Brightness falls from the air, and so do the words, which rush him. They swoop like starlings from the radio hooked to his belt, though before brightness, before Queens have died young and fair, the broadcast was blurred murmur, bits of music, bits of talk, voices heard but not listened to. Now the phrases flock about Lowell and he bats at them, distressed. Dust hath closed Helen’s eye, I am sick, I must die—but no, Lowell thinks, I must not—Lord, have mercy on us, and yes, Lowell prays, Lord have mercy, because in spite of the fact that the reader has a mellow voice, a soothing and expensive poetry-reading voice, an unmistakably National Public Radio voice, what Lowell can hear is his own father in shadow duet, word for word and line for line, and then suddenly, with a sharp change of tone, Forty thousand feet, he hears, severed fuselage … the fatal plunge …
Shocked, he almost loses his balance on the ladder. Death, he hears, and it is plummeting at him, no question, final cure of all diseases. The news commentator says these words. (Does he really say them? Is it possible?) The paint can, mad rudder, swings wild and a length of eavestrough comes away in Lowell’s hand. He throws himself forward across the steeply pitched roof and lies sprawled there. The tiles beat against his heart like frightened birds.
Oblivion has taken to offering herself this way, quick and shameless. She tries it once or twice a week. She sickens him because he is not immune to her whorish charms. He can feel the ladder with his feet and if he puts his weight on the top rung, he thinks the whole contraption of self-erected scaffolding will stay firm. Probably. Perhaps. The brush is still in his right hand, the can of Milky Way White (high gloss, oil-based, exterior finish) in his left. There is a comet’s tail of spilled cream across the cedar shakes and he will have to climb down for the turpentine.
Later, he thinks, looking below. He feels queasy. Anniversaries of the airline disaster are a very bad time. Every year, every September, this sort of thing happens, even though every year, as September approaches, he believes he has put it all behind him, he believes he has laid the ghosts, he believes he will feel nothing more than a dull, almost pleasurable sort of pain, like a toothache. And then: Shazam, he is a wreck again.
Have the words really come from his radio? Or from the messy attic of his mind? He supposes he could check, call the station, order a cassette, replay the show, and if they really had been spoken, what would that prove? A convergence of inner and outer worlds? Thoughts and fears escape, Lowell thinks. When the pressure inside the head builds too high, thoughts fly the coop and speak themselves back at us through other people’s mouths. He dips his brush in the can and paints a long wide stripe on the fascia board. From two storeys down, through the window, he can hear the phone ring. The house is not his, but even so he fears it will be that girl again, that young woman, the one who will not let sleeping dogs lie. He knows this is irrational. He knows there is no possible way she could reach him here. Even so, whenever he hears a telephone, he trembles. He fears it will be that young woman. Samantha. That is her name. He never returns her calls.
“There are too many unanswered questions concerning the deaths,” she says on his answering machine, but he will not listen. “We are gathering data,” she says, because of course Lowell is not the only one to turn manic at anniversary time. “If you are interested, I have extensive information on the hijacking and on the death of your mother.”
Lowell erases her messages.
“We have new information,” the voice of Samantha says, said, yesterday, last week, the week before, “we have just received startling new information from a woman in Paris,” whom Lowell erases from the machine immediately and entirely, though less successfully, less entirely, from his memory and from his sleep, a certain Françoise of the seventh arrondissement in Paris who had intended to be on that flight, the fateful flight, that hovers blackly whenever Lowell thinks of it—and even when he does not—like a vulture above his head.
“She has unexpected ties to your father,” Samantha says, the voice of Samantha says, speaking of Lowell Hawthorne’s father, “which I think will be of interest to you. Of considerable interest, I think you will find—”
Lowell cuts off her call.
What people will believe and what they will hope for and what they will do within a thirty-day radius of the anniversary of the hijacking is utterly unpredictable. This is a dangerous time. This is a time when clinical depression is epidemic and the death rate peaks, both for survivors and for relatives of the deceased. Lowell knows about this. “We have information, but we need information, we need it desperately,” the voice of Samantha cajoles, “so I’m begging you—” Sometimes she cannot speak for sobbing. Sometimes Lowell pulls the jack from the wall.
“This woman in Paris—Françoise—she says she has an avoidance instinct for anything to do with the flight,” Samantha tells Lowell’s answering machine. “But it’s also a magnet. You know that, I know that, we both know that only too well. Which is why she happened on our website. And which is why, eventually, she couldn’t resist making contact—” Erase, erase. “She thinks your father knew about Flight 64.” Erase. “Why are you so afraid to speak to me?” Erase.
“Listen,” Samantha pleads directly into his ear. “You’ve got to listen. Françoise believes she is your half-sister—”
“I have no siblings, half or otherwise,” he says, and hangs up.
“What can be worse than not knowing?” Samantha’s voice asks in a rush, anticipating digital cutoff. “The deaths could have been prevented. What can be worse than that?”
The explanation might be worse, Lowell thinks.
Everywhere, his father shrugs, brightness falls from the air. Dust hath closed Helen’s eye, his father reminds, and death is merely the final cure of every ill.
But it is after a death, Lowell knows, that riddles and slow torments begin.
In the week of the thirteenth anniversary of his mother’s death—four days before the actual date—Lowell cries out in his sleep. There is a lightning flash or an explosion—he does not know what it is—some terrible intrusive slash of sound, white at the center with red capillaries rivering out. It thump-thumps at his eardrums and skin. Pain razors him, and he knows his heart is going to pop like a balloon.
“What is it, what is it, Daddy?” His daughter, barefoot and frightened, appears in the bedroom doorway and he sits bolt upright and holds the pillow like a shield. Weapon, his reflexes urge, but as he gropes for the lamp, he sees Amy’s eyes and remembers that the children are with him this weekend.
Amy, he says, but a strange sound comes out.
“Daddy, Daddy.” Amy is shivering. “Why did you scream?” She pulls at her hair, a nervous habit, and little hanks of it come away in her hand. She always has trouble sleeping at her father’s place because her father often talks unintelligibly in sleep, pleading with someone. His sheets smell of wet animal.
The pain, he tries to explain. He lurches around the room, arms outstretched. He thumps on his chest.
“Daddy, Daddy!” she quavers, throwing herself at him, hugging his thighs.
“No,” Lowell moans.
Wailing sounds, plaintive as the call of loons in fog, float through the room, and there is Jason, flannelette blanket balled into his mouth, stumbling over his pajama bottoms. Amy runs to him and holds his little face against her chest. “Jason’s scared,” she says bravely. And then, with an edge of anger: “You’re frightening him, Daddy.”
Their father turns and fixes them with his eyes. “Did you hear it?”
“Y-y-yes,” Jason blubbers, sniffling, wetting his PJs. Amy can feel a trickle of warm pee at the soles of her feet.
“We heard you scream, Daddy.”
Lowell is shaking. He bends down and hugs the children to himself. “Poor little fellas,” he says. He takes deep slow breaths. “Daddy had a bad dream, that’s all. I didn’t mean to scare you, pun’kins.”
“It’s sleepy time. Let’s go.”
He changes Jason’s pajamas and tucks the children in and kisses them and sits on the edge of his son’s bed. By the greenish glow of the night-light, he croons lullabies and pats his little boy’s behind until he hears deep even breathing.
“Daddy?” Amy whispers, as he is tiptoeing out.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“What did you dream about?”
“I can’t remember,” he says, and he really can’t. He can remember bright light, the electric sense of danger. Tree? Tree struck by lightning? Something to do with a tree and shattered glass. Pieces of metal. A great vulture overhead, as always. He can remember bloodied hands, pulsing heart, thump-thump, thump-thump. He can remember not being able to breathe.
“Where do bad dreams go?” Amy wants to know.
“They go down the garbage disposer,” Lowell says, “and they get smashed up into little pieces and then they get washed into the Charles River and carried out into Boston Harbor and they go miles and miles away into the ocean and they never come back.”
“Mine come back,” she says.
“Oh baby.” He sits on her bed and cradles her in his arms. “What do you have bad dreams about?”
“There’s one dream,” she says, and he can feel her shy away from the telling.
What rotten luck, he thinks, for Amy and Jason to have him, Lowell Hawthorne, for a father, since clearly someone, something, is a jealous keeper of the curse, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation … He wishes he had a spell to break the spell.
“Look,” he says, snapping his fingers and then blowing on them as though scattering dandelion puffs. “It’s gone now, your bad dream. And mine too.”
But she is very solemn. “You were driving away,” she says. “In my dream. You were driving away in your pickup.”
“Did I have my ladders on top?” He has to make this bright and tangibly detailed, slapstick, something light as air. He mimes the sway of the ladders as he drives.
“Yes, and all your paint cans and stuff. And the baby-sitter hasn’t come and Jason and me are running and running because we want to get in the pickup with you and you won’t stop and you keep shouting that Mommy will come.”