Up in the Air

Last night I sang a new song, a you-done-me-wrong I learned from Fat Stan, this old bandmate of mine, and Claudine thinks I stared directly at her during the song's unloving refrain. If that had been all, she might have let it slide. But then, during my first break, a woman who'd had a few drinks leaned over the left wheel of my wheelchair and trailed her fingers across my chest, while Claudine, with our little girl on her hip, stood at my other side. I introduced Claudine to that woman I didn't know: This is one of my fans--this is my wife. Claudine looked like she wanted to spit. The woman continued to stroke my chest. If I'd pulled back on my wheel rims, she'd have fallen across my legs; if I'd pushed forward, I'd have run over her foot. Oh! I'm so sorry you're married, she said, and then she leaned in even closer, lips aiming for my face. Well, I told her, grinning like an idiot, I kind of like being married. She murmured, That's too bad, and kissed the side of my head.

After the show, lying in bed in our camper, Claudine said, For the rest of my life, I'm going to have this picture of that woman's slitty eyes and her slutty lips and you smirking like a jackass and saying you 'kind of' like being married.

I wanted to explain that I'd forget that woman by tomorrow if Claudine would. I wanted to convince my wife beyond a doubt of my love for her, but I couldn't figure out how to say it right then without sounding corny or false. Suddenly the incident seemed as absurd to me as when it was happening, so I said, Claude, if you forget about being jealous, don't you think the whole thing was kind of funny?

Claudine clamped her lips and turned her back to me.


Ten hours later, in the middle of Iowa cornfields, Claude looked up from One Hundred Years of Solitude and called me a conceited airhead and an uncaring jerk. I glanced in the rearview to check if Lucy had heard. She'd fallen asleep in her car seat, her binky clutched in her little fist.

Do you wish you were single again? Claudine asked, turning in the shotgun seat and frowning at me. Well, don't let me stop you, she said before I could answer. You can drop us off when we get to Illinois.

What would you do in Illinois? I asked, to pretend that her anger wasn't bothering me and because I was curious. Claudine doesn't know anybody in Illinois--we're both from Detroit--and she doesn't make friends as easily as I do. The same thing I'd do in any other damn state, Claudine said. Get a real job, instead of following you all over the country. I'd stay at home and make dinner every night.

You'd run out of things to serve, I said. Claudine's basically a breakfast cook.

People work around those kinds of things, Claudine said.

They work around these kinds of things, too, I pointed out.

If they think it's worth it, Claudine said. Then, lifting her long legs and bending them at the knee, she pressed her feet to the dashboard and found her place in One Hundred Years of Solitude, which she'd downloaded from the Internet from a list of great books. Claude's read about five so far, parts of them out loud to me. I like hearing the stories, and I love listening to her voice. Mainly because it's hers, but also because she reads like an actor. But Claude was keeping this particular book and her voice to herself while I steered through Iowa's cornfields--she looked like she planned on not saying a word for the next five hundred miles. Her luscious hair rolled in waves over her shoulders, but she was wearing overalls, which I don't like because the hardware reminds me of armor and the bib is just one more layer between me and her breasts. If she had on a sleeveless shirt, I could at least get a sideways peek, but she had the air-conditioner on, and sticking out from under the bib and straps was a sweater as thick as chain mail.

I switched the camper to cruise, took my right hand from the hand controls, and laid it on Claude's shoulder. No response. I slipped my fingers under her hair and gripped the nape of her neck.

You only want me when I'm angry at you, Claudine said.

Otherwise I wouldn't want you very often, I teased.

Claudine wrenched away from me, smacking her feet on the floor. How do you expect me to feel? After you said you'd eave me if you had to, looking me right in my face?

It took me a minute to catch on. You mean in that song by Fat Stan? I asked. I didn't say that, Claude, I sang it. To a whole bar full of people.

You were looking right at me! You said, 'That's what I'll do'--you'd leave. And then you kept looking at me and you said it again.

I sang it, I said.

There's no difference between singing and saying when you're staring like that.

Claude, I wasn't looking at you! I couldn't see anyone in the audience last night, it was totally dark! And I would never look at you and sing I'd leave you, even if I was thinking that, which I wasn't.

Claude went back to reading, or pretending to read.


Five hours later, I was sitting in the Blues Jam Café in Champaign, Illinois, waiting for the evening to wear on to showtime, wondering if my marriage was over as I watched Claudine build three-story towers out of a dozen cream thimbles. Lucy was falling asleep on my lap. With her cute little head nestled in the crook of my arm and her toddler-sized All Stars braced against my wheelchair, we looked like the perfect subject for a human-interest story--one of those pieces that hardly mentions my music and gets placed in the Style or Life rather than the Entertainment section of the paper, next to advice columns and recipes and photos of homeless dogs. It would be great if, just once, a journalist would consider me a musician first, and not focus on my disability. But I'm not holding my breath.

I shifted Lucy and tried again to spot the woman I suspected was a reporter. She had disappeared from the dining room. I tried to see into the bar, but it was too dark. I looked at Claudine again, but she still wasn't looking at me.

The last time she got this mad, over a year ago, I truly had gone too far with a fan. Josie, this old girlfriend of mine, showed up on a night Claude had gone to bed early. During the break after my second set, Josie and I went outside for a stroll behind the bar, and when I spun around to start back, her hands found my fly. I could have stopped her, but I did not. As she knew from our high school days, with a lot of stimulation that one part of my lower body still works.

A few days later Claude found Josie's number on a scrap of paper, and then Claude was the one who left me: walked off in between sets, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Missouri. Took a bus back to Detroit and lived with her mother for three months. We might not have got back together at all if Claude hadn't been pregnant with Lucy.

For the past year and a half, since that one act of adultery, I've been faithful to Claude. Fans have shaken my hands, patted my shoulders, and given me hugs, but none of their lips have touched any part of me again, not counting that one kiss last night.

Claudine set an empty cream thimble on top of the tower she was building. I feel like I'm sitting in a black hole, I said.

Claudine narrowed her eyes, picking up another cream thimble. She didn't answer. Beam me up, Scotty, I said, gripping my wheel rim with my left hand and squeezing little Lucy with my right.

Get it out of your system now, Claudine said, or you're going to look like a fool in front of that reporter.

So that was a reporter I saw! Claudine, I asked you not to.

Claudine balanced yet another cream thimble on the foil lid of another. When you stop encouraging groupies, she said, I'll stop calling reporters.

I don't encourage them, I protested.

At the very least, she said, you accommodate them.

They're my fans, Claude. I can't act like I hate them. Just then I noticed the reporter approaching, appearing out of the bar and walking toward us. I waved at her to cover my alarm. My movement disturbed Lucy, who was balanced at the edge of sleep, and she shouted, Daddy, stop! and gave my belly a hard kick. I only felt the vibration, as if she'd kicked me through a wall of pillows, but I snapped at her anyway.

You stop, I said. I'm not going to play any pigeon music tonight unless you go to sleep right this minute. Lucy hurriedly closed her eyes. Showtime, I warned Claudine, hoping she would act like everything was fine.

I don't feel like performing, Claude said.

Ah, crap, I thought, and looked up into the reporter's face. Have a seat, I said, pulling out a chair, no doubt surprising her with my effortless reach--I'm six three, and my arms are long. I'm Mason Hilliard, I said, and these are my loyal-est fans, though not always by choice: Lucille, my daughter, and Claudine, my wife.

The reporter laughed, sounding nervous. Then she introduced herself and said, It's so nice to meet you . . . and your family. She had pale skin, rusty hair, and big, green eyes. Also a pimple on her chin that she must have recently tried to fix--the spot was red and wounded looking.

A fast-moving waitress stopped at our table. The reporter, whose name I'd already forgotten, didn't want anything. And how are you folks doing? the waitress asked.

I hate it when they ask that when things are going badly. Fine, I said. We're all set for the moment, I think . . . I looked at Claudine, but she was still messing around with all her little cream containers. The waitress hurried away, and I turned to the reporter.

She asked me a few basic questions: my age (twenty-eight), Lucille's age (eighteen months), who my influences are. Then I told her about my second CD plus the new stuff I'm working on--a jazzier kind of blues that's both ethereal and down to earth, etcetera, etcetera. I paused, and as I watched the reporter scrawling in her notebook, I wondered how many facts would end up slightly altered or completely wrong. A few years back, a reporter put me down as a high school dropout, when the truth is I graduated with honors, though a year late; and a couple months ago, another one wrote me up as an amputee, though I'm not missing so much as a toe. Both of those mistakes had come out of interviews that had gone very well. I'd answered the questions articulately, I'd thought, and added what I wanted to say, and Claudine had been at her best--witty and cheerful and charming.

So, we're near the end of our summer tour, I volunteered, smoothing Lucy's hair. I could feel by her weight that she'd fallen fast asleep. I added pigeon music to my plans for the evening.

And what's next on your agenda? the reporter asked.

Our fall and winter tour, I said. We've got one more week of summer, then we'll head right into fall and winter.

It was his idea to divide things up into seasons, Claude said. Gives him an illusion of change or order or something. I'd been hoping that Claude would keep quiet. But fall and winter are really no different than summer or spring. There are more festivals in the summer, and at any time of year we add and drop a handful of bars, but basically we just keep circling.

I moved my water glass and coffee cup aside, then lifted my jacket from the back of my wheelchair and spread it out on the table. There, I said. How's that for a little bed?

With her long lashes shutting me out, Claudine pushed up from her chair and gathered Lucille from me. As soon as Claudine had started to rise, I'd changed my mind about giving up Lucy. I'd felt a pureness flowing from her body, giving me strength. As Claudine eased her from my arms, Lucy sighed and clung to my chest. Claudine continued to gather her up, breaking Lucille's hold, and my little girl murmured, Daddy, and tried to clutch me in her sleep. I wanted so badly to take her back. Instead I turned my attention to the reporter, who was observing my shoulders, which people tend to stare at, surprised by how broad and muscular they are--I use my arms more than most people do, and I also work out. I lifted my chin and tried to smile, to let the reporter know I was ready for another question.

This might sound like a dumb question, she said. But I was wondering . . . does your . . . handicap . . . interfere with your performance in any way?

I laced my fingers together with exaggerated gracefulness and placed my hands before me on the table. No, I said, not at all. In fact, you could say that my disability has improved my ability to perform.

You could say it, Claudine said.

Not across the board, I continued, as if Claude hadn't spoken. For instance, I only have control of my body from my T12 vertebra up. So, if I were playing a piano, I might try to reach too far and fall off the bench. I smiled a little so the reporter would know I was trying to be funny.

He's not very good at what he calls 'lunging,' Claudine said matter-of-factly, on a piano bench or elsewhere.

I jerked in surprise and stared at my wife, though I'd just told myself that the best thing to do was ignore her. I knew she'd uttered such a slur against my manhood thinking only I would catch her meaning. Which didn't mean I was going to let it go. But I have perfect control of my hands and my mouth, I said to the reporter. An able-bodied man can't hold a candle. Because of my improved abilities, certain other abilities aren't missed.

Still, Claudine said, I can't help wondering how he performed before he fell out of that tree.

The reporter leaned closer. Falling out of a tree, she said, her green eyes glittering, Is that how you--

Injured my spinal cord? Yes, I said. But it looks better in print if you simply say that I sustained my injury in a climbing accident.

He wasn't climbing, Claudine said. He was standing on a tree branch, high on marijuana, and he tried to fly, and he landed on his head.

I took hold of the table edge without realizing I was going to, and without any idea of what I planned to do next. I felt stupid sitting there gripping a table edge as if I was thinking of pushing the table over. Finally I said, I think I'll go get ready for my show.

Claudine turned away with a little I-don't-care flip of her head that made my heart ache. I glanced down at my left wheel and then at my right one to see if I had room to maneuver, then pushed the empty chair of the table behind me out of my way. The reporter rose from her chair and said, Excuse me, but could I ask . . .

I manipulated my wheelchair to face her, and she stopped speaking. Up until that moment, the reporter had seen only my muscled arms and chest and my pleasant, even good-looking face. She looked down at my atrophied legs as if she'd stumbled upon the remains of a corpse. I knew that the fear and distaste glittering in her green eyes was instinctive, that it was impersonal, but I hated her for it anyway. My fingertips, I thought, are more adept than your whole body. You had another question? I said.

The reporter fixed her gaze on my left shoulder and smiled crookedly. I was going to ask, she said, if your being in a wheelchair has any relationship to the fact that you play the blues.

I glanced from the reporter's pasted-on smile to Claudine's unfocused eyes, which were still not meeting mine, even though we'd shot each other looks over this question every other time it was asked. Actually, no, I replied evenly. We'd learned to leave it at that. But this time I added, My wife provides me with all the inspiration and motivation I need. Claudine glanced at me with hurt, angry surprise and looked away. I tried to ignore the tightness in my throat and chest. If you want to know the truth, I said to the reporter, I got into the blues when I was thirteen, which was years before I met Claudine, and also before I fell out of that tree. I stuck out my hand. Nice to have met you. And sorry we screwed up the interview.

The reporter protested unintelligibly. She looked embarrassed, and as if she couldn't wait to get away. I doubted she'd stay to hear even my first set, and so she'd keep her distorted opinion of me.

I maneuvered my chair through the crowded dining room, finally making it to the front door and out. There I popped a wheelie and, balancing on my rear wheels, I lowered myself down the stairs one step at a time, though there was no handrail to grab if I lost control. Hell, I thought, feeling a smile crack my face, I've fallen farther than this.

I wheeled up and down the length of the block. I took some deep breaths. The tightness in my lungs and throat began to ease.

What really happened is way different than what Claudine told that reporter. Claude wasn't even there--she didn't know me then. And although several people saw me fall, I'm the only one who really knows what it was like--from when I started up the tree to when I hit the ground and everything in between.

What happened was this:

I'd smoked some weed with my brother and two of his friends and two girls on the drive out to Kent Lake. When we got there they lit another bowl, and I started up the scarred knobs of a tall pine. Mace, you monkey, bring your butt back down here, my brother called. He probably thought I was too doped to climb. No crazy stuff this time, he shouted up after me. I didn't look down at him or answer.

At first I climbed carelessly, without a plan, simply enjoying the feel of moving upward. But soon heaviness slid into my arms and legs, and though I wasn't cold, I began to shake--the truth is, I'm afraid of heights. My hands closed around branches as if trying to fuse with them. I felt my sweat growing cool, though the day was mild and there was hardly any breeze. I continued to climb, trying to ignore what was happening to me, but finally, as I always did, I stopped and just stood there gripping the tree, feeling the rough bark against the skin of my palms. This is silly, I said to myself. I'm scared. What am I trying to prove? But then I told myself, Go on, just a little higher. And I kept going up--hand over hand, foot after foot--until soon my thoughts had drifted, and both my high and my fear had left me, as I'd known they would.

I was wearing an old sweat suit and my red low-tops--perfect climbing clothes, perfect clothes for jumping. Feeling light and keen and extremely alive, I climbed higher with incredible confidence, but also with incredible care. I was a long way from the ground. When the trunk thinned so that I could span it with my hands, I stopped and looked down at my brother and his friends and the girls. They looked very far away. I could see they'd stopped passing the pipe. They were all watching me, faces lifted and motionless.

I looked across to the nearest tree, another pine. It had very few lower branches, and so its higher branches were easy to see from the ground. I'd jumped to that tree before. That day I chose a different branch. I looked at it for a long time, studying its angle, its roundness and thickness, its flaky, brownish-gray bark. And then I leapt.

It feels like this:

First a singing, close-to-screaming joy and fear in my throat and gut and every bit of my body. An indescribable moment of touching nothing. Then the relief of feeling rough bark gripped by my hands, solid wood underneath. Only this time the wood wasn't solid, and the branch I grasped held at first but then snapped cleanly with my weight, and as my feet continued their upward swing, I dove downward, head first.

I watched tree limbs passing me as if they were falling and I was holding still, and then the branches seemed to slow, and I did, too--almost to a stop, it seemed. I floated downward, trees upside down all around me. Something punched my shoulder, hard--a branch--but it didn't hurt. A wonderful, dreamy spinning turned slowly in my chest and throat and head. I felt more awake and alive than I'd ever felt. I wasn't afraid. I couldn't stop what was happening, and I didn't want to.

Afterwards, I was bitter for months, a seemingly endless amount of time because until I stopped being bitter, I didn't know if I ever would. There was a span of days when I really lost it--I just cried and stayed in bed. But I didn't want to die. So I had to get up. And I went back to school, I began playing harmonica again, and my life became worth it again. And the fall--well, the fall became amazing again, as it was when it was happening.

I told all this once to a reporter I'd gone to high school with, and she did a pretty good job of getting it down. But her editor said that the story was too frightening for his family magazine. He said he could run a story about my recovery, but not about my fall. The description after the moment of impact is too terrible, the editor said, and I don't see any way around it. You can't write about the fall without saying how it ends. You can't leave the guy up in the air.


I sprinted the length of the block once more, reaching far back on my push rims and thrusting forward, flying past shop fronts and parked cars. Then, without pausing a beat, I stroked around to the alley and sprinted down its length, passing our camper, which was giving off an amber glow--we'd left a light on, as usual, to find our way back in the dark. After slaloming around some trash cans, I popped a wheelie up the single step of the Blues Jam's rear entrance and maneuvered through the kitchen, saying, How's it going? to the cook, who answered, Not too bad. Then I glided out into the dining room. Claudine and Lucy were gone. I wanted to race out of the cafÈ and see if I could find them--in our camper, packing a bag for the road, or maybe Claudine was already hurrying down the street with Lucy in her arms. But even if I caught up with them, I knew I couldn't prevent my hard-headed wife from leaving, if that's what she wanted to do.

Usually, even if Lucy is asleep, Claudine waits to put her down until after my first set, so I sat at our table hoping they'd only gone to the washroom and would come right back. But it was a bad sign that Claude had taken all of their stuff--Claudine's sweater, Lucy's little hoodie and her binky and stuffed dog.

I met Claude on a night like this one, four years ago, at the Raven Lounge in Detroit. I was by myself and kind of down, but I knew I'd feel better once I picked up a harp and started blowing. That's the best thing about the blues: they take you through your pain and bring you back to joy--if not completely, then at least part of the way.

I noticed Claude the moment she walked into the Raven. I was so blown away by her beauty. Her hair was bouncing up around her shoulders, and she was tall and all curves--even her eyelashes were curvy. And her eyes looked right at me, from head to toe, taking me all the way in. She came to my show the next night, stayed till the end, helped me pack up, and spent the night in my van. Two weeks later, she quit her job and joined me on the road. After our first year together, we got married and traded my van for a camper, and after Lucille was born, we made some adjustments to my schedule. But lately Claude's been talking about wanting to settle down in one place, and I don't blame her. I can't make a living, though, staying in a single city or town, and I doubt she'll trust me, now that I screwed around with Josie, to travel from gig to gig on my own.

I sat at our empty table--the coffee mugs and water glasses and cream containers had been cleared away--hoping and waiting for Claude and Lucy to return. Ten minutes later, with no sign of them, I started toward the plywood ramp Claude had set against the stage before we ordered dinner.

The ramp lay at a steep angle, with not enough floor area free of tables on which I could get a rolling start, so I approached a man who looked sober and as if he knew how to use his body and told him what I wanted. The man was glad to be of help. He pushed me up the amp super cautiously, as if he was afraid I might break. I wanted to say, C'mon, man, I already did that, right? But I thanked the guy and turned my attention to my equipment.

Before dinner I had set up and tested my mixing board and amplifier and speakers. I'd leaned my guitars against the back of the stage with their necks up so I could reach them easily, and I'd laid my harmonicas on the far edge of the board all in a row, in the order I wanted. Claudine usually does these things for me, but tonight I'd offered to do it myself, and she didn't object. I imagined her striding down the street, lugging Lucy on her hip. But most likely they had only gone out to our camper, and I'd find them sleeping there when I was done for the night. I considered going out to check on them before starting my show, but I had three sets to get through, and if they were gone, I didn't want to know that yet.

Thinking I'd start off with an easy instrumental to get my lungs working and put off using my voice, which I'm always afraid will fail me when I'm not feeling so great, I plugged in my Lee Oskar D, whipped the cord over my shoulder, and blew a riff softly, adjusted the mix and tried again, then a few more times. Finally, I wheeled up close to the voice mike. Well, I said, it's blues time.

A dozen faces turned toward me. The room was nearly full, half of the crowd talking with each other or playing with their phones or drinks and ignoring me completely, the other half glancing at me with interest or at least a willingness to get interested.

Yes, it's blues time, I said again. It's showtime. I'm Mason Hilliard, and this is a tune written by a friend of mine named Stanley Clarence. The tune's called 'Violet,' and it goes like this.

I played, listening to myself carefully at first, reaching out to the board and adjusting the mix until it sounded exactly right, then letting my gaze roam over the crowd, from the close tables to the booths near the walls and the doorway to the bar. I recognized, or thought I did, two, maybe three faces, though not to call by name. My best local friend was out of town, and another friend wouldn't be coming till sometime after ten, and maybe not at all--he hadn't known if he could get away. Thinking of the woman who had thrown herself at me last night and all the trouble that had caused, thinking that I might have to get through three sets without friends and the rest of my life without Claudine, I finished Violet with more speed and heat than Fat Stan intended when he wrote it. The crowd clapped with spirit, and a booth full of men shouted and hooted appreciatively, keeping it up after I'd brought my lips close to the mike again, making me wait for them a little too long. I hoped their enthusiasm wouldn't turn into a roaring appreciation of their own drunkenness. I don't like an audience to listen to me as closely as to a symphony, but I like it even less when they don't connect with me at all.

While I waited for the rowdies to settle down, I searched the crowd for Claudine. She was nowhere in the room, but my gaze found the reporter standing at the back wall. It looked like she was paying attention and appreciating my show. Maybe she'd write a decent story after all.

I decided to do a song especially for Claudine. Switching harps, I turned up the sound as loud as I dared and started in on one of Claude's favorites, a 1930s blues classic called Further On Down The Road. And so that Claude, if she could hear me from our camper, would know who I was singing to, no mistake, I added these words of my own: Claude, come with me--Claude, I'm hoping--Claudine, can you hear me prayin'?

I sang the refrain twice, drawing it out. Then I opened my eyes, willing Claudine to materialize back at our table. No such luck. Probably she was asleep, or else reading her book. I didn't think she would leave me tonight. But it was starting to sink in that, sooner or later, I'd be going further down the road without her. I looked away from the empty chair where she'd sat tonight and saw this picture in my mind: it's daytime, and she's not walking away but on a train, our little Lucy sitting beside her. Claude's hair is pulled back. Lucy's wearing a dress and looks older--a little girl, not a toddler. They're both staring ahead, with faraway looks in their eyes. I'm nowhere near the train; I'm completely out of the picture. They can't see me or hear me, and even if they could, Claude is done with listening to me.

I picked up my Gibson, mounted a brand-new Japanese harp on its stand, and played Love in Vain. At the end of the song, I blew a long improvisational riff. That brought whistles, shouts of appreciation, and a burst of applause. Pain stirred in my chest, then thrust outward and disappeared. My chest still hurt, but with a smoother, slighter ache.

I decided to do another instrumental, one of my own, a fast, wild little tune with a slow feeling buried inside all the motion. This one's called 'Free Fall,' I said after the crowd had gathered in closer. This will gather you in further, I thought, and I breathed everything I had into it.

It's a tune that took me years to get right. It's the tune of my fall, but of more than I could take in while it was happening:

Besides the trees and the whirling, besides the utter sweetness of falling, of floating, almost still, it takes in the sky at my feet, and the gravity of the earth pulling me down, and the people watching me, with fear and with love.

They can't stop what is happening--they're unable to save me.

I'm all alone--I'm set apart.

I'm speeding toward them and getting closer.

But I'll never reach them, not completely. And yet I'm aiming straight for their hearts.