I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I know all about clouds: cumulus, stratus, nimbostratus, cumulonimbus. It doesn’t take much water to make most of them. A small summer cumulus a few hundred yards to a side holds no more than 25 or 30 gallons of water, not quite enough to fill a bathtub. Years ago, my wife miscarried. I still remember the bright triangle of blood on the back of her nightdress. Fourteen months later, at Rochester General, she delivered a boy, dead at birth. I never saw him, and we didn’t give him a funeral. I never asked, but I believe stillborn babies are simply thrown away, or at least they were then. Afterwards, we had two girls, five years apart, but never another boy. The dead one was recompense, I believe, for not wanting that first child.
Once a week I lie out in a farmer’s field, beneath a copper beech high up on one of his hills, and classify all the passing clouds. I know what weather they’ll bring, today and tomorrow, how they formed, and where. To do this undisturbed I pay the farmer 30 dollars a week, cash. I have for 55 years. My wife’s name was Stan. She died 15 years ago, and I had her cremated. I told my daughters that that was what their mother wanted, though it wasn’t. I liked the idea of her smoke and ashes drifting up to the clouds.
Elise, my oldest, wonders about that 30 dollars, and wants to cut me off from spending it. I know this because I have heard her whispering to Gwen over the phone. My memory is going, Elise says, which is true in spots—sometimes I repeat myself—and she feels I must be losing the money or being fleeced because I have no real expenses, which is true, too, to a degree. But my hearing is just fine.
The farmer’s name is Stillson, like the wrenches. He’s about that skinny, too. He has a dozen years on me and the only real sign is his neck, which has deteriorated so badly talking with him is like talking with a turtle; his head always droops. Not that we talk much. We never have.
I wandered into his field after the miscarriage. I came home from the hospital and cleaned up the blood on the bathtub and the bathroom floor and went to bed, disoriented from two days without sleep and still afraid Stan might die. And I realized, for the first time, that our child—if that’s what it was at five months—was gone. I couldn’t say dead because I hadn’t ever thought of him or her as alive, really, but nonetheless it was gone. This was a sharp knowledge. Learning it, I felt as if someone had peeled back my skin and muscle and ribs to grasp and bind my heart.
Lying on the bed, staring into the corner of the room, I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so I got in the car and drove a while, turning right, left, whichever way I felt like or the road seemed to want to go or the car to follow. I went through the city and then beyond it, past miles of fields and barns and abandoned garages, and eventually ended up by this field, Stillson’s, where I left the car and wandered up the hill and fell down exhausted beneath this copper beech, which was impressive even then.
Stillson woke me, prodding my shoulder with a muddy boot. I don’t know what he thought—probably that I was drunk, because I was in his field and my car was half on the road, half against his fence, the driver’s door open, the engine running. He seemed rather gruff. Coming to, I remembered that I’d watched the clouds for a long time and found them peaceful, found they filled some of the void which opened when I realized our child was gone, and had finally been able to sleep. I told Stillson I’d pay him 30 dollars a week from then on if he’d leave the small field exactly the way it was, and if I could come and lie there whenever I wanted to.
That was a lot of money back then. It still is, I suppose. Stillson, being the quiet type, never asked for what it was for. He’s taken his money and held up his end of the bargain, and I’ve just about never missed a week where I don’t come and lie here for an hour or two in good weather, and sometimes in bad. Once a year, on the miscarriage’s anniversary, I sprinkle a few more of Stan’s ashes on the grass.
Perhaps it’s the clouds’ impermanence I find so comforting. Always changing, they can’t hold grudges or bitter memories, and their shapes don’t echo the ground they’ve covered. Even lenticular clouds, the dish shaped cumulus over mountain tops which appear stationary for hours, are an illusion. Water molecules rise up one side of the mountain, blown by the wind, condense and enter the cloud, displacing other water, which blows down the far side and evaporates. The cloud is always moving, no more stationary than a river flowing through a lake.
I go to Stillson’s field in all weathers: rain, heat, snow, fog. Fog, which is just clouds touching the ground, doesn’t hold much water, either. Walking 100 yards through fog, you’ll only come in contact with half a glassful. I don’t mind laying out in it. Winters I get stiff fast and have to leave, summer’s chiggers bite me, or ants or mosquitoes or flies. Just last week my doctor ran his fingers over a crescent of bites on my collarbone and told me I ought to have my bed linen changed more often. I got dressed and said I would and let it go at that, but I maintained the memory of his fingers on my skin for hours, like burns. No one had touched my chest since Stan died.
My daughter Elise wonders about the grass she finds on my collar from time to time. Stan never did. She may not have seen it, since we always had our laundry done. Elise says that’s a waste of money, and she does mine herself, in fits and starts. When she hasn’t done it for a month I send it out and when she sees the laundry tags she gets angry. She shows this by not talking to me while she cleans the house. Days I went to the field I told Stan I was golfing, as I did every other day of the week, and my friends lied for me. Of them, only Bitz is still alive, and he’s not much good anymore. Last year he stopped me at the club. He’d bought a new hearing aid and said it had changed his life. He could hear things he couldn’t when he was 20. I steadied him by his elbow and looked right at him, a habit I’d acquired in the long years before the hearing aid, and said, “That’s good, Bitz.”
He checked his wrist and said, “It’s 3:45, since you asked.”
With the few other old club members I see we don’t talk so much as have an organ review: which ones work, which ones don’t, whether we’re going to get some replaced. Towards the end of Stan’s life she used to check the obituaries every morning before going to play bridge, to see if her game was still on.
She got her name as a baby. Her brother wanted a brother, and thought she’d turn into a boy if he called her Stan. I started calling her that as a joke, and then somehow it became part of our intimate vocabulary, and then our public one. That happened with a few words or phrases over the years, “Tinkle,” “toot,” others. It’s funny how that works: you soak up the world like a cloud soaks up water, and you sprinkle little drops of yourself here and there. If someone collected them all, he might be able to tell what you were really like.
You can think of clouds as air movement made visible. On warm summer days, with the sky blue, pure white clouds widely spaced, each cloud represents small, scattered rising air currents. Today the clouds are round like coins. We always had a lot of money. Perhaps that was our downfall. We were used to traveling a lot, and when Stan first told me she was pregnant I thought it would be the end of the lives we’d led. I was selfish.
“What should we do?” she said, sitting across from me at dinner at the Algonquin in New York, where we liked to go on weekends. A vast expanse of white linen, silver, and Limoges china, palm fronds in hammered brass urns, endless bottles of champagne, a jazz trio discreet and unobtrusive. I remember each of these details now as if I studied them daily in a photograph. I looked at her, searched her serious face. Her eyes seemed to be pulling back, as if she were already a long way away from the life we’d lived, and I thought I knew what she wanted me to say. I don’t think I wanted to say it, not really, but all these years later I can’t tell if that’s true or just wishful thinking. I turned over a fork and pressed my finger tip between the tines. “We could fix it,” I said. Instantly, my stomach clenched. I wished I’d never spoken. Stan’s eyes narrowed, the only sign of her disapproval, the only sign that she’d even heard me, for the band started up right after and we danced as we always had, as if the spotlight were on us alone and the world were watching. It seemed to be, then. Sometimes, recalling that dance, I think I already felt her distance as I held her, like she’d shrunk within her skin.
I remember that first day Stillson took my money without counting it—he never has, at least in my presence—and broke off a sprig of grass and chewed the sweet end for a minute while looking up at the sky.
“All right,” he said. “But don’t stay too long.”
He took the grass from his mouth and pointed it at some wispy cirrus above a range of hills. The sun shining through them made halos. “Those clouds over there mean rain.”
That’s what interested me, I guess. How he knew, I asked him, and he said, “It’s the air’s smell, partly, but mostly it’s the clouds’ shape. Feathery like that means a storm’s coming.”
It didn’t look like it to me: they were only a few threads, miles up, and the rest of the sky was blue. I saw my first sun dogs, looking at them. But in two hours the sky was gray, the ground soaked from the rain.
So I started reading about clouds. I read Joshua Howard’s works, the Englishman who first noted cloud differences and recognizable types, and every other book I could get my hands on. I read, I watched, I read some more. Soon I seemed to know as much as anybody about them. Those cirrus Stillson pointed out are always the first heralds of a coming storm, warm air pushing up over cold, expanding into clouds. Bitz and company, covering for me, thought I had a kept woman somewhere. They noticed my devotion. They kidded me about it, not often, but enough to show they were curious and wanted me to tell. I never did.
I have seen pink clouds and blue ones and orange ones, and—near a volcano—pure white clouds rimmed black with ash. I know about wind shear and tornadoes and waterspouts. I’ve traveled the world to see peculiar clouds: pink bubble-like ones over Borneo Bay which occur only at the solstices; rainbow clouds above Victoria Falls; the towering thunderheads of Oklahoma. And once, a dark, perfectly round cloud over the sun, encircled by a rainbow. The sun shone through the cloud’s center, like the light through an ophthalmologist’s scope. This was right here in Stillson’s field. But I’ve never seen anything someone else hasn’t seen.
You’d think, as I’m forgetting things these days, I’d forget the money for Stillson, too, but I won’t. That’s from too long ago. Nearer things elude me, like my glasses. I went to the same optometrist two days in a row and picked out two pair of glasses, the second so I wouldn’t be in trouble if I lost the first, and the bastard sold me all four pairs. Halfway through paying for the third and fourth I remembered buying the first two, and I looked into the little fellow’s eyes and saw that he knew, too, and had all along. I was too embarrassed to say anything. He cradled a Styrofoam coffee cup in both hands and he looked into it when he quoted me the price, as if he were reading it from the cup’s bottom. I wrote myself a note: “Next time you need glasses, get them at Optico, 621 East Ave,” and pinned it to the wall by the front door. I may not remember why by then, but at least the little runt won’t get any more of my money. Stillson’s field I can’t forget.
My daughters remember other things, especially Elise, who stops by often. Gwen lives out of town, and I see her no more than every few years. Once I told Elise how we wanted to play bridge at a friend’s house, when she was three months old. Both the cook and Blossom, our nursemaid, had the day off. We couldn’t find a sitter, so we put Elise in a bureau drawer and shut it, leaving it open just a crack for air. She wouldn’t have remembered, of course, but I told her anyway, to give her anger some focus.
A gift from a father who was not the best of one. We weren’t taught to be, then. Servants brought up the children. Besides, the only person I ever fully loved was Stan. I have come close with Elise: I stopped drinking years ago because she asked me to, and when she vacations I find myself counting off days on my calendar, awaiting her return. She has been able to make me laugh, times when she’s not too full of herself. Stan, I think, wanted a boy too. Maybe one she could raise to stand up to things in a way his father never did.
My father beat me every Saturday morning, and my mother died very young. She had vapors—she drank too much—and spent afternoons making long lists of European Royalty and their favorite foods, as if they might stop by for supper. A gold-tipped fountain pen and cobalt blue ink, that’s what she wrote with, and I’ve never seen more graceful writing. I used to retrieve the crumpled lists from the trash bin and trace out the perfect curves and angles of her script, and writing letters now, I still sense her presence on my pages. Handwriting aside, hers was a hollow pursuit, to say the least, and I sometimes wonder if I’m not guilty of the same thing.
Losing Stan’s presence was bad enough; losing our shared history was worse. Old jokes that no one else understood or thought funny; nicknames we’d given friends; places we’d eaten or made love. The first hotel we stayed in had a beaten copper pot for a sink. The smell of diesel bus fumes in the morning, or the perfume of oranges and apples set to bake on a wood stove, or the tang of gin and tonics on a sunny patio above the sea—all these had precise meanings for us, which lost their significance in this world when she died.
Before she went, I wanted to ask Stan if she remembered what I’d said at the Algonquin all those years before. She didn’t bring it up after the miscarriage—all she cared about was getting pregnant again, which we did shortly—nor after the still-birth. At least not immediately. Then a year or two later, in the midst of a terrible fight, which began as a disagreement about new fabric for a wall covering, she said, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can just ‘fix it,’ right?” She was standing across the room from me, furiously scratching the underside of one forearm with her nails, turning her skin a glowing red. I hadn’t realized words could come out sounding so cold.
She pretended at first not to understand why I was upset. Later, after we had made up and made love, she said she’d done it to hurt me, which she had. She’d been wanting to get back at me for a long time, she explained, her head on my chest, her fingers knotted in my hair. I could smell the walnut oil from her shampoo. We were silent for a while—I saw the crescent moon enter and pass across our window—and when I asked if she would always feel that way she didn’t answer: asleep, or feigning it. I listened to her breathing for hours.
I didn’t have the courage to bring it up again before she died. What if she did remember, and that was what she would take of me to her grave, the memory of my failure at the one great test in my life? I preferred the illusion of the possibility of hope.
I almost envy Elise. Her husband had no money. She said she hated it, the crying, the yelling about bills, the kids underfoot. She could have used help, like we had. For three years she didn’t read a book and she felt like a telephone pole covered with creepers, the way the kids always grabbed her. She could never keep her floors clean. But every Tuesday she has dinner with her son, who lives a block away from her, fixes her car, brings her lilacs and tulips, calls her most nights after work. Her daughter writes twice a week from college. Neither of ours wrote us once in four years. Perhaps I’d feel differently about my children if I’d spent more time with them. I’m not indifferent to them, though that must be how it seems. Nor do I hold their infrequent visits against them: they’re paying me back in kind. It’s just as well, I suppose. They don’t follow me around, demanding that I account for my time. I don’t want anyone else at Stillson’s.
I still dream sometimes in French. Years ago, my father took me to France for summers, left me with a family in a small provincial town. No one there spoke any English, not even in the family I stayed with. Great pink Camellias floated in glass bowls filled with water all through their house, cut from trees in their garden. I would stand looking up at the flowers’ cupped shape through the water. I was five when we started this, nine when we stopped. The war. The Great One. I didn’t know about clouds then. I wish I had. I might have noticed a difference between the air over France and my native sky. Saturday nights, the whole town went to the cinema. At intermission, everyone filed out into the village square, the men and boys on one side, the women and girls on the other. There was a small fountain in between, water splashing in the dark, the mossy bricks surrounding it damp and slippery, crickets calling from fragrant rows of wild mint. We would do our business against the wall, the women and girls watching, and then we’d all file back in and see the end of the movie.
Stan got involved in charity golf events. I thought once she was having an affair, the way Ray encircled her with his arms, showing her how to swing the club just so, the way she smiled up at him, leaned back into his chest. A sharp knowledge, but it didn’t last. Ray was the club pro. I thought about it, thought about following her even, but realized she didn’t have time for an affair. When she said she went to lunch with her friends she had to go; they were always at the club. Bitz’s wife was there, too. I would have heard. Nights she was with me. Movies, parties, the theater, sometimes the symphony. Twice a year we traveled. That’s when I saw those different clouds.
I would read about them in a cloud atlas, study their forms—drawn, mostly, but photographed more recently—and decide which ones I wanted to see. I never chose, really, just let the knowledge come to me. I’d flip through the pages, not thinking, and something would strike me, a line, a certain cast of light, and I’d know: these were the clouds I wanted to see next. I’d look up where they were prevalent, and when, and get travel literature for the place, and convince Stan we should go. Most often that wasn’t hard. Stan liked to travel. We’d visit museums, find good restaurants—duck, veal, skewered lamb rubbed with lemon and garlic and wrapped in bacon, all of which Stan loved—write letters to our friends. Stan, I’d say, I’ve always wanted to go to Borneo. She never remarked that I hadn’t brought up this burning desire before. Sometimes I wondered if that meant she wasn’t paying close attention to what I said, because she didn’t care; other times I hoped it meant she accepted my eccentricities or loved the idea that she didn’t know everything about me even after 15 or 20 years of marriage.
Getting to see the thunderheads of Oklahoma I had to work on. I couldn’t say I’d always wanted to go to Oklahoma, and once there, I had to beg her to go up in a plane with me, to fly right into them. The pilot was no problem. He doubled his fee. I was scared, secretly, that we wouldn’t come back, and I wanted her with me, just in case. Not for comfort, but because years before, when we’d first started flying, we agreed we would always fly together, so that if something happened neither of us would be left behind. She didn’t seem to remember that then, staring out the window at the swirling darkness, and I didn’t bring it up. I wanted her to remember it on her own, and I didn’t want her to disavow it. Perhaps it was another mooring line she’d cast adrift.
I remember scenes from all those years at odd times: reading the paper or checking the mail, I suddenly see myself walking past Lisbon bakeries in the heat of the day, or driving up the coastal highway under a violet dusk, a full moon rising over a stand of pines, or sitting dockside near some lake, water lapping, air crisp, a high wind blowing a few crimson leaves over the water. Sometimes light sets off the memories, sometimes smell. Our children appear in a few, not many. If I think hard I can often figure out the connections. Once, turning the soil in our garden, preparing it for bulbs, I remembered going into a dark, narrow shoe store in Autoire with Stan, where the cobbler measured her feet 13 different ways. We spent an hour sorting through leather samples. She had six pairs made and mourned the passing of each one. The scene appeared as vivid as a movie in my mind, her fingers flipping through the leather, the smell of the tanned hides. After, I decided it was the light—a certain dull slant to it through the deep green leaves that meant it had to be an early fall afternoon. In spring, the same slanting light would be yellower. That night, after looking up the trip in one of my journals and discovering that we had indeed taken it during the fall, I mentioned the memory to Stan. She said that that afternoon, at about the time I’d been working in the garden, she remembered the same trip, though a different part. She’d found her pearl earrings on a windowsill. Picking them up, she saw herself buying them at L’Auberge, and wearing them that same night for a dinner in a small restaurant we saw starred in the Michelin guide a year later. I miss those odd coincidences. Perhaps there was nothing to them, but they seemed a sign of our love.
Mostly those years blur together. The country club, trips, the children in school and then in college, Stillson’s field, books of clouds, Stan filling the house with flowers every week. She always liked pink tulips on the polished black surface of the piano.
I don’t have sharp memories of her physical presence now, and I can’t hear her voice, consciously, though I do in my dreams, and unless I concentrate I can’t make her move. All the movements she made, all the ones I watched her make for years: walking, skiing, arching above me, and I can’t see any of them in my mind’s eye. Only her lips move in the images I conjure up, though silently, and her face, turning away from me.
She was sick for five years at the end, and both of us knew what it meant. Sitting beside her in the last weeks I remembered that years before, one warm summer night soon after we’d moved out of the city—a place I thought had too many bad memories—we were lying in bed and Stan said, “I don’t know where I’ll go when I die.” I said, “Nobody does,” and jabbed her shoulder lightly.
“That’s not what I mean.” She pulled the curtain aside and looked out at the street. Crickets chirped, the pavement glowed yellow in the street light, the heat seemed to settle. Half her face was highlighted. “I mean I have no place to be buried. Everyone else in my family is together but there’s no room anymore, and besides, I wouldn’t want to be with them.” Her words seemed inconsolable, and they punctured me. I couldn’t speak. We never talked about that towards the end. It’s just as well, I suppose. It made cremation easier.
Stillson had a son. He was a quiet boy. I would often see them walking the fields together, Stillson pointing out to him airplanes, or the way dust whirled before the wind. When they crossed the fields towards me, Stillson walked with his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy would never come close. He stood by a fence post, watching, always the same one. There’s a dent in it even now I swear his shoulder made. He died in the war. The week Stillson got the news was the only week he didn’t come. We’d had six days of nimbostratus clouds that week, unusual for these parts, and I thought Stillson was worried about too much rain.
The next week, he wouldn’t accept the money from the week before. The fence post is still there. From time to time I see Stillson rub it absently as he passes, as if it might bring him luck. I wonder if he even knows he’s doing it.
Years may go by. I remember you too clearly. I wonder if Stan didn’t, too. I lie back, feel the grass, springy beneath my shoulders, tickling my neck. There’s not a cloud in the sky, just the blue heavens, arching and empty.
Paul Griner’s collection of stories, Follow Me, will be published by Random House this March. His work has also appeared in Story, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train. He teaches in the Writing Program at Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF (Environmental Science Forestry).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee