We were sitting in a waiting room outside the big office. I’d brought a copy of a jazz magazine to read and it sat on my lap, unopened. She was around my age, mid-twenties, her dark hair tied back, her jeans and T-shirt plain and nondescript. Did you know that Chet Baker died by falling out of a window? she asked. Imagine, she said, the propped window, Chet’s lank body draped sideways over the sill, a leg hanging over the edge as he gazes out at the Amsterdam street below. He’s singing a tune in his sweet voice. Maybe it’s “When I Fall in Love,” because then he really did fall.
It might have been an accident, she said. Yes, there was heroin in his system and cocaine in the hotel room. So that might have had something to do with it. It wasn’t likely murder because the door was locked from the inside. And a window only two storeys up wouldn’t be a good choice to jump from, don’t you think? He was kind of a worn-out angel, but he was making some of the best records of his career. Then he pulped his head on the concrete. He already didn’t have teeth and had had to learn to play trumpet all over again, except with dentures. After the fall, he couldn’t very well play without a head. Though I suppose a few have tried, she laughed sweetly. And then added, suddenly serious, We lose people like that. Without warning.
We’d been sitting for a couple hours in the small waiting area, just a few chairs, a couple of worn magazines, and some kind of batiked fabric art from the seventies. I knew there was something I should have said when she became serious, but I hesitated, not knowing what, and then it was too late. I’d taken too long.
I thought of it later. Sponsor me in the gravity-a-thon. Sponsor me in the gravity-a-thon today, for I will remain pulled to the earth forever. You can sponsor me by the hour or the day. You can pay in one lump sum, which, considering my mass and shape, might be most appropriate. I will help hold things together. I will be pulled toward to the centre of many things and this pulling will help. Things will stay together. They will remain clumped, pressed down like soil in the path of wide-hooved horses. The roads of the world shall not erode, and its mountains will not fly through the clouds.
But I too have my own force in the universe. I pull matter toward me. The sun. Jupiter. A raisin. Galaxies and superclusters. Ants. There is attraction. Far from home, the shape of a comet, and its path changes because of me. Even more if I eat this next sandwich or that apple.
And there is an attraction that flows between the stuff of everything. The citizens of the world, its fish, and its stones. Gravity flows between us like an aura that shakes hands, that clasps us together as a drowning swimmer and his rescuer tug at each other over the edge of the boat, as waves rise and fall, escaping from the ocean and returning, escaping and returning, as indeed the moon pulls the tides, a restless sleeper tugging on blankets, pulled by dreams.
And I will sponsor you also. I will sponsor you and you will sponsor me. We both will move toward the centre of the world. I will pull you toward me and you will pull back. We will pull the living and the dead toward us. We are swimmers in an ocean of tide and undertow, an ocean of time and space.
But, of course, it would have been typical of me to think of that. I’d have wanted to stand up in my superhero cape in the waiting room and make everything right, speaking not for the meaning, but for how the words fell trippingly on the tongue. Still, though, the sudden seriousness of her words stayed with me: We lose people like that. The words like a plaintive hole in space, like someone had erased a shadow, leaving nothing, not even the air.
I saw her again about a month later, walking down the stairs to the big office. Hi, I said awkwardly. Do you know which jazz composer has a middle name that’s a shape? I don’t know, Benny Square Goodman? she said with a scrunching of her right eye, like a kind of wink. Actually, it was Melodious Thunk, I said. Who? Thelonious Monk—his middle name was Sphere. The opposite of square, she said. Exactly. His own planet. Yes, I said. But they always say his music is so angular. O.K. then, a planet with lots of feet and elbows sticking out of it. That’s some kind of strange gravity happening there. I guess, she said. And then was gone.
I continued up the stairs and sat down in the waiting room. After an hour or so, the door to the big office opened and I was asked to come in to another smaller waiting room, though with similar decor. There was a clipboard on the table beside my chair. There were forms to fill out, and I began. My name, my age, the town where I was born. The story of my childhood. My mother’s maiden name. Grades I got in college. I wrote about apples that I liked at different times in my life. Tart. Sweet. Crunchy. Crisp. My first bicycle. What dental work I needed. My job, my investments, my new car. Retirement plans and the last tropical country I travelled to. And as I wrote, I remained fixed to my place in the chair. I was balanced perfectly between one thing and the next. I had gravity and there was gravity, but I did not fall.