The Night Watch (Well Beyond Tears)

night watch

The corridor loomed ahead of me—all pointillistic murkiness, all reverberating shadows. The worst was about to happen, and it would happen to me . . .

I stood alone in the passageway. Look in the left room? Look in the right? Or don’t look at all? I looked in the right. Through the grid of the small glass pane, I saw an operating room lit in an acid bath of electricity, a woman on the table under the knife. Impossible to tell who the victim was, and the doctors kept to their procedures. Retreating, trying to refocus my eyes, I tried the left door. Peering again through a tiny window, the blinding sunlight made my eyes squint, my eyes stream, but eventually I was able to make out a tangle of cats milling about, their tails erect and crooked at the tip like question marks. The windows were open, clouds streamed past at disaster speed, and one by one the cats jumped onto the sills to be sucked out into the sky. I rattled the door, frantic to stop the exodus, but it was locked.

The front porch of my childhood home slowly emerged at the end of the hall, barely visible through the gloom. Home. I needed to go there. Running up the front steps, I flung open the screen door. It came off its hinges and blew away just as if I was in Kansas, but the entrance was boarded up. A small cabinet was nailed to the two by fours crisscrossing the front door, its blue paint peeling off in ribbons, a key hanging from its knob. I grabbed the key and opened it. Inside, the shallow shelves held stacks of hundred-dollar bills, each neatly rubber-banded. Picking up one wad, I closed my eyes and fanned the bills, feeling the breeze of currency against my face. But the money was fragile and crumbled in my hands, setting off a cloud of debris that transfigured into hundreds of tiny tattered insects. They flew about my head, laughing and tossing insults, then settled on the open door of the cabinet, a nattering, twitching mat. The rest of the money had vanished and the cupboard shrunk in size, its entire interior now taken up with an old rotary telephone. It rang. The worst news in the world, and I would take the call. I reached out my shaking hand . . . shaking, shaking . . .

Jolted awake, I sat up in my tousled bed, heart pounding, staring into the darkness, well beyond tears. I only wanted it to stop, to keep the thoughts, the terror at bay. Struggling into my bathrobe, I padded toward the kitchen, but veered into the den. First, a little test. Carefully, I took a box down from the closet shelf, opened it, spread apart the tissue paper and lifted out a framed photo of Michael holding Izzie on his lap. I took this shot, I remember, the Christmas we visited my parents while still in school. A charming pair those two, Michael grinning at the photographer, Izzie looking up at his newfound friend—a photographic punch to the solar plexus. I pressed the frame to my forehead, screwing up my eyes, daring it to come, but nothing came—no tears welling up, no waves of sorrow. Nothing. Which was what I wanted. I placed the picture back in its box and put it back on the shelf.

In the kitchen the blue-flame pilot lights flickering under the burners eerily illuminated the room. Switching on the light, I put the kettle on and my reflection in the black window stared back at me apathetically. Any teenage notion that the suffering tragic look would be a beauty boon was proving to be miserably false. Just dull joyless eyes sunk in a white puffy face. Trapped in the low level, I had been spinning a melancholy cocoon of late, putting on weight, letting my hair grow long and lank, covering up the body, covering up the soul.

During previous nights such as this, when I felt I had no adequate explanation for my existence—being in the way, being stupid, being ugly—I had thought of willing my earnings to a worthy cause and quietly checking out. But it would never be an option as long as my parents were alive. They did not deserve that from their depressive second daughter. I owed them something; I could do something; I could pretend I was okay. But I would never have copped out anyway. Thinking of Izzie and Ben, of Maureen and Gary, of the atrocities touted on the news each night, I did not want to give myself over to this terrible force, giving it one more victory—I hated its seemingly unlimited magnetic power, all that consciousness, all those worlds ripped out of all those minds; I’d be damned if I’d let it suck out one more body and soul.

I made a cup of instant coffee, went back into the den and turned on the cable weather station, afraid of any unintentional conjuring of emotions too painful to bear . . . Because these wings are no longer wings to fly, but merely vans to beat the air. Because I do not hope to know again . . . No more visions for me. Steam clouded the radar map as I pressed the hot mug comfortingly against my face, the glowing screen the only illumination in the room. Huddled curled up in the corner of the chair, I put the TV on mute and stared into space, my sights turned internal. Faraway choirs, wordless singing reached my ears, formless songs hanging in the air, drifting through the rooms. Unseeing for a time, my eyes eventually focused on the phone on the desk—supposedly inanimate, but capable at any time of administering a soul-curdling shock, an alarm slicing through the silence. I got up and pulled the cord out of the jack and turned the sound back on the set.

3:38 a.m. The weather people chattered on and on, one map appearing after another—New England, India, the storm maps of Australia—the chain broken only by ads for various flotsam all priced at $19.95. Sadly, these were not the directions or devices I was looking for; the meteorological symbols held no hidden meaning for me. Nonetheless, slowly, ever so slowly, peace crept over me during the remaining night hours; the warmth emanating from the mug was my creature comfort, the television drone a companionable balm for the nerves. Toward dawn I’d once again reached equilibrium, at the lowest possible level to be sure, but I had no wish to disturb it.

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