By Heather Anne Charton
When the man fell on my roof it sounded curious rather than terrible—a squirrel, perhaps, or a raccoon losing his footing on the upper eave and falling onto the sunroom's roof. Gavin, my husband, and I had built the sunroom that spring just after we bought the place. The wall it shared with the rest of the living areas was an exterior one, so the room was well insulated. Sounds in that room were deceptively quiet if I was in the kitchen, as on the day the man fell on my roof. I was drinking a cup of tea from one of the china cups that Aunt Agnes gave us as a wedding present—creamy white with yellow finches singing from perches in spindly gold bird cages—and the noise didn't even surprise me enough for my hand to rattle the cup against the saucer.
The sunroom was my idea. As I remember it, the whole house was my idea. Gavin had wanted to rent somewhere. He'd always been a nomad, one apartment after another, never bothering with a landline because he never was one place long enough for anyone to memorize the phone number. I'd always lived with my grandparents in the farmhouse where my great-great-grandmother had been born. To appease me, we bought this little ranch and added on the sunroom off the back. The sunroom was my favorite room in the house—south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows that glowed with light. I was always worried about something denting its tin roof and changing how it sounded. I loved the ping of rain on a metal roof. I'd wanted to re-roof the whole house in tin, but Gavin had claimed the clanging would keep him up at night.
As I walked down the hall, I laughed at myself. Gavin had insisted on over-engineering that roof to the point of absurdity. He believed himself indestructible and wanted everything connected to him to be indestructible, too.
"A bird against the windows," I told myself. I pictured the dirty imprint of a mourning dove's breast and wings with flickering grey feathers still stuck to the glass where the bird—lying stunned or dead with its blank black stare in the mulched flower bed at the base of the window—had struck. It had simply mistaken the glass's stunning clarity for open space and ended up littering my butterfly bushes with its carnage.
I opened both doors out into the room and surveyed each window but could find no ghostly impressions. Perhaps it had been something smaller than a dove, a wren or someone's escaped parakeet. I leaned over the wrap-around window bench and checked the ground for bird or feathers. Nothing. The roof above me creaked. Perhaps something had fallen onto it after all.
Once outside, the spring smells, sounds, and light caught me off guard. The air was thick with distant rain, daffodils, and hints of fertilizer and lawn clippings. Something rustled in the breeze, and I finally looked up at my roof. There it was—a tangle of black metal and rainbow fabric from the wreckage of an ultra-light. I knew that plane; I knew its pilot. His name was Jay Bertram, and he lived near my grandparents. He had bought the contraption a few years ago when he retired from Timken, a steel bearings plant. He had spent the majority of the summer months since then crash landing in and on every field, highway, and building from here to Mansfield, some two hours away. His quiet little wife, Madey, would drive her husband's red and rusting pick-up truck to collect him and his flying machine. The old 4x4 was a manual, and you could hear her grinding the gears from miles away. Being friendly with my grandparents before they passed on—we all went to the same church and they used to buy silage off the Bertram's to fertilize their garden every fall—Jay had offered to take me or Gavin up any time we wished. I'd thought of his crash record and declined, but Gavin couldn't resist.
"I always believed I could fly," he'd said to me on one of our first dates. We were sitting at Johnnie's, watching the winter Olympics on the fuzzy television above the bar. The ski jumper in his blue super hero suit crouched at the top of the hill, perching on a skinny bar and waiting for the jury to give the "go" signal. The skier released the bar and began his sliding free-fall down the grooved track, up the ramp, and then off into the sky. His long, flexible skis nearly touched his stiff shoulders.
"I could have been a ski jumper," Gavin said, as the skier landed past one of the red distance markers in the snow. He took a sip of his beer. "All you have to do is glide off that ramp, believe you can fly, and sail across the distance."
"I believe I can fly; I believe I can touch the sky," I sang in a syrupy rendition of the R. Kelly song, snapping my fingers and swaying to the beat. He shrugged and stared at the next skier as he sliced through the cold winter air.
Of course Gavin had accepted Jay's offer the previous summer. As I looked at the ruins on my roof, I whispered a prayer of thanks that Gavin's adventure had only left them in a farmer's soybean field with all body parts still intact.
"Jay," I called to the fallen man. The fabric that was still tautly attached to the wing frames thumped against the wind, but Jay didn't answer. I went back to the garage and dragged the twelve-foot ladder outside. I leaned it against the house and then stared up at the roof as I wiggled the ladder back and forth and jumped on the bottom rung a few times to set its feet deeper into the soft spring soil. Jay had crashed into so many things that I doubted much was wrong. I could picture him touching each piece of plane, calculating what would need fixed and how long it would take.
"Jay," I called again. "You'd better be seriously injured, or I'm going to be mighty mad about climbing up there."
No answer. I chewed on the inside of my lip as I climbed the ladder. "Don't look down," I told myself.
The sun had been shining all morning and the silver glared into my eyes and burned my palms when I put my hand to the metal. I shuffled toward Jay on my jean-clad knees, calling his name as I went.
"Madey will be very displeased with you if you've managed to hurt yourself again," I said. "She went nearly crazy with worry when you broke your wrist last September." I ducked under a dangling metal bar.
"Of course, I think she was just worried that you wouldn't be able to shift that truck of yours, and she'd have to drive it all the time." I laughed. I pulled back a strip of fabric and saw Jay's face.
His eyes had a blank, black stare like the stunned dove I'd expected to find beneath one of my windows.
My cell phone was in my pocket, so I dialed 9-1-1. The operator nearly hung up, assuming my ridiculous situation was nothing but a prank call, but my voice must have sounded panicked enough to be taken seriously. I reached out and shook Jay's arm. When he didn't move I grabbed his wrist. Nothing.
They sent an ambulance and a fire truck. They had to carry both Jay and me down from the roof. They said I was in shock; a man had fallen on my roof.
But by the day after, I found that Jay's death no longer affected me all that much. Ever since his first crash over three years ago, I'd been waiting for the news. I worried a bit for Madey, but she had their old Australian Shepherd and all the good church folk to support her. Jay's wreck had managed to scratch the indestructible roof and leave one duck-egg-sized dent, but Gavin didn't seem very concerned about it when I told him. Maybe he was in shock, too.
Gavin had been away on business the day Jay fell on my roof. He came home two days after the crash, the day the obituary was printed in the paper. I didn't really know how to break the news to him, so when he came home I hugged him and blurted it out.
"Jay Bertram crashed his ultra-light on our roof. It scratched the roof and left a dent, and he's dead." The look on his face made me think I'd said it wrong. I should have left a pause between the roof report and the life report, or maybe I should have told him about the roof after I told him Jay was dead.
"How could you not have called to tell me?" Gavin asked.
I stuttered "figured you couldn't do anything about it" and handed him the newspaper folded to Jay's obit:
Jay Bertram of Bolivar, Ohio, passed away May 8, 2009, in one of the many crashes of his beloved ultra-light, Madison II (so named because his wife was the first).
I couldn't help but wonder who began an obituary like that, but my favorite part had to be this:
Jay will be cremated at Greibs Funeral Home. A special service will be conducted in the Bertram's backyard featuring a bonfire to combine his ashes with the remains of Madison II presided over by Reverend Martin Clark on Tuesday, May 12, 2009. Invitation only.
Cremated and then burned with his ultra-light? Surely Madey was simply crazed with grief, and yet, when Gavin had read the article through, I saw not a turn of the lip or a crinkle of the eye; nothing but a solid and solemn head nod as though the whole thing was proper as pie. I hid out in the sunroom until it was time to cook dinner.
"I want to go to the service," Gavin said once we were seated at the table. They were his first words about the incident. I'd made teriyaki chicken, one of his favorites because of its "foreign flair." It was the only thing that had eked a smile out of his stony face since I'd told him about Jay falling on my roof.
All I could say was, "Did you get an invitation?"
Perhaps I said this a little too gaily because he narrowed his eyebrows and went back to eating.
"We did," he said after a moment. He shuffled through the mail on the kitchen counter—advertisements, bills, credit card applications—and held up a square envelope that he'd slit with a letter opener. He handed it to me as I set down my knife and fork, still laden with a chunk of chicken. I slid out the invitation and nearly choked at the riot of colors. Madey had painstakingly cut and glued perfect squares of the ultra light's wing fabric onto bright white card stock. Printed on the back was a traditionally styled invitation as though this were a backyard barbecue that featured beer, hot dog sticks, and marshmallows:
You are invited!
To: Jay's Cremation Ceremony
Where: The Bertram's Backyard
When: 4:00 PM Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Hope to see you there!
I wished I'd poured myself a glass of the chardonnay that was in the fridge instead of water.
"What does one wear to a 'Cremation Ceremony'?" It was the only thing I could think to ask; the only thing I could think to say.
"Oh, jeans and a nice shirt I should think. Jay never was one for much formality." Gavin smiled. "Remember that one time at church? You know, when Jay showed up to Sunday services in his farming coveralls, and Pastor Martin actually had to pause in his sermon and run to the basement 'for a glass of water' just to get away from the manure stench?" Gavin chuckled, nodded. "That Jay was one character of a guy," he said.
"Sure was," I said. That was at least something I could agree with.
Although the day had been rainy and windy, the air stilled and the skies cleared on the evening of the bonfire. I followed Gavin's advice and wore jeans and a nice shirt, and in campfire tradition, we'd brought along a six-pack of Jay's favorite—Rolling Rock.
"Jay always claimed that the mysterious 33 on the bottle stood for March 3, his birthday," Gavin said as we carried the beer to the alcohol-laden table by the funeral pyre.
The pyre was a pick-up-sticks pile of logs and branches. There were several freshly cut tree stumps littering the edge of the woods that separated Madey's backyard from the fields. The smell of kerosene that would force the green wood to burn made my eyes water. The wreckage of Madison II formed an arch on top of the timber. Pastor Martin stood nearby with a bottle of Rolling Rock in hand. He'd followed the dress code, too—jeans and a nice shirt with his clerical collar. The Greibs' funeral home director was the easiest man to pick out amongst the thirty or so people that were there. He was what I would call a lurker, just on the edge of everything, slightly taller than the rest of the crowd, wearing a suit that made his shoulders look even more sloped than they were. His bushy hair was the most alive thing about him. He stood by the pyre with a small brass urn and a wand lighter. He clicked the lighter on and off a few times. I'd never seen a funeral director so fidgety before, but at least someone else seemed to recognize how bizarre this all was.
"Are you sure that I need to light it?" I heard him ask Pastor Martin as we neared the two of them.
Pastor Martin patted the taller man's shoulder with a large, thick hand. "It's just fine, Aaron, just fine." He waved his beer bottle towards a corner of the crowd. "And besides, if we did put too much kerosene on, the fire chief is here to sound the alarm."
Then I saw Madey. She was walking around the pyre. I'd half-expected her to look bedraggled and lost, drowning in Jay's old clothes, frazzled hair covering her bare face, but she was wearing her own clothes, her grey hair was neatly pinned back, and no tear tracks blemished her cakey foundation. She must have been waiting for Jay's death, too. She saw us, the last additions to the party, and came to greet us.
"Gavin!" she said as she hugged him. She'd developed a fondness for him after he started driving Jay home from the VFW in the evenings. Before we were married she used to pinch his cheek and tell him his mother would be proud of him. Apparently she suddenly saw us as adults that could handle hugs. She patted Gavin's hand that held the beer. "So thoughtful of you to bring his favorite." She smiled, her teeth a perfect string of pearls like the ones around her neck.
"Looks like quite a turnout, Madey," I said. She turned towards me but looked through me. I glanced over my shoulder, but no one was there.
"So many people did care about Jay," she answered, but she was looking back at Gavin. I thought about touching her hand to see if she knew I was there. Madey and I had always gotten along just fine. We'd even exchanged some starts of plants—my grandmother's iris for her lily of the valley. She paused and fiddled with her necklace. "I wanted to talk to you about something," she said and then tugged at Gavin's elbow, away from me and towards the pyre.
I tagged along doggedly behind, but she walked quickly, a hawk free-falling towards his prey.
"I want to see where it happened, Gavin," she said.
"Well, of course, Madey. I mean, if you think that's a good idea. You've been to our house before. I know my wife had you up to look at the sunroom at least once."
"But I don't want to just see it…I want…I want to be where it happened. You know, like up there. On the roof."
"On the roof?" I exclaimed. They both glanced back at me, eyebrows raised. "There's already one dent in my roof. Why would you want to climb up there and make another?"
Madey's teeth chattered. In fact, her whole body shivered. And then she held out one finger, pointing it at me.
"You." That was all she said at first. And then she made some guttural grunt of irritation and clenched her hands into fists. "You killed my husband."
"Me?" I said, as I took a couple steps backward.
Gavin stepped in front of Madey. He laid an authoritative hand on her shoulder and mumbled something like, "Now, Madey, you don't mean that," but Madey kept marching towards me, slipping from Gavin's touch.
"Yes, you and your stupid tin roof. You just had to put in tin, didn't you? So bright it damn near blinds every bird in this county. But no, no. That's not enough. You have to go and blind my husband, too." She drew in a clattery breath and jabbed her finger towards me. "Yes, you heard me, blind my husband." She pointed at a poster board filled with pictures by the pyre. "Yes, go look. Go. Go!"
She cornered me against the drink table and then forced my retreat back towards the burn pile and the photographs. Gavin was calling her name and trailing after her, telling her to calm down, telling her she was being "unreasonable." But her face had drained to a cold white, as though she might pass out in front of me.
"Okay, okay," I said, holding out my hands, afraid I'd have to knock the widow down to defend myself. "What am I looking at?"
"Look at his eyes!" She pointed at a photo in the middle of the board.
I shivered when I saw Jay spread out in his coffin. I suddenly remembered the list of options Griebs Funeral Home had given me for my grandparents' funeral package. "Refreshments during calling hours," "video of the receiving line," "photo of loved one in casket." I'd assumed that no one chose the last option until I saw Madey's board.
"My husband was blinded by your roof, and he crashed into it like some simpleminded pigeon, and now—" Madey drew in a rattled breath. "Now he's dead."
Jay's eyes were open in the photograph; they looked as they had when I first found him on my roof—blank, black, and dead. I shivered even though I'd seen them before. Madey was talking to Gavin again. He tried to calm her with one hand to her shoulder, pushing her down towards the ground or more like pulling her up away from it. He looked at me and tried to smile, putting up one finger for me to, "just wait a moment." The color had returned to Madey's face, and she wasn't shaking anymore. I glanced around at the rest of the party. There was Miss Esther who still taught Sunday school so many years after she'd taught me; Ricky Burns the new police chief who'd had a crush on me since high school; Bobby something who bagged my groceries every week at the Giant Eagle. I knew almost every face. They all stared at me, mostly out of what looked like curiosity. I didn't know whether I should leave or stay or what. Pastor Martin walked over and put a hand to my shoulder.
"It's part of her grieving process. She needs someone to blame." He took a sip of his beer. "Between you and me, I'm just glad someone's not blaming God for once." He laughed, hoarse and deep, and extended his hand towards the nervous funeral director as though attempting to include him in the joke.
I didn't wait for Gavin and his "just a moment" finger. I drank a Rolling Rock back along the tree line as the pyre was lit. The funeral director stood on a ladder to sprinkle the ashes over the wood and then tentatively reached out with the glowing lighter. The wood caught in a soft whoosh, but everyone still seemed to have their eyebrows. Gavin came looking for me, but I ducked into the shadows. I finished my beer and twisted the cap back onto the top. It looked as though they were going to start telling stories about Jay as his ashes smoldered away, but the scent of burning wires hit me just as I caught Gavin's face in the flickering bonfire light. It glanced off his square jaw and his roman nose—so stony—and suddenly I didn't want to hear any of the speeches.
I knew it would be a long walk home, part of it uphill, but I couldn't stay. The thought of Madey's face, normally so grandmotherly but now with all that draining anger, forced a cold sweat from my body.
I ran until I reached the final climb up the hill where our house perched. I scrambled off the road and up the shortcut that led diagonally up the hill right to our side yard. "If man had been born to fly, God would have given him wings," I muttered to myself. It's what I'd told Gavin when he informed me he was going to fly with Jay. I couldn't look at him that morning the previous summer as we ate breakfast. I made him French toast with scrambled eggs—his favorite—but I couldn't look at his face. He thought I was being silly. The whole time he was gone I sat in the sunroom with a book on my lap, starting and stopping the same sentence. Gavin couldn't understand my aversion. How could he? Most nights, just as I started to fall asleep, I floated into a dream where suddenly I tripped over a sidewalk crack, slipped on a step, or stumbled over a cliff ledge, and my body, which had been secretly inching itself upward toward the ceiling, let go and dropped onto the bed with a shudder. And then I'd be cold and shaking, but Gavin never noticed. I couldn't tell him this. Gavin had never been afraid of falling.
Our car was in the driveway when I reached home. "Hello?" No lights. No answer. I checked the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom, and then I walked out into the sunroom and heard the tin roof creak. I stepped out through the garage and saw the ladder leaning against the house. I stood in the middle of my backyard and squinted up. Two figures like lake buoys on my roof; one traced a duck-egg dent with her finger, and the other looked up, mapping constellations.
"That's Scorpio," I could hear him say. "No, that's the Little Dipper."
They were already so high on that roof, and yet they kept looking up. I sank to the ground and groped at the wet grass. It soaked through my jeans and into my skin, a cold dampness rising up through me.
I knew all the figures Gavin was pointing out in the sky. He'd shown me Orion and his little dog and the rabbit they hunted in winter; he'd told me how to find the North Star off the lip of the Big Dipper. He had little clear maps that showed each section of the sky. He had brought them with him on our honeymoon in Sonoma, and one night we crept into Stryker's darkened vineyard with a bottle of wine and those maps. We lay on a blanket, one of his hands slipped through the arch in the middle of my back, the other pointing out stars we couldn't see at home. He didn't look at the maps much except to point out what he saw in the sky that I couldn't. He'd only brought the maps for me. He knew I was little good at finding things by looking up.
The figures on my roof kept discovering things in the sky. "A shooting star!" Every time I looked up at them I felt myself swaying. I dug my fingers into the soil, dirt pressed under my nails until my fingertips were sore. I was on my back with nothing except up to look at, trying to shut my eyes, but the stars seemed to shine through my eyelids. The figures on my roof were so high. Gavin had one hand reaching up to touch the stars and one seeming to reach down to me. I wanted to reach one hand back towards him and will us both into the ground, but I still felt myself falling.
Heather Anne Charton earned her MFA at Lesley University. She currently lives and writes in the backwoods of Northeast Ohio.
“Grounded” is Heather’s first published story.