Peter Vilbig

In the spring, he started cutting school, hiding behind a gardenia bush in the backyard until his mom left for work, then creeping back inside, fumbling out of his school clothes, and sliding into the bath. While steam rose in slow gusts off the surface of the water, he watched his pulse jerk at his ankles. The enamel walls blistered with the moisture. After lunch he watched Edge of Night on television.

At night while his mother slept at the other end of the house he stayed up till all hours and listened to the Dallas radio, and when it was very late he would switch the radio off, and in that sudden silence, he lay awake not thinking about the size of the universe, or what it would be like to be dead, or whether there was such a person as God, but about the time before he was born, what there was of him before, or imagining the non-existence that preceded him. At that age, such thoughts were a physical ether that carried him back above the actual terrain of his life: his room with its stain of light from the outside window that landed on the shelf where the caterpillars he caught last summer lay suspended in alcohol; the round-up of nightly guilt about his cutting; the worries about his mom; and a parade of smudged images on the photographic plates of memory: a night waking in fever when he was maybe five, the spidery trees outside his window; a faint luminosity connected with a fall from a merry go round; a sandpile where his tiny hands dug into the earth as though disappearing somewhere—backwards from all of this he flew strangely airborne and exhilarated until he was right up against the dividing plane. What came before him was dark, empty and scattered, an intangible sliding vagueness, and what he got out of it was this eerie feeling he soon grew fond of. But as the spring wore on, his approach landed closer to some bone density of realness, so that he also came to fear this floating night apparatus or visitation, as though he might slip away entirely, float through and not come back.

His gorgeous mom was dating Mr. Ames. He would come over and sit in the living room smoking cigars, a barrel-chested man, easygoing and comfortable as an armchair you could sink into and yet never feel trapped. He imagined that was what his mom liked about him. Night after night, Mr. Ames looked at his watch, tapped the grey ash from his cigar, and the boy felt himself pulled into the curls of smoke. About midway through April, on a night that the boy had spent mostly in his room balling up pieces of paper and throwing them into the trash basket from across the room, keeping elaborate statistics of his success rate, Mr. Ames knocked at his door and said, “Pierce, join your mother and me. We’re going to look at something out front I think you might enjoy.”

In the front yard, the mild night air was cool and almost sweet against the skin, and the bowl of the sky with its feathery charcoal darkness was huge, much larger than the land, which seemed cramped under the untied and weightless endlessness of something so immense. Stars sputtered in the bowl of light that the city, still small in those days, sent upward. Other families lined the block, and he suddenly understood that something had been going on he was entirely unaware of. “There it is,” someone shouted. His mother looked up and pointed. Mr. Ames, though he had arranged for them to come outside, seemed less interested in actually looking. At first Pierce’s eyes wheeled aimlessly through the dark screen that pretended to be illimitless space. “It’s moving,” his mom said. And then he saw: a moving star brighter than the rest. “Gemini,” his mother whispered. The spacecraft was circling the earth. The tiny disk moved toward the horizon and gradually faded into the brighter margins of the sky. “Three astronauts up there,” Mr. Ames said. “Not bad.” Mr. Ames gave his mom a look, which seemed to say he wanted to go to the moon too. The boy looked away and to the sky, yet the tension between the sky, the object circling in it, and his own space here on earth had kindled a disappearing weightlessness in time as strange as weightlessness in space. “Come on, sport,” his mom said. She pulled her jacket tight. “Let’s get you to bed.”

The accelerated feeling of weightlessness did not go away. He felt as though he was floating more in his baths, barely able to hold his body to the bottom of the tub. At night he lay sometimes, removing all of his clothes, on top of his nubby bedspread. The light from the window placed a streak across his legs. He sometimes sighed very deeply, resisting the impulse to turn on the transistor radio. And soon drifted; it could be counted on. Night by night. Feeling the nubs of the spread as though they were nails he rested on, slightly floating, painless. Feeling his flesh crawl and then—dissolve. His vapors drifted backward to the dividing wall. He felt himself as though a string had dipped into him, vibrated, and pulled him out onto its long surface, one part of him there, another somewhere else beyond. The wall presented a burly strength. He felt himself stretched and released, gathered into the string, and when he went through he had no idea what had just happened. To call this darkness was a mistake; it was eyeless and that made sense, without any sensation, in fact. And yet he saw (and thought: wrong word), felt (not much better—there was no way around the language problem) vague imprints that held and snapped in slow motion: what was he seeing? Well, movement, but not in space. Someone saying, help or no? Then he realized that he had fallen asleep. But was his penis rigid or not? When he woke next morning, the hair that had only started growing in the last few months, had turned red.

He was afraid to tell his mom about what was happening to the hair around his penis. For about a week, he abandoned the tub. Then the hair turned brown, and it didn’t matter. Mr. Ames began sending his mom flowers from time to time, and he would sit in the afternoon, watching how the light through the den’s sliding glass door went right through the petals. The only thing that was strange was the fact of his not being caught. He wondered if the school had lost his records or believed him to have moved or dropped out to attend private school. For quite a while now, when he lay down on the nubby bedspread, nothing happened.

Mr. Ames came over one night with a pair of stilts. They were wood, painted white, nothing particularly spectacular, but he took the boy out to the patio and showed him how to use them. “You’re picking it up great,” he said. And it was true: the boy took to stilts the way some children take to water. He turned at one point and saw his mom watching from the den window. He waved and nearly lost his balance. “There you go,” Mr. Ames said. “Concentration.”

After that, he began spending many of the days he had heretofore given to baths and soap operas on the stilts, and he soon became fantastically skillful with them. He brought his transistor radio out to the porch and soon he could tap out the rhythms to songs. He taught himself to launch both stilts into the air at once then come down one at a time. His breakthrough came when he began to imagine the stilts as simply two wood structures that danced and galloped around the patio, unguided, unaided. One day he nearly broke his ass trying to leap stilts and all on the Adirondack chair.

He had begun to wonder if he would ever “go back there” again, and then one night when the low murmur of the voices of Mr. Ames and mom died down, he lay for a time listening to the early June bugs knocking from time to time against his window, and the weightlessness swept into him from nowhere, but this time everything happened fast, as though someone had scooped up the smoke of him and hurled it. He knew he was suddenly something like darkness; he knew it was like a room, had some quality of holding. He had the feeling that he could not go back. He couldn’t breathe, and then he thought what a dirty trick, I’m going to die, and then, surprise, he woke up. The room was dark, and this time he had to use the flashlight on his headboard to determine that his hair color had not changed.

A few weeks later, without quite knowing why, he admitted to his mother about the cutting. Of course, she was upset. Mr. Ames helped calm her down. He said he thought the boy was ready to do some work; every boy, he said, went through a time when nothing happened. The boy, he pointed out, had already agreed to go to summer school. And that is what happened. He went to summer school and made up three of the classes he had missed. Mr. Ames and his mom were happy. Only he knew that nothing had happened. Yet it was also true that despite lying on the nubby bedspread many times throughout the summer, nothing ever happened again.

There was no lesson. He didn’t see things differently. He still practiced on his stilts. He watched a special on tv that showed Africans in tribal dress dancing on top of giant stilts. He had this vision of his life atop those giant stilts, looking down with each year adding more distance from the ground, until the world itself looked like a dot where the tips of his stilts connected. About six months later, Mr. Ames asked his mom to marry him, and she said, yes. That meant they were moving to a new neighborhood. He would have a new house. He planned it out in his head right away: how on the first day in the new house, he would walk on the stilts in front of his stepfather’s house. He saw the slanting sunlight, the weird gray asphalt of the street with dark smears of tar where they had filled in cracks. People would stop their gardening as he passed. Young people his age would stop their games to watch him. From one end of the block to the other he would move, and then slowly back home, just as the sun was going down. He would tap out his strange code on the asphalt. People would gather along the curb. He would dance the way some birds fly. In his mind he planned it many, many times. He would turn in spirals like cloud patterns made on weather maps, tacking like a sailboat, backward walking like a crab in the sand. On his way home to mom and dad.

Peter Vilbig
Peter Vilbig

Peter Vilbig is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. His short fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Tin Housethe Horizon Review, The Linnet's Wings, and The Ledge Poetry and Fiction Magazine, among  other publications. He holds an MFA from Columbia University. In addition to writing, he teaches in Brooklyn. He blogs at