I’m leaning on the banister next to my father’s accountant, watching the storm begin through a half-moon window. The street darkens out there. Wind slaps against the house. Behind us, sunlight splashes the back windows as rain hits the roof.
The accountant is yapping about some article in Fortune magazine, the world’s youngest millionaires or CEO’s or something, on and on, and only stops when I say, “Holy shit,” and lean forward, staring and squinting: on the house across the street, the siding is peeling and flaking off and dancing away on the wind.
“These people, they don’t use the right stuff,” the accountant says. “Probably, uh, probably had one of those companies, doing siding door-to-door…”
My perspective has altered. Through the half-moon I can see the entire house across the street, plants and shrubs whipping in the garden along one side, lights hanging off the garage shaking, the sky a solid gray-black, unreal. A pure white cloud drifts into view, stark against the murk, and hovers above the house, low, too low—and the cloud tips on its side and empties, like rice pouring from a bag. White powder crashes through the roof in one heavy stream. The windows blow out in an explosion of glass, wood and dust.
“Hoooh!” the accountant says, leaning back off the banister.
I’m already moving away from him, to the stairs.
Puffs of powder still linger near the top windows. The neighborhood has fallen silent. On the front porch I turn to see Danny standing on his driveway, eyes wide, staring. More people are coming outside beyond him, opening their doors slowly, peeking.
Then I hear them. They’re stumbling alongside the house, crying and moaning in each others arms—NOOOOO! He’s, NOOOOO!—the young couple across the street, the victims. They tumble onto the driveway, still trying to hold each other. John clutches a large barbecue fork in one hand and is grabbing at Heather’s back with the other. I flinch, thinking he’ll stab her. They moan and cry. I look away. My neighbors are watching, listening.
A few years ago, back when I still thought of cloud-emptying as some faraway phenomenon, vague and beyond emotional comprehension, because the news fed us wide-eyed douche-bag witnesses who drifted off while recalling the mix of horror and wonder, telling us nothing of the real thing, what it looked and sounded like. I saw a 60 Minutes interview with two victims, a middle-age couple from somewhere in the South. Having left sobbing behind, they told their story in a somber drawl, how they were laying on hammocks in the backyard when the cloud emptied onto their house, killing their three children, all high school-age or younger.
At the end the quiet husband looked up from his lap, showing watery blue eyes, and said, "Sometimes I think, I can’t help thinkin’, the both of us just, we wish we were in there, would’ve been better just to be in there, when it happened."
John lay on top of Heather, hugging her and mashing his face into the ground over her shoulder. They scream and moan, scream and moan. Above them, their house turns to ice.
I stand within a growing crowd in the backyard, next to a plastic playground set, watching a team of policemen, firemen and other volunteers go to work with ice-picks and chisels and small chainsaws. They’ve ripped off most of the back of the house, backed a pick-up truck onto the patio, and chipped and sawed a tunnel through the ice. I’m trying to follow the exchanges between workers—Don’t got long—Don’t fuck around, you hear it get out. The work continues in a steady rotation of sawing, chipping and hammering as the sun sets. Red and blue lights flash constantly at the sides of the house.
In the last moments of a clear dusk the workers raise their voices within the tunnel. We hear the echoes of You ready? All right, all right, here we go, a collective One-two-three, lifting grunts. Soon they appear at the opening, more than a dozen workers pushing a large block of ice on wheels, saying easy, easy and keep it steady. We stir: at the center of the ice-block sits four year-old Billy Halpern, frozen in time reaching for a toy dump-truck, his blue eyes open and bright, his shaggy blonde hair in mid-sway over one eye.
The pick-up truck backs up a few feet, beeping. The workers lift the ice onto the open tail-gate and slide it into the truck’s bed. Someone throws a tarp over Billy. The truck moves away, inching around the corner of the house. We go home.
That night I watch News 12 to see how they’re covering the cloud-emptying. No big surprises. 'A here in this quiet neighborhood' voice-over rolls atop a slow pan shot of the normal homes to eventually hold on the tragic house, its windows out, its insides turning to ice. After the initial shock and recovery effort, neighbors spoke out—and then I’m standing there, hands on hips, emergency lights flashing on my blank expression, as Danny talks to Tony and Karen in the background. I say, “All of a sudden, you know—when it happens it’s just, horrible.” Another douche-bag.
The line of mourners for Billy’s wake wraps around the funeral home and extends into the back parking lot. After frying in the sun for an hour and sweating in the shade for another twenty minutes, my parents and I finally make it into the viewing room, where the heavy lid of grief has lifted enough so that people are chattering and catching up in the aisles, disguising polite laughter and pride—for their college graduate children, or whoever—as nodding Yeah yeahs, glancing sideways to survey for close family members.
Instead of going directly to John and Heather, I drift next to a bunch of flowers to cool off and catch my breath. I look at the picture display—Billy and Heather in a hotel swimming pool, Billy as the ring bearer at a wedding—and the names on the flower cards. Inevitably I look at the casket.
The ice preserves the body in a way I’ve never seen before. Billy looks like a sleeping child in a far-off fantasy, fair skin and hair glowing, giving off light that wants to carry him away. His favorite preschool outfit, light blue golf shirt and beige pants, plays anchor.
The hollowness of Heather’s voice makes me anxious about facing her. Sedatives have stripped it of the thin, sexy, porn star quality that I’ve always liked hearing through my bedroom window. One night a few weeks ago, after listening to her talk for a couple of hours straight at a spur-of-the-moment barbecue she and John threw in their backyard, I jerked off in bed to the thought of her voice and the smell of her body spray.
Billy’s aunt, Heather’s sister, notices me staring at Heather. Disgust and annoyance blend into her expression of whitewash grief, as if she senses my masturbatory thoughts. She stares me into walking over.
Cold pin-pricks tickle my hot neck as I shake John’s hand and say, “Suh, I’m sorry,” at the same time he says, “Hey, thanks for coming.” He leans down to Heather and says, “Matt, from across the street.”
“Oh,” she says. “Matttt, hi.” She reaches up and puts her arms around my neck. She smells of fabric softener and starch. “You didn’t, oh, thank you…”
“I’m real, so sorry,” I say as she eases back into her seat, nodding and looking through me, touching my hand once more. I move away to find my parents.
Later, when the priest enters to guide a prayer, I slip through people moving toward seats and go out the side-exit of the room, and then the back-door of the home. Danny’s sitting in the shade at the top of the stone stairs, elbows on knees, staring at the bushes. He glances behind him, lifts his chin at me and then turns to the bushes again. I sit next to him. I let out a breath and rub my forehead. A circle of people are smoking cigarettes and talking in the parking lot ahead.
“Pretty fucked up,” Danny says.
“Yeah,” I say.
A few days after Billy’s funeral a clean-up company shows up at the house across the street, its vans lining the curb, its flat dumpster taking up most of the driveway. The work crew consists of mostly young guys with short hair and short beards, indistinguishable one from another at a distance, who wear wet boots and sleeveless shirts. They go back and forth from behind the house to the dumpster carrying pieces of wood and furniture, breaking every once in a while to drink Gatorade and water, leaning on the bumpers of the vans. Sometimes they nod at me as I walk to my car or to the mailbox.
On the third day I order the crew a couple of pizzas and eat a slice with them sitting on the curb near the vans. I ask about the clean-up. One of the workers, Bobby, whose uncle owns the company, explains that they’re using big industrial heaters to melt down the ice and running the liquid remains into a trench they dug from the backyard to the street—hence the milky white water running against the curb at our feet.
“We do our shit, get the ice outta there, they bulldoze the rest,” Bobby says. “I guess, I mean… Who the fuck knows. We’re kinda makin’ it up as we go along.”
According to a website I was looking at yesterday, the ice of a cloud-emptying takes five-to-ten years to melt on its own, making the clean-up and recovery a matter of location and the possibility of redevelopment. Our township must want to rebuild on the property as soon as possible; some places abandon the victim homes completely, leaving them to turn into dripping skeletons over the years.
“What happened here, a kid died?” Billy says.
“Uh, yeah,” I say. “He was, uh, inside there playing, when it happened.”
I’m finally falling asleep that night at four in the morning, after hours of reading stories and watching Six Feet Under and looking up things online to ease my tense restlessness and racing thoughts, when I hear, and feel, a rumbling truck engine outside—three beeps, a quick flash of yellow light through a slight gap in the shades, and then scraping, grinding metal, which gives way to faint voices and footsteps.
When the rumbling continues for a while I take off the covers, slide out of bed and move to the window, where I open a slightly larger gap in the shades.
A dump-truck idles in front of the house across the street. Its driver, elbow hanging out the open window, is looking in the side-view mirror, occasionally tapping his fingers on the wheel. He’s waiting. A couple minutes later two men emerge from the side of the house carrying what looks like a wooden gurney, gripping the pegs on opposite sides and struggling with the weight. A large black tarp, wavy and uneven in spots, covers the gurney, obscuring completely the object beneath.
I pull the shades over a bit as the men walk the load up the ramp of the truck and move out of sight behind its rusty metal wall. Soon they’re jogging down the ramp and climbing into the passenger-side of the truck. The driver turns to them, says something, and then pulls a lever. Once the ramp rises, scraping and grinding and clapping shut, the truck pulls away, trailing exhaust.
The scene outside blends in with my fragmentary dreams as I awake every hour or so the rest of the early morning, sweating and feeling a dull ache in my legs and back. Late in the morning, fully awake, I call Danny.
“You up?” I say.
“Little while ago,” he says. “I got like this, uh, pain in my chest, every time I drink something. Like I, like I got pebbles in there. Burning.”
“These workers at the house, what time you think they start? In the morning.”
“Workers? I don’t know, eight, maybe? Little earlier.”
“Cause I, uh, I saw this truck pull up there, like, real early, like four, doing shit. I couldn’t sleep.”
“I don’t know, getting rid of shit, covered in tarps.”
“They don’t start that early, work crews. Four o’clock.”
“They definitely ain’t union.”
“You don’t know anything about unions.”
“Yeah. Seemed like something to say.”
“You gonna check this out with me or what?”
“Tomorrow morning. Get up with me. It was right around four.”
“I gotta stay up all night now cause you’re getting delusional?”
“Delusional… I don’t care you go to sleep, just keep your phone near you so you can hear it.”
“Uhh… Jesus Christ. Whatever.”
“All right I’ll talk to you later.”
The next morning I hear the truck pulling up, this time closer to 5:00, and am rolling off the bed to put my shoes on without checking the window. I take light footsteps past my parents’ bedroom and call Danny on my way downstairs. I wake him up.
“Yeah?” he says.
“Get up get up,” I say. “I’m coming now.”
“Meet me, meet me in the backyard. Grab your keys.”
“Car keys, car keys,” I say and hang up.
Outside I climb the fence, jog around the swimming pool in the backyard next door, glancing up for movement inside the dark house, and then hop the short fence into Danny’s yard. I wait a few minutes, anxious, before he slides open the patio door, bending to put his shoe on.
“Are you serious right now?” he says, walking toward me.
“Relax,” I say.
We crouch at the side of the house so we can see the ramp of the dump-truck under the lowest branches of a tree that divides Danny’s front yard from the one next door.
“They’re dumping shit,” Danny says.
“It’s fuckin’ empty, the truck.”
“Taking shit away then.”
Voices, footsteps, and then they come into view, same men as yesterday, struggling to keep the gurney level as they move up the ramp. In the middle of the truck bed they lower the load, push the tarp down tighter over the thing beneath and descend the ramp.
“Fuck is it?” Danny says.
We’re coming out of our crouches and moving quickly toward Danny’s car as the truck pulls away.
Starting down the street in the car Danny turns the defroster on and says, “Fuckin’ shit on the windshield, gonna run somebody over playing detective.”
“My car gets the same thing.”
We follow the truck out of the development and onto a quiet Route 9. Ahead, the sky is turning grayish blue.
“Oh, oh, don’t stay too close,” I say.
“Fuck you want me to, I don’t know how to follow someone.”
“You don’t ride their bumper.”
“The fuckin' secret agent.”
The truck takes the exit ramp to I-95.
Danny says, “Come on, where are we going…”
“Stay with ‘em a little bit, see,” I say.
“Anything past the parkway I’m turning around.”
But soon the truck is taking the exit toward the abandoned army base, near where we played a lot of baseball as kids. At a distance we follow the truck behind the fields, a long road with thick dark trees on both sides. Danny leans forward and looks up at the sky.
“I’m never up this early,” he says. “The clouds and everything.”
The trees on one side give way to a tall wire fence and the truck turns left onto the entrance road of a complex of white concrete buildings, some large and some small, some with warehouse doors in front. Danny slows the car down; we roll just past the entrance and pull onto the shoulder across the street.
“You see it?” I say.
“Right there,” Danny says, pointing: the truck is cutting across a small parking lot toward one of the warehouse fronts, next to which a plain sign reads—
“Crematorium,” Danny says. “Bodies?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
With the truck blocking our view we can barely make out the workers lifting the warehouse door and carrying in the shipment.
“Fuck it,” I say after a few minutes. “Let’s get outta here.”
Back on I-95 under a brightening sky, windows down, Danny’s saying, “Nobody else was in the house, less they had someone staying with them, or something.”
“I’m pretty sure they didn’t.”
“Doesn’t make sense.”
We drive for a while, quiet.
Then Danny says, “You start that summer class?”
“No, I think it’s, thought it was next Wednesday, I don’t know. I should probably check that out, to make sure…”
“Yeah… You got any money on you?”
“I haven’t had a diner breakfast since uh, I can’t even remember when. Eggs and shit.”
“Stop back at my house real quick. On me, for waking you up.”
“Throwing that birthday money around…”
“I’m between jobs,” I say.
The truck stops coming. The regular clean-up crew puts up an orange construction fence around the house and works long hours, focusing mostly, far as I can tell, on the melting. Whenever they clear out for the day and I try to sneak over there, people always pass by, walking their dogs or jogging or riding bicycles, startling me, sending me back across the street nervous and sweating, bowels loose.
A week later, at a little barbecue my parents throw in the backyard, I talk Danny into driving to Apple Meadows, a town a few counties west of us where a cloud emptied on a house back in 2007, the only other occurrence in the state in recent years.
The victim-family was visiting relatives elsewhere when it happened and left the ice to melt on its own. According to articles I’ve been reading online, these people, whose name goes all the way back to the founding of the county, decided to let nature run its course rather than rip apart and tear down a piece of family history. Weird NJ includes the place on its list of roadside oddities.
On Monday afternoon we drive out there, Danny’s GPS guiding the way. We understand immediately why the township allowed the house to melt naturally: Apple Meadows begins as a series of modern developments, similar to our neighborhood, and then transforms into woods and dirt lots and hiking trails, deer trotting back and forth from creeks to ponds.
The house sits far off a narrow back road, a three-story structure of rustic wood paneling, except for a section of red brick around the front door, whose surrounding woods, a thick, whispering, swaying darkness, obscures its impressive size. Pieces of glass between the high weeds on the front lawn create tiny dots and streaks of yellow-white light.
“Jesus Christ,” Danny says, looking at the house from the street.
I follow him up the long, curving driveway to a small set of concrete steps, at the top of which we pass through a short metal gate and onto a walkway of alternating light and dark gray pavers that, up ahead, loops around the house and into the backyard. Gazing up at the house, at the peeling wood on the side panels and the windows, which resemble white noise TV screens, completely still but creating the effect of movement, or at least electrical energy, I drift along toward the backyard, stepping on leaves and branches, the debris of thunderstorms past and present. I think of that family on 60 Minutes, John and Heather, Billy reaching for his toys, rain hitting the roof, the sounds and faces blending with the clacking and whistling of birds in the woods of Apple Meadows.
Danny calls to me, “Hey, check this out. Hey.”
I turn to see he’s standing near a low-level side-window. “What?”
“It’s uh, I don’t think it’s ice, anymore,” he says as I’m walking over. “It’s soft, like, I don’t know.”
A few steps away I say, “What do you mean?”—“Look,” Danny says, and presses his finger into the grayish-white square.
His touch acts like a raindrop on a pond, making small waves that sink into the substance and disappear.
“It’s solid though, you feel it?” Danny says. “Like firm.”
“All that shit about melting, online, melting and ice. Maybe it changes…” I say.
But now the waves are returning, forming a pulsating circle inside the square, forming an image, a woman’s face, faint, dark hair, the nose and mouth becoming clearer, eyes shut, the face emerging as if from under water—and we just stare, suddenly feeling hot, sweating, palms itching, pulses throbbing—and when the face breaks the surface of the cloud filling, becoming a head pushing out at us, we move back, first a step, then a few steps.
We watch: out of the window up to its neck, the head slumps forward and the dark, wet hair, so long it almost reaches the ground, falls out. We wait: a set of bony shoulders emerge, flesh gray, and then the groove of the spine, the slit of the ass.
The window ejects the body. It lands on its stomach, making a wet thud on the concrete. We stumble back, me toward the backyard and Danny toward the front. The body lay still, slightly facing Danny, gray and naked, the hair covering the head. After almost a minute we look up at each other.
“What the fuck?” Danny says.
“I don’t, I…”
“You got your phone, get your phone…”
I pat one pocket of my shorts, thinking Danny’s still talking, pat the other side and feel my phone, glance up to cut him off and see that he’s looking down again, silent.
The body, the woman, is moaning, as if pain—Uhhhhh—the ground against her mouth muffling the sound. Uhhhhh, uhhhhh…
And then her head snaps up. Wet hair slaps against the skin of her back. Danny’s eyes widen as he sees her face. He yells and stumbles back. She crawls toward him. I can see the muscles in her legs as she moves forward on her hands and knees, moaning.
Danny’s shuffling backward and waving at me and calling, “Go around go around, the car, other way, go, go the other way!” When he finally turns to run he takes a bad step off the concrete stairs, twisting his leg, and falls forward off the ledge.
The woman gasps, an absurd intake of breath, her back heaving, her back easing, easing, and she lay still and silent again, face-down, and I realize she was crying, sobbing, more sadness than pain—but now Danny’s screaming, “Ahh fuck, FUCK! Ahh no-no-no-no, FUUUUCKKKK!” and I’m reaching for my phone again.
Leaning against a fire truck I explain to a local cop, who seems curious more than anything, what happened, why we came out here, giving as many details as possible, though I’m thinking more about finding the hospital where the ambulance took Danny, driving an unfamiliar car, calling his parents.
When I finish my story the cop says, “Your buddy mighta tore his ACL, bad… Hang out here for us, couple more minutes.”
He walks up the street to where firemen and other emergency workers, the ones who covered the woman with a tarp, stand talking near a white van. The cop says something to a man in khakis and a golf shirt, maybe in his mid-forties, who then breaks from the group and walks toward me, carrying a clipboard.
“How’s it goin’ boss, Tom Stisso,” he says, offering his hand. “I’m with Tri-State Operations, we um, handle these uh, kinds of things…”
“This is when you uh, tell me to stay quiet, for my own good,” I say.
He smiles. “Yeah, yeah, the big threat’s coming.” He exhales and looks around. “Nah, we got nothing to hide here, man. We don’t make any effort, or anything, hiding it. Nobody asks.”
“I just wanted, if you have any questions, wondering about something or…”
“You just burn ‘em, the bodies?” I say.
“Me and my friend, we saw a truck, taking one I guess to a crematory, crematorium or whatever. This happened across the street from me, my house. The cloud.”
“Right, right,” Stisso says. “Oh, uh, what you saw, we um, places’ve tried in the past, with the bodies like you were saying, DNA, all kinds of tests, uh… Nothing ever comes of it, it turns into a big cost thing, like how far can we go before they’re putting out money for dead-ends, you know?”
“I know it seems like… You’re not the only one looking for an explanation it, it can get, gets desperate, believe me. We’re talkin’ going back years. We want it to be victims of hurricanes in there, or uh, tornadoes, something, the tsunamis. Murder victims even, missing kids, I mean the theories, leftover souls, the bodies, which uh, doesn’t sound you know very, see what I mean? Nothing adds up. It’s just, not.”
I’m sharing a hotel room in Boston with Sean, a fellow adjunct professor I met at one of my schools. We’re visiting for a series of lectures and feeling like assholes, like we’re wasting our time.
When I come into the bedroom after taking a shower on the second night, Sean’s sitting up in bed, remote in hand. I hear silly, squeaky synthesizer music and then see M.I.L.F. Mustache 47 on the TV.
“You like this M.I.L.F. stuff?” I ask.
“Not uh, it’s not preference or anything,” he says. “I actually uh, saw all the other ones they got on here. Take that however you want it.”
“Nice.” I sit on the edge of my bed and watch the opening credits montage—“Whoa whoa,” I say. “Pause that.”
“What?” Sean says, hitting a button.
“Put, go back one,” I say.
He rewinds and pauses on a blond with dark roots in mid-bounce, smiling as she tilts her head back. Yellow bubble letters say HEATHER LYNN next to her tits.
“I think I know her,” I say.
“Get the fuck outta here,” Sean says.
“She lived across the street from me, my parents.”
“I think that’s her. It makes sense, Heather Lynn… Their uh, they had a kid, her and her husband. He died in one of those cloud-emptyings. Like, four years ago maybe. Four years-old, the kid.”
We sit silently for a few moments. I’m staring at Heather Lynn’s sweaty body, smelling starch and fabric softener and thinking, You didn’t, oh, thank you. I can feel a throbbing pulse at my temple.
Sean says, “You think you can uh, so I can…”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, rising from the bed. “I’m gonna get something downstairs, candy or something. You want anything?”
“Save that on there for me.”
“Yep. Your girl Heather Lynn.”
“Huh… Nah, I don’t know,” I say and go out, shutting the door.
In the small convenience store downstairs I buy packs of Pez and Starburst and Skittles and walk over to a bench in the lobby, where I sit with the plastic bag next to me. I take out my phone and text Danny, Remember Heather, from across the street from me? Halpern. She’s doing porn now.
A couple minutes later he answers, Get the fuck outta here.
Yeah. “Heather Lynn.” MILF Mustache 47.
Hahaha i gotta check it out.
You believe it’s been five years already?
I stare at the phone for a minute and then text, What did her face look like?
And I sit for a while, phone in my lap, eating candy and staring at the lights shine off the lobby floor, waiting for an answer that never comes.
Image Courtesy: Flickr