My name is Roland McCaffrey, and I watch clouds. The perky bleached white one that has two symmetrical lumps that I swear look just like boobs is Jennifer. All the other clouds want to sleep with Jennifer, obviously, but none get a chance because Jennifer is saving herself for that special cloud that has the perfect amount of water droplets. But that’s all crazy because clouds can’t have sex. They reproduce asexually; everybody knows that.
A woman cries outside of the coffee shop I’m sitting in. It’s my favorite coffee shop because it has big windows for me to look up at the sky through and because they have really good chai. There’s also this book store inside the coffee shop because it’s supposed to be a coffee shop for intelligent people, which I guess makes me unintelligent because I’ve never looked at any of them, but I still think it’s cool to have them there. The woman cries.
A man stands on the other side of the street yelling at the crying woman. I can’t hear him through the glass, but I’m pretty skilled at reading lips. He’s saying “fuck” a lot. The woman holds her head in her hands and sobs, and I want to go give her a hug but that would probably be weird. Would that be weird?
I bet the man caught the woman flirting with another guy, but I bet she wasn’t really flirting, and he was just projecting his own guilt onto her because he’s really the one who cheated on her at a dance party with someone he was “just friends with,” then the alcohol came into play. I guarantee that’s what it was.
They probably met at a party. She saw him across the room and was star-struck and walked over to talk to him but stuttered upon doing so. She offered him a beer to break the ice, and he asked her if she wanted some, but she said no. She doesn’t drink because she thinks it turns people into blabbering slobs. They exchanged numbers, and she couldn’t wait the two days like you’re supposed to so she texted him right when she walked out the door. He responded immediately, and she loved that.
They went on some dates, mostly to the zoo because she couldn’t get enough of the zebras. After a while, they went official but he didn’t want to advertise, which she thought was strange, but she didn’t want to press it because they were a brand new couple and brand new couples aren’t supposed to fight (she’s told three months is where that sort of thing is supposed to begin. She marks the date in her calendar: “Our First Fight,” and waits ‘til then to bring up the whole advertisement thing).
She says “I love you” but then says “just kidding” because love isn’t supposed to happen ‘til at least six months. He laughs and they have sex. It’s her first time and she’s nervous so he says he’ll be gentle, but he isn’t gentle at all, which hurts her abdomen, but she isn’t sure why; she assumes that that’s just how sex is. He finishes and rolls onto his back panting and she’s happy because he’s happy. They fall asleep in each other’s arms, which is much less comfortable than she thought it would be, but she ignores it and stays there anyway.
Enter Skank. Skank is his friend that he’s been super close with since high school. “Oh, Skank and I go way back!” He doesn’t see the flirting, but she does. Or maybe he does see it but just ignores it, which makes her even angrier.
He starts hanging out with Skank all the damn time. They go to parties and dinner every weekend like it’s no big thing, but it’s actually a pretty big thing. She tries to explain this to him, but he gets mad and tells her to stop controlling him and keeping him away from his friends. She doesn’t want to upset him, so she holds her tongue.
They stop having sex almost completely, which sucks because even a girl’s got to have her fill, you know? She starts snooping around his room while he’s “taking a dump,” which he says all the time which she thinks is disgusting because they’ve only been together for two months (she hears talking about that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen until a year in. She marks the date on her calendar). She reads his text messages and looks through his email, then realizes how much of a crazy bitch she’s being, so she stops but still feels depressed because of it.
She doesn’t say anything because it hasn’t been three months yet. Then, when three months is just a day away, she gets a voice message from her dad, who says “listen, there’s been an accident…” Her dad tries calling again, but she doesn’t answer because she would rather be watching clouds.
I take a moment to look up at Jennifer, floating alone in the sky. She has too many water droplets and she’s bloated and dark. “Listen there’s been an accident.” I take a moment to tell Jennifer to hold her droplets a little longer, and that eventually they’ll go away and she’ll be weightless again; that there has been no accident because clouds can’t have accidents. Everyone knows that.
I turn back to the crying woman.
She tells him the next day, and he says he’s sorry but that he has to go to work. She doesn’t see him for three days. When he finally comes back to see her, he tells her that he’s leaving her and that this is all too much for him to handle. She screams at him for being so inconsiderate. “Is there anything I can do to help the pain you fucking prick?” She hits him and she spits in his face and beats him so that no girl will ever find him attractive again. No, wait. She does none of those things. Instead she whispers, “Fine,” and asks him to leave.
She hears through the grape vine that he fucked Skank the night before they split. She wishes she had beaten him like she imagined but then feels bad for thinking that, so she takes a shower until the water is freezing. Her dad calls, but she doesn’t answer. Instead she goes outside and watches clouds.
Over the course of the next three days her dad calls thirty seven times and leaves sixteen messages. Her friends tell her that she needs to return his calls and talk to him; they tell her she’s having some sort of breakdown, which they say is understandable but also irresponsible. She takes on a proclivity to exotic coffees. The stuff is expensive, but she thinks “Fuck it, if I’m having a mental breakdown, might as well drink the good stuff.” Her friends disapprove.
The list of missed calls grows, and Cheating Dick (which she claims his new name will be) decides he wants her back because the whole thing with Skank didn’t work out. She exaggerates the point of not answering his calls by rejecting them half-way through ringing but he doesn’t get the message. He keeps calling anyway.
“There was a car crash up on 93. You know, when it goes through that narrow canyon?” Her dad’s voice is crackly and there’s a lot of noise in the background. She considers calling her dad back, but gets light-headed before her thumb can press dial, so she decides she’ll wait until her body is ready.
I turn my attention away from her and to my phone vibrating in my hand. He’s called thirty eight times, and I hold my thumb over the “Answer Call Button,” but can’t push it. I turn back to the woman.
He comes to her apartment and bangs on the door until she answers. It’s three in the morning and she is angry, not because he woke her up (because she obviously isn’t sleeping anymore due to the exotic coffee), but because he woke up her roommates. He drops to his knees and begs for a second chance with tears and snot bubbling on his lips, and she can’t help but think how remarkably unattractive he is. He blabbers on and blames alcohol for the night with Skank. She shuts the door and then wishes she would have said something witty before she shut it.
He stops by six times in the next two days, toting a new gift each time. After the sixth visit, she steps over the pile of CD’s and bottles of wine littering her doorway to go to this new coffee joint she hears has great chai (which isn’t technically coffee, but it still tastes great so she drinks it anyway). She’s told the place has phenomenal windows.
On the way to the café, she runs into her neighbor, a gentleman. She says hi to the gentleman and strikes up a conversation. The gentleman says he’s running late for a meeting (which is so gentlemanly; to have a meeting), but that they should exchange phone numbers so they could get coffee some time. He asks if she knows of any good places and she says she knows of a ton.
Cheating Dick had been following her the whole time, but she didn’t notice. He grabs her by the arm and demands to know who the gentleman was. She doesn’t answer so he squeezes harder. A group of girls look on with worried faces and she screams “Let go!” then laughs a little on the inside (because she knows he thinks the girls are hot and wouldn’t want to look like an ass). He lets go and she giggles. “Sorry to hear you and Skank didn’t work out. She was such a keeper.” She turns and walks up to the café.
“A chai latte for Roland!” I’ve been spacing. The woman is still crying on the street, but the asshole isn’t screaming at her anymore which I’m relieved for because no one should scream at a crying woman.
I look up. Jennifer floats there all alone. She is plump and droopy and she is sad because she miscalculated. She counted 1012 water droplets, but it was really 1011, and now she is alone, robbed of her purity, and she fills the sky with her trillions of unwanted rain drops.
“A chai for Roland!” I get the cup and go outside to the woman crying on the curb. She is wearing a red dress with smiley face daisy buttons and a whicker hat the diameter of a dog bed.
“Hi.” She looks up at me. “I’m sorry that guy was yelling at you. Would you like some chai?” I hold out the cup but she doesn’t take it. “I know it’s not the exotic coffee that you like, but it’s supposed to be quite delicious.” She hesitates. “Exotic coffee?” “Well it’s not that good, but it’s pretty damn close. I’ve already had like three cups today.” She sobs and wipes away her tears. “You’re sweet.” I smile because I’m told I have a great smile. “This chai is sweeter.” She laughs which makes me feel better. “Thank you, but I’m okay. You don’t have to give me your chai.” “But I want to give you my chai.” She stares up at me. “I’ll tell you what: I’ll just set this on the curb, and if you would like to drink it then you can, and if not, then you’ll have to explain to that coffee place why you stole their cup.” I flash another of my awesome smiles and go back to the café.
She walks in less than a minute later (I timed it on my watch). She sits down next to me and sighs. I look over at her. “You’re very pretty by the way.” She smiles and giggles and her eyes flash bright with liquid diamonds still caught in lashes which I’m assuming means, “Thank you, you’re very handsome” in female. She pushes the cup over to me. “Aren’t you going to have any?” I laugh because I’ve already ordered another one. “No, that’s all for you.” She smiles and says that she won’t drink any unless I have some first, which I love.
My phone rings for the forty-fifth time and she asks if I’m going to answer it. I say I’m not. I think back to the voicemail. “They tried to resuscitate her, but there was nothing they could do.” My dad’s voice is choked with tears and I’m angry; partly at him for crying when he has no right to cry, and partly at myself for letting such negative thoughts into my head at such a great moment. The pretty woman notices my change in attitude. “Are you all right?” I tell myself to snap out of it, and beam to make up for my flash of sadness. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
But the thoughts keep coming. That voice message plays on in my head.
“Are you coming to the funeral?” my dad asks. It’s a stupid question because of course I’m coming to the funeral. Of course I am going to be there to put my mom into the ground, into the dirt, the filthy fucking dirt, like she’s the class goldfish that went belly-up because Bobby kept poking it. I want to encase her in marble and squish every bug I can find that might one day find its way to her. I want to wear her glasses and sit on her lap and read The Hobbit waiting for the mac ‘n’ cheese like I did when I was younger and I don’t ever want to leave. I called her phone over and over again so I could make up for all the calls I ignored in college, so I could hear her voice on the answering machine one more time. Then I’d go outside and try to forget I ever heard it by watching clouds.
The woman’s arms are around me because I am crying and mine are around her because she is too. Without words, we comfort then pull away, and I feel complete because together we have just the right amount of water droplets.
I tell her I need to use the restroom, but really I pull off into the back corner of the café, behind a case of books and make a call. Each ring is my mother’s voice telling me to be strong. She asks about my relationship, and I tell her about the asshole “just-friend” that my girlfriend hangs out with all the time and she says not to worry because no girl could ever cheat on a guy as great as me. She says she wants to take me to the zoo, so we can watch the zebras together and have a nice time because she thinks I don’t have nice times anymore. She tells me she loves me and that it’s okay that she hasn’t heard from me in a while, that she understands. She tells me she’s glad I called one last time. The beep resonates, and I can’t find the courage to speak. I want to say “I love you too” to make up for that time I didn’t say it back. I want to make plans to go to the zoo with her, and I want to tell her about all the things I deemed unimportant because, to her, they would be fascinating. But none of that comes out. Instead, I sit in silence until finally, right before the message cuts off and I run out of time, I whisper “goodbye.”
We sit at the table next to the window looking up. She sees a laughing apple tree that drops its treasures on boisterous children. I see an oven mitt. Together we point out a ship with flexed sails and a confident crew that sails on.
My father calls for the forty-sixth time.
It sails on.
For the fourth and last time, the man stumbles over the rise and into the small clearing. He carries only what is necessary: the rope, a candy bar, his cell phone, and his wallet. He is breathing heavily and sits down on a boulder to rest.
The sun is disappearing behind the peaks above him. It sends probes of light into the darkening sky. The man looks at this as he catches his breath. For a long time he looks.
It would be quiet if the road was not so close. Cars can be heard rounding the bend at the bottom of the hill; he cocks his head to listen. His lips move wordlessly as he counts the cars that go by. One. Two. Three. He stops at fifteen and stands.
The clearing is dominated by a ponderosa pine. At twenty feet, it is not a remarkable tree, but the limbs are thick. They stretch out from the trunk like they are trying to get away. The man walks up to the tree and begins to climb. Ten feet up, he stops. This is the thickest branch, and it extends out the farthest. There are no branches below it.
The man leans his back against the trunk and once more looks up at the failing light. He unwraps the candy bar and eats it, chewing the tiny bites slowly. For a long time he eats. By the time he is done, there is just enough light to see.
He inches out on the branch, testing it with his weight. It bounces a little but holds him. Three feet from the trunk, he uncoils the rope and begins to tie one end around the branch. His movements are suddenly desperate. He loops the rope around the branch and ties the knots with hurried but deft exactness. When the task is done there is two feet of rope left, not counting the loop at the end.
The man takes his phone from his pocket and checks it. The light from the screen illuminates his face, and his shoulders droop noticeably. He turns the volume all the way up and puts it in the pocket with his wallet.
The moon is rising on the other side of the sky, and he looks at its yellow disk from between the needles of the tree. For a moment he sits still and smiles, but then he blinks and the moment is gone. He slips the noose around his neck and looks down at the ground.
Two minutes later he is hanging from the branch, struggling silently in the light of the moon.
The day after his death:
The ice that formed on the plants in the early morning catches the light of the sun as it rises. The ice that formed on the hair and clothing of the body does not. It is hidden in the shadow of the branches.
On the road below, there is an accident. Ambulances scream up the canyon and traffic backs up for over a mile. A woman is pulled from her totaled car, bleeding and broken but breathing. They talk to her soothingly as they take her away. The other car is almost undamaged. The driver stands beside the scene of the collision and tells his side of the story. For most of the morning, the road is reduced to one lane. People with ski racks on their cars swear at the loss of time.
In the clearing, the body is motionless, stiff. Its legs and hands are discolored. It does not sway on its rope because there is no wind.
Two days after his death:
At 1:34 p.m., the cell phone in the body’s pocket turns itself off with a soft musical chime. There have been no other notifications. There is a light breeze, and the wrapper of the candy bar dances across the dead needles at the base of the tree.
The body has company. A line of ants finds the rope and follows it down to the neck. Flies swarm around it, bouncing on and off of the tight skin. The body’s tongue protrudes from its mouth, and flies dart in and out of the black opening.
A deer path runs through the clearing, and a small herd emerges from the trees. They snort at the scent of death and bolt.
Five days after his death:
The insect eggs on the body have hatched. Some of the larvae grow on the skin, sheltered from the wind by the branches of the ponderosa and the protrusions of the swollen flesh. Most, however, fall to the ground below. They writhe and curl in the dirt and needles, and give the body a living shadow.
The air is cooler now. For twelve hours, the threat of snow has lain heavily upon the forest. A storm is building above the mountains—great black fortresses of cloud. The trees are still as one small snowflake floats idly to the ground.
Six days after his death:
The storm does not stop. In the clearing, only the silhouette of the ponderosa is visible. The body is locked in the middle of swirling whiteness.
Down the hill, there are no cars. The road is closed until the storm passes. People in town look through foggy windows toward the canyon. They see nothing but snow, and do not look for long.
Nine days after his death:
The branches of the ponderosa are heavy with snow, and the body hangs beneath a blanket. There are icicles stretching down from its feet, its hands, its face. There are drifts of snow beneath the tree, where the frozen larvae are buried in white.
The sun breaks through the clouds and the light is blinding. Icicles begin to drip halfheartedly, and birds call out into the frozen landscape. The small herd of deer comes into the clearing, nosing through the snow in search of food. The body does not bother them anymore.
Shortly before sunset, a mountain lion enters the clearing. She sniffs cautiously and paws at the body’s feet. It sways slightly and snow slides from it to the ground. She growls and disappears into the trees.
Eleven days after his death:
Aside from the drifts surviving in permanent shadows, the snow is nearly gone. The air is almost warm, but there is a definite chill that speaks of winter. The sunlight shines through the needles and plays across the body in broken fragments.
A beetle makes its way down the rope and examines the ruin of the body. It travels up and down the body’s face and disappears underneath its shirt.
By nightfall, the beetle is not alone.
Fourteen days after his death:
A man and a woman park their car on the side of the road and walk up the hill. The woman carries a camera and stops to take pictures of everyday oddities. They are speaking of the way the mountains look at the end of the year.
Halfway up the hill, they stop and look out to the other side of the canyon. The woman points at something and the man laughs. They share a quiet moment together, fingers entwined.
As they near the clearing, they notice a strange smell in the air. The man says it belongs to a type of weed, but the woman doesn’t think so and says as much. They slow their ascent and look around them warily as they climb.
The woman sees the candy wrapper tangled in a bush and picks it up. She stows it in her pocket to throw away later. Together, they enter the clearing and are affronted by the presence of the ponderosa pine.
The woman is still, stuck in horrified silence. After a moment she lifts the camera to her face. For thirty-nine seconds it hangs there, her finger hovering over the button. The man vomits into a bush and the woman points the lens away.
It is difficult to discern the gender of the body. It stares at them as a caricature of human existence, wide mouth leering. The man and the woman bolt as the deer once did, away from the tree, away from the body, away from the sight.
They half run, half fall down the hill. When they are inside their car, they lock the doors.
Fifteen days after his death:
There is a news story in the local paper: UNIDENTIFIED BODY FOUND HANGING IN WOODS. It is a short article. There isn’t much to say.
People in town wonder about the identity of the body. They discuss their theories to their friends and coworkers. They consult missing person lists. They wonder why it took so long for the body to be found.
Seventeen days after his death:
The paper releases a follow up story. They share the man’s name, and say that he was identified by the contents of his wallet.
The news is anti-climactic. He wasn’t from the town. He wasn’t reported missing. People are disappointed that the story isn’t more interesting.
In the clearing, the evidence has been swept away. There is nothing left but the deer trail, and the sunlight through the needles, and the ponderosa pine.