In my kids' elementary-school classrooms, they've always celebrated the 100th day of school with a big party and a big project--something, naturally, that contains 100 items of some kind. (My son is thinking of doing something with Legos this year.) It's a nice ritual, one that commemorates persistence, accomplishment, or just plain survival.
Well, according to Blogger, this is my 100th post since I started this thing a year and a half ago. And while I don't have any great big project planned for my 100th post, I thought I'd use the opportunity to present a story of mine that went the way of all flesh when the magazine in which it was originally published shut down for good.
The story's called "String," and though looking at it now after a further year of writing, I can see some flaws in it, at the time it represented a big advance for me in terms of story structure, discourse, and point of view. So I still feel a great deal of fondness for it, and I'm happy to take this opportunity to present it to you.
Here's to the first 100 posts, and to the next!
They stand on the shoulder by their crumpled Toyota Prius, waiting for the cops and the Triple-A tow truck to show. Jasper eyes the accordioned fender, his upper lip clenched in his lower. Lila braces for the one-liner she knows is coming. Why can he never take anything seriously? It drives her mad.
Jasper peruses the wreckage, not because his inspection tells him anything of use, but because he needs time to formulate his quip. Then he thinks of a good one, one sure to get her steamed. “Well, this will certainly reduce our carbon footprint,” he says.
Lila expels a breath. “This never would have happened with a normal car,” she says. “I felt something, a hitch, a hesitation. It’s that goddamn hybrid motor. It must have stalled just as I braked.”
“You were driving like a bat out of hell,” he tells her. “This would have happened in an SUV. The only difference is the damage would have been much greater.”
“And the carbon footprint would have been much higher,” she sneers. “You and your crusades. I need a cigarette.”
She retreats from the roadside. Jasper watches her brace her purse against her thigh and stab her hand vigorously but randomly into the bag. He knows her purpose is less to find the cigarettes than to impress on him his guilt in bringing her to this extremity. Finally she extracts the flattened pack and looks at him disgustedly. “I’m out,” she says, crumpling the offending object and hurling it to the ground. It rolls away in a passing truck’s slipstream, a miniature cellophane tumbleweed.
“So I’d noticed,” he says. She knew she was out before she started fishing. She hasn’t had a cigarette in three days, the empty pack meant to be a motivator. She also knows he knows she’s quit, and has merely been egging her on.
“Do you care?” she says. “Do you care that we almost got squashed, we’re standing by the side of the fucking highway, and I’m out of cigarettes?”
Jasper squints at the shrunken car. The airbags stuff the front seat like some overgrown fungus. Then another good one comes to him. “If the choice is between killing yourself and killing me along with you, I’ll buy you the cigarettes.”
Lila glares. She wonders why she has put up with this for so long. In a heartbeat’s time, she can tick off a royal tally of irritants. His arrogance, his air of superiority. His constant dry, sandpapery sniffling. His inability to bring her to orgasm. His spreading forehead and sloping back. His insouciance regarding her quarterly smoking-cessation schemes, his told-you-so smugness when she relapses. His this, his that. Her girlfriends had warned her he would never change, and in this they were right. What they hadn’t foreseen, what she hadn’t foreseen herself, was how he would.
“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” she says.
Cissy rests against the metal barrier, her face lowered to ward off the dust and debris of trucks rumbling by. The couple who rear-ended her, having spent the briefest of moments checking her condition and exchanging necessaries, have returned to their car and are, by all appearances, quarreling. Though they keep their voices low, the argument emanates from the lines of the woman’s body: the arch of a heel, the thrust of her chest. Cissy supposes she should be angrier than she is--they’ve mashed her bumper, barely apologized--but she finds herself studying them, pitying them. At least, she thinks, she has no one dear to blame, no one dear to blame her.
When the impact first shook her Hyundai, grinding her against the seat before pitching her forward, she felt a moment’s vindication, even exhilaration: the copper-colored car had been bearing down on her hard, she’d felt the adrenaline rush tailgaters always produced as they squeezed you into the smallest of spaces, leaving you no exercise of will except the sacrificial protest of slowing to a crawl. After the hit, though, she felt herself deflating, righteousness ceding to gray, empty routine. Move the car from the travel lane, limp along the shoulder. Take a deep breath, reach for the glove compartment, free the insurance card. Take another deep breath, compose one’s face to exude neither overt aggression nor unfelt forgiveness. Check the side view mirror, exit, circle the passenger door. Meet the culprits, express concern for their wellbeing despite their reckless blunder, enter pertinent information in one’s mobile device. Shake hands, comment on the pristine fall day, return to separate vehicles, wait. Remarkable how readily the moves flow from her, considering she’s never done this before.
Only once she returns to her car does she have time to wonder at the byzantine chance that has brought her here, to feel the panic flame in her chest--how close, how very close to the end of me!--to offer thanks for her salvation, to clutch at reasons, to register irrelevancies--the doughy clouds, the circling hawk--to enter the minds, the lives, of those who struck her, to sound their souls, to imagine how they too will be changed by this circumstance, even though it was of their own causing. The woman with the black dress and smoker’s contralto, so much younger and more vital than the wispy beanpole beside her--his daughter? No, too much accumulated anger tautens her back, her shoulders; they are lovers at least, husband and wife more likely. Nor, Cissy decides, is the woman so young as she seems. Though she carries it well, Cissy can picture gray beneath her black crown of hair, can trace the outline of cords ready to flare from her fleshy throat. Still, the man is quite a bit older, his hair as fine as iron filings, his hands mottled and veined. In a sure-footed leap of sympathy, Cissy perceives their life, knows they are childless, estranged, knows they were arguing just before the impact, knows the woman--Lila--was plunging forward in hopes of killing them both, or him alone, or her alone, or at least of making him believe such was her intent, and that her current posture of coiled and strained defiance is a result of his not having been at all impressed by her fatal bravado, in fact of his having mocked her, called her bluff, when what he should have done was acknowledge it for what it was, its desperate foolishness. Cissy feels certain, too, that this man is incapable of internalizing others’ feelings, is always inspecting them from a comfortable remove--a psychiatrist, a politician--no, she has it, a college professor. Lila, then, will be one of his former students, dazzled as a freshman by his command of hermeneutics and the grade roster, seduced in his book-lined office or under a leafy campus grotto, or maybe at a café following a reading of his poetry, and yes, again, Cissy knows with dead-eyed certainty, the woman too is a poet, a lesser one, lured by the promise of prosody by osmosis, but always failed, always second best, always denied. Next to this betrayal of her life’s ambition, a rear-end collision must seem scandalously insignificant, if not a gift from a life unlived.
Cissy considers going to her, offering her sisterly sympathy, certifying it through the ironclad accuracy of her intuition. But just then the police arrive, the spell is broken, the routine resumes.
“You were lucky, you know,” Amos tells her. An insurance agent, he knows all about lucky. “It could have been a lot worse.”
“I know,” Cissy says. “If I hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, if they hadn’t hit the brakes, if we’d been traveling any faster. . . .”
“I’m not trying to scare you,” he says.
“I’m not scared,” she answers.
Amos drives with both hands on the wheel, his foot hovering over the brake. He slows to let a woman back her minivan out of a driveway, grimly returns her wave. Though he has shared little with his twin sister in the past twenty-five years, her near miss with mortality has spooked him, and now, floating in his tin can through the streets of the city, he feels vulnerable.
“You could sue,” he says. “Recover damages.”
“Amos, I’m fine. The paramedics checked me, and I’m fine.”
“The insurance will cover the car.”
Now he is in more familiar territory. “Trust me, Cissy. You’d be amazed at the loopholes these guys find. They’ll dredge up some parking ticket from six years ago. . . .”
“I’ve never gotten a parking ticket.”
“Fine.” He lifts his hands from the wheel in a brief, petulant shrug. “But you wait and see.”
Cissy can’t decide whether to feel touched by his awkward concern or annoyed by his fractiousness. She glances sidelong at him, notices that his face looks sweaty, and that the knot of his tie is loosened the smallest degree, a gesture she has come to decode as his attempt to lend a “family” feel to their brief contacts. She has actually watched him undo it in her presence, hooking an index finger and pulling, his Adam’s apple tugging against the downward pressure. She decides, on the strength of his willingness to drop everything and come pick her up, to be charitable. “Will this affect my rates, do you think?”
“Shouldn’t,” he grunts, then softens. “It wasn’t your fault, Cissy. You filled out the police report, you were abiding by the speed limit, right? Your brake lights were working? You didn’t stop suddenly, swerve, anything like that?”
“I was driving the way I always do,” she begins, but then, remembering the woman’s suffering face bearing down on her in the rearview mirror, she feels a fresh spurt of doubt. Doubt not only about her own reaction--did she hit the brakes, slow dangerously in a fit of pique?--but about the entire sequence of events. At what point, exactly, did she perceive the woman’s grief? Did she read it in her eyes, inverted by the mirror? Or only reconstruct it after the collision, along the roadside, as a spectator to the ill-matched pair’s bickering? And why does this matter? Shouldn’t it be enough that she is alive and well, the only residual a slight, prickly stiffness across her neck and shoulder blades? Shouldn’t it be sufficient that she has dodged death?
Amos, noticing her silence, makes an effort, does what does not come naturally to him, forces a smile. “You must have been pretty scared.”
“I was--” What was she? Cissy turns to him, and Amos realizes she has begun to cry. He considers what to do, finally decides to find a place to pull over. His tires rustle across dry leaves. The decision turns out to be the right one, as moments later she starts to bawl, and he is forced to shut off the ignition and reach across the seat for her shoulder. She leans her head against his hand, her eyes shut tight, her mouth grimacing in what appears to be real pain. He tries stroking her shoulder, but that’s difficult with her head there on his hand, and anyway he begins to think it might not be enough under the circumstances. He pivots to maneuver his left arm over the steering wheel and around her back, pulls her to him. She shakes with sobs.
Amos assumes this is a delayed reaction to the trauma, and he is right in part. Cissy herself can hardly tell what is causing this, everything has become so tangled. The accident, the woman’s wounded eyes, her husband’s brutal indifference, the sororal communion that had never happened, would now never happen, would seem intrusive and ghoulish if she tried, the round of police reports and medic evaluations and calls to work and the repair shop, her twin brother’s judgment, then his gentleness, the perfect, prismatic blue of the fall sky. For the first time in a long time she thanks the random chance of sharing a city with her nearest relation, not the city where they were born and their parents died, the city where, as a beginning speaker, he christened her with the nickname that soon crowded her birth name into obsolescence, but the city to which he moved as an adult and she, unmotivated by his presence, followed. If fate operates, she thinks, could it have been for this occasion the strings were pulled that brought her here? But she knows she will never be able to trace those strings, and she knows, too, that in a day’s or a week’s time they will be released, Amos will return to his work and family, she to her schedule, and the pattern of Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthday parties will resume. She feels her brother’s stiff shirt, wet by her own tears, beneath her cheek, smells its powdery fragrance, and knows this was not enough. But she lets herself drift in his embrace for a while longer, remembering.
Amos feels Cissy’s breath level from gasps to deep sighs, then soften to rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. For a moment, thinking of his own daughter, he imagines her asleep against his chest. He finds his left hand absently stroking her hair; a lullaby plays in his mind, almost rises to his lips. Then, at once, Cissy withdraws, sits erect, her eyes wide in a way that reminds him again of his daughter. Her short blonde hair sticks up like a chicken’s crest; he realizes she wears mascara, because it has smeared. Uncomfortable at the transition from four-year-old Franny to full-grown Cissy, conscious of looking at his twin sister as a woman, and a woman in distress at that, he turns away. His hands flutter in the door pouch for a tissue, but he finds none. Cissy laughs as if she knows what he is seeking, runs her sleeve across her nose, and rests back against the seat, her eyelids slanting closed. Amos starts the car and drives the remaining blocks to her apartment.
He pulls up before the building, a former elementary school now bedecked with rows of brass mail slots and wooden planters. Cissy turns to him. “Thank you, Amos,” she says, laying her fingertips on his arm in a dignified manner, almost with a hint of noblesse oblige, but he takes no offense. For once, he knows what she means.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asks, leaning across the seat as she exits.
“Do you need anything?”
Cissy shakes her head. As it happens, Amos can think of quite a few things she needs. Like a real job, not this low-paying, dead-end daycare shift she’s held for years. And a husband, or at least a boyfriend, someone to call in crises like this, not that he grudges her the favor. With a rude shock the thought occurs to him that his sister might be a lesbian, and he knows that, whether true or not, the suspicion will haunt him until she marries or he dies, whichever comes first. The latter more likely, he guesses. He feels a rush of affection and sorrow for his twin, for the meager life it seems to him she lives. What ever happened to the Cissy who used to orchestrate puppet shows, tunnel snow forts, fashion uproarious nighttime narratives with herself as star and crusader? For that matter, what happened to the Amos who used to join in?
“I’m fine, Amos,” she tells him. “Give my love to Becky and Franny.”
From the apartment window, Ricardo watches the foreign car sidle up to the curb and disgorge Miss Cissy. His surprise at her arrival is overwhelmed by his delight. His mother has been edging around the apartment all morning, reminding him of her responsibilities, his responsibilities, and the apparently subtle relationship between them. Now, with Miss Cissy home, he can stop trying to puzzle out the precise contours of that relationship and simply play.
“Mama!” he calls. “Miss Cissy here!”
His mother emerges from the kitchen hallway, her hands knotted in a dishtowel. She is smaller than Miss Cissy, and even prettier, her eyes somewhere between turquoise and brown, her eyelids golden, her hair a glossy braid that reaches almost to the small of her back. Ricardo has no memory of her in any less than perfect condition, groomed and polished like a studio shot, though she could if she so chose evoke for him weary nights when she’d stumble into his bedroom with tousled hair and lined face. He’d never believe her, though, any more than he’d believe there were times then she doubted she loved him. She has vowed never to let him learn what scars and sacrifices bind their life together, and she has kept her vow.
“Miss Cissy?” she says, gliding to the window and raising it to glance out. “What she doing home?”
Brianna surveys the sidewalk, but there is no sign of either Cissy or her car. Still she does not doubt her son’s report; he is, generally, a truthful child, and in any event he will be too excited by the prospect of a midday playmate to concoct a lie that will disappoint mostly him. A favorite teacher at the daycare center Ricardo attended until the start of school this fall, Cissy has sat before, though only for emergencies; Brianna does not date, does not leave him lightly. Though she wonders at Cissy’s unexpected return, she blesses her luck this day.
Ricardo’s face is alight with expectation. “Can Miss Cissy come play?”
“We’ll see,” she tells him. But she is already planning her deliverance, hoping this is not simply a lunch break or a momentary stop on some errand.
Her answer suffices for her son, who scoots to his room and begins making his own plans.
Brianna slips out the apartment door just as Cissy opens hers. The two women--not exactly friends, Cissy a good decade older, but across-the-hall neighbors since Brianna and Ricardo’s arrival five years before, and sharers, if far from equally, of his young life for all that time--greet each other with a nod and a smile, Cissy’s a bit less generous than usual due to her stiffening neck and self-consciousness of her appearance, Brianna’s perhaps a trifle peremptory, since she hopes to skip the preliminaries and get right to business. Tidy in a brown velour sweat suit with tan piping, the younger woman faces her neighbor, whose oversized white sweatshirt shows a ring of hand-holding stick figure children, in red. “You’re home early,” Brianna says.
Cissy considers contriving some tale, but knows she lacks the energy for it. “I got into a little accident on the way to work.”
“My God!” Brianna’s fingers fly to her cheek. Her nails show golden against her brown skin; even in alarm she is regal and glamorous, like an Egyptian princess. “You all right?”
“I’m fine,” Cissy smiles. “Just a little stiff.” Though the truth is, she is more than a little stiff; every time she shrugs her shoulders, trying to loosen them, they tighten and sear. “Hey, Ricardo. What happened to school?”
Brianna looks behind her to where her son has emerged. His face douses at the mention of school. Since starting kindergarten two months ago he has missed five days, each time with an identical and unidentifiable ailment: lethargy, fever too slight to be detected, dry throat. Whenever Brianna presses he shows signs of panic, his nostrils wide, his heart racing against her chest. The teacher assures her he has not been bullied, is welcomed by the other children, seems confident in forming capitals and numerals. “Many new learners experience separation difficulties,” the teacher said, and Brianna knew what she was thinking: single black mother, child at home, first time on his own. That the corollaries were untrue seemed not to impress the teacher, for whom, Brianna knew from other such contacts, her race and marital status trumped all else. The teacher suggested she seek counseling; thus far she has managed only to drop several broad hints at work. She courts hope the spell will lift on its own, and then it will be as if it never has been.
“Ricardo’s not feeling well,” Brianna explains, circling her arm around her son. She feels his resistance, feels it melt as her hand folds him in. “We’re having a home day today.”
Cissy has not worked around young children this long without knowing what’s up. She knows, too, meeting Brianna’s proud eyes, that a home day is exactly what Ricardo’s mother cannot afford right now. A receptionist at the hospital’s radiology clinic, she may have a more lenient employer and forgiving schedule than many in her shoes, but something in her delicate embrace of her child tells Cissy she is fast running out of sick time. Cissy projects the day that would have been, dreams herself surrounded by preschoolers, and determines that if she must be stranded in her apartment all afternoon, she might as well be stranded with Ricardo. Maybe he will even give her an excuse to walk to the park.
“I’d love to watch him,” she says. “If it would help.”
Brianna does not respond immediately. She is thinking of too many things at once: the grace and worry of motherhood, the blessing of numbers, the future of her child. The half-day she will not have to subtract from the ledger of her best efforts. The riddle that she must send her son to a classroom he for some reason fears when he could learn so much more of loving kindness from this chance woman across the hall. She is about to speak when Cissy saves her from making a fool of herself. “We’ll pretty much be stuck here, of course. But I think I can keep him entertained.”
“He loves race cars,” Brianna blurts, before ushering Cissy in and vanishing to her room to change.
Ricardo watches Cissy’s every move. Though she is nothing like his mother, her voice not as fluid, her smell not as fresh, she harbors a magical energy that easily balances Mama’s steady presence. She is the same bright spirit he knew from playschool, the one with the instant, laser-beam focus and just-for-you grin. She does not race his cars along the track; she zooms them, readying them for takeoff, inscribing spools and somersaults in the air with their shiny metallic bodies. She crouches low to urge them along the carpet, cups her hands over her mouth to make the breathy noise of the crowd’s cheering, waves an invisible checkered flag to greet the champion. When he tires of cars she suggests reading, and when he returns from his room with arms full she makes an amazed face, her eyes popping and her mouth so wide he can peer down her throat. She cantilevers the pile on the end table, pats the couch beside her, and takes it from the top, departing from his mother’s serious murmur, inventing voices he’s never heard, crazy voices and giddy voices and booming voices and squeaky voices. As if in accompaniment, a racket of high-pitched bird song erupts from the direction of the front window. Ricardo leans into her body, turning pages on request, trusting her to make sense of the mad squiggle of black lines. He feels her arm around his back, her fingers flexing in his hair, and recalls a comfort he had not remembered he’d forgotten.
“Miss Cissy?” he asks, mid-book.
“Can we have lunch?”
“Sure.” She sets the book aside, shoos him from her lap, takes a couple tries to stand. Her body has been clenching ever more tightly throughout the day, and her spirited bout on the living room rug didn’t help. “Oh, I’m stiff!” she says, then laughs, and he laughs along. Being stiff, it turns out, can be a game too.
She rummages in the kitchen for plates, cups, forks, napkins, a pot, macaroni and cheese. “This okay?” He nods serenely. While the water boils he regales her with tales from Star Wars, having been impressed to learn that the first movie came fourth, the fourth first, and so on. Like most boys his age, he seems in equal parts thrilled and stricken by Anakin’s descent into the Dark Side. “He used to be a good little boy,” he reports solemnly. “Then he became the second most evilest person on earth.” Cissy senses he could talk about this all day and still be set tingling by its pitiless intricacy. She wonders, not with much hope, whether she can engage him in a discussion that will get to the root of his school anxiety, but she decides not to meddle. He seems simply happy in the unplanned day’s embrace, and why cloud it? Besides, she is growing sleepier by the minute.
He helps her clear, climbs a stool to get his own snack. She exclaims at what a big boy he is getting to be. “Too big for a nap?” she experiments. He laughs as if she’s made another joke; apparently, the thought of becoming too big for a nap has not fully settled on him. “We do quiet time,” he says, mouth full. “At kiddie garden.” Then his face shuts down as though he is conscious of having broken some wordless pact, fearful he has spoiled the day.
“We’re not going to do quiet time,” Cissy assures him. “We’re going to take an honest-to-goodness nap.”
They pad down the hall to his bedroom, take a moment to show and be shown new toys, then stretch out on his bed, with its puffy blue Transformers comforter. Cissy reaches across him to hoist the bed rail, lets her arm come to rest across his slip of a body. He settles into her. She hopes he will sleep; she will not feel comfortable drifting off unless he does.
“Miss Cissy?” he whispers into her hand. His breath is warm and, now that she thinks of it, a smidge ragged.
“Don’t cry, little baby. They nothing to be scared of.”
She smiles drowsily and draws him closer. For a moment she imagines herself as his mother. She marvels at the strangeness of cuddling this little boy, this boy about whose life she really knows so little--his father, his mother’s history, the strands of his school avoidance--when she has not done the same with her own niece, her twin’s daughter, since Franny was a newborn. Amos and Becky have their own babysitters, teenage girls in the neighborhood, and they have never asked. Or is it that they know better than to ask? Has she ever suggested to them that she has no desire to sit her niece? The crisscrosses in her mind are becoming too complex, they close like an aperture on a pinhole of light, and this is her last thought before falling fast asleep.
Ricardo wakes first and shakes Cissy gently but urgently. There is something he needs to show her. She glances at his clown clock in confusion, realizes it is still afternoon, they have slept only a couple hours. She gasps as she gets her elbows under her; her position, arm looped over his body, which had seemed so cozy when she nodded off, turns out to have been a mistake. “Give me a second, okay?” she asks Ricardo, who is out of bed, trying to pull her after him. She can’t exit by the side because of the bed rail, so she inches toward the foot, using mostly her butt and heels. She stands, letting gravity do what her arms won’t. Her shoulders feel as if they have been pierced by a two-by-four, pinned into place so she must rotate her entire upper body as a single unit, like a lumbering marionette. She mentally reviews her medicine cabinet, knows she has nothing for pain. A discreet search of Brianna’s bathroom turns up a bottle of Motrin. She downs a couple tablets while Ricardo dances outside.
“What is it, Mister Fidgets?” He laughs and takes her hand, pulling her down the hallway to the living room. She decides not to resist, since that makes the pain stab even harder. He opens the door to the adjacent room, saying, “I want you to meet Leonard!”
The darkened room erupts into light and a crazy squawking, the same song, she now realizes, she has been hearing off and on throughout the day. The air enfolds her, stuffy and sweet. The source of all this sensory commotion, Cissy makes out, is a single small birdcage resting on the black-topped desk that dominates the room. Flitting from perch to wire barricade and back again in an endless, pointless staccato is a finch-sized bird with a rosy sheen to its body, bright black eyes, and a heavy orange beak, with which it clutches and pecks the wires of its enclosure, madly clacking. The cage shares space with an open laptop, its power cord trailing but its screen damped; the walls and floor cluster with bookcases, half-empty boxes of books, piled plastic clothing containers, loose baby clothes and shoes. “This is Leonard!” Ricardo announces, and the bird, stimulated to an even higher pitch of frenzy by its owner’s voice and movement, begins to circle the cage like a bright bit of rag caught in a spin cycle. “It’s time for his dinner!” Ricardo sings, and Cissy appreciates why he has saved this revelation until now, when he can demonstrate his duties to his pet. She nods in silent approval; she doubts whether, at his age, she would have made it through playtime, lunch, and a nap with such a surprise in store.
“Where do you keep his food?” Cissy asks, just as she spots the twist-tied bag of seed slumped beside the birdcage. Ricardo rushes over, and before Cissy has a chance to register the danger he springs open the gate. “Don’t--" she begins, but Leonard, seizing the chance, has already squirted through the gap and, skimming the ceiling, made for the open sunroom door.
“It’s okay,” Cissy begins again, before remembering: the living room window is open, she saw it when she entered, left it that way, had no reason to disturb anything of Brianna’s that didn’t absolutely need to be disturbed. Now, with heedless certainty, Leonard darts for the opening, Cissy praying for a screen. But the screen is raised, and in a liquid blur Leonard pours through. Cissy lunges for the window, her neck and shoulders screaming in protest, her expectation fully to witness him sailing off into the startling afternoon sky.
He pauses on the window ledge, cocking his head this way and that, perhaps baffled by his instantly enlarged world. Cissy inches toward him, the futility of the rescue bunching in her thoughts: she will need to raise the window yet farther, lean out, and, last and most unlikely, scoop the creature from its own buoyant element to her leaden hand. For a single, heart-starving moment she visualizes cornering this sliver of less than air. But before her pained body can gather itself to match her purpose, Leonard leaps into space, skips gaily, and is gone.
Cissy turns a horrified face to Ricardo, who smiles.
“Don’t worry,” he soothes. “He always come back.”
At five-thirty Brianna returns to find her son and neighbor playing a hand of Uno on the living room floor. Cissy rises at her entrance, her movements clumsy and formal. She wastes no time. “We lost Leonard,” she says. Her greatest fear is that unassuming Brianna, her look turned strangely ferocious in her brown business suit, will punish Ricardo for his irresponsibility. Then, too low for him to hear, “I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Oh,” Brianna says. She notes such guilt in Cissy’s eyes, over such a small thing, it momentarily makes her want to laugh. “That’s all right,” she says. “They die all the time,” she adds, mouthing the words.
Pursued by Brianna’s thanks, Cissy helps Ricardo clean up. At the door, she leans to give him a goodbye hug, and Brianna hears her wince as her son’s small arms grip her neck. Boldly, the boy’s mother reaches out and presses through the heavy cotton cloth the soft flesh of her neighbor’s back. Cissy whimpers but does not shrink from her touch.
“I’ve got some Icy Hot,” Brianna says. “It might help.”
She leads Cissy to the bathroom, closes the door, helps her balance on the edge of the tub, eases her sweatshirt over arms she can no longer raise above shoulder level. The woman’s pale shoulders crowd with bruises the size and color of sweet cherries. “Girl,” Brianna breathes. “I thought you said you were okay.”
Cissy, miserable with the pain and Leonard’s flight, considers outlining the crazy theory that has been sharpening in her mind as the day grew long and the knives in her back bored deeper. She considers saying: I met a woman in agony today, a woman so angry and hurt she was willing to take the life of a perfect stranger, and I had a chance, a brief moment, to reach out to her, to feel for her, but I refused it. I didn’t even know at the time I’d done so, I just didn’t see it for what it was until after. And so I feel as if I’m being punished for that, for not trying, or not knowing, or thinking I needed to know before I tried. And I feel, too, as if my punishment is to have taken on her pain, for it to have gone into me. It’s part of me now, it’ll only get worse. Even after the bruises heal, if they ever do, it’ll still be with me. It’ll never go away. What she says is: “I’ve caused only pain today.”
Brianna shakes her head. “Not so,” she whispers, as with gentle fingers she probes her sitter’s spreading wound.
Brianna slips from her bedroom where Cissy rests, closing the door noiselessly behind her. The poor thing had protested--I live right across the hall!--but Briana insisted, and in the end Cissy was too drained to struggle. The Icy Hot, Brianna determined, was not enough, so she ran a hot tub, helped Cissy undress, lowered her into the fragrant lavender suds. After she soaked for a dreamy time Brianna bade her rise, wrapped her in a towel, and steered her to the bedroom, where she found a sweat suit that just fit. Passive as a child, Cissy sat on the bed while Brianna toweled moisture from her hair. Then Brianna lifted her neighbor’s legs, settled her body, and drew the covers to her chin. Cissy was gone before she turned out the light.
Through the whole procedure Ricardo sketches, his drawings of superheroes and monsters spiraling across the living room rug. Though he is far from comprehending how a babysitting has turned into a sleepover--with the sitter retiring before him, no less--he has figured out this much, and in so doing has taken his first great step toward the grown-up world: it has nothing to do with him. “Miss Cissy sick?” he asks.
“She just tired,” Brianna responds. “She be fine in the morning.”
Ricardo nods and returns to his artwork. Brianna notices two things: first, no picture of the missing bird blemishes his portfolio, and second, the drawings all bear his overgrown scrawl, RICARDO, a sure sign that these images are presents, for her, for Cissy. Her heart swoops: how long before he works out that Leonard is irreplaceable, and after that, all the rest? How long, Lord? She feels the time has come to tell him certain things, things she has kept from him thus far, things that perhaps he has a right or a need to share. She quivers at the thought, but it will not release her. He will know pain, she thinks. I will know it too. She takes a breath and squats beside him, breaking his concentration, peering into his serious eyes.
“Baby,” she says carefully. They will get there, but not by the straightest road. “Why you so scared to go to school?”
Leonard soars above the city streets. His brain is small, not much more substantial than a fine almond shaving, and his legacy of domestication has dulled its survival protocols. He may learn to distinguish food, but he will have difficulty competing for it. He carries no memory of predators, no hint of talons roosting in the network of skyscrapers above him. No instinct tells him where to turn when the air grows cold. He will not survive the winter.
But tonight he is free. No artificial barrier circles him, no arbitrary limit binds him. If only he knew how, he might cinch the cord that won this night’s liberty; at least, he can follow its course. He can wing above the penthouse balcony where the dark-haired woman sits, savoring an after dinner cigarette without the slightest trace of repentance or ill ease. Or he can dive low past the window where the handsome couple tuck their four-year-old daughter in for the night, her face radiant and her purple bedspread dancing with daffodils. He can cruise atop the highway where the merest remains of the accident, paint flecks and skid marks, fade to invisibility, their history troubling none of the streaming blind headlights that loop over them. He can even, if he chooses, return to the building that now holds no meaning for him, the memory of the cage and its pale horrors no longer resonant in his mind, and peek in the side window at the sleeping woman, her body milky in the moonlight, her shoulders lifting and falling in a peaceful synchrony like wings. He can circle to the front and spy on the mother and child settled cross-legged on the maroon cushions of the couch, hands laced as if in a suspended game of patty-cake, the mother speaking, her son listening. He can wink at them, chatter a mindless valedictory to the closed portal, and launch himself once more into the night.