Short Listed Ashes Competition 1999
“Quail? Didn’t he run for President?”
“Relax, kid. I’m the thinker. You’re just the messenger. You sound cheerful.”
“I have to take my dog to the vets this afternoon. Poor baby has an abscessed tooth.”
“Ouch! I’m sorry.”
“Oh? Then you’ll give us a ride?”
“I’m taking the afternoon off. Tell Batty I’ll get with him tomorrow.”
My reputation as Steve Sobers, Production Manager for “Peter’s Back Yard Restaurant.” was on trial after twenty years of dedication. The new owner had his own ideas of planning a wedding menu ... elegant… a touch of class. Champaign, oysters on the half-shell, mango soup, quail under glass. I didn’t know anything about quail, and I had other things on my mind. I hung up the phone and turned to the man drinking a bottle of Dr. Pepper in back of me, waiting to use the phone.
“Quails. Do you know anything about quails?”
“Christ! Quail stew.”
I walked to the Red Apple convenience store across the street from Pudgies Pizza. I drank a coffee from a Styrofoam cup, read Anne Landers, watched out the window for Pudgies to open. I gave the guy tending the store a five-dollar tip.
I nodded. I must have looked crazy. Even I was surprised.
At Pudgies I stood while Nick pulled a pizza from a drawer.
“I took a walk. I didn’t go to work. After I eat, I’m going to ask my ex-wife if I can have my son live with me.”
Nick sliced the pizza, kept his eyes averted. I knew I was making him nervous, so I sat down at the counter. I ordered a glass of milk. I dropped a piece of pizza on my lap and scooped it up, concentrating on thoughts of the rest of the day.
I was heading for Otego to pick up Josh. Cheena, my ex-wife, kept the house, but I still had my old key. I suppose Keith, her husband resented me, he was barely polite and hovered over us when I played with Josh. Last time I visited, I bought books, baseball bats, nintendo, a watch, video games, a fish named Foam, in an attempt to get inside his six-year-old mind, change his eyes lashing out his hostility, or resigned acceptance. When I gave him his presents, he strained and croaked out a polite little thank you.
I had meant to pick up my car, and get on the road; the weather felt snow. Instead, I wandered around the city. I thought of ways to say it with just the right note. I thought it could work out this way, but I was losing my son. I walked to calm myself, before approaching Cheena again. A light snow started, I walked through the mist, forgot to wait for the stop-sign to say go, heard the horn blast, passed a new French restaurant, a cigar store. I looked in department store windows. In one, the young girl dressing a mannequin looked out. I looked at her, caught her attention, and after a minute she smiled. I smiled back. Her eyes were far apart, wide brown eyes. She untied the robe of one of the mannequins; underneath, a chalk-white body, undressed with jutting pelvis, no arms, eyes staring vacantly.
When I caught the girl’s attention, a thought, a flash came to me of Cheena, a night I came home angry from her rejection the night before. She sat bare-feet on the floor, wriggling grape-lit toenails into the rug with enjoyment, giggling, dark hair tangled, hanging loose over her shoulders, dressed in a white satin robe from Victoria’s Secrets. She put down a glass of milk when I came in. She stepped leisurely, bypassed the coffee table, put her hand on the belt of her robe, untied it and underneath, her naked body, soft, pliable white, smelling of apples. I put my head on her stomach for a moment. The light on the glass-topped coffee table caught both of our reflections, dancing, twirling on the ceiling. I looked at the glass on the top of the coffee-table. It was as though I was enclosed in glass. I closed her robe, and went to the kitchen. She lounged in the doorway. “Would you like to try therapy?”
The girl in the window brought out a prop. She put a leash in the mannequin’s hand before she disappeared. At the end of the leash the slender black and white Russian Wolfhound stared out the window. His eyes were long, sensitive, gentle considering I knew this represented a sight-dog pointing to birds miles away.
This thought drew me back to my immediate problems. I decided the girl in the window wasn’t coming back. Anyway it was time to go to my apartment and get the car. I was still thinking of the dog in the window when I had the uneasy feeling a live dog was tailing me. I looked around at the dog, a dirty-brown, shaggy half-sheep-dog, eyes the color of gold. I turned around and he stopped. We exchanged glances. I searched his neck for a tag, without any luck. He tagged along, hung-down, aimless. I brushed some of the snow off his back and he went around in circles, wagged his tail and nuzzled my hand. Then I told him to go home. I saw a look of disappointment, but he accepted it. His eyes went dim in the second my eyes said no. He waited a few minutes. Then he put his tail down and disappeared in the snow, the unwanted. It seemed like an omen.
I picked up the car, a new book on dinosaurs, and a book on birds.
Eight a.m., Otego, heavy snow. At the house I used my key. The door opened easily. I took off my boots first. The house used to belong to Cheena’s mother. Cheena and I kept the verandah with vines, the faded carpeting, dull wall paper, but Keith had protested, Cheena told me when she first gave me my key, so now the walls were painted bright red, white chair-rails, thick carpeting just off white.
Cheena’s mother’s picture sat on the mantle. I looked at the picture and thought of her angel, the pin she always tacked on at the last minute. It was supposed to bring her a miracle. If she ever died (but the angel was her safeguard against death), she’d come back alive. One time she went for a walk and never came back, so, of course, everyone wondered if she was still around because of the angel. In my agnostic, questioning mind, I wondered if I carried an angel, if I died and came back, would I be a dog, or if I just died, dead, and that was the end of the line, what about Josh? I had to have Josh, and I wanted him now.
I sat at the kitchen table. The sun came in weak, shining through the snow piled high on window sills. I felt a stuffy, closed in sense of not being able to breathe.
Keith came down the stairs, startled to see me, trying to be cordial, trying to ask me why I was here. Cheena followed in black velvet tights and high heels, bleached-to-death blond hair.
Keith poured Cheena’s coffee. Cheena looked at me.
“I assumed you would use the key.”
“I had a dream last night.” Keith said. “Kept me awake all night. Now I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t because I knew you’d be here.”
Cheena looked at Keith and me through the smoke of her cigarette, unhappy with both of us.
”Oh, cut it out, Keith.”
“I’m trying to deal with all of your problems, Cheena,” Keith said, “one of which is your unfortunate mouth.” He stamped out of the kitchen.
“I need to talk to you.” I said.
“I can’t. I have a hair appointment at 9. Besides I don’t feel like talking right now.”
Roz had a yellow rose pinned to her hair. She moved with the ease of a pretty woman who knew it. The first time I saw her, she wore a long cotton skirt and carried a basket. She had arrived in this country with the promise of a job, which didn’t pan out. Cheena hired her as a housekeeper, and as our housekeeper, she seemed more like part of the family. She imitated Cheena, growing to use the same expressions.
By the path where Roz and I were walking, a man was teaching a child to make snowballs. Hers fell apart in the air.
“I’m going to ask Cheena if I can take Josh.”
“She’ll never agree, Steve.”
“Then I’ll kidnap him.”
“This isn’t the time. Not yet. He’s learning.”
“O.K. then, you come with the package.”
“She’s not so bad, Steve. She has her own problems.”
“Oh, really? She never did much for you.”
Another kid made a snow ball. The girl had wandered away. “Emmy,” the man called. She picked up more snow, looked at it, packed it in one hand with the other.
“Well, I may get married.”
“Married? Who to?” The snow balls were flying and flying.
“Somebody. Nobody you know.”
“Come again? You’re dating?” I walked faster.
“It’s normal to date first, isn’t it?”
Josh had a problem sleeping. Now he was tired, and snappy.
“Did you know, Josh, people on TV can see you?” I grinned.
“Yeah, right.” I knew the way he said “yeah, right,” he didn’t believe me.
“Then suppose you tell me what this means.” Josh held up his middle finger to the man’s face on the television. “See the guy didn’t give me the finger back!”
When Roz gave him a bath earlier, I listened to them laughing in the bathroom behind the door. I heard the splash, in the tub, heard him exclaim, “Wow, bubbles!” I pictured her pouring talcum powder over his back. I wished I was in the tub and she was pouring the powder over me.
I cursed myself under my breath. Roz, stood in the doorway, holding Josh’s pajamas, preparing his bed.
“You’re not teasing Josh, are you Steve?”
“Nope,” I said
“What?” Josh said, changing channels.
“Did you know Flipper is processed into the Tuna-Of-The-Sea cans?”
“What does processed mean?”
“It means chopped into little bits.”
“Roz, is Flipper in one of the cans of tuna you bought the other day?”
“No, of course not.”
Josh, on the floor, Indian-style, marker-stained finger pointed at me. “You little shit.”
“Did you know when you’re driving at night, the noon follows you?”
“So? Where’s Mom?” Eight o’clock, and now nine. Cheena wasn’t home. Roz went from window to window. Josh trotted behind.
“Josh, did you ever hear of a quail?” I said.
“Grandma went away and never came back.”
I pulled out the bird-book. On the cover was a bird’s beak and a wing
Josh examined the photograph. He put his cheek against the cover.
“What if she’s dead?”
“Your mom’s not dead, Josh.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Josh. I have to leave for a minute.” I heard a six-year-old calling for his mother.
I went to the bathroom and patted water on my face, dried it with a towel with Cheena’s initials. I went to the study and sat very still. We decorated the study with fresh pine at Christmas, strung glittering, tiny balls . Now Cheena’s mother was dead. Cheena and I were divorced and Cheena was married to Keith. The night I put my head on her breast and called her ‘Baby,’ wanting to talk, she pulled away and said, ‘Baby? I’m not your baby.’ Who would suspect she wanted another man?
The first time I visited Otego, after the divorce, after Cheena and Keith had married, Cheena insisted on giving me a grand tour of the house. I knew that Roz had not wanted to walk around the house with us. I knew she did it so I wouldn’t feel awkward.
Roz came into the study, I sensed her hesitating in the dim light.
“You awake”?” she whispered, “You O.K.?”
I was half-dreaming. A bird, wild red, its wings extended, like a big golden moon, stood poised on a hill. “I’m still your friend.” Roz came close.
She had said, “I’m your friend,” the day when we toured the house, moving quietly, shyly taking my arm. We stood there together, the walls like mountains, our words like birds flapping against them. Now there were open fields and a bird taking off.