Chris Kammerud – On the Way Down

4Theodore Grigsby was fifty-three years old and recently retired from the stock market. He was a rational man. A rational man who sometimes, but not often, wore a purple and black kimono that had once belonged to his mother, Zita Howitzer, God rest her soul. Even less often, Theodore Grigsby wore his dead mother’s robe while doing pirouettes all across the roof of his thirty-story apartment building. Theodore had never done this second thing until this very morning, and he paused in mid-whirl to try and remember what he was doing on the roof in the first place. He got distracted, though, by his attempt at figuring the odds of a passing traffic helicopter broadcasting his half-naked, kimono wearing body on the six o’clock news. He considered further the probability of someone he knew seeing him on television. Then he remembered that both his parents were dead, his wife had recently left him for the Galapagos Islands, his only real friend was the blind doorman to this building, and that very often of late, he felt all alone in the world.
Theodore remembered his original reason for coming up to the roof.
He cantered closer to the nearest ledge. An audience of pigeons greeted him with what he imagined to be coos of encouragement. He looked out over the edge of the world. He calculated how long it would take for a man such as himself to hit bottom. Not more than a second or two, he decided. The blink of an eye, really.
Theodore swung himself up onto the ledge. This seemed a great surprise to the pigeons, all but one of whom escaped into flight, careening in wide circles about the roof. Theodore inched one foot forward, and then the next, until both sets of toes tasted their first breath of emptiness. He lifted his face to the sky, and, for a moment, he lost track again of where he was and what he was doing. He wondered at the wind and the clouds and the way such seemingly weightless things could take on such gravity.
It was at this moment that the brave remaining pigeon cooed such a powerful coo that it startled Theodore, and he fell from the roof belly first, his kimono billowing out behind him like some kind of exotic tortoise shell.

Katherine Coolidge still preferred being called Katie because it reminded her of St. Pete and alligators and her father’s stories of the little people that lived in their walls. She had been afraid of the thumps and scurries that surrounded her growing up, and, instead of telling her the truth, Katie’s father told her that there was an entire civilization of little people who worked all night, every night, strengthening the walls of their home so that nothing bad would ever happen to it. Eventually, Katie learned about the rats, and, eventually, her house was torn down as part of St. Pete’s revitalization, and somewhere in between all that, her father disappeared in pursuit of one or another of his fancies.
Still, she liked on occasion to think of herself as surrounded by those hundreds of tiny, helpful men.
Katherine took a sip of coffee. She thought about why now, of all times, she would think of her father. She wondered if it had anything to do with the middle-aged man in a kimono who was floating just a few feet in front of her balcony.

He tried to keep his eyes open. It seemed important to take in as much of everything as he could. Balconies and bedroom windows and potted plants and racks of laundry. The fractured squawk of daytime talk shows. Snatches of a pop song that followed him on the way down and which, no matter how hard he tried, he could never quite make out. A girl singing in her shower. A boy brushing his teeth.
His ears burned.
His eyes watered.
His cheeks chipmunked.
The world fell out of focus, and then there was only noise. The rush of air reminded him of being eight years old, huddled under the blankets of his bed. Listening to his mother vacuum.
And then, nothing.
No more rush. No more squawk.
Peace.
Just the sound of his breath and the beating of his heart and the soft whir of distant traffic.
That didn’t seem right.
Theodore opened his eyes.
A young woman stood on an apartment balcony. She held a coffee cup to her lips.
He looked down.
A small bird flew from one side of the road to the other.
A light breeze rustled his kimono.
He patted himself down in the manner one searches for lost keys.
“Are you okay?” the woman on the balcony said.
Theodore looked up. He had never seen the woman before. Long, blue sweater. Cut-off jeans. Flip-flops. Dark, curly hair braided into a single braid draped across her right shoulder. He might have found her appealing in different circumstances, but currently, and without anyone else around with whom to be angry other than himself, he decided that she would have to do.
“I’m fine,” Theodore said. “Thank you.” He continued his self-examination, peeking into his robe’s open folds, searching for whatever was wrong with him that he couldn’t even off himself properly.
The woman on the balcony laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Theodore said. He pawed at the air around his face.
“Nothing,” the woman said, though clearly she found something about his situation very amusing.
“I was in the middle of something,” Theodore said, “and, if you really must know, I would dearly like to get on with it.”
“Right. Sure.”
The woman continued to watch him.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Not particularly.”
“Well, then” he said. He frowned. “If you’re going to hang around like this–”
The woman laughed at this, too.
Theodore gritted his teeth. His face burned. He started again. “Look. Why don’t you try helping me instead of standing over there feeling so goddamn superior?”
The woman stopped laughing.
“What is it that we’re trying to do here exactly?” she said.
Theodore considered this.
“Maybe you have something heavy I could borrow? An old television set you’d like to be rid of, perhaps?”
The woman took a long time in responding. “No,” she said, shaking her head with a heavy, possibly real, sadness. Theodore couldn’t tell anymore with these kinds of things. Maybe he never could. “I don’t think so. Sorry.”
“Bloody hell,” he said.
“British?” the woman said.
“A long time ago,” Theodore said. “I don’t know what I am now.”
“It’s hard being between things,” she said. “Not one thing or another.”
“It is,” Theodore said.
The woman took another sip of coffee. She continued with her earlier line of inquiry. “It’s just, you know, you don’t look fine. You look like you’re floating.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I try not to make assumptions about people.”
“Leave me alone.”
“I’m just trying to have a conversation.”
“I’m not sure this is the best time.”
“You look like the kind of guy that probably says that kind of thing a lot.”
“I thought you didn’t want to make assumptions?”
“Oh, that’s not an assumption. It’s an inference.”
“Look. Really. I wish. If you’re not going to be of any help.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin, you know?” the woman said.
“Then, just let me be. Let me get on with it, okay?”
“Who’s stopping you?”
Theodore groaned. He rocked his legs back, mumbled a fairly discernible expletive, and then kicked down in an attempt to start falling again. He succeeded only in spinning himself around in circles, glimpsing each time he passed the woman’s changing expression: anger, amusement, pity, back to anger. She had a very expressive face, Theodore decided. Her wide mouth twitched in the most delightful manner, as though she were chewing on her thoughts before speaking them out loud.
“You don’t have to be so mean about it, you know?” she said.
“Why are you still here?” he said.
He might have shouted.
“Me?”
“Yes!”
He was definitely shouting. He wasn’t sure why he was doing that. To be fair, he wasn’t sure of a lot of things right now. A gust of wind fluttered his kimono. He grabbed it and held on tight.
“This is my balcony. And that,” the woman pointed into the room behind her, “is my apartment. You fell into my life, bub. Not the other way around.”
Theodore almost smiled in spite of himself. A great deal of his professional success, he knew, could be attributed to his uncanny ability to smile in a way that led people into believing that he was someone they could believe in. He found that the less he said, and the more he smiled, the more people accepted whatever little he told them about the relationship of risk and return–the relationship being, he would say, that the more you risked, the greater your possibilities of return. People tended to believe whatever they wanted to believe and most people, Theodore had found, much to their detriment–especially his wife–tended towards optimism.
“I guess you have a point there,” he said.
“Damn right, I do.”
Theodore couldn’t decide, considering the situation, if smiling at this woman would be a kindness or not.
He decided not. No reason to get her hopes up.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and to his surprise, he felt like he might actually mean it. He couldn’t remember the last time he really felt sorry for something. His wife was always going on and on about how important it was to learn to be weak with each other. Whatever that meant. Maybe that’s why she went to the Galapagos. All those helpless animals trapped on a little island in the middle of the ocean, weak with loneliness and boredom.
Theodore felt a bit dizzy. He felt like if he wasn’t careful he might cry.
He shut his eyes and fell to wishing for something to happen. Something like a downdraft or passing bird, perhaps, to knock him on his way.
Nothing happened.
He opened his eyes.
He didn’t know what else to do.
He smiled.

Katie studied the floating man. He looked nothing like her dad. He was white, for one thing, and also a little bit fat, with small toes and big hands. Kind of cute, though, in a Paul Giamatti sort of way. She thought about all the things she used to believe in. Not just civilizations of tiny men that lived in her walls, but so many other things besides. Magic. Mermaids. Unicorns. Wise, old owls that would listen to your troubles and eat you as soon as help you, but either way they listened and that was something.
“What’s your name?” she said. “Mine’s Katherine.”
“I’m not sure if there’s any point in telling you my name,” he said.
“Why’s that?” she said.
“I wouldn’t want you to get too attached,” he said.
“I won’t.”
“You might.”
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Oh.”
“I’m just trying to protect you.”
“Right.”
“Exactly.”
Katie grew up in a world full of things far more wonderful and scary than this dude could probably imagine. Some of it had even been real. Other parts, she had imagined, with the help of her father.
“People who say they’re trying to protect you are always just trying to protect themselves.”
“I didn’t–”
“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t.”
The man smiled again. Sadder this time. He looked more like her father when he did that. He looked less cute and more like a man she wanted to believe in. It scared her.
The man scratched his cheek. “My name’s Theodore,” he said. “I’m sorry for dropping in on you like this.”
Katie laughed. It helped things seem less scary.
“I think you just killed all the puns,” she said. “Like forever. That’s it. Done.”
Theodore laughed with her.
“Things didn’t go exactly as I planned,” he said.
He then pinched a hair from his head and held it between his thumb and index finger.
He studied it for a long time.
“Theodore,” Katherine said. “Are you by any chance a wizard?”
Theodore let go of his hair. It floated right before his eyes until a tiny breeze stole it away.
“A what?”
“No, I guess not,” Katherine said. “Those don’t exist. Not really.” She tucked her chin in thought.
“Look, Katherine-”
“Maybe you’re a mad scientist?”
She smiled a very silly smile.

Theodore didn’t like the way Katherine was smiling at him. It made him want to trust things could get better. He didn’t trust that feeling. He was pretty sure things, at this point, could only go in one direction.
Katherine draped her hands across the balcony railing. She tapped her coffee cup against a metal post. “Is it just Theodore,” she said, “or do some people call you Ted or Teddy? In my experience, Ted’s are often chowder brains. Maybe it’s just all men are chowder brains.”
Theodore gathered his kimono against his chest.
“My wife used to call me Teddy.”
She stopped tapping. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did she pass recently?”
“Several time zones, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Oh.”
Katherine’s face unwound in thought, and the corners of her lips fell.
“That was a joke?” she said.
“Yes,” Theodore said. “Though, also, quite literally true. She’s gone to the Galapagos Islands to study a particular breed of bird whose name escapes me. She always loved things like that. Birds. Ladybugs. Moths.”
“Things that defied gravity?” Katherine said.
Theodore frowned.
“Did you love her very much?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I think so. I don’t know.”
He looked at Katherine. He remembered how it felt when their eyes connected in that brief moment while he fell.
“I’ve never been good at committing to anything,” he said. “In business, this worked out fine. In life, less so.”
An ambulance wailed somewhere below them.
“I spent so much time searching for things that weren’t there,” he said.
“You just floated from one thing to the next, huh?”
“I thought you said no more puns?”
“That wasn’t a pun. It was a metaphor.”
“I’ve always backed into everything,” Theodore said. “Even this.”
“What is this, exactly?” Katharine said.
Theodore looked down. A flock of crows lifted from one tree and flew to the next. It was all so far away and much too close.
“Is it like a trick?” Katherine said.
“A trick?” Theodore said.
“Yeah.” Katherine looked up and down and then squinted at the building across the street. “That’s it, isn’t it? Any second now cameras will pop out and everyone gets to laugh at the silly girl who actually believed some white dude was floating outside her window.”
“If this is a trick, Katherine,” Theodore said, “I promise you that I’m the butt of the joke.”
“Maybe,” Katherine said. Thunder cracked in the distance. She looked up. “That looks ominous,” she said.
Theodore closed his eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to look up again. He didn’t want to be reminded of how far he had fallen. He looked at Katherine. Her coffee cup had a picture of cats fencing. She ran her middle finger around the cup’s rim.
A drop of rain landed on Theodore’s head.
“You’re going to get wet,” she said.
“Yes, Katherine, I believe you’re right.”
A car horn blared below. He opened his eyes. He looked down. He could see the red and white striped roof of a hot dog stand. He could hear snatches of conversation. The ground seemed to be pulling at him. Maybe it was just his imagination.
“You can call me, Katie, if you want, you know?”
“Thank you, Katie,” he said.

Katie stuck her hand out into the falling rain. She gathered a puddle in her palm. She looked at the floating man, his forehead dripping. She poured the water out of her hand. She leaned out and over and looked down past him to the bottom of everything. Bus stops and trees and her favorite hot dog stand. Her dad taught her, at a young age, the proper arrangements of condiments. Mustard, then relish, then onions. Ketchup was for suckers.
Something tried to open inside Katie’s chest. Something like an old trunk unclasping, ready to be packed for adventure. It was stupid. The image. The feeling. She hardly knew the man. And despite his magical appearance, in fact, precisely because of his magical appearance, she distrusted him. Katie had lived long enough to know that however adventurous, believing and trusting in magic were doubtful foundations on which to build a life.
Still.
“I should go check on my breakfast,” Katie said. She turned, calling over her shoulder. “I’m sure it’s burned.”
“Katie?” Theodore said.
His kimono clung, damp, to his skin.
“Maybe I could throw you a piece or two of bacon?” she said. She cocked her head and smiled another one of her silly smiles. She reminded herself of her father, dressing up confusion or anger or sadness in the refined garb of ridiculousness.
“Katie?” Theodore tried again, and again Katie turned. All the way around this time. Theodore shuddered. The rain came down harder.
“What do you want from me?” she said. She didn’t mean to hate him so much just then, but she did. Right then she hated him more than anything. For interrupting her life. For introducing her to another form of magical sadness.
“Look. While you’re inside,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe you might look for a yardstick or baseball bat? Anything I could grab onto and pull myself over with?”
Katie pursed her lips and chewed the inside of her cheek. “I don’t know,” she said. She went inside.

Theodore felt sure he had offended her. People don’t just open their lives to anyone. Rain tickled his toes. The thought occurred to him that perhaps breakfast might just be a good excuse for Katie to leave and never come back. People did that all the time. They were there and then they weren’t and you were left to question all of your decisions and all of your beliefs about yourself and them and everything.
A raindrop fell past his nose, and Theodore watched it disappear below him. He reminded himself that he was a rational man. Gravity is one of the bedrock constants of the universe. If gravity starts acting out of sorts, what could people depend on? Once you start on the way down, there’s no turning back. You fall until you hit dead bottom. That was real.
Black umbrellas blossomed along the sidewalk twenty-stories below. Theodore pulled the kimono up over his head. Certainty wrenched at his gut. He remembered meeting his wife in London. He remembered the rain and her hair. “What a mess,” she said. “What a mess.”
On the street, someone screamed for a taxi. A girl on the phone under a tree laughed and spun in a circle. A TV commercial, a few floors above Theodore, sang a song about breath mints.
It was such a long way back to the top, and the balcony railing looked, just then, somehow so much further away than the ground.
He was alone.
She wasn’t coming back.
It might not be possible to believe a man could fly, Theodore thought, certainly not all the way back up to where he had first fallen. But maybe, it wasn’t too much to hope that a man could do something that was just nearly impossible, such as float forward those few extra feet that separated his hand from the railing.

Bacon grease popped in the pan. On Katie’s fridge, an array of magnets held a variety of inspirational quotes: Love is how you pay attention. Dependability is fun. Here we are.
Rain lashed against her balcony window.
Her apartment smelled like wet newspaper. Today’s paper lay open on her kitchen table. A story about a lost plane. A story about a crashing stock market. A story about drowning children. She remembered the sound of her father turning the pages of his newspaper. It soothed her, at one time, listening to him turn the stories over, one by one, the whole world in her father’s hands.
Katie stood in her kitchen. She turned the stove off. She listened to the rain. She looked around her apartment for something that might reach Theodore. Something capable of supporting the weight of a whole other person.
Her apartment consisted, in large part, of things foldable and disposable. Faded, blue futon. A dinged-up, coffee-stained, card table. Two collapsable, metal chairs. Drawers sparsely populated with plastic forks and knives and spoons. A collection of paper plates. There was, as she told Theodore, no television. Only the piles of magazines and books and newspapers.
Katie moved a lot. Whenever she arrived somewhere new, she drove her pickup in circles of ever-increasing radius, looking for ditched furniture. Anything she found carried with it a touch of serendipity. Of destiny. Not that she really ever believed she was destined to find any particular futon. But she enjoyed not believing in things almost as much as she enjoyed believing in them.
It was easier to let things happen by chance than to reach for something knowing it might not be there.
She dumped the bacon on a plate covered with a paper towel. She turned a piece back and forth and then took a bite. It tasted like dust. She threw it away.
She stared at the trash for a long time. She listened a while longer to the rain. It might have been raining the day her father left. That seemed a little much, though. Still. Whatever.
She turned.
She picked up one of the folding chairs and took it out on the balcony.
Theodore appeared to have dropped a few inches. One hand held his kimono tight under his chin against the wind and rain. The other stretched miserably towards her balcony. Rain splattered off the railing.
She held up the chair. “How about this?” she said.
Theodore’s arm dropped. “It looks slippery,” he said.
“Worth a try,” she said.
Katie held out her chair. Theodore reached. His hand took hold of a foot. Together, they pulled. Katie towards the balcony. Theodore toward himself. The chair slipped from Katie’s hands, and then from his, and then it fell.
Down and down.
On and on.
It seemed to fall forever.
“Fuck,” Katie said.
The chair crashed into the top of a tree, and tumbled branch by branch, onto the sidewalk.
The laughing girl on the phone screeched. Umbrellas tilted to allow their bearers a glimpse of the impossible thing dangling above their heads.
“Fuck,” Katie said, again. She looked at her hands, dusted and greased with bacon. She looked at Theodore, adrift, holding onto nothing. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Theodore shrugged.
The rain fell.
People yelled up at them. It was impossible to hear what anybody was saying.
“Maybe if you reached out,” Theodore mumbled.
Katherine put her hand up by her ear. “What?” she yelled.
“Maybe,” Theodore said, trying this time to project his voice across the distance between them, “if you reached out, I could grab your hand!”
“I don’t think I can reach that far!” she said, yelling at her frustration with him asking this of her as much as she was yelling to be heard over the storm.
“I can’t do this on my own,” he said.
“What?”
“I need you to help me!”
Theodore let go of his kimono. It fell open, revealing him to all the world. He reached out with both arms. The robe rippled around his body like a cape.
He looked to Katie like a man who thought he could fly.
“Are you sure this isn’t a trick?” she screamed.
Theodore screamed back something Katie couldn’t make out.
The rain wasn’t kidding anymore. Theodore wobbled.
Katie wiped away the bacon grease on her jeans as best she could. She rubbed the rain from her eyes. She tried not to think about what would happen if Theodore pulled her over like the chair. She tried not to think about what would happen if the magic that protected him, failed her. She tried not to think about how it would feel if, in the end, he was just too far away. She tried to focus on what was real.
“Here we are,” she said.
And then she stood on her tiptoes, pressed hard against the railing, and reached out her hand as far as she could.

 

 

 

 

Chris Kammerud lives in London. His work has appeared in, among other places, Bourbon PennPhantom Drift, and Strange Horizons. Along with his partner, he co-hosts and produces a podcast about stories called Storyological. Find him online @cuvols or www.chriskammerud.com.

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