I went home with a woman from the bar, which is something I never do. She had black hair with a long streak of grey in it, and I thought she looked tragic and romantic. She reminded me of my aunt Dolorosa, who grew a grey streak after all her stargazers died at once.
Unlike my aunt, this woman had wings. They were large and white and she kept them tucked neatly back, almost out of sight. I was fascinated. For a long time I sat and stared at them, wondering how they might feel. Smooth as silk in one direction, then crisp against a fingertip pushed the other way. As I was thinking, I realized she was watching me back. I’m not much to look at—I have the same chin as all the men in my family—but she must have seen something good in me, because she smiled.
I went over and bought her a beer. Her lips were thin and almost purple, and she had shadows under her eyes. We made small talk for a few minutes, and then she seemed to sort of gather up her nerve. All in a rush, she said, “Would you like to come home with me?”
I hesitated, then said, “Sure.” I wasn’t sure this was how it was supposed to go. I knew people did this all the time—went home with other people, did devilish things. But I had no experience in this area. And this woman had wings. I found myself wishing I’d gone home with a wingless woman at least once, just to get a feel for things. But it was too late, I’d agreed. She picked up her purse and I moved the table so she could get up.
As we were leaving I walked behind, because it was the gentlemanly thing to do and also took a closer look at her wings. It had occurred to me that they might be false, and I couldn’t decide whether that would be a disappointment or a relief. They didn’t look false. She was wearing a shirt with thin straps and I could see where the wings joined onto her body just inside of her shoulder blades. There was a sort of a knob. All of the feathers were white and clean. The longest would have reached from my elbow to the end of my middle finger.
We went out and looked around for a taxi. It was cold and the sky was very high up, with tiny little stars the size of carpet tacks. Standing there, I remembered reading that a full-grown trumpeter swan could break a man’s arm.
A taxi pulled up and we got in. I was looking for my seat belt when she told the driver where to go.
The taxi driver hit the accelerator and we took off fast. I said, “Whoah.” Nobody paid any attention. We got onto the freeway and headed for the hills. In a couple of minutes there was nothing around except billboards and warehouses. I turned to her and said, “Do you live in the hills then?” trying to sound interested instead of panicked. She smiled.
“It’s beautiful out here. You can see all the stars.”
“I love stars,” I said. Then I pinched my own leg, where she couldn’t see it.
“We’re very happy.”
The word ‘we’ doubled my anxiety. I wondered if she had a husband or a boyfriend, and if so what he would do when I arrived on his doorstep at midnight. I started to make up excuses for why I couldn’t stay—I had a headache, I had a stomachache.
The driver swerved onto an exit, then up a dark road. I held on to the edge of the seat.
“How far out do you live?” I asked.
“We’re getting close.”
We went higher and higher into the hills. I’d completely forgotten about her wings, and I had just about decided that I was going to go with headache, when we skidded into the gravel shoulder.
She gave the driver some money and slipped out. I sat trying to decide what to do. In tense situations I can never tell what I really want. It seemed easiest to just get out with her, so I did.
The taxi left. It was dark all around but when my eyes adjusted I saw her wings glowing a little way ahead. She was waiting for me to catch up.
When I did, she said, “Look at the stars.” I looked up and she was right, they were beautiful. I could see more of them than I’d ever seen in the city. Also, it seemed as if I could see more of the darkness between them. As I kept staring into the spaces between the stars, I found I could pick out even tinier stars I hadn’t been able to see at first. The sky changed from a few stars in a lot of black into a shimmering greyness with stars in every part.
“Wow.” It was all I could think of to say. I reached out for her hand, thinking this was the moment for it. But she turned and started up the path. I followed.
“Is your house near here?” I asked. Somehow she’d gotten so far ahead of me I could barely see her wings. I walked faster, but she kept getting ahead. Her wings got even fainter and I started to run through scrub brush and low trees. I had a sudden fear of getting lost. It seemed to me that if I lost sight of her wings I’d be stuck on the hillside forever. Her wings disappeared. Then I tripped and fell.
She caught me, and I realized that I hadn’t been able to see her wings because she’d turned around to face me. We were standing in front of a house with all its lights turned out. I could just see the outline of the roof blocking out the stars in a triangle over our heads. “Sshh,” she said.
She knelt down, got out a key from somewhere, and opened the door. “Come on.”
I went up the steps, feeling with my feet. It was quiet. I remembered her saying “we” back in the cab. “Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
I followed her in.
It was too dark to see anything but the air smelled dusty or stuffy, like how a bird’s nest smells when you find one on the ground in the spring and put it up to your face. She lit a match, and then a lamp of some kind. We were standing in a small, dirty kitchen, with lots of cabinets and a big white sink full of dishes. She was holding an old-fashioned kerosene lamp with a glass chimney.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We aren’t on electricity.”
“Oh,” I said. I wondered how often, when you go home with someone from a bar, they don’t have electricity.
“We have an icebox,” she said. “Would you like something to eat?”
“No thank you,” I said.
“If you’re going to,” I said.
“Okay,” I said.
She left the lantern on the kitchen table, which was made from a couple of plywood planks nailed together. There were two plastic place mats on top of it. One was a tiger and the other was a rabbit. They were the same kind of place mats we had when I was a kid. Mine was a lamb.
“I like your place mats,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. “The tiger is mine.” She put a bottle on the table and went back for glasses.
There were only two chairs. One was missing a rung between its legs. The other had bite marks, or claw marks, on the corner of the seat. The floor was raw wood. Instead of a stove there was a hot plate connected to a small propane tank beside the sink. “This is the hard part,” she said, and laughed as she screwed a corkscrew into the cork. The cork didn’t move when she pulled. She pulled harder, until the muscles in her arms stood out. She had very strong-looking arms.
“Jesus,” she said. She put the bottle between her knees and kept pulling. Her wings raised up and fluttered. Her face was going red. As she kept pulling, her wings jerked and spread halfway out. They pushed at the air and she lifted off the floor. I felt the breeze. The cork popped out.
“Phew,” she said. She’d come back to earth again. She looked down at her feet. “I do that every time.”
She’d spilled a little wine. She put the bottle down and got a rag from the sink. “You pour.” When she crouched to wipe up the wine I stared at her wings, which were twitching and rearranging themselves, the way a duck’s wings do after it lands in the water. I picked up the wine and poured two glasses. I put a little extra into mine.
“Salud,” she said tossing the rag into the sink and picking up her glass. I raised my glass back to her. “Salud.”
The wine was sour, but I drank it quickly and didn’t argue when she poured more into my glass. I bolted that too, and let her fill my glass a third time. Then the two glasses of wine made it to my head all at once and I just stood there.
“Would you like to sit down?” she asked. I said, “Yes,” and then I was sitting. I had the rabbit placemat and she took the tiger.
“Well.” She was still drinking her first glass.
“I don’t usually drink,” I said.
“No, you don’t have a drinking kind of face.”
We sat in silence.
“Do you own this house yourself?” I said at last.
“Yes,” she said, “I built it. But we’re going to lose it soon because they’re rezoning the hillside.”
“That’s horrible.” It seemed truly horrible to me. “How long have you lived here?”
“Years,” she said. “Years and years, but they’re rezoning to run electrical towers all the way up to the top of the hill. They keep putting up signs and there’s nothing I can do.”
“There’s already too much electricity in town. Why do they need more?”
She shrugged and poured us both more wine. The room was darker than I’d thought. Now that I knew about the towers it seemed smaller and more tragic.
“I don’t think,” I started to say, but she looked up suddenly.
“Sshh,” she said. I couldn’t hear a thing.
“Wait here.” She got up from the table and walked out of the room, leaving me with the wine and the lamp and the placemats. I heard her go up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs I heard a whispered conversation. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but at least it didn’t sound like she was talking to a man. Her voice was gently reprimanding, then more insistent. I looked down at my glass. It was empty. Then she walked back into the kitchen and sat down again at the tiger.
“Yes,” she said, as if she’d never got up at all. “It’s a shame, but we’ll find somewhere to go. We always do.”
Then she looked over my shoulder and sighed. “I thought you were going back to bed.”
I turned around and saw a young boy, maybe eight or ten years old, standing in the doorway. He was wearing flannel pajamas with stars and rockets on them. His hair was standing up.
“Well all right,” she said. “But no monkey business. Come sit on my lap.”
The boy didn’t move. He was staring at me. There was something strange about his face. His mouth was open and I could see the tip of his tongue between his lips. His cheeks were flat and his forehead was very broad. He was breathing loudly.
After a minute he turned and ran back into the darkness of the other room. His feet hammered up the stairs, ran back and forth a couple of times, and then came back down like a machine gun. At the bottom of the stairs there was silence.
“Stop that,” she said. “I said no monkey business.”
A sound came from the other room, like wheezing or gasping. For a moment I thought he was choking and then I realized he was laughing.
“That’s his monkey noise,” she said. “Come in here where I can see you, monkey. Sit down and have a nice banana.”
That did the trick. He ran into the kitchen and jumped into her lap. She cradled him in her arms and he laughed again, but his eyes were on me and he wasn’t smiling.
“Will you do me a favor,” she said, looking down at him. “Will you go to the cupboard and get a banana for this monkey?”
“Of course.” I got up and went to the cupboard. In fact, I just sort of drifted there without moving my feet at all. Inside the cupboard there were six or seven bottles of wine and a bunch of bananas. I took a banana from the bunch and went back to the table.
“Here you go. One banana.”
She took it, while he lay in her arms and looked up at me with flat eyes and an open mouth. His gums were red and his teeth looked white and sharp.
She slit the banana skin at the base with her thumbnail, laid it on the table, and pushed the fruit out with the palm of her hand. It was the neatest job of peeling a banana I had ever seen.
“Please help yourself to more wine,” she said, without looking up. I sat down and poured the rest of the wine into my glass. Then I drank and watched her feed the boy the banana. She put the tip of it into his mouth and he sucked on it like it was a bottle, with his cheeks moving in and out. The whole time he kept his eyes on me. The end of the banana collapsed into his mouth and he swallowed it and kept sucking.
“Somebody has monkey table manners,” she said fondly. The boy’s eyes moved to her for just an instant and then back to me again. “This is Daniel. Daniel, say hello to our guest.”
Daniel said nothing so I said, “Hello Daniel.” I felt stilted and hot, and I couldn’t remember what had possessed me to go up to her in the bar.
“There’s another bottle in the cupboard,” she said, and again I got up without moving my feet and brought back the bottle. I didn’t want any more to drink, personally.
“The corkscrew is on the counter,” she said. I put the tip of the screw against the cork and screwed it in. Then I held the neck of the bottle in one hand and the screw in the other, and tugged gently so that I could say it wouldn’t come out. It came out easily and didn’t spill at all.
“You’re good at that,” she said. She had almost finished feeding Daniel the banana. I felt ridiculous, as if the lamp were a spotlight and I had just completed a circus act. I made a little bow. Daniel sucked the last of the banana down with a slurping sound.
“Disgusting monkey,” she said, but still in a gentle tone. “Pour me some more wine?” I poured more into her glass and she held it to Daniel’s mouth.
“Is that a good idea?” I asked. I thought it was probably a very bad idea, but then I have no children. In Europe they all drink wine from before they can walk and it doesn’t hurt them.
“He likes it,” she said. Daniel drank the wine in a few loud gulps. While he was drinking he kept his eyes on her face but as soon as she took the glass away his eyes came back to me.
“I’ll have some more too please,” she said. I stood there until I realized that I was still holding the bottle in one hand, and then I poured more into her glass. She was wiping wine away from the corners of Daniel’s mouth.
“All right monkey,” she said. “Your time here is just about done.”
Daniel smiled. His mouth was horribly dark inside from the wine. He jumped down from her lap and stood in the middle of the room with his bare feet planted and his mouth open, smiling.
“Daniel,” she said in a warning tone.
He burst out laughing and shot past me into the dark room behind. There was a crash and a thump. She stood up and called, “Daniel,” louder this time. He was still going. We heard him go halfway up the staircase and stop. Then he must have jumped down, because there was a second of silence and then a loud thump and a stumbling noise. Then something else crashed.
“Will he hurt himself?” I asked, putting down the wine bottle.
“Hold onto that,” she said, getting up. Her wings were twitching the way pigeons’ wings do when they’re trying to decide if you’re going to chase them. I picked the bottle up and cradled it against my chest.
He came back in at a run, made a circle of the kitchen, and knocked the corkscrew to the floor. Then he disappeared back into the dark room. There was more crashing and laughter.
“He’s upset,” she said. “Because we’re going to lose the house. He thinks you’re here to take it.”
“But I’m not,” I said. “I mean, I’m sorry. What can I do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Daniel. Stop that.”
He did stop then, very suddenly. And then just as suddenly he came running back into the kitchen and hurled himself against the counter. He bounced off the counter and hit the kitchen table and knocked both glasses to the floor. One of them broke and the other rolled up against the wall. He bounced off the table and hit the doorframe and bounced off that and hit the sink. He was grinning and laughing in a high-pitched voice.
“Look out,” I said. “There’s glass.”
“Daniel,” she said. “Daniel, stop that.”
“He’s going to cut himself,” I said, and right as I said that I saw one of his feet come down squarely on a shard of glass. When he lifted it up there was blood. He didn’t seem to feel it. He kept on running around the room, leaving a blood track. I put the wine bottle in the sink and crouched down to pick up the pieces of glass beneath the table.
“Look out,” she said, and then a flannel rocket-and-star-covered knee crashed into my head. I toppled over. “Daniel,” she said, then leaned forward and jerked the gas lamp off the table above me. I looked up and saw her holding it up over her head with the light spilling down over her hair and neck and wings. She was wincing because the lamp was hot. She stood like that for a second, then turned and put the lamp in the sink with the bottle of wine.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m okay.” I crawled out from under the table. Even in the very little light you could see blood all over the floor.
“Oh Daniel,” she said.
“Do you want me to grab him?” I asked. I was hoping she would say no.
“That won’t work,” she said. “Just stand back.”
I didn’t think she meant it literally until she made an impatient gesture. I took a step back, then another. I kept taking steps until I was standing in the doorway, and then she turned around to face Daniel again.
“Daniel,” she said. “Look at me.” She glanced around to make sure there was room, and then she opened her wings. She did it slowly, bringing them up first over her head still bent like elbows then quivering them a second or two and then gradually opening them out. They were gigantic, maybe ten feet across. They barely fit inside the room. They were very white and they shone like flames.
Daniel had stopped bouncing and was looking at her. He was facing the wall but he’d turned his head and was looking back over his shoulder with a line of pink saliva running from the corner of his mouth. His eyes were fixed on her wings. Then he just turned around and walked across the room and reached up to stroke her feathers.
“He likes them,” she said, looking down at him with her hands at her sides. “He thinks they’re his.”
I was still in the doorway, and I couldn’t see any way to get out because her wings took up the whole room. I stood there while Daniel stroked her feathers.
“All right,” she said finally. “That’s enough.” She folded her wings up one two three, like folding up a fan. The feathers shivered and lay still against her back.
She got the rag from the sink and knelt down to clean his foot. He braced himself on her shoulder and smiled, playing with her feathers with his free hand.
“Will he have them too?” I asked, without thinking. I could imagine little nubs growing from between his shoulder blades beneath the rocket ships and stars.
“No,” she said. “I’m not his mother. I’m his sister. He won’t have wings.”
“Oh,” I said. “I see.” She finished sponging his foot and pressed a wad of paper towels to the cut.
“It’s late,” she said. Daniel put his arms around her neck and she clasped him around his waist and stood up with him in her arms. He wrapped his legs around her. “Bedtime,” she said.
We stood facing each other. I didn’t know what to say.
Finally she said, “He won’t sleep unless I’m there with him.”
“Of course,” I said. “I understand.”
“There’s a couch in the next room. It folds out into a bed.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But I think I should be going.”
“We don’t have a phone. You can’t call a taxi.”
“It’s all right.”
She looked at me, and then didn’t say whatever she was thinking.
“All right,” she said, instead. “Maybe we’ll meet another time.”
“Maybe we will.”
She looked tired and lonely, and I wondered if she brought a lot of men home from bars, or if she was like me and it was just something she’d tried out, knowing it probably wouldn’t work.
“Good night,” she said.
She turned to go and I saw Daniel’s face over her shoulder. His eyes were almost sideways with sleepiness, and his fingers were fitted in her wings.
“I’m sorry about the house,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. She was almost out of the room, almost gone. “So am I.”
I went out the front door and stood a while to let my eyes get used to the night outside. At first the sky was mostly black, but the longer I stood there the more stars I could see. Soon there was enough light for me to see the path and start to walk.