There are a hundred ways to go over the edge, but the going over is what matters. The decision. On this side the wind blows warm in the spring air, still carrying the smell of sagebrush after the rain. The concrete dries in the sun, humming with the passing cars. Everything is hard and real. Everything is the same.
On the other side there is only the wind on your skin as you fall, and then, who knows?
The metal railing was cold under his hands. It didn’t hold heat the same way the pavement did. There were a hundred ways to fly. Only the form changes. Balled up, spread eagle, diving head first. In each case he was focused, full of the exhilaration of the leap and the fall. In each case he sprinted toward the rail, pushed off the cold metal with his hands, and soared into the air like a gymnast. In flight he was graceful and he was free. The power of his spirit was endless, his will indomitable. There was only beauty, and the beauty was joy.
Or he gathered himself on the rail, his feet resting under him in a balanced crouch. Like an eagle he posed there, surveying the river far below, the rocks that fall into a V. Then he leaped, arms outspread, falling into the peaceful oblivion of the green water.
It pulled on him, that yawning chasm of space. There was adventure in the flight. And escape. There was reaching his full potential, pushing through the unending slurry of life to reach something boundless and free. The cliffs with their river below enticed, threated, offered to suck him down and away, as if they funneled gravity and not just air and water between them. That few seconds of truly being alive might be worth whatever comes after. Maybe.
Maybe, but maybe not quite. And he had a shift early in the morning and still owes money on the credit card for that fence that Zelda had wanted put up. He was important to people. He had obligations, and none of them would understand.
Would any of them notice?
He leaned over the railing for one last look at the vast expanse below him and then turned and headed back to his car. He had told his dad that he’d come over for dinner and he didn’t want to be too late.
Maybe it was fear, and not obligation, that kept him on this side of that edge. Fear of the unknown, of casting everything aside. After all, a man was just the sum of his responsibilities. What if nothing was left after he was free of them? No, instead of taking that leap of faith, he would walk back to his car and back into his dependable existence. He would be fulfill his obligations until his days were wasted away and he faded out in the corner of some bland room, unknown and unnoticed. Like a frog in a boiling pot.
But he refused to be like his father.
The door of his Chevrolet Pinto groaned as he opened it and sat down. The door didn’t sit right after he’d slid off the road a few winters ago and slammed it against a tree. Driving through six inches of fresh snow in a two-door wasn’t the best idea. He’d had to work that morning though. Now you had to lift as you closed in order to get it shut. He sat down in the seat and put his hands on the steering wheel and looked out the window. His hands trembled and he looked through the windshield.
The sun was setting behind him, the light coming over three small peaks and setting the desert aglow. The desert flowed on away from him in undulating waves, until at last it came to the towering mountains that secret the holy blue lake that is still part of pueblo lands. The mountains were blue in the light and the cries of hawks came to him.
This was not the deep intense sunlight of California. He could smell the light on the air as he breathed in big gulps trying to calm himself. The air filled him and heaven seemed right next to him, like the world with eyes crossed. He strained to uncross them, to shift himself, his frustrating blurring his sight but not the sense of heaven.
But something was missing. Some inner quality that he lacked. Faith, will, intent, whatever it was that kept him from making that leap. The railing of the bridge was like a jail that held him firmly on this side, the dulled, heart-broken side of reality, and if he just had enough faith, enough will, he could fly out into the air and leave this world behind, become part of the mountains that sat stoically and bathed in the heavenly light of the sun.
The tears on his face were real and sudden and shocking. He lost that other world around him and then it was just him in his beat up Chevy as the sun went down.
Eventually the tears stopped and he started the car and backed up in the gravel turn-around, heading West to his dad’s house, his car rattling. Driving West the sun came in his window like an atom bomb, the visor a square patch of dark just above it. Not everything was afire with the light of heaven.
That too broke when he turned off the highway and could see again. He let out a laugh and shook his head. He was just a fool who read too much poetry. That same sun will also burn the shit out of you when you’re walking into town at 2 p.m. because your car won’t start.
He pulled into his dad’s driveway and turned off the car and sat there, his hands on the steering wheel. The sun had gone down and the mesa was a grey-green sea. His dad’s house sat like an abandoned outpost, a squat round building, the plaster cracking and falling off in places. Scrapped wood and old tools were scattered around in piles like empty treasure chests.
His dad came out of the house, the cracked wood screen door slamming closed after him, and Zach pulled himself out of his car to meet him.
“Can we stack this firewood over by the house before we eat?” His dad, waving to the woodpile.
The pine smelled fine and good as they stacked it in rows by the front door.
“You used to fill your arms up as high as you could.” His dad said, eyeing him. “Are you hurt or something?”
His dad waited, started to say more but shook his head instead.
Not hurt, just smarter. Once he’d carried wood and tried to show how strong he was. But it was faster to take a little less and make more trips at greater speed. You didn’t get as worn out, and you weren’t as likely to trip and spill logs all over the ground you were in the middle of falling on.
When they were done they went into the dark and dusty interior. His dad lit a lantern while Zach stood by the door. The house had just one room, with a small wood stove at the center, a pipe going up and out through the peak of the roof. To the left of the door there was a sink on wheels against the wall. A dusty water cooler sat next to it. A small table covered in stacks of dusty papers and old books sat on the opposite wall. A futon rounded out the furniture, splitting the space between the table and the sink, directly opposite the door.
Zach cleared the table while his dad ladled beans into two bowls from a pot on top of the wood stove.
“Don’t touch that stuff.” His dad said. “I don’t want you moving things around so that I can’t find them later.”
“Okay.” He said, putting his hands back in his pockets. He walked over to the stove and warmed his hands. The nights get cold until June. Sometimes all year round.
His dad set everything in stacks on the floor and then put two giant bowls of beans on the table, cheddar cheese shredded on top.
“That’s a lot more than I can eat.”
“I can eat that much and still be hungry afterward. Do you want a beer?”
They sat down at the table and ate and for a while his dad was too busy to ask questions.
“When are you going to have a kid?” He asked when he was finished.
“Not yet. Zelda’s not ready yet.” Neither of them were ready but it was easier to talk about Zelda.
“You’ve been married for years.”
“Six years, yeah.”
“Six years! How old are you then, twenty-six?”
“Twenty-seven. Wow.” His dad grinned. “Never thought you’d be that old. I was thirty-two when your mom had you.”
“So I’ve still got a few years.”
“You’re not gay are you?”
“No dad. I wasn’t gay in high school. I’m wasn’t gay before I got married, and I’m not gay now. Why does that matter where I’m gay or not?”
His dad shrugged. “It doesn’t. It’s fine if you’re gay.”
“Well I’m not. I’m married remember?”
“No kids though.”
No, no kids. Too much responsibility. He could barely handle his life as it was. They didn’t have the money or the time. Kids were just sinkholes of time and money. “As I remember, you and mom didn’t exactly plan for me.”
“Who plans for a kid? You can’t plan for everything in life. You just have to do what you want and let the chips fall.”
“Do what you want?”
His dad shifted his chair and studied him. “You can’t spend your life doing what everyone else wants. There are two kinds of people in this world: takers and givers. You have to decide which one you’re going to be.”
“I want to be a giver.” And he did. He wanted to give, to provide. That’s what love was. That’s what being a good person was.
“But you aren’t. You’re a taker. You’ve always been a taker.”
No dad, you’re a taker. And I’m not going to be like you.
They finished their beans and he got up to go.
“Stay a little while. We hardly ever see each other.”
“I can’t, I told Zelda I’d be home soon.”
“First your mom, now your wife. There’s always some woman to make sure we don’t spend any time together isn’t there?”
Zach managed a smile. He walked to the door and stepped out into the night. Stars filled the clear black sky. At this elevation the stars shine unwaveringly. And there are thousands, all of them far away and mysterious, full of potential. He wished he could leap over the edge of that bridge and into the stars. Living should be so much more than this.
His dad stood in the doorway, holding the screen door open. “Don’t take shit Zach. If you’re not giving it then you’re taking it.”
“How is it?” Mark shouted from above.
“Nasty. It’s a nasty overhang.”
Zach was wedged into the rock wall, his head pressing against the rock above, hips hugged to the wall, feet splayed out, toes locked onto small divots in the rock. It was a position that let him rest his arms, but there was nowhere to go from there.
It hadn’t been to bad up to that point. The cliff was chunky and full of nice pockets. But the rock changed at the overhang and became hard and flat. It jutted out above his head in a geometrical plane, unmarred by the time and weather that had worn away everything around it.
The rope attached to his harness extended up and over the rock, disappearing from view a few feet away. At the other end was Mark, sitting on the top, his feet braced, belaying him. He wouldn’t be able to see Zach at all, so there wasn’t much he could offer in the way of advice.
It didn’t help that he’d gotten turned around. He looked out across the gorge and watched the water flow by beneath him. Vertigo is the price you pay for putting your back to the rock, but somehow he’d ended up here anyway, working himself into his cramped position as he searched for a way around or up and over the overhang. It was about thirty feet down to the water. Here the river was fast and full of boulders that churned it into a frothy white. The sound of it filled his ears, and Mark’s voice barely rose above it.
“Do you want me to help you up?” Mark shouted.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m going to try going around the other side.”
“Okay. Ready when you are.”
Zach curled his fingers around the side of the overhang, his palm flat against the bottom of the rock. His fingers pressed against the side, rising straight into the air. Pushing with that hand, he shifted his weight off of his left foot. His other hand worked up to join the first one, pulling while he balanced on his single toe-hold. He rotated his hips, keeping his free leg clos to the rock. Then he paused. At least now he could see the the rock he was trying to climb.
He replaced his right foot with his left so that his entire left side was against the rock and he could reach up with his right. There was a small crack in the overhang that he might be able to push off. It was a tight fit, and he barely managed to push the point of his foot in.
Now he was spread across, left foot braced in the toe-hold, right foot up above hip level. His hands groped the side of the overhand for a hold, but it was completely smooth. He’d have to try and lever himself up using the face of the rock itself.
He took a deep breath and pressed his left hand against the rock, pushing with his right leg, he lifted himself up and next to the side of the overhang. With his right hand he reached high for a ledge. He heard Mark shout encouragement and his fingers touched the edge of the ledge. His right leg was shaking uncontrollably. Then his foot slipped and he fell.
The rope caught him almost immediately and there he was, dangling in open space, twisting about, and bumping against the rock face. A shiver went out across his entire body and he breathed hard, resting his forehead against the rock with a sigh. He was alive!
Later before they packed up, he and Mark sat on the top of the cliff and chewed on dried apples.
“Do you ever just want to jump?” Zach asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, just leap off the edge, no rope, as if there was no bottom.”
“What, like kill yourself?”
“No, I don’t mean suicide. I mean, I don’t want to kill myself. I mean more like the fall itself. It’s something about the open expanse of space, or the freedom, or maybe the idea of feeling weightless.”
“Sort of, yeah. Except it’s more about the leap itself. It’s like when you’re on the rock and you dyno for a hold. You feel the power in your legs and you jump and for a second that’s all you are, just the intention. Just jumping and grabbing that hold. Everything else disappears.”
“And you think the leap would be the same?”
“Totally. It would be the ultimate leap, the ultimate losing oneself in the moment.”
Mark took another bite of apple and pitched a small rock into the river below. “And there’s no coming back.”
“No, there’s not.”
They’d made an early start, but it was getting warmer as the sun rose in the sky. Across the gorge the heat shimmered above the blacktop. Beyond that the mountains rose in the distance, blue and gray, looking like hills next to the big mountains in the North.
Mark stood up. “I’m going to Mexico in a few months.”
“You are? That’s awesome man. What for?”
“There’s supposed to be some crazy climbing way out of the way in the desert there. Jacbob has been there and wants to go back. You can come if you’re interested. Zelda too.”
Zach stood up too and started packing away the gear. Mexico. Land of the free. “That would be great. I’d love to. Probably can’t though.”
Mark smiled at him. “Figured you say that. Too much to do.”
Zach shrugged. “That’s life. Gotta go to work today. Work tomorrow. A million other things to squeeze in the cracks. I’ll live vicariously through you.”
“I don’t know. You’ve got a wife, love, maybe a family one day. A stable job. Health insurance even. I don’t have any of that. I can do anything I want, but, what’s the point if there’s no one to do it with?”
“Is it worth it?”
Mark paused. “Who knows?”
“Well, it seems pretty courageous to make the choices you’ve made.”
It was Mark’s turn to shrug. “Not courageous. Just stupid. To scared to commit.”
Back in the car Mark turned to him and said, “I tell you what though, no one else is going to change your life for you. If you don’t feel fulfilled, you gotta do something different.” He looked out the window at the sagebrush flowing by. “Otherwise one day your regrest will catch you and you’ll be too washed up to do anything about it.”
The phone rang again and he slapped at it and answered. “Yes?”
“Hi Zach, this is Betty Finch calling. I just wanted to check if you’d still be able to come over this Saturday to help clean out my garage.”
“Um, Sure. That’s no problem. But Betty you really shouldn’t call me at-”
“Great, thanks so much.” She interrupted. “You know you’ve always been such a big help to me. When I-”
Zach stopped listening and looked at the clock. Two hours to go. There were still fifteen applications to go through. His credit card bill had to go in the mail today. Nevermind that his car could only be push-started now. Not for the first time he was glad it was a manual. He’d have to find some time to take it into the shop. Somehow.
“Thanks Betty.” He interrupted. “I’ll be sure to lock up the garage when I leave.”
“I still want to introduce you to my daughter.”
“I’m married Betty.”
“Marriage doesn’t mean anything these days. Now when your mom and I were young-”
His cell phone lit up. There was a text message from his dad. “I’m in the hospital and can’t work anymore. You’ll have to take care of me for the rest of your life.”
Zach stood looking at the phone while the kitchen bustled around him. The world went on in a rush and left him behind while he watched it from behind a window.
And then another text: “Just kidding. But I do want to replace the carburetor on the truck and I need your help. See you tonight?”
“Zach?” Betty said on the phone.
“Oh, sorry Betty. Look, I have to go but I’ll see you Saturday okay?” He hung up the phone and picked up his cell phone but then tossed it aside. Not tonight, there was just no way. He set his head against the wall and started counting.
“Zach! How’s it going? You feeling okay?” Jeoffrey walked in the door.
He lifted his head off the wall. “I’m fine, just a lot going on.”
“Hey listen, about that, I’ve been thinking and I wanted to hire another manager to help you out.”
“Yeah. Don’t want you burning out. This way you can each work thirty hours a week.”
“You’re moving me to part time?” Zach asked in a whisper.
“Well, the restaurant is too much for you alone, but I can’t afford to hire another manager full time. So yeah, I think thirty hours each would be good.”
Zach looked at him and said nothing.
“Anyway, I gotta run. You still available to come help me work on my addition tonight? We can talk more about it then.”
“Cool. See you then.”
Zach stared at the crap that surrounded him, the bills and applications, the cell phone, all enclosed in the never-finished office, the corkboard covered in aging notices, jumbled and overlapping each other like fall leaves. Things like “It is restaurant policy that employees pay full price for any food they consume while working.” And “Employees should park their cars in the Wal-Mart parking lot down the road. We don’t have adequate parking for them here.”
Kaylee ran past his office. “Kitchen fire!”
Fuck. He ran into the kitchen and saw fire at the back of the oven, flames licking their way up the wall. The room was filling with a greasy smoke. Again he froze, until Kaylee ran up behind him with a fire extinguisher. She aimed a jet of foam at the base and the fire went out without protest.
She looked at him and laughed. “Now what?” She said. “We can’t cook anything in the oven until it’s cleaned.
“No,” Zach said slowly, “We can’t.” He turned and walked out of the smoky kitchen. He passed through the quiet dining room where no one talked and went out the front door.
He pushed open the doors and shivered in relief as the sun’s heat rolled over him. In the cacophony of Friday afternoon everything was quiet, life giving a silent nod of approval. The sun warmed his face and he began to walk. He walked slowly, his feet steady and his head level. For a while he walked without direction, but he was not surprised when he turned onto the road that led out to the gorge. The miles passed underneath him while the sun burned his face and his feet felt the heat of the pavement. The air was hot and dry. The asphalt of the road crumbled as it met the dirt, sloping into ditches that drained the rain. And there the debris collected. Old boots and tires. Used diapers. Endless cigarette butts and plastic bags.
But among the waste of humanity grew small plants with fragile yellow flowers. And there were grasses, all gray-green and yellow, as rarefied as last night’s air, cleansed by the mountains or the elevation or even something as simple as the rain on a summer afternoon. On the other side of the ditch the sagebrush began before the fences with their graying tilted posts and stretched out forever, the smell which could be inhaled even from a car. And there among the sagebrush were anthills with their fiery protective denizens, building and storing and eating. He saw the footprints of deer and coyotes which he had not thought still lived here. Everywhere life engaged in the holy act of living.
He came to the bridge, his shirt damp sweat. Salt cracked on his face as he smiled. His walk had become a limp, blisters formed and ground away by the miles. But none of that mattered. He was right where he was supposed to be, his hand trailing on the rail, feeling the vibration of the passing cars flow through him.
At the center he stepped out onto the small lookout and grew cautious again. Perspective changed there, standing on a peninsula in a sea of air while the ground dropped away below you. Sometimes when he came to this spot the edge reached out and tried to pull him over before he knew what was happening. Other times it was he himself that would make the leap before he had a chance to stop himself. Either way it beckoned, and he did not trust himself to resist the siren song of the bright fresh air and the tiny green river far below.
He leaned on the railing and relaxed against that pull, the heat and exhaustion taking the weight from his shoulders and casting it into the wind that blew out into the gorge.
“You can walk away and never speak to him again if you want to.” Zelda had said to him last night after he got back from his dad’s house. They lay on the couch together, both tired, taking comfort in the feeling of each other’s warmth.
“No I can’t. This town’s too small. And he’d just keep calling until I broke down and answered.” Zach picked at the threads in his jeans. “Besides, he’s only part of it. This malaise is going to kill me Zelda. I’m not happy here.”
Zelda took his hand. “I know you aren’t. Let’s run away together.”
He shook his head. “How? It’s just not possible. We don’t have the money. And we’ve got too many things to do.”
“Anything’s possible.” She whispered. “All those things you have to do will handle themselves. They don’t need you Zach. I know that it’s hard to let go of that, but the world won’t fall apart if you aren’t holding it together.”
“I can’t let everyone down like that. I can’t let you down.”
Zelda stood up, the curls of her blonde cascading around her face, her eyes sharp. “You wouldn’t be letting me down Zach. And everyone else, all those others who you do favors for? What they think of you doesn’t matter. It’s what you think of yourself that is important.”
She folded her arms in front of her. “Letting me down would be wasting your life and mine while you drown in the weight of your obligations. At some point,” she paused for breath, “all the things you have to do just become reasons to keep running away from what you want to do.”
And she had been right too. He looked down at the river and felt his whole future there, winding it’s way. Corralled by the rock, or carving through it? He imagined his leap again, his muscles twitching in sympathy. The leap was really about the feeling of control. It was about feeling trapped with no way out, with no choice but this one fundamental thing, the choice of whether or not to live. The power of taking that leap was the power of taking control of your own life, with all the focus of an athlete. And the truth was, he didn’t need to leap to have control, all he needed was to reach out and take it.
He took his phone out of his pocket and called Mark.
“Mark? We’re going to Mexico.”
It was time to start carving.