In the late winter of 1974, Howard Downing fell from an airplane with a faulty parachute strapped to his back. After he left the hospital, people in town said the only thing changed was now Howard wanted to write long uninteresting human interest stories for the Sunday paper. For the first story, he wrote about his dead ex-father-in-law's cow farm in Equinunk. Howard never told anyone, but now his back ached every step he took and he could shoot milk up through a hole in his palate and out his nose.
After the accident, he lived above Clark's grocery store, in a two room apartment with a cat the same grey color as his own hair, both of which, before Howard's fall to earth, were the black of a fresh paved road or a wooly bear caterpillar. No one visited him, not his ex-wife or his ex-wife's family, though his ex-wife's older sister called to thank him after his first story appeared in the Sunday paper. So no one saw him shoot milk out his nose except for the grey cat, who licked the milk up from the parquet floor in the kitchen nook and purred and fell at Howard's feet.
Despite the pain in his back, Howard took long walks along the Dyberry Creek. He fed the green-hooded mallards waddling in the grassy patches between the old brick fabric warehouses and the clear stream. Through the first spring after his accident he fattened up the mallards so much, when he started bringing his leashed grey cat on his walks, the mallards spread their wings and honked through their fat throats at the cat, diminutive in comparison. The cat tripped up Howard with the leash by running in a circle around his legs. On the first day of summer, he crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Dyberry Creek to the foot of Cliff Street and looked up the twelve flights of stairs to the empty yard at the top of the cliff.
The following week, Howard left his cat at home so he could walk up Main Street, which, because of the big dogs everyone else walked through town, was not a hospitable place for a cat. Before he reached the bridge over the West Branch of the Lackawaxen River, he stopped in front of an antique bookseller and binder. He'd stopped in the shop only once before, to get the binding fixed on an old grease-stained cookbook once owned by his dead ex-father-in-law, and the shopkeeper had told him the book wasn't worth the cost of cloth or glue. Howard had picked the book up off the counter and said he'd never set foot inside the shop again. There was no risk of him breaking his promise now. Howard just stood at the window, studying a pen and ink drawing of the town, dated 1890, with a big mansion of a building up on the cliff at the top of the stairs, where now there was an empty yard.
For the next week's Sunday paper, Howard wrote the first, and last, of his stories to receive general approbation from the townspeople, and it began as follows.
'In certain drawings and photographs from the ninth decade of the nineteenth century, you'll see an enormous hundred-roomed building towering over Honesdale from the peak of Irving Cliff, staring down the waters of the Lackawaxen like a white sentinel. The Irving Cliff Hotel presided over our town for all of six years in the 1880s, and stood empty but for preparation staff and workmen until the spring of 1889, just two months before its planned opening that July. On May 29, a fire raced through the halls of the empty hotel, burning it to the ground. Though nothing has ever been built in its place, one can imagine that the already stunning views from the cliff would only be exponentially improved by walking up to the virgin white balconies on the hotel's third storey.'
The townspeople didn't like Howard's use of the word 'virgin' in his story, but forgave him, since he helped them all appreciate anew the hills and river valley they occupied.
The week after this, Howard called his ex-wife's older sister on the phone and told her he needed to ask a favor. This older sister had a funny way of talking as if everything were an exciting new topic never before broached in Honesdale or the rest of the world for that matter. Her hearing from Howard on the phone was an actual novel occurrence, so she could not hide her enthusiasm and eagerness to help out.
So the very next day, Howard's ex-wife's older sister knocked on the door of his apartment above Clark's grocery store, and when Howard opened the door, she handed him the pen and ink drawing in its frame from the window of the bookbinder's shop. She even refused the check for $55 Howard held toward her in exchange for the drawing. Her cheeks blushed. They reminded Howard of two Gala apples under her wrinkled eyes. She told him the drawing was repayment for the wonderful article he wrote about her father's dairy farm in Equinunk.
Howard hung the picture between two windows looking down over the parking lot of Clark's grocery store. He fancied the cat liked the drawing, because it'd always sit on the floor between the windows after it'd eaten, licking its chops and staring at the drawing with the big building standing over the town. Howard sat in a straight-backed wooden chair and stared at the date on the drawing. 1890. He regretted not continuing his article for the Sunday paper as he'd originally wished. The drawing of the hotel did not, for Howard, celebrate the town as it was, but instead posed the question of what the town would be had the hotel never burned down.
On the following Monday, Howard arrived at the hardware store on Main Street as soon as it opened for business. He asked Mr. Sullum, the shopkeeper, if he could rent a ladder from him. Mr. Sullum tucked a pencil behind his ear and felt over his deep belly in the big front pocket of his blue apron with the other hand for his copy of the Sunday paper, wondering how Howard followed up his story about the Irving Cliff Hotel. He said he never heard of anybody renting a ladder and asked Howard why he didn't just buy one. Howard told him he only needed to do one job with the ladder and wouldn't have any use for it after he finished. Mr. Sullum suggested borrowing a ladder from a friend, but Howard said he didn't have any friends, so Mr. Sullum let him borrow one of the new aluminum folding ladders from the shop and told Howard he was a friend to everyone in this town and not to hesitate asking to borrow something every now and then.
When Howard left the store, Mr. Sullum pulled the paper from his apron pocket and rubbed sweat from a black spot of melanoma on his bald head. He found that the paper did not contain a story by Howard, so he dropped it in the trash and started sweeping up the shop. Dark clouds drifted over Main Street and the leaves on all the trees showed their pale green undersides in a gust of wind. Mr. Sullum cursed himself. He'd have to bring in all the garbage cans and mops he'd just dragged out onto the sidewalk less than an hour before.
From the storefront on Main Street, Howard carried the ladder straight to the bridge over the Dyberry and up the twelve flights of the stairs to the cliff. He spread the two sections of the ladder and planted its feet in the soft soil in the yard on top of the cliff and walked home to his apartment. The rain started before he reached the parking lot of Clark's grocery store.
Howard's ex-wife saw him, not long after this, sitting in his window looking over the parking lot as she ran from her car holding the Sunday paper over her head to keep dry. She told the pregnant girl behind the meat counter in Clark's, after she'd ordered two bone-in pork chops cut extra thin, how Howard looked awful lonely up there, but she couldn't think about it too long, seeing as they'd split up by mutual consent and any thoughts she sent his way might add to a general preoccupation she didn't want to have with him. The girl behind the counter nodded and told Howard's ex-wife, as she pressed a knife against the pig bone, she ought not to even look in the direction of those windows, and though Clark's'd surely miss her business, she might even want to buy her pork chops at the Super Duper to avoid any exposure to Howard. The girl wiped blood on the belly of her butcher's smock.
Howard did not see his ex-wife, not when she went in to Clark's with the Sunday paper over her head, and not when she came out with the pork chops wrapped in brown paper tucked under her arm. He saw only the rain, and watched from his window until it stopped.
When the rain stopped, Howard opened a can of food for the grey cat, and while it ate, he took the framed drawing down from the wall between the two windows and placed it on his kitchen counter with the check made out to his ex-wife's older sister for $55 tucked behind the matting. When the cat finished eating, Howard hooked the leash into its collar and they went out into the night together. The green-hooded mallards, nesting in the horse nettles by the quiet waters of the Dyberry Creek, did not hear Howard and his cat as they walked on the banks toward the pedestrian bridge. Margorie Haines, who lived on Riverside Drive on the other side of the creek, did not see them ascend the Honesdale Stairs, even though she sat all night smoking cigarettes on the wooden deck out her second storey bedroom, facing the entrance to the stairs. Margorie, nervous because she had an appointment with a tax examiner in the morning, stayed up until well after midnight, but never heard anything from up on the cliff that night. She dreamed, as she did every night, of Elmer Hennenlotter and her times with him at The Limerick, the feeling and smell of his bristly face against hers, beer and cigarettes.
Billy Meier, a high school senior who worked nights at his father's agricultural vehicle dealership, taking inventory and moving around tractors and plows and riding mowers in the lot, saw a shining tower on top of the cliff that night. He stood up on the cushioned seat of a Kubota he had to move out toward the front gate for Harold Moyer to pick up in the morning, and saw the moonlight catch on a lattice of metal up on Irving Cliff. Billy slid the Kubota into gear with his knee and was so distracted by the tower, he ran the tractor right into the fence and bent down three steel posts almost out to the road, before he cut the engine. He cursed himself. Harold Moyer'd sure be mad about the scratches in the paint job on the front of his new Kubota.
If Billy wouldn't've crashed, and had instead kept looking up at Irving Cliff, he might've seen a giant ascend the shining latticed tower. Howard Downing climbed the ladder he borrowed from Mr. Sullum's hardware store, his grey cat following, hopping up with all four feet shifting on each rung below Howard. At the top of the ladder, Howard sat on the sticker that told him not to sit or stand on the top rung, and the cat curled up in his lap, looked once into his eyes and fell asleep. Howard looked down the length of the Lackawaxen and admitted to himself the view from the third storey balconies of the hotel, much higher than the top of Sullum's aluminum folding ladder, must have been much more breathtaking, must have made of this little valley something more than what he saw now.
When his cat ceased purring in his lap, Howard stopped picturing the Honesdale of 1889 and woke up to the Honesdale of 1890, where a professional illustrator might stretch the truth and include the hotel as part of the geography of the town, even though it burned down the year before. From this height, now, all he could think of was falling, falling straight from the cliff into the creek, with his cat trailing above him like a balloon on its leash. But the cliff was more of a ridge with a sloped face, and if he fell from it, he'd only end up scratched in the brambles of the woods above Margorie Haines's house. He'd have to walk back home to his apartment over Clark's after all.
BIO: Michael Buozis lives in Philadelphia. His stories have appeared in Able To..., The Benefactor, 63 Channels and The Foundling Review. He reviews fiction for The Adirondack Review and edits The Six-Fingered Hand.