Whisked Away on the Air

February 26, 2008
By James Bursley, Pittsburgh, PA

There is a background noise to the fall. A backtrack that plays from the drop of the first leaf straight through the descent of the first snowflake. It’s like a TV on static wherever you go for three or four months out of the year, and most of the time you don’t even notice it, because you can’t hear it over your car engine, or over the smell of your date’s perfume, or over your own thoughts. But when nothing else is there to distract your senses, the fall static can seem to build to a sweeping roar.

If you had to describe what it actually was, that seasonal backdrop, you’d probably compare it to the sound of dry trees in the wind. When you’re standing alone at the edge of the woods or the edge of your street, and a cold front or a warm front or the front side of a gale is moving in, and it stirs and shakes and shivers the trees and the leaves to the point that if you just look up into a dozen swinging, warping trees and a thousand leaves in a fall wind, you’re looking into maybe the closest single thing to the background noise of the season. All those branches rocking with their leaves flying off in sprays--dark, cold waves breaking on the rocks--you can fall into that for hours, just staring, watching, hearing. Your date and her new perfume will hate you.

But that’s not all there is to it. It isn’t just the noise of the trees. It’s not nearly that simple. The background noise, static, hum, whatever you want to call it, of fall is really the combination of a million little factors and ingredients in the world that every year align themselves perfectly into this atonal symphony that has been playing out for eons. This ancient drone. It’s the chill of the air.

But not just the chill--not the temperature alone. It would be an unjust oversimplification of the world for these months to credit its characterization to temperature. You can walk into any meat-locker in a deli and get the fall temperature. Leave the door open and you’ll even get the breeze. But no one outside the delicatessen business would argue any comparison. Maybe it has something to do with the humidity. Maybe some convection of the right temperature and the right humidity creates the unique “chill” we feel in the fall. But whatever it is, that’s a major part of the season. Of the background noise. It’s the twinge of your skin as you step from your car and your bare face recoils at the sensation of its heat being whisked away upon the air. It pricks all your senses and attunes them to everything around. Your mind becomes alert and picks up all the pieces of the world it would normally let slip past. For some people, the fall is the only time they’re really, truly awake. Really, truly alive.

But maybe that’s giving the mood of the season too much power. Perhaps the background noise of autumn is not more than a pleasant feeling, to be subconsciously enjoyed and occasionally noticed--but not dwelt upon. A picture on a hotel room wall.

But that’s never been my way of viewing my surroundings.

* * *

“Heck, yeah!” he shouted, not really sure what he was saying “Heck, yeah!” about. But it was okay. We were both taken with the silly, stupid joy of the good time we were having. Nothing either of us could say would seem strange or out of place. It was one of those sort of rare, often-remembered, seldom-realized times when everything just works, and nothing seems to go wrong. I’d call it a Kodak Moment if I were getting paid. But that was one of those moments. Heck, it was one of those years. I think that year, my fourth grade, was the last long stretch of time in which nothing really bad happened. That was all before the real-life stress, before the heroin-addict cousin, before half of my friends became alcoholics, before my uncle decided it would be a good time to relapse, before my mom’s Lyme Disease got bad, before the doctors, before the depression, before the family deaths that just never seemed to end.

There’s a danger in looking back if you believe in time travel because probably about half the people in the world are jealous of themselves ten years ago. And probably a good number of those people are jealous enough to try something extreme, like taking a time machine to get revenge on their past self for eventually screwing up whatever they had going. That could be a Michael Crichton book.

But at that moment, I really wasn’t concerned with being a time-traveling assassin. I really wasn’t concerned with much beyond that day, getting ready to take our bikes to the woods to ride through the crackling leaves on the gravel trails. It was late afternoon, beginning to get cold, and the sun was making blurred golden smudges on the tops of trees.

It’s hard to ride a bike with numbed hands, but it’s even harder with big, fat, sausage-fingered gloves. So by the time we got to the woods, we both were in favor of stopping to warm our bright-red fingers.

“Put ‘em in the oven,” I grinned as I pulled my arms into my jacket and the body-heat trapped there, and since the day was a Kodak Moment, Jeff laughed as I smiled. We stood there for several minutes, bikes propped on our legs, talking about carefree, weightless things that would probably not remotely interest my self with the time machine and the prescription drugs. I knew we were both having a wonderful time. I knew it would be that way forever.

As we rode through the trees, the leaves swirling around us in spirals, sweeping out of the branches and off the ground, we were enveloped, carried away in a cyclone of red and yellow, that whisked us to the bottom of the hill, and we couldn’t see past our handlebars in the wall of churning, modulating color. Like a whiteout. A redout.

As we flew into the end of the trail, carrying our avalanche down through the forest with us, we burst out into a clearing bisected by a stream that some of the settling leaves found their way into. They sailed like little Inuit canoes down the frigid rapids. The wind was coming steadily out of the woods, it seemed from all sides, filtering through the trees and spreading, pushing through the clearing, unobstructed.

“That was ridiculous!” Jeff yelled, and ended up coughing loudly from the out-of-breathness and the cold. I barely heard either over the rushing roar.

But it was ridiculous. We started at the top of a hill. And now we were at the bottom. And I think I’ve never enjoyed anything as much.

* * *

The rain fell against the window and puddled on the brown leaves at its base. It was too dark to see very far outside, but I knew the water would probably freeze during the night and trap the grass and twigs and branches in cold, hard rigidity, and until the next midday’s warmth, they would be as timeless and detached from the changing world as any rock in the underbrush. The wind was tossing and whipping the falling raindrops hard so that they made small glassy “dunk” sounds as they knocked against the pane, inches from my face. It was like looking into a mirror. It would be vain to think it was raining because I was crying, but at the time it made sense. Maybe it still does.

My mom had gotten off the phone and just stood there for a minute; her eyes weren’t focused on anything. I looked up from my physics homework, spread about the table, and took off my headphones and held them in my hands. The little noise they were making kept going, and I could hear it as she started to speak. The first thing I said, the only thing I said, was “Oh.”

“Oh” is an unusual thing to say when you learn your best friend has killed himself.

* * *

Most of the seasons are pretty variable. They can surprise you. You always hear people say, “That was a cold winter” or “What a rainy spring we had.” But not fall. Fall’s the time when the world crosses the zero axis on its slow oscillation between extremes. There’s never any major tilt one way or the other. Any autumn is pretty much like every one that came before it, and every one that will come after it.

I was visiting my old neighborhood, and I saw some woods with a gravel trail running down the middle. There were leaves, too.

I’ve sort of found that the noise, that background noise of this time of year, is like a signal to restart everything. It’s a test pattern telling your brain to reset itself so that no matter what’s happened in the year before, your mind can keep going and survive at least another nine months. Not to say that it makes anything any easier. It just makes it survivable. Keeps you sane, for better or for worse. That could be the slogan on a bottle of Prozac.

It was getting a lot colder, almost starting to snow. There was a lighter grey part of the sky where the sun was barricaded behind a screen of clouds. I saw a flake every once in a while, drifting drunkenly downward into the dirt of the side of the road, only to melt after a few seconds’ rest. I turned to head back, hearing the shiff-shiff of my thick jacket as I walked. The wind was blowing exhausted gusts and the trees in the forest next to me were lurching, talking.

I stopped and looked up at the lighter portion of sky. My eyes were watering slightly from the wind, and I had to blink hard to keep my sight. There were no birds in the sky, but the wind was starting to pick up.

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