How Clouds Became His Cradle

by Victor D Sandiego | Published: Oct 31, 2023

In the early predawn light of Indiana Route 161, as his late model car slammed into the side of a tractor trailer rig at 69 mph, shearing off the top of the car and leaving its decapitated chassis to screech beneath the truck and gradually slow and finally come to a stop on the side of the highway, William J. Cooper thought about the time his father had taken him to the circus and how he, with his childish sense of wonder fully intact, had marveled at the lion trainer.

How does he do it, Papa? he had asked. The lion trainer had his head inside the sharp guarded cave of the lion’s mouth.

He accepts the risk, his father replied.

Some words float away, but as happens at times, his father’s words entered the creviced folds of William’s impressionable mind and took refuge there. They incubated and slowly extended tendrils until they were firmly latched and he understood with both his heart and humanity what his father had meant.

On his eighteenth birthday, deep in the California Santa Cruz mountains, William J. Cooper climbed an enormous Redwood tree until he could encircle its trunk with his thumb and forefinger. His feet rested on birdbone thin branches and his body swayed from side to side in the secret upper chambers of the sky. A snapped branch would surely shred his body into scrapmeat as gravity ordered limb after lower limb to claim its transit toll, but he accepted the risk.

The next day, William took a bus to Camp Pendleton and joined the Marines. They taught him how to run through mud, and without compassion point a rifle at another human being and squeeze the trigger. A danger lurked for him, as it did for the entire company, that the same squeeze would wring the lifeblood from their empathy, but he accepted the risk.

Three years later, his temperament steeled and deepened, William J. Cooper stepped off a military transport plane in North Carolina and returned to civilian life. Out there, in the world of unregimented opportunity, he would be on his own. He accepted the risk.

William made his way on foot north into the Appalachian Mountains where days ran like rivers through him and bears occasionally sniffed his shirt. He thought himself an undisruptive intruder into their habitat, and even though he couldn’t know if the wildlife sensed his peaceful intention, he accepted the risk.

Back in Indiana, as his car screeched beneath the tractor trailer, tearing the final roof from his world, William J. Cooper had an instant – due to the immense capacity of the human spirit in catastrophic throes to stretch a second into a lifetime – in which to appreciate the summer day in Cheyenne, Wyoming when an old man had approached him and asked William for help.

William had spent the last few years drifting from one vague discontent to another and didn’t have much to offer, but he paused, set his backpack on the sidewalk, and let the workers hurry past to their paycheck prisons.

What do you need? William asked and the old man replied that he needed to move a couch and several heavy boxes and that his strength had betrayed his bones and that he didn’t have any money but that he could offer William a place to stay for the night and a simple hot meal.

Have you no friends? asked William and the old man said no. Have you?

For an instant the old man’s eyes flickered sparking Indiana truck steel, then guttered. William agreed to help. They climbed three flights of stairs where William learned, after moving the couch and the boxes, that the old man called himself Benjamin and that for many years, long ago, he had worked in the circus with lions.

You accepted the risk, said William.

Benjamin set a plate of beans in front of William, sat, opened a beer. I did, he said.

Outside Topeka, Kansas, a hardnotched tattooed man with a gun on the seat picked up hitchhiker William on I-70 and William rode a dicey encounter into Junction City with muffled thumps coming from the trunk, but the present moment hurled the severed margins of William’s memory faster and faster beneath the Indiana truck trailer and Kansas disappeared.

With only faint sparkles of a split second left to recall how he zigzagged his life across America in search of possibility and understanding, William J. Cooper summoned the face of the woman who touched his afternoon heart when they drank coffee on a terrace of bountiful flowers.

They spread sweet butter on toast and took their vows to a home filled with love in Indiana where they settled down, adopted a dog, created a daughter, bought a late model car, and where William’s neck strings, like those of an over tuned violin, snapped one by one on Route 161 at 69 mph in the rushing dawn.

And as the light began to imperceptibly shift from reddish to a hazy cerulean that heralds for many their first or last earthly day, and the truck driver jump startled at the screams that a metal cage of car makes when it peels open like onionskin to expose the human layers within, the consciousness of William J. Cooper began its closing reflective journey into the slipstream.

A boy enthralled at the circus, an adolescent in a treepierced sky, a man who battled for his own peace within. Consumed in the perfect ecstasy of sadness, all their shared wisdom melded into a single fleshy head of blood and mist that rose higher and higher into the pale Indiana heavens. Clouds became his cradle and the great affairs of love, opportunity and danger that life serves us all on a platter of days, his first and final companions.

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