“Of all people, when Jim Ritterson disappeared, I really thought he would eventually get back in touch with you,” said the fourth person to ask me his whereabouts. Jim ran off the day after graduation and no one had seen or heard from him since, not even his best friend. I didn’t have answers and grew tired of the question.
“I always liked Jim,” said my wife, Sara. “He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.”
“He wasn’t afraid of anything,” I said. “Speaking his mind was just the most obvious manifestation of that.”
Larry Flynn interrupted, “Manifestation? Who uses words like that, Malone?”
I didn’t think Larry had a clue what manifestation meant. He did, however, serve as an excellent reminder as to why I had detested high school. Our twentieth reunion wasn’t doing much to change that.
But my childhood sweetheart, who predated even the four years of education, hormones, and cliques in question, had been eager to reminisce and dance until 2 a.m., and our small town offered too few opportunities for dancing to begrudge her this one. Sara was the only reason I was here.
“Yes, Larry, manifestation,” I said. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only a word. It won’t hurt you.”
“You’re a prick, you know that, Malone.” Larry waved his bottle so vigorously that it would have splashed all over me if it hadn’t already been empty. Realizing the unseemly state of his best friend, he made off for a replacement. I sipped my Jack Daniels and rolled my eyes.
My wife leaned close and said, “Peter, when we get home, I don’t want you lying awake all night complaining about not having friends in high school.”
“I had friends; they just weren’t juveniles. Do you know why Jim wasn’t afraid of anything? He believed in himself.”
Fearing I was on the verge of losing my cool, I took a long drink and started over. “Even when we were kids he lived life his way, without regrets. He believed anything was possible, took chances, and never sold out.” I lowered my eyes, rocking the half-melted ice cubes in my glass and repeated weakly, “He never sold out.”
Sara placed her hand on my arm. “You haven’t sold out, Peter. You made the choices you had to. And I refuse to measure our life by the dollars in our bank account. I love you, and I love the life we have together.”
We had been down this path before. “What happened to you and Jim that haunts you so?” she asked.
“What do I always say when you ask me that?” It wasn’t really a question.
“I would never believe you, there’s no point in trying,” she recited playfully. About to smile, she hesitated.
“Peter,” she said, “you’ve kept this secret since we graduated. And every year it weighs you down more and more. It’s obviously too big to ignore or forget, but that also means it’s too much to carry by yourself.”
I began, “I’ve done okay for the last twenty years; I think I can manage -”
Sara wasn’t done with me.
“You can tell me or not, that’s your decision. But if you continue like this it will break you. Some things can’t be done alone.”
I wasn’t sure Sara wanted to hear this. I said it anyway. “Jim told me the same thing once. I’m sure you’re both right. I’m just not ready, and I don’t know if I ever will be.”
I drained my Jack Daniels and wished for more. Lots more.
Sara was determined not to let me spoil the evening though, so I had no chance when she shifted gears and said, “I want to dance.”
Before I could protest she pulled me out onto the old gym floor, singing along to familiar songs while spinning and twisting and laughing. I love watching Sara move in ways my body refuses to. Mostly because I’m so bad at it, I don’t like dancing. With the rhythm of a rock, my left foot has no idea what the right one is doing, and I usually worry that I’m weighing Sara down. But tonight I let go of my self-conscious, self-pitying self-indulgence and focused on her. She never let go of my hand.
After our fourth dance I was too exhausted to continue. The band saved me by taking a break. Trying not to sweat through my only nice suit, I took a seat at a round table covered with purses, men’s jackets, and mostly finished mixed drinks with little white napkins wrapped around them.
Sara began chatting with Amy Miller, describing our house, showing her pictures of our son, and telling her about the trips we dreamed of taking. Across from me a couple was necking like they were still back in Franklin Roosevelt High School. Doing my best to ignore the freak show, I tuned in on the conversation between my wife and her friend.
Amy said, “Remember when they made us read Fahrenheit 541 in English Lit?”
“Fahrenheit 451,” I corrected.
“Excuse me?” asked Amy, looking at me for the first time since I sat down.
“The book is called Fahrenheit 451, not 541,” I told her.
“Whatever,” she said.
Sara gave me an empathetic look before disappearing again into the depths of Amy’s soap opera life.
I remembered the day Jim introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s classic tale. It was an education that had nothing to do with school.
“Think about it, Pete,” Jim sang with wonder, “a book about banning and burning books, and it’s one of the most widely banned books in our country. How can you not read it?”
Across the dance floor Steve Simon spotted me and gestured. “Hey Pete, how’s life treating you?”
“Hey Steve,” I shook his hand.
Steve held out an oversized, unmarked envelope. “This came two days ago in a box marked ‘Fragile’ along with a note asking me to deliver it during the reunion. I have no idea who it’s from.”
I thanked Steve and slipped into a quiet corner. Sara was still going strong with Amy; she wouldn’t miss me for a few minutes.
As soon as I was alone, I slid my pocketknife across the seal. The first thing to hit me was the unmistakable smell of rain. To the inexperienced eye, the contents of that package might have looked like silvery-white cotton candy, or as if someone had collected five pounds of spiderwebs, wadded them up, and stuffed them into an eight by eleven envelope.
I knew exactly what it was.
And who it was from.
I glanced around the room to see who might be looking. I didn’t even like thinking about this in public. Not that we did anything wrong; it was just so unbelievable. So weird. So... impossible. I had relegated it to fairy tale status. I wasn’t sure I believed it anymore.
It would have been easy to assume from my reaction that I had just received illegal drugs of some sort, though nothing could have been further from the truth. I suppose you might say that Jim and I got high, but not in the sense that any drug user might have meant. My mind returned to that wonder-filled day when Jim and I stood in the hayloft of my parent’s barn. We had climbed the exposed rafters to the upper-most window, gazing across fields of wheat and corn, dreaming. Jim dreamt better than I ever could.
Two weeks later he was gone.
Tonight Jim’s message was simple and clear. I heard his voice cry out. “Get off your ass. Do something.”
That was the problem; I didn’t know what to do. Until I thought of Sara.
I immediately dipped into the envelope and pulled out the whole fluffy mass. I ate half of it; then went to find my wife.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Trust me,” I said.
After she ate it I took her hand, and said something I’ve never said before.
“Come on. I want to dance.”
We got home after midnight, giddy and exhausted, feeling closer than we had in years. Pulling into the driveway we were both feeling amorous.
“You pay the baby sitter,” I said, “I’ll make sure Robbie is tucked in.”
But when we opened the front door Robbie was sitting on the sofa reading a book.
“Katie, why is he still awake?”
Our baby sitter popped up. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Malone. He wouldn’t go to sleep. He kept asking me to tell him a bedtime story called ‘Climbing Clouds’. I went through every book in his room but I couldn’t find one with that title.”
“Robert,” I said, disappointed. “We agreed you’d go to bed when Katie told you to and I’d tell you your story tomorrow.”
“Pete made up this little story for Robbie,” my wife explained to Katie. She turned her attention to her son. “Robert Malone...”
Robbie fixed his eyes on the carpet and murmured, “I’m sorry, mom.”
“I’ll put him to bed,” I said, scooping my son in my arms.
As I was tucking him in he tried again. “Come on, Dad, tell it.”
We went through this almost every night.
Robbie would say it was his favorite story because I made it up myself. He’d tell me I should write it in a book, with pictures, so other children could read it too. Anything to hear it again.
“But I told it to you last night,” I said, “and the night before.”
None of which mattered to my son. So I began...
Pointing at the gigantic, pure-white cloudbank that blew towards our barn, I asked “Why do you think the wind pushes the clouds around the sky?”
My best friend, Clay, answered, “Probably it wants to show them something.” He paused for a minute, poking his pinky finger into his ear and wiggling it around. He always wiggled a finger in his ear when he was thinking something particularly crazy. Finally he said, “What do you say we climb that cloud, Pete, see what the wind has to show us?”
“Sure,” I replied, laughing, “I’ll go get a ladder.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’ll need one,” Clay said, “I think it’s low enough that you could boost me to the edge from the roof of your barn. Once I get on, I’ll just pull you up.”
It sounded like fun to me, so we climbed through the barn’s loft, over itchy, scratchy bales of hay, and passed through the trap door that lead out onto the roof. Once there, I helped Clay climb onto my shoulders. He kept shifting around, which kept me too busy to see what was happening. I was afraid that if I let him fall off my shoulders, he might fall off the roof, too.
Then Clay’s weight was gone and I looked up — to find him perched on the edge of a cloud. His legs dangled over the side, swinging in the air like it was the most natural thing in the world. Smiling a self-satisfied smile, he offered his hand to me.
I was sure I could never reach him. Just like I was sure Clay was kidding when he decided to climb this cloud. I stretched my arm and imagination to their limits.
Clay grabbed my hand with ease, pulling me up next to him.
We stood together on the whispery edge of the cloud then, studying the farm below us. I could see chickens wandering around, pecking their way between the cows and pigs. And I saw my father’s green and yellow tractor putt-putt-putting through the cornfields. Never before had I seen anything from a height like this. It was beautiful.
“Come on,” said Clay, turning from the edge, “let’s climb to the top.”
We began pulling ourselves up the steep cloudbank by digging our fingers and toes into the fluffy edges. It was like trying to climb a mountain of laundry that had just come out of the dryer. This tremendous cloud was warm, soft - and really hard to hold on to.
This cloud was also a lot bigger than it looked from the ground. Before we were even halfway up we were both exhausted, and Clay stopped on a small ledge so we could rest.
Catching my breath, I said, “You have to know that no one will ever believe us when we tell them what we did.”
“Then don’t tell anyone,” was Clay’s answer. He had other things on his mind. “What do you suppose this stuff tastes like?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been up on a cloud before. I guess you have though.”
“Actually, I’ve considered it, but never tried before today.” He added pensively, “I don’t think you can climb onto a cloud by yourself. I think you have to have a friend’s help.”
Before I could say or do anything else, Clay ripped off a large tuft of cloudstuff and shoved the fluffy mass into his mouth. He worked his jaw up and down, then side to side, then up and down again. Finally he swallowed with a look of approval.
“Well?” I asked, still stunned at the idea of eating clouds.
“Well,” he said carefully, slowly, “it tastes. the same way the air smells when it rains.”
I didn’t know what that meant, so I bent down and picked a handful. Into my mouth it went, as insubstantial as cotton candy. I could squish it with my tongue and when I did it oozed through my teeth like Jell-O.
I started wondering how something so flimsy could support us. At the same time, I was afraid to think about it too much. Maybe believing was all that held me up.
Eventually the cloudstuff dissolved in my mouth. “You’re right,” I finally had to agree, “It does taste the way rain smells. Except it’s kind of sweet, too.”
I looked back at my family’s farm, which was growing more and more distant as the wind blew our cloud onward. I really wanted someone to see us up here.
Then we started climbing again. We climbed farther and farther, and I began to wonder if we’d ever get to the top.
A flock of geese flew by. We called them and waved until they were long out of sight.
When we finally did reach the top of the cloud, Clay reached into his pocket and pulled out a pole with a flag attached to it. He stuck the flag right into the cloud’s peak. I would have asked him how he managed to get a four-foot long pole into his pants pocket, but I had already seen so many weird, amazing, unbelievable things that I just didn’t see the point.
However, as soon as he planted his flag he turned and began climbing back down. As surreal as this whole trip had been, nothing surprised me as much as his apparent desire to leave.
“Hey!” I scrambled after him. “What’s the hurry?”
“We’ve done it.”
“Done what?” I asked.
“Climbed a cloud. We’ve been to the top. Now I want to do something different.”
“You say that like it’s nothing. We did something no one in the whole world has ever done before.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Clay said. “If we did it with such ease, do you really believe that no one else has ever done it before?”
“All right,” I said. “Forget that. But I want to stay and enjoy this for a while.”
By now we were almost to the bottom of the cloud. Climbing down a cloud takes a lot less time than climbing up. And a lot less work.
“You can do that if you want to,” he said, hanging from the edge of the cloud and dropping to the ground. He landed in the middle of my neighbor’s cornfield. “I just thought it might be fun to go swimming in the jet stream.”
I wondered if I should take him seriously. After today it would be hard not to.
I hopped off the cloud and joined Clay. The cloud had blown three miles from my parent’s farm, and I was afraid it was going to be a long, exhausting walk home. I was already wiped out from all the climbing we had done.
But our hike home was effortless. It was as if our feet barely touched the ground. I learned why when Clay started burping. Each time he did, his feet rose six inches above the earth.
He looked at me with his biggest grin yet. “Cloudstuff.”
I smiled back at him. “I know.”
Normally at this point I’d burp at my son. He’d start giggling, and within seconds we would be burping and laughing, then belching and howling, escalating until Sara came in saying, “Peter and Robert Malone, you two are acting like pigs. Stop this right now.”
Tonight Robbie had fallen asleep before Jim and I — Clay, I guess I should say — got to the top of the cloud. But I heard Sara listening at the door and kept going. I was sure she was putting the pieces together.
When I got to the end, the house was silent.
Then I heard a tiny burp followed by Sara’s voice.
“Oh my God.”
Before either of us could say or do anything the doorbell rang, and I suspect Sara jumped as high as I did. Who in the world would be coming to our house at this hour?
I slipped past Sara, yanked open the door, and said tersely, “This better be important.”
There stood Jim.
He had a big box under his arm, a bigger grin on his face, and his pinky in his ear.
My jaw dropped so far that I didn’t think I would be able to pronounce a word. Somehow I made myself say, “Where the heck have you been?”
He shimmered when he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But I want to try something and I need your help.”
Copyright © 2003 by Edmund R. Schubert