Point Past Which
The mass of silvery flesh convulses in the sun, a vigorous struggle on the line reduced to a few pirouettes in the grass. The translucent mouth, lacerated from the hook, gapes for oxygen. Must feel something like sprinting a mile and having your head shoved underwater.
Poor thing, Danielle would say. Why can’t you just put it out of its misery? Twenty-two years of marriage, and she still gets that cute little tremble in her chin.
Vertebrates can be such oafs. The pond’s liquid salvation beckons, but the smallmouth’s stunted cerebral cortex is incapable of assessing the scenario and coordinating a rational response. All it understands is the urgency that fills it up like a balloon about to burst, pressing it into this circus act of flips and contortions. If it gets lucky and the maneuvers occur in the right sequence, it could reach the water’s edge and swim away. But more than likely it will wear itself out on this soggy plot of earth and expire a few feet from deliverance. Perfectly predictable.
As a kid, I always liked fishing with my father and trying to guess how long a catch could flail around like that and still live if returned to the water. Bass and bluegill petered out quickly. But the catfish! Thirty minutes, sometimes forty. You’d think they were dead, the way they’d lie there in a clammy lump. Then you’d toss them into the shallows and they’d float for a second or two, and suddenly their gills would pump and they’d vanish in a swirl of mud. Or not. I can still see those swollen yellow bellies, those whiskered jaws rolling toward the surface.
It wasn’t just fish that fascinated me as a kid. On warm spring evenings I would sit on the back patio, flash light and salt shaker in hand, calculating the average number of grains it took for a slug to begin to writhe, then to sweat and ooze, and, finally, to dissolve in a pool of slime. A little experiment I called “Movement of protoplasm across cell membranes.”
“He can be so morbid,” I overheard my mother say one day from inside of the screen door.
A pause, then my father’s reply: “It’s just a phase. Give it some time.”
The old man was on to something. The turning point seemed to come my freshman year in college, when I stepped into a physics lab for the first time. Suddenly I had license to prod and poke and squash to my heart’s content. Mother was all smiles when I informed her of the ingenious experiments I was performing to test the limits of certain physical properties. Physical, as in not biological. Fine. If it made her feel better to imagine her son probing electromagnetic fields as opposed to slicing open frogs, I was happy to oblige. In the end, I discovered, it wasn’t death I was after. Or any of the other show stoppers. Death, collapse, implosion: these things come far too late in the game to entertain me. Sometimes, of course, they can’t be avoided, and then you have no choice but to watch. But my fascination always lay — lies — with the moment just before the finale becomes inevitable. The last spot before the tipping point, so to speak. I call it the point past which, and I am drawn to its dark promise like a spelunker to the mouth of an undiscovered cave.
A feeble squirming in the grass tells me this fish is almost there. The convulsions have subsided; the yellow eyes grow dim; a gray paste forms on the scales. What wonders loom in that pre-reptilian brain as the oxygen drains from its blood?
Many years ago I read a story somewhere. I’m not sure if it was true, but it’s stayed with me ever since. A perfectly ordinary guy — Wickfield was his name, I think — up and leaves his wife one day after two decades of marriage. Disappears for no apparent reason and without saying a word. And here’s the kicker: he goes and rents an apartment on a neighboring street, where he spies on Mrs. W. whenever he wants. After eight years of waiting and studying and calculating, he emerges from hiding, again with no explanation. Lo and behold, his wife takes him back, and their marriage blossoms.
See, Wickfield understood the point past which. He saw that the closer any entity comes to annihilation — whether it’s a business, a mollusk, or a marriage — the greater its potential for transformation. Trouble is, the closer you come to the brink, the more likely the brink is to swallow you up. The trick is to pull back at just the right moment. Somehow Wickfield timed it all just right, the lucky bastard, and he and his wife went on to live happily ever after.
Happily ever after.
“I know you’re off today, but please don’t spend all afternoon hanging out by the pond,” Danielle said to me this morning at the breakfast table, my eyes on my bagel and hers on her iPad as she scrolled through her list of house showings for the day.
Twenty-two years, and she’s never quite taken to the pond. I still remember the day we first surveyed the property. “Do you think we could fill that thing in?” she said with a wrinkled nose and tilt of the head, as if “that thing” wasn’t worth pointing a finger at. “Fill it in!” I cried, imagining a dump truck choking the pond with dusty gravel. “It’s the best thing about the property.” She drew close to me and leaned her head on my shoulder. “We could put a playhouse there for the girls.”
I stare into the pond. In the surface reflection, the towering willows that mark the entrance to the marsh plunge into the gray-green depths. I know every rhythm and pulse of these waters: the sluicing currents of warm and cold, the scrim of lily pads teeming with bullfrogs and dragon flies, the silvery bass lurking in the shadows. I’ve swum in the pond, swallowed great gulps of its serum, stuck my fingers into the muddy wounds of its underbelly. Sometimes I imagine sinking into its silty oblivion like a great hibernating beast, the surface far above me, a gigantic glass eye slowly clouding over.
“Maybe you could buy some charcoal for the grill and have it going when I get home from work,” Danielle added from across the breakfast table, as if to justify her wish to keep me away from the pond. “It’s supposed to be nice all day. We could inaugurate the hot tub.” I heard a soft click from her iPad cover, her heels on the tiles, and then she was standing over me. “Matt, are you listening?” I glanced up at her. Two decades and as many pregnancies have had predictable consequences on the supple body I once knew. I ran my eyes over it and back to her face. The quiver appeared in her chin. “Charcoal and hot tub,” I repeated. “Sure.”
I glance up the back slope toward the patio. The chlorinated monstrosity known as a hot tub squats in the corner, gurgling in the afternoon stillness. It is but the latest trinket in the petty fiefdom my wife and I have assembled for ourselves: she by selling houses people can’t afford, I by helping banks repossess them when the owners default. My fascination with impending collapse turned out to have surprisingly lucrative applications, and if I lost anything in the move from biophysics to corporate consulting, Danielle doesn’t see it.
“Look at this, hon, and tell me you chose the wrong career!” she likes to announce when the latest Merrill Lynch statement arrives in the mail.
Maybe I could buy some charcoal for the grill? I glance at my watch and consider that proposition. My feet don’t budge.
What was it like to live in Wickfield’s skin? To inhabit the thrilling realm he discovered, that state of perpetual imminence?
An excited bark interrupts my thoughts. Chloe trots over from her spot on the patio, overcome with curiosity about the fish. It’s lying still now, a wisp of grass glued to its eyeball.
“What do you think, girl?” I say.
She answers with a half wag of the tail, then lowers her snout and touches her nose to the cold flesh, leaping back in surprise when it gives a torpid wiggle. The Lab in her prefers the warmth of rabbits and pheasants.
Chloe is as loyal as they come, but I can’t help wondering… Let’s just say I vanished one day. Like Wickfield. She’d probably mope around for a week or so, maybe eat less. She would miss doing tricks for me, going for walks with me in the woods, swimming with me in the pond. She’d continue to sleep at my side of the bed at night and sniff at my pillow in the morning. As long as she remained in this state, my delayed return would reap greater results with each passing day. She’d practically maul me as I stepped through the front door, licking my face, pawing my chest, falling to the floor and exposing her belly. Our bond would be cemented forever.
But if I mistimed my return? That is a sadder story. One day, as my scent lingered in Chloe’s memory just a little less sharply, she would perform some trick for Danielle, who would scratch her behind the ears and give her a treat and say “Good girl!” The second or maybe third time that happened, somewhere deep in the loyalty center of Chloe’s brain, neurons would glow and synapses would fire and pathways would reroute themselves. That night Chloe would stretch out by Danielle’s side of the bed.
And the girls? What might a perfectly timed return bring about? Once, about a dozen years ago — they couldn’t have been more than seven or eight — we’d been lazing through a summer afternoon in the marsh behind the property line. At that age the girls loved splashing around in rubber boots, brows frozen in concentration as they scooped up their favorite aquatic creatures: minnows and water striders for Emma, crawfish and tadpoles for Iris. Somehow they ended up on the opposite side of a line of cottonwoods from me. We couldn’t have been separated for more than ten minutes, but when they found me… what to say about the relief on those little faces, the flurry of tiny arms encircling me? Ten minutes.
And then there’s Danielle. How would she respond to my absence? My heart pounds in my throat just thinking about it. In the beginning — the first weeks, maybe months — I imagine her at sea, thrashing and close to drowning, forced to take a leave from the agency. She spends her days languishing about the house in her bathrobe, eating spoonfuls of Nutella from the jar. Occasionally she ventures into the front yard and studies the street, as if I might come ambling around the corner at any moment. On the phone, on Facebook, she soaks up a flood of sympathy. Everyone expresses bafflement over my disappearance: no evidence of foul play, no history of depression, no crisis preceding the disappearance, no paper trail. It’s like he’s been abducted by aliens, someone offers.
If I were to return during this initial period, I think I could get away with something close to a full pardon. Twenty-two years of loyalty ought to earn a man something, after all. I’d have to come up with a pretty good excuse for my absence, and I might be in the doghouse for a while, but eventually inertia and the desire for normalcy would take hold. That’s the thing about the point past which in human relationships: if you don’t come close enough to tap its potential, things tend to revert to their original state. I call it the law of spousal gravity.
But let’s say I stay away longer. Gradually, Danielle begins to find her bearings. Her nightmares turn into unsettling dreams that she can’t remember in the morning. She sees a therapist, returns to the agency, eases into a respectable routine. She begins looking at men she doesn’t know in a different way, wonders what to wear that might flatter her figure, buys a gym membership. She takes up new hobbies, working in a trip to the museum or theater when it’s a slow day at the agency. Maybe she even bonds with Chloe.
Easing my way back into her life at this point would be like trying to reattach a severed limb, with raw nerves running through pockets of numbed flesh. There’d be multiple explanations to be offered and promises to be made and crosses to be borne. I’d have to prove my commitment to the family all over again. I’d probably have to visit a shrink. My fishing pole might be confiscated. But eventually, after a long, bumpy period of adjustments and accommodations, the law of spousal gravity would kick in once again.
If I stay away much longer than this, however, things become extremely unpredictable, the way physical laws go berserk as one approaches the speed of light. Danielle’s face acquires an enigmatic expression, but it radiates a softness I’ve never seen before. Or was it so long ago that I’ve forgotten? Her behavior, too, undergoes a transformation. No longer does she rush off to work in the morning; instead she lounges in pajamas and savors her coffee, bare feet poised on the saltillo tiles as she peers out the kitchen window. She begins having breakfast on the back deck.
One morning she’s sitting there in the sun — I can all but see her from where I’m standing now — when her eyes gravitate toward the pond. The look on her face feels like rain on parched earth. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, but how long does it last? A month? A week? A day? At some point she’s sitting in exactly the same spot when a breeze churns the pond’s surface and her eyes widen as if processing what they see for the first time. She jumps to her feet, bumping the patio table with her hip and knocking over her coffee. She continues staring at the pond, eyes narrowed and lips trembling. She reaches for her iPhone, index finger tapping and scribbling. There’s a pause as she brings it to her ear.
“Hello?” she says. “Yes, I’d like to inquire about filling in a pond.”
And that’s pretty much that. Even if she doesn’t follow through — maybe it costs too much to fill in a pond — it doesn’t matter. It’s all over. Pointless for me to try and return.
So, let’s say I left — Do it! — today — Now, before she gets home! — what would be the ideal point at which to return? Let Z be the point at which the fish will experience massive organ failure, which equals oxygen depletion rate times body mass, raised to the square root of ambient temperature plus relative humidity, divided by the coefficient of friction of the slope on which the specimen rests… Then again, even if you nailed the formula, there’s always some butterfly effect that throws everything off, like the way the sun is glinting off that barbecue grill and striking my retina, tripping who knows what switch in my brain. So in the end you’re left guessing and hoping and —
I’ll be damned. Chloe is at my feet, barking with displeasure as she crouches over a mud puddle a few inches from the pond. The smallmouth has managed to squirm its way over from where I tossed it, its gills heaving in the murky oasis. It starts to flip and convulse all over again.
It’s kind of funny when you think about it: the point past which marks the last bulwark against nothingness. On that tiny dot a fish lurches to life. One flip away and it goes belly up. So many piles of nonsense we spout, and in the end all that matters is where you find yourself with respect to an invisible speck.
The sun has reached an oblique angle and the light bounces off the mottled fish tail splashing in the puddle and Chloe is glued to the spot as if hypnotized, and somewhere in the distance a slate-colored Lexus is pulling out of a parking lot and behind the wheel sits a driver whose nerves have been frayed by grasping clients and who expects to come home to grilled chicken and a soak in the hot tub, and in my head I can see her walking up to the front door and it seems like she suspects something before she even turns the knob, then she’s just standing there in the hollowness and I’m somewhere close by but invisible, maybe hibernating in the muck at the bottom of the pond, waiting and biding my time because I know that extra patience can yield spectacular results, and it’s exhilarating and liberating and scary as hell holding my breath like this, but I feel certain that if I hold it long enough and emerge at just the right moment, up up up through the swirling green, I’ll find myself in that dazzling space Wickfield discovered, an enchanted world ever new with possibility.