Buy the book at Amazon
Jack stands on the viewing platform overlooking Multnomah Falls. No one else is there but the Imp of the Perverse. It’s a phrase he got from Edgar Allan Poe. Okay, it’s a phrase he got from the New Yorker, quoting Edgar Allan Poe.
It was an article on Lesch-Nyhan, a syndrome that causes its victims to respond to urges of self-mutilation. Patients have bitten off their own fingers, gouged out their own eyeballs, chewed off their own lips. One man referred to his left hand as “the evil hand,” the one that would sometimes punch his own face, knocking out teeth. The best defense was to strap it to the arm of his wheelchair.
But here’s the thing: we all receive the signals, probably from the basal ganglia. Jack recalls driving a farmland highway with no meridian, a week after his layoff. The Imp leaned forward from the back seat and whispered in his ear: one little nudge of the wheel, one tiny motor function, into the grille of that oncoming truck. Problem solved. But Jack couldn’t stand the thought of involving the truck-driver – as killer or co-fatality – so instead he chewed on a fingernail.
The week-long drive was a healthy stab at positivity – an effort to flee the dark cave of his daily life – but it left him open to the Imp. Even standing on the old mid-falls bridge – the one that provided such a graceful foreground for all the postcards – he had not seen the potential of all that height, but the Imp attached himself to a pantleg halfway up the trail, and now Jack could not deny the beauty of his plan. The second-highest falls in North America, Multnomah offered a spectacular exit, and the access was surprisingly easy. All he had to do was vault a moderate stone wall, plant his feet on a narrow ledge and jump, falling through a gentle cloud of mist to a gathering of rocks that would finish the job. The Imp stood behind him, nudging him forward.
Jack returns from his vision to find one foot already atop the railing. He doesn’t remember putting it there. Two more motor functions – the press of two arms on the railing, the swing of his left leg over the top – and an unstoppable momentum will be set into motion.
In the end, it is his greatest weakness – a bleeding self-consciousness – that saves his life. He glances over his shoulder at the darkening trail, and immediately feels like an idiot – worrying about witnesses when he’s about to leap to his death. In the meantime, the lowering sun slides between the overcast and the horizon, painting the wide swath of falling water in an orange light. When Jack looks forward, his arms tensing for the lift, his glance falls on a projecting rock on the far side of the rush, and what he sees is a house engulfed in flames. He freezes in place, his arms relax, and he slides his foot back to the ground.
The Imp, who has already lighted a victory cigar, sinks back down the trail, hacking and cursing. Jack watches the house until the flames die out, then turns and begins his retreat. As he nears the bottom, he realizes how hungry he is and jogs to the snack bar, where he devours a plate of fries as Multnomah roars into the darkness.
Photo by MJV