After the torturous night of fever and not being able to sleep or write, Noah woke to words again—and the calm they created for him: a path he could not see all night opened in daylight, after dreamless sleep, to the estuary, to the sea—that was still there quiet at low tide without any wind. He was calm again. The sea air on his face reminded him that his feverish state had finally ended and that its departure had paved the way for sleep.
He had four days to write; well, three and a half after meeting with Serena, which he craved, to be in her presence once again. He had been worried sick on top of sickness—that the empty canvas of the three and a half days would stretch empty and long; a missed opportunity because all his sentences, creative thoughts, resonant images, and word combinations—had vanished in the night. Usually, he woke with words pouring forth from his waking mind onto sticky notes that he numbered and alphabetized, color-coded—but it was night, he learned, when he saw that the clock by his bed indicated that it was a bit past midnight and not the next day, as he originally thought.
The sheets of his bed were wet with his sweat, but he stayed in them, too tired to alight from his bed or remove his articles of clothing, his soft flannel shirt and lounge pants. He had been very cold, he remembered; the cold that often takes hold of one’s bones before illness. Finally, he stood, turned on the paler of the two lamps of the small bookcase by his bed, and went to the hallway to turn on the heat. Wallace, confused, followed him.
“Want to go outside, boy?” he coaxed the sleepy dog that had been cuddled up next to him for hours; strong head nuzzled in his chest. The cool night air would calm Noah, and perhaps a cigarette, as well.
When he looked up in the backyard and found the stars in their new places, crisp and lovely, he sighed a breath of relief. He couldn’t afford to be sick; not now. He had so much writing to do and the days off, finally, in which to complete a few chapters of the new book and finalize the almost-finished book before sending it to a suitable publisher, he convinced himself, while squinting up at the sky.
It was a mystery to him how he lived in New York City for ten years, sandwiched between skyscrapers and then apartment buildings with too many faceless strangers. How he had hungered for the open sky, the presence of stars, the sea and moonlight beaming down softly with its watery light. The first few years in the city were especially lonely with so much anonymity and dearth of human eye contact, but the museums and art galleries made up for that during the initial years of displacement. But his studies became problematic, and the next six or seven years felt more like a prison sentence than a cultural nirvana.
His gaze shifted in the silence of his backyard to the edge of pine trees, sentinels still standing watch even after all the winds. There had been no rustling in the yard. The rabbit did not appear; the bat he had heard a few days ago did not make a sound if it were there at the tips of darkness. He hadn’t heard the owl in weeks, but she disappeared like that without notice, but he always feared that her lifespan came to a sudden end behind the dilapidated shed. He had looked up the lifespan of owls native to the area a few years ago and thought it was just two or three years that owls lived but was confused, still feverish, that he was thinking of the birds and not the owl. He would check again when he was feeling better, able to steady the phone in his hand, find his reading glasses.
He had been listening to Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky for hours after returning from work, too depleted to do any of his own writing, tend to the laundry, prepare any food. He needed to recline, rest his neck that was stiffened by the tedious work on a mammoth spreadsheet that was particularly stressful—and to be distracted by a human voice that was not his own. He had listened to the chapters of Port’s worsening typhoid, the fever taking the character in and out of consciousness far beyond the desert landscape of Algeria into a minimalist, strange, yet comforting place without language. The novel was causing him added anxiety, however, about his own fiction; the new novel, specifically.
Why was he still listening to the existential masterpiece? Wouldn’t it interfere with his own writing? He never read novels when he was writing one, but without TV, he needed a respite, some entertainment and his new take-away was that he was studying, though tired, his craft. How long did it take Bowls to write the novel?, he wondered; hoping it was years, which would alleviate the welling intimidation.
Without being aware of the sudden motion of his hands, he blessed himself, which had become a strange gesticulation after so many years of being a self-proclaimed part-time atheist, as he liked to explain it, to make sense of it, and partly, he knew, to throw the person in earshot off his or her gait into discombobulation. This automatic practice of touching his forehead, chest, left, then right shoulder and then, ever-so-briefly clasping his cold hands together had come into play after surviving his row with cancer. And it surprised him every time, this new punctuation he used to end-cap a bad spell, however small or trite, like the last twenty-four hours, which fell into the former category and not the latter.
Now that the prior day had distance, he could look at it, understand. It had all turned badly when his debit card was declined in the drive-through, when the kind teller with the sad face returned it after the odd bells of the sales machine sounded. “I’m sorry, sir, your card was declined.” Last week’s work compensation must not have hit his checking account, which he mumbled to her embarrassingly as he drove into the Church parking lot next to work and proceeded to check his bank’s phone app for his balance.
“Fuck!” Another installment of his bundled home and auto insurance had been taken out and yes, the paltry week of pay had been deposited, but now subtracted into the red, or defiant figures in parentheses, really. It seemed the insurance premium withdrawal had just come out several weeks ago, not a quarter, so he called, calmed himself, and listened to the options on the menu. His heart was racing, so he input a string of zeros to expedite a human voice on the line. It’s funny, he thought, how we think of it as a line, when the call is digital now or electronic. But he must stay on task.
The kind person that took his call energetically because there would be a brief optional customer service survey at the end of the call, explained that the payments were deducted monthly, not quarterly, for two years now—except for January, that month was free from payment, a kind of gift from the insurance company for holiday spending; she seemed proud of her company, he thought, and not merely reading from a script. She was young, he could tell; in no way jaded yet.
This poverty so soon again— immediately wore him down as if he were almost reclining, wanting to lie in bed but he needed to stay vertical, collect himself, impart cheer when he walked through the automatic doors at work, for which he was grateful. Doors, especially to one’s day job, can be so heavy, especially with the wind picking up, visibly shifting piles of fallen autumn leaves.
His sense of time was off, undoubtedly. So much money seemed to disappear from his bank account the last three months, and he was on guard, unlike when he is in the throes of depression or Melancholia, as he would rather call it; nomenclature was everything, wasn’t it? he reminded himself. When Melancholia had him in her arms, pulling him down with a disturbing, powerful dirge, he was unable to check his phone apps, his bank account, his voicemail, if there were any, and he hoped there would not be anyone trying to call him, ask anything of him, especially how he was. Unless it was a call from Gavin. For his son, he would promptly muster some fake cheerfulness, but Gavin never called.
He felt Melancholia in all corners of the theatrical half-public stage that morning suddenly; out of nowhere she had appeared, ready to pounce on his vulnerable state. The mathematical figures in parenthesis at the top of his checking account activity caused him to travel down the path in his slowing thoughts to the word failure. Yes, he was a failure—unlike Rebecca, Gavin, and so much of the Western world. He was akin to his dead father, whom his poor mother had found in the cellar, dangling from an orange electrical cord with the kitchen chair lying on the ground. That image always returned to him as if it were he who had found his father and not his mother. If only. If only he could have taken away that picture of time seared into her memory while she was alive.
And now, in the afterlife, did his mother see his father again? And did she forgive him for his premature, chosen departure? Forgive him for leaving her to support their two children on a librarian’s salary? His mother didn’t understand depression, but Noah did all too well, and forgave his father many years ago though he missed him; missed a father figure, a role model, someone to throw a baseball with in the backyard, conspire with against his mother and sister as men must do, he thought—but he really didn’t know.
The automatic doors opened, and he gathered his energy for the next six hours, a shortened day before the holiday. “Good morning,” his voice rose to greet the receptionist, who smiled at him warmly. His voice surprised him; how skilled he had become at acting the part of one of the cave inhabitants in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” tucked back into the cave after, in his case, finding the light a bit too strenuous this morning.
He was happy for the reprieve of work, for sitting at a desk and focusing on work not his own. Six hours. He would not look at his watch nor the bottom right corner of the laptop. He would stay as pleasant and busy as possible. Once he reached the inside of his car at three o’clock, he would light a cigarette and drive the twenty-one miles home, not thinking of work but only of the four days in front of him, an open road that led to a beautiful field of tall grass and clover.
He would take Wallace for a walk and then lie down with him on his bed, thinking of the new sentences he would write, that would find him, Noah— a good man, who was rewarded for his goodness, saved from forty days of torrential rain, from prostate cancer, from himself. It would be a good four days. He did not know then that he would have a fever, anxiety, or that Melancholia would hover in the House, waiting for him. But he would coax her away; he would win again—at least this time.