It begins “It took Arnold six and a half seconds to fall five hundred feet.”
And when a story begins like that, readers are engaged in a swift and brutal exercise.
At first, I thought it was going to be only an exercise. Some sort of display. Because the third paragraph reminds us of the circumstance (“He was still falling…) but then readers are pulled back into memory.
And as I was beginning to settle into the idea of Arnold before-he-had-fallen, I had to remind myself that he was falling, and I was suspicious; I’ve enjoyed other stories by Edwidge Danticat, but I thought she might be setting up readers for a series of diversions until the story ended with a “splat”.
That wasn’t it. Just a few more paragraphs and Arnold is remembering how thirsty he was on the boat, when he was a refugee seeking a landing. “Just as he was now, as he was falling.”
Which is how it is: a constant spin between falling into memory and falling for those six and a half seconds. “What he had not foreseen about Miami, though, was the plethora of stories like his.”
So perhaps this is simply a device after all, something designed to pull in readers, despite their awareness of how common a story like Arnold’s story really is.
But it’s not just Arnold’s story, also Darline’s and Paris’ story. Darline was once on a boat, with her husband and her son, Paris. Only Darline and Paris were able to swim to shore. Now, she waits on the shore, waits to help the plethora of new arrivals. A new arrival like Arnold, who, years later, readers meet while he is falling.
“She kept coming back to the beach because it was her husband’s burial place, and her own. The person she’d been when the three of them, she and her husband and her son, had got on that boat and left Haiti – that person was also lost at sea.”
Readers learn this and, then, learn that Arnold “felt lighter now, even lighter than he had when falling”.
Because the story moves beyond that six and a half seconds. “Was time playing with him, or was he playing with time? Was he skirting the yellow police tape in the present or in the past?”
“Without Inspection” reaches for a new way to tell an old story; I was struck to find that my reading of it coincided with my reading of Louise Erdrich’s Tales of Burning Love (1997), in which a character observes, twice, that “[a]s you fall there is time to think”.
So, apparently, this can happen. And it is not just an exercise. So, readers are not afforded the luxury of forgetting.