Fiction

Karl Wallenda’s Watch

by Bill Meissner

 

 

Each step should be precise and tight and complete, he thinks,

the sides of the foot cupped around the wire as you walk the toward

the middle. Each step should be graceful and exact, and so

silent that you can hear the gasps of the crowd below, a sound

like fluttering wings.

 

The dream fades from Chance’s mind. He finds himself in a

circus museum, staring through a glass display case. Inside it is

the wrist watch Karl Wallenda wore when he fell to his death.

“Look,” he says to the woman he loves, who tours the museum with

him on their weekend getaway, “It’s Wallenda’s watch.” But

when he turns toward her, he sees that she has walked further down

the display and doesn’t hear him above the off-key circus music

piped through the overhead speakers. “Look,” he says again, but

she’s already turned the corner and entered another room of the

display. It bothers him lately that, he never seems to speak to

her at the right time, and that she never seems to hear him.

 

For the past couple of years, Chance has had the recurring

dream of walking a tightrope, a silver wire strung over a dark

canyon. In the dream, he’s standing on the brightly painted red and

yellow plywood platform, concentrating on the wire that’s perfectly motionless,

like a silver crack in the sky. He places his first shivering

bare foot on it and leans his weight forward. He knows the crowd

is down there, their upturned faces like pebbles at the bottom of a

clear stream, but he doesn’t look at them. He follows with his

left foot, and he lets go of the support ropes on the platform as

drops of sweat burn his eyes. Before he knows it, he’s halfway

across, staring straight ahead as he knows he must, the soles of

his feet finding the wire ahead of him. In the dream, he always

thinks how it’s easier than he thought it would be—this being

halfway. He’s an artist now, and it’s a slow, graceful float over

the canyon below, as if he were a bird, gliding. Before he

realizes it, he’s almost to the gray platform on the other side.

That’s when the wire begins to waver, as if there’s an earthquake,

as if the whole earth is shifting its weight left, then right, then

left.

 

At that moment the wire suddenly widens and flattens and

Chance wakes in a bed next to the woman he loves, and he feels the

sweat on his face, the adrenalin making his heart squeeze hard like

a fist grasping to hold on to something.

 

He always wakes at that moment when the wire wavers.

 

He never knows if he falls, or if he makes those final

steps onto the other platform, never has the chance to hear

the applause from the tense audience, gathered below at the edges

of the canyon. He sits up in a bed that’s still and solid and

unmoving. And when he leans over and kisses her, it finally brings

him back to pure, sweet consciousness.

 

* * *

 

One night, when he woke from his dream, his kiss woke her.

 

“Why did you kiss me?” Grace whispered.

 

“So I know I’m not falling,” he said.

 

“Falling?” she said, her sleepy voice becoming more practical.

 

“Why would you be falling?”

 

He never answered her question, didn’t really how to respond.

 

After all, he’s never told her about this recurring dream; he just

keeps the falling inside himself, where it belongs.

 

* * *

 

Today, in the museum, Chance stares through the glass case at the

pictures of The Flying Wallendas, sees them on bicycles on the wire, sees

the famous seven-person chair pyramid, a tight-rope act which they performed

without a net. The pyramid collapsed one day, dropping several

of the family members to their deaths. He cringes when he reads

the placard which describes the accident. Chance wonders a lot lately

about life’s straight lines that seem to lead you forward, and the

way you have to balance to stay on. He tries not to think about

falling off. He is always honest with himself except when it comes

to the falling.

 

The placard describes how Karl Wallenda—known as The

Great Wallenda—was injured in the incident and,

and, after recuperating, got back on the high wire again.

All the survivors stepped back on the wire again to perform

more circus shows. What must have been going through their minds

when they climbed back onto that wooden platform and touched their

toe to the wire again? Chance wonders. They couldn’t have allowed

their minds any image of that deadly fall. All they could possibly

think was toe to wire, next step, next step. That’s the only way

to approach it, he thought: one step after the other, shoulders

arched back proudly. Never a thought of the darkness below.

Confidence was their only net.

 

At the front of the display case is the watch worn by The

Great Wallenda at the time of his death. Chance can hardly get

himself to study it, but he forces himself: It’s a simple watch,

with a plain black leather wristband and a small, delicate silver

watchface. Chance is amazed that the crystal of the watch is not

cracked or broken. The placard tells that Karl, at age 73, walked between

two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico when a sudden gust of wind

caused the wire to sway. He was holding his balance pole, but that

didn’t help—the pole suddenly tilted to one side, pulling him, and he fell.

Chance pictures the moment: Karl’s outstretched fingertips

reaching for a wire which might as well have been a thousand miles

away.

 

He wonders: What went through Karl’s mind as he fell to the

pavement 121 feet below? Did he close his eyes? Did he

concentrate with all his powers, trying to transform solid concrete

into a layer of sponge? Did he hear someone in the audience call out to him,

a soft voice, as if to break his fall? Or did he simply accept

that this was his fate: to be destroyed by what he loved most, and

to know that if he had the chance to live his life again, he would

climb back on that wire. He would climb back on it again and

again. He would do what he loved, no matter if his fragile bones

shattered a thousand times.

 

The hands of Wallenda’s watch read ten after twelve. As he stares

at it, Chance wonders: did the watch stop at ten after twelve, exactly

at the moment when the pavement rushed up to meet Karl? Or did it

keep running for a while, pulling Karl’s spirit into the future for

a few minutes or hours before it finally wound down?

 

Chance’s mind races—he wants to ask Grace these questions,

he wants to tell her his dream, but she’s already walked further

along the circus displays and has turned the corner into the next

room. As he walks down the narrow, picture-lined hallway to look

for her, he finds himself placing one foot in front of the other,

delicately, along a seam in the concrete floor.

 

When he turns the corner, she’s there, standing in front of a

brightly painted red and yellow circus wagon. She looks up at him,

her eyes large, blue, two pools of sky.

 

“What’s wrong, Chance?” she asks, her voice melodic. “You

look pale, like something terrible happened.”

 

“It did,” he says. “The Great Wallenda died. He fell from

the wire and was killed.”

 

A puzzled look washes across her face. She puts her hand on

his shoulder. “I know that,” she says. “But that was a long time

ago. You say it like it just happened.”

 

He looks down at his feet and sighs. “I feel like it just

did. ”

 

He looks into her eyes and he wants to say more. She’s always

so certain about her career in business, confident about her life, her

direction, thinks Chance. He wishes he could explain everything

to her, but just like the Great Wallenda couldn’t find the wire as

he fell, he can’t find the right words.

 

* * *

 

Back at the motel, he tosses in the bed for a long time,

unable to sleep. He looks at his wrist, notices that he forgot to

take his watch off before bed. He stares at the face of the watch,

its faintly glowing hands already past two a.m..

 

He knows he might have the dream again when he falls asleep,

knows he might be taking those steps across the middle of the tightrope,

that, even though it’s only a few yards long, will seem to stretch into

infinity. One foot in front of the other with exact gracefulness,

and, when he approaches the far platform, everything will begin to

waver. Knows that he’ll suddenly look clumsy up there, not an

artist at all—his whole body wobbling like a top that’s lost its

spin, knows that the darkness might rise up from the canyon to

swallow him and that he’ll feel no balance, no balance at all.

But right now that doesn’t matter. Right now what matters is

that he’s close to the woman he loves. He slides his arms around

her, and kisses her cheek. She jolts slightly, as if waking.

 

“I was dreaming…” she whispers, her voice sounding suddenly

frail.

 

“Dreaming what?”

 

“I dreamt I was in the middle of a tightrope wire. It must

have been the museum. And what you said about Wallenda.” She

pulls back from him a moment and he sees, for the first time, a

fear, a doubt behind the beautiful, unbreakable bones of her face.

He hates to see that look on her face, but he loves her for it, too.

She clicks on the lamp, sits up in bed and seems to shiver.

He notices, for the first time, a slight tint of gray on the side

of her hair.

 

“Don’t worry,” he tries to assure her. “It was just a dream.”

 

He thinks maybe this is the time to tell her about his dream, about

the strange coincidence of common dreams, but then he decides that

maybe it would upset her more. So he keeps quiet about it. Maybe

he’ll tell her first thing in the morning, or on their long drive

home. The words will rush out, and he’ll tell her about Karl

Wallenda’s watch, and how far he fell, and how the crystal wasn’t

even shattered. And maybe she’ll tell him her worries, too, her

wavering. Maybe she’ll admit that her life, which always seemed

to stretch so far out in front of her when she was young, doesn’t

seem so endless any more. Maybe they’ll tell each other that

there’s no holding still, there’s no guarantee that, once they

reach the great middle, they won’t lose their balance and fall.

He clicks off the light, touches her hand and they embrace

across the canyon of the bed. He feels her breath on his sweating

neck, feels her thoughts intertwine with his like a strong, tight

cord, feels the tingle of static electricity in her skin.

He hears his voice, her voice calling out from a distance, as

if they were watching someone falling, or as if they themselves

were falling.

 

She sits up suddenly and says, “Talk to me.”

 

“About what?” he asks.

 

“Anything,” she sighs. “Just talk to me.”

 

For a few seconds, he doesn’t say a word, just closes his

eyes. It occurs to him that now, right now, is the time to talk

about everything. He pulls her tightly to him and feels her hands,

like nets, pulling him at the same moment. They balance there together,

as if it will always be this way between them: catching each other,

then falling, then catching each other again.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Bill Meissner’s first novel, SPIRITS IN THE GRASS, about a small town ballplayer who finds the remains of an ancient Native American burial ground on a baseball field, was published in 2008 by the University of Notre Dame Press and won the Midwest Book Award. The book is available as an ebook from the UND Press. Meissner’s two books of short stories are THE ROAD TO COSMOS, [University of Notre Dame Press, 2006] and HITTING INTO THE WIND [Random House/SMU Press, Dzanc Books ebook].

Meissner has also published four books of poems: AMERICAN COMPASS, [U. of Notre Dame Press], LEARNING TO BREATHE UNDERWATER and THE SLEEPWALKER’S SON [both from Ohio U. Press], and TWIN SONS OF DIFFERENT MIRRORS [Milkweed Editions].

“Karl Wallenda’s Watch” is included in Meissner’s newly-released chapbook of stories and poems, THE GLASS CARNIVAL, published by Paper Soul Press,  Pittsburgh, Pa.  [papersoulpress@gmail.com].

He is director of creative writing at St. CloudStateUniversity in Minnesota. His web page is: http://web.stcloudstate.edu/wjmeissner/

His Facebook author page is:
http://www.facebook.com/mobileprotection#!/pages/Bill-Meissner/174769532541232?sk=info

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

 

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Samuel46detail from  Merida Daytime by Samuel Barrera

 

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Poetry

A Lost Face and then Some & other poems

by Tom Sheehan

 

 

A Lost Face and then Some

 

When asked to read to celebrate my new book of memoirs,

I let the audience enter the cubicle from where the work came.

I told them: I’ll celebrate with you by telling you what I know,

how it is with me, what I am, what has made me this way;

a public posture of a private life near nine decades deep.

 

Just behind the retina, a small way back, is a little room.

with secret doors, passageways, key words beside Sesame.

If you’re lucky enough to get inside that room, at the right time,

there’s ignition, a flare, now and then pure incandescence,

a white phosphorous shell detonating ideas and imagery.

 

It’s the core room of memories, holding everything

I’ve ever known, seen, felt, spurting with energy.

Shadowy, intermittent presences we usually know

are microscope-beset, become most immediate.

For glorious moments, splendid people rush back

 

into our lives with their baggage, Silver Streak unloaded,

Boston’s old South Station alive, bursting seams.

At times I’ve been lucky, white phosphorescently lucky;

when I apprehend all, quadrangle of Camp Drake in Japan

in February of 1951, the touch and temperature of the breeze

 

on the back of my neck; I know a rifle’s weight on a web

strap on my shoulder, awed knowledge of a ponderous

steel helmet, tight lace on a boot, watch band on one wrist.

Behind me, John Salazer is a comrade with two brothers

not yet home from World War II, who the captain calls

 

and says, “You go home tomorrow. Be off the hill before dark.”

“No, sir, I’ll spend the night with Jack down in the listening post.”

At darkness a Chinese infiltrator hurls a grenade into their bunker.

The count begins again, eternal count, odds maker at work,

clash of destinies. On the ship heading home, on a troop train

 

rushing across America, in all rooms of sleep since then,

are spaces around me. Memory, fragile, becomes tenacious,

but honors me as a voice, and my will to spread their tenacity.

My book says, ‘For those who passed through Saugus, all towns,

comrades bravely walked away from home to fall elsewhere,

 

and the frailest one of all, frightened, glassy-eyed, knowing

he is hapless, one foot onto D-Day soil or South Pacific beach

and going down, but not to be forgotten, not ever here.”

I had their attention. We shared: The shells were cannonading

as one died in my arms, blood setting sun down. In darkness now

 

I cannot find his face again. I search for it, stumble, lose my way.

November’s rich again, exploding. Sixty-four Novembers burst

the air. I inhale anew, leaves bomb me, sap is still, muttering

of the Earth is mute. I remember all the Novembers; one tears

about me now, but his face is lost. How can I find his face again?

 

 

Burial for Horsemen

(For my father, blind too early.)

 

The night we listened to an Oglala life

on records, and shadows remembered

their routes up the railed stairway like

a prairie presence, I stood at your bed

 

counting the days you had conquered.

The bottlecap moon clattered into your

room in vagrant pieces…jagged blades

needing a strop or wheel for stabbing,

 

great spearhead chips pale in falling,

necks of smashed jars rasbora bright,

thin flaked edges tossing off the sun.

Under burden of the dread collection,

 

you sighed and turned in quilted repose

and rolled your hand in mine, searching

for lighting only found in your memory.

In moon’s toss I saw the network of your

 

brain struggling for my face the way you

last saw it, a piece of light falling under

the hooves of a thousand horse ponies,

night campsites riding upward in flames,

 

the skyline coming legendary.

 

 

 

Gandy Dancer of the Phoebe Snow

 

You began right in front of me today.

I don’t know where you came from,

patient muscles hanging loose in your

soil-painted, dark-blue suit coat,

one pocket ripped to a triangle,

one pocket stuffed oh so properly

with a coffee-filled paper-wrapped

pint bottle, your thin legs nailed down

into a pair of the saddest brown pants,

a long-handle spade extending your arms,

eyes folded over reaching for noon.

 

Off behind you, faded to gray,

jetted the rip of animate steam,

coal gases; railroad track arrowing

onto a lake top that still does not exist.

 

You said, “Manja,” and laughed at me,

your big teeth ripe of red meat and bread,

voice as loud as your hands slapping with music.

 

You untied the red bandanna at your neck,

a sun-bothered sail of red bandanna,

wiped the brow under a felt hat, sucked

at the papered bottle until I tasted iodine

at the bend of my throat, smelled coal dust

coming a talc over us, like a dry fog.

 

It was the same yesterday when I made

a v-grooved pole to hold the clothesline up,

and over the fence a visitor from the Maritimes

said, “You go back a long way. I haven’t seen

a pole like that in years and years.”

 

So I guess you came the way the pole did,

out of the roads I’ve traveled, down lanes

stuffed like chairs, past yard geographies,

a long view over trees, out of some

thing I was, an organic of memory,

celluloid flashing of wide spaces

I passed through, the odors I thought

I wore or was, cannons at the edge

of a distant war, colors banging

their permanence tightly against

the back of my eyes,

 

pieces of the circle I find myself on,

where you were a moment ago, just

out the window of my mind, bearing

the riddle of a melancholy whistle

from hollows among the Rockies.

 

 

Face of an Old Western Barn

 

The motley barn, like an old stain

gone haywire, is a dread easel.

Knots, carved into walls like old

promises, wait for campfires

or late hearths, warmth from Earth’s

beginning.

 

Only the darkness is inconclusive where

night points its finger. In the deep aches

knots have fallen from, stars fall in, fields

of them, with the evening leader digging

deepest, digging first after yesterday’s carcass

linking still in the eyes’ behavior.

 

Shadows, upstaging any moon, argue on

its surfaces laterally. I have seen more mandates

than dreams in the dim recesses where wood

envies time, chases after it a whole age of

transparent death; just sunken cedars

in the swamp, drowned black, live on longer,

scaled at new livelihood.

 

Against a thousand storms this barn has stood,

never folding inward, only down by faint degrees

of ant strokes, termite mandibles, the odd carpenter;

its shoulders going sideways, knees turning softly,

its breath slow and halting.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights, and Vigilantes East.  eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. Co-editor of A Gathering of Memories, and Of Time and the River, two collections about our home town of Saugus, Massachusetts, both 400+ pages, 4500 copies sold, all proceeds from $40.00 each cost destined for a memorial scholarship for my co-editor, John Burns, in the Saugus School system as director of the English Department at the High School for 45 years. After conception of the idea for the books, and John putting out the word for material to be included by former students, and with a proposal of actions and schedules I prepared for a local bank, ten of his former students signed a loan from the bank for $60,000 to print two books not yet written!!!!

And paid it off!!!!

 

* * * * * * * * * *

jane30

painting by Jane Gilday

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