Three Miles Up A Narrow Dirt Road

Leighton had given up on his garden faster than he’d given up on other hobbies, pastimes, occupations, acquaintances, friends. He’d started one out of the sheer boredom of living out here, in farmland considered secluded even for the Falls. His closest neighbors seemed to glean some kind of satisfaction from tending small gardens; they were at least three miles down the narrow dirt road in either direction, which he liked. Contrasted with the depth of Leighton’s other emotions, “like” was an ocean.

This garden, if it could be called that now or ever, had yielded nothing — a few stark white shoots that dried yellow and wrinkled; countless weeds; and, in the far corner nearest the back of the house by the rusting water meter, one sad green tomato immediately beset upon by caterpillars. He ran his fingers through what was left of his gray hair, and considered pulling all the plants up, but it was a thought that had come to him many times in the past, never acted upon. Let the earth do what it will, he thought.

Leighton’s existence was both bleak and self-applied. He had had a life once, known people once. A child of a stern upbringing, he had worked as a materials scientist, a metallurgist, for an iron ore refinery up in Point Pleasant for forty-odd years, and took early retirement. He attempted to teach physics to high school students for a year or so, but he had no interest in imparting knowledge to those too stubborn to receive it.

There was something pathetic, infuriating about youth today and their parents. The people of Point Pleasant — or anywhere really. People got on Leighton’s nerves; sometimes he couldn’t understand how anyone could stand to be a part of the world.

Ichor Falls was a dim town, a gray town, which appealed to him — the locals kept to themselves, and in all the time he’d lived out here he never considered himself one of them. The mist gave him a good, cold feeling. From this distance he could barely even make out the lights of the highway.

The feeling was broken, often, by the local newspaper delivery. The man parked his truck further south where the dirt wasn’t so soft, and walked the 300 yards up to Leighton’s mailbox. He kept thinking one of these days he’d have to move it further away from the house; as it is around this time of day he tried to be inside so as to avoid small talk. But here Leighton was, standing outside staring at his garden. He set his jaw.

The delivery man waved a long wave as he came closer with a stack of ads Leighton had no interest in reading. “Morning, Leighton.”

“Morning.”

“Last stop of the day. Always good to see you — means my shift is over.” He had made this joke too many times to count.

“Just in the box, please.”

“No time for chit-chat, huh? Something you’ve gotta get back to?”

“I enjoy my solitude, and I wish you’d respect that,” Leighton said, already moving towards his front door. He stopped and turned back to the man. “And if all you have for me is advertising, then make your last stop somewhere else.”

“You want us to suspend delivery, then? I can put in the form for you, but you’ll have to sign it.”

Leighton responded by angrily slamming his front door.

This was his never-ending experience with others — no matter what steps you took to be left alone, it intruded. It persisted. Wasn’t it obvious from the way he acted, Leighton thought, what his desires were? From the company he didn’t keep? From the places he refused to live? From the state of his garden? He had a house full of journals and books to read.

What could be more simple, more easily carried out, than to leave another man completely alone?

 

The next morning, Leighton awoke to the sensation that something had changed. For the better. As he dressed, he couldn’t place it — perhaps he had slept better the night before. Or perhaps it was as simple as giving the newspaper man a piece of his mind. Speaking of which, he wondered if the paper would be cluttering his doorstep this morning.

He opened the front door: no sign of the paper, and it would have been here by now. Looking across his land, he felt like the lights of the highway were dimmer somehow, more distant, less of a reminder of the clutter and pointlessness beyond it.

Then he heard the sound of an engine on his road. As it drifted closer, it became unmistakable: the newspaper delivery truck.

Leighton debated staying inside, but decided to have it out with the delivery man once and for all.

Up the dirt road came the man carrying his bundle of insipid gossip. Leighton didn’t give him time to call out a good-morning. “You turn around and get back in your truck, son! I told you I’m not interested,” he shouted.

The man reacted as if he had heard a far-off noise, and craned his neck to hear it. “Leighton?” he called back.

“Yes, Leighton! The one who doesn’t want your rag! I don’t care if you have to sign that form for me! I won’t accept another paper!”

The man, still holding the newspaper, had a very confused look, and squinted into the mist. He looked as if he was going to speak, but instead he turned around as if realizing something, then moved quickly back to his truck, which was actually difficult for Leighton to see in the heavy mist.

He turned to his front door and found it a little slick, from all the mist, he thought. He gripped it tighter and pushed it open with some difficulty. Walking through his living room, he found that even the floor seemed wet or slick in some way, even though there was no visible moisture.

It was a slickness or slippery quality unlike any he had felt before, and it was no better when he stepped on the carpeted floor. He thought he could feel it where his clothing touched his skin, as well, and still believed it to be humidity or moisture until he picked up a softcover novel from the bookshelf, and actually found it difficult to hold.

He pinched a single page between thumb and forefinger, but the slickness remained, in addition to another sensation — or lack of it. He couldn’t feel the roughness of the paper page. Or the book’s smooth cover. Or the wood of the bookshelf. Or his own clothing. It was as though he now interacted with everything through a thick, lukewarm, invisible oily curtain. This feeling invaded his touch, his hearing, his sight, like a fog rolling in off the lake. The world was turning gray and quiet. And slick.

Now Leighton soundlessly slipped on the rug and hit the floor face first, sliding halfway across his living room floor. He felt none of it; his body had gone completely numb. He could still move freely, but without any kind of functional traction or sensation he had been reduced to merely observing himself flop on the ground — a pair of eyes in a nerveless, man-shaped jellyfish out of water.

Am I having a stroke appeared in his terror-stricken thoughts, and suddenly he found himself screaming for help, but the sound — the sound issuing from his throat was wrong. In his mind, he was saying “help,” but the word came out as a distant, quiet series of clicks.

He got hold of himself there on the floor, and reached up to grip the horizontal slats on the back of a wooden chair. He folded his arms around the top slat, and though he slid wildly back and forth, he was able to brace himself up into a kneeling position and hold his legs together. He turned his head to gaze into a hallway mirror.

In the mirror was the faint impression of a naked man seated on the floor. Leighton’s clothing had all but slid off of him in the panic. They lay around him, not slick or wet, but as if discarded by a misbehaving child.

He was very aware of the sharp pressure of the slat in the crook of his elbow as he hung there, twisting idly, craning his head this way and that as if a solution would present itself if he looked hard enough. But as he braced himself there, even that pressure at his elbow began to fade; sitting here, perfectly still, it was now impossible to know the position of his body at all without looking.

Leighton felt disoriented, but not dizzy or tired, or hurt. His mind raced. He cast his gaze at the telephone on the endtable, beside the couch, not more than ten feet away but completely unreachable. Whatever this numbness was, he knew he wasn’t injured physically. Maybe this was a stroke, or an embolism; something that wouldn’t wait for help.

I still have control over my body, even though it doesn’t feel like it, he reasoned, to calm himself.I’m not sliding on anything. Something’s weakened me. I can still reach the phone and dial it. I can crawl.

Leighton carefully released his hold on the chair, having to trust memories and guesses of what that felt like, as his body registered no feeling whatsoever now. He was aware of everything he should be feeling, but wasn’t. Even the sound of the unsteady chair tapping its arm on the underside of the table was fading; in minutes, Leighton would be completely deaf.

To his surprise Leighton suddenly found his point of view sideways, his naked arms spread out to his sides on the floor. He had fallen. He must have landed flat on his stomach, hard, but he felt nothing. The transition from vertical to horizontal hadn’t even registered: dizziness, adrenaline from loss of balance, the sound and jarring sting of impact. All cues were gone.

I’m going to bring my left arm over my head, and crawl on my belly, Leighton strained, hoping that his vision wouldn’t leave before he’d dialed 911. He could do this, he thought. Indeed, he watched as his left arm slid slowly over, his hand now pointing somewhere in the direction of the phone. Now all he had to do was pull.

He had no idea how long this would take him, but little by little, he promised himself, he would get to that telephone. He felt some surge of relief as he noticed his viewpoint lift slightly from the floor to one some inches above it. I’m doing it, I’m lifting my head.

His field of view increased as he rose himself off the floor. The expanse of carpet no longer dominated the right half of his sight — here he was two, three, now five inches off the floor. Leighton could not tell if he was smiling, nor could he tell if that smile had fallen when he realized the left half of his sight was now filled with the off-white, ragged plane of the stucco ceiling.

Leighton’s numb body bobbed gently on the ceiling like a half-filled, gray balloon. He still had control of his eyes, and looked down at the carpet some six or seven feet below him, his limbs not hanging from his torso, but unguided, buoyant in the air: weightless.

Looking directly at a bent leg, he realized he could see through it to the chair below, as if his body was becoming immaterial. Hours passed, or days, months, years. His vision had long dimmed to a polite gray blur, leaving Leighton alone with only a roaring, panicked mind, incorporeal and twisting in the dark, screaming.

“Appreciate you making the trip up here,” said the delivery man. “I knew he’d prefer to be left alone and all, but something about our last exchange — ”

“Understandable,” the officer said, looking around the front room one last time. “Probably not the best idea for an old man to live so far out in the country when he could fall down, hurt himself or worse.”

Another policeman rapped on the door frame before poking his head in. “There’s no sign of anything out here, nothing suspicious anyway. Seems like he just wandered off.”

“There’s our answer, or as much of one as we need,” said the first officer to the delivery man. “We’ll see if anyone’s caught sight of him.”

“I hope he hasn’t gotten himself hurt,” the delivery man said.

“Well, you did the right thing to tell us,” said the officer. “He’s lucky you gave enough of a damn to check on him. You make that much noise about not needing the world, sometimes the world decides it doesn’t need you either.”

This took forever to write (I sat on it for months), and it seems like the kind of thing that needs another eight drafts instead of my customary “one draft and then be too embarrassed to ever revise it again” system. I’ll stop here and put it up as an exercise for myself.

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