House of Clouds
by Leah Erickson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
A quickening, so delicate that it could only be picked up by the machines, those electronic murmurs and whirs and beeps that measured the faint whispers of her heart, her breath and her brain. In that moment, the reanimation of her life was as delicate as a puff of dandelion seed on the wind. Would she hold aloft?
Stronger then: a momentum was gathering. The room was dim and very warm. The doctors, gathered around and watching her raptly, conferred in hushed, excited voices, technical terms that Howard didn’t understand.
“Is... is it happening?” he at last asked, breathlessly. A childish question. His hands were quaking.
The doctors turned and stared at him for a moment as though they had forgotten he was there. Howard, their great benefactor, the one who had bankrolled their non-profit research project for years. Howard, husband to the young girl who lay on the table before them.
At last, a young resident with mussed-up hair suddenly smiled at him, a wild look in his eyes. “Yes. It is happening.”
Beep beep beep. A tremble of her eyelids, as though, underneath, her eyes were moving back and forth rapidly. And, could it be, her lips had parted slightly! The lips were purplish blue, but still full and cushiony. All of her was tinted a purplish blue, but she was still beautiful. Still a fresh young girl of twenty-three, after all of these decades. Vulnerable and naked beneath a white sheet, wires attached to her chest and to her scalp.
The fingers of one hand started to move slightly, and in spite of himself Howard emitted a strangled little cry. It reminded him of the way he felt watching his children being born; they had had the same bluish skin, glistening wet, the same slow, uncoiling movements as they became acclimated to life. His three children, now adults, born to his other wives. The ones who had come after her. But he had never loved another woman the same way.
Love, my love. A miracle: her eyes opened, and they were still a breathtaking pale green, and they looked around the room, startled. They seemed not quite to focus. Her eyes slid over the doctors, the instruments, him, and then her gaze settled on the soft recessed lighting overhead.
She took one deep, shuddering breath and seemed almost to glow with incandescence. She was like sunlight. Her beauty had always stunned him; he had forgotten how much. Her face. It opened up worlds to him.
In the background of the high-tech noise, those whirs and beeps of machinery, he thought he could hear the soft roar of waves, the cries of gulls. In his mind he suddenly saw an image of her in bright floral bikini, stepping into the surf with her hair blowing back on a late summer day in 1973.
“Patty, oh Patty,” he said, but it came out as a croak. An old man’s feeble plea.
* * *
After a long period of observation, when she was deemed to be stable, he flew her across the country to his house in Maine, a rambling, shingle-sided mansion on a wooded lot, with views of the rocky coast.
Their first day home, he dressed her carefully, in layers, to protect her from the gray gusts of wind that sometime blew in from the sea, and showed her his late-summer garden. The bleeding hearts were turning brown, but the black-eyed susans still blazed tall. The pinkish-white hydrangea was lovely to see. But already there was a crunch as they trod on the very first green acorns.
They had to move very slowly together, with Patty still weak from her recovery, and Howard moving gingerly since his hip replacement last spring.
He also spoke to her slowly, soothingly, careful not to overload her. “Darling, do you remember anything yet?” he asked for the first time, “Anything at all?” He tried to quell his pathetic hope, that mostly she would remember him.
Her lips parted again in that lovely way she had when she was deep in thought. She coughed a bit. Sometimes it was hard for her to draw the breath to speak. She was still so fragile.
“Yes, darling. Take it slow.”
“I remember... .going to an art exhibit. With my friends...” She rasped out her s’s. “Everything in the exhibit was painted white... .” She spoke so quietly he could barely hear.
“Yes? How interesting.” And was I there?
But she said no more. Since speech had returned, she often spoke in fragments, beguiling puzzle pieces that he couldn’t yet put together. He reminded himself of what the doctors had said: there had been fracturing. She had been literally shattered. Her memories, too, were like delicate crystalline shards.
I remember... walking through the alley after school, running my lunch pail along the metal fence and the smell of ash in the air... my pink chiffon dress printed with red cherries I wore to the Sadie Hawkins dance... my Miss Revlon doll with her trunk full of clothes. The dove that cried near my bedroom window...
The technology, new technology, had allowed them to repair her damaged tissue. “She was all mush inside, imagine!” the young intern had told him, goggle-eyed. “Now she’s good as new!”
Her brain had been scanned, uploaded and rebooted like a computer, essentially. But still, she was so fragile. Even the irises of her lovely eyes seemed cracked, like broken glass.
Most of the memories seemed to be from her girlhood, before he had known her. Nothing about their years in Laurel Canyon in the late sixties and early seventies. Nothing about her years in show business. Would she remember that it was he, Howard, who was the love of her life? That it was he who had believed in her more than anyone else and had wished all these years, more than anything, to make things up to her? And he would, until his dying breath. He would make things right. Of that he was sure.
But when he helped her dress for bed, he couldn’t help but flinch when he ran his wrinkled hand lightly across her bare arm: the tracks were still there after all those years, where she had plunged the needle into the tender young veins. Barely visible like stars in the early morning sky. Bad decisions will leave their mark, always.
* * *
Howard had fled the west coast years ago. The excesses of the past made him too queasy to think of them, even now. But still a certain jangling guitar tune, a certain slant of golden light, could bring him right back to that time and place. That house in the hills they had, with its bright Spanish tile, its high-beamed ceilings. The all-weather cabanas where their guests would lounge by the pool, drinking, laughing, their soft laughter carried away in the early evening breeze.
Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda. Carol King and Harry Nilsson. They were all there, unreal-looking, in the old photographs. Friends, friends of friends. Something had pulled them all into the orbit of the Canyon. Some hot, wavering energy that made them feel reckless and immortal.
When he saw his own face among them, Howard Bennet the magnanimous host, benevolently stoned, he could hardly recognize himself. He looked so self-assured, so placid, as though looking into his own future as something warm and kind and welcoming.
Howard Bennet was one of his era’s most influential filmmakers pioneering the cinema of the anti-war, counter-culture movement. Bennet was a master of portraying a generation’s loss of innocence and ennui of disillusionment. Made on a low budget, influenced by European arthouse movies, his hard-edged portrayal of outlaws and antiheros brought in millions at the box office and changed the Hollywood system for good.
These scraps of his own biography, he found immensely difficult to read. He just didn’t believe in them, any of them. Though he still couldn’t resist skimming them on the Internet:
Though Mr. Bennet continues to put out a film two times a decade, he remains a mysterious figure. Now aged into his late seventies, he refuses all interviews and lives a reclusive life on the rocky coast of Maine, a far cry from when he was a fixture of the heady LA party scene of the sixties and early seventies. He has shunned the spotlight since the death of his first wife, Patty Hunter, of a heroin overdose at one of Bennet’s infamous weekend-long parties...
Young people sometimes hunted him down still, coming boldly right up onto his property. Knocking at his front door in the middle of the night. Or surprising him in his garden, an old man who still dressed in black jeans and pointy boots, on his hands and knees pulling the weeds out.
Excuse us, Mr. Bennet? He would look up, dazed, the hairy roots of wild morning glory dangling from his hand, still throbbing with life. We just wanted you to know we’re big fans. It’s like, you understand what it’s like to be alienated. He would close his eyes and turn away. Their youth was unbearably bright and earnest and painful to look at as the sun. Get lost, he always muttered.
But they even loved it when he told them that! That, too, became part of his legend. It cemented their idea of him as some kind of surly rock star. He couldn’t win. Idiots!
He craved solitude. He had been alone for so long, that now it was the only way he felt natural. It enabled him to live as though in a soft cloud of ether. Not thinking much about the past. Not thinking much about the future. Feeling neither hope nor despair. It was merely existence. Unchanging, unwavering. He could have gone on the rest of his life that way.
Until the day the lead researcher called him to say there was an outside chance of being able to bring Patty back. And in spite of himself he began to feel hope for the future. To dream of his own redemption.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Leah Erickson