At once it seems I found a rejuvenation in passion for knowing, in particular the names of things. I’ve sat three weeks now upon a pale green futon under vaulted ceilings plastered and washed in nobody’s favorite beige. These ceilings and the burnt brick frame upon which they rely sprouted out of Helena’s gold dust tailings in the Summer – probably – of 1923 (I say ‘probably’ because I don’t know the season; the corners and lines of these three small rooms play to a certain longing in my anxious February mind, they simply lend themselves to the long-gone – and just as long coming – berry-flavored beams of warm mornings, swimming afternoon rays and the thick, smoky dusks of late-August life). Were it not for the carpet – thick and dated – accepting all waves that wash upon its worn, acrid surface, I imagine the trapezoidal shape of this ceiling would still echo the conversations of past lovers, thinkers, busy-bodies and their ghosts. Les – who lives downstairs – told me in a voice his own that these walls and this ceiling wherein and under which I live – a place I’ve come to call ‘attic’ and look on fondly – held strongly against a magnitude 6.2 earthquake in the Autumn of 1935; they’d only just recovered from the tremor of 1928. Between 1923 and 1960-something these corners and panels looked in upon Gladys’s monthly rotary club meetings. In times following they licked flames, they raised families, they slow-cooked roasts and sliced green peppers. These walls served as soundboards for adolescent confusions. Is it possible that the holes they bear mirror the hearts of those that came and went?
It must be possible; these walls must feel something of the emotion they’ve held. They’ve been touched by decades and eras; they’ve been painted by the Roar, and an envy for city life; painted by the Depression and conversations about whether Lucy needs new shoes; painted by the War and the embarrassment of an honorable young man with a purple heart who can’t sit down; they’ve weathered the Cold; their corners have held flowers like muzzles and framed first color prints. Les told me these same walls wept as the mind of a cherished matriarch degenerated into dementia; perhaps they held her as she became echo, herself. They witnessed a young girl who loved the vaulted ceilings learn to trust a young boy who said he did too. They witnessed a deep sinking. They witnessed a kiss, I bet; and they saw a life move a little too fast. They felt fear. They fought to hold on to her age not yet come, to play for her notes of her late-father’s laughing; but they knew the futility; they’ve seen it all before in different lives marked by myriad loves. Summer and adolescence made things fire and they crumbled under her skin as the passion-sweat poured; they lost grip, but remained aware.
These walls stood as walls will stand asking the ceiling for animation when the man Les would too-late evict took the passion from the act and redefined her faith. They felt the prick of the needle and the recession of conscious thought into color and electricity, into what passed for something but was really less than nothing; they saw detritus turn entropy. These walls were here, and they have been for nearly 93 years; they’ve known love, fear, pain, forgiveness, redemption, and new paint. But me, I wasn’t here for any of that; I’m simply here now, and this is my third week here, and I like it, and I’ve been talking to the walls, or rather listening, and now that Les taught me the language, they’re loud.
I have very little in the way of furniture, and I’m finding I prefer it this way. Upon and within the stained carpet in the corner I can still see the laterals of the wooden pallet – which served as bed for a time – upon which the man crushed with a grass-stained work boot the young girl’s cherished bouquet; I plan to rub them out eventually. I have placed my futon against the opposite wall, and the four cherry legs will leave their own marks in the floor; I’d be flattered were some later tenant to muse on them someday in the distant future, but that’s a pretty high order. It suffices – in my mind – to know that these simple walls will know my life the way they’ve known all the others that have passed through.
The past three weeks have been bright and snowless, if not somewhat windy, and the grass whispers that spring may be approaching from the south. From the uncomfortable corner of the room one can see the steeples of the cathedral; it is modeled after the Cathedral at Notre Dame but walled in rough brownstone and capped in the red tiles of Italian estates – my walls find themselves humbled in comparison, and I console them in sympathetic agreement. However, my ceiling can compete with the best of them. The ceiling is vaulted, divided in uneven thirds, the middle expanse the sum of the outer widths. During daylight’s passing each angle reflects the winter sun in its own way; each vertex and confluence interprets the brilliant Morse clicks of divine particles and waves and transcribes for me a tale of both future and history, of place and time and the intrinsic ambiguity therein; it is a beautiful ceiling and a confusing narrative; but, yes, a beautiful ceiling. Compline dark does with sound what Terse morning does with those morning rays; though it does it much more artfully. To recline on this futon in the relative silence of a Helena evening is mystifying, the way the ceiling tosses each distinct toll to itself, to the walls and back again, reconfiguring space and time to make synchronicity from a one-line, temporal melody; a simple tune given meets my eardrum as a symphony, a concordance in harmony; it is beautiful.
A standard ceiling is a square or rectangle, I’ve lived under these in the past; it is one; it offers little in the way of dynamism, but in essence, it does a ceiling’s job. A vaulted ceiling, though, is – miraculously – three. And it is one – all at once – and depending on where I lie in relation to it, with my futon against this wall or that opposite wall, I imagine there’s no limit to the way it can sing those bell-toll, holy notes. And as I lie on my futon wondering the night away, wondering about things like walls and angles and life, I can’t help but simply and completely wonder. I wonder what the ceiling sang to the girl on the pallet. And I wonder if she still loves vaulted ceilings.
and thus we come to The Anachronistic Girl with the Balsa Glider
From the front attic window beneath the vaulted ceilings I can watch the goings on of the Laundromat parking lot, if I care to; and though I can, I usually don’t. But on this pre-March Sunday there is an airplane flying far too low, riding and tumbling around and within the toasty updrafts of the building’s steam vent that makes the cold and worn Montana winter smell curiously like warm linens, no matter the weather. This plane – held aloft by the air alone – derails from its invisible track and crash-lands in the street on the opposite side of my car as I unload groceries; luckily I’ve climbed enough stairs to elevate myself above the carnage; my car wasn’t as lucky. Or rather it was, because a balsa wood glider can do very little, even to my runt of a Subaru.
The sun is out, and though it often shines in Montana, today it feels like it’s preparing for a spring that may soon arrive, like it’s taunting the entrenched February sky with a flexed arm and an anxious grin; today – for the first time in five months – the my skin reads the light as warmth; I wear only a white cotton tee-shirt; my fingers buzz with heat as I run them through my overdue hair; today, of all days, is a day I’d expect to see the outside world – the grasses and branches and buds – rise and and cheer in a concerted silent accolade for the new light. Today is a beautiful day, by my standards at least. And she was a beautiful girl, by anyone’s standards I bet. At least she was, until the plane crashed; after that then she was just hair.
By the time I heard the soft, sun-thawed wing crackle alto against the asphalt permafrost I’d ascended five steps into my small foyer, and though my senses were piqued by the noise so unfamiliar, I resolve to watch the aftermath from aloft. She is mirror blonde, it seems, like her hair and the sun once tied themselves together and resolved to float four feet above all the floors she’d walk upon for so long as they could hold. Through the window the overlapping rust red and wind-ravaged shingles drop somewhere in the heat shimmer to the roof of my Subaru, which in turn passes the fuzzy focus to her, who stands silently on the other side near the driver door. I can only see her hair and the back of her neck, which is still pearl white in quiet homage to winter’s tiresome duration.
Adjusting myself further with my forehead to the pane and an oily patch to prove it, I can see she bobs ever so slightly up and down; she waltzes away. Up, down, down. Up, down, down. Up, down, down. Up, down, down. Up, down, down. Dancing tears. Dancing with tears, more probably. She never bends to pick it up, or to pick them up, or to catch them; she just stares at it and cries, from my vantage. Mirror hair dancing. She probably knows her glider is lost; she probably knows that things break because they do, and they always have. Maybe she cries because she knows too that doing anything else is just as frivolous; things break and they always have and they always will. Her brother’s appendix and her father’s vows and her own heart; she can’t put them back together nor pick them up. She can cry though; and she can waltz.
Time passed and I’ve not a clue how much; time passed in complete silence. It was probably something like thirty seconds but it felt like it could have been eons; she didn’t move, I didn’t move. She experienced a moment and so did I. And then she broke it; she stepped forward toward the broken-winged balsa glider and shattered a moment; but she didn’t shatter the glider. Rather, she walked beside it and then continued walking, up over the crumbling curb, between the barren apple trees and on up the hill atop which the laundry sits. She continued walking around the corner of the building, one small foot in front of the next, and then she was gone. And she was probably done crying, and done dancing; who knows.
She was either a ghost or the daughter of a Hutterite, or more likely two Hutterites. Hutterites – like the Mennonites or Amish – are a group of folks united under a religious doctrine that dictates we ought to seek simplicity in communal life; we probably ought to seek simplicity, but I don’t know where. Beneath her sun blonde hair were the sky blue shoulder straps of a long denim dress, and beneath that dress, a woolen shirt of something near white. She wore black leather shoes and she knew how to hold a moment; with her back to my attic and her eyes to the ground, she held a moment better than any I’ve experienced in quite a while; probably since I, too, was six years old, playing with a glider – or in my case a rubber-band helicopter– under an anxious sun. She held a moment. And she felt it. And she danced with it. And she let it go. Holy shit. There’s a name for this thing: “Simplicity”.