Life Sentence

Life Sentence

By Brian Walter

Alice Dodge was falling fast, her already-orphaned son leaping to the hospital window a second too late to save her, her daughter peering up from the hard pavement with a look of dawning horror as the dot in the sky above her—curled curiously almost into the shape of a comma—grew thrillingly and horrifically recognizable at the mortal speed of nine-point-eight-one-meters-per-second-squared (for if we are all slaves to the arbitrary but binding laws of gravity, Alice was, at every moment in her headlong pitch, our poster child in thralldom to the universal millstone), her short, gray-flecked hair plastering and then re-plastering her face after a curiously deliberate hand was raised to pull it aside, apparently to treat herself at least momentarily to the rare and frankly rather extraordinary prospect of a twenty-six story building’s cracked and weathered western wall speeding upward a couple of feet from her nose at an equally cumulative velocity, her three-year-old winter overcoat (black cashmere) gathered around her body but billowing with the speed of her fall against its single-button gathering just below her breast (just below her heart), her mind not racing but somehow pacing through the events of her sixty-six years, proceeding step by step, T-cell by T-cell, synapse by synapse through the convoluted narrative that had delivered her to that height in the first place, that had (further) delivered the kindred sight that had induced her to leap forward and down from her life, and that would (she well knew—we all well know) culminate in the Gorgon’s head of terminal punctuation (for verification of which, no doubt, the increasingly impatient reader has already scanned all the way through to the dreaded end of this life sentence), but a monster (this spectre of a definite end) that she (she, at least—and possibly alone) did not—could not—fear anymore, for Alice, it should be said, owned no restaurant, not this Alice, and she had had no chat with Cheshire Cat (though a Red Queen or two), and this Alice (my Alice) had almost entirely skipped puberty (to say nothing of girls’ puberty books) to proceed with alarming directness and dispatch into adulthood, almost, one might say, had begun life at the very moment that she leaped forward with her plan to end it, this mother of two, whose son (whom we shall call—let me see, let me see—Charlie, I guess, for the sake of argument) was born neither early nor late, but caesareanally, yes, to be sure, some forty-two years, three months, two weeks, one day, 12 hours, and 37 minutes before Alice threw herself out the hospital window, who (Charlie, that is) had proceeded, oddly enough, from this entirely unremarkable advent through a childhood of hide-and-seek and Hardy Boys mysteries and sleepovers and scout badges and piano lessons and take-out burgers with no pickles, please—a reasonably conventional march from age two to twelve, in other words, certainly not the kind of personal history that would, in itself, predict someday his mother’s precipitous and fatal decision, for Charlie had in fact turned out to be a nice young man, unmarried (though into his fifth decade of life, it is oddly true), but otherwise of entirely sound mind and reasonably stable emotions, the kind of son who will throw himself at the window desperately clutching for the barest purchase on his mother’s overcoat (three years old, black cashmere—a combination birthday and Christmas present), the kind of son, moreover, who would summon the outlandish and rather inadvisable courage to deliver a eulogy (for his own mother) at the funeral service four days later, who would shed tears as hot and fast while watching her fall as he had when, at the age of seven (being something of a late bloomer, it should probably be admitted), while he was learning to ride a bike (his big sister, Lorina’s, of course, though it openly omitted the rigid bar running from seat-post to handle-bar-post that signals a bicircular vehicle’s conventional masculine allegiance), he had been made to sit in mother Alice’s lap as she cleansed his burning knees and elbows with iodine, son sniffing and squirming and chewing hard on his bubble gum but gamely trying to honor mother’s repeated requests to hold still, nine-year-old Lorina seizing the opportunity to hop on the still-warm seat of the bicycle herself for a spin around the neighborhood, for it had been too long (too long, at least, as a child measures time) since Lorina had ridden bike with her best friend, Edith, who lived three doors down in a two-story green eyesore of a house with her mother and father and big brother Joey and little four-year-old brother Jackie, the latter of whom had howled in protest (poor child) only a week or two before because he was not selected to be Lorina’s patient at the same time that Charlie was selected to be Edith’s when the time came to play doctor, Edith dutifully watching as patient Charlie undressed and lay down for examination in the darkened garage that Saturday afternoon, the garage’s front door gaping open, but her parents’ big Buick blocking out most of the afternoon sunshine, so that, positioned as they were in the small space between the front bumper and the garage’s back wall, Edith could barely make out Charlie’s dinkie (her first) as she reached for it and began to tickle it gingerly with the tips of her fingers, Charlie in his confusion pushing her hand away with his own but not too forcefully, not too insistently, as the rest of him squirmed on the cold pavement, a wriggling butterfly pinned alive to the cork, held fast by a pliant pin at his center, in the nether regions of his skinny midriff, sensations he could not place or fix emanating from this newly discovered core, imperiling him and arousing him simultaneously, so that he began to cry at the very moment that he desisted altogether from his limp attempts to push Edith’s exploring hand away, the tears coming faster still only moments later when mother Alice came running in to yank Edith away and then yank little Charlie’s pants up around his hairless, tingling loins (Lorina, by the way, having moved none-too-quickly out of her mother’s warpath at the entry of the garage where she had taken up sentry position in respectful silence for the proceedings within), mother Alice running into the garage almost as she would come running into St. John’s Hospital thirty-five years later in response to the phone call that she had been half-dreading for several years already, the signal to a mother’s immediate action, the signal to rush to the car and drive at unwholesome speeds through the 5:15 p.m. traffic, changing lanes without blinkering, forcing her way through the snarled and congested byways of a Friday rush hour like (yes, we can say it) the volatile adolescent naturally high on the testosterone surging through his veins, a real mother of a mother in her fear and pressing affection, her brow written deeply in love and anguish, her heart beating wildly, racing at breakneck speed to get in as many contractions as it could before it would cease to be needed at all some 2600 beats later when Alice, dear Alice, my Alice, finally kept her rendezvous with the flinty-hearted pavement, her lips curling ever so slightly in (can it really be true?) apparent anticipation of the kiss she would (in a gesture of stunning, almost flawless, generosity) bestow on the agent of her end, the death’s head that would punctuate her life sentence, growing gradually more pointed, more discernible, within the ever-so-lightly pebbling surface of the stone-cold sidewalk, emerging wanly, reluctantly (this spectre of terminus), to enfold Alice in its embrace, in its unstinting and entirely familiar growth conjuring before her mind’s bemused eye (you saw this pivot coming a mile off, for “I know you of old,” as sharp Beatrice reminds tricky jade Benedick) the image of Charlie in cap and gown, his left hand heavy with a diploma but nevertheless reaching out in tandem with the right to encircle Alice, for whom (at that moment of pure gladness) the horror of the previous evening’s phone call was already fading within the rush of her vicarious accomplishment, her suspicions already drowning in a wash of unstinting affection, the same suspicions which, in the glow of their potency, had sent her immediately after she hung up to the basement of the Buchman Fine Arts Center in search of her son’s handwriting, actually, specifically to a basement bathroom reserved for the opposite sex (her abrupt entrance into the dis-distaff lavatory, it should be mentioned here, not at all disturbing Jonathan, the campus vagrant, in his labors at the first urinal, though the image of Jonathan’s Cincinnati Reds cap turned full in her face lingered somehow disturbingly in Alice’s imagination as she began her detective work in the first stall), the same Buchman Fine Arts building which she had visited (chaperoned by tactful Lorina) for the very first time only a few days earlier that week to see Charlie’s work safely nestled among the other senior art projects, the stunning, mesmerizing 38″ x 51″ as-yet-unmatted black-and-grey-and-blue painting of Charlie’s grandfather inverted and naked on his deathbed, knees bent high and apart and away toward the pillows, feet tucked back so far that the heels could not be seen behind the slightly splayed cheeks of the buttocks, genitals in chaste flaccidity sagging down between the upper thighs but still horribly visible to the stunned, mesmerized Alice (whose helpless gaze had leaped right over the swatch of pubic hair almost covertly graying), painted chest skinny, long ago departed of its musculature, left arm fixed with a long, almost snake-like, Picasso-blue IV line, the head lolled backward off the side of the bed near the foot to address the viewer from sunken, hollowed-out eye-sockets, the eyes themselves neither angry nor sad nor pleading but simply possessed of the knowledge of consciousness’s impending end—the body not quite dead yet, but caught forever in oil and canvas in the act of dying, a dumbshow of mortality that nevertheless, almost miraculously, somehow left the soul (the immortal part, according to one dictionary, of our mortal existence) gloriously and strikingly naked, chained though it was in the grandson’s depiction to the very nearly dead animal of the body—an image which held Alice helplessly, ineffably fast, ignoring the attached nameplate, needing no sign to inform her of the identity of its creator, requiring no external aid to recognize her son’s agonized and agonizing image of her stricken father, whom (together with quiet Lorina) Alice and Charlie had visited also in the hospital a decade before, twelve-year-old Charlie (chin still hairless) hesitating at the door as Alice gently beckoned him forward to the bed, her right hand already holding her father’s left, mustering a small smile for Charlie in an attempt to lessen the fear and pain scored so deeply into his expression, taking her son’s trembly hand and laying it in his grandfather’s equally (though differently) infirm grasp, watching her father (already in the wordless stages of his illness’s advance) squeeze Charlie’s fingers a little more tightly (tears welling in the sunken eyes that would, in painted effigy, hold his only daughter transfixed in the Buchman Fine Arts Center a decade later), prepubescent Charlie looking up from his grandfather’s pillowed head to seek help from 14-year-old Lorina, who, stationed directly across the bed from her brother, was manning the right hand, Lorina, whose face was already glistening with her inability to stem the overflow of her stricken affections, prefiguring (inevitably) her expression ten days later when she would be seated in the front pew, the top half of the casket yawning open barely ten feet in front of her and her brother to expose their grandfather’s carefully-treated face in “final repose,” Charlie clutching both hers and Alice’s hands, his spiffy crew cut and equally spiffy black tie (which he had been so proud to take off the adult rack and hand to Alice only a couple weeks before) powerless against the loss, his hanky already clotted and useless with the detritus of his grief even before the first hymn was assayed, sorrow, Charlie, anguish that did not induce a howl but instead conjured image, image that would in turn be conjured ten years later for the sake not of a grade, nor even for the sake of some artificial purgative urge, but instead for the sake of simple but indelible memorial (for all Charlie wanted—all any of us want, perhaps—is to pluck a few roses in the headlong pitch of experience), for the sake of freezing forever in humble black frame an image of our species contemplating itself, for the sake (finally) of art at its most human, human pain and love at its most rivetingly artful, riveting Alice to her spot, riveting her feet deep and fast to the floor, riveting her heart to the bone-ache of her son’s love and loss, both parent and child, both caregiver and griever, a tight spot (it will be admitted) for any person, a locus of competing impulses, the gravity of her loss pulling her down, down, down until she might simply dash her grief once and for all against the stolidly receptive stonework, but the inexpressible sympathy she felt for her son (her own child) as he stood at the window (as he must have stood at the easel, clutching in loving, deeply creative futility for salvational purchase), watching through his tears as his mother fell, pulling back at her, almost strong enough to halt her headlong pitch, almost forceful enough to hold her fast against gravity, gravity, this cursed control freak that eons and mere hours ago tossed an apple against an Englishman’s eager noggin (leading him to mis-describe the secret of its force, leading us all into this nine-point-eight-one-meters-per-second-squared madness)—almost strong enough, this heart-tug of her son, to suspend Alice in mid-air endlessly (do you, reader, have this image of dear old Alice still fixed before your mind’s eye?), lengthening her life against the hateful forces of teleology, stretching her existence against the biblical edicts that require a season for every thing, an equal and opposite counter force for every force, and an end for every story, so that, stave the end off how we would, stave it off how we will, filling a minimum stretch of time (this brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness which, we must concede, comprises human life) with a maximum sample of spatial enjoyment, playing for time, seeking patterns of divine delight in the cracked and weathered facades that wall us in in our headlong pitch from birth to death, from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb—talking, laughing, writing, singing, touching, running, riding, tagging, calling, crying, sitting, watching, eating, spinning, seeing, quaffing, jumping, kidding, painting, reaching, taking, (even) stealing, teasing, cutting, drawing, whispering, falling, plummeting, plunging, pitching, tumbling, hurtling, hurrying, rushing, hastening, slowing, pondering, scraping, molding, shelving, pasting, hurting, laving, fooling, measuring, turning, confessing, shouting, pouring, setting, lifting, moving, scanning, flipping, treading, swinging, shutting, dipping, crawling, lying, arranging, begging, tickling, soothing, gaining, bathing, hanging, weaving, centering, holding, shooting, throwing, gluing, closing, waiting, sliding, nailing, opening, skipping, flying, tossing, taping, tatting, cleansing, collecting, wrapping, hoping, diagramming (I dare you), lighting, flipping, acting, making, floating, typing, trotting, dialing, petting, shaping, pledging, rhyming, sealing, kissing, remembering, guarding, praying, playing, paying, quickening, losing, loving—in short, no matter how we spend our three-score-years-and-ten allotment pursuing the tried-and-true actions that, in aggregate, mark us out as a species, we must, each of us, every Hom, Tick, and Darry, every Anne, Betty, and Candida, be caught up short, each of our life sentences doomed to a period, like my Alice’s, who (in generous comprehension, in exceptionally generous courage) has freely embraced her twenty-six story fate, who has freely lifted her limbs to be stretched on the rack of a life whose dimensions were purposely conceived to probe (if you will indulge the melodrama) the very limits of human endurance, who has (Alice that is) freely consented to have her ordeal held up in loving spectacle, to be not Sisyphus (Charlie is really the better candidate for that role, peering through his tears down from the hospital window as the object of his affection escapes him) but the stone itself, tasked for apparent eternity to seek the nadir, never, ever, ever to gather moss, to fall away from the height it has reached with its benefactor’s aid and keep its fated rendezvous with gravity, this massy-muscled tug at the center of the earth, the magnet buried in the core of the apple, centripetal force in its primal form (that gives, incidentally, the lie absolutely to the quaint old myth of the centrifugal), holding everything fast to the planet’s surface, acknowledging only the most superhuman efforts—the voodoo of aeronautics, the apotheotic impulse of the leg muscle, the miracle of the transcendent wing—to fly momentarily in its face before, once again, implacable, intractable, and inevitable, King Gravity asserts its sovereignty, the governor of physical action that allowed Icarus and Phaethon little more than a glimpse or two of delusionary happiness before slipping in the final, fatal word on their hubristic fancies, the genius who brought Goliath crashing down to earth, the iconoclast who dashed Moses’ stone tablets against the killing rocks, the executioner who delivered Jezebel to the dogs, the behemoth who sank the Titanic forever into a watery grave, Pisa’s scourge, Satan’s conductor into the fiery pit, Pompeii’s undertaker (for an earthquake, if you think about it, is really only gravity’s way of reminding us that, with it, the merest bout of tectonic indigestion—a touch of the rumbles in the terrestrial maw—imperils us all), but (lest we forget in this enumeration of gravity’s darkest masks) simultaneously the benefactor who floated Elijah’s cloak down to Elisha, the altruist who coaxes from heaven the blessed gift of a spring rain shower (nature’s kiss to a slowly awakening planet), the helpful assistant who in timely, delightfully rhythmical fashion delivers implement after implement after implement into the supplicating palms of the juggler before the widened eyes of a child’s audience—the same widened eyes from which Gravity the Stoic (the same, the very same) will tug the tears, sending them a-tumble down the cliff-wall of a downy cheek, tears of sorrow and pain and loss, to be sure, but tears also (again, lest we forget) of happiness, tears shed in a moment of joy when the tide is going out, the periwinkles are brilliant in their profusion, and the sand is heavy with saltwater, lending itself willing mortar to the amateur architect as he scoops up bulldozer bucketsful for the castle’s foundation (for in this oldest and divinest of games, the architect is also a construction grunt), checking the location of the ramparts against the blueprint spread out so carefully in the busy workroom of his imagination, all four bulwarks, once raised to full height, carefully scooped of a level inch or two of sand in their centers, forming the parapets, the necessary circles within a circle within which brightly-colored action figures, the castle’s conscripts, are arrayed, a cornucopia of anachronisms and species set in lofty defense of the child’s demesne, cowboys with rifles, cowboys with pistols drawn, a predictably posed (though entirely green) Indian, knees bent forward, left hand out, right arm raised with tomahawk at the ready (a figure equally adept at crawling forward for sneak attack in the middle of the night or leaping from a palomino in full gallop through the imagination onto the back of a helpless enemy brave), cereal-box dinosaurs all out-of-scale, the tyrannosaur on hind legs as tall as the long-necked brontosaurus (an innocent age’s innocent term for our far jazzier apatosaur), the spiky-spined stegosaurus and the preciously imposing triceratops looking, somehow, all the more singular in the bright orange and reasonably deep purple in which they had been cast, leopards, pilots, ring-tailed monkeys, World War II infantry chastely helmeted, all these and more, the brilliant motley of a child’s imagination distributed carefully among the turrets, prepared to shoot down, hack, gore, or bite to bits any enemy foolhardy enough to assay the castle, a last line of defense against any invading hordes that somehow bested the moat, the tactical trench so carefully dug out with bucket and child’s hand-spade, a surprisingly perfect circle that ran (at the architect’s insistence) nearly a full foot deep, a moat (once dug) plenished and replenished by running trips down to the tide, orange plastic bucket swinging wildly in ecstatic expectation of the pound or two of sea-slosh with whose conveyance it would soon be entrusted, heavy on the return trip, bouncing against the thigh, the knee, even the diminutive calf, handle elongated (gravity’s little reminder) with the burden, relaxing immediately once a thimbleful of the Pacific Ocean had finally been delivered to its new (temporary) home, Uncle Charlie looking on approvingly and somehow successfully resisting the impulse to minister to the castle’s inevitably infirm foundation, Grandma Alice (her white pants rolled up to the knee—no further) hovering just in case a woman’s touch were needed, Mother Lorina further back up the beach in her chaise longue, sunglasses not obscuring her view of mother, brother, and son at play, brother Charlie so solicitous of his only nephew (who had his uncle’s high, rounded cheekbones and wide-set eyes, almost bow-legged across the bridge of the nose), this child whom Uncle Charlie loved with a parent’s desperate affection, this almost-spitting image to whom Charlie would even lend his treasured childhood collection of action figures, this putto who had returned from his most recent trip down to the water’s edge with the seat of his swimsuit very, very wet, Uncle Charlie laughing in unself-conscious delight at his nephew’s slip, an almost silent movie (this whole scene), somehow, playing out before Lorina’s eyes, no dialogue or intertitles necessary, some music maybe (the Marx Brothers applying felt-tipped mallets to the helmeted heads of a platoon, perhaps, a human xylophone, yes—that’s the ticket—Groucho conducting, Harpo laying down the backbeat), Grandma Alice hovering, still hovering, but hovering not for much longer, another scene frozen in frame (imagine, perhaps, John Sargent stepping outside his portrait studio to brighten a sea-scape), Grandma Alice, Mother Alice, Daughter Alice, Alice Alice hovering and floating and drifting and sinking and finally yielding to gravity, seeking the window of her only son’s hospital room, seeking a final return to the earth, a final descent into the maelstrom, her energies now almost depleted, her life sentence nearly exhausted, Alice in final repose (. . . nine . . . eight . . .), Alice alighting (. . . five . . .), Alice at ground zero.


Brian Walter’s previous work has appeared in (among others) Boulevard, Southern Quarterly, CineAction, and Dragon Poet Review. His book, The Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany, is expected from the University of Arkansas Press in 2018.


“Life Sentence” by Brian Walter originally appeared in NDQ 84.3-4 (2018).

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