Rooftops, meteors, and watches.
By: David B. Gilmer
The night was sticky. A hot August Chicago summer. Joshua hoped he could escape his sauna bedroom by going to the rooftop of his apartment building. He rolled out of the thin wet bed sheet and began to pull on his boxer shorts; they stuck to his thighs. His girlfriend was sleeping naked in the bed. Orange light crept in through the partially closed blinds from a street lamp outside their bedroom window. A window fan was the only noise in the room and the warm air being blown around was just cool enough in the swirling smog of the apartment to give goose bumps to the naked girl. Joshua sat next to her gently, not wanting her to wake and brushed his fingertips against her sweating stomach. Her goose bumps briefly disappeared before she rolled over and back into her deep sleep. Joshua walked through the narrow hallway that was painted chipping avocado, décor left over from the seventies when the apartment was new. He walked into the bathroom and splashed cool water across his face, the relief was temporary. He grabbed a wet
t-shirt drying on the shower rod, put it on and headed into the kitchen. He grabbed two beers and a plastic lawn chair and headed up the back stairs for the roof.
When Joshua reached the roof there was not as much of a breeze as he would have liked but the small licks of air against his wet t-shirt made his skin tingle. All around him were apartments just like his. Each with their flat black roofs that in the warm summer filled the city with the fresh smell tar. To the east the skyline stretched high like fluorescent mountains and gave off the light of a red October moon. Joshua placed his white plastic chair near the edge of the east side of the roof, stretched his legs out, opened his beer and took a deep breath hoping to smell the distant lake but the air was only tar.
Joshua’s parents did not approve of him moving to this apartment. He was twenty six and unable to work, his girlfriend was trying to become an artist and only worked a few hours a week so most of their bills were hidden away in kitchen cabinets. The apartment was nice enough but he wished it was located a little farther east. Tonight though he loved it. The flat roofs and a landlord who didn’t mind what his tenants did as long as they paid rent. His girlfriend had hoped to stay awake tonight but the heat had finally gotten to her. There was going to be a meteor shower later, probably in an hour or two but Joshua was not quite sure what time it was. A few feet from him on the left was a picnic blanket and two sleeping bags that they had planned on watching the shower from. He thought briefly of waking her but was enjoying the peacefulness of his rooftop.
Joshua loved the way the city sounded at night. The mechanical rumble of the “El” trains. The pitter-patter of late night wanderers on the streets below. The far off hum of the expressway. Some nights he would come here and watch the fireworks by the lake. The high spark glow bouncing off the windows of high-rises, the bang pin-balling through a maze of steel and glass. Tonight though was almost quiet, as if the city was holding its breath for something. Joshua finished his second beer and began to feel warm inside. He was not sure if it was the beer or the procedure but he began to feel quite funny, the doctors said this could happen. So he made his way over to his sleeping bag and fell asleep.
The hospitals walls were all painted the standard hospital eggshell white. A purple wallpaper border about two and a half feet wide was stretched over each wall slightly below the half height mark. Every place that wasn’t already occupied by a gurney, or a cart, or some sight of storage for medical device was a plant, and each desk had atleast one plant on top of it. Joshua briefly wondered whose job it was to wash all these plants and then he began to imagine that at night when everyone was asleep a janitor stood underneath the fire sprinklers with a lighter and let them burst and water all of the plants at the same time. Joshua was only twenty five yet had spent enough time in hospitals that he already new there interiors well, which was saying allot considering his condition.
Hospitals were always a place Joshua was uncomfortable in. They were too clean for him. Whenever Joshua was in one he always had the urge to move a cart or tip over a flower pot, something to make them less plastic.
The doctors had just gotten through explaining the procedure. Joshua was nervous but knew this was his best option. His was a rare case of Family Alzheimer’s. Usually people don’t start seeing signs until they are thirty or older. Joshua’s began when he was twenty three. It was slow at first, his coworkers and girlfriend blamed it on his lack of sleep. Joshua would have a hard time recalling facts, could easily become confused, and his usual daily work took him much longer. Then one day after work he drove back to his parents place instead of his apartment. It took his parents twenty minutes to help him remember that he had moved out almost four years ago, they assumed he had hit his head and was concussed which is why they took him to the doctor. That was when it was first diagnosed. His girlfriend took it the hardest, but she also put in the most hours trying to fix it. She was the one who stumbled upon the experimental procedures that the University medical center were conducting. Doctors had walked Joshua through the procedure a thousand times but all he could remember was that some hormone or protein was being injected into his brain, he thought it was called cytokine.
The doctors had left Joshua one of those thin paper hospital robes. As he took off his clothes he kept sneaking glimpses at his girlfriend hoping she would be looking back at him, every time he was disappointed to find her eyes stuck to the ground, he wondered if she was nervous to.
He had seen his mother once go in for a root canal and before the anesthesia made her fall asleep she slipped into hysteria, laughing, spilling secrets and intimate thoughts. Joshua didn’t want to be made a fool before he went into brain surgery. If he didn’t make it he at least wanted to be remembered as someone who went under brave and in control of his life. So he wrapped his hands around his chest and began to massage his armpits. Something, anything to keep his mind as alert as possible until he went under.
The doctor who had invented the procedure first attempted it on his wife. The doctors wife had been a watch collector before she was diagnosed with the disease. As they disease deteriorated her brain she was no longer able to repair and restore the intricate parts of pocket watches and had to give up her hobby. After the operation the doctor gave his wife a small golden pocket watch. The face a tarnished brown from years of finger grease. On the back was inscribed “D+M”. Every morning the doctor would ask his wife to take the watch apart. To place the individual parts around the house, and then as the day goes by to go around and try and put the watch back together. For the first few weeks the doctor would come home and the wife would have forgotten about the watch entirely. The doctor and her when then spend there nights scavenging the house trying to find the lost pieces. After a month she would remember that she had taken the watch apart, and was beginning to find one or two pieces. After three months she could find most of the pieces, and after almost a year she was able to put the watch back together entirely. One night almost a year and a half after the surgery she looked at the doctor,
“ This is my father’s watch isn’t it? I thought I had lost it years ago.”
As tears swelled up in the doctors eyes he hugged he hugged her close, the watch trapped between there chests.
As Joshua slipped away he thought about the watch. Tried to picture it in his hands, feel its gold metal face ticking, moving, alive.
Waking up from anesthesia is like coming out of a long dark tunnel. At first all the light is too much for your eyes, then slowly figures begin to take place. Joshua does not remember but his girlfriend told him that when he came to he thought she was the doctors wife and kept asking if she had put the watch back together yet.
When Joshua woke up the sky was white and for a second he thought he was back in the hospital. He quickly realized that the meteor shower had begun and he had woken just in time. Joshua was sure he had never seen something so beautiful. Streaks of white light were moving across the sky like trails of vapor from planes. On the edge of the lights a green wave trickled across the sky like the wake from a boat. Joshua was so memorized by the light show above that he did not notice the woman on his roof until all the meteors had passed.
When the shower ended the city suddenly seemed draped in darkness. Joshua noticed what he thought was a woman lying near the edge of his roof but his eyes were still adjusting to the new formed darkness and all he could make out were shadows. As soon as his eyes had comforted themselves in the new light he saw that a woman was lying naked right on the edge of the rooftop. Joshua assumed he was hallucinating, the doctors had told him that could be a side effect, but after blinking his eyes and slapping his face he was quite sure she was real. The woman was beautiful, slender but not skinny. Her skin was so pale it was almost translucent and in the light of the night she seemed to almost glow blue. Her hair was short and blonde and though she was lying naked on a roof it seemed perfectly kept. The only flaw Joshua could find on her body was two silver dollar sized scars, one on each shoulder blade.
Joshua called out to the woman but there was no response. He considered going inside and waking his girlfriend, figuring it better that another woman deal with the naked girl on the roof, but found himself unable to pull his gaze off of her long enough to go back downstairs. Joshua continued to try and wake the woman but he was unable to speak in anything more than a whisper, afraid a sound much louder may break the whole situation apart. Finally after his numerous attempts at waking her had failed Joshua slowly crawled towards the woman and placed one hand gently on her shoulder.
The woman rolled over slowly as if she was expecting him to wake her. She did not hesitate or try to hide her nakedness from Joshua, which with any other woman he would have found strange but here he was quite comfortable. She looked up at him with eyes that seemed almost entirely black and did not speak a word. Joshua sat back and leaned on his hands and soon the woman was sitting up. He wanted to ask her who she was, what she was doing naked on the roof, but he was as sure as he was about anything in his life that no matter what question he asked her she would not answer. So Joshua kept staring in her eyes. The longer he looked at her the less he felt the need to speak. Then Joshua head was flooded with memories.
He was no longer on the rooftop. He was next to his mother as she was birthing him looking up at the clock waiting for his father to arrive. He no longer smelled tar, but instead his nose was filled with the wet smell of warm birth sweat.
He was at his first birthday watching his family jump up and down after the bears had won. He was watching his brothers being born and his sister. He was in the grave on a rainy Sunday with his father looking up at a family he hardly knew. He was with his mother at the bar the night his grandmother died. He was in the car with his brother when he got into an accident. He was watching his sister graduate, he was meeting his girlfriend, he was in surgery, he was having sex, and then he was falling onto his roof from the sky and landing in his sleeping bag.
As tears began to form on his eyes he forced them back into what he could only imagine where two large water tanks behind his eyes. Joshua began to think about where tears go if you do not cry? If they sat on his eyelids long enough would they simply evaporate and join the world as a cloud or a fog? Was every rainstorm some mans repressed emotion? Was every sip of water a fathers death, a child’s disappointment, the loss of a friend? Soon it began to rain and Joshua felt himself slipping away as if he was under anesthesia again. The woman seemed to sense this and brought his head to her shoulder. His head was getting heavy and began to fall down her body. As his head came closer and closer to her lap he felt himself getting lighter and lighter until suddenly he was lying on her, her arm embracing him and he felt as if he was flying.
Joshua was not sure how long he had lied there but the next thing he remembers is standing on the edge of the rooftop with the woman looking down at the street below. The air once again was filled with the smell of tar and in the distance a translucent green had begun to form around the horizon and Joshua expected the sun would be rising soon. The woman was holding Joshua’s hand pointing down to something gold and shiny on the sidewalk and as soon as Joshua realized it was a pocket watch the sky lit up again with another meteor shower.
When one wakes up it is like coming out of a long and dark tunnel. Joshua was sure that the meteor shower was still going on, all around him was white light that his eyes couldn’t take in. He was lying in a warm sticky liquid on something hard. As is eyes adjusted he noticed people standing around him, they all looked too afraid to say anything. A throbbing sensation started around his knee but when he reached down to touch it he found his leg to be the consistency of dried mash potatoes. He looked over to his other arm and his elbow was up around his shoulder. Behind his shoulder was his right ankle pointing out from his body like a wing. His head wouldn’t move much but he moved his left arm in hopes of finding the strange woman somewhere near. He looked up to the rooftop but there was not even a shadow. He continued to flail around his hand trying to yell out for the woman but all he could manage was a whisper. Now there were blue and red lights and two men were hurrying towards him. He was sure she was there, just outside his reach, he was sure he could feel her. But all his hand could find was something cold and metal.