Abyss – Hannah Liberman
August 29, 2023
A friend, if he can be called that now, once told me the clouds above him moved differently depending on where he stood. It wasn’t the sort of observation that seemed to necessitate a response, so I just nodded my head. “Did you hear me?” He had said. “The clouds, they move differently here.” He’d left town however long ago, back only for a visit, and we’d lost the familiarity that comes with proximity. I didn’t know what to say. Sure, it was true, but not for the reasons he believed. The claim lacked scientific backing.
“It’s just the wind,” I said. “Higher altitudes, quicker gusts.”
“No,” he replied. And I had closed my eyes. “Whenever I’m back in this place,” he chucked his chin out from below the shadow of his nose, “the clouds move slower than pain.”
Masses of towns obscure the borders dividing New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California. Keep naming states if you care to. No single one holds more than a few thousand people, a couple gas stations, a casino if lucky, maybe. Here clouds rarely dampen the sky, and the sun beats without give. And then again. A man walks out of a trailer on each of the borders. Let it not matter which trailer, just that there is snow on the ground and not a thing in the sky and that the man on each imagined line is tired. Every day he walks five miles to that casino and back again, where he works if there is a casino and there is work. Replace casino with gas station. Gas station with liquor store with drug store with drug deals. Each step peels the soles from his shoes a little further from the soles of his feet. If there was money for new shoes he wouldn’t spend it on new shoes. Set a son in the trailer. Set two. In the distance, the lights of wind turbines cut through the white cold with the focus of rats, but the man does not notice. There is dirt on his jeans. There is dirt in his jeans.
My friend was one part of a cracked pair, with a younger brother who lived in the same house as him for as long as he was around. Both had eyes the gray of the sea on an overcast day. Though, when caught in the sunlight, one’s irises specked with blue, the other’s green. When they looked at one another standing only in the dark light of their home, one saw a reflection of himself, obvious as anger, the other saw a distillation of everything he feared in the world.
The man takes a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, lifts from beside the trailer a shovel, the red metal head frozen to the ground. It is cold and dry, the air bare of the wet that would bite through the skin to the tissue to the bone, and his fingers have splintered, new skin failing to replace the old—once soft as leaves in spring even under that yawn of a blinding sky. He lights a cigarette as it begins to snow, the filth on his jeans fading to dark with the damp. The sun still gaping above, he shovels the snow from his driveway. Though there is no snow, no ice. And his hands begin to tremble.
My friend’s brother drank like a fish. For a stretch of years, however, he gave up alcohol. It was like watching a balloon gradually fill with air, my friend said. He seemed to grow whole again, almost bursting with life.
From inside, the man’s sons watch his cigarette smoke trickle up above the window, tear into the sky, and unravel into a cloud. One long sweep of it, like a gash or a vein or a cloud. Just a cloud. The man does not notice. Instead, his eyes are fixed on the horizon, where a small car is growing larger. Larger and larger it grows, until it is in front of him, the window dropping. “How far to the border?” a woman with blue eyes and blonde hair bleached clean of its hue inevitably asks, and the man sets down his shovel, turns his cigarette to ash beneath his toe, and points toward the sky, blank again.
A ripple breaks in the hang between them, when the woman waits a second too long to roll up her window. “Are you okay?” she might ask, her blue eyes wide, maybe wet, the skin above her forehead a shade of orange found only in cans, pinched. Instead of saying “What the fuck kind of question is that?” or “Are you okay?” or “There is a place behind my eyes I cannot go for fear I will not return, the same or at all,” the man makes a line in the air with the arm empty of the shovel, his hand limp at the end of the wrist, pointing down to the snow only he can see. The woman takes in the whole length of his forearm, long and flat as the land, her pupils growing smaller as they fall on the nail of his pinky finger, convalescing above the dirt, and she nods, raises the glass between them, and drives away.
My friend woke one morning in the bite of winter and found their house torn apart, the drawers emptied, walls bare, tools and valuables gone. When he walked outside to call the police about the robbery, he stumbled over his brother’s silhouette, sprawled along their porch with several backpacks, full as balloons, lying next to him. Sobriety had stuck to his brother for a long time before it didn’t. My friend turned on his heel and went inside. An old knit blanket had fallen from the couch with the commotion, and light was just beginning to barge through the kitchen windows, frosted over. He splashed cold water from the kitchen sink on his face once, once again, then grabbed the crumpled blanket from the floor. Outside, his brother did not stir when he laid the quilt across his shoulders, spiked with goosebumps. My friend carried the bags back into their house and locked the doors.
On a day like any other the man walks outside on each of the borders, picking up the shovel as he goes to rid the dirt of the snow that has accumulated in his mind through the night. When the man raises his head, the horizon is gone. The sky, freed from land, is no abyss. Nor is it a wound. A wound presumes a puncture, a tear, a break. There is nothing in the distance to puncture, nothing ripped away. Nor could it be compared to a hole, the man thinks, which necessitates a carving out, bounds or walls. No, an abyss fails to aptly describe the unending sprawl of sky before him, because he knows that no void can fall where nothing is missing and absence cannot be taken away. The man looks back at the trailer where his boys sleep. All the trailers. The past opening before him, he bends over slowly and sets down his shovel.
The man I once called a friend was patient. He could spend a whole evening alone, watching the clouds move. “It is just the wind,” I told him, “Just the wind. It comes and goes. Comes and goes again.”
I catch him every time I close my eyes. Where did you go? I try to ask without moving my lips. Where did you go?