The following bit of Nashville fiction samples lines from songs recorded by the Cumberland Collective March 3-5 at Blackbird Studios and written, variously, by Jason Eskridge, Clay Evans, Mike Willis, Connor Rand and other cowriting members. For more on the session, stay tuned. And you can find the crew on Facebook here.
He was a professional loiterer, a master in the art of keeping all his love to himself whose place was adjacent to speeding traffic atop one of just a few in-city walk- and motorways over a mighty river, the Cumberland. His front porch looked down on the mammoth Marathon diesel tanks in a tank farm just off the Colonial Pipeline and, farther east and north along the roadway, the downtown truck stop where the world passed through the little-big burg, Nashville, “Guitar Town” the highway haulers called it, “Music City” in the minds of most.
He called it home, if he called it at all.
“I’m OK with the way that I am,” he said to himself and anyone who would listen, but among the latter he could count only a very few, mostly Nashville cops who occasionally harassed him into moving down along the river banks and out of the wind, out of the way of the maybe two pedestrians who might actually find their way to his abode – Guitar Town was a car town, after all.
He was not exactly OK with the way that he was, if he really thought about it. He was running behind of too much, and, not afraid of changing, he would make something out of nothing. A sign, with which he would broadcast. He set about building it with wood of his city, of his river, planks he found washed up on the grounds of the tank farm, old nails not exactly pilfered from same, black paint for the base of the boards, white for the letters. A man named Denton who called himself Peterbilt after the truck manufacturer whose primary assembly factory stood tall in the Texas town that shared his name, and whose Nashville plant had seen more glorious times, found him that morning painting the giant collections of boards. Peterbilt walked due west/south, headed downtown, and after stopping to hear our hero’s story said he ought write the one about the alligator who became friends with the bassett hound because she decided a few things on her own, the alligator. Like there was usually no need to stop and think this thing through, life, there was too much hurt to go around, too many bassett hounds being eaten by alligators.
The two beasts, predator and prey, a songplugger promising a cut on a Kenny Chesney record for $200 and the streetcorner cat that paid him, would come together and prove that even nature could produce elegant harmonies from disparate parts, pull up a chair and sit on down, plenty love to go around. “This is Nashville,” as if “we need it,” Peterbilt said and walked on.
“He’s wearing tight women’s jeans,” the sign painter said to himself, watching Pete roll his way away. “I’ll never understand it.” But maybe he did.
He painted. He would face his sign in the direction of the truckers, where if it actually caught their eye it might have its biggest impact, sending little ripples down major U.S. highways and away from here. Only then might the folks behind the sign, the way Peterbilt went, bother to take a cruise from downtown and parts west across the river to the east side to see it. “This man can’t be trusted,” he said, though Peterbilt had a point, didn’t he. Just as out west, up north, maybe down south right here in Tennessee, a sign, his shingle, his face to the world, the thing needed a story to make your sister want to clap her hands, make you stand up and shot, scream out loud … Patience, he said, whole lot of patience — maybe his message — and went on painting.
The signboard was near 20 by 20, buttressed against March winds by appropriately-positioned four-by-fours comprising a sturdy four-post support system but just wobbly enough to lend working around it a feeling as if the wheels are coming off a little bit — the sign painter put everything he had into the last brushstroke on the bottom left edge and the board rocked.
Wind blew the paint dry and trash in from the east before it swirled at the bulkhead of downtown around the courthouse and candy wrappers and dry tax returns scattered by the two-year-old flood flew back the way it came. He sat. He missed Peterbilt, everybody needs pals. “He’ll be back,” he said.
Days passed. He dissembled the structure four different times after he’d painted his initial message for the truckers — ultimately a missive, the men were too busy, his patience seeping further out of him time after time he got the thing back up and some goon cruising downtown from East Nashville called in a tip, a cruiser stormed the other way with its lights loud and cutting the night….
But he had it back up when he needed it. “Pull up a chair and sit on down,” he said when Pete came on back down the bridge like he’d never left, though he’d traded in his ladies’ jeans for black chinos and an Affliction t-shirt. He picked up right where he left off. “Everywhere I turn, man, it seems like everyone is telling me what I should be,” he said. “No use keeping your heart all to yourself, though. Couldn’t look myself in the eye if I kept that up.”
“We might be kindred spirits, my man,” said the sign painter.
“Can I get an Amen? You have seen the light. Me, I live my life like a truck on the highway, mostly, but everybody changes.”
Am I hearing real words? the sign painter asked himself, slow to accept his own intuition about the one man with whom he’d had a real conversation since it all began, the sign.
Pete moved from behind the sign around front to where he could see what it said. “‘I am out here,’” he quoted. “Nah, man. That ain’t the way your mama brought you up to be. You’re going about it all wrong.”
Or was he just feeling the smoke blow? The sign painter leaned toward the former, leaned into the conversation with renewed vigor.
“You can’t just declare it, you know. My buddy Jason’s got this chili bar, man, this restaurant,” Pete said. “Like he says, you’ve gotta give them something they can chew on, some meat, man, though he makes a godawful-good veggie chili, too.”
So, the sign painter asked, “What would you have me say?”
“First thing I’d do is turn this sign around, brother,” he said. He squatted and got his biceps and parts of his shoulders under the front middle and lifted – the sign’s supports barely got a foot off the ground before the wind carried it and him forward, the sign painter rushing around to the other side to stop the forward progress and help get the monstrosity back on its feet.
“Dang,” Pete said. “I guess what goes around has its way of making its way back around to me.”
“Might write that on the sign.” But the sign painter was no victim, he was of this place, no antagonist any more than the truckers stopping for a night or Pete here might be.
“Nah,” Pete echoed. “How about this,” hands high, marking out the words laterally as he spoke, “‘A tumbleweed never puts roots down.’”
“Sounds like one for the truckers,” he said.
“Nah nah,” Pete said. “They already know it — they know you’re ‘out here,’ too, and they probably really don’t care. They don’t need to be reminded about tumbleweeds, man, and neither do they, really” – he pointed east into the neighborhoods – “though they might actually listen. Then he turned his pointer back around into the nest of skyscrapers: “They’re the ones that need it.”
So Pete and the sign painter turned his sign around and blacked over the old legend before replacing it. By the end, the winds died down and cold set in, a light late-winter snow dusting the legend’s edges just so. Pete wrapped one of the sign painters’ putrid blankets around his shoulders to wait for the aftermath. The two found an extra old chair down by the river and brought it back up to the bridge. They sat, and waited for the people to come.
Nicole Matos can be examined in her corporeal form as the skater Nicomatose #D0A with the Chicago Outfit Roller Derby. In textual form, she has appeared in such journals as Callaloo, Small Axe, La Torre, and Rhizomes.
So it all started with the Robin Hood proposition — was there any way, if you were a dedicated citizen who really, truly wanted to be a good person, you could take from the rich and give to the poor?
Our first initiative, wholly self-styled, was to purchase several $1 pair of “gold” earrings from the Dollar Store, then take those earrings to the jewelry counter at Macy’s, where I would then try on real gold earrings, Noah admiring and distracting the salesclerk, and in the process return the cheap ones to the salesclerk and the real ones to the rack at the Dollar Store. A poor person would unwittingly triumph, a rich person would be cheated. It worked perfectly, though I sweat bullets the entire time.
Next we decided we’d be cookout fairies — like tooth fairies, or fairy godmothers — which meant that Noah stole some nice cuts of meat from the market, something people did all the time, frozen steaks stuffed in their jackets and down their pants. We’d drive around looking for poor people, offering to trade them our better meat in exchange for hot dogs and hamburgers. Neither of us yet had our learner’s permits, but we did have the Datsun Noah’s brother left us when he went to Colorado, when he went to jail, and anyway we knew how to drive just fine, so we drove around carefully until we came to a ratty apartment building with people grilling outside, a child’s birthday party. We couldn’t see very clearly from the road, and only once we were fully committed and walking up through the yard did we realize everyone at the party was black. From the way the group was watching us I had the sense it wasn’t going to work, but Noah decided to sing out a great big confident, “Hello!” like we’d all been friends for ages, and strode forward, buffeted by purpose. He promptly launched into his explanation, his voice too loud in detailing the whole theory behind the meat exchange.
“Sorry, we must be lost!” I interrupted. “We’re looking for his cousin!” Almost too quickly the tension broke, like they were all so glad for a reasonable explanation as to what we were doing at their party with gifts of meat, and furthermore they laughed. Meanwhile, I’ve got Noah by the arm, dragging him backward to the car, pissing him off for aborting Mission No. 2 prematurely.
Our final mission unfolded like this: we’re rummaging through stuff Noah’s sister got in a charity basket from the church. We come across a meal voucher for the country club in our blasted-out unscenic shell of a city. Noah starts to rail against the institution, and the more he talks the more it seems possible that this country club, our very own, could in fact be a locus of evil. So our plan is this: we’ll dress up as poor people, take the gift certificate to the country club, and see how they treat us. If they treat us OK, we’ll eat and leave without further action. If they don’t, we’ll become continue our activism, reveal our true identities and launch a counteroffensive.
Dressing up as poor people is surprisingly easy — we can pretty much do it with the things we already have. The trick seems to be just to try too hard, too earnestly — overapply that eyeliner, that hairspray, do it like you really mean it, shine your cheap shoes. So we hop in the Datsun to find the country club, a lodge-looking building wedged in between the landfill and the industrial park. There’s a golf course and everything, but we walk through a mirrored hallway into the restaurant proper, and it’s a huge disappointment — the place is dark and nondescript and the only other people are the one waitress and a cook watching TV. Of course, everything goes wrong. Noah talks too loud, making too big a deal about our ignorance and our poverty and our charity certificate, and the waitress is rolling her eyes and nodding, but it’s also clear she isn’t really listening and doesn’t really care. She’s probably poor herself — oldish and grey-toned with brown teeth. Noah radically mispronounces soup du jour and finally that brings a kind of smirk — a look of, yes, superiority. And I can just feel Noah click into gear, he got it, it’s starting to work, we’re going to get to turn the tables and have our battle. Have our war.
I get up abruptly and go into the bathroom. I look in the mirror and I don’t know what I’m doing. I take a long piece of toilet paper and I spit on it and stick it to my sharp-heeled cheap shiny shoe, and I walk gingerly back to the table. Noah is convinced he’s heard the waitress and the cook in the back laughing at us, the soup du jow-er, and now he wants to give them a piece of our minds, right now, right away. There’s no way he’s leaving, a man on fire. The plan has unsprung some secret and terrible latch in him — and here comes the waitress, right on time with the food, and Noah carefully stands up, and it’s for all the world like he’s President Lincoln — he’s got that quiet, serious, deserving dignity, ready to speak — and the waitress halts where she is, ready to listen, and I turn and reel, in that wavery trailing-toilet-paper way, back into the hall.
At the very end, just stepping through the doorway, is a woman followed by a man in suit and tie. And I’m picking up speed and the woman is half-turned in conversation and hasn’t seen me yet, and then she does see me, and she looks, in that second I come swimming toward her face, so nice. She looks like she might be an architect, or a doctor, or a kindergarten teacher at one of those expensive Italian kindergartens. And it strikes me that she could be a grown-up me, my twin, the woman I’m going to be, after the college I’ll go to, and the professional school, the career — and she looks so kind and concerned and so possible that I just want to throw myself into her arms and beg for her to help me, to save me, to tell her I’m so sorry, so confused, so very sorry. The clothes she’s wearing are the filmy kind that come in layers, and I can see now, as I’m almost on her, that that’s the way you do it. A haircut with chunks laying different ways on purpose, and clothes that close with clasps in shapes instead of buttons.
But then I’m past her, actually running into her, partly, and her companion who gives a sharp suck of breath, and I’m hearing belatedly the commotion, Noah waving the gift certificate around and pronouncing that he won’t give the waitress a tip, but he will leave a tip, a life-tip, a tip for living — a long speech, something like that.
* * *
And years later, long after I’d gone off to college thinking we’d completely lost touch, Noah called me late one night from the Army to tell me they were kicking him out, that he started wetting the bed, or that he did something crazy with his unloaded gun — actually both, I can’t remember exactly, it was a confusing story — that he was falling apart, they called it some kind of break, they were kicking him out. And he kept crying and telling me it didn’t work, he was sorry, I’m so sorry, sorry, and I held the phone so hard it left a dent in my head and repeated that maybe I was sorry, or that maybe, if we were lucky, we could hope, there was nothing, nothing, nothing to be sorry for.
The poetry and fiction of Kara Carlson, based in New Orleans, has been published in Travel Magazine, Blood Lotus, Denver Syntax and various other venues.
My girlfriend had one of those smiles you wanted to pray to. She went to the museum for an early evening event. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to people I didn’t know about things I didn’t care about in a museum I couldn’t name. I caught the MUNI to the cemetery. I walked among the graves of those fine and faceless people who had gone before me. I smoked a joint under the trees and walked on the bodies. All that mattered was that I was alone.
The girlfriend was the artsy type, and that frightened me. But we had sex and we smoked and we drank and we breathed, running high in our artificial perfection of life.
I lived with Larissa and two of her friends on the corner of Geary and Masonic above a restaurant bar and below crack-dealing brothers. Our trash accumulated outside the front door like bad breath and rats the size of pigs lived under our staircase, the wood of which seemed something less than functional. The kitchen floor sloped and our black, spiked front gate gleaned with spit and blood. San Francisco was the kind of city where you forgot that something was wrong with you but you remembered that you didn’t know what it was.
When I had money, I drank Jack Daniels. When I didn’t have money, I drank Old Milwaukee and paid with dirty change. This was one of those times when breakfast was a half pint. I had a job because Larissa told me it would make me happy. I worked at some organic green grocery joint that the girlfriend referred to as a specialty retail grocery store. We used my employee discount to buy twenty-two-dollar cases of wine. The name was Trader Dan’s, maybe Tom’s, something like that. My friend Catfish called it Trader Slaves.
I was just coming down from an all-night bender and had been stocking lettuce longer than forever. I went out back into the alleyway with the dumpsters, swallowed some pills, and lit up a cigarette. The black door banged open and banged shut and Catfish was next to me asking for a smoke. I handed one over as if it didn’t belong entirely in my mouth.
“Let’s leave,” he said.
It was September, the sun looked like it had been cooked by God, and the beer I drank tasted like bottles of heat. The bar was the type with wet walls, scary seats, and a beer menu with imports from places like Germany and Belgium. Catfish pulled his rubber band out of his hair and some pills out of his pocket.
“I forgot I had these,” he exclaimed. “It’s like Christmas when I was twelve.”
Catfish’s mouth was too long, his eyes were too small, and his whiskers hung off his face in strings. I believe I trusted him. The beer removed everything ravaging us, and the pills ferried us to the kind of glory that felt like a lifeline. Nowadays, all those afternoons and all those nights and all those pints fold together in erroneous versions of happiness. But who knows what true happiness is, anyway? Beautiful women with their big, flawless lips and brilliant breasts? Men that I glance at and can’t help feeling inferior to? (It’s like if I were to talk to them, the words would disintegrate in my mouth and eat my imperfect tongue.) Those people are more messed up than I am.
An hour or a minute later we were on 6th Street with the earth fogging at the edges. As we walked through the crosswalk, an extraordinary mass of a person marched toward us pushing a baby stroller. The person had to have weighed 300, 350 pounds. It had a triple chin with some stubble, one earring, massive breasts, and shoulder length hair, the bottom two-thirds of which had been dipped in burnt orange paint. It wore a Giants shirt 10,000 times too small. The baby in the stroller was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It looked like a celestial being, radiating with the majesty of innocence. It sat, satisfied and sucking its thumb. I wanted to be that baby.
“Oh wow oh man oh Jesus, is that a she-man? And how does it have a baby?” Catfish asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was whispering or screaming. Without saying a thing, the person swung back a fist that might as well have been a hammer and hit Catfish right in the middle of his face. Blood rained down on the sidewalk and Catfish collapsed with his eyes open and a smile like the echo of grace solidified on his face. I kept expecting the baby to turn around and stretch out its little fingers to heal the hurt. I wanted it to come back. I wanted it to repair me.
Catfish’s arms were above his head and his shirt halfway above his stomach. Hot red sticky blood dripped all over his life. It was one of those moments that stand alone and stand still. Catfish broke a nose and cracked some teeth. He didn’t die, but at that moment he was a crucifix in a street, martyred for the thoughts of the plain and ordinary. That night, when Larissa and I made love, I exhaled her name but thought of the baby and the blood and the inconsistency of life.
Years later, when I barely recalled Larissa’s name but definitely recalled her smile, I woke up with my face right in the dirt. I was in the cemetery, and a homeless man two steps away had woken me up. I just looked at the guy.
“You’re alive,” he said.
It wasn’t a question.
Paul Lask, formerly of Chicago, has been living in Santiago, Chile, since mid-2012. He is at work on a novel.
They left town at dawn, heading east into the mountains. When the sun hit it exposed lines in Carlos’ face that weren’t there the night they met. She had seen the scars of two barbell eyebrow piercings on the dance floor that night. They struck her as warning signs of trashiness. He turned out to have a good sense of humor, though. He was a little full of himself — enough to keep a short goatee and hand her his business card when he thought he was losing her in the conversation — but Sarah told herself it was a healthy vanity. Plus he hadn’t made the first move, even after they sunk the bottle of Carmenere at his place afterward.
Now they were driving the curvy roads at the foothills of the Andes. They told each other travel stories. They had already (that night with the wine) done the backstory thing. Sarah was from a small town in southern Wisconsin, and he was from Buenos Aires. That was where his wife lived while the couple took their break. He had no children.
She had just finished a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, turning 23 in July. Carlos was 34 and had dropped out of college years ago.
She told him about her post-high-school-graduation trip, when she and a girlfriend on a whim bought cheap plane tickets to Cancun. Carlos told her he’d traveled throughout South America, and once backpacked from Rome to Barcelona.
He smoked too much, she now noticed.
Sarah smoked only when she went out. She didn’t know the last time she’d bought a pack. The cigarettes in Chile had shock photos on them, hard not to notice, and she turned to look out the window; it was early November, springtime here. Just outside Santiago the land opened up and turned to flattish, bushy desert dotted with paddle-armed cacti blooming pink and white flowers. After an hour the road dipped in and out of valleys, where a river fed the willow and cottonwood trees that were deeper green and moving in the light wind. The trees, and the water, which was the muddy color of the Wisconsin River, reminded her of home.
Though this was the most non-touristy thing she had done since being here, she kept cool. She asked for a cigarette. She thanked him for remembering she was a vegetarian, and after smoking made them Gouda-on-white-bread sandwiches with mustard. They ate. Carlos was one of the many she’d met in Chile who drank mate tea in a gourd with a silver straw that looked like a spoon. She partook, pouring hot water from his thermos, and they took turns sharing the gourd. After 15 minutes or so she felt the mix of caffeine and nicotine and food move her bowels. She doubted she could wait until the border to use the restroom.
He pulled into a gas station off the two-lane road. There were no toilet seats in the damas bathroom, a whitewashed cinder building aside the station. She listened to the river outside the window near the ceiling, doing her best to balance herself.
When she came out she saw he was petting a stray dog, a charcoal greyhound that was the envy of the small pack of dogs watching from across the road. There were rags of snow left on the mountains in the distance. He asked if she was OK. Sarah was warm with embarrassment, and evenly said she was fine, thanks.
Getting in, Carlos made a joke about how hard she slammed the door. She hadn’t noticed, but was glad he had changed the subject away from her health.
As they drove she talked about Santiago. She soon found she was just telling him things she’d seen and done to keep the conversation moving.
She asked if he’d seen the locks on the bridge over the Mapocho River. They were supposed to symbolize love, she said, attaching a lock to the gate of the bridge and throwing the key into the water. She told him a student told her that they did the lock thing in Paris. She taught English as a Second Language for an institution, and went into the skyscrapers and drank coffee with people she considered powerful, those who needed to learn English so as to give talks to others like them, those in the mining and telecommunications industries — they knew what was going on in Paris.
He said it was a strange form of love. Locking it up and throwing away the key. She hadn’t thought about it that way, but could see what he was getting at.
She didn’t want to talk about love anymore, and so brought the conversation back to her disappointment with her work.
It was not why she’d studied literature, she said, to spread English like some missionary. Then again, Sarah wasn’t sure why she’d studied literature, other than she had always loved to read and write. She told him this was pretty much her essential dilemma, not wanting to teach businesspeople anymore. It was going to be the determining factor for how long she would stay in South America.
He told her he sometimes had the same conflict with his work. That he had not gone into photography to make money, originally. He wanted to shoot boxing and street art, two of his interests.
No, Carlos said when she asked — he did not box anymore. Or make street art. He joked that when he was old he would like to vandalize billboards. But really, he said, you have to make a career. If you can make money doing something you love, then you’re lucky.
* * *
She had already OKed him online. His business card had a link to his website, where his portfolio with the corporate photographs (mostly of sports drinks, cars, and 7-11-style snacks) confirmed he was on some level successful. She emailed him and said she’d enjoyed hanging out that night, and they began a conversation. They avoided social media, sticking to email, and after two weeks she admitted that her visa was expiring soon, and that she needed to cross the border to renew it. He had offered to give her a ride. Now they were here.
They began their climb into the mountains. His car reminded her of her friend’s shitty cars in high school. A couple of the heating vents on her side were busted, the CD player face was either stolen or forgotten, and it was dusty inside and out. She liked that he’d left a moccasin bead bracelet around the base of the gear shifter. It added personality.
Now and again she saw train tracks along the side of the mountain. He told her they were there for when they the days train cars hauled minerals from the rock instead of semis. The tracks were skinnier than American tracks, and at some points they disappeared into what looked like a landslide. In other parts there were long barns built to protect the train cars from the weather, the barn walls and roofs collapsed here and there. Road signs indicated the number of the curve they were passing. She didn’t like how hard he took the turns, often whipping around and having to hit the brakes before a lumbering 18-wheeler. He would hop over to pass the trucks, and Sarah couldn’t help but grip the handle above the door. To distract herself she read the Spanish words on the truck doors or along their sides. They passed a matching trio with dusty blue canvas tarps over their trailers, and she recognized the word Bolivia among the faded gold-lettered words.
He apologized again for the heat not working. He had suggested in his last email to bring something warm, that the altitude at the border was high, the temps low, and sometimes the traffic backed up. She had worn the hand-knitted wool sweater she’d bought from the open-air market the week she arrived in Santiago. It was still cold then, two and a half months ago. She had successfully passed through a season. Though she Skyped home weekly, she had no yearning to go back. She harbored a vague idea of graduate school but feared the loan, as well as having lost the patience to study literature academically.
At one point she pulled the visor down to block the sun. She selfishly studied her face in the mirror for a few seconds, her sunglasses, honey-colored bangs riffling in the cool air, the point of her nose pinkish from having been outside with a book yesterday, her lips dry. Before taking lip balm from her bag she peeked over at him. He also wore sunglasses. There were smoker’s crags in the black stubble growing on his cheeks, deep smile lines and the onset of crow’s feet spreading out from behind the glasses. He tamped out another smoke, his third or fourth this hour. She liked that he smoked soft packs. There was something older and rugged about it. He put the pack back in the little nook against the odometer glass, next to the pack of cinnamon gum he chewed between cigarettes.
About halfway up the mountain he pulled onto a gravel fan and suggested they get out and take pictures. She had her pocket digital, he a bulky camera with a big lens. She looked down and saw the road corkscrewing up and he told her the Spanish word for this, which sounded like escargot — a road that resembles a snail shell. She took a picture of the road, as well as the jagged mountaintops around them.
He set his camera on the car and set the timer. Sarah raised her sunglasses as he walked over, and at the last second reached over and raised his. He laughed. She felt his hand on her hip, just above the waistline of her jeans. It was a firm hold. She also had her hand on his side and was a little disappointed in his softness — if you were going to smoke so much, then you shouldn’t also eat too much. They got back in the car and started the last leg to the border.
* * *
He pulled into a huge tent with fans in the ceiling twisting out the exhaust smells of vehicles waiting to cross. She gave the agents in the booth her passport, its pages crisp and its visa boxes empty of stamps. Another agent looked in the trunk, tapped the Ford’s bumper with his baton. A few minutes later they were granted access to Argentina.
They began driving down the mountain to a town halfway to a bigger town called Mendoza. The plan was to have lunch in this halfway town.
Carlos had told her there were beautiful things to see on the way. That this was one reason he’d like to take her into the outer heart of his native country. The other reasons were still in her inbox — he had fun that night, dancing and drinking and talking. He thought she was smart. He thought she should consider staying in Santiago for a while, making sure to add that he didn’t want anything serious, just a friend. She could not say what she wanted. She did not want to go home and face the next step in her life yet, not even knowing what it was. She didn’t want to be a cliché, falling in love with someone in another country, either. Of the two options, the love one to her seemed better. Ultimately, she’d let life take her where it wanted for a while. To read and run in the morning as she always had, but to give some months up to contemplating her place.
They stopped at what translated to the point of the Incas. It was an area in the rock where the Incas had built bathhouses. A resting place. Leading to it was a natural bridge formed of the rock, whose bright yellow resembled limestone. There was a wood fence blocking it, so they walked down behind the few small hotels and shops. It was warmer down here. Desert again. There was a man far away raising and dropping what appeared to be a sledgehammer. But he was too far to hear, and there were heat lines rising off the ground, further obscuring him.
She refused another mate gourd when he offered a few minutes later.
But please, she said, have one, I like it here.
They sat in plastic chairs at a small table facing the gravel parking lot. She listened as he spoke with an old man in a ballcap and dark denim coat. The old man sounded jovial. Through translation she was told that the old man said the wind was going to pick up in about two hours. That a group of Chileans had asked him to put the upbeat music currently playing on the speaker attached to the awning of the restaurant. The lyrics to the song translated: When the singer stops / Life stops / Because life is a song
She liked that. She would have been happy staying at the point of the Incas― perhaps she could get a job here cleaning the tiny hotels, washing dishes.
This time when Sarah got in the car she was conscious not to slam the door.
They drove another three kilometers. He called them clicks. He asked if she had heard them called that before. Clicks. She had not. They say it in the war movies, he said.
He pulled off the road to a cemetery boxed off by a rock wall, explaining this was where they bury people who die in the mountains. If they don’t find the bodies, the family can still petition for a spot. He said he had taken good photos here.
She said she had a friend back home who had shown her some pictures taken in a cemetery one day. They showed weird orbs of light, which the friend claimed were ghosts.
That’s cool, he said.
The cemetery was centered by a big but climbable slate rock, a mini snail trail twisting up to it. Along the trail were the shrine-like graves. Flat headstones fastened with the fork and spoon the climber was using when they found the body; a bottle of wine for a lost relative; carabineers and rope and shoes in the dirt next to graves. Cemeteries did not move Sarah. Aside from her sister’s grave, she did not visit them, especially random ones, where she felt disrespectful, if anything. But she had gleaned from talking with Carlos — his music and movie preferences, his website — that he liked darkness offset with humor, and perhaps had a latent patriotism. It seemed his favorite memories were from Argentina. She wondered how long he and his wife were going to be separated. She wondered what his wife would think if she saw him with her. She was ready to go back to Santiago, slightly worried that the wife would be at the halfway restaurant, even though it was over a thousand clicks from Buenos Aires.
It was as they were turning to leave the cemetery that she saw the horses coming down a mountainside trail. She told him to look. There had to be eight, no, ten or more in the line. Nearby was a dilapidated train bridge over the river she assumed the horses were on their way to drink from. The dust they kicked up swirled in the first hints of wind the old man had predicted. They went to the riverbank to get a better look. He corrected her — they’re mules, he said, which the closer she got the better she could see their stunted size. They had a good laugh at that.
As they approached the bridge she could hear their hoofs clacking along the wet rocks below. The water was about 30 feet down, and on the bank the first thing she saw was a dead mule. Its head was missing, and its ribcage was shined clean from the running water. The others paid it no attention. Raised and dipped their heads in the stream. He snapped photos. It bugged her that he took seven or eight pictures at a time — digital laziness, she thought. If he was using film he’d have to work harder for the shot. She didn’t want to look at the dead mule anymore.
They walked the ties of the train bridge to the other end. There was a rusty banister along the side she used to steady herself, not looking down. She felt they were being childish like this because they’d run out of things to talk about. They crossed back.
As they left she saw the mules, various shades of gray and black and brown, stepping out of the water and up the bank to continue their mysterious journey.
After a long lunch and an espresso they started back. There was no wife surprise. But she knew from the morning and talking at lunch that she would not be seeing him again, and this made it easy for her to seem lighthearted. He pointed out the pope-hat peaks of one mountain range. She smiled and thanked him again for bringing her. She was enjoying the way the late afternoon light exposed crevices and folds in the walls of the towers.
They had to wait in a line of cars on the slight hill down to the Chilean border. It was just steep enough for him to cut the engine and drift in neutral when the line moved. This wasn’t a tent, but a few kiosks, and being out of things to talk about he smoked quietly while she studied their surroundings.
Up here it was cold again. A handful of goldfinches were weaving around, their bellies bright in the last of the sun. A couple guys about her age got out of the car in front of them. They wore hair gel and sunglasses, and started to dance a little, the sort of dancing that involves shoulder shrugging and light bouncing. She could hear the low thrum of the bass from their car.
When it was their turn they got out and he spoke with the border worker through the kiosk window. She handed her passport into the window. Was relieved to see the worker bring down the heavy stamp. Was soon back in the Ford heading down the mountain toward the desert.
It was there that she thought she said goodbye. The sky was a mix of orange and pale blue and the dark hills in the distance rose and fell softly. She had gathered by now that Carlos had a temper, and she didn’t want to put herself in danger or walk away with bad memories. She was being nicer than usual. Anyone who knew her would have seen through it.
In an hour they were passing lines of shanties along the river, swift with snowmelt, then were in the outlying region of Santiago. A million lights twinkled across the bowl of the land. The sky was more navy now, not quite dark, and the graffiti on the bridge tresses and shuttered stores was like a story both discombobulated and somehow coherent. Sarah was quick not to linger in the car when he dropped her off. It was normal here for people to kiss on the cheek when greeting and departing. She leaned across the gear shifter and hugged him goodbye, and he kissed her cheek. She was afraid he might try to hold her firmly again, but he did not, and she knew that he knew they would never see each other again.
King lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn.
Last night I dreamed that I was back in Germany, but this time I was stationed near a massive city, instead of in the midst of the charming and quaint town of Landstuhl I loved so much. Landstuhl always was something of a comforting reminder me of home in a strange, unfamiliar universe.
In fact, for this tour of duty, I truly had no conception of where I was stationed, and didn’t really care. I had been stationed on the post for weeks completely indifferent to my surroundings, and one day during work when everything was slow, the entire unit piled into an enormous camouflage van and headed for the mystery metropolis. We were all in uniform, and technically still on duty, so there was to be no drinking, of course. And also of course, I was demoralized.
But the moment we arrived, I felt that total sobriety would be preferable. I mean, who could get a beer down in a place like this, where the noise and the swirl of disorder was so crippling it choked the soul and made the throat close up, purposely denying itself oxygen as to head for the grave, away from the madness? I was seated next to Van Heusen, an actual old roommate of mine, and I had to scream into the side of his face to ascertain where we were.
“Say, what is this hell-hole we’re in?”
“WHAT IS THIS HELL-HOLE WE’RE IN?!”
“Oh, it’s called Bad Hamburg. You didn’t know? What rock have you been stationed under?”
I didn’t offer him any explanation, because frankly I didn’t feel like talking, much less roaring like a grizzly bear to get across a single sentence. I just sat back and watched, weeping internally.
There was the sharp, metallic sheen of modernity everywhere; of glass and steel and diamond-like glinting rushing from everywhere at once, unlike at a lake when the sun is dropping, and the glinting tends to stroll across the surface of the water as to be savored, or at the least pinpointed. In fact, Bad Hamburg, its name’s introduction fitting, hardly resembled Germany at all; it was more like Tokyo had been surgically implanted and, as a kind yet futile gesture, a cathedral or two and a few small buildings of timeless European descent were preserved to cower among the skyscrapers and the rip-off outlets. The entire community (could it be called that?) was comprised of imitation jewelry, ten-dollar Nikes and tax-breaking corporate manufacturing outposts. Christ, there were even neon Coors and Budweiser signs in the windows of the bars, in the middle of Germany!
Finally the van was parked, and I stepped off, disoriented and nauseated and with a splitting headache. We snaked through the narrow corridors off the main strip, dodging thousands of people, as the vendors at the stands shook five-dollar watches and necklaces in our faces while belting their haggles, and I ducked into a bar with a girl from our unit. I’d been dead wrong; complete sobriety could never be endured in a place like this. So I ordered a beer, a fucking Miller Lite; the Army could send me home if they wanted for having a watered-down beer; be my salvation, I beg of you.
Once again I could hardly hear myself fart or think, but at scattered intervals, when the techno stopped, I talked to the girl I once knew from my second duty station, but whose name I couldn’t place. She had short black hair and generous eyes, was kind and outgoing — that’s all I knew. You see, my brain and all its memory had been made molten by Bad New York or Hong Kong Hamburg, whatever the place was called.
But I remembered Landstuhl all too well, and I re-created it for the girl.
“I miss everything about Landstuhl,” I told her.
“We could walk from the barracks and get anywhere we wanted — no voyages needed in green, tank-like vehicles, and the train station was open-air. I mean, you could still see trees and grass and hills in the distance as the trains cruised by; the trains weren’t crammed into crowded, subterranean tunnels.
“Speaking of tunnels, there was one small tunnel leading to the train station in Landstuhl, passing under some streets; it also led to a couple of nightclubs on the outskirts of the town. The stones of the tunnel, like gems in a ring, were set in the perfection of ancient masonry, and weathered to that poetic dark-gray only time can execute. Between each stone was some kind of moss; it was green and bright, like landscapes in Ireland at sunrise.
“Once, my friend Adam and I ran into a couple of skinheads in that tunnel on the way to a disco. They pulled switchblades on us and started shouting in German, an unspeakable act for Landstuhl. But what’s funny is this — they didn’t have the gall to get too close to us. They were actually trying to rob us or tell us to go back to America from 30 yards away, so Adam and I picked up a couple of chunks of rather large rubble, jarred loose from a walkway platform, and assumed NFL quarterback passing positions. The skinheads de-switched their blades, pocketed them, turned and moved along at a deliberate pace, and shut their mouths, too, before letting loose one or two cursory final outbursts as if to appease their pride. That was the only incident remotely even close to a crime we ever encountered and/or heard of in the town of Landstuhl.
“The bar Adam and I usually went to was called the Kasade, and the owner was Rhiner. He had a couple of rotting front teeth, but it didn’t detract from his friendly nature. He used to bring us ‘meters’ of cola-beer; they were long, handmade wooden boxes, with the smaller glasses of beer on the outside, leading up to two large beers in the middle. The idea was to drink the smaller beers first, working your way to the center, where the last two big beers served as the toast, a kind of icing applied to the finished meter. On the meter boxes and the wooden tables were people’s names, carved in countless languages; each patron of The Kasade for the last 300 years, it seemed. I carved my own name into one of the tables after finishing the final meter of my life, possibly, the night before I left Landstuhl for my next duty station.
“By the spiraling stairwell leading down into the perfect half-darkness of The Kasade was a large, petrified tree, rising up through a flawlessly-crafted hole cut into the floor. There was a ring of bright red bricks decorating the circumference of the hole, encircling the roots. The tree was the color of snow or a birch, and names through the ages were carved into the tree, too.”
I finished my beer; that last bitter drop of watered-down dog piss, as the girl and I stepped out into the locust-like bellowing of the big city traffic and I yearned for a cola-weissen from one of Rhiner’s meters or a small-town fest on a Sunday afternoon.
She took one glance at the chaos and her usual jovial smile transformed to instant sadness and that distant sting of alienation, and so did mine.
Just one customer sat in the shadowy bar, late afternoon.
So what’s new, said the bartender. You still working?
Tina gripped her beer. Nope, she said. I’m retired. You know what that means?
He smiled as he wiped dry a glass. No I don’t — what does it mean.
It means death — no, I’m only kidding –
He smiled as he picked up the next glass.
Good. You had me worried there.
Yeah — this is good beer.
We try, he said.
How come you never ask me what kind of beer I want?
Because I know what you want, he said.
But I’ve forgotten.
Tell me what brand of beer this is.
You should know. You ordered it years ago.
I’ve forgotten, I told you.
You don’t need to know.
She smiled and took a drink. Oh — hey listen, she said, resting her chin on her hand. What are your plans for today?
I’ll be here.
No. I mean after that?
After that I’ll be going home. Marty is taking over from me at five.
Marty? I don’t think I’ve ever met Marty.
Oh! He’s quite a guy. You’d like him.
In what way?
I don’t know. That would be up to you –
She waved a hand. Please!
But really — you ought to stay long enough to meet Marty. You ought to stay until five. It’s four already.
She looked at her watch. It’s five after four, actually.
So it is – anyway — Marty’s got a speedboat. You ought to go out with him on it.
He must have money –
Yeah and he drives a Mercedes convertible — a flashy sporty one.
What color is it?
That sounds cute –
It is — Marty’s got a plane too — he keeps it out at Kupper airport.
God — a speedboat, a Mercedes, a plane — how’s he do it on this salary?
Oh this is just a side job for Marty. He’s got several businesses.
What kind of businesses?
I’m not sure. He never really explained — but he rakes in the dough. He just works as a bartender to decompress.
Is he married?
What’s he look like?
Oh, handsome — very very handsome. Tall, built well, nice hair. He wears expensive clothes too. You should meet him. He used to work for an escort service — lord god he’s got the looks for it.
An escort service?
Yeah. And — he’s a skydiver — he jumps out of planes. Has been doing that for years.
And you say he’s single?
Oh yeah — and I’ve seen him with women — he pours on the charm — he really knows how to treat a woman — money is no object. I’ve seen him buy thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and other gifts — he bought one woman a Mercedes like his. For cash.
Nope — it’s true.
Were these just — women that he met here?
Yeah. Pretty much. I could see him going for you though.
Yes — hang around until five. I’ll introduce you.
What’s Marty’s last name?
I’m not quite sure.
What do you mean you’re not quite sure — you know everything else about him.
You get to know all about people who come in here — but you don’t always know their last names.
But he works here. He’s not just a customer. He works here, and you don’t know his last name? Isn’t this your place? Didn’t you hire him?
He shook his head and pushed out an arm.
No, no, no, look — I’ll be honest with you. I know his last name. He just wouldn’t want it shared.
Wouldn’t want it shared?
Right. He values his privacy. After all, when you’ve got that kind of money — you’ve got to be careful.
Because people will try and take advantage of you. I’ll tell you what — when you meet him, ask him his last name. If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you. Like I said, hang around. It’s four thirty now.
OK — say what are your plans for tonight? Anything special?
Nope. Home to the wife, and kid — and a big dinner.
What’re you having for dinner?
Oh it’s a surprise — my wife always surprises me.
Is she a good cook?
Oh yeah — and as a matter of fact, so is Marty — he’s a real gourmet.
Yes. Cooks all kind of exotic dishes — squab, and like that.
Yeah. That’s a little bird.
Are you sure?
Oh yeah. Perfectly sure. Maybe Marty will cook a dinner for you. He’s done that for other ladies he’s met here. He’s had them over, had some wine, a good dinner –
And what else?
Oh nothing else. Marty is a perfect gentleman. He would never impose himself on a lady. And believe me — there are plenty of ladies who wish he would. I mean, with his looks, his clothes, his body, his way of speaking — oh when you meet him you’ll be impressed.
Sounds like you’re pretty impressed with him yourself.
I am. He’s someone a man can look up to. A good example. You should see how they’ll flock in here after he takes over — everybody will try and be near Marty — he’s got that — that charisma. And as a bartender, he’s superb — he knows every drink there is. Nobody’s stumped him yet. Wait until you meet him you’ll see — try and stump him.
I don’t usually go for exotic drinks –
Oh, but here’s something else — he’ll talk to you a little bit, size up your personality, then make you a special drink mixed just for you. He does that for all the ladies. Those are usually on the house.
On the house? How do you feel about that?
Oh, it’s fine — he draws such a crowd that in the end it’s all worth it. And here’s something else many people don’t know — he’s a war hero.
War hero? What war –
Gulf war. Silver Star. I tell you, he’s an interesting guy, worth meeting — oh look, it’s quarter to five. He could show up any minute. I tell you, when he comes in the whole place will light up.
I — I can’t wait to meet him.
I figured — and wait until you hear the way he talks — he knows how to talk to a lady — trust me, you’ll never have felt so much like a lady as Marty will make you feel.
How do you know all this? How the ladies feel –
They tell me how he makes them feel. They can’t help but want to talk about Marty. There’s never been another guy like him.
I’m a little bit nervous.
Here’s a fresh beer.
It’s eight to five — he will be here any time now. Oh — and you know what else?
He’s a great dancer. He’s won several dancing competitions. You ought to get to know him and get him to take you out dancing — why, I’ve heard that out at the Willows, when he goes there dancing, the people just gather around in a big circle and watch him and his partner dance, that’s how good he is. Are you a good dancer?
Well — I think so.
Dancing with him will make you twice the dancer you already are — take it from me — I’ve seen him. He’s like a Fred Astaire — hey look — it’s four to five. He will be here any time now. Be ready, though. Sometimes he comes in a little bit early. Likes to freshen up in the men’s room before he starts his shift — he always looks fresh pressed and sharp, hair perfect — and you ought to see his posture — it’s better than a Marine’s. He carries himself like a king.
Wow — you really think a lot of him, don’t you –
Why do you say?
You go on and on like this –
I can’t help it but go on and on about Marty — hey — it’s two minutes to five. That door might open any second –
What kind of cologne does he wear? That’s about the only thing you haven’t told me –
It’s a minute to five. Watch the door.
My God. You –
It’s thirty seconds to five. Look — Marty’s always on time, on the dot.
It’s 15 seconds to five.
It’s eight seconds to five –
She drank from her beer.
It’s four seconds –
It’s half a second to five.
It’s a quarter of a second to five –
An eighth –
A sixteenth –
She sat open-mouthed.
A sixty-fourth –
A one hundred twenty-eighth –
A two hundred sixty-fifth –
And they sat frozen waiting forever in the dim-lit late afternoon bar for Marty, because the time turned out to be always half of a half of a half of a half of the time until five. They waited and they waited and five o’clock never came — and the closer it got to five o’clock the less time there was to speak, to think, to act, about Marty. The less time there was for their hearts to pump and their blood to flow. So they ceased to exist. They froze. They shrank to nothing — trapped in Marty time.
1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.
2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.
3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.
4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’
“I’d like to go there, Carl.”
“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.
Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.
“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.
“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.
“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.
With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.
Maizell lives and writes in New Jersey.
1. In which you dream of birds
Four nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. There are a thousand of them perched in a great tree, their white wings drooped elegantly down their sides and their feathers trailing behind them like wedding veils. They sing a thousand beautiful songs each night, and you know this because they are singing them to you now. But one of them has no beak, and you know that if you catch it, it will grant you a wish.
When you wake up the sky is like frosted pearls, and you know that you must have a bird.
2. In which there are ants in the walls
You have no idea why you didn’t think of purchasing a bird before. It is easily the best idea you have ever had. You can hang out with the bird on your shoulder and feed it crackers and teach it foul language and you simply must have a bird.
But there is one small hurdle to leap before you can get one, and that hurdle is your roommate.
Your roommate’s name is Narandal and she is from Mongolia. You didn’t know that was even still a place that had people in it, but apparently it is because every time you come home she’s right there in your apartment being Mongolian. Narandal is a sweet girl with a round face and dark hair, but she has obsessive compulsive disorder. You think it’s a little weird, but you guess you’re OK with it. You try not to make a fuss out of anything she does. Besides, her OCD means the apartment is always clean, and as far as you’re concerned that is swell.
But it’s also why a bird may be a problem. You will need to go about this proposal very delicately.
When you get home, your roommate is sitting on the living room floor, peering earnestly at the couch. It is white and spotless, as is the carpet she is sitting on. There is a length of yellow measuring tape in her hand.
“Oh! Hello,” she says.
“Hey Nina,” you say. You call her Nina because you do not know how to pronounce her real name. “What’re you doing down there?”
“Oh, the couch, it needs to be two inches away from the wall.”
“Well! You know, there could be ants in the walls,” she says, looking at her hands.
“Neat,” you say. Narandal smiles at you and continues her meticulous calculations. You pause for a few moments before continuing. “So I was wondering, do you mind if I get a bird?”
“A bird?” she asks. Her expression does not look promising. You grapple for a way to get her to agree. You must have a bird.
“Yeah it’s uh, it’s not my bird. It’s for … my friend. She’s going to … Canada. She needs me to watch it.”
“Oh,” she says, “How long will your friend be in Canada?”
“A while,” you say.
Your roommate looks uncertain.
“I’ll keep it out of the way in my room! And she says it’s like really quiet.”
“Well, all right,” Narandal says. Your heart explodes into multicolored confetti.
“OK, cool. You need any help with the couch?”
“No, no. I’m fine,” she says, eyes fixed on the cushions. But you barely hear her. You are already in your room looking up pet stores.
3. In which you have waking dreams
That afternoon you head out to purchase your bird. The pet store you decide on is called Basically Birds, which you think is a bit silly because how could anything be Complicatedly Birds, but you are just an accounting undergrad so what the hell do you know about bird stores anyway.
You park your car in a drab shopping plaza filled with sidewalk cracks and angry mothers. Basically Birds is nestled between a thrift store and an Armenian bakery. The smell of burnt sugar wafts over you as you head inside the shop.
Basically Birds turns out to be a very self-explanatory name. It is basically filled with birds. There are cages of birds on the walls and hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor and just about anywhere a cage could possibly go. The birds that fill them are multicolored and numerous. Tufts of their feathers wander through the air like flecks of prismatic ash. Some of these birds you immediately recognize: a fat, ruby-red macaw, a slim ivory cockatiel, a shy brown finch. Yet others seem strange to you, the patterns on their feathers complicated and alien. They regard you with wide black eyes when you draw close. You can see your face, awkward and flat, reflected in their eyes’ glassy surfaces, so you stare at the floor instead. The carpet is some kind of brown, and dust puffs out from it in tiny A-bomb clouds whenever you shift your feet.
Eventually the owner of the store shuffles sleepily through the corridor of cages to greet you. With your nose still saturated with the scent of sucrose from the bakery outside, you immediately compare her to a cake. She moves toward you, large and lumbering, as though she may tilt too far and topple over at any moment. Her face is framed by lazy curls of russet hair that spill out from her scalp, her clothes candy-colored and puffy. Her eyes, deep and tired, examine you skeptically before she welcomes you to the store.
“Hi! I’m, uh, I’m here to buy a bird,” you tell her. You find yourself raising your voice to compete with the squawks and chirps around you.
“Obviously,” she says, moseying over to the counter near the door. You note disappointedly that her voice is bored and gray and not very cake-like. “What kind?”
This question, though simple, catches you a little off guard. You didn’t really think about what kind of bird. You just want a bird. You are going to feed it crackers and teach it foul language and train it to bring you tiny objects that you are too lazy to fetch across the room. Who cares what kind it is?“Well, maybe one that can talk?” you venture, “And … that’s friendly?”
“Parakeet,” the store owner responds before leading you over to a tall gray cage filled with small, flashy birds the color of almost-ripe bananas. They flutter excitedly from perch to perch at your approach, chirping pleasantly and preening their feathers. A few of them hop closer and turn their heads to the side to view you with one eye before scampering away again. You decide that parakeets are adorable.
“Which one?” the owner asks.
You lean forward to give the flock a closer examination. They all seem pretty wonderful, but pretty identical too. How does she expect you to choose? You spend a few moments watching them quietly, trying to see if there are any personalities that stand out, but none do. They nibble at their yellow-green feathers and climb up the walls and squabble with each other for rights to the food bowl.
And then you see it.
Hidden away at the very top of the cage, above your head, is a bird the color of a pale summer sky. It is the sort of blue Aztecs wore in beaded flecks in their hair. It’s the indigo-gray that swallows up the sky after a deep storm. It’s the kind of sapphire that splashes up from the sea when it meets an ancient cliff. It is the innocent cobalt of a fresh-picked berry. It is the brilliant cerulean of a cloudless dawn. It is all of these, and yet none of them at the same time. It is beautiful. It is perfect.
“That one!” you say, pointing up at it.
“Huh,” the owner says, “You sure?” You nod enthusiastically.
She shrugs and reaches over your head to open a small latched door at the top of the cage. Several birds scatter out of the way of her hand, but the blue bird does not seem to mind the invasion of its space. She gathers it up in her palms and, holding it gently, removes it from the cage and places it into a small box. You hand her several crumpled bills from your pocket, take the box, and head for home.
4. In which there are two thousand eyes
Three nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They circle their great tree as a flock. Their fluttering sheds the small, fluffy feathers beneath their wings and these fall around you like snow. You call up to them, asking them to come down and sing for you, but you cannot hear your voice above the discordant ruffling of their wings. They do not land. One thousand white feathered heads turn to look at you from above.
They watch you until you wake up.
5. In which you speak to the wings beneath the sun
Your roommate is not interested in seeing the bird. She is incredibly busy. When you wander out into the kitchen to give your new bird some quiet time, you find that she has removed everything from the cabinets and has set to lining them with very precisely cut lengths of cardboard. She’s good at it, and you wonder where she learned to cut cardboard for lining cabinetry. You speculate over what she did when she lived in Mongolia. Sometimes you hear her speaking in Mongolian over the phone, and you wonder if she is talking about you.
Narandal never speaks to you about her old home, which is probably because you never ask. The one time you did, she told you that her mother had abandoned her when she was very young, and you weren’t sure what to say about that, so then she told you her real name.
“My mother chose it,” she explained, smiling and patient.
“How do you say it? Narndle?”
“Narandal. Roll the R,” she said gently.
“Narrrr-andle,” you said, butchering it as much as is possible.
“Nina is fine.”
“What does it mean?”
Narandal paused a few moments before responding, looking thoughtful. “Sort of like … a pair of great wings spread out beneath the sun.”
“Yes. I think choosing it is the one thing she did right,” Narandal said with a frown, and it was then you decided not to ask again. At the time you meant you’d never ask her about Mongolia, but somehow not talking about Mongolia became not talking about anything at all. You don’t ask her why she thinks there are ants in the walls, or why covering the cabinets in cardboard will keep them safe, or why she scrubs the counters even when they’re already glittering.
You leave her in her life and you stay occupied in your own.
6. In which you wait for silence
After sitting silently for an entire day, your new bird has begun to move. It slides slowly across its perch to examine the toy on one end, and then back to the other side, over and over. It does not seem to be doing anything similar to the excitable fluttering you observed at the pet store, but you are sure that it will take up more entertaining behavior in time. It is cute with fluffy feathers and you are going to teach it foul language and feed it crackers and take it for walks in the bird park, if that is even a real thing. You just need to be patient, as the woman you bought it from suggested.
So you leave the bird to get comfortable. While it settles you work on knitting a hat for your friend’s new baby. You can’t remember if it’s a boy or a girl, so you make it green. You work on a paper for your Auditing and Corporate Governance class. You pick up your room a little while Narandal washes the living room walls. You check your work schedule for the coming weekend. You quietly, and patiently, wait for your bird to notice you.
And that patience is rewarded with a shriek.
There is no other way for you to describe it. Suddenly, without provocation, your bird has begun to scowl and scream. The noise is high-pitched and unpleasant in every possible way. It flaps its long, beautiful wings and clicks its tiny orange beak and shouts and shouts and shouts.
This is not what you expected at all.
You phone the owner of Basically Birds, and she answers in a manner that suggests a recent nap. You picture red velvet cupcakes in the place of her hair as you speak to her.
“Hi, I bought a parakeet from you the other day and it’s making this really loud, squawking kind of noise,” you tell her.
“Yup,” she says. “They do that.”
“What do you mean, they do that?” you ask.
“They do that. They make all sorts of noises. That’s one of them.” She sounds bored with you.
“Well, you didn’t say that before,” you say, confused and worried.
“Yup, well, they do that,” she says again.
“Is there a way to make them stop?”
“Just give it attention and don’t stress it out. Should shout less. But they still do that. It’s one of their sounds.”
“OK. Thanks, I guess.”
It takes another 10 minutes for your new bird to calm down. Its vocal chords exercised, it takes to sitting silently once more. You are left feeling nervous and unsure, and you do not even think about feeding it crackers.
7. In which something is wrong
Two nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They funnel into the sky like a glorious waterspout, but something is wrong. They are not beautiful and elegant. Instead, they are ragged and afraid. They flee their great tree as though it will bite. “What’s wrong?” you ask them. “Where are you going?” One of the birds lands on your shoulder.
“We have seen one thousand silver suns in the sky,” it says, “and they light the way to freedom.”
“But where?” you ask, watching the cloud of wings above you. “Where are you going?”
You turn to look at the bird and it is gone. The bird with no beak has taken its place, and it cannot speak to you. It turns its head to face you with one eye. It is wide and black and deep, like a chasm that falls down to the center of the earth. You shiver, and find that you can wish for nothing but for it to leave.
8. In which you take the bad luck
Your roommate is too nervous to drive anywhere, so the next morning when she tells you that she needs groceries you are the one to take her. You’re happy to go this time. Your new bird is still having shrieking fits about once an hour and you would be lying if you said it wasn’t a little annoying. You wait quietly as she examines the expiration dates on every item she selects, sometimes rifling through a shelf for several minutes to find a specific one. She blinks nervously at the shelves as though they are plotting to kill her.
When you get back to the apartment, Narandal refuses to go inside. There is a white cat lounging near the door. “We have to wait,” she tells you, grasping your upper arm. “We have to wait for someone else to go near to take the bad luck, or it will be ours.”
“That’s black cats,” you tell her.
“No,” she says, her dark eyes fixed on the animal’s fur. “No, it is white.”
You walk up to the door and shoo the cat away. You don’t think OCD makes people superstitious, so it’s probably just one of those Mongolian things. She probably has all kinds of crazy foreign ideas about bad omens and spirits and junk. Your roommate smiles cautiously at you as you walk inside together.
While Narandal spends the next hour putting her purchases away in carefully measured rows, you go to check on your new bird. It screeches at your approach.
“Hey, shh, shh, relax. It’s OK, little bird. It’s all right,” you say in a voice that could be soothing. The bird only shrieks some more. “Shhh, shhh,” you say. You promised your roommate that it wouldn’t be noisy, and you know she can hear it screaming from your room. You have to get it to quiet down, but it won’t. The more you try to assure it, the more it yells and flutters and squawks.
“Just shut up!” you eventually hiss, but it does not.
9. In which you dream of nothing at all
The night before your birthday you dream of nothing at all, and this is because you do not sleep. The bird will not stop screaming. You are sure that at any moment Narandal will come in to confront you about it, but she does not. Why won’t it stop screaming? It seems to you that it barely even pauses to breathe. It just shouts and shrieks and screeches. You resolve the next morning to take it back to the pet shop. Thoughts of teaching it foul language and feeding it crackers are far behind you. You barely think anything at all. It’s too loud to think.
Your fingers clutch at the quilt of your bed and the sweat of your palms rubs off on the blue-gray pattern of the fabric. Why won’t it stop screaming? You turn your head and yell back at your bird, but it is too loud to hear yourself above its shrieks. It’s too much. You leap out of bed and hurry to Narandal’s room. You need to apologize. She spends her life worrying about ants and cats and dirt and now she has to listen to your new bird and you just can’t stand it. You shove her door open and you are startled to find that she had been asleep. She sits up and asks you something. You know this because you see her mouth move, but it is too loud to hear what she is saying. She gets out of bed and clasps your hands, asking again. But you cannot hear her, and she cannot hear you when you respond. The bird isn’t just screaming now, it’s wailing and howling and squealing and roaring and you just can’t think at all.
You tear back into your room with the sun rising on your back and to your new bird’s cage. Its wings are the blue of old midnights and cold stars. You scream back at it to stop, to shut up, to keep quiet, but still you can hear nothing.
You rip open the door of the cage and seize the bird, its small beak open wide in an unholy outcry. You shake its tiny feathered form, begging it, pleading with it to be quiet, and it is only when small splotches of red begin to dye its indigo feathers that you realize it is dead.
But its screams do not go with it. They cling to your ears and rattle at your ribcage and leap down your throat and you begin to realize that the shrieks are coming from you and it is just too loud to think, so you think of nothing at all. Every sound begins to amplify itself in your mind’s emptiness. Your heart beats staccato rolls of thunder against your chest. Your blood pulses in ocean waves, crashing and roaring on the surf of your veins. Each ear-splitting exhalation that rushes through your teeth comes as a monsoon melody, dripping down into the cavernous bellow that is boiling in your stomach. It reverberates in a harrowing cacophony of sound, jumbled together and leaping from wall to wall, breath to breath, and ear to ear. Your eyes are filling up with the red of disharmony and your hands are filled with blue feathers and hollow bones.
You sink to the floor, surrounded by the remains of your new bird.
It all stops when you run out of air. The sound dwindles into the emptiness of your lungs, shirking away like a scarlet shadow.
There is no noise, now.
And that silence, quietly deafening, is the loudest of all.
A brief debate about debates, complete with all that you would expect. The brevity of the entire affair the most interesting part. Our firm A1 narrative consciousness — or its owner, as it were — is the last to realize that behind the exchange lies a grim bit of reality, that a lack of self-knowledge is no excuse for prevarication, that the quality is one not unlike its own progenitors’ overreliance on jokes.
How did the dog skin the cat?