Wednesday, May 18, 2005

At the Edge, fiction, May 18 revisions

At the Edge

Even before I open the curtains, I see Mama Dove 3 and Daddy Dove 3 fluttering around their nest in the south window of my bedroom. The shadow of the nest slumps at a 45-degree angle.

I open the curtains. The doves flinch slightly, and resume their work. They’re used to me, and trying, in a last-ditch effort, to save their nest. They have tiny blades of grass in their tiny beaks.

Yesterday, there were four eggs. Today, two remain, and they hang at the very rim of the nest. No one is sitting on them.

I'd do something, if I knew what to do, but the nest is too high to reach from the ground outside and the window won’t open. I know they are doomed.

I rush to the next window. There's a dove nest in each of three windows, in the Virginia creeper vines hanging over the side of the house. Mama dove 2 is sitting on nest two. Daddy 2 has disappeared. To a cat or a hawk or a car. Mama 2 will have difficulty getting food and keeping babies warm. But right now they are all there.

The news is worse in the north window. The nest is gone. Only a few remaining strand of grass like the hair of the departed remain in the vines. Last night, it was still there. Though I slept poorly, I heard no storm. The nest has been there for years and the birds were in it this year since the ground was totally snow-covered. Now, gone.

The slumping nest in the south window is probably my fault. Last fall, after the doves left, I tried to reach up and pull out along piece of plastic bag dangling from the nest. Ugly, I thought. Why look at it all winter? I may have loosened something. But then again, I never touched the south nest. And it’s entirely gone.

I stroke the plush toy bird on my dresser and staring at the 2 eggs, balanced on the edge of the nest, at the parents, flying in and out with their too little, too late. Finally, I wrench myself away to start the day.

More daffodils have opened. The yard is awash with yellow. Spring has sprung. I continue my day with a cliché.

On my way to visit my mother at the nursing home, I stop at Wegman's to buy her a little treat. Dark chocolate. I like to bring her something when I visit; she lives so much in the moment.

I am disappointed to see a crowd gathered around the Menu table. It exactly blocks the table of candy I wanted to examine. The chef demonstrates one of the meals from the new Menu and hands out samples. Some yuppie ham schnitzel concoction made with pork, not too spicy. I don't push up for a sample because I have only a little window of time to visit my Mom before I have to be at the lawyer's office. I’ve been asking Blake for a divorce for 20 years and have gotten nowhere. This will be the day I finally set the wheels in motion.

Mom is expecting her friend Beatrice later. Unfond of Beatrice, I want to arrive and leave before she comes. I push along the perimeter of the crowd and between stacks of crates displaying some of the ingredients for the ham schnitzel. On impulse, I toss a container of the ham and pork patties into my basket, followed by the other ingredients. It's a warm early spring day, but if I wrap my car blanket around them, they should keep okay. I tear off one of the recipes printed on bright goldenrod paper and cram it down between the ingredients. I hope I like Ham Schnitzel.

It's hot in here. I strip off my new grey North Face jacket and my grey textured American Eagle sweater. I toss them in the cart. The sweater surfaced yesterday as I tossed out some of Blake's old chamois shirts that were still hanging in the back of the closet. They wouldn't fit either of us, we've both gained weight. Blake gave me the sweater 20 years ago, on my birthday, right before he left me for Catlyn.

As I squeeze through the crowd to look at the chocolate, someone takes my cart. A young woman, maybe twenty-two or three, with a child about five. "Brendyl," she shouts, as the child pockets a handful of grapes. She releases her hold on my cart to run over and snatch up the girl.

Assuming she had taken my cart by accident, thinking it was hers; I push it three steps toward the candy. The woman dashes back, grabs it, and screams at me, "Don't take my cart."

I stare at her, look into the cart. It's my sweater my coat, my schnitzel ingredients. I am not the one who's confused.

She yanks the cart. Hard. Meanwhile, Brendyl, in her arms, leans over and drops her doll, a Barbie, and a whole pile of Barbie clothes, into the cart.

The woman pulls the cart. "Let go of my cart," she hisses.

I yank hard and scream, "Help, Police, help!" No one looks or comes. My voice is strangled. I try again. "Help, police, help. Someone please help." It's a little louder, but not very. No one appears to notice. The crowd is focused on the Menu chef.

I give a sudden hard yank and the cart comes free from the woman's hand. I run through the edge of the crowd, dodging people, toward the service desk. As I run, I pick the doll and doll clothes out of the cart. There are so many, scattered around the cart. I try to hand them to the young man behind the counter. He signals me to a different counter, comes down. I lay the dolls and the pile of clothes on the counter. Fish around for the few remaining ones. It occurs to me that I should have just taken my coat and sweater and let her have the cart.

"This woman . . ." I start to say.

"She stole my cart," the other woman says," running up.

"No," I say, "She stole mine."

"That's a lie!" the other woman shouts.

The people around the menu table are turning to look at us.

"If I stole your cart, why would I be turning in these things?" I ask, trying to stay calm. I can feel my ire rising. I pick up the doll and the doll clothes and try to hand them to Brendyl. The girl reaches for them but the woman slaps my hand and the doll and clothes fall to the floor.

She grabs me by the arm and slaps me on the cheek, hard. My teeth rattle. I put my hand to my face and stare at her, astonished.

A man in a dark blue uniform grabs the woman. She struggles, sets down the child. Lashes out at the guard. He pins her arms to her side and looks at me. "I can have her arrested. Do you want to press charges?"

"No, I just want to leave. Is it okay if I go?” I grab my coat and sweater, leave the ingredients for the ham schnitzel in the cart and walk out of the store.

I sit in my car and stare out the window, tears streaming down my face. I wipe them off, hoping no one will notice. I can't even remember what I needed to do, just that it was somehow important.

Oh yeah. My mother, the lawyer.

I walk over to Green Thumb. I decide I'll bring Mom a plant instead of candy. I get distracted looking at the plants. So many to choose from. I pick two that I can't decide between and take them up to the counter.

Someone grabs my arm. It's the woman with Brendyl. The one who hit me.

"Listen," she says, "I'm sorry. Thanks for not pressing charges."

I say nothing, stare at her unbelieving, tears coming again to my eyes. This time tears of relief and something else. I think she's struggling, that this is hard for her. I try to smile. It feels artificial, more like a grimace.

"I flipped out, I lost it, I don't know what happened, I'm sorry." She looks disheveled and teary.

"It's Ok," I say, which isn't entirely true. I’m hurt, angry, bewildered. But perhaps it could be made OK.

As I stare at the woman who is still holding my arm, Brendyl clutched in her other arm, I see an image and remember an incident that happened 21 years ago.

It's Thanksgiving. The girls are about Brendyl's age. Blake is in a rage about something, I can't remember what. We have a lot of company coming and I'm in the middle of cooking a huge meal. At a crucial point, with the girls whining and hanging on me and the guests due to arrive any moment, Blake wants something in the other room. When I don't come in fast enough because my head's in the oven and I have the covering half off the turkey, he comes in, yanks me back from the oven and smacks me across the mouth with the back of his hand.

"Come when I call you, bitch," he says. Blood spurts from my lip and into the mashed potatoes, staining them red.

"Now see what you did!" he screams, hitting me again, even harder.

Manny, the Border collie, is whining to go out. He's been whining a while and everyone's been ignoring him. He crouches to pee on the floor and I know that will set Blake off, so I grab the leash, rush over and open the door.

I hook the leash on Manny's collar and he drags me down the steps. He peers around the edge of the house, he sees a dog coming, a dog on a leash attached to a man's wrist. The man is walking with a woman.

Manny does a wriggling little dance of eagerness, slips back on pulls his head out of the collar. He's off, attacking the other dog. I scream at him, uselessly, run over dragging the leash and collar, grab at him and somehow get bitten. I'm not sure which dog did it. I get Manny by the scruff of the neck and drag him back.

"Thanks a lot!" I scream at the people. "And happy Thanksgiving." What I am thinking, if I am thinking anything at all, is that if they hadn't come along just then, my dog wouldn’t have embarrassed me.

"It wasn't our dog who attacked yours," the man says, quietly reasonable. At that point, I am thinking if I had a machine gun I would mow down all three of them. This, I think later, is a good reason for gun control. The dinner is burning, and I have to go back in the house with Blake.

I don't think all this. I don't need to. The image of the reasonable man on the street and the memory of my unreasoning rage is enough. “The mile in my shoes” that proceeded it. The way the man had no way of knowing. Or maybe he did. All this in a few seconds. A tiny fraction of what it takes to tell it. A capsule of memory exploding.

I set my plants down on the counter beside a display of lollipops. I pick one up and ask the woman if Brendyl would like one.

"Would you like a lollipop, honey?"

Brendyl nods shyly and reaches out. I hand it to her.

"Would you like to have lunch?" I hear myself asking the woman, "my treat." I guess the visit to my mother at the nursing home will have to wait a day. Or more.

"I should pay for it. Really, I should."

"No, I want to. Let me." I pay for the plants and the lollipop. We sit at the outdoor cafe.

"My name is Draven," the young woman says, extending her hand as we take a seat.

"What kind of name is that?"

"Celtic. For Dragon, though that seems more Latin, like Draco. I guess I'm the Dragon Lady. In more ways than one, though I never would have wanted that. Not like that."

"I'm Francesca. Italian. Call me Fran."

"And, as you know, this is Brendyl. My parents are Irish and Scottish and went through a Celtic stage. Me, too."

A man walked by. "Look, Mommy, that man looks like Daddy," Brendyl shouts in a high-pitched voice.

"Shhhh," Draven says. I turn and look after the man, curious. He’s tall and lean with close-cropped sandy hair. Wearing a pink and blue plaid shirt and khaki pants. When he turns to sit at the window a few tables away, I see he has a handsome profile. I wonder in what ways he did and did not look like Brendyl's father.

"Jeff could never wear such a gaudy shirt," Draven remarks, quietly, to me. "He'd call that a 'poofter shirt.'"

"A fan of Frank Zappa?" I ask.

"Yeah, and he looks a lot like him, too, except his hair's not so dark."

"That music is not exactly . . . " I paused, trying to think of the right word, "ah, respectful. Kind."

"No, and neither is Jeff. I probably shouldn't tell you that, since you're a total stranger. But he's a bit of a jerk. Forgive the language, please--he's kind of an asshole." She speaks quietly, directing her words away from Brendyl.

The waitress comes with the menus and we select sandwiches and salad. Brendyl wants a PBJ and a glass of milk. Draven runs her fingers through Brendyl's hair and then her own in an obvious attempt to look less disheveled.

"How'd you meet Jeff?" I ask.

Draven's eyes light up. Brendyl is trying to get the tightly wrapped cellophane off the lollipop. It looks as if the sandwich will arrive before she succeeds.

"I met him more than once," she says, smiling delightedly. "It was the second meeting that cinched it." Then a shadow crosses her face; a small frown plays around the corner of her mouth and eyes.

"Was it bad?" I ask, concerned.

"No, it was wonderful. I'd forgotten how wonderful."

"No longer wonderful?"

"No, not hardly. But let me tell you how we met. Re-met. My friend Becca went art school."

"At SU?"

"Yeah. We were roommates then, had this great apartment on Colvin. Big windows, lots of plants, but anyway, she got a brochure for a summer arts program in Mexico. I was majoring in Psychology, but I was really interested in photography. My father wouldn't let me study it, said there was no future. But here was a chance he couldn't object to. Or so I thought.

"I applied. I had to make a portfolio. Becca help me a little, with some of the aesthetics, choosing the best shots from what I was doing in the school darkroom at the last minute. Plus she modeled for me. Ironically, I didn't decide to apply until the day before the postmark deadline, because I thought I had no chance, and didn't know how I'd pay for it. I was up all night. I checked of the box for "needs scholarship" and two weeks later got a fat envelope that said I had not only been accepted but had won a scholarship."

The waitress comes out with salads and sandwiches.

"I'm really rattling on here and haven't even gotten to the part about Jeff, sorry."

"Please," I say, my mouth full of turkey cranberry wrap. "Please continue."

"Well, I told my parents and my father forbid me to go. He said Mexico was dangerous for girls. It didn't matter to him that I'd be in this accredited program with other kids my age and Becca would be there, he was adamant." She stops, bites into her green wrap with avocado, tomato and cheese.

"What did you do?" I ask, between bites.

She takes another bite. "Mmmm. I went anyway."

"How, if you didn't have any money."

"I hitchhiked. I put a few clothes and my camera and scholarship letter in my backpack and headed down the highway."

"Weren't you scared? That can be dangerous."

"Yes. I had to jump out of two moving cars because gross disgusting men were trying to molest me. The second time, we were going pretty fast, and I got scraped up pretty bad. I was lying in the ditch bleeding when a car stopped and a guy got out. I was afraid, and grabbed my bag and started trying to crawl away into a culvert.

"'Draven,' he called, "Draven McNally. Is that YOU?" I kept going into the slimy wet hole on my bleeding knees. I didn't answer. I was still shook up from the guy grabbing at me. From leaping out, afraid I might die."

"This is heavy duty stuff you're telling me."

"Yeah, sorry, it gets better."

"That's a relief."

"Anyway he says, 'Draven, it's Jeff Chamberlain, from JD. Mr. Fellows.' He was in my math class. I'd known him for years. But hadn't seen him since I graduated. So to make a long story short, he was driving down to the summer workshop. He was majoring in journalism and there for the photography. The woman we worked with, Julie Schwartz, was world famous. I had no idea, really. Becca had sort of told me, but she’s prone to such enthusiasm I always think she’s exaggerating. Jeff was impressed I'd won a scholarship. We had a great time working on assignments together, Petroglyphs and nagual women and children begging. The spare scenery really touched me, and so did Jeff. Ha ha," she added, not smiling, "get it?"

“The good part was all the fun we had together, and how much I learned. The bad part, well, not entirely bad," and she leaned closer to me, "was that I got pregnant. Jeff was pissed. His plans did not include a wife and baby for another 5 or more years. He wanted me to have an abortion. I couldn't do it, and I'm glad in way, I can't imagine Brendyl not having been born.

"My father was pissed, too. He disowned me; can you believe it? Refused to speak to me or help me in anyway. Help us. Jeff has never forgiven me. It's been all downhill since then."

"Did he take any precautions? Did he use a condom?"


"Then why is it your fault? He is equally to blame."

"I had birth control pills. But I get ditzy sometimes, and we out in the boonies. I didn't always have them with me. We camped in caves and up on mountain ledges when we were working on stories. So he says it's my fault."

"Did he remind you?"

"No, he says that was my job."

"He's equally at fault, if having a child is a fault." I say this quietly, studying Brendyl. She is concentrating on her PBJ, peeling off the crusts, sucking out the jelly. If I were a photographer, which I am, but only for fun, I would want to photograph her perfect face. The curls falling damp around her cheeks, the perfect smear of jelly on her chin.

"He's abusive." I say quietly. I know this. I am sure of it.

"Well. Maybe. He yells, and he hits me. And he’s mean and unpredictable. This is a terrible thing to say. He’s in Iraq. He’s coming home. Tomorrow. The terrible part is that I sometimes imagine, almost hope, that he’ll be killed. Even now I am wishing the plane bringing him home will crash. I feel so guilty for thinking that, but it’s been so peaceful without him.”

“Oh, Draven, I know the feeling. I’ve had those same thoughts, and the same guilt feelings about the. I know why women sometimes kill their husbands. I thank god it was never me. I wouldn’t be free.”

“I think he hates me, but when I suggested leaving, my leaving, he said he’d kill me if I did."

"Oh my God," I say. It slips out. I can't help it.

"Yeah, it's sort of scary."

"Sort of? It's terrifying! I've heard those same words. I know how terrifying it is to be stuck in an untenable spot and be afraid to attempt an escape. Worse than a rock and a hard place." I pause. Take a deep breath. "That's where your rage comes from," I add. Watching her face.

"Yes. Probably. You're probably right."

"You sound unconvinced."

"I never thought of it like that before."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"Nothing. There's nothing I can do. I'm stuck."

"What about Vera House?"

"He'd find me. He'd come in with a gun and kill me. Maybe everyone else, too."


"Maybe. He might. I wouldn't put it past him."

"I'll take you there now. I'll help you."

"I can't. I'm too scared."

"They can put a restraining order on him."

"What good will that do? Every day in the news you hear of a woman killed by her husband or lover. By her estranged partner. Half of the men broke their restraining orders. They'll go to jail for it. But the woman is already dead."

This is true. I hear it myself all the time. "But that's not the only possible outcome. Many women succeed at escaping. I did. And I'm glad. You have no idea how glad I am."

"Yes I do. Believe me, I do."

"Then let me help you. The way I was helped."

"What about Brendyl?"

"There are kids at the shelter. Lots of toys. Counseling. For both of you."

"Well. Maybe."

"Listen, come over to my house. Do you have time? I want to show you something. I'm not far from here."

I pay the bill and take her to see the dove nests. First, I show her the one from the juniper. On the ground, from window number one. It is shredded. The eggs are smashed on the ground underneath. The half-formed babies lie in and out of their shells in pools of yolk and blood and glop.

Then we go in and look out the window at Mama dove 2, whose husband is gone. She is feeding the tiny babies. She huddles over them, flies out and in with food, and huddles again. Will she make it? Will they? I don't know.

Finally I show her the nest that is tilting, two eggs gone, two hanging on the brim, the parents coming in and out in their last-ditch effort to mend the nest with puny bits of grass.

"This is you," I say. "Your choices may look grim and terrifying. But from my perspective, this one,” I point to the lonely Mama 2, “looks better than those." I pick Brendyl up to see the baby birds in Mamma 2's nest. Then give her the plush toy bird. She leans on me, stroking it, looking up at Draven, who stares transfixed at the two eggs hanging at the edge of the nest.

Mary Stebbins

Not part of story:

050518a; 050411a; 050409-1a [4/10/2005 1:42 AM]

Note: the 1st version was lost to computer failure. 2nd version started : Friday, April 8, 2005, 3:58 PM

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