CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Our Latitude, Our Longitude
The story of how I came to drift so aimlessly, my airship pendulant and high above this wrung-out earth, begins long ago, during that period of uneasy calm before the weather turned so foul. I had recently married a young man, who, by his tenacity and passionate commitment to the research of atmospheric disturbances, had risen quickly through the ranks of the Ministry of Public Weather to become a senior meteorologist. His superiors applauded his remarkable intelligence, viewers tuned in daily to experience his entertaining forecasts, and foreign dignitaries sought his advice on all matters climatic, such was the great reach of his influence. It seemed to us that his good fortune knew no bounds, and we soon expected to retire early, perhaps travel the globe, see all that we could see.
But God did not have such joy in mind, and instead He worked busily at His grief-making, unleashing upon the world His many varieties of atmospheric violence. The weather that issued forth across the skies above our heads surprised us with its wildness, its cunning, its unending hunger, striking both land and people in previously unheard-of ways. My husband, a man for whom the term civic duty had great importance, resolutely set out to discover the cause of this sudden, aggressive change. He traveled northward to see firsthand the kangaroos that had appeared, dazed and dehydrated, in the arctic tundra; he tracked down shaky video recordings of pannus clouds scudding to the earth to attack playgrounds, parks, and other recreational areas; he used a series of lures to demonstrate that lightning had developed the deadly habit of striking the same object twice. This information he distributed to as many powerful leaders as possible, seeking audiences with statesmen, governors, presidents, kings, and other figureheads in the hopes that they would devote their time to executing some strategy or another to protect the people of the world.
He rarely returned home in those days, for it seemed that as soon as he had solved one case, he discovered another in need of his attention. I did not complain then, for I understood the meaning of the word sacrifice, though to this day I still mourn the life we lost together, our alternatives of existence that never came to fruition. Mourning is all I can do now, before the altitude sickness destroys my mind, before it makes me forget all I need to tell you.
The government began to hinder my husband in his efforts to spread word of the devastation, as if the people themselves did not suffer daily the effects of a weather in revolt. His producers filled his schedule with mundane school visits to discourage his meeting with members of the press, intelligence officials redacted his scholarly papers and opinion pieces, sunscreen advertisements interrupted his broadcasts at the most inopportune times, and plainclothed officers blocked with umbrellas his attempts to further record various unnatural atmospheric phenomena. Other meteorologists, environmental experts, biologists, chemists, all scientists on the government payroll, publicly mocked my husband, challenged his theories, and soon a wave of disgust regarding my husband and his warnings swept the world, despite the real dangers out our windows and doors, beyond our rooflines.
Discredited and defeated, my husband returned home, his tie loosened uncharacteristically about his neck, and announced to me that he had resigned from his post in order to protest the authorities’ mishandling of the situation, their mistreating him and his opinion, their endangering the lives of the people. I had watched him several hours before speak one last time into the camera about the weather’s impending attack upon human flight, warn against our traveling by air, condemn the government for hiding from the population its alarming findings, at which point the station cut to commercials.
For a while longer, he raved drunkenly about the house, stinking of gin and sweat, lamenting the lives that would be lost because of this bureaucratic ignorance: the children whose parents had booked them flights to summer camps, the recently married couples honeymooning to the islands, the businessmen commuting to distant conferences. All is lost, he said as I flicked on the television and tuned it to an off-air channel, let the white noise of the staticky screen lull him to sleep on the couch.
I wish that I could say right now to you, to whomever still listens to these futile broadcasts of mine, that I had faith in him then, that I believed his conspiracy theories and his terrible forecasts, but the honest truth is I was more than a little embarrassed by him, my genius husband, and the controversy he had stirred. Perhaps, then, this airy existence I now live, an existence marked by my being whimsically batted about the globe by whatever trade winds this airship happens to encounter, is punishment for my intellectual and emotional infidelity. There is nothing left for me to do but consume the last of the dehydrated foodstuffs, drink the purified water from the row of condensers, speak into the microphone as scheduled, and stare through the bubbled plexiglass porthole, hoping to catch through the cloud cover a glimpse of the green, marbled earth turning dramatically beneath my feet.
My husband spent those first days of his unemployment at home, hungover and irritable, aching for a fight. He suspected, and rightly so, that I seriously doubted his forecasts, knew that I thought he might have lost his skyward sensitivity, and this doubt severely hurt our relationship, eroded it so much that several decades had to pass before we could fully mend the cracks. This we did, finally, up here in the troposphere shortly before he parachuted back to earth to seek out the last remnants of human life.
But back then, when everything we had grown to know and love suddenly blew away in those hysterical winds, we said words to each other that we later regretted, words that I cannot bear to repeat here. I thought he had made an enormous mistake, a pride-driven, ignorant mistake that threatened our ability to maintain our current station in society. I berated him for his stupidity, for putting himself and his career before our well-being.
What of the possibility of children, I said.
Had you thought about how we might feed and clothe them before you embarked on that disastrous rant of yours, I said.
He picked nervously at his plate of eggs, forked a slice of ham, but did not, could not, raise his utensil to his mouth.
Soon, he said, there will exist a world that no child should have to suffer.
No child of mine, he said.
Then I can no longer call you my husband, I said.
He stood shakily from the table and nodded. I watched as he crept out of the house, crossed the backyard, and entered the old rusted motor home he had driven during the days of his youthful storm chasing, its crooked door slamming behind him.
Hours later, I peered through the kitchen curtains to see that he had climbed to the vehicle’s roof and situated himself in a folding lawn chair, a pair of binoculars to his eyes, scanning the western horizon.
I spoke little with my husband over the next few months. I could not bring myself to apologize for stripping him of his husband-title, despite my inability to leave him, for how could I leave a man as wrecked as he? I kept watch over him through the window and sat with him at breakfast, but we rarely interacted beyond the occasional glance and mumble. He slept most nights beneath the few stars that still glimmered at that time, if he did sleep at all, and when it rained, he retired to the shelter of the leaky motor home. Mornings I often awoke to a miniature weather report tucked beneath my pillow, or a recorded forecast looping on the television screen. Through these reports and forecasts, my husband communicated to me his moods, his desires for the day, what he had worried about through the night. I learned when to let him be (stormy weather expected throughout the afternoon), when to stand silently in his presence (isolated showers midmorning, followed by an oppressive humidity), and when to cuddle gently against him, whisper reassurances into his ear (clear skies tonight, still, with a slight chance of fog). These interactions I cherished for how they gave me hope that we might yet regain some sense of normalcy, even if our weather did not improve.
On days he issued the more foreboding of forecasts, I trundled around the house, lonely and depressed, idly touching the furniture, adjusting the picture frames on the walls, while my husband locked himself in the motor home, pounded his frustration away at its walls with all manner of tools, sent up a great din in our backyard. He had blacked out the windows of the motor home with a strange, opaque fabric so that I could not see inside. I stood in the driveway, rested my ear against the metal exterior of the van, listened to the crashes and groans, the electronic beeps, the shrill crackle of radio equipment, the cycling on and off of water. Soon the motor home began to change in appearance: a bulbous radar dome sprouted from the roof, spidery antenna arrays dangled off the sideview mirrors, a series of air-conditioning units blocked the side windows, an enormous vectored fan replaced the spare tire above the rear bumper, and an old weather vane twisted back and forth below the front windshield, the oddest hood ornament I had ever seen. Over the very top of the motor home, my husband erected in a pyramidal structure four steel girders, each of which he had welded to the vehicle’s corners. Within them he bolted an old iron furnace, the pipe of which extended several feet above the motor home.
Then, as quickly as the activity had started, it stopped, and my husband again appeared on the roof of the motor home, having climbed the shaky ladder at the rear, and sat himself calmly, almost smugly, in his little lawn chair.
He issued to me one final forecast, this one stenciled across a tiny bit of paper he had glued to the inside of my sunglasses.
The calm before the storm, it had read.
And calm the weather was those final days, almost unbearably so. The air about the house grew silent and still, stifled the activity of the neighborhood dogs, curled brown the leaves of the bushes that lined our front lawn. Birds ceased to fly, choosing instead to hop from tree to tree, and those that could not climb gathered confusedly in the grass about the gnarled roots. The air began to feel heavy, oppressive, tarpaulin-like. Walking to retrieve the mail became an exercise in patience, and then nearly impossible. Houses developed a lurch to them, listed sideways upon their foundations, their aluminum siding bent and twisted as if the columns of air above them had grown too heavy for even the atmosphere to support. Driveways buckled, windows burst, the tires of the motor home flattened, and then our chimney imploded, its bricks bursting into puffs of red dust or dashing off into the street like skipped stones. Throughout the neighborhood one could hear the occasional sharp crack of splintering wood as another of the heavy, beautiful water oaks shattered, oaks that had attracted us to the area when we first purchased our home with the money from my husband’s generous salary.
I wandered the house in search of my dear husband, who had stumbled inside at the first sound of the water oaks breaking apart in the distance, shouting gibberish and waving his hands. Frightened, I called out his name as I plodded from room to room, my breathing becoming harder, my legs moving tediously as though a great number of weights clung to my ankles. The doorframes bowed before my eyes, and cracks spidered along the walls and ceiling of the house, dust falling about me to mark their crunching passage. I could not find my husband in the attic, nor did he appear on the second floor, so I slid back downstairs, childlike, one step after another, and crawled through the dining room, where the dinner table and chairs had pancaked remarkably upon themselves.
In the living room, I saw the calm, unblinking eye of the television screen, and when I finally made my way before it, I struggled to turn its knob so that I might catch a glimpse of the news. I sat there cross-legged, felt a lung quiver inside my ribcage as a weatherman happily forecast the arrival of picnic weather for this coming weekend. I twisted upon my back, hiccupped deliriously, grew lightheaded. I know not how long I rested there, my body slowly folding upon itself, my blood cells stacking like coins in a paper tube, but I remember waking to the sensation of my husband pulling me into his arms. He wore about him a rubber diving suit, an oxygen tank strapped to his back, and he breathed through a massive pressure regulator before passing it over my face. He carried me through the dangerous house and out into the yard. I saw, in the sky above, countless airplanes suddenly spiraling nose down through the clouds, and the earth shook with their explosions.
I awoke sore and troubled within the darkness of the motor home, my husband having revived me with a thimbleful of whiskey. I strained my eyes to make out my surroundings, this new interior so different from that of my memories, back when I sometimes accompanied my husband on the tamer of his storm-chasing journeys. In the rear compartment, he had let remain our double bed, upon which I now reclined, but the rest of the space was unrecognizable. The cab contained his various instruments and monitors: a maximum/minimum thermometer, a thermograph to record the temperatures and keep records of their deviations, a number of rain and snow gauges, a row of aneroid and mercurial barometers to back up the hygrometer if it failed, a microbarograph, a stand of wet and dry thermometers, and, in addition to the classic windvane upon the hood, through the windshield I saw an ultramodern anemometer spinning lazily in the sun, not to mention the many other dials and sensors that escaped my comprehension. The kitchen area housed a few propane tanks, what appeared to be a hanging garden, and a row of air-conditioning units, beneath which were arrayed some water jugs. In the living area, he had set up a control station of handles and pulleys, a pair of winches against the wheel wells, an insulated fire tube of some sort that he had ducted up through the roof, and in the middle of the floor he had installed a plexiglass bubble, a detail I thought silly, as we only had a view of the oil-stained concrete beneath us. I said as much, and he laughed at me, shook his head. He went on to explain that he had reinforced the entire structure of the motor home so that it could withstand the excessive amounts of air pressure currently exerting itself upon different parts of the world, and that we needed only to be patient, to wait for just the right moment, and then all would make sense.
But patience was a virtue I could not afford. Not then, not after our house had nearly fallen down around me, not after my husband had proved himself to be nearly, if not completely, insane, not since the weather had grown even more disastrous. Within me fluttered an ailing lung, for goodness sake! I tried to explain as much to him, but he only watched the monitors around the motor home, noted the fiery crashes of more airplanes, the tumbling of skyscrapers and bridges, the flattening of mountains, all while he spoke calmly, explained that what we had experienced and seen was not nearly as bad as he had expected, that he was thankful to track these relatively few columns of heavy air, air that had grown too heavy for the atmosphere to support. He expressed his worry that the atmosphere was only temporarily stable, and shared with me his hope that these heavy columns of air would not infect the rest of it, releasing even more unspeakable horrors. He spoke of our impending freedom at their hands.
I need the hands of a doctor, I said.
You’ll be better taken care of soon enough, he said.
These columns of heavy air are our salvation, he said.
He explained that as these heavy columns moved along, they squeezed between them another column of very light air, air that rushed upwards and away from the earth, and it was this uprising column of air that he hoped to float away on.
And then we’ll be off, he said.
I saw that I could not reason with him, so I nodded my assent, planning to flee as soon as he fell asleep that night. The memory of our failing house was still fresh in my head, and I realized that I could not risk spending any longer in that motor home regardless of how much work my husband claimed to have done on it. I convinced myself that he had lost control of his mind and that he would endanger us further if given the chance.
Now, however, I tremble to think what might have become of me had I left that night, had the dials not several hours later suddenly flashed bright red and a clarion call of alarm horns filled the motor home. My husband shouted that I should strap myself into the harness-chair. He crouched over the fire tube in the living room, pumping the tank as he peered over his shoulder to watch the radar. He pressed a button, the fire tube roared into life, and flames above us shot from the furnace. Through the windshield I watched as an enormous fabric bladder rose from the backyard, shaking off the obscuring grass clippings, and asserted itself into the sky. The house on our right imploded and the motor home rocked with the sudden change in pressure, and then our own house imploded, nearly tipping us over, and for a moment I thought we would be crushed.
But no, the motor home lifted slightly, caught the light air below its tires, the balloon billowed out above us, and then we shot away, up into the sky. Through the plexiglass bubble, the crater of our house and the neighboring houses smoked and flamed, the streets became smaller and smaller, until the neighborhood disappeared into the suburban radials of the town. All around, fires spread along the ground, smoke and dust clouds swirled, and one could see by the trail of disturbed ground the pathways of the many heavy air columns that roamed the broken earth.
My husband explained that with the sudden weight increase of the atmosphere, nearly anything slightly lighter than air could float with very little help, and the particularly bad weather had been pushed down by the bad air to gather angrily, directly at ground level, like some evil fog. I had worried aloud that first day, once the turbulence calmed and we had settled up there in the sky to begin our unending drift, that our small reserves of propane would not be enough to last the week and that we would succumb to some roving thunderstorm, but my husband assured me that, according to his calculations, if the atmosphere continued its steady weight gain, we could expect to float safely for fifty years or more. And so we did, for what followed our rising, then, were years and years of travel throughout the troposphere, that gassy, weighty part of the sky from which most weather churned in the good old days, and for many of those years, a part of me still had not forgiven him for pulling me from the house, from the earth’s clutches.
This isn’t to say that I was not thankful to have survived, to have been saved by my husband, and to be with him then. Nor is it to say that we were not well fed and healthy; my lung healed quickly during that bumpy ascent, a result of the lessening of its load. I had more than enough for which to be thankful. After all, we had the world at our feet, and as a result, we had our choice of its bounty. See, our motor home floated along easily enough those early years of our refuge, dangled there beneath the air bladder like some sparkling fruit. Occasionally seagulls and other birds flocked about us like gnats, some of which my husband killed to eat. Others he coaxed into nesting in the front wheel wells, and I made for my husband all varieties of breakfast dishes from their eggs. On still mornings, when my husband chose not to run the vectored fan to change the direction of our travel, we could hear the baby birds chirping, their parents flitting to the earth and back with insects to feed them, their activity heartening, for it meant that there existed below us some portions of the world that had gone unscathed. Like those baby birds, we too had plenty to eat and drink. The air-conditioning units drew upon the outside air and condensed purified water for us to drink, and the hanging gardens grew well under my care, though it was not until my husband rigged a system of mirrors to direct sunlight around the balloon and into the motor home that the vegetables and fruit began to flourish. We had turnips, carrots, potatoes, and other roots; lettuce, spinach, tomatoes; small melons even. During calm days when we passed over lakes and oceans, my husband opened flaps in the fabric of the balloon to allow some hot air to escape, and we descended low enough between the heavy columns of air to allow our fishing lines a chance at bringing up some halibut, rock bass, sunfish, pike, flounder, eel, catfish, tuna, skate. Our meals grew plentiful, our health ruddy and firm.
But despite all of this goodness, I often struggled to understand my own darkspots, my own inner storms, my highs and lows, and these came on strongest during my husband’s absences. Occasionally, when the radar showed clear skies for miles around, my husband donned his oxygen tank, regulator, mask, locked into the sky hook, and unwinched himself towards the ground, leaving me alone in the motor home. Yes, I should have feared for his life, as I imagined him down there, grazing mountaintops, the trees, whatever rough rubble lay below, but as usual, he took good care of himself, and I had little to be anxious about. Really, then, I feared for my own well-being, my own sanity, wondered how I might pass the time and survive this current bout of isolation until he returned. He often spent long hours away from me, securing the airship to some solid foundation so that he could explore the surrounding area unimpeded while I stayed aloft, swaying to and fro in the breeze, and listened to the bird calls and the dripping of water, the bees buzzing in their hive. I liked to press my face deep into the plexiglass bubble so that I appeared to float alone, above the mountains, or lake, or wherever we had docked our airship, without a balloon above me and a vehicle around me, though my husband would have grown angry to know that I did not stay at the radar screen to look for any approaching weather.
When the glass of the bubble grew too much, as I sometimes became dizzy from the height, I undressed myself so as to examine the sagging parts of my body, all of it soft and droopy from lack of exercise, from the constant drifting and slipping. I mourned my unborn children, the great potential they once were, even though I knew how terrible it would have been to bring them into a world such as this. In these moments, I remembered my husband’s words in the kitchen before the rupture, and hate for his callousness surged through me. I knew it to be an irrational hate, as if by predicting disaster he had somehow brought it upon us, but I gave myself to its embrace, so rare was it to experience extreme emotion in the troposphere. How easy it would have been, then, to reach the cable and disconnect myself, strand him there on the earth as he had stranded me here in the sky. But then, minutes later, the sound of the winch engine interrupted my reverie, and up from the depths appeared a bundle of wood, or cables, or steel girders, or fabric, or some other bit of equipment that my husband felt necessary for the improvement of our lives.
Not a day went by that he did not have some project ongoing in that pursuit. He spent weeks with me sewing seemingly endless lengths of fabric into two new air bladders for the balloon, then another month went by as he crawled high above us, welding above the main balloon an extensive rigid metal frame into which he hoped to expand the two air bladders so as to create greater lift for our vehicle, which had taken on more weight than originally expected, what with all of the additional passengers and other things we had acquired: the lobster aquarium; the livestock net, which at that time carried below us a single milk cow; the pair of eagles that hunted for us; the exercise bike that my husband pedaled to create electricity for his instruments once the battery died; the loudspeaker system that we used on the lower flights overland to seek out human contact.
That, then, was really my desire, to reconnect with humanity, to discover that our resilient species had somehow lived on despite the weather’s best efforts to destroy it, and it was a desire I managed to convey to my husband, by means of convincing him of its necessity. If he meant to combat the weather, then he needed allies with whom to coordinate. He had become so driven in his attempts to discover the inner workings of the weather that had I not somehow reminded him of what ultimately made his project worthwhile, I believe we might have died of purposelessness long ago.
So, in light of this new mission, my husband spent most of his time in the front of the motor home, sitting in the comfortable driver’s chair in the cab, scanning his instruments, marking down the changes in temperature, humidity, wind, charting our latitude and longitude and the current weather of our location on an enormous drafting table he had slung across the passenger seat. I never did understand all the barbs and pennants, the numbers he scrawled, the contour lines demarking highs and lows, and I could not guess how he expected other laymen to read the maps correctly, but I fulfilled my duty all the same. Once he had completed a map, I was to draw twenty copies by hand, which he then rolled up and tied with twenty short strings. These paper rolls I slung beneath twenty miniature parachutes that I had sewn, and then I released everything to the earth. As the packages descended, my husband returned to his radio and recorded his report in the fourteen languages he had learned since childhood. He then programmed the radio to broadcast his recordings on each radio channel in the hopes that someone below him might understand that we had found a bit of sunny sky, for in those later years, good weather had become quite rare beneath us.
I watched through the porthole as the little parachutes disappeared into the trees, and I imagined somewhere in our shadow a grateful caravan of men, women, and children trailing our airship from one patch of good weather to the next, us the guiding beacon, them the wandering hope.
Our lives carried on in this way for decades. We grew older, lived healthy and long, spent our time traveling the globe as we had once wished, though from altogether unexpected perspectives. Unfortunately, we never discovered any survivors below us. And yet, even without that human contact, aside from the quiet manners of my husband, I found myself growing content with the new direction of my life. The bitterness I once felt left me, and I came to think of my husband as merely an extension of my own worn-out body, and that made me, us, the only person left alive, and I was able to resign myself to that secret joy. I all but forgot the desire I had for children and the sound of a voice other than that of my husband, for I had given up speaking, instead choosing to communicate with him via notecards. I imagine we would have gone on floating about forever had the weather not ultimately caught up with us.
In those final years, my husband spent more time with his weather charts, and his broadcasts grew lengthier. Our birds ceased trailing the airship, we could no longer retrieve fish from the oceans, and we stopped less and less upon the earth. Now the vectored fan ran at all hours, blowing us around towering thunderstorms, high-pressure areas, and other disturbances in the troposphere. Rarely did we glimpse the earth through the plexiglass bubble, covered as it was with the dark and stormy clouds below. When we did see ground, it appeared rotten, mushy, gnawed away by worms. More often than not, we sailed over water, bogs, marshland, through which the crests of mountains peeked, miniature archipelagos of what was once our homeland.
Then my husband’s instruments picked up a heat signature in a rare stretch of dry, mountainous terrain below us. He hoped the image might represent the exhaust vents of some underground shelter. His connecting the dots revealed a symmetrical design on the chart, a pattern that spoke of latent comings and goings, that ignored the will of nature. He decided that our survival depended upon our making contact with whatever human contingent remained there below us and reuniting with them so that we might join together our resources. I begged him not to go, so used was I to the way we had lived, solitary, happy, all possibility removed from our little floating room. I knew then the danger of rekindling possibility, how possibility gave way to hope and hope gave way to pain.
But my husband refused to entertain my doubts and instead prepared the skyhook. Around us the sky buffeted and strained, and we had to descend carefully enough to allow him to lower himself by the winch. He instructed me to watch the screens, to record all my observations of his instruments, and if he had not returned in a day, I was to broadcast in his place. With that, he kissed me on the cheek, and disappeared into the clouds below. He tethered the airship to some foundation and went off in search of others.
That was the last I saw of him.
I dutifully manned my post for as long as possible, suffered the bangings and clashings of the weather around me, managed the dials and switches, sent out my broadcasts, which first sounded scratched and fuzzy on account of my unused voice. I parachuted my charts as instructed. Still he did not return, and the weather increased its violence: hailstones clanged against the metal, cracking the windshield with the force of their strikes; lightning glared and flashed, sending the instruments into odd whirrings; hurricane winds and rains cycloned all about. The airship swept back and forth like a boxing bag until I heard an awful crack from below. The motor home jolted. Outside the window I saw the flailing tether, its frayed ends, and a horrible rising appeared in my stomach as I was ripped upwards and away from my husband.
Now, all that remains of him in my memory are the numbers of our last known position—our latitude, our longitude—and even those numbers are constantly fading, slowly erased each passing day by the progressing altitude sickness. Yet I continue my broadcasts, I dutifully make the charts, and I parachute them into the air. I hope that one day, as I calculate the local weather and mark my position, the numbers will spark within my brain, and I will again find myself floating peacefully above my husband, who will then rise into the clear sky, calling my name.
Ryan Call's stories are forthcoming in Caketrain, the Lifted Brow, Lo-Ball, the Collagist, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Houston.