Paul Crenshaw

Highwire

The old board hung like a highwire from the crumbling pumphouse to the rock wall a few feet away. The pumphouse roof had been ripped off years ago, and only the cinderblocks remained, three or four feet high, though they seem much higher now in memory. This was our old stone house alongside a county highway, with sidewalks and rock terraces where we were always finding scorpions and spiders, at an age when we sought such things out because the insides of our lives were quickly coming apart.

The board was weathered and cracked and could have broken at anytime, but when my parents were hurling words at one another, I went out my window and climbed the pumphouse wall to practice my highwire act. The board teetered when I put a foot on it and wobbled when I put two. It was wide enough to walk and thick enough to hold my slight weight at eight, but I always thought, with the shouts filtering through the walls of the house and the sun sinking behind the blue hills and the cold night coming on, that the board stood a thousand feet high and crossed a thousand feet of chasm and any wrong move would send me into the abyss. I walked carefully, arms out for balance, worn tennis shoes searching each step before committing, hoping the shouts never reached a crescendo that might tilt my balance and send me pinwheeling down into the darkness.

After two steps I’d stop, wondering what would happen when I reached the other side. It seems clear to me now I was trying to decide which parent I would continue to love. Some days, stuck in the middle and wobbling back and forth on the board, there seemed nothing to do but wait. The world was falling apart and whatever was careening toward us was as cold as the coming weather. I took the last two steps to the end of the board where it lay over the rock wall, and once, early that winter when our house seethed with suspicion, I noticed a narrow recess beneath the board.  When I kneeled down to look I could see the dark skin of a frog or perhaps a scorpion—I was very young—wintering there, struck dumb with the cold of its surroundings and sluggish in its responses. I wanted to run and tell my father what I had found, but he was busy breaking apart, so instead I went back across the board with my arms held out, trying to find balance in a tilted world. When I reached the crumbling wall I could hear the house, so I crossed back and knelt to see beneath the board again, assuming, since it had not stung me already, that whatever lay sleeping was benign.

All through that winter I went across the narrow chasm, pretending any fall would hurt me, any tilt or slide would cause it all to come crashing down. Pretending that if I could keep crossing safely I could hold it all together, that I could bridge the growing gap in our house, that I could travel from one parent to the other as easily as I crossed the chasm. When shouting broke out I fled the house to the board propped between the walls that I considered two sides of the world, though I never specified which was safety and which danger, if there were any difference between the two. Some days I poked beneath the board with a stick, or my hand, to feel the hard skin, to wonder what waited, sleeping.

Who can say how many times I crossed safely? While the walls shook and the snow came colder each day and my father came closer to leaving. While the phone rang and rang. While my mother cried in the cold. While my brother grew more distant, and I imagined the chasm beneath me growing as well. At each successful crossing I peered into the recess beneath the board to see the spider or scorpion sleeping, waiting for spring and warm weather, which in my mind was still so far away.

And who can see what waits for us in the hollow recesses beneath our feet? In the spring my father left. His breath bloomed before him but already the world was warming. On the day he piled his truck full of his things, I went out to take down the board that had held me aloft all through that winter as our house leaked heat like something had torn inside. I was tired of moving between worlds, wanting both feet on solid ground. When I grabbed the board I heard a rattle, and when I moved it I saw the snake, come alive now when I thought the danger gone. It would be years before I spoke to my father. And though I can still see the snake uncoiling toward me, it had grown so slow with the cold that it would be years before it struck.


Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University, and has recently discovered, at a local bakery, Nutella croissants and caramel pecan brownies.

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