Ten years ago, in the Spring 2004 issue of Sycamore Review, I published my second short story. I was in grad school then, and it was maybe the third story I'd written during my time in Carbondale.
I'd been having a hard time figuring out story structure, and what makes a story a story. Essentially, I'd spent too many years reading sentences for their beauty and sounds and rhythms while paying no attention at all to what the words themselves in those sentences might be saying.
My friend Ben mentioned that he had kind of "outlined" some of his favorite short stories, so that he could figure out what the scaffolding holding up those stories looked like. I thought this seemed like a fine idea, and one day when I was in the library reading some Donald Barthelme, I decided to map out a little three-page story in one of his collections. Then I started writing what eventually became "About to Drop" by using the same pattern of images Barthelme had used in his story. I thought of it like juggling, in a way. Where Barthelme talked about X, I discussed Y. Only my story became quite a bit longer, which meant at some point I had to start improvising the pattern, or using some variation of it.
It's a story I still like--mostly because it manages to surprise me whenever I re-read it. However, I decided not to include it my story collection when I was sending it out to contests the last two years before it was picked up, for reasons I'll keep to myself for now, so that you can get to the story itself, if you're so inclined.
* * *
About to Drop
My boyfriend Lucas and I were thirty-seven minutes into the trip when our cat Moonshine Eyes shit in his carrier.
The smell in the car was awful. Lucas said, “I think Mooney just grew a second tail.”
We were in Nashville, Illinois, headed north, to visit Lucas’s parents for Thanksgiving. I rolled down the window, told Lucas to pull over at the Amoco. When we stopped, the sky overhead was flat and colorless as a polar bearskin rug. The sky was a dead animal.
I was already a little anxious about the trip. Lucas and I had been together seven years, but I never liked visiting his parents. Lucas’s mother, Deb, wanted to be my sister, my girlfriend, my mother-in-law. Deb wanted me to give her a grandchild.
About a year ago, Deb bought a bird, a cockatiel. She named her Baby, said the bird was the grandchild I never gave her. Baby died two weeks later because she was a female, because she had an egg inside her that wouldn’t pass. Deb knew Baby was sick—she kept falling off her perch onto the floor of her cage—but Deb didn’t know the illness was caused by an egg that couldn’t get out. She came home one day and Baby was lying at the bottom of her cage in her own shit, stiff.
Deb bought a second bird, a male, and named him Baby Too. Baby Too was just like Baby and just like every cockatiel you’ve ever seen: yellow and gray with globes of orange on his cheeks, stupid eyes, an improper and persistent little mouth.
This woman Deb and I could never be sisters. She’s into her appearance, for one thing. She manicures her nails, paints them the color of blood. She drapes herself in cashmere. And her hips! The woman’s hips are so wide they’re like joke hips, like prosthetic attachments I keep waiting for her to remove.
Plus, Deb does obscene things with that bird of hers, that grandchild I never gave her.
Lucas and I never wanted to get married. Lucas worked in a pork-processing plant, a place that made bacon, but he wanted to be a writer. He had an office where he wrote, behind our house, in what used to be a tool shed. Most of his stories were about men and women who are married and sad. His characters drink too much, work bad jobs, and talk around one another about the lives they would rather be living.
I thought his stories were pretty good. They have these moments of odd beauty, the way real life does sometimes. In one of his stories, an old couple, husband and wife, are about to take their mutt, this real mangy thing, eighty years old or so, a real dog-hero, to be put to sleep. It is winter. They let the dog run around in the snow one last time before their trip to the vet, when an icicle falls from the roof of the house and kills him. The story ends with the old couple trying to break through the snow and ice so they can dig a hole and bury the dog. The old man and woman light a fire on the snow and drink wine, each of them thinking about the other one dying, and eventually, the heat from the fire warms the earth enough they’re able to break through.
Like I said, his stories have an odd kind of beauty.
Not all of his stories are fatalistic that way, though. Another story ends with a man and his daughter on their front porch. The man’s wife has left them. He is drunk and unsure how he is going to parent his daughter all by himself. The end of the story takes place in the fall, at dusk, with the sun setting. The man’s head is spinning and he is imagining all the horrible ways he may screw up his daughter’s life, when he sits down with her on the steps of their front porch and brushes her hair. Lucas does a great job describing the girl’s hair and the way her drunken father combs it with a pink brush and then French-braids it with trembling fingers. The dad says something I can’t remember to his daughter when he’s finished and hands her a mirror that he has dropped and cracked so she can see how beautiful she is.
The story really isn’t bad.
The thing that bothered me about Lucas’s stories was that they all, every single one of them—before the beautiful and heartbreaking parts—begin with a man saying something about his wife.
My wife thinks irrational things about household appliances.
Sometimes, my wife eats spaghetti and meatballs with her bare hands.
You get the picture.
Around the time Mooney shit in his carrier, on our way to visit Deb, Lucas hadn’t been writing much. He was spending a lot of time in his office, but he hadn’t been showing me any pages he’d written. I think he may have been out there talking to Deb about asking me to marry him.
Lucas’s brother, Trent, has a wife. Her name is Traci. Trent and Traci. It’s a little disgusting. Both Trent and Traci are beautiful and intelligent and ambitious—a dangerous combination of traits if you ask me. Trent is a lawyer with a linebacker’s body. Traci’s a pediatrician who looks like an aerobics instructor. She is the most intelligent woman ever whose name ends with an “i.” You know what I mean now by dangerous. They were together only six weeks when Trent popped her the question and Traci said yes. Deb was ecstatic.
Before we met, Lucas used to be quite attractive. I've seen pictures. But by the time we got together he had it in his head to write those sad and beautiful stories he wrote, and he’d begun to sabotage his good looks. He gained weight. He religiously avoided the sun, wore lots of corduroy. He shaved the hair that grew between his eyebrows because he wanted it to come back in fuller. Lucas thought a person needed to be a little ugly to find true beauty. He thought his less-than-perfect looks were an important part of his vision as an artist.
I used to think it was kind of cute. But that Trent—when he wasn’t talking, when he was just sitting on Deb’s couch with his mouth closed—he was something to look at.
I asked Lucas once why all of the characters in his stories are married, why he can’t just write about people who aren’t married but are in relationships, the way we were. I wanted to know why he didn’t write stories about people like us. He told me he wanted to write about real life and that people in real life get married, the same way they find religion, drink too much, and work shitty jobs.
I wanted to ask: Where does that leave me?
Where does that leave us?
I have no family. Lucas was it for me. I was working, though. I taught at the Big Top Early Learning Center, where I was in charge of a group of four-year-olds. My favorite student was a girl named Gully. She was the shortest girl in class, round-cheeked and pigtailed. She dressed in stained little knee-length dresses, dirty white socks, scuffed black shoes. I’m talking adorable.
For the first two months I had her in class Gully wore sunglasses. Adult sunglasses, Raybans, the surfer not the aviator kind, much too large for her face. She wore the sunglasses to school in the morning and left each day with them still attached to her tiny head. She walked around the playground in them at recess, and during naptime, she closed her eyes behind their lenses. At story time, she was there, cross-legged on the rug, the sunglasses dangling crooked and perfect between her pigtails.
Some of the other teachers worried. “It’s a sign,” they said. “That girl is hiding from something.”
I liked Gully and her sunglasses. She gave them up, though, and started carrying around a plastic wheel of cheese. The edge of the wheel was orange, its center: sunshine-yellow. Gully found the cheese at the bottom of a box of toys at school. She carried the cheese under her arm everywhere she went—to the bathroom, to the water fountain. She spent nights and weekends at home with it. I imagined her putting that wheel of cheese on the dining room table while she ate, and tucking it under the covers with her at night when she went to bed.
“Something’s going on at home,” the other teachers said. “Something’s not right.”
I loved Gully with that wheel of cheese. I only wish she hadn’t given up the sunglasses.
Gully forgot to take the cheese home with her over Thanksgiving break. When Lucas and I pulled over at the Amoco, the orange-and-yellow wheel of cheese was in the backseat of our car, next to Mooney’s cat carrier.
“At best,” the teachers said, “it’s unhealthy.”
They hadn’t seen Deb and Baby Too. Deb fed the bird bits of celery directly from her own mouth. The bird’s beak would jab between Deb’s teeth, and she would hold it there between her lips. She kissed the bird this way, too, mouth-to-beak, and Baby Too knew and replicated the kissing sound Deb made each time their lips touched. Deb taught Baby Too to say, “Come on, give me a kiss,” and they would say it to one another for hours, kissing off and on the whole time.
Besides that, Deb let Baby Too shit on her, literally. She draped towels over the shoulders of her cashmere sweaters and let the bird drop his ashy-green pellets all over her while he was perched there.
This was the woman who wanted me to bless her with a grandchild.
If I could have been guaranteed a girl like Gully—adorable and individual, a girl who wore shades in the bright blank face of humanity—I might have tried to get pregnant. I might have wanted to marry Lucas.
Lucas and I used to play a game called “The-Baby-Is-Born-With.” One of us would describe a particular baby-deformity and then the other would have to name the child cleverly, taking this deformity into account.
The baby is born with a red splotch on his belly. What do you name him?
The baby is born with a ridge on his skull that makes his head look a little pointed. What do you name him?
Some of these got a little tasteless. We stopped playing after what Trent and Traci went through.
Trent and Traci would have had a beautiful baby. The baby would have been a genderless, freakish combination of the two, a supermodel with brains and muscles, more dangerous than dynamite.
But Traci couldn’t have kids. They went to specialists. Traci took pills, got injections, prayed, cried. Nothing worked. So they returned to their ambitions—lawyering and doctoring—with otherworldly and heartbreaking dedication.
This devastated Deb. This was the reason Deb was leaning on me, wanting me to be her sister, her girlfriend, her daughter-in-law. This was the reason she wanted me to become her and then marry her son.
I thought about buying a bird, to give Deb and me something to talk about besides grandchildren and to keep Mooney and me company when Lucas was out in his office shining his dark light on the human condition.
I went to the pet store, walked past the lizards and fish, the snakes and the gerbils, and found a cage of cockatiels at the back of the store. I kept my distance at first, and looked at them from across the aisle, my back to an aquarium filled with mice. Each bird looked just like the other. Each bird looked like Baby Too. When I worked up the nerve to approach the cage, one of the birds said, “Shhhh.” The rest replied, “She’s coming.”
The woman working the counter tried to stop me on my way out.
“Can I help you with something?” she said. “Ma’am?”
“No, she isn’t,” I said and kept on going.
Before we even stopped at that Amoco I was worried that Lucas was going to ask me to marry him, that he was going to want babies. I was worried that if Deb could convince a guy who used to shave between his eyebrows to make the hair there thicker—thicker!—to buy into her racket, then there must something wrong with me. I was worried Lucas wanted me to be more like his mother: manicured, pretty, married.
What I wanted to tell him was: No woman my age has hips that big.
For Gully, at the Amoco, I bought a pair of sunglasses while Lucas wiped out Mooney’s carrier. Back at the car, Mooney was sleeping in the backseat in his clean carrier, next to the wheel of cheese, but there was no sign of Lucas.
I put on the sunglasses and wandered around to the back of the building. Out back there was a small chapel, more like a big doghouse, really, with brown siding and a steep little roof, a bronze cross on top. A sign attached to the chapel said something about the best little chapel in Little Nashville.
I heard Lucas call my name from inside the chapel.
The path that led to its door was made of wooden planks. They creaked under my feet. The air smelled like gasoline. I could see Lucas through a small window in the side of the chapel, craning his neck, getting a good look at the place. Gold reflected off his face, as if there was something inside the chapel that glowed.
I imagined Lucas beginning a story like this: My wife and I were married in a chapel behind the parking lot of an Amoco station.
He called my name again.
I realized I wasn’t breathing, my feet were moving in tiny steps.
I still had on the sunglasses, and I wanted to see what the colorless sky looked like through the dark lenses. When I looked up, the sky was alive.
A wave of birds was flying towards me. Grackles, sparrows, I don’t know what kind of birds they were, some species that migrates in winter. The birds looked identical to one another from where I stood, but the shape they made in the sky was beautiful.
There were hundreds of them, thousands, spread out across the sky like one giant living thing.
“You’ve got to come in here,” Lucas said from inside the chapel. “You’ve got to see this.”
And then the birds were directly overhead.
They were like a curtain falling out of the sky above me, a dark curtain made of wings and beaks and feet, a curtain that extended forever across the sky and looked like it was about to drop, at any moment, right on top of us.
* * *
My boyfriend Lucas and I were thirty-seven minutes into the trip when our cat Moonshine Eyes shit in his carrier.
That’s how Lucas would begin the story of the end of our relationship. And he would end it with that enormous wall of birds overhead, with him in the chapel about to propose to me, and with me outside the chapel, just a few minutes from telling him no. The story would be full of implication and things left unsaid, and it would have an odd kind of beauty, just like the rest of them.
And I would want to ask him: Where does that leave me?
Where does that leave us?
One night not long before our trip to visit Lucas’s parents for Thanksgiving I dropped by Lucas’s office. He wrote on a typewriter he kept on one of those little-kid desks, with the slanted wooden tops you can lift up, and he sat in the little-kid chair with his corduroy-clad legs stuffed up against the desk’s metal carriage.
I sat cross-legged on the floor next to his desk. The shed’s walls were papered with the first lines of about a hundred potential stories:
My wife is Illinois’ third-ranked papier-mâché artist.
My wife twitches in her sleep like a wounded animal.
“Lucas,” I said, “how serious are you about being a writer?”
The furry space between his eyebrows creased. “What do you mean?” he asked.
I told him that I thought he should give up his job at the pork processing plant, that if he were truly serious about writing we should move to New York or Los Angeles. “No writer ever came from Murphysboro, Illinois,” I said.
“Aww, Gwen,” Lucas said. He leaned back in his little-kid desk, and its hinges creaked. “There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.”
Nowhere in the world.
I thought of it as a place, like New York or Murphysboro, like the Big Top Early Learning Center.
The truth is, I wanted to end the story of the end of my relationship with Lucas in the same place he would have, with that flock of birds overhead. I wouldn’t have to light the fire that way, to break through the ice.
Not marrying Lucas, it was more than just not wanting to have kids, more than not wanting to become Deb. But naming a fear, saying out loud what you’re afraid of, kind of erases its seriousness.
So imagine, instead, the thing that scares you so much you can’t name it. Imagine it about to drop from the sky, out of nowhere, a thousand birds descending all at once. It’s easier that way. It’s easier not asking Gully, “Why the sunglasses? Why the cheese?” And the truth is, I like easy. It’s the nowhere I would rather be. The place where all those things that are about to drop hang suspended for a minute or two, right before they come crashing.