San

Michael Phillipps

When he stepped into the living room, steam spiraling from his coffee cup as if offering some genie’s promise, he saw through the sliding doors leading to the porch a flash of something black in the garden. It was difficult to make out because his own reflection was cast into the glass like a waxy remainder, a palimpsest of his ego, rubbed out in sleep and not yet fully reawakened. A grackle, he thought, after our corn, and turned away, trying to resign himself to the overpowering forces of nature, how they bring death and life when you least expect it, and ruin gardens. He tasted his coffee, left over from the day before and microwaved. Not bad, he kidded himself. Then he recalled why he’d risen from bed so early. Where is she? It was only five forty-five in the morning. Out for a jog? He listened for her in case she were still in the house, in the basement, wrought up in some ungodly hour fit of spring cleaning, though it was mid-July. But all he heard were clock ticks precipitating from high on the wall. That sound, which he didn’t even notice during the rush of afternoon, chided now like a tisking mother, reminding him of all he’d never accomplished and never would. He’d just given up the day before, again, on leaving anything of value behind. He descended, hunched on account of low clearance, to the basement, escaping the clock. There he found only a heap of musty clothes next to the washer. No wife. Nor was she in the dining room or kitchen. And then, as he headed back for the living room, his head flushed with one of those irrational notions that visited him from time to time when he arose too early. He had no wife. He was a loner who purchased ladies’ garments and laid them about the house, who filled the kitchen with items from Chinatown, all to recall a girl he’d once known but hadn’t seen for decades. Absurd, and yet his lungs were convinced enough briefly to pause.

He’d met her, San, in Boston shortly after she’d touched down from the far side of the world. They’d both been nineteen years old then. The romance had ended when he abruptly abandoned her for New York to seek literary fame, abruptly and for twenty years. It had been just long enough to become an established hack writer of love stories. But had he really met her again when he returned to Boston all those years later? Had she really forgiven him, married him? It seemed unlikely when he thought about it now, without her in the house. And he did have a habit of spinning yarns. So, he concluded, his theory might be true.

And then it was there again, teasing the corner of his eye: the wing, the pest, the coal-black flash. Damned thing. What he wouldn’t give for a shotgun. He turned toward it and this time focused through his reflection to see it was not a grackle, not a bird of any kind. It was, he realized as she turned to face him, San’s hair piled and twisted and clipped on her head. She’d been obscured amidst the corn and sunflowers. His sanity saved. She existed. His wife. She stood in the garden, bare feet in the dirt. The largest nail of her right foot flashed pink, like a siren, in the rising sun. Relief washed over him. As he got caught up in watching her he felt, sympathetically, as if he were standing out there, too, the earth’s coolness under his own feet, the mucusy chill of an earthworm rising against his heel, and this drew him nearer to the glass. Her body was partly hidden by the waist-high corn growing up around her, but he could perceive, above the arching leaves, floating behind silken threads just now protruding from the tips of baby corn husks, her breasts, bashfully blanched and supple, beaming. She was naked. He did a quick evaluation and concluded her to be beyond the sight of any neighbors’ windows, probably. She was still beautiful, but they were both getting older. Could he hope to do more than one day feed corn rows like these? He studied her expression. Was she, out there, caught up in a mood similar to this one fueled by his sour coffee?

They were each always in better spirits when they were together than when alone, so he wrapped on the sliding glass door, his knuckles leaving little marks the way breath might, but she didn’t hear. She turned her back on him instead, to face the revolutionary battlefield. They lived in Lexington. Through a patch of trees adjoining the yard, men had died one day long ago in quantity, feeding those fields. She thrust out her arms as if expecting an embrace, the embrace of history? The embrace of fate? Of a two-hundred-year-old cannonball? Curious, he slid the glass door aside, allowing an impish breeze to tousle his hair, and stepped onto the porch. It threatened a splinter if he didn’t take care, so he descended the stairs lightly, crossed the spit-wet grass, and came to the garden’s edge. There he stood like a man at the end of a dock, without a dory, looking out to the water.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Up?” she said, turning around. Oddly, she didn’t appear the least embarrassed by her behavior.

For lack of anything better to say, he asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

She turned her back again.

“Come closer,” she said.

He waded into the corn. Its sweet stalks whisked and hushed, as if scandalized by her long, flashing legs.

When she gazed at him over her shoulder, a frown crossed her face as if he had broken some rule of a child’s game everyone is supposed to know.

“No,” she said. “Drop your robe.”

“Not out here in daylight,” he said, and then added in a sly tone because it led him to a place he understood. “What are you up to?”

“No dirty mind,” she said. “Just please.”

Something in her voice made him comply; in a moment his coffee cup was sitting in the dirt, his robe was tossed on the lawn, and he was standing naked behind her.

She placed his hands on her breasts. “You’re working an awful lot lately.”

“I had this idea I could write something real,” he said. “But I can’t.”

“Haven’t noticed me,” she said, and edged her heels backward.

“You promised nothing dirty,” he said.

“Then how this instead?” she said, and moved his hands to the area below her ribs. The rising sun fell on her stomach, and on his hands, so warmly that it made him think of the magnifying lens with which he and his brothers, almost thirty years before, had set leaves on fire. He could sense now, as he shifted his hands across her navel, the convexity of that old magnifying lens. He could see it, chipped at the edge, the enlarged and sometimes blurry world on the other side as if the lens portended his murky future, as if it had been cut from a crystal ball; something told him, though he didn’t want to remember, that he had once also used it cruelly to burn an ant to a crisp. How people change, he thought. His younger self horrified him; he’d hate to live that life again. Certainly if he had a second opportunity he’d live it differently. Then he noticed, it was funny, her stomach, so unusually taut, and for some reason the mental image of a magnifier turned into a Petri dish like that he’d used in junior high science class, and then, as sweat dewed on his forehead, a greenhouse and finally, conclusively, as if this is where all his thoughts had been heading, he pictured a nursery.

“Oh!”

She laughed and turned her head when he let out his cry of recognition. But he couldn’t hear his own voice. The news had whisked him to the treetops and sky. He’d been freed of himself, as he realized she must have been all the while he, self-absorbed, had observed her from indoors. Seconds later, having returned to his own skin, he leaned to kiss her in congratulations and gratitude on the lips in that perfect manner described in his silly, false books, but it was not possible. They were arranged back to front with her shoulder blades resting against his chest. She’d crooked her neck to see him, and at this very real, awkward angle of their meeting he managed only to peck her roughly, like a grackle going after an ear of corn, where the wet corner of her eye met the bridge of her ruddy nose.

 

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