Something Fell Off
Vol. XXVII, no. 2
J. David Stevens
Something had surely fallen off.
"I think something fell off," Blaise said.
We were on our way, but there were always obstacles. "How can you tell?" I asked.
She considered the possibilities. "The noise. Things that fall off sound different from things that fall on."
"It was a dull noise."
"You heard it, too?"
Outside, light hung onto the day by a single toe—soon dark. We were on our way, the usual route, but I could feel our momentum slipping like ice melting beneath skates. I shrugged. "I'm only clarifying. It's the first step toward dialogue."
"So you didn't hear it?"
"I didn't say that."
She let out a balloon of air. "You either heard it or you didn't."
"I heard something, though whether or not the same something you heard is unclear."
"You're being difficult."
"I'm being precise."
We had momentum—Blaise and I—and a history of compromise, reconciliation. But there were always obstacles. Blaise frowned. "It was not a ping, or a clang, or a ting or ding, or even a pee-yong. Not a kong. Not a crack or a clap."
"Like the sound of a hand against a table?" I asked.
"Like a hand against a table covered by a cloth."
"As if struck with the flat of the hand," I said.
"As if heard from another room."
I cocked an ear for effect. "A sound that fades as quickly as it came. You wonder if it existed at all."
"It was real."
"Yes, I suppose it was."
"Then you did hear it."
"I didn't say that. But at least we're getting to the heart of the matter."
We had been this way before. We knew the signs by heart.
"You don't wish to talk about it," Blaise protested.
"Nonsense," I said.
"You never wish to talk."
"More nonsense," I said. "I talk as much as you, maybe more. Don't confuse my unwillingness to talk about the things that you want to talk about with an unwillingness to talk generally. There's a difference."
She sniffed. "Perhaps we should go back."
"For the thing that fell off, of course."
"We don't even know what it was."
"Then perhaps we should go back to ascertain what fell off."
"People are always going back these days," I said.
"They have momentum, and then they go back. And for what?"
"I'm only saying it's the prudent course."
"Why is it prudent?" I continued. "Look, if we go back, we will have to find the thing wherever it's bounced to, among all the other things that have fallen off. And assuming we can even find it—recognize it as our own—we would have to analyze it, and we're not equipped to analyze such things. Indeed, we are ill--equipped to analyze things that fall off, which is why we have people to analyze them, but our people are not here, which means we would have to find other people. And don't get me started on how to evaluate their credentials."
Blaise gave me a look. "But isn't it worth knowing? What about peace of mind?"
There were always obstacles, but at least we were on our way. "It's true," I conceded, "that people must know something to make the world go. But there are consequences. If, for example, we knew about everything that had fallen off—if we had to worry about every Tom, Dick, and widget Š well, we would be mired in our own knowledge. We would never go anywhere."
"But mightn't looking back," she continued, "at least in some cases, be considered looking ahead?"
"Don't be obtuse."
"Prudent," Blaise repeated. "From the Latin prudens, meaning wise or skilled or judicious. Also, foreseeing."
We were losing momentum. We had a history of reconciliation—less often, compromise. I took her hand tenderly. "Look, I can tell this troubles you. But you must know that things are always falling off. It might even be true that more things fall off than stay on. There's no way to tell, of course, but my point is the numbers are close. Things fall off all the time, but still people go."
"It just seems unnecessary."
"My point entirely. So many things are not necessary. They fall off."
"But what if it were one of the round things?" she continued. "The metal ones."
"Cymbals? Pie plates? Loose change? Oil drums?"
"Now who's being obtuse?"
"I'm only saying that, if we needed to, we would stop. If the whole thing came chunking to a halt, we would go back." I looked at her. "We would go back because we would know."
"Easy for you to say," she said.
On our way, Blaise looked out. Shadows poured by.
"It could have been one of the children," she resumed.
"It was not one of the children."
"How do you know?" She turned in her seat as if attempting to take stock.
"For one thing," I said, "had it been a child, then the other children would have pointed it out."
"It depends on which child fell off," Blaise said. "They are prone to petty squabbles. The others might see it as an opportunity."
"The children can't keep secrets, even when they want to," I replied.
"They are smarter than you realize."
"They are demonstrative in all things. When they want something, they cannot help squawking about it: ice cream, ponies, good grades, acceptance, a clear complexion, tacos and hamburgers, a water slide, unconditional love, concert tickets. They are insufferably dramatic." I raised one finger. "That's why they need us."
"Perhaps they are reluctant to speak," Blaise said, "in this instance."
"Why this instance?"
"Because they fear you."
"No more than I fear them."
"They're your children."
"We can always make more."
She started to cry. "That's a horrible thing to say."
We had a history, Blaise and I, though not as long as the histories of some people. We had reconciled ourselves to our differences, however—or at least to the idea that differences would exist. Compromise was the best approach, when possible. "It was a joke," I said.
"You shouldn't joke like that."
"Some thing fell off," I said, "not a child."
"But how can we be sure?"
"Because had a child fallen off, we would almost certainly go back for him or her. The fact that we are not going back, that we have the confidence not to go back, confirms what we already know. A thing fell off. Perhaps it resembled a child. Perhaps the noise it made falling off resembled the noise made by a falling child. But such noises could be made by many things—potatoes, for example. We are not paranoid people. We do not bend to the kind of fear that exists only in our heads."
"But isn't all fear," Blaise pointed out, "in our heads? Isn't it only the stimuli that change?"
"Please," I replied, "you know what I mean."
"You mean that fear is a choice."
We had been this way many times before, but there were always obstacles, diversions, slight changes of route. Even the same way was never quite the same, which made momentum difficult to gauge.
"It was not a child," I repeated.
We dealt with conversation when it occurred but often settled into compromise without crafting it, a condition to which we were reconciled. Balance was our watchword. Unlike other couples—who refused to go to bed angry, who insisted on civility and even cuddle-wuddums just to fall asleep—we would part company on whatever terms, because we trusted in equilibrium, its inevitability: water pressure, free market, détente, love.
"But," Blaise persisted, "don't you think about bigger things?"
"Like zeppelins?" I said.
She frowned. The night outside was straightening its back. Things flashed into focus, then away.
We could pass for philosophical. Blaise's household had been orthodox—mine less so, though my parents had insisted on an orthodox appearance. Our positions were more general than specific, but we kept a finger on various pulses and never backslid. When names were taken, heads counted, etc., we were as vocal as the rest. Early on Blaise had praised my rightness, up and down. Her flesh had goose-pimpled when I championed belief over belief in.
But there were always obstacles. A girl, she once told me, needs to hear certain things on occasion.
"Did you hear," I tried, "about the fish at the airport?"
"The airport. Out by Airport Road."
"I know the one," she said.
"Well, a fish fell out of the sky the other day—crashed into the windshield of a pickup truck."
"Fell out of a plane?"
"No one knows," I told her. "It wasn't listed on any flights."
"The newspaper reported it. A parking lot attendant heard the crash. The fish was imbedded in the pickup's windshield."
Blaise considered the possibilities. "Perhaps someone chucked it."
"No one chucked it," I insisted. "The parking lot was empty except for the attendant, the fence was twelve feet high, and the truck was three rows in."
"What kind of fish was it?"
"A small fish might have been chucked." She nodded as if agreeing with herself. "What about the attendant?"
"A good boy from a good family," I said. "Hard-working people. Salt of the earth."
"Pretty convenient, if you ask me."
"But you see where I'm headed," I continued. "Things fall off. It's a metaphor."
"To make my point."
"It's more of an analogy, then."
There were always obstacles. "An average day. An average parking lot. And then a fish falls out of the sky. Nothing is certain."
"Except the windshield."
"Well, yes, eventually the windshield," I agreed. "But you don't know how or when, so why worry? All you can do is stay on your way, keep your momentum, and trust nothing important to fall off. In many ways, it's the only prudent course."
"You're a Calvinist," Blaise said.
"I am not a Calvinist."
"Then you're a fish-chucker," she continued.
"I have no idea what you mean."
"I mean that there are basically two kinds of people in the world, those who chuck fish and those at whom they're chucked. The problem is nobody can tell the difference. You spend your life thinking you're a chucker only to discover—one fine parking lot day—that you're a chuckee. Or worse still, you convince yourself that you're a chuckee, just waiting in line, and never figure out you're the worst chucker of all. Your hand in the ice chest, fish after fish. You can't get enough of it."
"Well, no analogy is perfect," I offered.
But her eyes were wide. Their white parts glimmered when struck by an occasional light from outside. "It's obscene," she said.
We seemed to have momentum, but it was hard to tell while on our way. The signs seemed to have changed—or else we had never reconciled ourselves to them. We had a history of something, balance if not compromise. But did we believe in it?
"Forget about the fish," I said.
We were on our way, but how to end it? We would stop eventually, but there was always the next trip, the usual route, the signs that could change with the light.
"How do you call your lover?" Blaise sang. She had a fine voice, soft but with an edge like a paper clip.
"That's an old song."
"Depends on how you sing it."
"I always liked the ending."
"A refrain that just fades out?"
"I could sing it as many times as I liked," I told her. "Fifty times. A hundred. I could pretend it never really ended, just got too quiet to hear."
"You could change it up," Blaise said. "Sometimes you could add a whistle. Or a yoo-hoo. Or just make a motion with your eyes."
"That last one wouldn't work on the radio," I pointed out.
"You could make a sound like a slapping hand. You could make a sound like a wheeze."
"Those don't really fit."
"They don't not fit, either," Blaise said.
Her voice came to me out of the dark. We were on our way—knew the way as well as we knew anything. In the dark, I could feel the air that needed to move in order for words to travel from mouth to ear. I could feel it like smoke, warm and stale-sweet on my cheek. "You should sleep," I said.
"I'm too tired to sleep."
"It might help."
"We should both sleep," Blaise said.
We had a history of being tired, of wanting better but fearing worse. We reconciled ourselves to our lives the way gravity reconciles a body to the earth. Balance was our watchword, compromise a physical act. It was only when we talked, a wind of words, that I remembered what it was like to fall. In those moments, equilibrium was just a limit we had reached together: terminal velocity. Or maybe it was just me. Or maybe falling was what we were supposed to do. Or maybe falling was just the dizziness that came from being stationary too long, product of external stimuli, a sensory trick. "We have momentum," I responded.
"Of course," Blaise said. "There's always that." In the silence that followed, I could hear her head turning, though in which direction I had no idea. "We've come too far, haven't we?"
"We haven't reached the end, if that's what you mean."
"I mean we've come too far to go back. Even if we wanted to."
I considered the possibilities. "Yes, I suppose so."
"Could we have gone back? Ever?"
I considered the possibilities further. "Drama's no use," I said. "And solipsism's the button that zaps the monkey."
"I failed that course in college," Blaise said. "I was too much of an earth-mother. My colors were autumn."
"Dad wanted me to take basket-weaving," I sympathized. "A million ways to gum things up, he'd say, but a good basket is money under the mattress."
Blaise laid one hand against my thigh. "Does it scare you? Even a little?"
"The thing falling off," she said.
"It is an external stimuli, a fact, a was. How can I bring myself to care?"
Her hand moved slightly. "I'm reaching out to you here. I'm showing tenderness. We are not just sheep."
"When one sheep runs off the cliff," I said, "the others follow. It makes them neither happy nor frightened nor appalled. Just broken. Else while, elsewhere, other sheep graze without knowing."
"Does it scare you?" Blaise said.
Perhaps the signs had changed, though in my heart I suspected them to be the same signs as ever. We were on our way, just as we had always been. "Momentum," I said, "from the Latin momentum, meaning movement or motion."
"Or change or alteration," Blaise countered.
"Or intellectual gravity," I said, "the weight of an idea."
"Or when speaking of time," she prompted, "a turning point."
I half-expected the end to heave into view, luminous and grand. But it didn't. Minutes passed. Blaise drifted so far into silence that I wondered if she were asleep, but I dared not ask. What I knew: we would drive through the dark. Come light, we would have a better view of the many people on their way with us, of the ramshackle buildings along the way, of the signs inviting us to eat and drink where others had eaten and drunk (even famous others: politicos, celebs, etc.). And when we reached the end, it would not be as grand or luminous as it was in memory or imagination, but lower-slung and unkempt and flaking like a sunburned uncle. The children would trickle their doubts like snot. And though it might not matter, I would tell Blaise to take a photograph—or a hundred, or a thousand—so we could have a reference the next time we started on our way or the next time someone piped up about all the things that had fallen off.