David Meischen has a short story online at Talking Writing and fiction forthcoming in Prime Number and Bellingham Review. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Southern Poetry Review, Borderlands, Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. As a founder of Dos Gatos Press, he is co-editing Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, which is scheduled for an August release. Meischen has an MFA in fiction from Texas State, San Marcos. He is the recipient of a writing residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
The mockingbird trilled again, like an answer to the silverware Blake had dropped on the garden table. The bird sang out and paused, sang out and paused again. It was lovely in the garden—a hint of cool in September's air, the after burn of Connie buzzing in Blake's blood. Morning after morning, she had turned to meet his touch. No words. They'd said nothing making love or after, hadn't remarked on this sudden emergence from the bone-tired stalemate of their tenth year together.
A momentary gust filled the umbrella over the table, shifting the angle of the tilt so that it blocked the sun. Swelling, the bright fabric snapped like a sail. Blake smiled, thinking good omen. As he glanced past the umbrella to Austin's downtown skyline, etched sharply against the backdrop of sky, Buster padded out of the yaupon hollies at the garden's edge—a regal tomcat whorled in tawny gold and amber, no tuft of feathers or fur in his jaws this morning to mark a successful night along the creek. Blake had suggested calling the cat Tyger when he strayed into their garden, a kitten still, and rubbed up against Connie. "He thinks he's that Blake," she'd whispered to the cat, cradled already at her chest. "I'm not so sure. Let's call you something else."
Buster made his way past Connie's tomato vines—Big Boys, Brandywines and Romas, coddled through Austin's summer heat, spilling this morning from the tops of their seven-foot cages. A few feet away, in the shade of the live oak where the mockingbird sang, the tabby curled up and licked his paws while Blake fussed with silverware and napkins. As he stepped back to admire his place settings, Buster leaped to the table top in a blur and put his nose to the unlit wick beneath the chafing dish.
"Get down." Blake clapped once at Buster, a blunt rupture in the still garden air. Buster eyed him and then, when Blake reached for his scruff, the tom swiped at his forearm, jumped down, and bounded for the kitchen door. Blake dabbed at the scratch marks with his handkerchief and went on with his preparations, stowing iced bottles of champagne by his chair beneath the table and pouring orange juice into fluted glasses.
This was the life he'd wanted for as long as he could remember. Marriage. A nice house, a back yard large enough for the garden of his dreams, with hibiscus blooming six months of the year in all the lovely liquid colors missing from the dusty brush country he'd called home until college brought him to Austin. Money had come his way—and travel. He missed the nightlife that seemed to have slipped from the equation, though on mornings such as this one he couldn't imagine why. And he missed Perry. Three years ago, hiking in Montana, Perry had fallen in love with the mountains, the isolation, the quality of light. He packed up and moved into a derelict cabin not far from Bozeman. Blake had meant to visit, but his work as a computer consultant took him nowhere in Montana. And Perry had stayed put until three weeks ago, when he flew home to arrange his mother's funeral. Afterwards, he'd stayed on to settle her estate. Between family obligations and friends he'd known growing up in Hutto, Perry's schedule was full. When he called with a timeslot, Blake penciled him in. At five this afternoon, they were to share a pitcher of beer at Les Amis.
Breakfast was served, butter melting on the pancakes, when Connie approached, cradling Buster against her caftan. She took her place at the table and lowered her cat to the grass, where he curled up at her feet. Blake could feel the tabby's purring in his bones.
"Sweet Buster's had his feelings hurt." Connie baby-talked to the cat, then sat up and downed half her orange juice.
Blake turned his forearm up between them, three rusty hash marks against the pale flesh above his wrist. "Sweet Buster wouldn't be quite so aggressive if you'd have him cut."
"It's not his testicles that left those marks. He doesn't like you when you're mean."
"He likes the momma cats. I don't understand why you let an uncut tom run loose."
"Buster is what he is. I don't want to interfere with that."
"I think he's jealous."
"He knows what we've been up to." Blake grinned, a sweet ache pulling at the line of his jaw. "But I won't let him come between us."
"If there's any danger of that, I don't think it's from Buster."
But Connie looked happy. Why chase that rabbit? Blake reached beneath the table, pulled a bottle from the bucket of ice and popped the cork. He poured their glasses full, then raised his and tipped a good swallow down his throat. Beneath the sweet of orange, the champagne fizzed in him. Connie drank Blake's silent toast and started on her pancakes. She tapped the newspaper Blake had arranged on the table to her left, her fingertips on a photo of Ronald Reagan waving from the podium. Blake exchanged a look with his wife and flipped the paper over.
"Two years in," she said. "Our president can still ruin a good morning."
"Look on the bright side. Two more years and we'll vote him out."
Connie smiled and clinked her glass with Blake's. They ate and talked, lapsing into the regular silences of a weekend breakfast in the garden. Halfway through, as Blake topped their glasses with juice and champagne, a loud knocking sounded from the high stone fence that ran between their back yard and the lawn out front. "Hello," a voice called, and the knocking sounded again. Blake walked to the gate.
"I'm here for the roof," said the man waiting there. He looked to be thirty or so, with curly, chestnut hair in the barbered hippie look that had raged through discos and found favor, finally, among blue-collar boys everywhere. "To replace some shingles?" the man added. His eyes unnerved Blake—their deadly, bottomless shine. "They told me you said Saturday was okay." The briefest of breezes stirred curls of chest hair in the V of the roofer's chambray shirt, unbuttoned to the hollow where the bottom ribs meet.
By an effort of will, Blake found his tongue. "Come on in." He gestured toward Connie. "I forgot to tell the wife. Oh—" Did it show that he was flustered? "I'm Blake."
"Jason," the roofer said. "I'll keep the racket to a minimum. Gimme a hand?" He nodded toward a little red pickup docked at the curb and led the way.
The roofer's truck was one of those little imports that looked like a toy. A built-in chrome tool chest, not a smudge on it, spanned the space directly behind the cab. In the truck bed sat a portable tool box and the materials for patching Blake's roof—neat, immaculate. The roofer would have passed a white glove test.
Blake shouldered a packet of shingles, color-matched to replace the ones torn from his roof ten days ago by freakish wind in a thunderstorm. The roofer tucked an aluminum extension ladder under an arm and leaned to pick up the tool box.
"Shall we inform the little lady?" he said. His teeth didn't show, but his face, his eyes were smiling. Elation loosed in Blake. It was like a trigger, a current, a jolt to the diaphragm that opened up his lungs, filling him with air and light.
"After you," he said, willing his voice not to tremble. Walking behind, he could look his fill, unnoticed, and prepare a face for his wife.
"Pretty as a pin-up," Connie said. She was looking at the roofer, crouched on top of the house, shingles and tools beside him, ready to begin. Pretty as a pin-up was a phrase from their dancing days. It's what they had called the dreamy narcissists—beautiful dancing men with bedroom eyes—they spotted in clubs all over town. It's what Connie had said to Blake the night they met—Blake was nineteen, she was twenty-two—on the dance floor at the Vulcan Gas Company. You're pretty as a pin-up—spoken close to his ear, beneath the jellying sound of Shiva's Headband, her voice humming in his blood, transformed by the glow of cannabis those glorious, heady nights when THC had entered his veins with the power of revelation.
"Sorry. I was remembering." He hadn't noticed the stillness before, nothing to break the quiet but the roofer's hammer. It felt unnerving suddenly, the calm that enveloped them.
"We had some good times," Connie said, and sipped from her glass.
"Why did we stop?" Blake looked at the table, the garden, the creek-bank trees. How had he arrived at these tepid pleasures?
"We've been over this," Connie said.
And Blake ticked off her reasons. "You were thirty. It wasn't fun anymore. High-schoolers were ruining disco."
"Yes," Connie said, "and your hair was falling out."
Blake had learned to edit the image he carried of himself, to forget that five years ago, when his hair had started thinning, it was as if, overnight, he'd grown schlumpy, unattractive, old. Connie had barely been able to get him out of bed in the morning, let alone into one of their haunts. Six months ago, on a business trip to San Francisco, he'd walked into a barber shop and had himself shorn, stepped back onto Castro Street looking like one of the buzz-cut lumberjack look-alikes thronging the neighborhood. He couldn't say why, but he liked the bristly, peninsular widow's peak running down the top of his head. Still, he was peeved by Connie's indifference, just now, to the matter of the hair loss.
"Dancing's in my blood," he said. "Going shiny bald would not have stopped me."
"No one made you give it up."
"I didn't want to. Ever. Why did we stop?"
Connie turned toward the roofer, hammering a shingle into place. A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man's shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.
Without turning back, Connie answered Blake. "Because you looked at all the pretty boys the way you look at him." Her face, in profile, showed the marks of an old pain.
"You did it too. Looked at them. The pretty ones."
"It was a diversion from the main attraction," Connie said, turning back to Blake. "You." Wonder and hurt, the seeds of anger, infused her words.
In the space of an instant, Blake made a tactical error. He felt the need to distract his wife, to flatter her, to make her think somehow that everything was as it should be. And the champagne was at hand. He raised his glass to Connie.
She fingered her glass and took a tentative sip.
"What am I drinking to?" she asked.
"How about our run of luck in the bedroom?"
Blake could hear a question mark, but it sounded too as if Connie had answered herself and steered beyond him.
"I don't know where to place the credit," he said, "Luck will do. Chance, timing, convergence." He tipped half a glass down his throat. "Whoever tossed the dice for us, let's drink to him."
Connie turned back to the roofer and seemed to watch him for a moment. Then, bringing her eyes back to Blake, she set her glass on the table between them. "I think it's Perry," she said.
"What does Perry have to do with us?" These were the words at hand. Blake used them. But he felt like a man cut loose.
"Perry flew in just before our fireworks started," Connie said.
"He's my best friend."
"I guess I shouldn't complain. I like what happens between us when you're like this."
"And you think Perry?"
"He's got you all charged up again."
Blake felt himself slip away, his gaze drifting to the pattern of light and shadow beneath the open grid work of the tabletop, like a softer version of an Escher scene, with Buster napping there-part sleeping cat, part geometric design. As if animated by the eyes lighting on him, Buster roused and darted into the sun, freezing in the hunter's crouch while a squirrel chattered at him from the tomatoes. Connie insisted that a single squirrel hid out in her tomato vines, though Blake didn't see how you might distinguish one creek squirrel from another. Never mind. This squirrel was her guest—and not to be chased away. Buster turned from the racket and came back, unaffected, to his place beneath the table while from the branches of the live oak the mockingbird launched into a perfect mockery of the fussy little squirrel.
Blake pondered the live oak leaves, the light that glowed beneath them, the unaccusing silence there. He turned to find Connie staring at him.
"This is good champagne," he said, and took a sip.
"Where do you go?" Connie asked. "When Perry sails into view, even when you're here, you're not here. Except in the bedroom."
Blake studied the chafing dish between them, the wick flickering to its end. He'd been doing this all his life—absenting himself. It no longer felt willed.
"Hello!" The roofer strode toward them. "Okay if I get some water?" Stepping past them, squatting at the garden hydrant, he switched on the water and cupped his hands beneath the flow. He drank greedily from the water bubbling in his hands, splashed several handfuls in his face and hair, then turned the faucet off. Standing, he ran his fingers through the wet hair, pulling it back from his face.
As he approached the table, Connie rose and handed him a napkin.
"Thanks," he said, and dried his face.
"Would you like a bit of the bubbly?" Blake asked.
"No, thanks." The roofer grinned. "Doesn't mix well with work."
"Perhaps when you're finished?" Too late, Blake heard the diffidence, the bruised hope, in his voice. Connie looked as if she'd been slapped.
The roofer grinned again. "Looks as if you'll manage without me." He nodded at the partial bottle in Blake's hand, the empty one standing nearby.
"My husband is easily intoxicated," Connie said. "Used to swim in the stuff when he wanted to misbehave."
"I make a mean Salty Dog," the roofer said. He dropped into a squat and scratched Buster behind the ears. The tomcat stretched his neck and pushed against the fingertips at his scruff.
"Vodka or gin?" Connie asked.
"Gin is my husband's drink."
"Guaranteed to cure you of your inhibitions." The roofer winked at Blake and stood up.
"Do you have a cure for afterwards?" Connie asked.
"A hangover, you mean?" The roofer's hair, drying in the morning sun, had regained some of its bounce. As he asked his question, a curl sprang loose and dropped onto his forehead.
"Not the headache," Connie said. "The headache is easy." Then, in a gesture Blake had seen countless times among their friends, his wife reached up and, with a combing motion of her fingers, moved the curl back.
"There," she said, and the roofer grinned, blushing.
"Gotta get back at it," he said. "Job's almost done." And he was gone.
"What was that about?" Blake asked.
"Guilt," she said. "How do we cure you of feeling like a bad little boy in the morning?"
"What you did with his hair."
"Makes you weak in the knees, doesn't it?" Connie said. "Just thinking about doing that."
"You don't know him."
"That hasn't always stopped you." Scooting her chair back, she stood and took her little garden basket from its place on the table and turned toward her tomato vines, sagging with clusters of ripened fruit. Blake abandoned the table and followed, his glass in one hand and the bottle of champagne in the other.
"I don't know why it bothers you," he said, "what I did with them."
Turning in his direction, Connie bit into a ripe tomato and the juice ran down her chin. She watched Blake for a minute. Vine-ripened tomatoes, sun-warmed—she knew they made him gag. She swiped the sleeve of her caftan at her mouth and turned back to the harvest.
"Everybody was sleeping around," Blake said. He made a gesture with the bottle, as if to embrace the group they'd run with in their early twenties, gathered invisibly to testify on his behalf. "If I got an itch, I made a move. I shouldn't have told you."
"About dallying with Richard and Dan? Before you'd more than exchanged names?" Connie spoke to the tomatoes. "It was written on your face, before and after. I always knew when you were up to something."
They'd been no threat to anyone. Richard, babbling nonstop about the genius, the sex magic, of Jimi Hendrix. And Dan, shut up inside his darkroom, his chemically induced dream of the perfect photograph. "We were stoned," Blake said. "It was like trying a new flavor of ice cream."
"Ice cream." Connie repeated Blake's words in a deadpan that made him sound especially vacuous.
He caught a rustling motion in the tomato vine beside him and turned to find the little squirrel eyeing him from the green shadows, mocking.
"I was twenty," he said. "Experimenting was fun. But it was you I wanted. You know that."
"You bedded half a dozen girls. Because it flattered you." Connie reached for Blake's glass and held it while he poured. She drank and handed the glass back to him. "You were playing with us. It was different with Perry."
"I never touched Perry."
"You wanted to. Richard and Dan, Johanna, the rest of us—we were jealous of him." Connie paused, as if remembering. "You romped naked with us. But Perry got the best of you." She turned and walked toward the kitchen with her basket of tomatoes, leaving Blake with the ghosts she'd stirred.
They had been so much together—Blake and Perry. As undergraduates, they'd hitchhiked from Hamburg to the heel of the boot, raising glass after glass to the words they spilled at one another. Once during those years, after a night of mescaline and Sartre, they had stripped bare beneath the naked bulb in their shabby West Campus room and made a wordless pledge. They looked at each other, all of each other. They didn't touch. But elation flared in Blake—wild, unbearable. He left their room when Perry went to bed and walked for hours. He found a place of his own at the end of the semester. He hadn't shared living space with Perry again.
"You don't look at me," Connie said. She stood before him with another basket of tomatoes, picked while Blake had sat drifting. "The way you looked at Perry. At him."
She nodded toward the roof. "You haven't looked at me that way in years."
"You knew," Blake said. "From the beginning. About me."
"The edited version," Connie said.
"You encouraged me."
"We got tired of that life. We made promises."
"I thought you wanted . . ." Blake was talking to himself, to the tomatoes in Connie's basket. He was losing his way.
Connie rested the basket on her hip. She took her free hand and lifted Blake's chin until his eyes were level with hers. "Are you in love with Perry?" She put the question bluntly—no hint of pleading or threat.
"I've made a life with you."
"You should be fucking Perry," she said, and dropped her hand.
Hunger gripped Blake for an instant—an image of Perry naked in front of him—a spasm in his gut that left him weak and trembling. He wanted Connie to hurt for making him feel like this.
"If I'm feeling experimental"—he steadied his eyes on his wife—"I don't need Perry. I can pick up a hotel phone."
"If you're feeling experimental."
"You started this."
"How often do you conduct one of your experiments?"
Blake felt cool now. And mean. As if some kind of permission had been granted him.
"They're nothing," he said. "I just fuck them."
"You just fucked me."
Blake was aware of sunlight, hard as tempered glass, cleaving the space between man and wife. Later, looking back, he thought of a moment from his favorite Dreiser novel, when the door of a safe clicks shut while a man ponders returning the money he has removed. Intention is beside the point. A locked door separates the moment before from the moment after. There is no getting back.
"Tell me it isn't just fucking," Connie said, "what we've been doing for weeks now. This"she made a gesture that took in the table, the garden, the house—"tell me this isn't nothing."
"It's what you said you wanted."
Connie bent and hugged the basket of tomatoes to her stomach. She set the basket down in the grass and sat down beside it. Buster approached and rubbed up against her. She looked blankly at her cat, at the garden. She didn't look at Blake.
Behind him, Blake heard the sound of steps on the aluminum ladder. He turned to see the roofer, on the ground now, collapsing the ladder. Beside him sat his toolbox and some leftover shingles.
"Get up," Blake said to Connie. "We'll have to pay now."
He turned again and saw the roofer hesitating, halfway across the lawn toward their place by the garden table. It was clear—in the man's face and posture—that he had heard more than he should. Blake waved him over.
"Get up," he whispered to Connie. "Please."
Jason arrived. Connie did not get up. Blake stood there and shrugged. His face went hot with embarrassment. He did not know where the day might take him next.
The moment arrived in a blaze of sunlight—the little squirrel yammering from his perch among the tomatoes, the mockingbird dive-bombing like a songbird turned hawk. Blake turned to a split-second blur of gold. Buster swiped the mockingbird out of the air, leaped and snatched the stunned creature in his teeth by the wing. Blake took one quick step. He delivered a kick that sent Buster sprawling and knocked the bird flapping into the dirt. Buster spun back in full hunting mode. Blake grabbed the tom and flung him in Connie's direction. She held on to her cat. The mockingbird fluttered and flopped in a morning suddenly so still Blake could hear the whirring of tires across the creek on Lamar Boulevard.
"Do something," Connie said.
With quick, clean, decisive strides, Jason passed between them. Raising a leg, bending the knee at a right angle—precise as a marching maneuver<—he stomped on the mockingbird's head and ground the heel of his boot. The bird stilled.
"What the fuck?" said Blake.
Connie stood up. "He did what was necessary." Her voice was lethal with calm. Buster struggled in her grip.
"We could've gone to the vet."
"Poor bird was done for," Jason said. "He isn't hurting anymore."
"I'll get the checkbook." Connie made for the house, taking Buster with her.
Blake didn't know what to do with his eyes. He didn't want to look at the dead mockingbird. He couldn't bring himself to face the roofer.
"You need a shot of the hard stuff, buddy." Jason's hand was on Blake's shoulder, his fingers massaging the tight muscles there.
Blake didn't want this. He whirled and stepped back.
Jason grabbed him by the shoulders. "Whoa," he said, his voice gentle, soothing. Blake looked into the eyes looking back at him. And his panic was gone—quickly as a sudden wind—leaving him empty, deflated.
"I have a mortgage," he said. "A wife."
"Looks to me like she's done."
Far down Lamar a siren sounded. An ambulance, Blake thought. They're coming for me. The sound swelled, approaching, and receded toward a vanishing point as the vehicle moved north. In the lengthening silence, Blake stood with his head bowed—his eyes on the roofer's boots, their scuffed toes.
Connie materialized in her chair at the table and opened her checkbook. Jason looked at Blake, his eyebrows scrunched into a question.
Blake shook his head and looked away. He studied the movement of the pen in Connie's hand. She signed the check and tore it out. Jason took it and looked at Blake again. Blake shook his head again. Jason shrugged and, turning, walked toward his things.
"What are you going to do?" Connie asked. She looked oddly unfamiliar—pale, bloodless, immured in calm—a woman he had never seen before.
"I'm going to clean up this mess," Blake said. He walked across to the leftover shingles, picked them up and, following the roofer out through the gate, placed the shingles gently in the bed of the little red truck.
"Appreciate the work you've done," he said, and extended a hand.
The roofer stepped back, his hands to himself, as if to ward off the impersonal words, the practiced gesture. "It's Saturday," he said. "I'm done for the weekend. Let's get you out of here."
Leaves shifted overhead, dappled shade stirring over the roofer, the truck, the sidewalk behind him—like the play of shadow and light beneath waves. Blake waited for the movement to ease, and then, from a safe remove, he watched himself as another self, unwilled, reached to the roofer's chest and fastened a buttonhole there. He stored the memory of it after, the lovely tender spring of the man's chest hairs curling against the flesh of his own fingers just below the quick of the nails.
"I can't," Blake said—the old Blake speaking, the one he had thought he would be.
The roofer plucked Blake's hand from his chest and held it before him for a moment, looking into the palm. Blake looked on, wondering what secrets the lines etched there might reveal to the roofer. The leaves shifted. The shadows wavered.
Releasing Blake's hand, the roofer got into his truck and switched the engine on. "You can't," he said. Their eyes held for a moment before the roofer drove away. He turned at the corner, and the little red truck vanished.
Back through the gate and into the garage, Blake took a shovel from his wall of tools and went out to bury the mockingbird. Connie was gone, the breakfast leftovers in quiet disarray on the garden table. He dug a quick grave for the bird. Afterwards, he sat at the table and finished the champagne, warm now and going flat. As he emptied the lees and set the bottle on the table, he heard Connie's sedan revving in the garage. He followed the sound as she backed out and receded down the street.
Hours passed, shadows shifting with the angle of sun. He studied the uneaten remains of the pancakes, yellow jackets buzzing at the syrup congealed on the plates. He told himself to clear the table, run the dishwasher, get cleaned up, make himself ready to face Perry. The shadows got longer. He didn't get up from the chair. When the phone began to ring, he looked at his watch and pictured Perry at Les Amis, a pitcher of beer on the table. And two iced glasses, waiting. Another promise not kept. The phone rang for a long time, while he sat listening, unable to move from his place in the garden.