“When Gravity Lets Go”

For the better part of two hours, as you’ve sat at his bedside, your father has made perfect sense, each complaint reasonable enough, though tiring, as always–another old man unhappy with the world, with his life, with the psychiatric floor of this hospital that smells of bleach and worse. He’s made no mention of the millions denied him, even when he answered every written request, hundreds of them, for the twenty-dollar processing fee. No mention of his mother, your grandmother, who lived until one hundred and four, and then began to visit him because he asked God to allow it, and God kept allowing it, would not let her stop, or make her stop, despite her ugly tone and the way she would disappear before she’d answer his questions. “Maybe God is punishing you for something you shouldn’t have asked for,” you told him and knew you shouldn’t have.

“He’s found me here,” your father says now. “I don’t know how. The son of a bitch.”

You’ve dreaded this. By he your father means, as you well know, the man who lived down the hall in the old apartment building and began to break into your father’s rooms and move his things around. This was after someone kidnapped your dead grandmother and you had to take your father’s pistols away, the ones he wasn’t supposed to have, but the apartment manager said as long as you took them, he could stay. But when he grabbed the arm of the man down the hall, spun him around, and told him not to break into his apartment again or he’d kill him, the lack of pistols wasn’t enough. Your father is still strong, powerful. People can sense it, including the nurses here who care for him.

“How do you know he’s been here?” you ask. “Have you seen him?”

“He left his mark. See?” he says and points at a triangular scratch on the wall near his bed.

When you try to dismiss the notion that the man could show up here, all you do is show your father, once again, how naive and foolish you can be. He acknowledges it with one dismissive, disgusted turn of his head. And you want to punch him in the face, but you are not as strong as him and you both know it, though he has never laid a hand on you, could not even bear to spank you as a child.

“The man is a psychopath. He’s crazy. I don’t know why he picked me.”

You nod, say no more. Finally, you get up from your chair, take his hand in yours, and tell him you’ll see him again in a few days. You are tired from sitting, but you help pull him up from the bed, feel his strong grip on your hand, and you hug him, say good-bye.

Once outside, you glance back at the four floors of the hospital building and think of the line a poet once wrote, “I have just come down from my father,” but unlike in the poem, you do not search the hospital windows for your father’s room, and your father isn’t dying. He is merely unmoored, on his way to being lost, but has not found his way there yet, not completely. Maybe the medication the doctors started giving him will help. They can keep him two more weeks. Then, if he is better, maybe he can go back to the small apartment you found for him after he had to leave the old one. And if he’s not better (and you know he won’t be), what then? You don’t know. You are at your wits end. But where is that end exactly?

This is not a town you know well, though once you are out of the parking lot and turn down the residential street and make one more left, you are soon on the right highway, but you didn’t turn south toward home. Maybe you are looking for a place to eat. This is your third trip here. You guess there are places on this road, maybe a diner that serves food like your grandmother used to cook, the grandmother who returned to the living and would not leave.

The one thing you do know about this town named with strange syllables by a Native American tongue is that it’s the only place in the world where a meteorite fell from the heavens, tore through a roof, and hit a woman on her hip as she lay on her sofa, maybe while listening to a radio which would soon carry her strange news to the world. On your second trip, you saw the marker beside the road that commemorates the site, the house no longer standing, an empty field in its place.

You drive, drive farther, and still see no place to eat. Finally, you decide to turn around and pull onto narrow, unlined blacktop, but someone is directly behind you, and so you keep going and then turn left onto another narrow road that you think might carry you back to the highway. You notice the sign that says Gravity Hill Lane and the name strikes you as odd. The beat-up blue four-door behind turns with you and then passes. It is full of teenagers. You hear their music blaring. You follow, remember yourself as a teenager, think of your father as he was in those years–solid, taking on the weight of you, his son. Up ahead you see a stop sign and the highway beyond it. But the carload of teenagers stops well before the sign in a low place in the road, a dip in the blacktop. A teenage boy looks out the back window, begins to laugh. A blond-haired girl beside him does the same. You wonder what is funny. You? Then the car begins to roll up the incline, toward you, and all in the car are turning their heads this way and that, laughing harder, shrugging their shoulders, as if what is happening can’t be believed. They are not trying to back into you. You feel no threat, but you back up, give them room, and they keep rolling uphill. Then they finally come to a stop, wait, as if some explanation will occur to them in a few moments. The girl and boy now smile at you, gently wave good-bye, and the car accelerates forward. It merely slows at the stop sign, turns onto the highway.

You ease ahead, into the dip, and stop, wanting to experience whatever it was that filled them with such rising, lifting joy. For a moment you are unsure what to do. Then you slowly pull the gearshift into reverse, but you do not take your foot off the brake, not yet. Something else is needed here, some letting go of logic, of sound reason. You place your car in neutral, slowly lift your foot from the brake. You wait a moment, and then feel logic letting go, the gravity that pulled a meteorite toward this town, this place on earth, no longer at work. You are rolling up an incline. It is a fact. This is no illusion created by anyone, no optical illusion either, and certainly not a delusion on your part. You aren’t the one deluded. You are laughing, not waiting for an explanation, and then you are laughing harder. You wish your father were sitting beside you, some younger version of himself, at the age you are now maybe, laughing with you, everything incomprehensible in your lives making perfect sense to the both of you.

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About Marlin Barton

Marlin Barton is from the Black Belt region of Alabama. His most recent book is Pasture Art, a collection of short stories. He has published two novels, The Cross Garden and A Broken Thing, and two previous collections, The Dry Well and Dancing by the River. His stories have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories. He has also been awarded the Truman Capote Prize for short fiction. He teaches in, and helps direct, the Writing Our Stories project, a program for juvenile offenders created by the Alabama Writers' Forum, and he's been teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College since 2010.