by Brendan Gregory Park
Loft, "The upward course of a ball driven in a high arc," according to whomever edited The American Heritage College dic*tion*ar*y, is an easy enough phenomenon to explain in purely physical terms, but the psychological effect of this occurrence defies any logical explication we might glean from or attribute to the so-called "rules" of the natural world. For instance, one might reasonably expect that the "upward course of [said] ball" has a purpose, that the moment of its suspension is a necessary transition between two concrete points, and that the arrival of said ball from point A to point B will effect some meaning, but the people of American Heritage have, by omission, left these crucial considerations to our mere conjecture. Obviously, a furtherance of the definition of the word, "Loft," is necessary.
Nancy Overland is sitting in the bleachers, near the other parents. It is early December, only 5:30 in the PM, but completely dark save for white grape clusters of stadium lights high on their stalks, illuminating the field in a sublime shade of light. Snowflakes against the night sky are like the static on an unreceptive television set, except every now and then when a little whirlwind funnels some shape onto the screen.
The students crowding the front rows have to stand on their seats just to see the game over all the ripe-looking red helmets and padded bodies shuffling for warmth on the sidelines. These students spill their drinks on each other, distracted, perhaps, by seizured antics of the cheerleaders. Steam rises from their nostrils in frantic puffs, and it is quite clear from their general animation that they are caught up in all the noise and blur and color and commotion. Young blood is easily stirred.
There is a lift, very suddenly, and all the minds huddled together on the bleachers, both old and young, join instantly together in a wordless thought. The ball is one inch above the fingertips of Brian Overland—who is the home-team quarterback, a charming senior with a respectable 2.8 GPA, and Nancy's only son. Each heart in each of the 4,723 chests of the attendees balloons slightly, as with a breath of helium, simultaneous with Brian's release of the football.
Why exactly this happens is a great mystery. The last seconds are ticking off the clock; even a touchdown won't be enough for the home team to tie the score. This is the last game of the season, and the playoffs are out of reach. If the young man sprinting toward the end zone makes a completion, it won't raise Nancy's husband from the grave. The result of this pass will not make Brian talented enough to earn a scholarship, athletic or academic, and the Overlands still won't have enough stashed away even to send him to a state school. The earth will not trip from the string of its solitary orbit; nor will the sun be dissuaded from dying out one day.
But still, something is happening here. If the receiver makes the catch and stays in bounds for a touchdown, then the game will be remembered fondly by all. For the visiting team, their victory will be more savored for their having vested worthy opponents whose vim brought them within a few points of glory. The home team will talk about how they ended the season on an impressive note, about how maybe they had a slump midseason before finding their stride, but boy, when they were on, like that last pass Brian threw right before the buzzer, well, they were on, and if they could have just clicked a little sooner in the season then they probably would have taken the whole thing. And for Nancy Overland, there will one more thing to talk to her (as of yet unborn) grandchildren about. It will be something to remind Brian of in those times in life after high school, of which Nancy half-hopes there will be many, when his self-esteem will be lacking and he will depend on her for motherly reassurances.
Already Nancy is playing and replaying in her head a future version of the completed pass, thinking of the many positive ramifications this touchdown will effect, the many ways it will make her and Brian strong. Already the brain chemicals are firing, forging connections and pathologies and circuitous dendrite mazes of pleasure. A marvelous proliferation of electricity branches into the void, just from Nancy and all the others thinking about what it could mean.
But time moves slowly in moments such as these, and the ball is still rising into that space where anything can happen. Between the quarterback and the receiver the pigskin is like a fleck of serotonin crossing the uncertain gulf between synapses somewhere in the darkness of the mind, where no connections are guaranteed.
Suspension, a state which frequently but not invariably follows the occurrence of loft, is said to take place during the moment at which an object is "kept from falling without apparent attachment, as by buoyancy." Once again, the esteemed editors of the A.H.C.D. betray in their definition an implicit bias toward the phenomenal world as put forth in the science and theorems of operational physics, and continued investigation into the admittedly more nebulous and problematic human experience of said event is merited.
Nancy has a good head on her shoulders, but as a widow well-past her childbearing years and mother to an only son who has come to the age when children fly the coop, she is not without a few neuroses. Brian, even at the age of eighteen, still has a curfew of 10:00 PM because of Nancy's vehement distrust of drunk drivers and, though she doesn't admit it, even the sober driving abilities of some of Brian's friends. She is able to enforce this curfew only because she owns the car he drives. He's only allowed to go out with friends if he drives himself, and no one else is allowed in the vehicle with him. In addition, Nancy wakes up early during winters and salts her own drive, just to be safe, and whenever school isn't immediately canceled for a severe storm, Nancy is the first one on the phone to the superintendent complaining bitterly about misplaced priorities. What's more important, hours in school or hours alive on this planet? A dead student can't learn anything.
Nancy knows people think overly fretful parents are a drag—the ones who won't allow their daughters to wear skirts cut above the knees, those who chaperone their embarrassed children and their dates to homecomings and proms. In Nancy's estimation she herself is not fretful but rightly concerned, because when it comes right down to it, no one else but her recognizes the fact that Brian is more vulnerable than the other kids. Perhaps they understand that, since his father died of a heart attack, he's maybe a little more somber and prematurely attuned to the fact of mortality than the rest of the students. Perhaps they understand that, as quarterback in fall and pitcher in the spring, his body is open to a higher percentage of playing field dangers than other athletes', but that's as far as it goes for them. They don't see his fragility as deeply as Nancy does. To them he's just the star quarterback or the handsome kid everyone likes, the prom king and the one voted "Best Date to Bring Home to Mom" in the yearbook, but they don't know, like Nancy does, that Brian is real too, and something could happen to him.
It's spring now, and for the past few weeks Nancy has been feeling as though fate were rewarding her for all the many precautions she has taken. Brian pitched the baseball team to a winning record and even got them to the first round of the playoffs. Graduation is only a few weeks away and some older friends of Brian's, good clean-cut boys whom Nancy has always liked and deemed good role models for her son, have been telling Brian that they can get him a good job after graduation. They have assured him that their own college education accrued nothing but debt for them, and if Brian stays in town and gets a job right out of the gates, he'll thank himself later. Come fall, Nancy will be pleased for Brian to apprentice with either one of these young men, putting on a suit every day and going off to sell insurance or appraise real estate, living right here in town. She'll even consider letting him live at home a few years to save up to buy his own place, provided it's in the neighborhood. Nancy has been imagining both this future and a nearer one, the party she intends to throw for his graduation. She's been fretting over whether the cake will be shaped like a football or a baseball.
In all this time, Nancy has never considered the possibility of a pulmonary embolism, and as she sits next to the magazines in the hospital waiting room, she wonders if perhaps there is some precaution she could have taken that would have prevented it from happening. They have informed her that the infarction is a serious complication of the embolism, which itself is a complication of a recent, minor knee surgery. It was so sudden. She heard him suffering in his room at three in the morning and brought him here as quickly as she could.
The nurses are all very healthy-looking, and that inspires some confidence, however irrational. They have strong teeth and bones, trustworthy muscle and sinew beneath all that teal fabric. One of them approaches, places her hand on Nancy's shoulder and assures her that Dr. Bauer is a very good surgeon, that his medical team is one of the finest in the state, his hands are the steadiest in the business and he is, most importantly, very aggressive. The nurse returns to her small huddle of colleagues on the other side of the counter, and Nancy feels a vague familiarity with this situation. All this talk of teams and good hands and aggressive strategies makes her feel comfortable, strangely at home in the impersonal waiting room, even a little hopeful.
Still, there is fear too, and between that and the hope, Nancy is like the highly charged space between two like-poled magnets, her body an invisible and quiet area filled with a stubborn energy that won't give, won't take.
Nancy caught sight of Dr. Bauer before the surgery, and while she can't recall the exact features of his face, she remembers that he was handsome and dark-complected. As soon as he emerges into the hallway, she plans to read the prognosis in his expression. But for now all she can do is wait. The nurses are murmuring incoherently to Nancy's left, and the doctor and his team are doing their work down the hallway to her right. Nancy folds her hands over her lap and closes her eyes, trying to remember what she's thought to herself all those times in life when things turned out all right.
Descent, according to the A.H.C.D., is the act or instance of "moving from a higher to a lower place." The diligent reader will note that this definition takes as its unabashed premise the unchallenged belief that a Newtonian world view is both a sufficient and definitive means by which to reduce a multifaceted and poly-dimensional reality to a few simple parts, once again making no allusions, either direct or peripheral, to the emotive, experiential aspects of said phenomenon. Only further study will effect a more thoroughly objective consideration of the facts, insofar as they are known.
It's the same dream Nancy's been having two or three times a week; she's standing on one side of the glass, face pressed up against the pane and her hands cupped over her eyes, watching the doctors operate on Brian. They are laughing, the doctors, as they leave Brian open-chested on the table and gather round a baseball and a football plopped incongruously down upon their tray of metal instruments. They are trying to pull the laces out of these balls with their clumsy fingers, and they seem to be arguing lightheartedly about which threads are better suited to sewing Brian up. Nancy keeps pointing at her son, yelling at the surgeons to get back to the task of repairing him, chastising them for leaving him unattended, but the glass renders everything silent.
When she wakes she sees by her clock that it is only 3:00 AM, which is a dreadful hour; 3:00 AM is so far away from everything else. Lightning flashes somewhere in the distance and Nancy sees her laundry scattered everywhere in the pale blue light. The light subsides. In the darkness again, she wishes she could fall back to sleep but knows that the dream has made her too anxious to do so.
In a strange way, Nancy likes this recurring nightmare, though she can't for the life of her figure out why. She always wakes up drenched in sweat and out of breath, terrified. Then her heart sinks. Terror is an emotion which has been voided out of her life in the waking world. Were she able to discern the mystery of why she savors this feeling in her dream, she would discover that a person who can be terrified is a person who is caught up in the very act of feeling the most intense, wordless hope there is. And if it is possible that the doctors can ruin everything, well, it follows that there are other possibilities, too.
Familiar with this loathsome 3:00 AM hour by now, Nancy has employed various strategies to get herself through it. She has tried drinking, but she has a weak stomach and a picky tongue, neither of which will allow her to acquire the taste. The television is just too bright, full of empty beauty and impossible happinesses and other disheartening figments of unreality. The twenty-four-hour grocery store is the best option she's come up with so far. By the time she drives there, selects her poison, drives home and, finally, eats, it will usually be about 4:30 or quarter to five. It's nearly light by that hour. When the horizon begins to gray, hinting that a new day is already in the making, Nancy has no trouble falling back to sleep.
It's raining as Nancy drives up to the supermarket, so she pulls alongside the fire lane and leaves her hazard lights on. The automatic doors suck her through their vortex into another world, where all of the aisles are perfectly stocked and front-faced. The store is infinitely more orderly and pristine than one ever sees it during daylight hours of operation, no gaps in the smiling rows of milk jugs, no dents in the bricked fortifications of cereal boxes. It's a seamless junk fortress, which is precisely why she's come.
At the check-out there is another man already in line. This startles Nancy for a moment, then she reflects that the store isn't open twenty-four hours merely so she can buy her ice cream on restless nights. Nancy can only see the man from behind; his charcoal wool sweater is steady as a tree trunk, damp with little water droplets that glisten like buds iced in a late frost. Not meaning to, but not feeling any guilt about it either, Nancy plainly watches as the cashier zaps the man's sole purchase, a home pregnancy test kit. It's an odd time of night to buy such a thing, but from behind at least, the gentleman doesn't appear to be in any sort of panic. Nancy notices a few wires of gray salted into his rich, sable hair, and this makes her think, in a not necessarily rational but nonetheless intuitive sort of way, that he would be a good father if that's what it came down to. He'd be mature and ready. Nancy momentarily envies the young wife she's just invented in her mind. Again, Nancy notes the man's calmness, the warm, self-assured small talk he is making with the woman counting his change. He reaches out for his $2.74 with well-manicured nails and a hand steady as stone.
A bubbly layer of ice has encrypted the barcode on Nancy's double-chocolate fudge ice cream; the laser is helpless against it and the cashier can't make out the individual numbers either. The cashier tells Nancy it's no problem and then she walks off toward the frozen aisle with the merchandise in hand, eying for one that will ring. The dark-complected man pulls out the straps on his plastic bag and peers in, diligently checking to make sure that both his test kit and his receipt have been remembered therein, then he heads for the doors.
Next to the stacks of chewing gum and celebrity magazines, Nancy is aware of a sudden pang, a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. It is a feeling which makes no sense to her in this context, but there it is, nonetheless. It is real; she feels it.
The cashier walks away in one direction and the home pregnancy man in the other, and Nancy can feel her body in the space between them, so small beneath the high ceilings and relentless palsy of the fluorescent light. In the close proximity of these two apparent strangers, only a moment ago, the feeling wasn't there. But now, between their two bodies, as they expand outwards from her, something drops out from under Nancy.
She stands there, ten, twenty, thirty seconds, almost a minute before there is a sudden flash and both the feeling and the situation make sense. Nancy runs through the doors into the rain, past the syncopated blinking of her hazard lights and into the parking lot, calling out, "Dr. Bauer! Dr. Bauer, is that you? Dr. Bauer, are you there? I need to ask you a question!"
A car door shuts, the engine turns over, and a pair of headlights open their eyes in the near distance. Nancy runs toward the car, calling out for a Dr. Bauer. The rain is coming down hard now, and perhaps that drowns out her voice and prevents him from hearing her. Or perhaps he doesn't see her; she herself can't make out his face when he passes right by her. The man on the other side of the windshield is blurred out by the combination of the furious wipers, the swimming reflections of neon signs and the streaming water. With her fingertip, Nancy just grazes the car as it passes by her, making an all but imperceptible squeak of a connection. As the man turns out of the lot and drives away from her into the long row of green traffic lights, Nancy is left wondering if maybe he did see her but chose, for whatever reason, not to stop.
Nancy hears the rain for the first time now, the way it plays all sorts of notes on the puddle she's standing in, also on the soft earth where the trees are planted between the lots, the sidewalk, the roofs, the pine needles and her skull. A million different surfaces are only instruments for the drops to play their music on. It's as though she's never heard rain before, rain stripped of all the distractions of human noise which usually accompany it.
This new discovery of music doesn't make anything better, though. Standing in her soaked clothes, alone on the asphalt, Nancy wonders how she got here. Of course, she could map out her actions up until this very moment; she could pinpoint her wanderings on the grid. She could recite the street signs and the exits and the correct lanes and turns and speed limits and yield signs and even list for you all the given laws associated with these objects and parameters. She could tell you all of that, but those are just a bunch of directions. And what are directions, anyway? Up! Down! Right! Left! Straight Ahead! Where is it written that she who follows shall never be lost?
I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2001 with a BA in English Literature; I was long-listed for the 2005 Fish international Short Story Prize; I was a semi-finalist for the Bechtel Prize; and in 2006 an essay of mine was published in the Random House anthology, TWENTYSOMETHING ESSAYS BY TWENTYSOMETHING WRITERS.