Evan Mulder normally sleeps like a baby. Obviously, he thinks, the guy who first said that about babies hadn’t met any—certainly not his and Mae’s. As infants, both Alex and Lizzie were light sleepers whose wails through the baby monitor jolted Evan awake. Most nights, now that the kids are both a little older (eleven and three), he contentedly slides into bed beside Mae. He’s on the side nearest the door, as he’s been ever since they eloped twelve years ago (a memorable, transgressive Tuesday in July 1980 that feels far away now). He’ll rub her back or scratch it for a minute, whatever she wants, then kiss her neck or an ear. Maybe he’ll test whether she’s interested in something more. If not, he rolls over and nods off in short measure—less than a minute, if Mae’s calculations are right. She’s shared this exasperating number with friends and family. Like the kids, she’s a light sleeper who may take an hour or more to settle for the night. Evan frequently boasts to anyone who’ll listen that he falls asleep so easily because he has a clear conscience. His father-in-law once suggested it’s a sign of having no conscience whatsoever.
But for more than a week now, Evan has woken up from a recurring nightmare. He’s high up, hanging onto the edge of a dome with his left hand. The sky is a brilliant blue vault above him, populated by circling birds he can’t quite identify—maybe eagles or vultures riding updrafts. Below him is a vast expanse of thin air, a gaping space terminating in an asphalt parking lot filled with cars, including their 1988 Plymouth Voyager minivan. He knows in his dream that this is the Houston Astrodome, though he’s never been to Houston and has only ever seen the dome in television images from baseball games. He doesn’t know why it’s not the SkyDome, which would make more sense given that he lives in Ontario and is a Blue Jays fan. Like their minivan, the SkyDome’s now about three or four years old—a youngster loomed over by the imposingly mature and upright CN Tower.
In the dream, Mae hangs from his right hand, her grip painfully tight, and he feels his left hand slipping from the lip of the dome. His fear of the height is paralyzing. There’s the horrifying moment of release, his grip on both Mae and the dome lost, their rushing down to the van or its rushing up to them, he can’t tell. He erupts out of the dream, a sudden reversal of gravity that jars all his internal organs.
Like the biblical Joseph, Mae’s been busy analyzing the dream for him. Over breakfast the first morning, she offered this probe, reading imaginary tea leaves in her cup: “Maybe you secretly want to dump me, but because you come from a long line of Calvinists you’re afraid of the guilt you’d feel, so you’re punishing yourself through an act of suicidal self-dropping. Maybe you really believe you’re going to hell, you good old Puritan, you. And the road to hell starts in a stadium parking lot. Maybe hell is a paved parking lot.”As a fan of Joni Mitchell, he had to agree with Mae about the parking lot, but he protested the rest.
One night before bed he was watching a baseball game in the family room and she suggested this tie in, blocking his view of Joe Carter’s at-bat: “In your heart of hearts you really want to be a professional baseball player rather than an accountant, so you’re experiencing an identity crisis. You’re trying to climb into the Astrodome to get on the field, where a game’s obviously going on, but I’m a drag on you. I might as well be a ball and chain in the dream, tied to your wrist and weighing you down. I’m killing your dream.” Finished her diagnosis, she plopped down beside him on the couch, just in time for them to catch the ball descending sharply over the centre field wall. “Did he just get a touchdown?”
On Saturday afternoon, they headed out to do some shopping, Alex and Lizzie in the back of the van. As Evan drove, Mae offered this interpretation: “Maybe it’s all about the van. You’re experiencing anxiety about whether it’s going to start each morning, worried about whether we can get another year out of it. You’re even deeply ashamed of it. It emasculates you. What you really want is a sports car with a blond in the passenger seat, so you’re willing—in the dream, of course, I’m not saying you’d do this in real life—you’re willing to drop me on the van so that it’ll be destroyed by the impact. It’s a small sacrifice, but you want the insurance—both for the van and me—so you can get the fancy car and the bimbo. Problem is, you end up destroying yourself too and never get the car of your dreams. The saddest thing for you is you can’t collect any of the insurance because you’re dead.” Evan checked the rearview mirror to see how closely Alex and Lizzie were listening. Certain they weren’t, he asked Mae if she knew any blonde bimbos.
One night after sex, they were sharing a bar of dark chocolate. Musing between squares, she spun this psychoanalytic web: “The dome, I think, is actually a giant boob. After all, you are a boob man. You’re trying to scale the boob like a mountain climber, but it’s not one of my boobs so I’m holding you back. Secretly, you want to have an affair with a single-breasted Amazon warrior—possibly that Rebecca Postma your mom wanted you to marry—so you’re trying to drop my two boobs like a couple of hot potatoes to get your hands on at least one of that hussy’s boobs. You know, a boob in the hand is worth two in the bra.” Finished, she started licking the chocolate from her fingers. He protested that she was already more Amazon warrior than he could handle—why would he want another? But that night when he dreamt, the dome took on a fleshy look and feel that strangely heightened his fright.
The next morning, they were in the bathroom getting ready for the day and she picked up the bluebird of happiness off the window ledge. While he was shaving, she mused, “Maybe it’s all about those birds. They’re way up high where you want to be, unafraid in their natural element, but your arms aren’t wings and you can’t get to them. You really want to be a bird, not an accountant—sounds like a Daedalus and Icarus thing. It could be one of those birds is your father, and you’re afraid he’s completely forgotten to make you a set of wings, too. Of course, things didn’t end too well for Icarus—would have been better if he’d been afraid of heights, like you.” Evan appreciated Mae’s ability to recall myths learned in high school and make sense of their own lives from them.
“Or maybe the birds represent astronauts way above you in orbit—out of reach because I’m gravity in your life and won’t let you lift off. After all, it is the Astrodome, and Houston is all about NASA. That’s it—I’m your gravity, pulling you into the grave—get the connection, gravity-grave—and you’re not happy about it. The whole thing’s a harrowing experience for you.” He’d never thought of being an astronaut, though he did build a model rocket in high school.
“Or given your upbringing, maybe those birds are angels, and you’re looking for them to rescue us. Could even be that one of them is the Archangel Michael, you know, like your middle name. If my memory’s right, he’s quite the warrior, leading God’s army against Satan and defeating old Lucifer, fallen archangel that he is.” As Evan Michael’s razor stalled and hovered in midair, Mae put down the bluebird and started brushing her teeth, seemingly satisfied with her latest explanation. He stared into the mirror at his half-lathered face. He sought the archangel there, but couldn’t find him.
Now, a few days later, he is both amused and disturbed by Mae’s dream readings. Maybe in some of them she’s too close to the truth. There has to be some reason he keeps having the dream, some warning knot in his mind or cautionary tale sent by the universe. What he does know for sure is that his old fear of heights has kicked into high gear, that he’s afraid of developing vertigo. He feels haunted and hunted by disaster.
What goes up must come down. He’s known it since childhood. After all, he grew up during the Cold War, the arms race, the race to the moon. Rockets escaping earth’s gravity. Rocket men bounding on earth’s pockmarked satellite. Rockets raining down from the sky. All those countries with all their missiles, all their bombs puncturing the skin-thin dome of blue surrounding the Earth. He remembers that most of the atmosphere is within just ten miles of the Earth’s surface, the rest thinning out to nothingness at 300 miles. The drive from their farmhouse to his parents’ home in London is about ten miles. That’s all. He imagines driving ten miles straight up, and falling back down, the van stalling before he achieves the balance point of orbit.The van’s impact blows a crater in the pasture. He imagines himself in the crater, trying to see over the lip of upturned earth.
He dwells on painful falls. Years ago, Alex falling forward off his tricycle and smacking his mouth on the cement sidewalk, on their way home from the dentist no less. At the top of the stairs, Mae grabbing Lizzie’s ankle to prevent a tumble after she had squirmed out of her mothering arms. His cousin Martha’s husband Andy, a construction worker who fell to his death from the top of a highrise he was working on.
He remembers watching the Challenger Space Shuttle explode, over and over on the news. It wasn’t that many years ago, five or six—seventy-three seconds of glorious flight against gravity blown apart by something as simple as failed seals. Seven lives consumed by fire, raining down to earth. What remains couldn’t be identified buried in an Arlington Cemetery monument.The remains of the shuttle sealed underground in abandoned Minuteman missile silos. He thinks of the model rocket he built in high school, how simple and innocent it all seemed then.
Now, he’s on guard, on high alert. He’s cautious on stairs and escalators, stays clear of windows and balconies, grips railings in elevators. He considers trimming the legs on the kitchen table and chairs so they’re closer to the floor, maybe learning to eat reclined on pillows, Roman style. He checks the weather forecast for meteor showers. Whenever he’s outside in the yard, he keeps one eye on the sky for hail, lightning, tornadoes, descending planes, errant hot air balloons, and freak flying fish. In the car, he keeps the other eye out for sudden sinkholes. Even barn swallows and birds on wires become potential dive bombers. To protect Alex and Lizzie, he’s pulled down and hidden the ladder to the barn loft. He’s mulling over whether he should dismantle the play centre, or maybe get a truckload of foam installed beneath it and around it. Or maybe he should just clothe the kids in bubble wrap.
If the dream doesn’t go away, he’ll dismantle all their beds and leave the mattresses on the floor. If the news stories don’t change, he’ll start digging a bomb shelter.
“You can’t avoid it forever. If we don’t do it soon, they’ll collapse from the weight.” It’s a Saturday morning early in September, and Mae’s trying to cajole Evan into cleaning the eavestroughs before they’re filled with a fresh load of leaves from the Silver Maples, Kentucky Coffees, Weeping Willows, and other Carolinian trees that surround their old farmhouse. They’re finishing up their bathroom reno by painting the wainscoting together. It’s tight quarters, but they’re managing. The dream has subsided in the past few weeks. It comes a little less frequently, but it continues to hover just outside his consciousness.
“Maybe we should let them fall off and pay someone to put up new ones.” He knows this is a lame idea, but he can’t think of a better one to get himself out of this bind. He needs a deus ex machina to intervene. He’d settle for an archangel.
“After all the money we’ve put into the house this summer, you know we can’t afford to hire someone.”
“Guess I’ll have to rise to the occasion.”
“That’s a groaner.” She pauses in her brush stroke. “Don’t worry, I’ll help. If nothing else, I’ll break your fall if you tumble from the ladder.” He imagines losing his grip, his balance faltering so he’s pulled into a backward drop that knocks Mae to the ground in a cartoonish splat.
The summer of his nightmare is the summer they bought this old hobby farm and left city life behind. Maybe, he thinks, the house is the source of his nightmare. Maybe the house is the nightmare. The house needs a ton of work, years’ worth, and so far they’ve gutted it of a dumpster-load of plaster and lath. What’s exposed are comfortingly massive beams and joists, but also the insides of a double brick wall—without a shred of insulation. The outside has been neglected for years, if not decades. He’s had to block off the porch because the floor boards and railings are rotten, as is the roof. The gutters are filled almost to the brim with humus, a mixture of shingle grit and decayed leaves, and the downspouts are clogged. Rain just washes down the roof and over the eaves, creating waterfalls that dig a channel in the ground below. In several spots, plants are growing out of the gutters, including a maple sapling. If he doesn’t act soon, he may have a forest on this roof. But if he’s careful, maybe he can transplant the sapling from the gutter to the ground. After all, it’s a free tree.
He can hear the kids outside on the tire swing suspended from the large maple on the southwest corner of the house. He keeps forgetting to check the rope.
“I bought a gutter scoop from the hardware store for the job,” Mae mentions before hammering down the lid on the paint can. He admires her “get it done” energy, and realizes she’s trying to ease him into the task, if not cure him of his fears.
“Seems like they’ve got tools to fix almost everything.” Except for phobias, he adds in his head.
The truth is that he’d much rather watch the ball game this afternoon than ascend the ladder to the roof. The Jays are close to clinching a pennant. They’re contenders for the World Series. Parked on the family room sofa, he might escape the gravity of his situation for a few hours. In this weather, the dome will be open. He’d watch the sunlight slide slowly across the field. He’d witness the ball obey the magic spin placed on it by pitchers. He’d measure the varying parabolas of line drives, pop flies, and home runs. If they got started on the eaves before lunch, maybe he’d be able to catch part of the game.
“Where’s the scoop? I’ll get the ladder and meet you at the front. Let’s start with the porch, since the roof ’s a bit lower there.”
Measure one foot out for every four feet up. Make sure the feet are firmly seated. Stay off the top three rungs. He chants this three-line mantra as he leans the extension ladder against the right end of the porch eaves. He’s researched the rules, found the advice he needed in This Old House.
He begins to climb, Mae’s arms on either side holding the ladder firmly, then realizes he’s forgotten the scoop on the ground. Mae has to let go to retrieve and pass it to him. He twists awkwardly to receive it. Continuing, he feels the give and sway of the aluminum ladder under his weight. At the top, he looks down momentarily. Mistake. He knows it’s not far, but the distance feels neck-cracking. He gets his momentary panic under control, crooks his left arm around a rung, concentrates on the full gutter before him, and starts scooping and tossing debris with his right hand.
“Look out below,” he yells too late, as a scoopful of humus rains down on Mae.
“Shit! That’s gross! Damn it, Evan. Can’t you be more careful?” He’s unanchored when she lets go of the ladder to brush dirt out of her hair.
“Sorry.” He holds his breath and studies the porch roof until she’s ready to steady him again. And so the work proceeds. He cleans the portion of gutter within easy reach from right to left, carefully drops the debris directly below the ladder, descends slowly keeping his eyes forward, moves the ladder a few feet to the left, tests the distance and the seating, waits for Mae to hold both arms of the ladder, and then ascends. Repeats, repeats, and repeats.
When they’re two-thirds across, Mae says, “Time to break for lunch.” At last. Terra firma. He feels it as he walks away from the ladder. The ground has never felt so solid, so sure.
After lunch and kitchen cleanup, Alex and Lizzie head back outside. “Coming, Dad?”
“Your mom and I’ll be out in a minute.” Mae’s gotten engrossed in a novel and needs to finish the chapter. He considers cleaning up the gutter debris scattered on the ground and planting the sapling, but decides to check the starting time of the ball game instead. He finds a pregame show about the Jays’ run for the title and is soon deep into stats. He enjoys watching replays of big strike-outs by Jays pitchers and bigger home-runs by Jays sluggers.
Over the commentary and the crack of bat on ball, a sound begins to register. A kind of scuttling on the roof, as if there’s an animal up there—a squirrel? A raccoon?
Alex is at the screen door. “Dad, Dad, Lizzie’s on the roof! I told her not to climb the ladder, but she wouldn’t listen!”
Evan yells for Mae and in a moment they’re both at the base of the ladder. Needlessly, he tells Lizzie not to be afraid. After all, she’s walking back and forth on the rotten porch roof, enjoying herself immensely.
“You go up and get her. We’ll get some cushions in case she falls.” Having issued orders, Mae pulls Alex into the house with her and they begin emerging with couch cushions. As Evan carefully ascends the ladder, checking his panic, they arrange the cushions along the ground below the roof line, go back in, and drag out the twin mattresses from Alex’s bed and Lizzie’s.
At the top of the ladder, he tries to coax Lizzie over so that he can bring her safely down. Nothing doing. Even when Mae commands, “Elizabeth Maria Mulder, you go to your father this instant!” Lizzie stubbornly parks her bottom on a patch of rotten shingles. There’s no help for it. He’s got to go on the roof. He sees above her the roof ’s main expanse, with its steep pitch. He pushes away his fear that she’ll retreat to this higher ground as he gets closer.
Mae and Alex both hold the ladder now. Evan breaks a rule by climbing onto the second rung from the top. He has to so he can step onto the roof. His heart thumps and his head buzzes during this awkward manoeuvre. For a moment, he feels completely vulnerable, balanced on a thread, thin air all around. He finds his footing but then decides to get down on his hands and knees, lowering his centre of gravity and distributing his weight better. He starts crawling to Lizzie. He slides and shifts on the crumbling shingles, feeling the give in the soft, rotten wood as he closes the distance.
When he gets to her, he carefully flips himself over and sits beside her. They hold hands as he pauses to calm himself. He focuses on the ladder’s top and encourages Lizzie to shimmy down to it with him. She begins laughing, like it’s a game they’re playing together.
At the ladder’s top, he helps her turn around onto the top rungs, keeping a firm grip on her hand. Mae’s already far up the ladder, with Alex holding it at the bottom, so Evan lets go of Lizzie’s hand as Mae guides her down, nested between Mae’s chest and the rungs. When Mae is safely on the ground with Lizzie in her arms, Evan begins his own awkward swivel off the roof onto the ladder’s second rung.
“I told her not to climb the ladder,” Alex is assuring his mom.
“Mommy, he’s telling a lie! He told me to!” Right away, Alex protests his innocence. Mae starts grilling him and is quickly engrossed in negotiating the dispute.
Both Mae and Alex have now let go of the ladder. As Evan plants both feet on the rung to begin his descent, the ladder begins sliding to the right along the eave. Instinctively, he reaches for the gutter and grips it with both hands as the ladder clatters to the ground. Surprisingly, the eavestrough holds, perhaps because it’s been relieved of most of its weight of humus, of its clumps of sod and its seedlings.
Hanging there, he looks up. In his line of sight, swallows dip and swerve across the blue dome, all of them oblivious to his predicament, except for one. One swallow flits above him, almost hovering. Strangely, this calms and comforts him. Grateful, he looks down at Alex’s mattress below him. Off to the right, he sees the maple seedling he removed before lunch. I should plant that today, he thinks, or it won’t stand a chance. His right hand slips its grip and he’s hanging from his left hand, his centre of gravity swaying his body to the left. Strange, he thinks as he sways, how this moment echoes his dream. Or does the dream echo this moment?
“It’s not far.” Mae’s encouraging him. “If you just let go, the mattress will break your fall.”
Yes, he thinks, it’s not far. He realizes that it’s only a five- or six-foot drop. He’s not much higher than the outfield wall at SkyDome. If he were a centre fielder leaping to catch the ball going over the wall, robbing the batter of a home run, he’d be almost this high and he’d come back down, unharmed, a hero.
He lets go.
Mae and the kids gather around and help him to his feet. They’re all laughing now, relieved that everyone’s safely on the ground. More than that, they’ve all been startled by his perfect landing and roll, like a sky diver.
For a moment, his eyes meet Mae’s. “That was close,” she says.
He’s shaking as the adrenalin subsides. “Too close for comfort.” Thinking of the dream, he adds, “Too weird for words.”
Together, they clean up the pillows and mattresses. Then he and Mae get back to the gutters. They work smoothly, in rhythm, while the kids sway on the tire swing, the rope taut against their pendulum motion, except for the pause at either end of their arc. Mae decides to take some turns on the ladder, and he holds it firmly for her. Grit rains down on him, but he’s been smart enough to wear a ball cap.
As he holds the ladder for her, he thinks about the dream. Was that it? Was that all? A coincidence, a premonition, a case of déjà vu all over again? Would life contrive such a joke against him? Then guiltily, he considers how a small lapse in attention almost led to tragedy. Some dream, he thinks. Some dream. He still fears the high tumble, the slipped hold, the snapped rope, the missed catch, the momentary transgression. He’s still on the lookout for dangers raining down on life’s parade. But his fear feels contained, no longer grave. The sky, it turns out, isn’t falling—at least not today.
As they’re finishing, clouds thicken. He sends Alex to get a shovel and then plants the maple seedling near its parent so that, he hopes, one day their branches will intertwine.
Now Mae’s back in her book, and the kids are upstairs building Lego towers. He hears repeated crashes, bursts of laughter. He’s catching the end of the ball game when he hears the rain begin, first a few drops on the east windows, then a steady thrum on the roof. He turns down the TV to listen. He hears the water sliding smoothly into the gutters and downspouts; it gurgles onto the grass.
He was wrong about the dome. They’ve closed the roof for the game, obviously paying more attention to the forecast than he did. With the sound still down, he wonders what rain on the dome sounds like, and what kind of gutters are needed for a roof that big.
It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the game’s tied. There’s a man on first for Joe Carter, with two outs. He plants his feet wide apart. When he swings, the ball silently leaps off his bat, following a beautiful trajectory within the bubble of air below the dome’s roof. Confidently, he tosses his bat aside and begins trotting the bases while the dugout empties to meet him at home plate.
Photo by Flickr user cuatrok77