Harvey and Leslie went up to the roof. It was a hot, windy day, and they thought it would be nice to be up there by themselves, lie back in lawn chairs, drink chilled champagne from a water bottle, and read.
The stairs were heavy with a musty attic aroma. Harvey carried his lawn chair in a large duffel bag over his shoulder as he made his way up. He saw the place where a door should be at the top of the stairs. There wasn’t a door there. There was just a blast of rectangular sunlight from the door frame, which blinded him when he saw it. He thought about UV rays and that warped, nauseated, cheated feeling he used to get at the beach when he’d lie out in the sun too long.
Leslie closed the bottom door that led to the stairs from the building‘s 3rd floor units.
“Don’t latch it,” Harvey called back. “Let’s not accidentally get locked up here.” He grumbled, more to himself than to her.
“I won’t,” Leslie said back. She fixed the lock so it wouldn’t close over the clasp. It made a dinging sound that reminded her of tin be crinkled under a printing press. “I’m coming,” She said. She said, “It’s so dark down here,” as she stepped up the concrete stairs into the attic room’s dust and mold.
“It’s lighter up here,” he said. “Come on up.” He was standing on the edge of the door-less doorframe with the sun behind him, lighting up all around him, silhouetting the outline of his body. It made Leslie think of a mild crucifixion, whatever that meant. It was just something that popped into her head. Everything was more or less miffed, in her experience, when it came to conflated explanations for what went on in her head.
Leslie thought, “I’ll just mosey on up there.”
The roof was crackling with blinding sun. Harvey’s shoes crunched over the hard gravel-like tarry substance that was laid in sheets on the building’s flat roof. He moved insouciantly, yet with a deliberate gait, setting the chair down and spreading out the plastic legs like you might a tent.
“I think this here is right above us, this spot,” he called back.
“Yeah.” Leslie was trailing behind with her chair in a duffel bag over an arm. “Where those pipes are sticking up. Those are our vents, probably.” She thought she might’ve been breathing too hard for the occasion.
Harvey got himself steady in his seat, angled comfortably in the chair’s webbing like someone on vacation, feet out and crossed at the ankles, sunglasses and mesh trucker hat on, head back, arms on the armrests with hands limp over the edge. A slight breeze smoothed his face with an easy calm. He thought of slow-turning ceiling fans and tropical islands and drinks being served in a pool.
Leslie clomped over to where Harvey was seated and pried apart her chair and settled into the roof’s tarry surface next to Harvey. She sat down with a wheeze and a moan. She grabbed her book about concrete gardens and artificial-turf front lawns and put it on her lap. She took out the perspiring insulated water bottle filled with champagne. She set it down between them along with two plastic champagne flutes.
There was a certain glimmer to everything up there on the roof. “Everything that sparkles…” thought Harvey, and then his mind revved off into other ever-wider avenues. And then, without even time for a bead of sweat to gather, shrieked into park on a pristine driveway’s alluring calm.
Harvey got real content. Leslie poured the champagne from the water bottle into the plastic flutes, careful not to overflow them. Her wrist cracked as she tilted the bottle. Two white birds got swept up in the wind and kept flying higher in fluttery helixes, the paling sky a wondrous pastel backdrop for their winding flight. Harvey tilted his head back and watched them rise like the tiny bubbles floating up in the glasses.
Harvey picked up his glass and said, “Let’s clink these suckers and have us some Sham Pain!”
Leslie said, “To real pain!”
They touched plastic and sipped.
Harvey got even more content.
“It’s strange to see only the tops of things over the ledge,” said Harvey. “Just the roofs of houses. The treetops here and there, stuck between houses like spiny weeds.” Harvey lay back in his chair and did some gazing. “Look at the skyline. Those mountains like thick shadows. Some cut-off point in your looking. And the Bay Bridge. Both downtowns.”
Leslie said, “It’s always 10 degrees warmer over on this side.”
“Damn straight.” Said Harvey. Harvey said, “I’m glad I know you.”
Leslie picked up her book and blew him a pouty kiss.
Harvey winced, and then he said, not really to anyone present, “She’s giving me one of those Waterloo smiles again, boys. What’ll it be?”
Leslie scrunched up her shoulders and read her book.
The sunlight skimmed over the flat roof, sautéing the pebbles strewn over sheets of mod bit covering, glinting off the silver of metal ducts and pipes, baking insects. Where the sun came and went, life followed.
There was a cement gazebo-like structure at the edge of the roof. It was an ornamental touch, probably added to beautify the building’s façade many years ago. A painting ladder was under the structure, in the shade, probably left there by some building super and forgotten. And an armchair, in the latter stages of decomposition, rotting and sun-bleached and torn with hardened stuffing leaking out, was on its side over by the attic-like entrance to the roof. People had probably sat on it up here, at some point, but those days were long gone. The building was over 100 years old, one of the last apartment buildings around, with most of the neighborhood being single family houses and some leftover Victorian mansions that seemed like strangers exhumed from another era to live among the bungalows and the flats and various 1940s and 50s ideas of suburban architecture. Front yards cemented over, picture windows above small garage doors, rusted aluminum awning-like eaves, drooping roofs with mossy shingles, rounded stucco sides, strange shrubs and hedges and aloof flowers poking around a maple or an elm. Nothing to see here. No place to be. Just days turning into nights, trashcans getting taken in and out, over and over, until a For Sale sign goes up and everything is strange and new for somebody else once again.
Leslie read her book. Harvey drank his champagne from the plastic flute and scanned the panoramic view. The bow-and-arrow TV antennas sprouting from other roofs, some slanted with fixed windows or ornate slopes or rubble-strewn flats. A chimney crawling up through eaves. And then his eyes fixed into the distance where skyscrapers plugged space shooting up in bunches downtown, all shiny and majestic like a garden of stalagmites. All the house just went on and on, spreading in jumbled boxes, divided by streets and avenues, rolling with the hilly rises and dips. The bay was out there spuming on below the horizon’s ornery gathered clouds, the puffs of fog congregating and hanging just above The City’s mounded edges. Harvey thought about off-kilter Cubist structures, the remote wholeness of flat cement surfaces and dovetailing joints and heavy Brutalist beams and painted-over windows, and that certain weightlessness that accompanies sleep’s first subtle jabs. Harvey thought about falling and floating and being completely at ease with himself and everything that constituted being alive, not having a care or a worry for all of existence, for however long anything like that could last.
Leslie let go a mild burp.
“Just the essentials.” Harvey said as he cracked his toes and his neck. He decided to stand up, too. And then he did, stretching his torso in a circular motion with his hands on his hips. “This is just what we needed,” he heaved. “Yep. Just the stuff for us.”
Leslie glared up at him, half wistful, half irked. Leslie said, “Doctrines of impossibility.”
“What we’re up against?” Harvey asked as he continued his stretching. “How’s that, again?”
“What, not how.” Leslie made an incomplete face — starting then stopping — that mirrored what a hornet might do if it had just almost lost its stinger. “What it is, is that we’ve got nowhere to get going to if the going got to it.”
A train howled by in the distance: some sort of convoluted rumbling that fed the gas to reality in a hurry and then made off with the killed engines of the past. The ragged outlines of the mountains seemed to watch over the whole vast territory like dogged sentinels: shadows casting shadows that crept over the scrunched landscape of vision’s persistence and vanishing point.
Harvey wondered who was supposed to be doing all of this seeing. He didn’t feel up to the task. Harvey didn’t have a place to put such things. Harvey was cramped with stuff that didn’t fit. There were songs swirling around in his head, ones he’d never have the guts to do anything substantial with. Just let them prowl about, and then surrender in the end, letting all the music fall with a lively thud.
A tiny parachute, probably from some GI Joe-like figure blew across the roof and got caught on Leslie’s chair. Leslie picked it up, wondering if kids still played with toys like that anymore. She kept thinking, “It’s all gizmos and razzmatazz these days.” And then she thought how old-fashioned that sounded. Then Leslie tossed the tiny parachute over the roof’s edge, perhaps landing in some lilac bushes where a stray cat would find it with a few well-placed sniffs and munch on it for a while. She was completely satisfied with this thought.
Harvey flopped back down in his chair and poured some more champagne for himself, then tilted the water bottle toward Leslie’s glass, topping it off with a baby pour, as she hadn’t had more than a few swallows of it.
She said, “Thanks, Mister.”
He said, “My pleasure.
A long quick interval passed in noisy silence.
The she said, “Huh. Look. That tree, it’s really filled out in the last month or so, hasn’t it?”
He said, “Sure. It sure has. Is that a juniper?”
She said, “A shade tree. That’s all it is. A provider of shade. The leaves, they got all glassy. They get all rumpled in the wind too. It’s…nice.”
“It is,” he said. He said, “Very…nice.”
Harvey took a gulp of his drink, letting it get cozy in his mouth, sting and bubble around, before allowing it down. Then he took a few more swallows. His head started to lift and he felt free and easy and a little dizzy. He closed his eyes, feeling the breeze all over him, and he made up a song and, in his head, he played it perfectly on a baby grand — all chromatic arpeggios and mazurka-like chords peppered with quick glissando flurries. It resounded in his skull with a rabid fervor that reality could never match.
Harvey felt enlightened, momentarily at least, in the brisk pull and fitful breeziness of his drink. There was something in him that craved to be let out.
Harvey began going on, “God. You know all this stuff. Nice. It’s all nice. A real klezmer feel to it. The clicking and bashing around, the sounds of things that flit and dart, the airplanes going by overhead, the certain place of sunlight on the half-painted exterior of a house, and the loose and lazy way a late afternoon releases the stranglehold on your guts and makes the evening seem like a godsend just around the bend.” He stopped, looking at Leslie in his peripheral vision. Then he said, “We’re all just as happy and lucky as we allow ourselves to be.” Then he said, “Listen. The clearing hush of voices spindling up from a backyard away. That. Is. Very. Nice.”
“Spindling?” Leslie put it out like a match, waving it in the air, letting it smoke a bit.
Harvey’s serenade-like revelations came to an abrupt halt. “Not like long and gawky. But more like a spindle. Something spinning and twisting and winding up from somewhere. I guess.”
Leslie said, “You guess.”
“Something mesmerizing about it all.” Harvey said as he checked the back of his hands for any insipient redness. He saw flashes of textured color patterns, like looking through infrared goggles. “Well, this all really takes the icing, doesn’t it?”
Leslie lay back in her chair, trying to look absorbed in her book, though she wasn’t really paying attention to the words.
Leslie said, “Sure.”
The noise from the freeway, the ever-flowing continuity of traffic swooshing by in both directions, Harvey thought it almost sounded like a soft rain, somewhere pleasant, somewhere not here, falling on other people in other places, something he could listen to and not have to experience or worry about. The sound of life going on and on without him.
Insects buzzed and hovered and darted away.
Harvey said, “You know, you’ve always been good at keeping me from losing my mind.” Harvey said, “That way you have of lying on me when we’re in bed watching TV. All curled up. Close. And closer still. Closer, somehow, even than that, too. The way you rest your head on my chest, there. I take a great comfort in you, you know?”
“Me too.” Said Leslie.
Leslie said, “My head feels heavy…my life feels heavy.”
Harvey said, “What can I do to lighten your load, Baby Baby?”
“It’s been too long since I’ve heard you call me that…” Leslie said as her voice trailed off into a hoarse whisper. She said, “I’m just freaking out a little.” He said, “It’s okay.” She said, “I know it’s okay.” He said, “I know you know. I just wanted you to know that I know that it’s okay.” “Okay,” she said. She said, “It’s just that, really, I can’t get myself into anything properly unless I’m suffering, or feel like I’m suffering. It’s the only time I really feel alive, worth something. When you, well, like you always say, it’s always something. I guess suffering…” Leslie gasped for a stilted laugh, “…suffering is my favorite milieu.”
Harvey studied Leslie’s face. Something slightly torturous, like some high-intensity concertgoer roaming around with their left blinker on, wildly inchoate, chancy in an upturn of clunky circumstances that you just can’t feel your way out of. He thought: “Somewhere to move to. A place to survive in. An easier time of it.” He thought: “We cleaned every speck of dust from under heavy objects and in high unlikely places. The vacuum filled with fluffy whirligigs that feathered out in spooling spirals. All this remembering. All of our togethers all together all at once and all the time too.”
The sky was high and still. Leslie put her book back in her lap. She held her plastic flute of cheap champagne between two fingers in her left hand. She let it dangle over her chair’s armrest. A helicopter was making the rounds, puttering in ovoid patterns that sort of figure-eighted. The drone and flap of its blades seemed to ripple the air: a muffled whirring that Dopplered in and out like a radio station with a bad signal. Leslie thought about missed phone calls and days spent planning meals and putting away dried dishes and deciding on what to watch on TV for the night. She wanted to be on a putting green at a closed-down golf course, stretched out languidly on a chaise lounge under an umbrella, attempting to throw ice cubes into the hole, and not caring about what the rest of the day would do to her.
Harvey said, “Remember when we got the call that you didn’t have cancer?”
Leslie didn’t say a thing. She just sat in her chair and laid her head back while turning it towards him. Her mouth made a spitting sound, with no spit.
Harvey said, “And all the good times that we’ve had through all of this.” He stretched himself out, thinner somehow. His plastic flute was empty, lying on its side next to his chair.
Harvey said, “And, hell, there are so many more up ahead, too.”
Leslie said, “Please. Please stop trying to make me feel better.”
Just then there was a sudden fluttering of wings, scoundrel seabirds come inland scavenging for a bite, some destitute passing thing, just like all the rest, coming and leaving, leaving, always leaving…
Harvey said, “My picture’s been demoted to the closet. Again.”
There was a pensive closeness that tugged at the surroundings, and Harvey let himself fall into it. He started to miss things, not in any order: the sound garbage trucks make and jack hammers and police sirens and backing-up trucks beeping and the wheezing buses going by and that particular sigh that Leslie would issue just before she started in on the dishes. Everything seemed like it was gone and was never coming back.
Pushing some loose pebbles around with her shoes, Leslie scratched her head and said, “Shit.”
Harvey said, “Sure.” And Harvey felt for her fingers, and they were dangling, and soon his were in them, held together like knotted rope ends, dangling too, together, held there, between the lawn chairs. “We’re always here, in the present,” he said. “We can’t escape it. Even when we’re lost in thoughts about the future, or meddling around in the past, we are always just here, where we are, physically, really. Even when we’re asleep and dreaming. Wherever our minds go, here we are. Stuck. And that’s all there is: the real, physical, immediate present. You can’t escape it.”
Harvey wasn’t sure why he’d said any of it, or what it meant. He was just murmuring to starlings.
Harvey said, “All the time, I used to think about art and philosophy and music. I used to ponder and plumb the depths of wisdom and stupidity and this brutal mortal coil and ways to be a better person, and about how everything on earth is being pulled down by gravity and always aching towards the center, and all travails and triumphs in the emotional tug of life’s passions. Now all I think about is money and ways that I can get more of it.”
Leslie said, “Nothing ever goes anywhere.”
Flitting around and chasing each other and diving and circling, the birds, they came and went. He wondered if there were such a thing as fear of heights among birds. Imagine. An acrophobic dove. One in a million. A true outsider, outside of everything all its species knows and cares about. Always unsteady, forever grounded in its spirit, never looking down. It would be wiped out by natural selection’s staunch progress and heavy hand. Tortured by inner turmoil. A singular and true lost cause.
“All that fluctuating fodder,” Harvey told himself. Then Harvey said, “Just filler for another day’s compensation through the badlands of thoughts that’ll never just do. Remember when, you know, when everything was out before us? Trouble used to be so far away. Hell, maybe it still is. Who are we to know such stuff?”
“We are here. Here to watch and observe, I guess,” said Leslie. “We’re lucky.” She said. She said, “And, God, how we are cheap with it…God…”
Harvey sound off to the ramparts he never watched, the ones that were never gallantly streaming or anything like that: “You never know…but sometimes, well, sometimes you just do.”
And the freeway rumbled steady with so many cars so close to home, and the cars streamed through the streets below where they lived, and the dogs you were supposed to beware of barked behind the bars of chain-link fences in all the yards across the street, and the fog rolled on in on giant puma paws from the western edge of the whole damn country, and it was spring and everything was sad and damp, and the moon was just a faint, blurry hole punched in the daytime sky lightly rising over the chimney-lined mansions, and Harvey thought of Leslie in a two-piece lying out by a kidney-shaped pool, and he thought of heated swimming pools on cold days and he wanted to jump into one and just float there under the chlorinated water, feeling snug and flush and easy, all warm and safe and lost, and he just wanted to stay there, and he just wanted to stay.