from Gliders

Bruce Henricksen


[Table of Contents]
[Editor's Note]

The morning sunlight warms the breakfast room with its familiar aura of honey and peaches, and Bob Edwards is his friendly old self on NPR. But Blake feels "different," as they say in Minnesota. It doesn't help that the view is as fine as ever, that the remaining clouds are brilliant against a blue sky as they drift over Lake Superior toward Wisconsin. Or that the pine trees all down the hillside are brushed white with fresh snow, plumes of powder floating from their branches and swirling away in the wind. All along the street, the porches and hedges have been transformed into reefs sunken beneath motionless waves of snow, although the snowscape is already marred by footprints and tire tracks. Soon the snowplow will scrape the streets, walks will be shoveled, and by mid-afternoon, with the return of children from school, the yards will erupt in forts and snowmen, the entire pristine scene morphing into a crumpled text, a history of the day's duties and desires.
      For Blake, during these past three years in Duluth, the year's first snow has always conjured pleasant memories of childhood, but this morning the memories remain irritatingly remote. Not that he spends a lot of time in the mossy ruins, but once in a while.... The fact is that for a month he hasn't felt right, different, and this morning his throat has gone raw and tight. Each breath slides down like gravel. He had hoped to share the first snowfall with his wife, but he has been alone for three days as Sandy visits her father in Minneapolis. A few months ago she won a nasty battle for power of attorney, a battle Blake had tried to ignore, and now her father is dying in Swedish Hospital.
      During these three days alone, as autumn spun itself all in a blur into winter, Blake has become increasingly aware of the soundless figures that lurk just on the edge of his vision, observing him. When he turns to look they always vanish, slipping off behind a door or around a corner, avoiding confrontation like frightened deer. When his mother lost her eyesight a few years ago, she would talk about "seeing" someone always with her, just off her left shoulder, but the doctor had assured her that the explanation was physiological.
      There is a television show called Sliders, and he wonders if it deals with phenomena similar to his new visitors. Either his gliders are real or they're what his colleagues in the sciences call "instrument artifacts," false data produced by the measuring device, in this case the eye or brain. The thought that they are real is absurd, and the other thought is worse. Maybe that is why he found himself the other day, literally found himself, in the New Age section at Barnes & Noble leafing through a book on the occult. He looked about guiltily, like a man in a trench coat reading pornography, and replaced the book on its shelf, reminding himself of his scorn for all the props and characters of superstition—bending spoons, aliens who play doctor, weeping statues, and chummy angels. These things are brain dust, nothing more. We're a foolish animal, making devils and fairies from our fears and desires. And yet ... yesterday he thought he heard a child's footsteps running across the bedroom floor upstairs. It must simply have been wind in the trees, but hairs rose on the back of his neck. And this morning, preparing to shave, his face had seemed unfamiliar to him, something rising like dough.
      Pushing aside his coffee mug and pill bottles, he reaches for the stack of student essays that has rested fallow for a week. He is only a part-time teacher now, having chucked his position at Tulane three years ago to live in Duluth, where Sandy, also freshly adrift from a belly-up marriage, had children in high school. The girl has just taken her sprinkle of freckles to Grinell College in Iowa, and the boy is now pruning his trial beard at Carleton in southern Minnesota. Blake had known Sandy for a few years before their marriage and was always amazed at the time she spent on her children, the swim meets, the music lessons, the trips to the library. Now they're gone.
      His own son is gone too, but differently. Ronnie did not do well at Tulane, too often blurred by drugs, and Blake had warned him that he would end up out in the cold. Perhaps for spite Ronnie quit school, tossed a duffel bag in his old Corolla, and headed up Interstate 55 for Canada. Blake stood on the porch waving goodbye, his arms performing the heart's disabled semaphore, and later that day he wept among objects left behind in Ronnie's room—a skateboard, his aquarium—wondering how he had failed his son's boyhood. Now he recalls isolated moments of Ronnie's childhood, moments that grow vague and turn to smoke at either end: the lost dog, the stolen bicycle, the cheeks glazed with tears. And the girl Ronnie brought home one night, lovely and shy as a butterfly. Blake and Ronnie had never communicated much, and Ronnie's last two phone calls have been over half a year apart. Maybe if there had been more ball games, more fishing trips, more....
      On the radio Morning Edition is over, and now motes dance in the air by the window to Branford Marsalis playing Faure's "Pavane." Outside the wind has lessened, and the child in his red cap continues to toss about in the same place by the alley, perhaps more slowly as though he too is moving to the pavane. Blake turns again to the papers, grading four in a single effort of concentration, circling the misspellings and occasionally observing that a sentence is garbled or that an assertion needs support.
      The scream of the telephone gives him a start that subsides into a wash of worry. Maybe it's Ronnie again. The conversation yesterday had not gone well, Ronnie garbled and drunk ... or something ... and Blake suspicious that the money he seemed to plead for (nothing was clear) would be traded for whatever it is they snort or pop these days. It isn't that Blake lacks funds. On the contrary, he played the academic game at Tulane as smoothly as Marsalis plays the sax, schmoozing where schmoozing was needed, earning royalties on his textbook, and becoming the highly visible and stipended head of an institute on literary theory. He invested fortunately and ultimately received a plump inheritance when his mother cashed in her mortal coil. In the final New Orleans years he measured time with a Rolex and spanned distances in a Jaguar. But after Blake's divorce, Ronnie stumbled up against the law one spaced-out night and was in and out of rehab programs before lighting out for Toronto. Now Blake insists that he won't finance the blowing of his son's circuits.
      As he stands and turns toward the phone, rehearsing his lecture on self-destruction, a form glides again toward the basement stairway like stage mist drifting into the wings, or like a presentiment slipping back into some cellar of the mind. It occurs to him that Ronnie became a sort of glider, slipping out of sight while Blake revved his Jag and polished his prose. And Blake himself had drifted away from Ronnie's mother in those years when pretty and pliant graduate students—usually not the scholars of the Ophelia School—were a chain of daisies.
      The child across the street is motionless behind his snowdrift, and it's is odd that he has played in one spot for the past forty-five minutes on a cold morning. The radio had said nineteen degrees. Then it dawns. Perhaps the child hasn't been playing. Perhaps he has been stuck in the snowdrift, struggling to free himself. If that's the case, then his stillness now could mean....
      Blake doesn't know the parents' names, let alone a phone number, and the police could take half an hour to arrive. His throat is dry and inflamed and he is dizzy when he stands, but he must go out. He struggles into a jacket in the front entry, and as he closes the outside door behind him he hears the phone ring. The snow is nearly to his knees, and he has not wasted time tugging on boots. He plunges around the corner of the house and then across the street, stumbling and high-stepping, clutching his collar about his neck, dreading what the coming moments may reveal. But as he approaches the snowdrift, things change.
      "Jesus Christ," he mutters.
      It isn't a child at all, and Blake realizes that the stake with its red flag, all but hidden now behind the drift, had been there all autumn long, marking the corner of a garden where, perhaps, some landscaping had been intended. What had made him think that the flag was the capped head of a little boy, and that his own footprints would document a heroic effort rather than an old man's folly? What sort of stupid drama had he, by way of misinterpretaion, written into the wind and snow?
      Without overshoes, gloves, or cap, each frozen breath slicing down his throat like a knife and his nose flooding onto his lips, he is a miserable child himself. The wind picks up again, careening down the alley, and clouds have darkened the stage. Snow whispers down from the branches of a pine, and as he turns away from the misread scene another observer glides away into its twilight world. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and stamps his numbing feet, absurdly reluctant to begin the battle back through the snow to Sandra's house, which is dark and empty and seems somehow to be sliding to a great distance beyond the street and up the hillside, as though not merely the universe but the earth itself were an expanding ball of ice. Blake realizes that he has probably locked himself out and that, in any case, the phone has stopped ringing.


"Gliders" originally appeared in The Briar Cliff Review (Spring 99).


Bruce Henricksen's fiction has been published in The Briar Cliff Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Pacific Review, and WordWrights Magazine, and his personal essay on childhood in Minnesota appeared in Southern Humanities Review. His book on Joseph Conrad, Nomadic Voices, was published by University of Illinois Press. Bruce taught at Loyola University in New Orleans for many years before returning to his home state, where he lives by Lake Superior with the always wonderful Victoria.