A friend was recently reading the revised version of John Finn that appears to be making its way into print sooner than later and suggested that a particular chapter might stand on its own. It happens to be one of those I posted first about eight years ago when John Finn was newly minted apart from its origins in the Henry Sullivan Hound novels. Long absent from view, I was happy to oblige.
There were four feathers on the inside edge of the bar, each of them gray, black and iridescent in different ways. Pigeon feathers. They reminded me of a story. Not the Updike. That’s a bit too precious for me. The A.E.W. Mason novel. Florid. Flamboyant. Pigeon feathers are not flamboyant. And these weren’t white, but that’s just the way my mind works. I suppose I was just wanting some of that in my life now.
So I asked the bartender about them. He said some woman had been sitting there earlier and left them. He was going to keep them aside until closing just in case she came back.
She didn’t come back.
He was wiping things down for the last time and I put down my money on the tab and I asked him if he’d let me have them. He nodded.
I put them up into the edge of a picture frame I have in my room. The picture is a joke. My oldest daughter came by to visit one time and later she sends the picture to me because my room is so small. It’s the picture van Gogh did of his bedroom in Arles.
I have to admit, the chair and bed are just about the same. But I think my room is smaller. I put the pigeon feathers up in a row across the bottom, evenly spaced. It gave that cockeyed picture a touch of whimsy it didn’t need, but it entertained me.
One week later—a true August night with the air baked still and the streets empty except for those of us who were too stupid to be gone—I was in the same bar. For the same reason. The job was killing me. I really needed a hard drink, but I usually settle for the beer. They have the local brews on tap and I sample them one by one. I can watch the ball game through to the end that way. There was no TV in my room. No air conditioner, for that matter.
Before I can order, the bartender says to me. “You still have those feathers?”
I say “Yeah.”
He says, “Can I hav’em back? The woman came in the next day lookin’ for’em. I told her you’ve been coming in on Fridays. She said she works late on Fridays, and could I get’em for her.”
This kind of put me off. Partly because he didn’t apologize for his mistake. Maybe just because I liked the look of them up there in the frame. But probably because I could tell this woman had some appeal. Most bartenders won’t make a lot of effort for just anyone. And I wasn’t even going to get to see her. And then too, just because I can get a little stupid sometimes.
There are at least six different bars between my office and the subway entrance. I had chosen this one for no particular reason. I’m given to habits if they’re comfortable. I did not feel any special attachment. The TV picture was nothing special.
So I said, “I don’t think so.”
He gives me a scowl. “Why not?”
I said, “I like them. I’ll keep them.”
He sets the empty glass in his hand down with a real knock. I guess he had picked it up for me in the first place.
I said, “See you later.”
Now I knew my reasons weren’t all that good, but that’s the way I felt about it. I get to do what people tell me to do all day long, five frigging days a week. There was some little pleasure in saying no. Afterward, I felt bad for the bartender. He was just trying to get along, same as me. I wasn’t making his life any easier. But it was done.
The next Friday I’m in a bar about a block away. It’s the middle of the game and I’m into my third beer.
Someone taps me on the shoulder.
I knew it was the woman who left the feathers the instant I turned around. Women don’t tap me on the shoulder all that often, you know. Besides, I always wear the same cap my kids gave me for Christmas more than twelve years ago and I’m not a small guy.
She says, “Can I have my feathers back?”
I gave her a thorough look. I didn’t miss much that wasn’t covered.
Then I said, “No.”
“They’re not yours.”
“They are now.”
She tilted her head sideways at me. It was more a pose than anything. I could tell she wasn’t thinking a whole lot. She was angry. . . . She was gorgeous.
She said, “What is it with some people? Why be an asshole?”
There are a lot of ways to answer something like that. Witty ways. Thoughtful ways. Humorous ways. Stupid ways.
I said, “Tell me why you want’em.”
She said, “None of your business.”
I said, “Okay then,” and turned back to the bar.
You know how it is with beautiful women. They get their way. They’re used to it. The smart ones even know how to play off other women who are naturally less fortunate and jealous of the looks. They learn how to do that when they’re just out of diapers. My youngest daughter, Matty, does it without a thought.
This woman stood there. I could feel her anger radiating in her body heat.
She says, “Why do you want them?”
Her question was right in my ear. I didn’t turn around. She hadn’t answered my own question. I could’ve demanded that she answer me first. But that didn’t seem the way to go.
I told her the truth, “They’re beautiful. They remind me of a story. They fill up the room with the story. I like that.”
She just stood there. Not a word. I waited and sipped my beer. The Red Sox gave up another run. Maybe a full minute passed.
Then she said, “You ought to trim the hair in your ears. It’s ridiculous.”
So that kind of broke the situation down. It gave a little perspective.
I said, “You want a beer? The Red Sox are getting their butts kicked.”
She hesitated. Then she sat down. I put my index finger up for the bartender.
She says, “What story? Updike?”
Even in a college town, there’s not one woman in a hundred who’d have thought of that.
I say, “No,” I tell her. “The Four Feathers. It’s an adventure by A. E. W. Mason.”
She says, “The Updike was assigned in my freshman year. I’ve never heard of Mason.”
I look sideways at her. She has the profile. She’s going to get old someday but her nose will never hit her upper lip.
I said, “You haven’t been a sixteen year old boy with ambitions to wander in deserts, prove your courage, and fight for love.”
She glanced back at me. This wasn’t as sure a glance as I expected. She was worried about something.
She said, “No. I never was.”
The bartender set down a glass of the same local ale I was drinking. She held it up, kind of looking through the color. She held the glass with her fingertips so her fingernails sort of bit the glass. Women do things like that to draw your attention. Makes you wonder about the feel of those nails on your skin.
I gladly interrupted the thought. I said, “It’s all in my head now, of course. You get to a certain age and it’s all in your head or it’s not. You can’t make it up anymore.” She was sitting there real quiet then. I expected some repartee. You know. Women just don’t sit down in bars with strangers without a few lines ready. But she didn’t say a word. For my part, I was well beyond most of that. I haven’t yet picked up a woman in a bar that I can remember. Not for lack of trying. They just don’t get excited when I start talking about Raymond Chandler or Joseph Conrad or whatever I’m reading at the time. And I’m not about to spin my wheels over some broad who probably can’t tell me why she likes Patrick O’Brian better than C.S. Forester. Women always like O’Brian better. At least that’s the way my daughters think. I’ve had that argument but I always like to hear them explain it.
Finally she says, “What do you do?”
Legitimate. Reasonable. But not what I expected for some reason. I expected her to get back to the damn feathers.
“Office work. Whatever they have.”
Now this covered a lot of ground without much explanation. There wasn’t really a story there anyway. Not worth telling. So I just left it.
She’s quiet again. I can’t tell what she’s thinking now, but I make up a scenario of possibilities. I decide she has it figured that I’m just a divorced loser with an attitude, who reads books to escape from the mundane reality that’s got him pinned to the mat. At least I hope she’s thinking that because it would mean she’s smart and it’ll save a lot of time talking about the ugly details.
She says, “Why don’t you teach?”
I had to think about that. It was an odd question under the circumstances, but easy enough to guess what made her think of it. How much was I going to say?
“I taught for twelve years. I hated it. It’s not one of my talents.”
She says, “Why don’t you write, then? If you write your stories down, you wouldn’t have to steal other people’s feathers.”
She’s good. She’s thinking it through real quick. I had a friend who always said ‘Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, write.’
I tell her, “I did. But my stuff didn’t seem to hit on the right nerves. I write too slowly. It takes a lot of time and doesn’t pay the bills.” I’m figuring now that she knows enough. Now I want to know something about her. I ask, “You tell me this: why did you sit down? I mean, other than my good looks.”
She sipped at her glass, nodded a bit, and licked some foam off her upper lip.
“Just curious. I wondered why you wanted those damn feathers.”
I gave that a nod. “So now you know. Talismans of lost time. Relics of religious wars. Symbols of self-made myths.”
She smiled. It was a real smile. At least I had humored her.
She said, “Maybe. Maybe you just wanted them because they were left behind and it made you wonder what their significance was in the mind of the woman that left them. . . . You like imagining such things, I’ll bet. And then you liked what you imagined and you didn’t want to lose it.” She looked at me. She knew she was right. She wasn’t looking for confirmation. She said, “What was the story you imagined?”
This was more than self-assured, I thought. It was really smart. And it was begging me to ask why she had the feathers in the first place, all while placing the onus on me. My middle daughter, Sarah, does that kind of trick all the time. She’s gotten better at it since she started college.
Right then I was also wishing I was ten years younger and still had the balls left to make a decent play here. This was the kind of woman I could get serious about real quick. It makes you wonder about the perversity of life. Everything is timing, they say. I married a woman who taught high school English in the room next to where I was failing at the job of teaching history, just because we both liked the rice pudding in the cafeteria. She had never wanted to do anything else but teach English. She’s a sweetheart, but she imagines grocery lists and color coordination and when to put the winter clothes away. I dragged her all over Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. She was miserable. She didn’t want any part of it. The streets were dirty. The sewers were backed up in Budapest. Who cares where the hell Dracula once lived? With the same money we could have bought an above ground pool for the back yard for the kids, for Christ sake. . . . All that’s in your head, and you have to find a simpler answer.
“Okay. I’ll tell you. And I’ll tell you first so you don’t think I put it together from the visual evidence that’s sitting right here beside me. But then you have to tell me the truth. Tell me why you want the feathers so bad. Don’t game the situation.” I took a deep breath for emphasis. She squinted at me. I think my preamble irritated her. Good women hate to be presumed upon. So I started in on it anyway, “I imagined you were about ten or fifteen years younger. Early twenties. Not in love, but wishing you were. A little lost. Full of pretense. Maybe the type who always wants things bigger than they are and has started to settle for second best. And you found the feathers over in the park on a bench. A kid had left them there. And it made you remember your own childhood and the dreams you had and the way you used to collect little things to mark the dreams—like bookmarks. . . . And you realized you’d made a wrong turn. You were reminded of the person you wanted to be, and now you were forgetting about, what with all the demands from college and family. The feathers reminded you of your own promises to yourself.”
She sat back. The squint was gone.
She said, “Damn!”
I said, “Damn what?”
She blinked. “Damn you.”
I think I saw a little circle of light flash there in her eyes. She was very serious. I said, “I’m sorry.”
It was all I could say. I wasn’t sure which part of what I had said hit the mark, but it was enough.
She sighed. Then she took a long drink on her glass. Nearly emptied it.
She turned to me all the way on the stool when she put the glass down. “I’m not that old.”
I shrugged. “What? About thirty-five? Thirty-six? That’s a lot younger than me. Why are women so touchy about their ages? It’s no big deal.”
She shook her head at that bit of foolishness. “How old are you?”
I look every bit of it so I told her. “Forty-nine.”
She nodded, “You look fifty.” Then she finished the last of her beer and took a deep breath. “I turned forty last week. That was the day I got the feathers. I was sitting in the park, watching those kids—I don’t have kids.” She pauses at that, as if that were not a happy fact, “You know? But I wanted them. And then time went by. It just flew. And there I was, forty years old. And this little girl came right up to me where I was sitting. I heard her mother tell her they had to go home and she had to leave the feathers, but she came over first and gave them to me instead. They were my only birthday present. . . . and I wanted them back.”
The cut of the light told me definitely there was a tear there at the edge and she turned away then because she saw that I saw it.
I was done. Flushed like a bird from the bushes. I said, “They’re yours. You can have the feathers back.”
But she shook her head. She said, “It’s too late. They’re part of another story now.”