Publication Release: My short story,”A Bird’s Gotta Fly,” is printed in the International Literary Journal, The Hong Kong Review. Winter Edition, January 2021.
30 minute read time.
A BIRD’S GOTTA FLY
Patricia L. Meek
Rain ticks on the roof of the car, and Clint speeds up to pass an eighteen-wheeler. The truck splashes water on us, and there is a momentary loss of vision, but Clint keeps the car steady. I stare at the truck, watching sections of it go by. It’s a double trailer full of livestock; dark slits reveal animal parts—ears, noses, and eyes. The confinement controls their movement as they press together for balance—twitching, bobbing, and blinking. For a few seconds, I forget about my headache and the constant tapping of the rain, which has followed us from Baton Rouge since early morning. We pass the truck, and soon it’s so far behind, I can’t see it.
We’re in “the heart of Texas,” rancher capital USA, still three hundred miles southeast of Dallas. There’re hills upon hills interrupted only by barbed wire and fence posts. Because the interstate cuts through grass tall from spring warmth, I think of pioneer women—the ones we read about who rode in wagons that cut lines into the prairie, marking the land for perhaps a day before the grass again stood tall before the sun, erasing their path. Women who wore thick gingham dresses in the dead heat and covered their heads with the type of bonnet I saw my grandmother wear when she washed my grandfather’s Lincoln. It was the kind of hood that had a domed cap, so there was room for a tight bun of hair—or was it an attempt to provide more circulation? Either way, the bonnet was designed for protection, ending in a flap that covered the back of the neck. “Some styles are eternal,” Grandmother would say, pinching the quilt-patterned brim with her fingers. She would take off her bonnet then and loosen her long, dark hair, fanning it in the sunshine. “No matter where you go, Sarita, always follow your heart home.”
I’ve learned to romanticize the women who transformed their lives with force and imagination—the women like Amelia Earhart, who cut her path into clouds beyond dreams. Emily Carr, who hitched up her gypsy van she called Elephant and forged deep into no-man’s-land, the heart of darkness, with her paints and easel, several dogs and a monkey no less. I set a course to do just that but lost myself along the way.
The rain pounds against the window like a drum, and Clint grips the wheel a little tighter. His hair is the color of harvested wheat, and because of the humidity, it’s plastered against his furrowed brow. He looks as old as I’m afraid to feel. At that moment, I have a window into our future, and I fumble in my purse for my vape pen. Just Peachy is a real flavor I mostly love. Clint hates smoking, so vaping is our unspoken compromise.
Clint has recently taken a full-time job at the airport as a TSA agent. I’m still getting used to his uniform and smell of all those shampoo and lotion bottles he confiscates. It permeates his clothing despite his PPE. He could have kept teaching adjunct like me or started a small framing shop, something, anything, but he said he was tired of all the crap, and he needed time to coast.
“You know you’re overqualified,” I reminded him when he came home with his high deductible plan and 5% matching IRA fund.
“It beats the alternative.”
I took that on face value, though we never spoke of what the alternative could mean. We celebrated by buying this red Ford Fiesta instead. It’s the perfect car—so he keeps telling me—small enough to park in city spaces, but large enough to haul his golf clubs. He’s learning how to play the game.
I try to get comfortable by putting my feet up on the dash, knocking over the GPS and an empty Pepsi can. From the corner of my eye, I can see Clint looking over, annoyed.
“What?” I ask in reply to his glance.
“Nothing. You seem fidgety.”
“Why should I be fidgety? We’re only driving seven hundred miles in the rain. What’s it
been, twenty-six years since we’ve seen him?”
“Come on,” he tries to coax me. “Think of it as an adventure.”
The last time we saw Bill Waterhouse, aka Coyote Bill, the three of us had just received our diplomas from ArtCenter in California. We were still standing by our chairs near the front of the stage when Bill had discreetly waved at me from the other end of the row. I smiled back, felt a little sad, but was relieved we’d called a truce and had come to an understanding about our ended affair.
Then it was time to leave, and the rows split down the center, our backs turned to each other as we filed out. Three weeks later, Clint and I got a postcard from him in London, and then he didn’t correspond for another fifteen years. Since then, we’ve only exchanged “peace and goodwill” through Christmas cards until the wedding announcement arrived. I knew what it was before I opened it. My hand paralyzed, holding the card stock. There has to be an age when it doesn’t matter who the love of your life marries, but somehow the pearlized linen and embossed cobalt blue lettering, tasteful, brought something long dead to the surface. Her name is Elaine. I imagine a whole lot of things about a woman who holds a name like that. Most of the stories I make up have to do with French cooking classes. It was Clint’s idea to make contact again—told me we needed the vacation anyway.
My stockings are too slippery for the plastic, so I take my feet down. I think about Dallas, God, the distance. It doesn’t seem any closer at all, although we are doing seventy-five—a speed Clint considers fast.
Clint touches my leg. “Could you feel the back of my head?” he asks me.
I look at him, then reach over and press my hand to the thin spot he is always checking.
“Does my scalp feel hot to you?”
“A little,” I say. “But nothing out of the ordinary.” I take my hand away, although I can still feel his sweat on my fingers. “Why do you ask?”
“I just had the craziest idea. For a moment, I thought my head was too hot to grow hair. Do you think bald men have warmer heads?”
“I think you’re silly.”
“I’m serious, Sara.”
“Okay. No. I do not think bald men have warmer heads.” I almost tell Clint about me and Bill then, anything to change his focus, the whole story not just the story he suspects, but like always I hide in my silence.
“Christ, Clint. Why are you worried about going bald? You’re forty-nine.”
“My dad was sixty when he died. That used to be old.” He shakes his head when I don’t respond. “I’m happy for him,” he finally says as he pushes a fist against the steering wheel and cracks his knuckles.
“Your dad?” I look at him, my eyebrow raised.
“Stop that!” He laughs. “You know who I’m talking about. Bill’s still a great artist.”
“But you’re nervous. You wouldn’t be cracking if you weren’t.”
“Damn it. I’m not! So drop it already!”
There is that tone in his voice again. I have to bite the inside of my cheek so I won’t start shouting, falling into our usual routine. I reach behind my seat instead and fish for the water bottle that keeps liquids as cold as the Arctic, making as much noise as I can.
“You know,” he says to me as I bring the Hydro-Soul stainless steel water bottle around. “It seems you get uptight—I mean, more than usual—when we talk about Bill. I’ve never been able to figure that out.”
“I’ve told you so many times.” I sigh and splash a little water into my hand. “It’s nothing personal. I don’t like him being so commercial.”
“Yes, but he was the first Western photographer in Moscow, and he still makes art.”
“If you can call it that.” I clench my jaw and stare out the window. “None of us make art anymore. Most of us don’t land real jobs anymore, either.” I take a drink, still staring out the window. Cows. Texas has so damned many, and I watch another blurry patch of them go by. It’s true what they say—cows always look so content, so damned content. I wonder if they know they are heading to the slaughterhouse? Even the rain seems not to affect them. They huddle close—butts to the wind. For a moment, every cow wears Clint’s face.
When Bill and I went out to the Mojave Desert in 1993, leaving Pasadena for another reconnecting trip, it was near the end of a long semester, and we’d left Clint to finish designing his final portfolio. It was experimental, edgy, and I appreciated his intellectual approach, but I was seeking the Holy Grail beyond the cerebral. I wanted to feel something deeply, though who knows for sure what I was after? Bill needed more photographs before he could finish his massive installation. He was concerned with experimental printing and so was looking for formations in nature that could be manipulated into abstract images. Just about any rock or tree would do, as long as the light created interesting shapes through contrast. I’d been working with a large canvas, studying the action painters, and so was obsessed with the movement of creative energy. When Bill mentioned taking a trip into the desert to one of his favorite photo haunts, I asked if I could go.
In twenty minutes, we had his Ford LTD, missing the side window, full of film, lenses, and tripods. I brought along my sketchpad and pulled off Clint’s engagement ring because my
worst fear was it would fall off my finger into the desert sands. I hung it around my neck to save it from potential damage. I didn’t like working with it on, especially in the field.
We’d only been in the desert heat for thirty miles, south of Palm Springs, when Bill punched the accelerator and moved us off the paved road. “What the hell are you doing?” I screamed, worried we’d get stuck in the sand. The wheels turned the dry clay into dust, road disappearing from my backward glances as we moved forward, scraping over the sagebrush.
“Scenic, don’t you think?”
I had read enough survival guides to know what would happen if Bill did not know what he was doing. “No!” I said as I held on to the dash.
“Hey, take it easy,” he said, looking over and smiling. “Don’t worry about the danger; enjoy the experience.”
It sounded like a dare. In fact, over the years, I have become convinced it was a dare; perhaps that is why I sat back and stayed calm while we drove slowly on.
We stopped, maybe fifteen minutes later, when we saw a shimmering light in the sand.
After we got out of the car, we realized it was a pile of bones bleached desert white—a scattering of skulls, vertebrae, and ribs. A small herd—maybe six cows—had gotten lost, and for the life of us, we couldn’t understand how. How had they managed to get so deep into the desert? Bill pulled out his 4×5 and set up his tripod. I didn’t bother asking why he was using an antique. I knew what he’d say anyway, and it wasn’t about making his art or his life more comfortable. It was about taking the life less traveled. I watched him struggle with the darkcloth and then take several exposures. I had seen him work with the camera before—had been around when both he and Clint had fought for the same photographic spot, but this time it was different.
The sweat dripped from his forehead, a silvery glint, and he looked at the bones as though he were looking at the center of a black hole, and I couldn’t help but fiddle with the ring which hung over my T-shirt. I was patient then, but as soon as he had finished, I kissed him so strong I could feel his flesh despite the vacant faces of death all around us.
I don’t think he was surprised. Instead, he hurriedly spread the darkcloth out, stopping to kiss me back and, in the shadow of the car, we stripped and then made love despite the desert heat. When we finished and had packed up, I was sick from the sun’s intensity, and there was no shadow dark enough to give me adequate shelter. I was sitting in the car, thinking we were about to leave, when Bill opened the door again. He walked over to the pile, pulled up a steer’s skull, and laid it in the back seat—sand sifted from its sockets to the floor. When we finally returned to the blacktop, we carried his trophy back to Pasadena in silence.
“What are you thinking about?”
I look at Clint as if he is on the other side of a lens. “I don’t know,” I finally say. “Just drifting.”
He reaches out and puts his hand on top of mine. Except for my thumb, my hand has completely disappeared under his.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Didn’t mean to be so irritable.”
It’s close to six when we pull up to Bill and Elaine’s front gate. A computerized voice greets us, checks the digital guest list, and the massive iron gate parts like the Red Sea.
“Just shows you what money can do for a person.”
“I think it’s rather impersonal.”
We drive up a short hill, past a line of trees, before seeing the first red stones of the house. It is the mosaic, colored roof that catches my attention the most, and I stare at the red, blue, and yellow tiles—watch them, as they get closer, then blend before my unblinking gaze. The house is enormous, Spanish, with its sandy walls and large front windows designed to trap the morning light.
“That’s incredible! It looks like a piñata exploded on his roof.”
I laugh because Clint’s right, but I’m thinking—how unlike Bill.
We park in the circular drive, and Elaine opens the door before the chimes have silenced. She looks like a former sorority girl—the type who delicately carries a purse over her wrist and matches everything: bra to panties, shoes to stockings, dress to earrings. Her hair is pulled around to a French twist, Republican pearls wrap three times around her neck, and her floral-print skirt looks starched.
“Bill should be down in a moment. Sometimes clients don’t realize how rude it is calling on a Sunday,” she says.
Her Southern accent hasn’t been erased by what I imagine to be four years at Texas A&M. It doesn’t matter to me—all I can think of is how glossy she is. From her shiny blond hair and polished teeth to her painted nails and pearly silk blouse, she shines. We follow her to the study, trailing in awkward silence.
“Let me go get Bill.”
“A lamp,” I whisper to Clint as soon as she leaves. “She looks like a lamp.”
“Don’t you think she gives off light?”
Clint’s not listening. I discovered that his attention began to drift after the first five years of marriage. Now I’ve had an additional six years of gap-filled conversations. I’ve gotten used to it. Besides, he’s already inspecting the collection of prints—Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul
Caponigro. It’s great. I mean, great that Bill collects so much fine art. I watch Clint get close to one of the prints, and I can almost imagine what his academic training allows him to see: multiple geometric planes, zone system tones, visual metaphors. I turn away. Just above my head—I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner, hanging there over the fireplace—is the chalk-white steer skull.
“Sorry about that, folks,” Bill says as he enters the room, followed by Elaine who stands patiently and waits to be hospitable. “Had to take care of some business.”
“That’s fine,” Clint says as he meets Bill’s handshake with his firm grip.
I smile wide, almost grinning, but my face is hot.
“Sara.” Bill opens his arms for me, and I gingerly step into his hug. “Still got that youthful bloom.”
As my nose presses against his shoulder, I watch for a change in Elaine’s face—nothing—and then I’m released from his embrace.
As we all stand to look at one another, there is total silence, and I feel my jaw growing tighter. I struggle to look happy, maintaining a strict composure.
“Somebody, please, tell a joke,” Bill says, and we laugh at his comment as if it were funny.
“How about drinks?” Elaine quickly offers, and we all agree that drinks would be refreshing.
I settle back into the sofa with my second gin and tonic. Clint has already brought his portfolio in from the car and has it open on the coffee table. The series is Clint’s crowning achievement, and there was a talk at the university press about printing a book. Right now, it’s a
series of black-and-whites in a gray linen box. He hasn’t photographed much since this project, but a part of me understands the difficulty, especially when life presses down.
When Clint and I were first married, we’d take long drives into the country, trying to get lost by prolonging our destination arrival. It was like running through an endless maze. We were never sure what we’d find when we changed directions. Back then, there were never any dead-ends, though, only possibilities as we strained our eyes down a lonely road. We used a map only when we wanted to return home, and only if our thoughts had become too distracted or saturated with the landscape to remember the trail of back roads. I’m surprised how little we used that
map, how much we traveled by instinct. Somewhere between Clint’s father dying, the family business and estate auctioned off, and me getting enough rejections to paper the laundry room, we lost our confidence to find our way back. I got tired—stopped traveling with him, but then again, he was no longer willing to go as far.
Elaine takes us on the official tour, which includes a price listing of the more essential collectibles—the African statuary—real museum-quality pieces—paintings from big-name painters with obtainable prices—Frank Stella can go for thirty grand as long as it’s not a “textbook example, and after all, he’s not dead yet.” The old Mobil Pegasus, newly touched-up, hangs on the wall by the stairs—and yes, I do realize “just how fast they’re catchin’ on” and can appreciate “how difficult they are to find, now that everyone’s got one”; and “what about that
fifteen-hundred-dollar bottle of wine, bottled after VE Day? A surprise for dear old Bill on his fortieth.”
“How are you doing, Sara?” Bill says, playing the eager host. “Do you need another drink?”
“How about wine? Maybe something French. Say, didn’t you get a special bottle for your birthday?”
“Cute!” He smiles, but I see I’ve embarrassed him. There is a shade of vulnerability about him that I haven’t seen many times. I think that I’ve seen it just once, long ago, when we were still at ArtCenter.
“So, you still haven’t explained why,” Bill said, standing over my easel, blocking my light.
I didn’t look up until I finished my stroke, and the panic I saw in his eyes startled me.
Yes, I enjoyed this new twist and began flicking my wrist, throwing a deeper shade of blue onto the canvas, watching his feet shift.
“You’re bluffing. You don’t love him—you want security.”
“That’s not for you to judge.” I was scraping burnt orange onto the surface. “You might not consider this, but there is a code of loyalty.”
“Loyalty, my ass!” Bill yelled. “Where has your loyalty for Clint been in the last six months?”
“I don’t know! Maybe I made a damn mistake! Don’t you ever allow for mistakes in your list of experiences?”
Bill backed off—became silent. “Okay,” he finally said. “Can you at least tell me what you want?”
“Come on.” I tried to laugh. “You know about the job offer. Clint and I are going to be a team and, besides, he supports my work.”
“Okay, stay here. Get married to the great visionary. Shit, be visionaries together, and live your lives out on some third-rate campus. I’ll send a postcard from the world.”
When I finished painting that day, there was not one distinguishable form left. I had created a painting of inchoate gray. After I washed out the brushes, I drove to school—hoping Clint would be in the darkroom and that there would be comfort under the safety light, watching one print after another forming in perfect clarity.
“So, what paper type are you using nowadays?”
“Great for platinum printing.”
“The best. I love those soft, muted tones. But I’m not producing new work right now. I haven’t printed for a long time. These photographs are all vintage.”
It’s okay that I haven’t been listening carefully. I’ve heard the photo talk a few times before. Clint is narrating his work, and Bill and Elaine do look interested, thank God. Bill has a print balanced on his knees, bending close, looking at the details. There’s a respectful quality in his manner and, for a moment, my resentment toward Clint gives way to pride.
“A gorgeous print.” Bill looks up for a moment. “Where was this taken?”
“Just outside of Casper.”
I know that print. It’s one of my favorites. We were on a journey to my family, were escaping a particularly difficult year. The thought of steaming meatloaf, canned relish, and a
variety of pies made me nauseous, but it was better than staying home, thinking about what the doctors had said. I would never have equated that kind of pain with ovaries, but mine had been purple like grapes, or so I was later told. I’d imagined them dried up and was glad I no longer carried them. It was Clint who reacted strangely—spent what seemed like all of his time in the darkroom, got to the point where he began taking his meals there. So when we made that detour, stopped in the middle of nowhere, the wind pushing against sagebrush, mountains blending into blue, and the sun descending over the horizon—stretching shadows into abstract forms—I was
happy. I stood on the high plains, arms raised over my head, pretending to catch the wind, and I knew we were in the midst of the golden hour. The moment when light shapes the world before it dims and then goes black.
“Still working on quiet, meditative themes,” Bill says. He has gone on to another print. “Haven’t you had problems getting grants?”
“Sure,” Clint answers. “The NEA is nearly gone. I imagine the Getty slams one slide up after another. Not much time to meditate.” He tries to sound positive, even makes a quick little laugh.
Lately, Clint has been spending less time in the darkroom. He says that my bitterness has been rubbing off on him. Of course, he always tells me this with a smile. It’s just spouse humor. I think it has to do with his new job—the one he says he had to take to keep us afloat.
“Bill tells me you’re a painter.” Elaine puts down a print.
“Yes.” I nod and swirl the remaining ice in my glass. “Do you know how many serious paintings I produced last year?”
She shakes her head.
She stops smiling, and I’m encouraged.
“That’s right. One simple masterpiece. Guess where it’s hanging?”
This time she looks at me like she’s just caught on.
“The garage, next to our new car.”
“Sara…” Clint tries to give me a discreet warning. “She’s making a joke,” he says, trying to smile. His lips, the way they turn up without emotion, remind me of the professors we
used to call dinosaurs. “Besides,” he adds, “she’s doing well. She teaches. It’s something she loves to do.”
I keep my gaze averted because if I look up, she’ll know how much I hate her.
“I teach adjunct at two local colleges.”
“College. Wow. Noble.”
“If nothing else, that’s what we teachers are. Don’t you agree, Bill?”
He throws up his hands. “Hey, I’d better stay out of this.”
“Didn’t you want to be an educator at one time?”
“I didn’t know that, Bill,” says Elaine, surprised.
“My father needed something from me, and this is where it led.”
“Family advertising business,” says Elaine as if I didn’t know.
“I got in at the right time,” says Bill, almost as an apology. “Besides, if you want to hear God laugh.”
“I don’t think God’s laughing about any of this,” I say.
“I’m sorry, Bill. She’s been drinking,” Clint says as he patiently stares at me.
“Don’t,” I say quietly, almost in a whisper. “Don’t ever apologize for me!”
Elaine gets up. “How about that bottle of wine?” She collects the empty glasses, which have left stains on the coasters. “Of course, we can’t open that VE Day bottle.” She winks at me. “It’s just no good, not chilled.”
What I want to tell her, but don’t say, is $1,500 supports a disabled vet for an entire year. I’m not sure why I don’t speak; perhaps I’m too angry. Maybe I’m too drunk. Probably I’m afraid she’ll list all the charities she and Bill supported last year. No matter what she says, my spirit knows it’s still thirty pieces of silver.
As she moves from the room, the light catches her hair. She shines. I’m beginning to understand what Bill sees in her. Something is fascinating about a caged bird. I can’t help wonder who she is in her core. The men have begun talking politics, Texas politics at that, which sounds horrifying and even more horrifying is what follows, a discussion about the stock market. I can hear the eagerness trailing from their words like addicts chasing the dragon. I’m angry with Clint because he is absorbing the fiction of big markets like a how-to on a hang ten. The American Myth does not fool me. I carefully stand up and follow the clapping of her shoes and the swishing of her skirt.
The kitchen is bright and massive. I have seen such kitchens in the centerfold of Modern Architecture, where every year there is a new theme. Elaine has chosen Southwest, so instead of Formica, there is a rich covering of blue-and-rust tiles—an image of the sun on every fourth. The
only things that interrupt the whiteness of the walls are the copper bottoms of the pans. I can’t imagine why one person needs so much room. Seemingly out of place on the tile counter is a porcelain dove. It’s delicate, frozen, perfect, but it looks cold and hard. I’m both drawn to it and repulsed by its sterility among all this appropriated Mexican color.
“How are you feeling?” She looks over as she sets up fresh crystal glasses.
She pours red wine, equaling out each portion. I wonder what would happen if one of the glasses came up short. Not that it would be her fault—might be a miscalculation. Maybe the light would play tricks on her, and she’d think the portions were equal, but they weren’t. Would anyone notice? Perhaps they would but not say anything.
“So, Elaine. What do you do? Bill hasn’t said much about it.”
“So why aren’t you working your way up the corporate ladder?”
She looks at me, head cocked. “Who said I wasn’t working?”
I feel a sudden pain. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”
“No, it’s okay. But I do work at home with Bill. He calls me his record-keeping department…which has its benefits.” She blushes and hands me my fresh glass.
She begins to move around the kitchen, seems awkward, so I try not to watch too closely. I can’t help it, though, and I filter her face through my glass, which I’ve begun to drain. She opens the refrigerator, removes a plate of designer cheeses: Brie, Neufchâtel, Gruyére, and Gouda. At least that’s what I imagine them to be. She then centers a row of crackers around the slices of cheese, making the plate look like one more sun tile.
“Do you have any regrets?” I ask abruptly, suddenly feeling the warmth of the wine.
“Regrets?” she says like she’s never thought about it before.
“You know, about Bill.”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
I shrug. “Just wondered.”
There are many memories I can still recall at will—like turning the pages of a photo album. Sometimes I try to freeze these thought pictures in my head, but they never stay for long.
At this moment, I have a Christmas in mind—the last one before finishing our degrees before we separated into different lifestyles. Clint and I are at Bill’s apartment. We sit in his living room, on a single bed, which is pushed against the wall so it looks like a couch. We have exchanged gifts—a photograph, a painting, a book. Bill is playing the guitar, and we are all making up new words to familiar songs. We are about to laugh, and I want to hold the image, but my concentration is already beginning to fray.
“You don’t look well,” Elaine says abruptly. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some water?”
I look around the kitchen, see Hamilton Beach, Cuisinart, Miele, and wonder how many years it would take to bury the springs, gears, and motors in the sand.
“More wine would be fine.”
As we pass back through the empty rooms, I suddenly realize how quiet the place is, like a museum or a library. “Why aren’t there any kids?” I ask.
She stops but doesn’t look at me. “No time with Bill traveling. And I’m not sure I can.”
“Kids?” She directs the question back at me.
“I don’t like them,” I say.
The conversation pretty much ends there. We return to the living room where the men are sitting where we left them. Clint looks comfortable slouched in the lambskin recliner.
“Hon, do you have the checkbook?” Bill asks Elaine before she has time to set the fresh drinks down.
“I think it’s in the office.” The platter clanks on the glass-top table, and she removes her fingers from around the side handles.
“I’m going to buy a couple of Clint’s prints.” Bill smiles and reaches for a glass.
“Great!” she says. “I’ll go get it.”
“Hon.” He looks at her. “Bring a bottle of champagne while you’re at it.”
As soon as Elaine leaves, we all begin to stare at one another. I focus on Clint, trying to decide what he could be thinking. He’s glowing like he’s been suckling on a nipple of honey. Yes, we could use the money—got that car payment now. But damn it, this is Bill!
“Bill was telling me he still does black-and-whites.” Clint tries to cover up the growing silence.
“Good for you,” I reply a little too enthusiastically.
“Congratulations on Neiman Marcus,” Clint says as he tips his glass toward Bill. He’s doing this for my improvement, I can tell.
“Neiman Marcus?” I ask.
“Bill’s got a five-year contract for their fur catalog.”
“Doing the layout in Moscow,” Bill says. “Fifth year in a row.”
“Furs?” I mumble.
“Hey, don’t sound so disappointed. If Neiman Marcus wants to sell furs, I’ll shoot furs.” Bill playfully slaps his knee. “It’s only business, Sara.”
Elaine returns without the checkbook. “I’m not sure how this happened…”
“No worry. I have cash.” Bill bounds up the stairs, and Elaine sits next to me.
We all seem to hold our breath as Bill leans over the railing from the floor above and tosses off crisp hundred-dollar bills. They flitter like birds to the landing below. It’s a game, and we stare at Clint to see what he’ll do. I let out a tense breath when Clint makes no move to get up.
Bill skates down the stairs, gathers the cash, and hands it to Clint. “Here you go, buddy.”
I’m beginning to hate that word.
“How about finding a place to hang them?” Elaine says and, for the next thirty minutes, they nibble crackers and measure wall space. I hang back and watch as they move an Edward Weston for the Casper print, using a frame that was on a Clarence Laughlin because it’s the “closest in size” and “why wait for a custom order?” I suspect they move prints all the time, and I wonder how long Clint’s work will be displayed.
“I’m going to bed,” I say.
“Do you remember where your room is?” Elaine smiles.
“Yes,” I answer, then turn and stumble out.
I’m not sure how long I stared at the ceiling, but I must have drifted off because
I barely notice when Clint climbs in beside me.
“Are you awake?” He tries to caress me, but I gently remove his hand. I can smell him,
the breath of a drunk man. Then again, I’m drunk too.
“Why are you so angry?” he whispers. “Have I failed you?”
I can’t answer him because I don’t have the words to say, I’ve failed myself.
“You know, you’re the best thing to happen to me,” he says, winding my hair around his index finger.
I know he’s trying, but what used to sound romantic now sounds hollow.
“I’ve just realized something tonight.” Clint moves his hand away, and I can hear him tapping his finger against his head. “The way you act around him…well…”
I don’t make a sound, and he continues to struggle with his awkwardness.
“It’s just I’ve always thought you two were…you know, at one time?”
“Would it matter?” I say without looking at him.
“Yes,” he whispers and gently touches my shoulder.
I turn around and say without blinking, “Nothing ever happened.”
Morning brings in a blinding light. Something in-flight flashes outside the window—and then there is a sickening thud. I’m alarmed when I throw off the bedcovers and step over to the window. It’s a brown bird, sitting on the windowsill, stunned. A tiny, brown bird, a sparrow, nothing special at all. The kind of brown bird that scatters underneath café tables pecking at the crumbs. The sparrow cocks its head, and I swear it looks right at me. It collects itself for another moment and then flutters up and away. I’m spellbound. It’s a miracle that it can fly. It’s a miracle that it didn’t break its neck when it mistook the glare of window for open sky. I search for it as I try to remember why I’m so angry all the time. All these years, I thought I’d made the wrong choice. Something within me softens. How magnificent it would be to fly. All birds fly. I could fly too—if I tried.
Clint is still unconscious, belly up, hair twisted into a curl. He’s snoring. I can’t remember him being such a noisy sleeper even after he’s been drinking. “So, are we going to grow into separate rooms?” I ask.
He answers me with a “Honk-spurrrr.”
“Wake up. Wake up,” I say louder, shaking him.
“What!” He jumps.
“We’re rude sleeping until…” I pause for a moment to look at the clock. “It’s almost ten.”
“Christ.” He sighs, yawns, and rubs his chest, hair graying there around his nipples.
“Get up,” I say again. “Let’s not waste the day.”
“I want to sleep!” He looks pleadingly at me. “Okay?”
I feel a snap of anger, the way the heart throbs after a wave of adrenaline. But as I look at him, breathing quietly, I think about how the Casper print will be removed next week, shoved into a drawer and forgotten, but it’s my damn family, and suddenly the snap is gone. Without saying another word, I dress and leave the room.
I walk through the empty hall, down the stairs, planning where my foot will land. Like the movement in a ballet, I raise an arch, point toes, then plant firmly in front of me. It’s a slow way to walk, but I’ve already turned it into a game. Like any game, there are rules—“Step on a crack, break your momma’s back”—but this is my game, and I haven’t decided what the rules will be yet. The only thing I have decided is that I will take each room as it comes, and the first room I enter is the game room. Besides the pool table and the slot machine, there’s a wall covered with masks—Egyptian, African, Mexican, French—they’re all there. The whole human experience—a world of fears. I turn to the opposite wall, a graffiti wall full of names.
“Don’t forget to leave an autograph,” Bill told me last night. “It’s interesting to see what color a person chooses and to analyze how they sign.”
I take two markers from the box on the nearby table, orange and blue. I use the blue marker on the wall, writing very small so they will have to squint to read my name. I pocket the other marker.
I follow the wall into the next room, arches raised, then planted. Stacked near the computer are work orders, and I wonder how much data entry Elaine does every day, clicking nails against the keys before she goes to her clubs—her health club, her woman’s club, her
association club. There is a flat file extending toward the desk, and I can’t resist sliding out the long drawers. There are several proofs from recent jobs—contours of cars, women, wine bottles. He hasn’t forgotten how to make an image beautiful with light, shadow, and detail. He’s made them all look like the ruby apple in Snow White’s hand.
I push the drawer closed and then continue through the house, always following the wall.
I try to see everything but my mind wanders, and I see nothing unless I’m able to touch it. And I feel a lot of things, wondering what kind of life the artist had. I see ocean huts when I rub the curve of the tribal chair, hear the musician chanting when I press the stone pipe, smell morning dew next to a cup carved from a mountain goat’s horn. This type of energy used to excite me, connected me to my existence, but I’ve been asleep for so long.
When I reach the den, I’m on familiar ground because I’ve found the skull again, but the wall ends. If I turn the corner, I can easily reach the head. If I break my rules, I can walk to the opposite wall where I know the Casper print hangs. I stand, unable to make a decision, popping the marker’s orange top off with my thumb, then pressing it back with a click. I turn my head to the right and imagine walking up to the mantel, to the base of the skull, imagine very carefully penning my name under the neck socket. “I reclaim you,” I could say as I look into the empty holes of its eyes.
I’m still standing on the threshold when Bill’s voice startles me.
“Oh, good morning,” he says. “You’re up early.”
I put the marker down and turn quickly around. “Tough time sleeping late,” I say, wondering if I look surprised.
“So, you remember that old skull?” He walks out into the room and points to the wall.
“Yes, I remember.”
“I think it helps me stay focused.” His voice sounds a little strained. “Makes death seem concrete. I mean, don’t you think it would be terrifying to die like that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like those cows dumped in the Mojave, suffocating in the heat.”
“There are worse ways.”
“I suppose, but to be dumped out there.” He shudders.
“They got lost. That’s what I think,” I say again. “Those cows just didn’t make it.”
We look at each other for a moment, and Bill smiles, maybe even a nostalgic smile, but it’s only for a moment.
“Hey, you two,” Elaine says, another voice behind me. “Are you all ready for breakfast?”
“Sure, hon. We’ll be right there.”
“Give me a minute.”
Bill looks at me and nods.
I again have the room to myself, but there isn’t a lot of time. I give the skull one glance before walking to where the collection of photographs hangs. Ten photos line the wall like tiny windows, and Clint’s print is in the middle—not too far up the wall; someone came over early this morning to frame it. I reach for it, arms raised, and take it down—back wire catches my hand and scratches it. The glass creates glare, but this print reminds me of how vast a landscape can be; even mountains will disappear into the horizon if they are far away enough. I again imagine my grandmother washing that Lincoln—the car she never learned to drive—with her bonnet tied tight. I wonder if I would have kept it on or taken it off to have seen those sections which gleamed just beyond my vision.
As I loosen the backing and slide the photograph from the frame, I decide that this will be my print—Bill and Elaine will have to choose another.
I join them in the kitchen. Clint is already eating a thick slice of bread, red jam on his fingers.
“Morning.” He looks at me. “Sorry, I slept in.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, but I’m unable to look into his eyes. I imagine that I’ll see two dark sockets which, if they catch the sun, will reflect the dark circles below my eyes.
“What’s that?” Clint points to the print in my hand.
“It’s one of the photographs you sold,” I say as I look at my feet. “It’s Casper. That’s where my grandmother was born.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asks, sounding a little amused.
“Listen.” I look at Bill and Elaine. “Would you mind too much if I kept this one?”
There is a long stretch of silence. Elaine stops cutting oranges in half and looks at me curiously. “But we’ve already paid.”
“I know, but this means something to me. Besides, I’m planning a trip there. Might even stay if I like it.”
“What?” Clint looks confused and concerned.
“I’m fine, Clint. Don’t worry. It’s been a long time coming.”
“What’s been coming?”
Bill looks over at Elaine. “It’s okay, hon,” he finally says, running one hand through his hair. “Sure, we’ll choose another.” He smiles at me.
I feel a fantastic sense of relief, the sensation of flight, although I still can’t look at Clint.
“Fresh juice?” Elaine says, turning on the electric juicer.
We nod, and she hands us each a glass. “Here’s to your health.”
“Right,” Clint says. “A toast to old friends and my wife leaving me.”
“You are joking, right?” Elaine looks a little shocked and, for a moment, I feel pride in my husband well up.
Bill holds up his glass as if studying it. “I’m next,” he says, clearing his throat. “Here’s to the days of energy and vision, and to being lost in the desert.” He brazenly winks at me, and I’m nauseous.
I’m the only one who hasn’t made a statement, and they all stand watching, waiting to see what I will say, hoping I’ll relieve the tension by saying, “I’m kidding” or “I’m hungover” or, better yet, offer a sincere apology for making a spectacle of myself.
I step over to Elaine and, to her surprise, hug her and don’t let go. She stands very still. “Thank you,” I say when I step back.
“Whatever for?” She rapidly blinks and looks at me like I’m a wild thing.
I’m standing by the porcelain dove on the counter. I gently touch its head, cool to the touch. “Such a pretty thing,” I say.
“That’s because it’s a Joy de L’Hermite, dear.”
I suppose she means, “Don’t touch.”
My hand flies up before I can catch myself. The crash startles even me, but the shattering of illusion hangs in the air like sweet music. I turn and face their horrified faces. Even Elaine cannot mask her shock and concern.
“It’s okay,” I say without apology. “A bird’s gotta fly.”