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.

 

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

Samuel46detail from  Merida Daytime by Samuel Barrera

 

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