Joe Meno, “People are Becoming Clouds”

“People are Becoming Clouds,” the seventh story in Joe Meno‘s well-received collection Demons in the Spring,  is equal parts wistful and whimsical. “People are becoming clouds nowadays,” it opens, with a quiet certitude that belies its disorienting premise that in fact, literally, people are becoming clouds–people like Eleanor, John’s wife, who “turns into a puff of soft white vapor” whenever her husband tries to kiss her:

The vapor is quite odorless and can assume various sizes and shapes. It can still understand when it is being spoken to, the vapor. . . . A partial list of the strange shapes Eleanor has taken as a cloud of vapor: a dove with enormous wings blowing a large trumpet, an intricate snowflake with castles for feet, a swan with an impossibly long neck sewing a blanket, a fairly accurage representation of an angel with rings of spoons for a halo, and a gigantic apple being swallowed by a ghostly white tiger.

I admit, my first reaction was impatience at this liberal sprinkling of the dust of magic realism over a pair of otherwise quite commonplace characters. At the very least, surely a far-fetched premise of this sort needs to be decked out in more fanciful prose. But the story won me over, in part because it remained in such a low key that a gentle poignancy gradually takes over its “what if” scenario. “Couples go through these kinds of things,” poor John thinks, and while of course he’s wrong in the real world, where people are don’t turn into clouds, he’s right that couples go through all kinds of things, sometimes difficult and even hurtful things, and often they do keep trying, as John and Eleanor keep trying, to maintain themselves or to recover what they’ve lost.

What John and Eleanor have lost is intimacy. There’s a comical aspect to their attempts to recover it once Eleanor has vaporized, but that light mood drifts easily into grief:

He will reach his hands up to grab her but he will be unable to. He will try to breather her in, to take her into his lungs, but his face will only become red until, finally, he gives in. He will turn on his stomach and want to cry into the pillow but he will not. He will be too embarrassed to cry.

The story also allows a note of deeper inquiry to creep in. Eleanor claims her transformations are beyond her control, but John always hears her laughing just before. She also never transformed before their marriage. Is Eleanor escaping or eluding John when she becomes a cloud? Is she an oddly literalized version of the many literary heroines who tease their lovers by remaining just out of reach, a temptress or siren? Or perhaps she’s a perversely successful version of the other literary heroines who find it difficult to reconcile married love and autonomy? Or are these questions too weighty–do they try to hard to bring the clouds down to earth, to give them definite shape? When asked by their “weather/relationship specialist” which cloud shape she prefers, Eleanor says, “I like just being a general kind of cloud the best.” Perhaps she just appreciates embodying possibilities, rather than actualities. And how bad is it, really, for one partner in a  marriage to turn into a cloud? While John suffers and pines for his tangible wife, even he wonders, “Would I still love my wife so badly if she wasn’t so impossible to claim? Would I still want her if I could have her whenever I wanted?” “People are Become Clouds” invites us to think about dreams and desires and the shifting shapes they take, but it does so with delicacy and humor.

The collection’s original design was meant to assert the appeal and value of books as tangible, aesthetic objects, “celebrating this archaic archaic form,” as Meno puts it. In support of this idea, each story is illustrated by a different artist. The illustrations for “People are becoming clouds” are by Nick Butcher.