On the morning that True Love found Greg Chandler, he-Greg Chandler, not True Love-rose as the second hand on his nightstand clock swept up to twelve and with one movement, planted his feet on the floor and placed his palm over the clock to silence the alarm. Yet it did not ring. And so he remembered with something not quite dread that it was Saturday. Saturday that spread out before him, all those hours before it would be six o’clock and then Saturday night which was perhaps the worst part of the week before he safely drifted into Sunday which, though just as long as Saturday, seemed to have less of a sense of failure about it.
Greg considered his options. Laundry, but he had already sorted the lights and darks the previous evening and so there wasn’t much to it. Hearts on the computer, but he had played 42 games the previous night. There was the Bookstall, but then he remembered that last Saturday, he had heard (or thought he heard) the clerk’s girlfriend say “that guy’s creepy” just as the bells over the door heralded his leave taking.
He could walk in the Preserve. If he went now, taking the bus, delaying laundry until the afternoon, he might just miss children and their parents and their bicycles and skateboards and rollerblades and shrieks and howls and pets that made the walking path of the Preserve seem like a turnpike on Saturdays. Then he could do the laundry and a trip to the Piggly-Wiggly. All told, these three ventures alone would safely deliver him to late afternoon.
Greg stripped the sheets. He made oatmeal, shaved, showered, brushed his teeth, flossed, dressed and took a No-Doz. Then he went outside, just three minutes before he would come face to face with True Love. He had never married, had never had children, had never lived with a woman, had thought just once he might marry because the woman he had been sleeping with on a once every two or three weeks basis announced an ultimatum but then he had decided no, he wouldn’t marry–although sometimes he thought he should have said yes. He had been approached by men on occasion, but had experienced no curiosity or otherwise interest.
Four buildings comprised the subdivision of Graduate Student Housing. Each building had four apartments and Greg had been adamant with the Housing Office about getting one of the second floor apartments instead of one of the first floor apartments that were partially below ground. He had felt otherwise would be to be reenacting—nay, pre-enacting—his burial. Which, given current statistical norms, would be thirty years hence.
He walked across the gravel courtyard past bicycles and tricycles that had been abandoned the previous evening when their owners had been called to dinner. The families were primarily Chinese, although one Indian family with four toddlers lived in the building directly across from his own. On a picnic table was taped a notice that a group outing to Wal-Mart was scheduled for Sunday at eleven o’clock. Some of the families didn’t have cars and those that did organized shopping trips. Greg had a car but nobody had ever asked him to help.
He checked his mail, forgetting that he had already done so the night before, and walked out to the parking lot, past the dumpster and the laundry building.
The Grenada University Ornithological Facility was a late Nineteenth Century Georgian Revival, all white columns and red brick. Greg’s intention was to walk across the Facility’s lawn to the bus stop on Linden Avenue. He liked the feel of grass under his shoes, especially now in April when it was new. This was a path he took every weekday morning at 8:10 and this morning he would ride two extra stops to the Preserve.
He stepped onto Willow Road’s pavement, wet from an early morning shower. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something white. He turned his head as a tall, white bird with a long black beak skidded onto the lawn from behind the house.
Greg Chandler did not know a Wilson Crane from any other large-ish bird, say, a pelican, an eagle, a swan, an ostrich, or the Wilson’s close cousin the Whooping Crane. And he had only twice seen any evidence of the work of the Facility, once observing a group of ducks promenading on the lawn behind what looked to be a graduate student and another time seeing bags of seed being unloaded from a van parked in the building’s circular drive.
This large bird seemed to be heading straight for Linden Avenue, and every few steps its wings billowed out as if it were going to fly but the wings could gain no purchase. Greg would later come to understand the black clips on either wing were weighted. Just as it looked like it might run into traffic, the bird modified its trajectory into a sort of ellipse directed towards him. It was about five and a half feet tall and it made a noise that was like a woman in a fit of anger or orgasm. At least, that’s what Greg would think later when he had time to think.
Greg wasn’t thinking. His habit in the face of new developments was to stand quietly. And this he did, his arms at his sides, shifting his weight slightly from right foot to left and back again Five young men and one woman had given chase but stopped when they saw the bird approach Greg. As if they thought that Greg knew what he was doing, that he possessed an authority about birds, large ones, who came running and shrieking into his path.
The bird stopped just a few feet in front of Greg. It folded its wings into its back. It directed a firm gaze directly to Greg’s eyes. Greg was, had been, a fair haired man and blue eyes were his inheritance from Norwegian ancestors. He wore glasses, but they were rimless and did not in any way impede the observer’s appreciation of his eyes’ clarity and a certain innocent expectancy. There were so few people who had ever looked directly at him that this expectancy and the blueness of his eyes were largely unknown. But this bird knew Greg at that moment, knew all there was to know about Greg just by looking at him.
Greg blinked. The bird had dark eyes and long lashes which gave it a feminine appearance. It sighed. Then shrieked when two of her pursuers tackled her. One of them said in passing to Greg, “hey, sorry, man.”
The sextet bore away their writhing, protesting, shrieking crane. Greg waited several moments before stepping onto the Facility lawn, not yet changed by his encounter with True Love. He got on the bus. He got off the bus. He walked in the Preserve. He spent an hour and a half going to the Piggly Wiggly and coming back from the Piggly Wiggly. He did laundry. He put clean sheets back on the bed. He played hearts.
On Monday morning, he rose and placed his hand on the alarm clock just as it started to ring. When he crossed Willow Road, he looked at the Ornithological Facility. He thought he heard the shriek of the Wilson Crane—he had spent forty five minutes on the computer Sunday evening comparing photographs of large birds and he had concluded he had been approached by a Wilson Crane. He did not break stride as he walked to catch the bus.
At the Archives, he nodded at the receptionist and at the graduate student who was working on a biography of the Shakespearean actor Fritz Leiber. The grad student sat on the receptionist’s desk and they were both drinking Starbucks which was strictly against Archives policy.
“What’d you do this weekend?” The receptionist asked.
Greg thought of the moment, the feel of being looked at, and of looking at the bird.
“Nothing,” he said. He picked up a stack of interoffice mail and perhaps felt more than directly saw some unspoken communication pass between the grad student and the receptionist. He knew he might be paranoid.
Greg hung his cardigan on the stand outside his office. He took his place at his desk and turned on his computer. There were the usual university notices: a diversity seminar being rescheduled, an update on pharmacy benefits, a reminder that staff and faculty parking permits must be displayed on the dashboard of one’s car. An interlibrary loan request from Indiana University which Gary rerouted to the Humanities Library. An email from an address he did not recognize and a reference line said “do you remember me?”
He clicked on it, and it was but one sentence: Did you go to Jefferson High School and do you remember me? Signed, Abbie Lempicka (was Holmberg)
There were three memories immediately called up:
Number One: Kids said Abbie smelled bad and he had leaned towards her in line at the cafeteria just so that he could decide for himself and yes, there was a strong, exotic, full smell to her and when he sat down with his tray of macaroni and cheese, he said peeeuwwie to his friends but he knew that the smell of her stirred him and he wondered if that made him strange. He didn’t have to wonder if he were betraying her by making fun of her. Because he certainly was. Freshman year was brutal that way and he was no hero.
Number Two: the school play, his younger brother Jordan played a dwarf. Greg sat in the back bleachers with his mother and she leaned over and said “that Snow White is a beauty” and he had agreed, but then he thought that Abbie made the Wicked Queen seem worthy of one’s sympathy. The world was a harsh place for Wicked Queens and Wicked Queens longed for love as surely as the beautiful Snow Whites, and the Wicked Queens were all the more heartbreaking because they were so unlikely to ever be loved. At least, that’s how Abbie played it.
Number three: The Chandler family moved from Schoenville his sophomore year. Greg had cleaned out his locker for the last time. Walking down an empty hallway, he heard someone crying. He peered into a stairwell and Abbie was sitting on the steps. Her eyes were bright red, her cheeks rivered with black mascara, she was not a delicate crying girl. He wanted to say something, she started to say something, and then he panicked, remembering that his mother was waiting in the car, and so he said just “sorry”.
In his office, he clicked “reply” and wrote that of course he remembered her and what had she been up to for the last thirty four years. Then he went to the archival room. It was surrounded on three sides by glass. The thermostat was set at 65 degrees with a low, steady humidity roughly equivalent to desert. He put on his white gloves and sat at a table upon which the newest pieces of the Fenwick collection were stacked. He got up at twelve thirty, took off his gloves, and went to the kiosk downstairs. He ate his lunch in the library lounge and took a No Doz. Then he washed his hands and returned to the Fenwick collection. At four thirty, he went to his office and checked his email again. He ignored all but one. From her, and it was long. He was not the kind to skim or speed read or skip paragraphs or do anything other than take his time with written material. He hit print.
When he got off the bus, it was dusk but he saw the commotion on the lawn—it looked like a game of keep away between some graduate students and the bird. He walked on the sidewalk to the corner of Willow and Linden, crossed the street and carefully did not look at the bird. But then there was a human scream and a car horn.
The crane stood in front of Greg, its body silhouetted in the headlights of an SUV. Greg blinked, he was quiet, he was himself. The bird stepped forward and, tilting its head to the right, offered up its neck to him.
“No, no, don’t get any closer!” a woman shouted. A short woman charging across the lawn, trailed by a gaggle of students. She turned back on them and they froze in place. And then she looked at Greg.
The SUV made a wide turn around Greg and the bird and continued on its way. Greg would have liked to do the same thing. The woman seemed to smile at him, he couldn’t be sure with just the streetlight to go on, but he could hear the smile, the kind that meant she wanted something from him.
“I’m Dr. Britt,” she said. She stepped off the curb. Greg by now had noted that she was a dwarf with a considerable curvature to her spine. Her facial features were square and flat. She wore a white lab jacket with pockets so stuffed they seemed to be weights tethering her to the ground.
The bird reared its head back and charged back onto the lawn. The students at the curb pursued her.
“That’s Mathilde. She gets agitated when you get on the eight fifteen bus and when you come back on the six ten,” Dr. Britt said. Greg felt himself sway, right foot to left. He didn’t like that his schedule was known. It was clear it was not just the bird who knew of his daily habits.
“Good luck,” Greg said, thinking this was how a conversation could end. You said good luck, you said good bye, it was over.
“She wants you.” Dr. Britt stepped close. The top of her head was level with his sternum.
“I don’t know anything about birds.”
“Perhaps you could settle her down when we inseminate her using capsules. Which we’re going to have to do because she won’t accept the males we’ve brought in.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m sorry.”
He wasn’t much for it, but she grabbed his sleeve.
“We can talk more,” she said, with her free hand shoving her business card into his palm and pushing his fingers around it until he surrendered just to be done with her. “I know it might sound very out of the ordinary.”
She doesn’t know how out of the ordinary, he thought as he took a shortcut through the trees to the courtyard. Some of the kids were riding their tricycles around the pavement and when they saw him they were as if of one mind–and if their tricycles were on a trajectory to pass him, they turned direction. He knew their mothers must tell them to stay away from him, but he meant no harm. He meant. . . nothing.
In the apartment, he put a pot of water to boil for pasta. It was already six thirty. And it was Monday. He sat at the kitchen table and dialed the phone. His mother answered on the third ring.
“Are you coming out this weekend to mow my lawn?”
He took Abbie’s two page email from his back pocket and smoothed it on the table. He laid the card beside the email: Dr. Hermione Britt, Ornithological Reproductive Health Specialist, Grenada University.
“Greg. Are you there?”
“Yep, I’m still here.”
Silence for a moment. And then…
“Well, are you?”
“Coming out this weekend to mow my lawn?”
“And make sure to bring a nice shirt. Elaine is coming, she’s bringing her daughter Sylvia. I’m thinking pot roast for dinner. You like pot roast.”
He had been sort of reading the last line of the email: Any time you’d like to come over–maybe this Saturday would be fun! Exclamation point, exclamation point!!
“I can’t stay. I have . . . plans for Saturday night.”
He did some calculations. Abbie lived in Schoenville which was an hour and a half from his mother’s house. If he left at four thirty, he could be there at six and he could avoid Elaine, her daughter Sylvia, and pot roast.
“You have a date?”
“Yes…” thinking still, yes.
“With a woman?”
“A woman, yeah, of course, why not a woman?”
“No reason. But you can’t stay?”
“No,” and as he heard the swell of more questions coming to her lips, he said, “I have to go. The water is boiling.”
He ate dinner at the kitchen table while reading the email. It was not very chronologically cohesive, but the general thrust was that Abbie had acquired an Art History degree at Colgate University, married a futures trader, raised two stepchildren who were now grown and she had recently divorced the futures trader or vice versa. She had found Greg’s name after reading a book about the plague and when she did some research on the Internet, his name came up in connection with a paper on the plague’s effect on property law in which the author thanked him for. She p.s.ed her house phone number, cell phone number, and home address. She p.p.s.ed she wanted to know everything about what he had been up to. The word everything was capitalized and there were lots of exclamation points scattered throughout the email but most particularly after the word EVERYTHING. He put the bird lady’s card on top of the email and pushed both of them to the corner of the kitchen table where he stacked bills.
The next morning he woke with a hard on. He could not remember a dream. The veins on his dick pulsed, the skin very smooth and stretched. He wasn’t exactly masturbating–just curious because it had been a while–and he liked the sensation, the texture, of being hard. When he heard the very quiet whirr that meant the alarm was about to go off, he pressed the snooze button. He left the apartment at eight twenty, taking the shortcut he had used the previous evening to extricate himself from Dr. Britt. He waited twenty minutes for the next bus, during which he watched for signs that he might have to talk to her or evade a bird, but there was nothing.
He nodded at the receptionist as he entered the Archives. He turned on his computer. The email from Abbie was still in the inbox and it was his natural impulse to create a folder and put that email in the folder. He preferred an inbox to be empty when he was done checking his emails. But he couldn’t think of a name for the folder, he didn’t quite want to respond to the email, and he was made uneasy because there was the Fenwick collection. He thought “this is too much” and went to the archival room and put on his gloves.
That night, when he got off the bus, the Ornitholo€gical Facility was dark except for twin porch lights on either side of the door. He squeezed through a thicket of arbor vitae and buckthorn at the west side of the building. Mathilde was in a large cage, lying on a bed of what looked like shredded newspaper. He put his fingers through the wire fencing and she licked his fingers. Her tongue felt like a wet washcloth. She lowered her head and although he couldn’t quite stroke her, he could wiggle his fingers against the stiff feathers of her crest. She seemed to like this.
Then he saw himself as another might see him—his ineptitude and clumsiness laid before a harsh and judgmental audience. He thrashed out from the bushes, hearing her protest. He wondered if the Facility had a security camera.
It was seven forty five when he felt sufficiently recovered to call his brother, because it was Tuesday.
“Mom says you got a girlfriend,” Jordan said. “What’s her name and don’t fuck this one up.”
“It’s not a girlfriend. It’s just . . . dinner.”
“Yeah, well, at least this means you don’t have to meet Sylvia. I’ve heard about her. She’s a future stalker ex-girlfriend so you’re smart to lie.”
“I’m not lying. It’s dinner. She was the Queen in that play. Jefferson. When we lived in Schoenville, Abbie Holmberg. You were a dwarf.”
“The Wicked Queen? Hot as fucking hell. Except she smelled. Sorry.”
Greg thought that she smelled strong, pungent, strange, that it was the smell of sex that disturbed them because they were too young. But he didn’t say that—he just thought it. Jordan asked “are you still there?”
“Yep, I’m here.”
“You are an aggravating son of a bitch to have a conversation with. When was the last time you saw her?”
“Thirty four years ago.”
“I’m seeing her Saturday.”
After hanging up, Greg read the email again. He should call her. He was sitting right there at the kitchen table with his phone. But what would he say? And what would he say after that? And after that? He woke up before the alarm, putting his hand out in the nanosecond before it went off. He had regained control of things. The bus arrived at the curb just as he did, the receptionist said hello and he said hello. At the computer, he responded to a half dozen university notices and three interlibrary requests. It was good.
But the email from Abbie Lempicka nee Holmberg was still in his inbox. He typed out a response that he thought was witty, charming and indicated his delight at seeing her on Saturday. He hit cancel. He wrote a terse, one sentence email stating that he would be in her neighborhood and would like to stop by at six o’clock should it be so convenient. Cancel. He composed a playful email, three sentences altogether, friendly but he believed suggesting a man with a lot of stuff going on. He hit send before he could reconsider.
He would not have to meet Sylvia the future stalker ex-girlfriend. He would have liked to know his brother’s email address so he could have copied him. He went to the archival room for the rest of the day, only emerging to check his email four times before lunch and six times after lunch. His good mood evaporated when he got a reply at four thirty: she’d be delighted to see him at six o’clock on Saturday.
It would be disappointing. She would be fat—she had been chubby then and there was no way that situation could have improved. Ugly, because pretty had a way of deteriorating. She would want to talk and want him to talk. And her smell would have curdled and he could never again have the Abbie Holmberg in his memory as beautiful as she was at the moment when she was a Wicked Queen who ached for love asking who was the fairest of them all and Greg should have stood up right then in the back bleachers and said “I think it’s you, really.”
Saturday morning, he drove two and a half hours to his mother’s home. He installed a window air conditioner, planted three rose bushes on the front garden, mowed the lawn, and repainted the patio furniture for the upcoming summer. It was only as he brought a garment bag in from his car at four o’clock that she pounced.
“So, Jordan says it’s one of these reunion dot com things.”
“No, it was more like the plague.”
“I don’t remember her from the play.”
“Plague,” he said.
“So where are you going for dinner?”
“Are you bringing her a hostess gift?”
He closed the bathroom door on her last question but he considered this while he shaved. A bouquet of flowers struck him as worthwhile, better than chocolates–particularly if Abbie was self-conscious about her weight, which she would be since thirty four years was an awful lot of time for a woman to put on weight.
“What about these?” His mother forced a jar of garden roses and hosta leaves on him when he came out of the bathroom.
No, he thought.
“Those look great,” he said.
“Don’t you want to stay and at least meet Sylvia? Just in case?”
“Just thirty two years old. Pretty. Little. And a damn shame about that husband of hers.”
“No,” he said, thinking this is bad enough what I have to do tonight.
The drive was longer than he expected, partly because he took a wrong turn on Hillcrest Drive which wasn’t the same thing as Hillcrest Court at all. At the gas station there was no working pay phone so he got directions from the manager which turned out to be wrong so he had to repeat the whole operation at a Starbucks where a barista wrote him directions on the back of a receipt.
The house was a half mile from the road, a white two story farmhouse with black shutters and a flying pig weather vane. He stood on the porch and held in one hand a bouquet of red and yellow tulips wrapped in green tissue paper with a raffia bow. He had purchased the flowers at the same place he had purchased the bottle of white wine. Wine might help matters if things were particularly awkward. Which they would be.
He rang the doorbell, prepared for awkward, ugly, fat, and smelling like curdled milk. Also bitter about an ex-husband who was a futures trader, bitter about stepchildren who didn’t appreciate her and bitter about a career that had brought her back to Schoenville, Illinois instead of New York or Milan or London or wherever girls with Art History degrees believed the center of the world to be.
The door opened to nothing that he expected. She wasn’t fat. She was actually sort of thin, and still pretty but in a less overt kind of way. She was taller and when she smiled, he knew that she wasn’t the kind of woman who could hold onto bitterness for more than five minutes. She wore a black dress that he could not have described except to say that it had sleeves and covered the front and the back of her and he would see her several times before he would notice that she did, in fact, own more than one black dress.
And her smile? It was an odd sensation to be on the other side of that smile. He had made her happy just by being Greg Chandler standing on her porch, smiling. Because he knew he was smiling, too.
“Oh, Greg! You haven’t changed one bit.”
He stood there, swaying against a possible wind that whipped down from the flying pig weather vane and around the porch, but the one steadiness—the compass, as it were—was meeting her gaze. Her eyes were a little too stoked by mascara but not in a bad way, the pupil of the left eye larger than the one on the right. Somewhere he had read that uneven pupils were a sign of stroke, but she didn’t look like she was having a stroke. She took her time, didn’t have anything pulling at her self-consciousness sleeve. So when he finally said, “hey, I brought you these,” and presented the tulips he felt like he had been here, at this white house with a black flying pig weather vane, not long enough to call the place home but long enough to call it familiar.
“Come on in,” she said, and she took the bouquet and led him into the living room, spinning once as if were she were a dancer and the flowers were meant to be brought to the attention of an appreciative audience. There seemed to him, and he was a good judge, nothing false or contrived in this—and he felt like someone had very sweetly reached into his chest and replaced his heart with firecrackers.
He would have told her that the cashier at the liquor/groceries/flower store said that the stems needed to be cut before being placed in a vase. But there were book shelves lining three of four walls of the living room, the fourth wall being taken up with a picture window. He felt her slip his suit jacket off his shoulders.
“It’s okay to look around,” she said.
He moved his mouth to form words, but she was already gone.
“Take your time,” she said from another room.
He pulled. First edition Nathaniel Hawthorne Blythesdale Romance, very good condition. He opened to the title page and ran his hand along the signature of the original owner. He worried a spot of water damage. He sniffed the paper. Possible mold. This book shouldn’t be subjected to this much humidity. Abbie returned to the living room with two glasses of wine. She offered him one and, intuiting the beginnings of a shaking head, put it on a table near the sofa. She smelled very nearly the same—deep, feral, animal, but now mixed with some sort of ladies’ perfume. The effect on him was powerful enough that he had to turn away from her. He put the Hawthorne on an empty space on the shelves—it wasn’t meant to be stuck between Salinger and Dickens.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ve got flowers to put in a vase.”
“Cut the stems.”
One book caught his attention and then another. He read several pages of a very good condition Nancy Mitford book, imagine that! He started rearranging, putting one book near another and then five or ten into a group. The light wasn’t good—candles on a coffee table, the sun nearly gone—but this was the best of instinctive re-cataloguing. She lay on the sofa behind him, telling him stories of classmates that she had looked up, classmates he didn’t much remember because the Chandlers had moved away and, besides, he hadn’t been one for friends.
“Why are you tracking down all these people?”
“More curiosity. You have to tell me everything that’s happened in the last thirty four years.”
“Nothing to tell,” he said. He noticed an Asa Briggs Social History of England, really in very good condition. “I read this when I was at University of London. When I helped out with the research on the plague book. You saw.”
“I heard you went to Augustana.”
“I did for a year.”
“I was breaking up with a girlfriend. It was easier to switch schools than to see her again.”
“You went to London to get out of having to see an ex-girlfriend?”
“How many girlfriends have you had?”
“In all these years?”
And he hesitated before saying “yep.”
“You ask too many questions,” which was his way of saying he thought so, sometimes, yes.
In fits and starts–aware that hives were coming up under his shirt–he told her of the intervening years. Years which seemed, in telling, to have been preparation for something that was going to happen and it either was still going to happen or perhaps it might never: a house, a wife, children, a professional position more substantial than an archivist cataloguing and preserving acquisitions of the Grenada University Rare Books Library.
At the end of three hours, his life was laid before her on the rug and the books reorganized under the Widener cataloguing system which he explained to her was a system best suited for a private collection. He drank three glasses of wine. She brought out a plate of cheese, bread and pears for them to share. He sat at her feet with his glass and his stories and he was not conscious of this truth but he was, for these hours, completely at ease with being Greg Chandler.
At some point, she fell asleep. It was late. He liked the feel of her soft steady snore. He found what looked to be a guest room. He pulled a throw from the bed and a pillow and came back to the living room to lie down on the rug near her. He stroked her hair–it was longer and darker than he remembered–but it comforted him to pull apart small tangles and to smooth the waves that were not quite curls. He let go of her hair in the final seconds before he slept because he didn’t want her to wake up in the morning knowing how important her hair had been to him. He found it difficult to fall asleep when he wasn’t at home.
The next morning, he checked the clock over her kitchen stove. Seven o’clock. He washed himself in a first floor bathroom and when he returned to the kitchen, Abbie offered him a diet coke.
“I don’t drink soda.”
“How do you get your caffeine?”
“I take No-Doz. I have some in my car. I’ll take it later.”
She looked puzzled and he thought she thinks I’m weird. And he wanted to hit something or smash something or say I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. But instead he went quiet and, as she made them both toast, he had nothing to say and none of the comfortableness he had felt last night because now he thought she thinks I’m weird. He remembered the laundry that needed to be done, dishes to take out of the dishwasher, groceries to buy, the Bookstall. It really had been a mistake to come here.
“You can’t bring liquids into an archival room—and so I got used to taking No Doz.”
And then they were both silent.
“When are you coming back?”
It wasn’t until she had said the words that retrieved him from exile that he realized how much of the time he was in exile always. He came into the warm, contented, safe place and said. . .
“When would be a good time?”
“What about next Saturday? We could see a movie.”
He thought that a week had never seemed to stretch so long, so much longer than even just a weekend in which the laundry was already done and the Bookstall off-limits because of a clerk’s girlfriend’s snarky remark.
At the front door after several thank you’s between them, he kissed her. Her mouth tasted of diet coke and orange marmalade and, as she bit his lower lip, the suggestion of salt. She smelled of every pungent possibility and there wasn’t the expensive perfume she wore the previous evening. There was olfactoral promise.
“I’m not going to be good for you.”
He tried to not hear that.
Later, he pulled up to the circular drive at the Ornithological Facility. He rang the doorbell. A graduate student invited him. The Facility had once been a private home and it was made to be lived in. A well worn Persian rug lay beneath a chandelier in the foyer. Doors on both the first and second floor suggested bedrooms, dining rooms, studies. There was a vending machine, a grandfather clock that struck twelve.
“Dr. Britt isn’t here,” the student said. He spoke louder than was necessary because he hadn’t turned off his iPod. “You want me to tell her you came by?”
“Oh, yeah, Mathilde, hey.”
He took out his ear buds and led Greg down a corridor into what would have been the servants’ quarters, through a kitchen that had been converted into a lab and out onto a patio. Small birds clung to the netting draped overhead. There was a stirring as he and the student came into the patio. Greg squeezed his fingers into Mathilde’s cage and smoothed her crest.
“She’s one of the last fertile Wilsons,” the student said. “At least the only one on this migratory path. We’ve introduced two different males, but they’ve lost the instinct for the mating dance. They’re third generation capsule babies. No role models. No clue.”
Mathilde licked Greg’s fingers. He glanced at the grad student.
“Good luck.” Greg said.
“Last year she was totally onto some guy who was going out with Dr. Britt’s assistant. He couldn’t come in the building without her trying to chew out of her cage. So it’s nothing personal about you.”
Greg thought about what the student meant–probably as a friendly, reassuring, no problem comment. But Greg thought the words could also be regarded a different way: why did Mathilde’s interest in him need to be discounted? why couldn’t it be special? why couldn’t he be special for having merited this romantic attachment?
“Good bye,” he said.
On Monday morning, he woke up before the alarm. He said hello to the receptionist and the graduate student and when the receptionist asked him what he had done with his weekend he stood at her desk and smiled and felt his mouth form a reply before he shrugged and walked to his office. It was nearly a conversation.
He turned on his computer, ignored the university emails, composed an email to Abbie asking her to pick out a movie. He then took out every unnecessary word so that he couldn’t be regarded as too invested. But neither should he appear disinterested, so he labored over the final salutation. He settled on Yours Very Truly, Greg. Then he decided that his email was wrong. He couldn’t figure out what would improve it and so he sat with his insecurity, white gloves and the un-catalogued collection of papers from the family of Fenwick, a Shakespearean actor whose performances nobody now living had ever seen.
Tuesday, he took the car to work and from there he drove to the mall, where he purchased brown dress shoes and a brown suit jacket. He considered many things that he had not considered in many years or had never considered at all—perfume, candles, hair ornaments, crystal figurines–but he did not buy any of these things. He answered the phone as he walked into his apartment. It was his mother and she asked if he were all right.
“I was worried when you didn’t call last night. And Jordan says you didn’t call him tonight either.”
He thought about how much time still stretched in front of him before Saturday.
“Are you still there, Greg?”
“Yep, I’m here.”
“Sylvia is a really wonderful girl. What’d you do with my flowers?”
“I threw them in the garbage at a gas station,” he said truthfully.
He thought about Mathilde, about Dr. Britt, about Abbie, about the way her hair felt in his hands, about the things that shop ladies had shown him that were supposed to make women happy.
“Are you still there?”
“Yep, I’m here.”
“I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you. You are absolutely no fun to talk to these days.”
After she hung up, he logged on his computer and watched a video about Wilson Crane mating dances. He could see how young male cranes could be confused by what they were supposed to do if they didn’t have the chance to replay and review the video. He stood behind his desk chair and played it until he felt like he had played 42 games of hearts.
The week began, the week ended. He fell behind on the Fenwick collection, long hours spent daydreaming. He brought a Styrofoam cup of Earl Grey into the archival room and though he immediately disposed of it in the bathroom, he was surprised at himself. He was late for the bus twice. Mathilde called for him on two different evenings as he walked home and each time he went behind the building and stretched his hand into her cage.
On Saturday at six o’clock, he rang the doorbell at Abbie’s house. He wore his new shoes and jacket and a shirt he had pressed that morning. Parties, airplane travel, taxes, Saturday mornings, Monday mornings, running out of groceries after Piggly Wiggly closed, conversation—all these would make him sway, swell hives on his chest and face. Thoughts were impossible, action as well. But when she opened the door, he acted. He kissed her on the mouth—tasting coffee, sex, and caramel candy. He inhaled a courage that was sexual and divine.
He went into work on Monday late. The receptionist asked him what he did over the weekend.
“I stayed in bed with my girlfriend, only getting up to pee and pay the pizza delivery boy. I’m forty-eight years old and the words my girlfriend said feel good to say. Strange but good.”
“I did it more in the past weekend than I have in the past ten years.”
“I have made love to a woman I may have loved thirty four years ago and we were like two children in the Garden of Eden, with no pride, no shame, no ego, no self-consciousness. This life, this library, the entire Fenwick collection, means nothing to me It is outside of that Garden and I have taken my apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and it tastes wonderful.”
“I woke up spooning her, with my dick inside her and I grew hard and I moved against her with my hand between her legs and she came just as she woke.”
“I have no idea why this happened to me.”
He didn’t say any of these things, any and all of which were true. But he smiled and said something about hanging out with his girlfriend and as he passed to his office, he heard the grad student say “I thought he was gay.”
And he didn’t care.
He got off the bus and saw Mathilde out on the lawn, running, chased, obstructed. But entirely focused when she saw him. Greg held up his hand in warning to Dr. Britt as she approached the curb.
And then, he felt his arms borne up from his elbows. His hands light and relaxed. He lifted his right foot from the knee. Mathilde tilted her head, offering her neck and her sidelong gaze. And then, he dropped his arms. Raising her wings, she approached.
“Careful,” Dr. Britt said, and as she stepped onto Willow, Mathilde ran back to the Ornithological Facility, trailed by her retinue of graduate students.
Greg unlocked his apartment as the phone on his kitchen table rang.
“So what did you do this weekend?”
“Sylvia wants to meet you.”
“Look. I haven’t always been good about girlfriends,” his mother said. “Maybe made her, okay, both of them, all right, whatever how many of them, feel uncomfortable at family events, well, all I’m saying is I’m not going to live forever and I want to know that you’ll be okay. Are you still there?”
“Yep. I’m still here.”
“Are you coming out to mow the lawn?”
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“Is it that woman?”
“Are you going to tell me anything more about her?”
He came to Abbie’s house on Saturday freshly showered but sweaty.
“I’m bad for you,” she said, her lips so close against his so that he felt he swallowed her words.
“I’m sure you are,” he said. And he kicked the front door closed behind them.
“No, really, stop. Real bad.”
She pushed him away, but held to his sleeve. He looked briefly away from her face, to the left of her face, because there was a nakedness and need on a scale that would ordinarily make him want to leave and even now made him uncomfortable.
“You should know something. I have bile duct cancer.”
He didn’t know what a bile duct was, but he knew this wasn’t when he should ask.
“Does its job in six months. Very efficient. Most people do chemotherapy because they have a milestone—a kid’s graduation, a wedding, a cruise. I don’t have anything like that. So I’m not doing chemo.”
The room swayed as she spoke, placing weight first on his right foot and then on his left.
“I just wanted to know how everyone turned out. That’s why I contacted everyone, including you. But I didn’t remember that I had such a crush on you. Please, you should go now. My bad.”
This would be a wonderful time to leave, he thought.
“Well, the longest I’ve ever kept a girlfriend is six months,” he said. “So I’m perfect for you.”
Her smile started as a vibrato of one side of her upper lip and then the teeth. Lots of teeth. And he felt himself standing beside her, then and now, smelling and saying then “peeuwwie” and now “I want you”.
“I’ll send you away when it’s time.”
“Fuck you,” he growled.
He had been a man caught up in dread of an unknown–something that would happen, something that could happen, something that might happen, something that made his stomach hurt every morning because it was going to happen and he wasn’t even sure what it was. Now here was something tangible to dread and to catalogue this dread, numbering and ordering it, was more of his nature. He left her on Sunday nights with his dick rubbed raw, her scent on his hands and mouth, and it would only be as he pulled into the parking lot at Graduate Student Housing that he’d take the dread out of its file cabinet. One Saturday night in June, he snipped a lock of her hair while she slept. On that Thursday night, he sat at the kitchen table with the Mourning Pin and he braided the tiny strands.
Mourning jewelry reached the height of popularity during the Civil War. Hair of a deceased loved one was arranged under glass, mostly in elaborately braided designs. Necklaces, bracelets, tiaras, rings, pins set in jet or a burnished rose gold. He had purchased this pin years ago at an estate sale from a woman who didn’t even know what it was and he had bought it only because he didn’t want someone to be so carelessly thrown away.
He popped open the glass with a knife but hesitated over taking out the hair that was arranged inside. The pin was probably Secessionist because the backing and the clasp were of the poorest grade nickel. The hair, he imagined, from a son or husband–although he knew most Southern dead, particularly late in the War, were burned and the reburial efforts during Reconstruction tended to favor the families of Union soldiers.
On his kitchen table, in his hands, was someone’s memory, someone’s love, someone’s entire world. He could not take the hair out of the pin and throw it underneath the kitchen sink. With his tweezers, he pushed and shoved and squeezed the braid he had made of Abbie’s hair to join with that of the unknown dead. He snapped the glass case over it. Abbie was now eternally joined to someone whose archivist was off the job.
Then–he thought–I’m not ready to be her memory keeper. Not yet. He opened his mouth, a choking sigh begging to be released.
Someone knocked at the door. Since he didn’t know the names of any of his neighbors he wouldn’t be of much help to a person who was lost. He considered, but reconsidered, not opening the door.
Dr. Britt stood on the stairwell.
“She dropped an egg. She was totally fertile, ready, and willing—but she had a jump in her cortisol levels almost immediately after insemination. May I come in?”
He swayed ever so slightly and she amended, “would you come over to the facility?”
His mouth opened around the words “good luck”.
“Please,” she said, as he pushed the door shut.
He paused. He thought of the crying to be done at the kitchen table.
“I’ll need to put on my shoes.”
The foyer of the facility was lit by the magnificent chandelier with hundreds of lead crystals. There was a Recamier couch, once beautiful, now worn. It was here that Greg sat, Mathilde crouched at his feet, her head curled into her wings. Small yellow birds perched on the arms of the chandelier and an owl sat on the back of a folding chair next to the grandfather’s clock.
“All sensate beings are driven by their need for love,” Dr. Britt said, handing him two fingers of Jack Daniels in a tall glass. “My colleagues in anthropology and zoology think it’s about reproduction, but they’re shallow thinkers.”
She pulled herself up onto the sofa beside him, pulling against her lab coat pockets.
“To love,” she said. “We all need it. Even that one needs it.”
She pointed to what he had thought was a footstool at the stairs but which he now realized was a tortoise.
“Mathilde doesn’t know that if she dies without issue, there’s no hope for her species. Mathilde doesn’t know she wants to drop eggs. Mathilde only knows that she loves you and she wants to be loved by you.”
“I don’t want to be loved by a bird and I don’t love her.”
“I’m only asking that you lie to her. Men do it all the time.”
“Even when a woman needs you to?”
He drank quickly and she refilled his glass. Then she stood up. The yellow birds alighted from the chandelier and flew in an arc around the perimeter of the foyer before disappearing out to the back of the building. Dr. Britt picked up the owl as the grandfather clock struck eleven.
“What about you?” He asked, as she walked up the stairs. “Do you need love?”
“Does he love you? Did he love you?”
“Did he lie to you?”
“No,” she said crisply and she walked with stately grace to the end of the second floor hall.
She had left behind the bottle and two capsules. He read the directions on one of the capsules. It looked like, with any kind of luck, he’d only need one. After another snort of Jack, he stood up. He walked out to the middle of the rug, directly beneath the glittering chandelier. Mathilde rose up on her thin legs, uncrumpling her white feathers like so much crinoline.
“This is how we’re going to do it,” he said, and he faced her. He lifted his arms. And she pulled up her wings—but not to their fullest extension, the black clips being an impediment.
A spinster, the last of her family, had lived here—bequeathing it to the University in the late twenties. What parties might she have given? Dances with ladies in evening gowns and gentlemen in tuxedos, Charleston, fox trot, illicit cocktails, laughter and whispered promises of love—at least, in his imagination, this foyer would have been the site of beautiful, beautiful parties. Parties where he would make small talk, where he would be at his ease, where he would drink champagne from tall crystal flutes, where he would dance with beautiful women.
He stepped forward and gently probed the black clip on Mathilde’s left wing. He used his pocket knife to cut it off and then the other.
“Miss Mathilde,” he said.
She stepped away, giving every appearance of ignoring him. But then, step left. Step right. And she pulled her wings out to their fullest expanse and curtseyed. He bowed.
The next morning he woke up to a powerful smell, like spoilt meat. It was the tortoise, up against his face, staring at him, opening his mouth. Greg turned his head. Yellow birds chirped in the chandelier. It made his head hurt. He looked around. Mathilde was curled up next to the vending machine. The grandfather clock had to be lying—nine fifteen?
He found Dr. Britt asleep on a couch in her office. She snored like a wheezing toddler. Her face had softened in sleep. The owl blinked at Greg, shifting its weight on a stack of papers on the desk.
Greg left the black clips on the desk along with the unused capsule. When he went downstairs, Mathilde licked his hand by way of goodbye. He walked across Willow to his apartment but did not shower or shave. He brushed his teeth because the taste in his mouth reminded him of tortoise. He drove the car because he wasn’t sure what buses were running. He was two hours late.
“You have a message,” the receptionist said.
“What do you mean, a message?”
“A phone message. Someone phoned here this morning. For you. I gave them your apartment phone number. They couldn’t get you. How come you don’t have a cell phone?”
“Because I’ve never wanted to talk to anybody,” he said, and he took the message slip from her.
“I told you on the phone, she’s not in any danger,” the nurse said when he showed up at the unit. “She just wanted you to know that you weren’t supposed to come on Saturday.”
In the doorway, he had a moment. The wind push him this way and that.
She had a tube in her arm, several that disappeared beneath a blanket, and a tube that bifurcated her nostrils. There were monitors and machines that crowded around her bed—popping, sighing, blinking, twitching. She opened her eyes, saw him, made a cry, and then turned her head.
“I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“But every way I see you is important,” he said.
He pulled down the steel braces on one side of the bed and adjusted her arm so that he could sidle up next to her. Not quite sitting, not quite spooning. He had had a lot of time to think this through in the car.
“I want a date for New Year’s Eve,” he said. “I’ve never had one. I want you to start that chemotherapy stuff. I’ll take you to every damn appointment. You can throw up all over me and lose all your hair. But I want to go to dinner, I want to drink champagne, I want you to wear a pretty dress, I want to dance with you, and kiss you at midnight. ”
“You want me to go through chemotherapy just so you can have a fucking date for New Year’s?”
“And maybe if you drink too much, you might ask me out for Sadie Hawkins’ Day.”
“And why would I want to do this?”
He thought this is how the Wicked Queens of the world beg for love because they don’t know any better.
“Don’t I show it to you every time?”
“You mean every time you fuck me?”
“It’s not fucking. It’s how I say . . . what I want to say because I’m not good with words and conversation. And I want to do it right here, right now, even now, especially now.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t. They’ve got a catheter in me so just forget it.”
He slid one arm under her pillow—careful, she said–and with the other he cradled the twins. The hair behind her ear was the only place that smelled like her—strong and sexual and familiar.
“I can do it with just my tongue and your earlobe if that’s all that’s available because there are a million ways to make love to a woman and I have just started to learn. Do I have a date for New Year’s or what?”
He kissed the softest part of her earlobe, teasing with his tongue the dimple where she had pierced her ears but didn’t wear earrings. And then he heard it, the reluctant sigh as she turned her head so that her mouth was at his ear—yes.
ArLynn Leiber Presser is a playwright, novelist, and regional historian who has written under her own name and under the pseudonym Vivian Leiber. She is the granddaughter of the science fiction writer Fritz Leiber, Jr. and only wishes she could live up to his legacy.