Eight years locked in bed by an accident, his wife’s life an obscene penalty, Peirce Keating was left with only imagination. And little hope, though today might prove different. He loved his wife May, the sea, and bright company. Old pal Gary Mitman was this day’s gift, this day where hope might gain one foothold. That and viewing mirrors he controlled by head movements.
Gary remembered May’s voice, soft, low and bedroom sweet. It was her forever voice, ironically losing itself in silk and satins and folds a whole room could spin with. It was not just perfume, but pure cleanliness, down-deep cleanliness. He sat stiffly in his chair, at some order of attention he thought, with Peirce’s words hanging about.
“I just had the most remarkable recall you could imagine, Gary. All those barns at Rapid Tucker’s Pond came back to me, thick and as true as raspberry jam, and little seeds of taste crunching against my teeth. We played there as kids. Whole summers at Rapid Tucker’s Pond. No soup’s as thick as that! God, it was marvelous.” He threw his eyes onto the silver screen, at Gary Mitman. Raymon Navarro, movie star, could not have done better. Nor the idol Richard Dix his mother had fallen in love with when his father had died, leaving the house empty and quiet, and room after room trying to share old visions and sounds of a man who did not want to be captured longer than he’d be around.
“You have to admit, Peirce, that bed has a way with you! I don’t know how I’d ever stand it. I couldn’t, not by a long shot.”
“You manage, at times. We all have our space. You have yours. I have mine, after a fashion.”
“And you’ve got a ton of crap in tow with you!” marked Gary, hands playing word enhancement in the air. “Always the joker. Ever the laugher.”
“You’re beautiful, Gary. No question about it. Right now you look like a fledgling. Do you know what ornithology is?” There was no derision in his voice, but it was another cell imagination working overtime.
“For Chrisake, Peirce! Death is all around us, the crippled of life, and you got more shit than Carter’s got little liver pills. Or Lydia Pinkham had in her best day. You going to do some bird talk? Be rooster or parrot? Going to throw some bird shit my way?” Then he added, as he looked again at a point past Peirce’s eyes, “I should have done something for our pal Jake. They’ll get me for that, too.”
Peirce would not be diverted by another’s death. “The study of birds, Gary. I’ll be in the books someday for what I found here in Nonquit.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You amaze me, Peirce. No shit! You get your balls busted all the time and you keep coming back for more. Or giving more.” He hung his mouth, expecting for further ridicule.
“I discovered birds down here using rocks or stones to protect their fledglings. Use them like bombs. Have piles of stones spread around, like weapons caches or ammunition depots, and when predators comes too close, they fly to one of their depots, grab a stone in their talons and drop it right on the problem. They’re like dive bombers, like Stukas. Sometimes they strafe the enemy, utterly amazing. I’m the only one in the world that’s seen this, though long ago. I’ve got it on film in the safe deposit box.” His final statement a lawyer’s summary, eyes on the jury’s eyes, moving confidently, between them all.
“Does that make you an ornithologist, Peirce? Not that I believe any of it. Hell, I’ve been here on and off for thirty some years. I’ve never seen anything like that. Do those mirrors do tricks for you? Can you make things appear or disappear?”
“We can’t fool each other, Gary. I know you and you know that I am, or can be, all things, regardless of my place in this universe, this bed, this mound. I’ve earned my respect, Gary.
Gary jumped right in. “You mean, in other words, that I haven’t earned mine! I never said I had, but you just keep shoveling it back. Knock it off, or I’ll leave you to hear yourself talk.” Can’t change my ways now, he thought.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Gary. I’ve managed to do a number of things well while I’ve been consigned here. That’s what I meant.” That’d be enough for grease good old Gary. Enough but not too much.
“Like what else, Peirce?” His eyes were lighter, crow’s feet catching sunlight, putting more smile on his face than was there, the tan of his cheeks a handsome gold.
“Oh, I do other things about birds.” He waited for the response.
“What the hell are you getting at now, Peirce? You’re getting stranger by the minute.”
The horse of the metaphor was back, the steed of steeds, a great Arab, lifting him, at a gallop into the endless wind, into the places where freedom rolled underfoot, and he, rider, booted and buckled, in uniform, gallant as gallant can be, took heart from the onrush. “This, Gary, this!” he said. “More than ornithology and more than magic. I wrote this and it’s called BIRD DAY. Listen.” And he looked deep into his mirrors and began: They gathered for the first time in the millennium, millions of them, oh all the millions of them at once, clouds of them, soarers of thermal majesty, hooters, bits of twits of them, stick wielders of the Galapagos, taloned hunters of the encompassing airs, peepers and midnight whistlers, songsters, night riders, sewers and stitchers, oh every conceivable ilk of them in grand liaison, feathers spreading to rainbowed horizons of eyes, eagles and falcons and martins and abeyant wrens, all in one rising and magnificent crescendo of awed and wondrous unity, one absolutely fantastic tune of agreement that rose continually higher and higher in its pitch of god-like gesture until, at last, it reached the ultimate of the millennium itself:
Larry Larry Larry Larry Larry!
Gary Mitman stared into the eyes that belonged in the host of mirrors assembled for Peirce to view the beach. His breath held itself in his chest, a canister silence. He began to laugh, a roaring, happy laugh, a death-excluding laugh, his head back, his throat convulsing, and the image of the great Celtic shooting baskets that could not be totally recalled.
“Peirce,” he said, his eyes wet with tears, his face shining and lit with honesty, the smile cracking itself across that so-recent frown and down-at-the-heels look, “that’s just beautiful. Frigging beautiful!”
Peirce Keating dismounted. The clock ticked again. All the ticking was going on. All the controls were in place and under control. The odds makers never had a chance with him! And Gary’s laughter was the lull before the storm.
“You like that, Gary, don’t you? I do, too. It’s different. Now let me ask if any odor comes to mind to go along with it.” The challenge was on the table, but Gary was open and accessible, the warmth still working on his skin, the blanketing joy.
“Nothing, Peirce. Nothing from the Gardens. I can’t recall the popcorn or the beer or the ice cream. Nothing at all, not that I want to shoot holes in your vision.”
“That’s okay. Nothing I’ve said is hard and fast. Stay here as long as me, you begin to think differently. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s different because of where you’re coming from.”
Both of them laughed heartily at Peirce’s summation. Gary, warmed further, grabbed another beer. Then Peirce felt the clock ticking precisely and exactly. For a long time he had been unerring in his measurements of time and, he reminded himself again, of timing.
“You can understand me, Gary, when I tell you how the senses have a play in life when you’re locked up like this. You pick up sounds other people can’t hear, like dog whistles. We all have tonal islands until the condition’s corrected. I’ve seen things in the mirrors you might never see until you were in my position. Odors are like that also. Right now I have not awareness, but a craving for a specific odor. It drives me kind of batty, but it’s real. Like the senses need to be catered to.
“What odor, Peirce? What takes you so deep into all of this?” His curiosity was fully flagged.
“It might not be the odor itself, but it might be essence of the odor. Perhaps, cleanness of it, the cutting edge of it.”
“So?” Gary said.
“It’s gasoline, how it holds the air at the gas station when you fill up for long trips. It says power and motion. You count on it right away.”
“You mean the body behind the odor. We agree, it’s a product of your damn environment, Peirce. Nobody else’ll come to that realization.” He’d say weird but held it back. Peirce really wasn’t a bad sort after all.
“Would you do me a favor, Gary? You might think I’m a little wacky, but I’d appreciate it.”
“You name it, you got it!” You don’t get too many chances to help a guy who’s in the Peirce’s position. May must have her hands full.
“May has a little blue can on the top of her counter. Keeps pins in it. I’d like you to take it into the garage and put in some gasoline. Just a little. Perhaps half full. There’s gas in a can there for the lawn mower. I just love the smell of gasoline. So damn clean. When she’s cutting the grass I get that smell coming right through the window. Some days it’s stronger than the smell of the new cut grass. You know how that lifts your spirits.” He paused for vital effect. “You don’t think I’m too weird, do you?”
“Aw, Christ, Peirce, we’re all a little weird when you get right down to it. If you want to smell like a truckie, it’s okay by me. Sure, I’ll get it for you.” The messenger and the thumb were in place.
Peirce heard the banging outside: doors opening and closing, cans banging their high metal sounds which made him think of Paul Schofield doing King Lear on the stage of the Schubert and the huge sheet metal sheets high over the stage pounded by stagehands simulating thunder and sounds of battle.
He caught the gasoline smell released from one can into another. It rode over the smell of the sea, the iodine, the salt, the sand, the state of mind which sets itself beside the sea. There was an elusive beauty to the odor of gasoline, a faint astringent one second, a cloying edge of sweetness the next.
Gary placed the small blue can with a slightly perforated top on the shelf that Peirce directed him to. The room filled with the thin, knifing edge of gasoline odor, as if it had been poured out freely. Peirce closed his eyes, inhaled, and sighed, completing the dramatics for Gary.
The ticking was evident. He counted again. Under him he knew the earth was spinning on its axis, that he and the earth whirled through space together and no matter whatever happened to him or to the earth they’d be together forever, more mated than he and May. All-consuming Time had come practically to a standstill.
Gary had another beer.
Ticking. Ticking. Peirce counted, knowing time had essentially stopped, gathering in a way station on the long road of creation. “Gary, I could use one more favor.” He kept his face long, sad, seeking. “Go up to Trig’s place and get a copy of Birds of the Field for me.
Gary left with a beer in his hands, saying over his shoulder, “Maybe there’s some good left for me, Peirce. Maybe it’s not all going at once. Be back soon.” He waved a full hand.
Peirce Keating began to roll his mind films. Scenes came to him he’d not seen in eons; from childhood, of chums, parents, places he had visited; a menu of everything the mind could ask for. Most of it became centered on May, and he caught her aroma on the air, above the gasoline and salt and the spilled air of beer Gary left behind.
The reflections of his history passed like dots of transmissions in electronic media, a rapidly moving panorama he had little control over. Life buzzed from one place and one time to another place and time. No in-between places. No layovers. No rest areas. Just one place and then another. He traveled from here to there, and could see all roads unfold.
The sea came at him, splashing sun, silver riding on it, and a boat on the faint horizon, like a picture at a quiet little gallery and all motion in the gallery was in the picture. And then, the essence of time reasserting itself, he caught May once more, high in the air. He left her there.
His teeth, lips compressed, the ball in his throat cleared one more time, the sun at an exemplary angle, smells and odors and all other essences taking leave, the great Arab under reins between the landmarks of distant oases, with his head controls he brought first one mirror into line and then another, reaching for light, reaching for life, reaching for a single ray’s perfection. And found it! Motes filled it, and sea air, and house dust, and a slashing of silver-gold light as if the shank of a new sword had caught it. Like a trigger he aimed it, that grand laser of light, his thumb flat on it now from the projection of his mind and his able chin, closer and closer to desire, to the small blue can sitting idly on the shelf.
Down came the thinnest line, perfected laser, ultimate magnification of his own mind, of course; down came his thumb on the hammer of sun shot.
He was the great white whale, but now with thumb, and Ahab need not look any further for accomplishment. It was here!
Sunlight leaped down that slim straw; he saw barn roofs as if shot up with hundreds of bullet holes from machine guns and down through those abrupt openings came the sun’s straws; sun shot again! Flamethrowers!
Mushrooms crept out at him from hideaways, soft and tasteless in his nose breathing dampness, beginning to smell like a rain falling over hill; yesterday recovered from the back corner of a barn, damp reminders forever underfoot. How doggedly true his mirrors were. Channels. Pointers. Directors. Convergers. The final end of a thinly acute triangle. He saw Warren Oates in a movie walk into a movie house and knew Warren, good old Warren, God rest old Warren, had also fallen in his role.
Imagined May strode into the room as a silvery shadow; her arm catching light from the sun shaft where it fell, and her perfume tearing across the room like a wave from a tidal center. For a moment she rode roughly over her old duties; rode once more roughshod and rampant over his mouth; rode heedlessly into the dim past where she sat without a stitch of clothes on a shadowed, screened-in porch under the merest of street lamps one summer night waiting for him to come home from work, letting the neighbors wonder about her sanity and her morals and her husband’s grip from afar. (He’d told her what she could do with her neighbors, but he wouldn’t like it at all if she had taken his advice.)
He squeezed down some more. Alignment! Tolerances were close. Were these German mirrors? He remembered Adrien LeBlanc and Charlie McKenna and Jim MacDonald talking about grinding lenses and mirrors from Germany. Measurements came in the ultra ten thousandths of an inch. But no more now than a hair of his ass!
Light amplification of simulated emission of radiation! He brought the laser bore down, much as an M-1 sighting on a far target. Thumb on, the beam heading home, molecules of this and that caught in the thin ray, beginning to find their own heat, their own place in the sun. He saw the sad, pensive face of Monty Clift, saw him with the bugle mouthpiece at his mouth and heard the singular notes float over a faceless audience and the soft green of fields.
“No horns today,” he said. His voice was loud, but nobody was around. A bugle would be proper across a lake, but not across the sea. It seemed sacrilegious. Gary wouldn’t be back before the final beginning. He’d still be looking for that book. Peirce laughed at himself. Then chuckled.
Then he squeezed some more, finessing, tolerating, and sniping at the nth degree. He was formidable. He had no envy and no hate. It was that simple.
May’s rose came at him, russet, petals mysterious in their draw and magnetism.
And then ignition!
It came as much as a shock to him as it did to neighbors. It rolled outward from the sudden flare and the accompanying near improbable blast and the uneven and rampant smells that littered the air in a fraction of a second. The book Gary was looking for had flame at its binding under cover of his bed. And his bed moved! The mooring lines, he knew, had parted at the blast, and he felt the sea under him, the undulant waves touching and going away from the keel as if tempting it out to sea, with the smothering and engulfing waves washing over him in waters he knew were too warm for this time of year.
His last words were for her and he tried humor. “May, there’s nothing in this world as honorable as a dame in heat. It makes the world go round!”
Banner Image: By Tommy Hansen.B.A.C. at da.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons