Broken Wings (Story A Day May)

They flocked together. What else could they do? They were all the odd ones out, which made them peculiarly fitting for one another. J, the irascible bartender who barely got shifts and was always broke but pilfered booze from the pub when he was there, keeping them all wet when necessary. M, the concert pianist with fingers broken in an argument with her boyfriend when he accidentally – he said – on purpose – she said – smashed the car door closed on her hand, ruining her career. B, whose business ventures failed as soon as she started them, each and every time, as if she were born to failure. H, whose performance art was more lucrative than it should be and who was waiting for the day they woke up to find that it was just a dream after all, whose entire being was fluid enough to fit in with any other crowd but who couldn’t, in good conscience, allow themselves to be subsumed by these or those or others because to do so would be a falsehood, and if H had one rule it was that performance wasn’t a lie but a truth creatively told.

These strange birds still in pinfeathers, barely out of the pediatric ward of life, found themselves with a semi-regular date at J’s bar, on Tuesday nights, when he could get a shift and the rest of them had nothing else going on, which was almost always, since J wasn’t a very good bartender and so got the off nights, and Tuesdays were empty of almost anything, let alone social evening plans. Except that they became so – social – and remained so – regular, more or less – proving that there was something to do on a Tuesday night, and it was this.

“Where’s H?” M said, coming in, rubbing her hands from the cold. Her fingers ached almost all the time, but most of all in the cold. She taught piano lessons for money and wept in her spare time. J nodded at her, whipping a glass out from under the bar and filling it with M’s poison – the cheapest beer on tap, whatever it was. B already sat at the bar nursing her own drink, a vodka-tonic with a plasticky cherry in it.

“Not here yet,” B said. She waved her phone around. “They called to say they’d be late.”

“That’s H,” J said, resting the beer in front of M. “Calling, not texting. Like he lives in the twelfth century.”

“They,” B and M said together. J rolled his eyes. No one else other than J could get away with it and still call H a friend. Even H didn’t understand it. B and M did, all too well, but since they knew that H didn’t have a shot with J, who was a self-described pussy-eater, man-whore, and pathetic romantic – depending on the night, his mood, and the amount he’d had to drink – they never addressed it with either H or J.

A customer came in and J reluctantly went to deal with the imposition. B and M waited, barely speaking. This was what it was to have friends, for them. To be able to sit silently, unquestioned, until the desire to speak simply arose in them. The four were like a meeting of Quakers that way. When the door burst open again, B, M, and J all turned, expecting to see H, but instead there was a policeman in the doorway, huffing and gesturing outside.

“Can I get you something?” J asked, using his barman rag as a prop, something to do with his hands.

“Your friend is outside, got hit by a car, said he was on his way here, he says you’re next of kin?” The policeman waved his arms pointlessly some more, trying to get someone to come outside with him.

“They,” B and M said together again, abandoning their drinks. J stayed inside. He couldn’t leave the bar. He had a job to do. He couldn’t get fired. He wasn’t paying rent on time as it was. But more than that, he couldn’t see H broken.

Outside was an ambulance and a police car and a gurney and the car that hit H and its driver. B and M rushed to the gurney to see that H was fine, shaken up but fine, maybe a concussion but fine. They hugged B and M and asked about J, and said to tell J that they were fine. B escorted H to the hospital while M went back inside the bar and smacked J upside the head for staying inside.

“I thought they would be dead,” J sobbed later, much later, after closing time, when he was good and sauced, and M made cooing noises and patted his back until he fell asleep.

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Days of the Week

Shay sometimes felt that she had two sets of eyelids. Like cats. This feeling was especially pronounced early in the morning, every morning, when Shay’s daughter would pry open one or both of her eyes and ask, as if she were already a bitter middle-aged woman, “Is it Saturday?”

Ame was a happy girl overall, but she liked weekends, and nothing Shay could do seemed to help Ame remember the days of the week. As she tucked her in, Shay would say, “What day is it tomorrow, honey?” and Ame would say, hopefully, “Saturday?” and Shay would say, “No, honey, what was today?” and Ame would think, and think and then triumphantly name the day, pleased with herself. Then Shay would say, “So that makes tomorrow…” Without fail, Ame would repeat, “Saturday?”

At least she was right once a week.

Shay wondered why her daughter was obsessed with Saturdays rather than Sundays. They were the same thing to her, weren’t they? Days when she didn’t have to go to kindergarten with all those poopy-heads (Ame’s words, discourage but as yet snuffed out by Shay).

No, Shay knew, this wasn’t quite right. On Saturdays, Ame got to go to work with her.

Shay worked in the administrative office of a zoo. It was a small zoo, not a particularly good one in terms of humanitarian concerns (the tiger lived in a cage, not an enclosure, and was stationed far too close to the birds so he was always agitated and pacing to and fro, even though turning around was an ordeal for him because he’d grown longer than the original cage-designer had anticipated). But it was a happy little place for the parents and children who came there and the occasional tour group that found itself in the small west-coast city that had little of historical, or even contemporary, interest.

It was a good job for Shay. She had her Associates Degree and knew it had been an absolute waste of time to get it, as no one cared about anything less than a BA. The bank didn’t want her, the doctors’ offices didn’t want her (not even the chiropractors), and she couldn’t face another benefit-less job at a grocery store since it reminded her too much of being a teenager and living with her parents.

Shay sometimes wished she still lived with her parents. But they were living the good life in Florida now and believed it was the height of parental support to fly her and Ame out there once a year for a rainy and hot Christmas with them.

What confused Shay about Ame looking forward to Saturday so much was that they rarely went out to see the animals. Saturdays were a busy day for Shay, because the phones would be ringing off the hook. Teachers and tour guides worked during the week and Saturday was the only day they could call to book their tours and buy their tickets. The zoo was closed on Sunday.

What Ame usually did on Saturdays in the small, cinder-block-walled, windowless office that was Shay’s inner sanctum at work, was draw animals in chalk on the floor. It was easy to wash off and Ame was forever running out of paper when she drew at home, so when Shay discovered rather by accident that the cold stone floor (chic in the ’70s, she was sure) worked like a chalkboard (the accident involved her getting a cup of tea for a frazzled teacher who had a new pack of chalk in her purse which spilled out when she burned herself on the too-hot tea and instinctively flung everything away from her), Shay figured that she’d buy some of the big sidewalk chalk for Ame and let her roam around the office with it.

Ame drew animals, but she also drew roads. She drew animals walking down streets, across cross-walks and high-ways and up and down shallow public park stairs. She had a sense of direction that she allowed into her art and which Shay found immensely comforting.

My daughter will be something, Shay would think on Saturdays, and know she was thinking in clichés. But then, every morning, when she felt her second eyelid being pried up from her eyeball along with the first, outer one, she would wonder how Ame would ever be anything if she didn’t learn the days of the week.

Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.

The Lady With the Violet Hat

The moisturizer on Lynda’s desk at home is past its expiration date by several hundred months. She bought it thirty years ago and never used it. She discovered that moisturizer was not her cup of tea, but the bottle was pleasing to look at and so she kept it.

Lynda is not a hoarder. She is a collector. She collects various items and keeps them around her in lieu of family photos. Lynda has no family anymore.

The back of the medicine cabinet in Lynda’s apartment goes back deeper than expected. She keeps her safe there. With the family jewels, such as they are.

Kids in the neighborhood call her Lynda with a Y because that’s what she is. Lynda doesn’t begrudge them that. Linda is a popular name in her age bracket. She’s glad she sticks out somehow.

When the lady with the violet hat came to call, Lynda always pretended she was out. Except one time. This one time, Lynda lets her in (that time is in fact right now, this exact moment). It feels momentous, letting the lady with the violet hat in. She is beautiful, and Lynda has the strangest urge to kiss her forehead, but she restrains herself.

The woman in the violet hat has no name. She is as invented as Lynda is. She is a figment of Lynda’s imagination, as Lynda is a figment of mine. But she is important, just like Lynda is important. She is made, the lady with the violet hat, of the sentences that go through Lynda’s head and then disappear. She is the accumulation of all of Lynda’s castoffs.

Lynda makes the woman with the violet hat coffee and they sit together. Lynda waits patiently to hear the lady with the violet hat start talking. She wants to take notes when that happens, but fears it might be rude. She knows just what kind of voice the lady with the violet hat will have. It will be zesty, like an orange.

Restrained

There is nothing under the deep wide endless feckless ocean of a sky that I could possibly want from this son of a gun with his hat and his shades and the voice honeyed smooth with WD and moisturizer. There is something Slavic about his voice, though I can’t put my finger on what it is. Maybe a slight rolling in his Rs, not piratical so much as alcohol-infused even when he’s stone-cold sober. But maybe it’s something else, some shadow of a Cold War era film that plays at 4am when my insomnia is kicking me in the gut with its steel-toed boots.

I do not want a thing with him, with this Berkovitch, but he keeps showing up on my doorstep anyway, trying to sell me stuff I don’t need. He posed as a pizza delivery guy once, and I nearly opened the door that time, thinking some charitable friend had seen my Facebook status of announced hunger and laziness and had taken pity on me. But no, it was just Berkovitch, forehead and eyebrows huge and chin minimized to a pinprick in the fisheye view through the peephole.

“Go away, Berk,” I yelled through the several layers of reinforced metal I was lucky enough to have as a barrier between me and him. “Trot off, sniff at some other pussycat, shoo.”

“Pizza delivery,” he insisted, looking down at what was, unmistakably, an empty pizza box. There were no signs of grease anywhere on it, and no friend of mine would have ordered me some kind of low-fat, low-cal, oil-free pizza unless it was April Fool’s and they were trying to be cruel. Messing with my favorite meal is a profanity against a religious experience I don’t easily stand for.

“I’m calling 911 now,” were the words that made him shuffle away. He left the pizza box on my doorstep. I checked it after a while because I really was hungry and I was tricking myself into thinking maybe the guy had left me something edible in there, but it was empty, all empty, just a big childish scrawled heart drawn inside with a pen that was clearly only half work, going on the fritz, since the heart shape needed to be reinforced with lots of lines drawn over and over with various inky thickness to make sure it was legible.

Nothing, really, nothing I could want with a guy like that, this Berkovitch man, who posed as an Avon salesman the first time he came by, and had a civil and quite invigorating conversation with me about how Avon were trying to change their face by not sending out only women anymore, because that was sexist. It was true, I agree, the term “Avon lady” seemed to mean something pretty universal, if you, I added, meant to restrain universality to a certain demographic and geography and socioeconomic standing which, he agreed this Avon gentleman, most people did. But then, see, he turned out to only want to tell me I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and while it was nice to hear, because I’d been having some bad luck around that time, I realized he was a creep and a fraud and threw him out.

And now, well, now he’s just around, and he keeps coming back and sometimes I think about opening the door because he seemed intelligent except for the creepy stuff, and maybe I should let him in and just tell him we can talk and be friends, but the last guy who stalked me stuck a knife in my thigh in the end and I still walk with a limp so I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t do that, but I should call the police and that’s something I just haven’t done yet because really, poor guy, right? Poor guy.

Something Sharp

Their dogs run around wildly, leashes dragging behind them. It isn’t accidental, this leaving on of leashes. It’s strategic. If the dogs get into a fight, the owners want to catch at the leash quickly, yank the animals away from each other with a sharp pull at the neck that shocks the air and bark out of them. It’s cruel, sure, but efficient. Technically, they’re not supposed to let the dogs off the leash in the park either, so it’s a way to get around the rules, sort of. 

Ida’s dog is small, lean and brown with perky chopped ears and a mouth bigger and louder than all hell. He’s a sweetheart when he keeps it shut, but he gets high strung and barks at people too often. Some think he’s mean, and she spends half her Saturdays with him fighting her arthritic knees in order to run after his leash when he gets too barky around little kids who don’t like it. Little kids these days, she always thinks, have been raised too soft, like melting marshmallows. Squeeze ’em, and the soft stuff in the middle will pour right out. It’s the reason she prefers her dog to her own grandchildren. She never utters such a blasphemous confession, barely admits it to herself, because she loves her kids’ kids, of course she does. She just doesn’t have a lot of patience for them. They’re too spoiled, their lips wobble so easily, they want and want and want. 

Ruth feels Johannes’ arm’s weight on her shoulders and keeps her mouth zipped. She doesn’t tell him to take it off, that she’s warm, that it’s heavy, that he’s making her uncomfortable. They just moved in together, it’s their first weekend sitting outside with the dog, it’s too early for so much criticism. He’s a sweetheart, but he’s so proud of her in public that it’s hard to bear some days. She sees the old woman sitting to the bench on her left, past Johannes’ skinny little body, and wants to sit with her instead, to be a woman among women. Her dog is female, a gorgeous collie she got for free from a friend who couldn’t sell the runt of the litter. She’s named her Posy, a terribly sappy name, yes, but it suits the fluffy dog. Ruth is sometimes childish like this. Johannes isn’t, is the problem. He never wants to go out with a picnic basket and lie in the sun all day, or play with the dog. He wants to hold onto Ruth and sit stoically with her on a bench, a picture-perfect couple of yuppies. He wants to take her out to dinner at fancy restaurants where he gets to wear loafers and nice pants with a gap in between to show off his socks. He’s the kind of person who cares about what socks he wears. Ruth’s socks are all old, holey, and often mismatched.

Ida calls her dog over and he doesn’t come. She leans back on the bench. He’ll come when he’s ready. She sees him playing with the collie that belongs to the couple next to her. She’s pretty sure they’re new in the neighborhood, at least in the park. Though the dog is familiar, that collie. Maybe one of them is new? She doesn’t recognize them together, anyhow. They have that glow, she thinks, that smug us-against-the-world glow that young couples have. It’s tender, but so thin a veneer that she could pop it with a needle. Not that she keeps needles on her, or anything else sharp for that matter. It’s safe being an aging lady in this town. She’s thankful for that. 

Johannes’ stomach rumbles. He leans his chin on Ruth’s hair and rubs it around. She makes a sound in her throat which he takes for satisfaction, although it is impatience. He asks her if she’s ready to go have lunch yet. You go, she tells him. She wants to play with the dog a little. He says nothing, but he stays.

Rough Night

“Someone’s having a hell of a night out there.” Earl’s rough palm was wrapped around the glass of cool beer, his body heat seeping through it. In ten minutes he would make a face and complain that his beer was warm and blast it all, what was it these days, it was October, the weather shouldn’t be this nice, something was happening and Lord only knows who’s being punished for what.
But his beer was still cool as he lifted it to his puffy lips to drink and he listened to the car alarm circle around itself in endless loops that changed tone and pitch depending on how he concentrated his ears. It sounded either like a repetitive beep-beep-beep or like a continuous whine then pitched up and down like the cheap roller coaster ride he’d helped put up at the Harvest Fair the week before. It was a sound he couldn’t keep his mind as firmly wrapped around as his hand around his glass, and it puzzled and pleased him.
“Mhm.” Rosie agreed, too late, to Earl’s assertion. Maybe she was humming in her head and had let a note slip out. Maybe she was nodding assent at the litter of kittens suckling in the corner of the yard under the cover of the mulberry bush. You could never tell, with Rosie.
“Poor bastard, somebody’ll call the police on him if it keeps on going.” Earl couldn’t tell if the car alarm’s volume was actually shifting or whether it was his ears. He had to go to the doctor again, get some wax taken out. They’d wanted to give him a hearing aid last time. He’d said no-sirree, it was just wax buildup and please take it out. The gold nuggets in his ears would have been worth millions if they were the real metal, Earl always joked. The doctor and his assistant shrugged and looked at each other and Earl had known what they were thinking, because it kept happening – that look. Just wait, just you wait, he’d wanted to tell them, until you get old, and see how you like that look then.
Rosie brushed her hands off from the dirt she’d been digging in. It was soft and moist from the watering can sprinkling she’d given it, and it looked good enough to eat, the richness exuding a smell as succulent as chocolate-pecan pie.
The sun was setting and the car alarm was still going and Earl hoped there was someone out there having a bad night of it. It was all part of the experience, having bad nights. All part of the same process, that getting old part people forget about.