The Unreachable

Jonah Howell

0. Foundation

I know. It’s tacky to address you like this. Tackier to acknowledge it. Worse still to acknowledge the acknowledgement. And so on unto infinity. It makes it worse that English offers no grammar to differentiate between formal and informal speech, so it seems like I’m talking to some distant, unreachable friends, which makes me seem hopelessly disingenuous from the start. But then, maybe I am talking to distant friends. Trying, at least. Reaching…

Forget it. The show goes on, the world goes on, even if it drags me.

So that there are no surprises, I’ll pitch it straight: The Story, capital-S, shall occur over the course of four stories, lowercase-s, much like a small apartment building that has crumbled in a ruthless gale: He will speak. He will leave. They will wait. He will return.

1. He speaks

“I’ll be back.” They nodded slowly, looking elsewhere, passively fingering their wineglasses. One of them looked at the sky and attempted to make shapes out of clouds. All she could think was, “cloud.” He was not particularly fond of her company; she rarely spoke, and when she did, she spoke fluent—no, not nonsense. Rather, too much sense, so that it was not clear that she was alive, nor that she could actually speak his language, as though someone had programmed a particularly unresponsive AI to converse only in the hundred common phrases listed at the front of a travel dictionary.

That is, he would not return for her sake. He had his reasons.

The other, though they nodded just as slowly as she, only did so because they could not determine whether he would, in fact, be back, nor whether, if he did return, it would be a good thing, after all. They had their doubts, and for these, they had their reasons. They looked into the sky and, though they strained to drain the faces from the clouds, they saw him return a hundred times, once for each cumulus tuft, in a hundred different moods but each a type of brooding disease. She could not imagine otherwise, for he had left in such a hurry, and with such unsaid resolve, his stony eyes unsolvable but clearly puzzled.

2. He leaves

He walked out into the cold and pulled his jacket crossways so that his stomach was double-warm. He had not eaten, what with worry, and had hardly drunk a sip. He turned back.

1:1. He speaks


To his burdened brain they looked so peaceful, the one staring at the sky, the other staring at the same but differently, both evidently lost in thought or, at the very least, lost. He did not want to force them to be found, and so he turned on his heel and walked back out into the cold.

2:2. He leaves

This time he did not pull his coat at all, much less crossways, and he walked with bounce, almost jumping but, then, not jumping, for he was far too burdened for such a thing—far too worried, after all and despite his second check, that his departure did not affect them at all, that they may be just as happy or more so with him gone, that they may have put on peaceful faces for his sake but that they may just as well, after he walked away, have begun to exult, to peruse the sky more vigorously, unimpeded by his presence, and that they may, when finally they become used to his absence, decide to oust him once and for all, before he has gotten his second foot in the door, so to speak—that is, that they may not even oust him but may, having so quickly made up their minds to do so, simply wall him out, may seal the door with caulk or some other tacky substance, may address their readers or acknowledge having done so, so that they may ogle the cloudforms in peace, at the end of it all, simple peace, uninterrupted time, without his barging in and making a trio of it.

For his part, he has never understood how some people see shapes in clouds. He has tried to find, for example, that rabbit or this wispy trebuchet, but he has never seen anything but a lack of sky, a moth-eaten curtain draped rudely over the stars.

3. They wait

She said nothing: A complex cloud had almost taken form, or, rather, it had done so, but she could not remember the name for the shape, and it floated on the tip of her tongue, a fish nibbling at the lead rather than the hook.

They, on the other hand, saw far too much: A sky full of him, the faces descending on them, clouds flickering and falling as they stared, their edges outlined in neon red and menacing greens, his hundred heavy brows aimed squarely at their own, and they whirled in sudden ecstasy at the thought that their eyes might touch, that they might meld with him, but they recalled last night’s talk, his thin stalk legs entwined in their own, his bowlegged stalk from bedroom wall to wall, his refrain, “I don’t know why I’m here,” and such a distant glassy gaze throughout it all, walking on and on, not wall to opposite wall but wall to corner to perpendicular wall to opposite to corner, precisely as now, staring at the cloud-heavy heavens, his hundred stares accused in every way from all directions, their sentence unpronounced but certain, capital, somehow, as fatal as only the unknown can manage.

2:3. He leaves

He stood in front of the door for a long time. Every few minutes, on the minute, he raised his hand and tucked his fingers into his palm as though to knock, and sometimes he managed to swing it toward the door, but each time something blocked it—say a shock, a recognition, a tingling from shins to thinning hair—and knocked his hand back down and stretched his fingers along his pleated pant-front. He stroked the pleats and curled them and unfurled them. He wondered if it was a boy or a girl.

After an hour or so he walked away and sat on the stoop and stroked his forehead with his fingers and convinced himself he would go back.

3:2. They wait

“He’ll do it this time. I just know it.” She smiled, supportive.

“You’re right. I know.” And they tried to unsee the clouds, but the window was too wide, their memory saturated, heavy, inescapable, so overfull that it could not be retained by the flimsy membrane of the present and broke through and flooded the future, though they knew better than anyone that things can change, that people can change, and though they hoped behind the clouds some stars might have aligned, some unmapped constellation, some ordered breakage in the wisps of amorphous grey, even when, beneath this hope, they knew that cans are not wills, that wills are more like wases, so that they saw him walking across the sky, from horizon to perpendicular to corner from horizon in consternation, and he was Orion in constant tension, arrow ever halted, and he was both dippers, ever empty, and he was Aries, ever aggressive but ever too distant to fight, and he was Taurus, ever horny but full of bullshit.

2:4. He leaves

He laughed, deep and loud, from the bottom of his belly. Windows rattled in their panes across the way. From above he gazed on his own balding scalp, distant as a cloud, and thought himself ridiculous.

He walked back to the door and raised his fist, smirking premature in triumph. He swung it, pendulum against, he thought, a grandfather clock too small, sure to strike the wall, but an inch from the wood, his knuckles struck nothing but stopped. It was surely too late, he thought. They would be asleep. The hobby-shop cross on the door stared him down, as if to say, “This guy went willingly to crucifixion, and you can’t even knock on a door.”

But, after all, why would he? The cross on the door stared him down; it would make no difference, and he would leave, and nothing would change. They had said, in any case, they wanted to break with their past, to forget some things, to lighten, perhaps to laugh, someday. Sometimes, he thought, they don’t know what they want. He certainly doesn’t.

He looked away from the cross at the black-stained wood into which it was nailed. He posed his fist before the wood and eyed the contrast. It would be easy, like jumping off a building, stepping in front of a moving car, touching the stovetop. One small step for a man, then freefall into the void. He perched at the precipice, felt the wind in his receding wisps. There is a type of person, he thought, who would do it. Someone that jumps. Someone that sees a thicket and steps in, though there’s a perfectly good path. Someone that goes to bars alone. Someone distant, of indeterminate shape, someone who would not recognize himself in a mirror, like a constellation, its seasonal shifts.

Suddenly he could not bear to see the back of his hand contrasted against the wood, and he jerked it to his side and fiddled with his pant-front folds and dropped his eyes to his loafers and walked away into the cold.

3:3. They wait

“Do you know? You don’t sound sure.”

“I do,” she convinced herself as she went along. “We talked last night. He paced for a long time. Something in him changed, I saw it. He became confused, but he looked like he had made up his mind.”

“Good. I’m happy for you.”

“I think I am, too. We’ve waited so long. It was three years before my transition.”

“Do you know the name?”

“Never even knew the gender. I thought I’d never want to see it.”

“But now you do?”

“Damn straight. So does he. I saw it. He made up his mind. Didn’t say it, but I saw it.”


2:5. He leaves

He stood at the crosswalk, eyeing the steady stream of cars. It would be so easy, he thought. Just like knocking on a door.

3:4. They wait

“It must be a great talk. He’s been gone an hour already.”

Their eyes caught fire. “You’re right.”

She had given up on the clouds, so the silence quickly became unbearably heavy. “How’d you two end up together, anyway?”

“Halloween party. A year after I had…them. I was dressed as a carrot, and he thought it was hilarious, but he was too nervous to say so. I saw him eyeing my greens from across the porch. He smoked then, and I was outside because the friend who’d brought me chain-vaped like a goddamn maniac. He wasn’t dressed as anything, just a red flannel and jeans, so I went and told him, ‘Great costume, lame-ass,’ and he said, ‘Thanks, I’m Wolverine.’ I loved it. It was so unintentionally witty, or so obviously overrehearsed, and I loved that I couldn’t tell which. He told me wolverines are carnivores, so I was safe, and—shit, I know, it’s horrible, I’m a block of cheddar—I fell for it, straight off, and I rambled on about my whole life because somehow I actually felt safe, something underneath his words…So a couple months later we threw a birthday party for a couple of my friends at his place because mine was basically a broom closet, and some fuckboy came and chugged a fifth of vodka in the door way, said, ‘Dare me to drive,” and proceeded to vomit all over the carpet for the next hour, these enormous chunky heaves where you could tell exactly what he ate before he came. And we just cleaned vomit together through the whole party, and both our hands were constantly wet with puke or cleaning spray or something, so after a while we stopped caring, and we danced to the kitchen and back out to the dance floor, getting more paper towels or more cleaner or whatever, and it was amazing, and I figured, if I can have this much fun cleaning vomit with a dude, how great would...well, how great would anything else be? And that was it. Our first kiss was something like a week later.”

“That might be the most wholesome story I’ve ever heard. A week?”

“A week. After watching one of his friends play a harsh noise concert. Highly romantic.”

1:3/2:6. He speaks and leaves

Balancing on the tips of his toes on the curb, he waited through twelve rounds of crosswalk signals, swaying back and forth and side to side and diagonally, not necessarily in that order, a little kid plucking petals, “They love me, they love me not, they love me…”

A fellow pedestrian proffered in passing, “You okay, man? Been here a while.”

From above he saw himself say, “Fine and dandy.”

Appalled, he stomped back up the street, brows furrowed so that his forehead converged in a spout of lines and crevices, a fountain from the top of his nose, like someone had traced his brain on his face or hit him in the face with an axe.

1:4/2:7. He speaks and leaves

He battered the door with abandon. Terrified pigeons fled the roof in a great twitching cloud. He shouted, “It’s incredibly important.”

An exhausted-looking woman whipped the door open and berated, “Whatever it is, it’s ten, and our kid’s asleep.”

She started to close the door, but he stopped it with his foot and said, in what he thought was a profound tone, “I know.”

She slammed the door in earnest and turned the lock fast enough he could hear it.

3:5. They wait

“Do you think he’ll come back?”

“Don’t worry, honey.” She ran her fingertips lightly over her daughter’s back. “The doors are locked, and if he does come back, the police station’s only a couple blocks away. But you,” she patted her with finality, “should get to sleep. It’s too late. See, I told you, nothing good happens after nine.”

4. He returns

They refuse to look at the creaking door for fear that all those hundred brooding clouds will burst through and bury them in a cotton-candy avalanche.

“Well?” She swills her wine expectantly.

“They slammed the door in my face. But I’ll go back tomorrow.” Thoroughly empty, he poured himself a glass of wine.

“I guess it is late,” they reached to take the bottle once he’d finished with it, but their hand caught in the heavy air between them, and they stared in relief and horror at his face, at all their clouds rolled into one but so distant, so unreachable, so obscured. They jerked their eyes away and studied the table, wondering if they would be able to look at him again.

She searched and searched for some helpful line but found nothing.

Jonah Howell lives in central Germany, where his collection of poetry and essays, Empathology, is forthcoming from BHN Books.

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