side, from ceiling to floor. Still, the old man picked his guitar and sang. Two rows to the front, a mother lost hold of her infant. The baby darted like a minnow in a tidal pool, too elusive to be grabbed until it, too, followed the sleeping man into the night. People screamed, the same screams as the passengers on Grandpa Ed’s train. The fuselage of the plane vibrated as had that train, as had the train the night Ruth and April hugged the railroad bridge piling. It angled downward, a gentle slope at first, then steeper and steeper until it was nose down. People, their carry-ons, their books and magazines, their half-eaten food, their cans and bottles, piled up in the bow of the cabin.
Calm as a summer sunrise, the old man continued to pick his guitar and sing. April joined in. A duet. Their voices harmonized as if they had been singing together their entire lives. At the second reprise of the opening lines, the airplane’s nose breached the dark Atlantic. Walls of black water rushed toward them. Smiling, the old man reached over and squeezed April’s hand. Joe Hill, ten years dead, lived again.
S. Frederic Liss has published or has forthcoming 23 short stories and has received numerous awards and other forms of recognition for his short fiction including The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction; James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost; Third prize in the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction; Finalist for the Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction sponsored by Carve Magazine; and Honorable Mention in the New Letters Literary Award for Fiction. Liss has also been published in The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. In addition, Liss has written two collections of short stories one of which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press and the other of which was a finalist in the Bakeless Prize Competition sponsored by Middlebury College and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Liss earned a MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA and was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction.