The gravity storms worked like this: a minor fluctuation in the earth's increasingly unstable gravitational field would move through an area, much like any storm might, except that there was little notice; no clouds gathering along the horizon, no rumble of distant thunder to let people know it was coming. Some claimed they could feel the approach of these disturbances by the sense of lightness that entered their bones, as though their marrow was rising in its channels; doctors and scientists alike, however, tended to dispute this notion. For Buddy, the first clue was generally a rattle coming from a cupboard, or a piece of crockery left on the counter. Then he'd smell the dust.
It happened this way every time--the dust, being the lightest element in the house, would rise from all the crevices where, despite Polly's thoroughness in cleaning, it had escaped her notice or reach. It lifted and spiraled from the floor; Buddy would smell it first, then look to the south windows of the living room to see it rising in the shafts of light like swirling smoke, and he'd know the storm was nearly upon them.
Then came the clatter of whatever was not fastened down: the silverware in its drawer, the china in its cabinets. Buddy might open a cabinet to find the cups and saucers nestled together against the bottom of the next shelf up. In the average American household, however, objects of larger size were routinely fastened down to some secure, stable surface. Beds, chairs, and couches were bolted to the floor. As for smaller items--as Buddy's mother Polly put it after redoing their living room to make it "GS compatible," or gravity-safe--"We live in a universe of Velcro."
Toasters and microwaves were Velcroed to kitchen counters. Televisions and VCRs were Velcroed to their stands. The auto industry had even developed a Velcro car seat, which doubled as the perfect passive restraint system. You simply donned your hook or loop suit and Velcroed yourself into position. No fear of rising upward to rest against the ceiling if you'd forgotten to fasten a seat belt and had to confront a gravity fluctuation on the road. People were even using it as upholstery coverings in their homes.
"Just turn on the TV and fasten yourself into place," went the ads for the new Sleepy-Guy Velcro Recliner. "Now, that's peace of mind!"
But perhaps it might be best to examine one of these episodes from the beginning. . . .
"Shoot! Gravity storm's coming again!" Polly felt the creaking of the cables that held their tiny trailer to the ground, the clunking of rocks and pebbles against the underside as the lighter objects beneath them began to release their already tenuous hold on the earth. She heard the sounds of Velcro straining against itself all around her as the telephone, the flowerpots, the television began to wobble and tilt against their moorings, struggling to lift skyward. She glanced around for Buddy who, at the age of five, with his long, slender limbs, was light enough that he sometimes lodged in the vicinity of the ceiling if the gravity reversal became strong enough. Polly heard a cable snap at the end of the trailer, down by the bathroom, and felt the floor rock into a slant beneath her feet, which were scarcely touching down any longer. Through the kitchen window she glimpsed the mobile home of their neighbor, Mrs. Roberts, surrounded by rising dust and pebbles, tugging against its cables, seeming about to ascend into the sky altogether. But where was Buddy?
Polly made her way along the kitchen counter, holding to its edges against the upward pull. "Buddy?"--she lunged for the rim of the coffee table, which was securely bolted to the floor--"Buddy, where are you?" She moved along it, the floor rocking, her feet lifting entirely now from the buckling, heaving carpet, which looked like the surface of a sea--toward the front door, which was standing slightly ajar.
Polly had to lurch through open space to reach the door handle, hands and feet swimming through air; the sky outside was dark with clouds of flying dust and leaves, pebbles and gravel. She heard the magnolia tree in the yard creak against its roots as it too strained skyward. Sure enough, there was Buddy, out on the concrete stoop, feet flailing toward the heavens, hands clutched around the embedded cast iron railing. Polly heard another crack! as a second cable gave way; the entire rear of the trailer was in the air now. There was a loud snap from across the drive as another of Mrs. Roberts's cables parted, and the front end of her trailer lifted upward, rocking and twisting. Polly, groping through air, tried to reach one of Buddy's feet without letting go of her own precarious hold on the doorknob; but she kept missing. "Buddy!" she shouted. "Buddy!"
Her son did not appear to be listening. He was staring at the trailer foundation. In fact, he seemed to be concentrating; his exceptionally broad five-year-old brow was furrowed, and his sea-blue eyes burned, as though with an inner light. His gaze locked into place, fastening on the trailer, which twisted and groaned against the remaining few cables, until all at once, a settling seemed to come across the atmosphere. The trailer rocked a few times, emitted a tired moan. Polly felt the upward pull of her body against her arm release. The trailer wobbled several times more, then settled back into position on its blocks. Across the drive, Mrs. Roberts's home did the same. Polly saw Buddy's legs drop to horizontal, then find their place against the stoop; and she felt her own legs gradually touch down as well.
"Mom," said Buddy, his eyes still shining with that otherworldly blue. "I stopped it. I stopped the gravity storm!"
"It's a miracle!" Polly looked at her son with the mixture of fondness and wonder that always came over her on such occasions. "Another tiny miracle!"
A KIND OF TRINITY
Polly was always having to tell him this. Customers in the diner. Bag ladies at bus stops. Policemen on corners.
"But Mom," Buddy said, there at the bus stop, in one of his earliest memories. "That man is sad."
"Life is sad sometimes, Buddy. I tell you, you're going to get yourself into a whole heap of trouble later on if you don't learn to stop staring at people."
"But that lady--she's sad, too."
"She's old, Buddy." Polly grabbed his hand to pull his attention away. But despite herself, she was interested, and snuck a look at the woman too: gray-haired, furrowed-faced, surrounded by disheveled, dissolving mounds of plastic bags, through which she rummaged repeatedly.
"Hey!" The old woman came up suddenly from the depths of one of the bags, clutching a surprising five-dollar bill. "Hey!"
She caught Buddy's blue-eyed, unblinking gaze, staring out at her from beneath his tousled mass of brownish hair. She gave him a quizzical look. Light spread across her features like a rising dawn.
Another tiny miracle, affirmed Polly, to herself. But still--he shouldn't stare.
Another of Buddy's earliest memories:
A woman on the bus. She comes up the three stairs. Buddy hears the hiss of the bus coming to a halt and the accordion-opening of the doors, smells the exhaust. Buddy and Polly are on one of the sideways benches, side by side: Buddy is staring. The woman has a purse in one arm; the other carries a baby, swaddled in a blue cotton blanket. The baby sneezes, coughs--a rasping sound too big for its chest. Rummaging awkwardly through the purse, its mother comes up with a dollar bill.
The bus driver: "Exact change only, lady."
The woman: "My baby is sick. We're going to the doctor."
"I still can't make this machine take a dollar bill."
Buddy stares at her, stares at his mother. Polly opens her purse and gives the woman the right change. She sits across from them. The baby coughs, face wrinkled and red. The lady is crying. She looks up and catches Buddy staring. Gradually, almost reluctantly, her face softens. She smiles. The baby quiets and goes to sleep.
Later Buddy asks: "Mom, does everyone get sick?"
Polly nods her head. "Without exception."
Buddy stares past the surface, Polly says. He sees their souls. Every soul is beautiful. Sometimes people are helped by this. But often, people don't understand.
Maybe, Buddy always thought, it all started with that man--the earliest of his early memories. It was a day of dry, dusty wind, he remembered that, the kind of wind they didn't usually get in the Bayou--or that they never used to get, in the days of the old weather. The good weather, as many people called it. "Back in the good weather," he'd always hear them say. But this new weather was the only weather Buddy knew.
That day, there was the kind of wind you'd normally associate with the desert, lifting sidewalk litter in airborne spirals, hurling dust into people's eyes so they hurried along with heads lowered, and blinked and wiped at their lids. Buddy was crossing the street, fastened to Polly's hand, when a man rushed out from the opposite curb just as the light was about to change. The man must've been in an awful hurry, Buddy thought, because he didn't seem to be paying any attention to where he was going. He rubbed at his eyes with the back of one hand as he passed them. Buddy had an impulse to shout something as the man went by--"the light is red," or "watch out!" But he didn't manage to get this out in time; instead there came a honking horn, a long, sliding screech, a terrible thud. Buddy slipped hold of Polly's hand, although she groped after him as he vanished into the crowd--the crowd that appeared from nowhere, swarming about like the locusts that sometimes descended on the city when the choking dusty winds blew.
Buddy slid between knees and shins, shoved his way past briefcases and purses and dangling palms, grasped at skirt hems and pant legs, skidded against shiny black shoes.
All at once he glimpsed, between the limbs of the gawking crowd, while Polly's voice faintly cried "Buddy, Buddy!" from behind and the sirens rose in the distance--there, on the asphalt, in that place meant for feet and car tires, a place where lying down looked wrong--the same man who'd passed them only moments before. At his feet, kneeling, his head bowed as though in some act of worship, was the driver, wailing, moaning, thrashing his hands about. The car was nosed into the scene at a peculiar angle, headlights pointlessly on, the driver's door open, engine running. The left blinker was going on again off again on again off again, lemon yellow flashes against the dying man's face. The dying man.
Then Buddy saw--or half saw, or saw with a different kind of sight, as he stared from the front of the ring formed by the crowd--another self rise out of the man. Maybe the man's real self, Buddy thought. It lifted from the body on the asphalt like a butterfly from a cocoon. Cloudy, diffuse, like a rising mist, the man's real self separated itself from the useless flesh. Then, as the child stood staring, it floated away.
Buddy never told anybody about what he'd witnessed, but later he asked, "Mom, what happened to that man?"
"He died, Buddy."
"What does that mean?"
"He's not living anymore."
"Where did he go?"
"No one knows."
And so we have Buddy's first three memories--a kind of trinity--embedded like snapshots in the scrapbook of his recollection:
An old woman.
A sick child.
A dead man.
THE TRUE TEST OF GRAVITY
"When foursome and several years ago our forefathers pointed the way to a new nation . . . When in the course of human events, we dedicated ourselves to the proposition that all men were created people"--the President, Spud Thompson, leapt onto his desk with arms upraised in the climactic gesture that had made him famous--"what is there then, now, truly, at this twilight's last gleaming, but to look forward, ever forward, into the future--for where else but there does our destiny lie? The destiny of this Land of the Free? This Home, indeed, of the Brave?"
The assembled crowd of press, Big House staff, and TV camera people applauded. Then the bright lights switched off and the microphones lowered; and the President, clutching the small of his back, wearily scrambled off the desktop and back down to earth.
"They should have a hard time finding anything to argue with in that," Spud said to his aide, Hubert P. MacMillan. He rubbed at his back. "Still, I'm not sure anyone understood me at all."
"They never do, boss," MacMillan shrugged. "But they liked it. That's what counts."
"Terrific speech, Mr. President," said Dan Utmost, the keen-eyed, eager host of The Tomorrow Show, the most popular news program of the day. He stretched forward to shake the Chief's hand.
"One of your best," put in Fred Blakely, head of the news wing of Utmost's primary competitor, the twenty-four-hour-a-day America Show. Blakely reached past his rival to shake the President's hand too. The two commentators exchanged wary glances.
Through the window behind them, Hubert P. MacMillan could hear the sound rise again from the green below, the sound that had drummed at his ears off and on throughout the morning--that had drummed at his ears, in fact, throughout that entire month--the mingled, rhythmic thunder of thousands of chanting voices:RESTORE THE FORCE OF GRAVITY!
LEAVE TIME ALONE!!
AND FOR GOD'S SAKE, DO SOMETHING
TO FIX THE WEATHER!!!
Blakely looked at Utmost and in somewhat strained attempt at joviality said, "Well, I guess we'll both be heading down to cover the demonstrations, eh?" With that, he lifted one finger in the air and recited his program's motto: "America: The Show Must Go On!"
Utmost simply snorted.
The President moved to the window, where he could look down on the scene below. MacMillan drew the curtain aside to gaze out beside him. The park on Transylvania Avenue was packed for the fourth time that month with demonstrators. The air crackled with the hum of loudspeakers. Enormous banners along the street bore the messages:Obey The Law of Gravity!
Time Is Running Out!
Wake Up From The American Dream!!
"I don't know why they're protesting here again," said Spud in the worried tone that had become customary over the last, increasingly stressful months of his presidency. "I'm on their side."
"You may be," said MacMillan, "but the rest of the government . . ."
"Yes," said the President. "That's always the problem, isn't it?" His eyes looked tired, thought Hubert, and his lumpy, potato-ish features were beginning to sag beneath the strain. Even Spud's legendary powers of elocution, during the record five terms in which he served as one of the most popular presidents in history, had been unable to win any sort of unified cooperation from Congress. An image from the last elections flashed into Hubert's mind: Senate candidates delivering their speeches, wearing bright corporate sponsorship sashes, looking more like Miss America contestants than potential holders of public office. The convention hall draped in banners for Popeye Cola, Comical Oil, the American Excess card . . .From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Time of New Weather by Sean Murphy. Copyright © 2004 by Sean Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.