Cold War paranoia, a search for an iconic bird, a stubborn man confronting change, a woman returning to her past, a fable with birds and beasts, a job-hunting effort derailed, a visionary or menace who inhabits a world alone…or not…
Short, slice-of-life pieces, of fewer than 1000 words.
Gougher, the man Dria had thought he ought to sponsor, the man who’d undertaken digging a pond with a shovel, the man who’d suffered, in some way Dria’s church friends were too delicate to ask…
Anthony Vrenick had the thing in mind. If Gougher felt bad about being an alcoholic, or a wife beater, he would have to lump it…he was going to be asked, because with luck he might leave…in a hough, his employer joked inwardly, angrily. He disliked the man’s idiot name.
“Your wife said, if you just sign this, I’d go on down to the lumber store before they close…”
Gougher was extending a piece of paper, mumbling with his characteristic diffidence and grammar, that lulled and disoriented. Anthony had agreed to hire him on this mistaken premise—of thinking he had offered only vague sympathy to a guest of his wife.
“Gougher, you think you can load bricks on a truck?”
“I didn’t figure on it, Mr. Vernick. Can’t set up a brick wall without mortar. That’ll be another thing.” He paused. “Besides I ain’t got a truck.”
Anthony, blowing out breath between his teeth at Gougher’s persistent difficulty over his own name, warned himself in the nick of time. These bricks were figurative. They were his own damn bricks. His next remark would have been, “An able-bodied man ought to be able to put himself in line for a job, if he can show a little initiative.” He was hoping Gougher might go to the lumber store, and not come back.
But experience had taught him to suspect it, that Dria’s man could take non-existent bricks and make a wall of them. Maybe a patio. The paper that Anthony now snatched—with a rudeness none of his clients at the Sūr-Trust Savings and Loan, no matter how finnicking their reading of legal language, how many times they feinted and withdrew the pen before signing, would have seen in April of 1951’s Employe of the Month—read only, in his wife’s hand:
I give the bearer of this note permission to charge to my account, all such articles as he deems necessary for the completion of his assigned job of work.
What, Anthony said to himself, and then said it again out loud: “What!”
What busybody’s template had she copied that from? She’d put his name and their address at the bottom, and drawn a line for his signature…he felt smote in the breast by this line, as though she belittled his common sense.
“Gougher, you wait here.”
About the time he’d strode up the flagstones and begun tangling through the branches of the mock orange, Gougher’s voice, from close range, as though in silence he’d been ambling along behind (of course he had), came to Anthony’s ears.
“If she was home, she might take me over in the car. But she ain’t been home. That’s how come the note. Guess you won’t use it.”
Anthony shoved open the white picket gate. He’d seen against the greening grass of his back lawn, a wheelbarrow, a shiny red one, and yes, paving stone…a modest pyramid of this, that might have made a single load. Next to these things, a hole, one about four feet in diameter, about a foot deep, ragged at the edges.
“Oh, please! If he’s doing something wrong, tell him what you’d like done differently. How do you think anyone gets anyplace in the world, if all they get is the sack? We’re trying to teach poor Mr. Gougher.”
They’d had this argument. Gougher, while Anthony had been counting to ten, and trying, inside himself (and in theory) to get past Dria, had picked up one of the stones. He’d since wandered away. Anthony had seen it through the corner of his eye, and missed the significance.
Cripes! What had Gougher been mumbling this time?
He spun, shoving the note in a pocket, and saw that Gougher, a stone tucked in the crook of each elbow, was already making off up the drive. He hadn’t been speaking at all—he’d been rehearsing, rather, what he would tell the salesclerk, returning these.
“Mr. Vernick wants brick.”
Anthony heard a car’s motor fall to idling, and thought Dria had come back. “No wall!” he wanted to bang on the driver’s side window and shout at her. But it wasn’t Dria…it was a sort of parade. Chanting walkers with signs had filtered in like a nest of termites, and were blocking the street. He ducked into the garage, composing in his head a letter to the Times editor, about blameless suburbanites, solid party-line voters…and why the city couldn’t pass a law…
He grabbed the hedge clippers. When he caught Gougher, he would make himself plain.
Anthony wove, hell bent for his quarry (for, specifically, the money Gougher was about to waste), squinting beyond the stalled sedan, the motorcycle cop, the picketers…not paying much attention to them. He ignored a sproing and pop, close to his ear…then a second sproing and pop made him blink, and he found himself halted by a hand pinching the sleeve of his jacket. His picture had been taken.
“I’m curious,” the reporter said. He gestured. The sign he pointed to demanded, black paint over orange, atomic catastrophe wrought in hand lettering: NO MORE WORLD WAR.
“You’re gonna trim back the big spenders, that it? No more millions for the military.” He chuckled. “Can I get a quote, sir?”
All the Sires of Generations
“That’s too bad. How you figure,” Arbuthnot asked McCoy, “if I put it out…if you get around, I mean, and put it out under my name… Tell ’em the professor, that’s what I hear they been calling me—” Arbuthnot stopped here, and chuckled. “A man looking for a bird.”
McCoy, deeply sun-seasoned, perhaps thirty-five—wiry, narrow of skull; well-proportioned though scaled small—had not so far found any of Arbuthnot’s digressions worth a laugh in reply. He looked pained and squinted through the window.
The Never Ask interior, its hurricane shutters thrown back, its unglassed sashes open to the shade of a cypress, had only this light. A car battery sat on the floor, making the fan go.
Arbuthnot met the eye of the bartender. “Yeah, take another,” he murmured. The bartender leaned, uncapping bottles as he handed each across the sill. Arbuthnot and McCoy sat on the porch, their bench under the tin roof fanned by a slight breeze, just tolerably cooler than a stool indoors.
“Now I don’t know what the hell I’m saying, McCoy. Lemme think.”
“These folks, you see,” McCoy said. He cleared his throat, and like Arbuthnot, decided to start again. “Don’t mean anything to ’em. Get ’em a little spendin’ money of their own…else it’s all cane fields. Don’t never get ahead in the cane field.”
“Well, that’s it. I want you to put it out…Arbuthnot’ll beat any offer. But he wants that bird alive.”
He looked over his shoulder, inside, and around the porch. None of the Never Ask patrons seemed listening…but if they weren’t deaf, they were hearing. He decided not to name his bounty. People up in Wilkes-Barre shook their heads in disbelief, but Arbuthnot had gone all kinds of places by himself, with only a local man to guide him. He didn’t consider the practice unsafe. He worried about the birds.
“I want you to keep your eyes open.”
Having said it, he found the tone a little peremptory, wondered if he ought to soften the order. He wasn’t sure he was the one giving orders.
“I mean,” he told her, “this is what I have in mind…write ’em down in the book, every bird we see. Some’re rare and some aren’t…blue jay, common as dirt, hooded warbler, not especially rare. Pileated, probably see one. Red-cockaded, not likely…but they’re out there. We happen to spot one of those, that’s something to peg on, if you understand me.”
Now, this also was just an expression. His guide struck him as prickly. He hadn’t expected a woman, and didn’t have any manners for it.
“Mr. Arbuthnot, I get along just fine.” She’d hefted up his knapsack, his camera bag, and the two canteens; loaded these in the bateau herself. Then put a firm hand on the pole. She’d fixed him with a look, when he’d made some move in his seat to rise and take this from her.
“I understand you,” she said now. ‘You better keep quiet and listen. Audubon wrote…”
“Yes.” He was interrupting. He flushed, but his face from the powerful heat was already red and sweat-sheened. “Yes…you’re going to say they’ll be calling to each other.”
He couldn’t see whether, under the brim of her hat, she frowned, but her chin came up. She turned her back on him, and launched the bateau into the current. Arbuthnot peered through his binocular. He jotted in his notebook, perspiration dripping and dampening the page. She, with her dark skin, was cool. He thought he would not make this remark, but would anyway ask her a rude question.
The two of them were not getting along especially well, so maybe it couldn’t hurt much in the long run. “Ma’am…”
“You better call me Peggy.”
Arbuthnot felt he would not…not yet. “So, your people.”
She glanced at him, down on him, standing upright at the prow.
He felt he ought to shut up. “The Seminole tribe is big down here,” he tried.
“Well, I guess so. I never heard anyone say it that way.”
“Is that what McCoy had in mind?” he asked. “Maybe you know someone gets up into the swamps?”
She didn’t finish. She held up a hand, and so he didn’t know if she’d been about to rebuke him, or only wanted his attention. And she meant for him to hear, not see. He scanned the trees, alert and a little desperate. There was no knowing where the fretful cry, over now, had come from.
Salvador had gone off, more of a brood than a hunt, though he carried his shotgun and walking stick. That suited Bridie, who wanted to feel free, picking over her herbs, seeing what had come back in the flower bed. Bluebells, where she’d raked away leaves in the apple orchard. Then Salvador was going to cut that dead tree down, so there’d be no saying, “Just watch where you trample those boots.” Why? She wouldn’t tell. But because they were delicate together, like calico, these, and the yellow buttons of wild strawberry, the violets, purple and green.
Maybe his eye could see these things too. He must like the woods for something. He scorned Bridie, it seemed, for talking at all, so what would they talk about? He was mad now, because he’d taken the vote as spite.
Long ago, his granddaddy Ford had bought that up there, the patch the bank had loaned him money for. The idea had been, you’ll put up a pine woods, and it’ll grow to timber and be cut down, and that pays for the land. The militia had come and plied on Old Ford then, because it wasn’t cropland, and it wasn’t family land, so why would a good Davis man not let the boys practice at this kind of fighting?
It was mad land, to be sure, its crooked trees never culled right, the old ones past maturity now, a whole naked brushy clearing with lightning scorched stumps and bramble thickets.
Someone came down the path over the hill. They were building a dam—and that would not affect Salvador’s land, only loom as a thing that preyed on his mind. That rich men could shape the earth as they pleased. That they could put fear on you, stop a lake of water over your head.
To Salvador rich, and educated, and citified, were one. This one, she’d seen, a young helper to the county agent. Bridie had a fanciful notion of him watching from the ridgetop, through those glasses round his neck, waiting to see Ford gone. So he could do his bit of work.
“Mrs. Ford. How do you do? You remember me?”
Well, the truth was, she didn’t, in that sense. She remembered, after thinking a moment, that his last name was Cole.
“You come in the kitchen if you want. I’ll put on a pot of coffee.”
“Now, Mr. Ford was supposed to see about planting cow vetch, for the erosion control.”
In this statement were questions, and she thought she would not try very hard, for pride’s sake—it was only Salvador’s pride—to hide the nature of things.
“Oh, Mr. Cole, don’t look for it. He’s a cuss, that’s what. I’ll tell you why.”
She stepped back, and saw him not wanting to follow her, shifting his weight to his trailing foot, propping his clipboard on his stomach. The oilcloth on the table felt sticky to the touch, she knew. She wiped it down every day. That was just the way it was. The water was from the pump, and the coffee about half ground hickory nut.
“I’ll just tell Salvador you been by.”
She thought some social worker had had a talk with him. They had a way of coaching the government men how to conduct themselves with the hillbillies. So it made everyone feel bad. Mr. Cole looked embarrassed.
“Come inside if you want.”
She spooned coffee into the stovetop percolator’s basket. She already had the pot filled with water, and the range was hot all day. It wasn’t much she was offering, this and a box of graham crackers that she set on the table, but he said, a second time, “You don’t need to fix me anything.”
“See, it’s this land,” she told him. She sat opposite, looking at the pine woods through the open front door. A sight made her exclaim. “Oh, what on earth!”
Mr. Cole twisted round. He had heard it too, the crash and splinter.
“Your husband’s doing some timbering.”
He didn’t take this as Bridie did. “It was you people wanted one of us to be a model farm. So you could teach all that.” She gestured at his clipboard. “The erosion and the rotation.”
He was using a bucksaw, she thought…no bang, bang, bang of the axe. He might have only stopped up at Mattie’s, to get him to come down. And here came another big tree, all silver and dead.
“It’s been that way, Mr. Cole. It’s not ’cause they like Salvador they voted for him. It’s ’cause they don’t.” He was whipping Mattie along. The little one the big one had snagged on came down, the big one heaving up a nest of root. “I don’t think,” she told Cole, “you oughta be here.”
Darian thought an attic window black as that could not be empty behind the glass. But no one who’d broken the others could pitch a stone to reach so far. She’d wondered if this were true. The V between the front porch roof and that of the upper story held a shoal of debris, twigs and leaves, rusted blisters of metal from the roof itself. Maybe stones that had fallen short. She got out from under the elder’s roots, and stood where the creek lapped her shoes and the derelict, so near teetering over the road, was easier to see. And concluded she would have to go pitch a rock herself, or how would she know?
How close you could get.
She looked the house in the eye for a long time. She glimpsed a face…convinced herself she had…a cobwebby oval of white. Brooding, haunted things gathered in attics, or at the back of cisterns in damp cellars. She thought what a secret pleasure it would be, when other kids said it.
“Someone broke that window.”
To know and not say.
Would her mother be one to reject the afterlife? Driving a road she could still find…and hated that she could, Darian remembered talks that hadn’t been. She hadn’t been told if there were any religion, unspoken belief kept in abeyance, to be made use of when it was time. Death a last item on a list of things to be over with. You didn’t, of course, get over it. You could have possession of this one thing forever. In fact, there would be no tidy reckoning, however alphabetized or ordered by date were the letters and papers and belongings, the pictures of people, any clues remaining to a point of view in the assembler.
No means of decluttering at the end, all the fondnesses and funny notions and little ways of passing time, the actors adored in teenage years, the music she would have bought for herself, if she had bought music for herself. But Darian’s imagination could draft a scenario.
When her mother sat down with her father, here, where all secrets were made manifest. “Yes, you know. I did those things.”
They would confess to one another.
“Well, of course, bless your heart”—that imprecation, that warning to let the subject be closed—“you do try to do better, when you know. It’s where you get your information…”
Still seeking from confidences Darian’s story, as though this could not be taken from Darian herself.
If they said this needed thing in this way, Darian would mean…if you would only stop. If you would come back, prodigal parent.
The house could never have been as bad as she’d pictured it. All the back porch sashes’ torn screens banged over with wafer-board. A ceiling bulb in a socket, and a switch. This, in a galvanized box beside an outlet, standing off from the wall. Clamped-on conduit. Shelves…more wafer-board, irregular cuts stacked over plastic crates. And a rug smell, that made the whole room seem new.
Acrylic, bought at the discount store they used to have, dull charcoal.
She’d broken the window that was her own.
That too, and the fold-out cot to sleep on, had seemed like the mechanisms of adult retribution. Before the porch, with the eaves of the lower roof blocking your view, perplexity came clear. You could step backwards about the length of a body, and your feet would slide into the ditch. You could go back up the drive, onto the road, and if your throwing arm had been strong enough, arc a rock over the sumacs.
In the ditch Darian spotted a soggy, torn foam ball, a dog’s plaything. She ran. Her mother’s trailer was at the bottom of the hill.
If you could hit the trunk of a tree, and bounce the ball just right.
On the second try, she overthrew. And so she’d gone up.
The skin of the screen door had been scoured away, a film of sawdust spread before the threshold. The metal hook and eye that held it closed was shiny silver. But the door was not latched. The front door was off its hinges, propped. Cardboard boxes were stacked on the floor. Bottles of water and an ashtray in one corner.
Yes, once she’d got up to the attic, been sent there with broom and dustpan to do her own work, “getting the place livable”; the oval had looked like only cobwebs and ashy dirt.
But all perceptions are of the human mind, and we cannot perceive the nature of that we cannot know. Why say, then, that this was the prosaic explanation? It was the ghost, sharing her hours, biding. In those years, Darian had known it.
“I don’t try to get out of things. I try my best not to get into things.”
The weasel had dropped by, as he put it, coming on at first by a peristaltic rippling over a basswood’s roots. The roots canopied mirrored water, pooling naturally between a fallen trunk and a low line of moss-grown rock. Despite the little runlet that hugged this and never broke, here along the bank the water was still and clear.
She was pleased, the duck, that her babies could jump in what she would have called safety, at this spot—so convenient—for a first swim. As it turned out, and as her mother would have warned her, the underside of the roots was riddled with weasel holes.
“Oh, I am not especially peckish at the moment.” The weasel seemed to wave her doubts aside. “It’s a fine day, isn’t it? Eh…but I won’t say I haven’t got a taste for snails on a late spring morning. Right over there, on that little shoal, the digging is excellent. You like them yourself.”
“Snails are all right…” she ventured. He drew his paw back, groomed an ear with it, ate something he’d pulled out—a flea, she thought—and gave her a smile, meant to be charming.
He was very quick. He’d been flicking his tail in a complicated way, and now and then he swiveled his head, glancing at the opposite bank, peering into branches above, where they all knew to look, for hawks. And then behind him.
“A small rabbit,” he murmured, “always goes over dandy. Not your taste, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Your friend didn’t stay long.”
“Oh, I don’t know him,” she said. “I wouldn’t call him a friend. The rabbit was only telling me. He said there were snakes…and weasels.”
“Yes, yes.” Like lightning, a second weasel materialized, in the way of its mate, from the camouflage of tree bark. This one sighed. “We put up with a lot of insult, being we are only making our living, like anyone. Now, your friend the rabbit wouldn’t like facing one of us down, to pass such a remark. You will admit in fairness, he did as much as say it…a weasel is no different from a snake.”
“Oh, well, I don’t know him,” she repeated. With two weasels to keep an eye on, she was having a time of it counting the ducklings. There had been six. She felt there were still six, but the second weasel, with the same head-darting, tail-flicking habit of her companion, was making it hard to keep track.
The duck’s mother had said, “Once you get them in the water, you’ve done all you can. You’ll just have to hope they have the sense to follow along.”
“I ought to be going,” she told the weasels.
She had a vague memory of her young days. They had slipped by in a summer. Even then, when she’d had brothers and sisters, and they’d all tried to gather in a row, she hadn’t counted well. It seemed to her she could recall a process of…winnowing, her clutch-mates and herself reduced to three.
“Now, I’m going to do you a favor for nothing.”
This offer came from a tall, rigid shadow. She realized, as the head tilted, the lower eye piercing the water, noticing and sharp, that the shadow was a blue heron. He winked his upper eye. “Come closer, now.”
She didn’t like it, turning her back on weasels. She could hear in her wake a sotto voce chittering. But after all, the she-weasel had only just finished her complaint, and it seemed to the duck a fair one. It was a lot, calling anyone a snake. The rabbit hadn’t stuck around, either.
“Yes, that’s right,” the heron said. “Paddle right over. We are both birds, you and I. I would never mind about the weasels, myself…I have never been troubled by them.”
He seemed to wait for her to speak, and she looked up at his formidable height and javelin-like bill.
“But I would look out for that cat. Wanders over from the farm, when the weather suits it. Has a most pernicious habit of getting itself…you spot the creature there, nestled among the grasses…”
“…somewhat concealed. You know cats. Falls asleep. We birds, of course, must flit about our business. Can’t wait hours for the enemy to wake up and engage with us. Ha, ha!” Having raised from the duck only an anxious frown, the heron cleared its throat. “You see…the matter is delicate…”
He swung his bill. On the opposite bank she noted again the fat feline with his bushy tail and sable mask. The face rested in gentle repose, the closed eyes seemed to elongate into a deeper harmony with the sunrays baking the thick fur. Under the front paws and playing about the lips were tiny, downy feathers.
“Oh, dear…” she said.
Free for All
Suzette, who was going to teach her how to sell lip gloss, nail polish, body cream—H.E.N., the name of the line (it had a meaning, feminist sardonic, and then it had another meaning: Health, Energy, Nature)—had a drawing-in-of-the-lips habit. She had long, impractical fingernails. She’d laughed, in a tolerant enough way, leafing through registration forms that she kept, for some reason, on a clipboard.
“Nola. Yeah, I got you. You’re not one of our Fierce girls.”
No. Nola, budget member, sat down before the keyboard, expectant, with what felt to her the right attentiveness for a woman older and fatter than the others.
And she had not gone ahead and made herself a user name.
She glanced at Cara, sharing her table. Cara had logged in, started checking her…(okay, Nola thought) “H.E.N. box”, and was looking at a demo with the sound off.
Nola had waited to be told.
“I guess I’m dumb. Sorry.”
This, she’d supposed friendly and humble. Suzette moved away, saying something under her breath.
Innovation. The first bullet point on the slide that shined on the white board. The computer screen dimmed, and the slide dimmed. Nola typed in Corpse Lily. Her sample GoGel, a plummy black mascara and liner in one, was so called. A minute passed, and flashing on her screen from slideshow to text, something new appeared.
“Do you all have your quiz up?”
Cara seemed to smirk. She had finished the quiz. She saw Nola looking at her, and whispered, not very softly, “It tells you whether you got it right. You just pick something else.”
Suzette sidled onto the school desk where her laptop sat open. She went on, “What makes H.E.N. cosmetics…”
A man in oxford shirt and khakis, youthful face, thinning hair, came through the door, flapping a paper.
“…different…” Suzette said. The corner of her mouth pouched, and she shot him a warding eye. He showed her the paper.
“What! They can’t do it!”
“Update your resume, Suzette.”
She rose, with skirt-tugging awkwardness, and clutched his arm. “Sean, it’s such a lie. How could a company go into receivership overnight?”
She had more to say, but Sean, whose “Suzette” had been tinged a little nasty, now said, “Are you touching me?”
Suzette gasped. She made a fist.
Cara jumped to her feet, and said, “Hey!”
“Touch you? You freaking little…”
“Hey! You people! I paid a hundred bucks! What the fuck!”
A woman opened the door, stuck her head in, and closed it. A man stuck his in, and said, “Get that stuff!” About a dozen of the places were unoccupied, but welcome bags, yellow and white striped, tissue-filled, still rested on the chairs of each.
“C’mon, get that stuff,” Cara said. Nola got her purse, managed to block with her backside the groping arms of Sean, and burst at length into the hall, with three bags of loot.
Though the question occurs…whether this is not a product of nostalgia, this notion…
Of character or coherence…
Coherence, adhesion, McAlley says to himself. Redundancy. Like healing like. Things that were familiar have fallen to schemes, none of which looks promising of success.
McAlley, from his corner, sees two broken businesses, housed in buildings never valued enough to slide mortar in among the bricks, to wash dead insects from the inside of the glass, to start the clock ticking again. Each has a feature. The little belfry, or cupola…or elfin watchtower…that rises from a half-roof of Spanish tile—
The rest is only stucco, square windows that must have been added for insulation…but, decades ago. And the other, a weird columned portico, welcoming lost customers into a squat coffer of a space; here the bricks skeletoned at the edges, enough light coming through to see around the corner.
Then contrast the skyscrapers seen to rise above the yellowed-plastic signs, lit inside, but not at the moment. The drug store still advertised under the logage of its past owner. And this that was a movie theater. But at the horizon, an ugly disharmony.
McAlley imagines a world of dead canyons, of wind and chill and danger, roaming scavengers waiting for a scrap of metal façade to plummet. Every day someone dies under the raining wreckage. Finally the storm comes and the conflagration.
All this is Nietzschean, he tells himself. A vision. I see what others don’t, the end of days.
He crosses. He is looking for someone, as he does each prowl away and home. It seems to him this super-seeing, being gifted to him, must be also a link in a chain, intended by time to bridge, from awakened intellect to awakened intellect, the chaotic present and the rising that comes after. And that, though one’s fellows are rare, one must know them, locking eyes.
He has never yet been certain he has. But here is a woman in a red coat, who walks in an aura of sweeping gusts. Devils take up leaves and paper cups, spinning and shooting them into the street. It would help to speak to her. Her eye may not be caught.
McAlley says: “Look at me.”
She glances over her shoulder, because he has got close and tapped her there. He takes the risk, because…it is a small martyrdom, to be misunderstood.
But she gives him a direct stare that keeps for a moment, and then allows him to walk by her side.