Walking on Air by R.S. Jones

BOMB 53 Fall 1995
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Chapter Two

The house where William was raised was built of rough white stone and set on 1,400 acres of dried grass and cracked earth marked off from the surrounding wilderness by split-rail fences and rock walls that stretched beyond the visible horizon in any three directions. His family’s nearest neighbors lived so far away that the only lights to break the darkness at night were the moon and stars or occasionally a truck driving past on the road 570 acres below. Even after their land withered from drought, forcing William’s father to accept a job in the nearest town, the family never considered selling. They were raised to believe in the magic of owning so much land that they could claim a separate country for themselves, a state within a state, which they imagined safe from any invasion.

Every summer their well dried up, and they were forced to import water from town in plastic jugs. Each member of the family was permitted one bath a week in rainwater collected in buckets hung from the eaves of the roof. The water was always clouded with rust from the aged cans and left a film gritty as blood on their skin. Their only electricity came from an ancient generator that kept the lights inside the house no brighter than the glow from the hurricane lamps they carried to bed at night. William was born with a fear of fire and so he learned to creep his way upstairs with his candle unlit. He slept badly, even as a child, knowing that there was no light to comfort him if he awoke afraid in the middle of the dark.

His family shared a telephone line with five others spread across the mountain. His father had to drive 22 miles to get their mail at the nearest post office, a distance measured only after he left the rutted, two-mile drive through three padlocked gates that kept their property closed against trespassers. In the rainy season, the dirt road to their house crumbled like cake, making its fragile ruts unpassable even in a Jeep. During those months William and his father had to carry their provisions through mud deep as their shins and more treacherous than ice. With nothing to grasp onto, they slipped and fell so frequently that they had to crawl uphill dragging their packages behind. From November until February, William’s mother and younger sisters ventured only as far as the top of the drive, where the ground remained firm and safe, greeting William and his father with cups of steaming coffee spiked with chocolate and the aroma of breakfast frying on the stove.

At night the only sounds William heard were the grunts and snorts of animals or the singing wings of insects or the strains of music broken with static from his mother’s transistor radio. Sometimes in the daylight, when he played along the rocky network of paths circling the foothills behind his home, he was stopped cold in his tracks by the rattle of snakes searching for shade in the summer heat.

Their warning was the most terrifying sound in the world, not a rattle at all but an electrified hiss that stunned the air so completely that even the plants and the breeze seemed to stiffen and the insects to freeze in mid-flight. No matter how close the sound, William could never see the pale brown markings and black diamonds cut like tattoos into its scales as the snake coiled against the dirt and leaves of the path. Its hiss seemed to come from every direction above and below and behind him. His father could always see the snake clear as a beacon against the ground. He would reach for any stick from among the debris of dead trees along the path and snap it once, beheading the snake with a flick of his wrist.

William’s mother saved the rattles in jelly jars on a shelf by the kitchen window, where they paled and hardened in the afternoon sun. She glued them to silver ovals for earrings or next to turquoise stones on belt buckles that were sold as souvenirs at a local store. His father nailed the carcasses to the highest rafters of the barn until they desiccated and fell to the ground, like cardinals’ hats hung in the spires of a cathedral.

To earn a living, they raised chickens for eggs and pigs for meat, generations of animals kept in interlocking corrals behind the barn. Every Sunday before dawn, William’s father would drag him awake to help with the slaughter.

It was always cold when they rose at 4:00 AM, even in summer, and the light was blue and purple as bruises. Before they disturbed the pigs, William and his father would build a fire under the bathtub filled with rainwater that they kept outside the shed by the pens. Twenty years later, William could remember as clearly as if it were the day before the stench of the pens mingling with the steam rising from the water in the tub. It was so quiet that the flames snapped like triggers as he stoked the fire, the sparks bursting with the brilliance of fireworks as they flew about his face. To keep him safe, William’s father told him that each spark carried a soul to heaven, and if he touched it, he would block its passage to paradise.

When the bathtub bubbled with heat, his father would rise and whisper, “It’s time,” patting the pocket of his coat that held the knife as he stalked through the gate into the pen. The moment the pigs heard the hinge squeak, they knew to be afraid. They would shuffle their hooves in unison and cower against the opposite fence, heaving with grunts. Even in the dark they would avert their eyes, as if, by looking away, they could not be seen and would not be chosen. The pigs could not have known that the day before, William’s father had selected the one he planned to kill. Already its snout had been painted with a green fluorescent triangle that was impervious to water or mud. Under cover of darkness, his father would switch the flashlight on and off, on and off, until its beam hit upon the animal with the triangle glowing brighter than any of the other pigs’ eyes.

William was always struck by the knowledge that if the animals had bonded into a group they could easily have overpowered any man. Together they weighed thousands and thousands of pounds. But blinded by the flashlight and fear, they did not sense their power. They huddled together terrified, straining against the outside rails of the pen until the wood bowed and cracked with the pressure. When William and his father jumped the branded pig, the others screamed as they scrambled away, their faces slapping against the mud. Sometimes during the rainy season, the smallest pigs would drown in puddles that formed near their trough. With the flashlight on, their gray stomachs shone out of the sludge like moons.

After William and his father had trapped the pig they wanted, the others would hurry to the far side of the pen, all their eyes watching, but not one of them would make a move. The marked one would let itself go with a wail, like a musical note held impossibly long. With his hands around its neck, William could feel the vibrations grow so strong that his skin hummed.

As William looked away, his father would slit a vein in the pig’s throat as easily as he might top a carrot. All its muscles would flail against William’s grip. It was so dark he could see nothing as he struggled but flickers of the fluorescent mark catching crazily in the arcs of the flashlight. Soon the animal’s cries would slow to a cough, and a greasy film would slip over its eyes. As the pig grew limp in his arms, William could immediately sense the others relax. They would hunt around for food or nudge each other with their snouts, as if nothing had happened. Then his father would switch the light off, rendering the triangle invisible against the stiff hairs of the dead pig’s snout.

After the animal was dead, they carried its carcass to the tub and let it soak a while. William’s job was to cover his hands to his elbows with rubber gloves and pull off the skin that was steamed free by the smoking water. The trick was to wait just long enough for the skin to loosen, but not so long that the meat began to cook. William was always amazed at how easily the flesh and bristled hair fell into his hands with hardly a tug, impermanent as clothes. With his father’s help, he hung the stripped pig on a hook fastened to the top of the corral gate. While William held the flashlight, his father would cut from its neck to the bottom of its belly. With a whoosh its organs plopped from the wound like rubbery, unconnected objects, leaving nothing but pink flesh scarred with patterns of dried blood, distinct as whip marks. Once they had finished, they carried the body to a walk-in freezer built in the barn and laid it atop a pile of frozen pigs stacked like logs against the wall. When William paused at the door before switching off the light, row after row of fluorescent triangles glowed back at him out of the clouds of icy air.

With a practiced hand, it took two hours from the moment they lit the fire until they locked the door to the cold storage. After their work was done, William and his father would sit on the ground outside the pen where the other pigs grunted peacefully again. As they waited for the day to rise, William listened time and again to stories about his father’s childhood on the ranch. Rarely did he mention the people who had lived with him there: his parents, his brothers, his neighboring aunts. Rather, his histories were always enlivened by natural catastrophes: never heartbreak, but the ruination wrought by frost; never the lives of children, but the deaths of litters born premature, of horses with stillborn foals, of albino chickens with scarlet eyes, of scorpions nesting in shoes, of tarantulas jumping high as his knees, and of rats that leapt even higher when cornered by a gun; of months without water, years without electricity, of crops that bloomed and others that failed; of drought, bountiful rains, perfect summers, of blizzards scattered so infrequently over the years that they became as memorable as births.

William believed that his father chose those moments to talk because in the particular cast of predawn light, caught between the fall of the moon and the rise of the sun, their land appeared at its most perfect and untouched. He knew his father wanted to teach him the things he was born knowing: to kill cleanly and with little fuss; to judge the weight of an animal at auction from 50 feet away; to sense a change in the weather hours before it occurred; to know the perfect dampness of soil for planting, the way to irrigate a field with a system of hoses as intricate as the corridors of an ant’s cave, to know the exact time to the minute by imperceptible changes in the position of the sun or moon. Even inside with the shades drawn, his father always knew the hour, as if he could see shadows of light thrown on the ground outside through the hard stone walls of his house.

William knew that his father tried to teach him because he wanted the ranch to continue in the family through the next generation and beyond. But from earliest childhood William hated every moment of his life there: the drafty rooms of the house, which made him swelter in summer and freeze in winter, the poisoned leaves growing from every rock and crevice, which made his skin fester and swell with running sores, the incessant sting and bite of insects, the fatigue from constant exertion that made even the simplest chore seem an impossible task, the isolation from a world beyond his immediate family, which he learned to dread like a sickness.

There was no escape, so he dreamed of nothing else, the way he now dreamed of health as a country far beyond his reach. At 18 he set out for the east to discover the cities he had read about in books, places of dreams he viewed with a longing as reckless as that of explorers who once dreamed of crossing uncharted territories to see firsthand the mountains of China, or of stowaways who dreamed of treasures buried on islands rising out of turquoise seas.

He disappeared.

He disappeared as far as a man can go without losing his mind or changing his identity.

The first thing he did when he arrived in the east was to add a second “d” to his last name. Forever after he spelled it “Addams.” Even 20 years later, he grew impatient with salespeople and reservation clerks who automatically wrote his name with a single “d,” as if they meant to tie him to a life he had never been part of. To new people he met, he lied about his past. He chose cities he had never been to as the places of his birth, sometimes other countries. He chose ordinary office jobs for his parents; sometimes he had no parents at all, but an aged aunt who had adopted him during her twilight years.

He counted his life’s beginnings from the moment his feet hit the city streets. He loved the buzz of traffic, day or night, and the darkness lit by neon with the glow of purple moons. He never missed the chilly nights with stars so bright that every curve of deserted hill and jagged edge of rock remained visible. He slept with the television on and a lamp burning at the end of the hall so that there was light and sound no matter the hour he awakened. He took two baths a day in blasts of hot water and had his groceries delivered to his door by the local market. Whenever possible, he stayed inside when it rained.

Two decades after moving to the city, William had no idea if his parents were still living and professed no desire to know. Despite the life he had made for himself in the intervening years, he still traced many of his best qualities to his childhood on the ranch: his self-reliance, his physical strength, his gift for gardening, his ease with animals, his ability to maneuver a car on the most treacherous roads. But what remained most vivid to him was the shock he had felt each time his father finished with a pig, a sorrow not so much for the animal itself, but at how effortlessly something as simple as a kitchen knife could cut the throat of a living thing and leave it dead. Whenever he felt his skin, he thought of nothing but how easily it could be floated off in water. Or, when he felt the flutter of his heart, how simply it could be pried loose and dumped into a can.

When William left the hospital for the first time after he learned he was dying, he had stood with his suitcase on the avenue, only five blocks from home. The landmarks around him still seemed familiar, but he felt as if he had stumbled into a newly dangerous place: all the people going by were onto something, some kind of secret, and nobody was telling him anything. He waved his arms to hail a cab to get away from there, but taxi after taxi drove past, shunning him, as if a fluorescent triangle glowed from his forehead, visible to everyone but him.

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Originally published in

BOMB 53, Fall 1995

Featuring interviews with Jo Baer, June Jordan, Kelly Reichardt, Abel Ferrara, Catherine Murphy, Mac Wellman, Lucie Brock-Broido, Wayne Wang, and Roy Hargrove.

Read the issue
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995