His head hung, and she stumbled on.
She always made him chuckle.
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It's a quiet evening, and she isn't looking forward to spending it alone. His invitation is welcome, but there's a nagging discomfort that echoes inside her. She dresses, and spends thirty minutes behind the wheel, wondering how much time she will need to spend with this man. He's forty-seven, and single; she reminds herself that he could be a long term prospect.
He showers and shaves, kisses his wife's cheek and climbs into his car. Forty minutes fly by as nervous fingers drum the steering wheel to the wail of a steel guitar.
She smiles sweetly at the first sight of blue eyes beneath his ball cap. She immediately sees the pain in his face, and her resolve softens as she climbs into his car. Her heart aches as his voice starts to break, but the hint of grief passes while they plan the evening. She expresses surprise to see that he's married, and his voice deepens, cracks again as he speaks volumes with sparse words. He has his wife's permission to be there this evening. He wants to drink, but she will be driving back home. Should they get a room or go to a bar? Another wave of empathic pain sweeps her at his next words.
"Did I tell you I lost my dad? Yeah, just a month ago, I'd been caring for him for four years...."
She's suddenly decisive, and they get a room. She knows the best relief for this particular need. She also knows he'll want to talk, after sex empties his emotional reservoir, and she tries not to think of herself as a psychologist.
He's pliant and agile, rough and assertive. His skill makes her smile, even as she winces. Her mind tries to reconcile the age on the man's profile and the age of the man in the bed. He mentions his time in Viet Nam and confirms her suspicions, but there's no confrontation. It's pointless to force the truth from him, because she just doesn't care. She lies sated while he drapes an arm across her waist. His words are filled with pride in hard work, his grandchildren, not so much when he speaks of his children. Images of a dark head crowd her mind's eye, she can't shake him even here. It makes her realize she's incapable of providing the comfort this gray haired man needs. He whispers again that she could spend the night, but she slowly shakes her head. She has a million reasons, but voices none. Her silence becomes more pronounced, she can find nothing in her head worth speaking aloud. His breathing relaxes, deepens, and she glances at the clock. She forces her mind to quiet while she watches the hour come to an end.
He awakens when she leaves his arms, and she dresses in silence. She wraps soft warm arms around his chest as he kisses her goodbye and she whispers "thank you" into his neck.
She is barely five miles down the road before the tears start. Tears of shame that she couldn't be sweeter, that she couldn't hold him and soothe his aching heart a moment longer.
He sits naked on the bed, head in hand, long after she closes the door.
She stands framed by a white screen door, the black of twilight behind her. She's holding a blanket, with a Rubbermaid box over it, and a hopeful smile crosses her pixie face. Before she even walks in, I stop her with a look.
"What have you got, honey?"
Her words come in a rush, as if to prevent me from saying no. "Well, Taylor had to go inside and I couldn't leave them outside by themselves all night, their mommy left them and those boys are mean and I thought maybe we could..."
"Honey, you KNOW we have a cat! We can't have those baby birds in here!"
"But I thought if we put them up high and I found them some worms, and, ohhhhh...." I squealed and ran for the door as one dark blob fell to the pavement. Plop, plop, and tears stream down my face as I babble "Move back honey watch your feet oh no oh no, ohmygod you poor babies." I scoop them up into the blanket that's now in MY hands. Their little heads bob, searching for a wing to snuggle under. Despondent, Scarlett follows me into the house, and her sobs are harmony to my own.
"I'm sorry mommy I didn't mean to drop them, but my hands were full and they slipped and..." I carefully arrange them on the blanket. The fat-bellied baby bird trio reminds me of the Ace of Clubs, with their heads under one another's wings. They have maybe thirty feathers between them, tipping awkward bony wings. I reflect on the resilience of wild things that live in trees. Baby birds seem to be made of rubber, the way they survive a fall from such heights. But there are no limbs at odd angles, no painful chirps, no little necks seem broken. I sit on my sofa and try to remember what I know.
Scarlett's litany continues "I know Ming won't bother them Mommy, we'll put them up high where its warm. They're so cold Mommy, can't we warm them up somehow? What if we pray? Couldn't we pray that Jesus will keep them safe?" The tears on her face are a mirror of mine.
I search quickly on an avian website, which confirms what I know - return them to their nest, or leave them alone, and the adult birds will find them and care for them on the ground. Returning them to their nest is not possible, it's two stories up, and the girls have moved them more than once already. There are dogs and cats that wander these yards, and cruel little boys run the sidewalks. Naked birds don't stand a chance. None of the alternatives are feasible, and I wrack my brain for ideas.
With a sigh I lead my daughter out the door. Sweet grass replaces the blanket, and the babies are laid on top. They're so sleepy as they soak up one another's heat; they're breathing, which is all I can hope for. We walk to a secluded spot beneath the tree, and place the box too close to the ground to satisfy me. My mind screams protest - It's too cold, I don't see any birds around, I KNOW those brats will hurt them! But its all we can do.
We pray - that Jesus will keep the babies safe, but more importantly, that Jesus will give us peace with what we will find tomorrow. As we walk back into the house I remind Scarlett that we've done all we can, and we must accept whatever fate is dealt the birds.
She says "I know Mommy. It's the circle of life, just like in the movie."
I answered the phone, and the voice on the other end made me lose my breath. 45 minutes later he was at my doorstep, and my heart was trying its damnedest to get out of my chest as I let him in. No matter how much we talk, his voice always makes my skin burn, and seeing him in my house, having his focus even for these few moments, is enough to make me ache to be touched.
He fiddled with the stereo, popped in the cd he brought with him, and pulled me to the center of the room. I hadn’t bothered turning on the lights, the moon and the streetlamp were more than enough as he wrapped his arms around me and kissed my cheek. The music started, and I immediately recognized an old Billy Joel song that I had been singing in the car quite a bit lately. But there was a difference. It was subtle and I looked up at him, about to ask what was different when the voice, his own voice poured out of the speakers. The incredulous look on my face made him laugh, as tears welled in my eyes and I whispered "How did you know?"
"Shhhh..." was the only response before he bent and kissed me, his moustache brushing over my lip as he caressed it with his tongue, sliding it gently inside as the firm warmth of his lips covered mine, turning my mind to mush. Brief, too brief, before he moved to my ear and murmured "Its you. Listen."
Some people live with the fear of a touch
And the anger of having being a fool
They will not listen to anyone
So nobody tells them a lie
The voice on the cd made me shiver, and I pressed my lips against his neck. I’d loved listening to him from the first song I’d ever heard him sing. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would ever hear him sing to me. I unconsciously hummed the harmony while I buried my face beneath his jaw, his chest vibrating against mine as he hummed along too, and I smiled at the feel of it.
I'm not above being cool for a while
If you're cruel to me, I'll understand
I am an innocent man
Oh yes, I am an innocent man