Fiction Page 26
THE BLACK OWL
Lawrence R. Dagstine
Funny how one bit of cooperation leads to another.
The pair had had a tiring day, and they surrendered to their pillows with remarkable docility. Brenda had changed into a faded blue nightgown that bellied out as she leaned over little Ritchie and kissed him good night. As Todd watched the goodnight ritual he again felt the now familiar yearning for things missed¾until with a pang of awe he realized he was now a stepfather, and would be part of this tableau every night. It was only twenty minutes ago that he found himself beside her, helping her get the boys ready for bed.
She moved over to the crib to kiss Baby Ralph. Abruptly Todd stepped forward and demanded, "I wanna kiss Ralphie good night."
It felt so…so genuine. He'd never kissed her children good night before, had never guessed how it got to your insides and warmed you from there out.
"Night, Mr Skillman." The child was only three, thus unsure of himself.
"I'm Todd…or how about dad?"
When Todd rose from the bed, Baby Ralph was no longer lying down. He was standing at the rail of his crib, with his mouth plump and his eyes unblinking, watching. Baby Ralph, who imitated everything his older brother did.
It was Brenda's turn. She bent to kiss Baby Ralph, too. Lord a-mighty, he'd never have guessed how a pair of parental goodnight kisses could make a child like himself feel¾wanted. Loved. "Night, little man."
"G'night, Ritch¾" Todd stuttered for a moment.
Never before had Todd spoken the boy's name at night. The distorted pronunciation went straight to the man's heart as he watched Brenda settle the boy down again (he had forgotten to wash his hands and face). Then she joined him in the doorway, where for a moment they stood shoulder to shoulder, studying the children. A closeness stole over them, binding them with a faith in better things to come.
Leaving the boys' door ajar, they stepped into the front room. It was dark but for the trailing light from the boys' Sesame Street night-light and another on the kitchen table. Todd stood there, searching for a way to express the fullness in his heart, but there was no way to explain what the last ten minutes had meant to him. He could only waggle his head in wonder. Oh, and of course there was that bird perched on the tree outside the window…that spooky owl. "That's somethin', isn't it?"
She understood. His surprise and wonder said it all; what she did not know that half of it was geared towards the feathered creature.
"I want you to know I'll do right by them," he said soberly.
"Oh, Todd…I know that. That's why I married you."
Their gazes met momentarily. They searched for something to say, perhaps something to do. But it was bedtime; there was only one thing to do. Yet both of them were reluctant to suggest it.
Somebody had to break the ice.
"Are you tired?" he finally asked.
"No," she replied too quickly, too wide-eyed. Then, "Well…yes, a little."
Todd shook his head. "I guess I'll step out back, then. I need to catch up on some writing."
When he was gone, she got ready for bed in record time. By the time he had finished two pages and reentered the kitchen, she was safely under the covers, the quilts tucked to her armpits, grinning. She heard him cross the front room and pause outside the bedroom door. She stared at the doorway, imagining him gathering courage. "Come in, Todd."
Fortifying himself with a deep breath, Todd entered to find Brenda lying on her back, her stomach forming a high mound beneath the quilts. Her auburn hair lay against the white pillow, and her cheeks wore two blots of pink, as if some Avon lady had snuck in and placed a dab of blush upon each.
He swept a slow glance across the room¾curtainless windows, homemade rug, iron bedstead painted white, bedside table with a lamp on it, and a bureau.
He crossed the room and faced the wall as he pulled his shoes off, wanting to impose nothing on her, not even glimpses of his bare skin.
She watched him unbutton his shirt, shrug it off, fling it on the doorknob. He was tapered as a turnip from shoulder to waist, and his arms had filled out considerably in the two months since their honeymoon. He sat down on the edge of the mattress, removed his socks and threw them aside. Without standing, he unzipped his pants and left them on the floor. Then, with one fluid motion, he climbed into bed and stretched out beside her with his arms behind his head.
They stared at the ceiling, lying like matched bookends, making sure not so much as the hair on their arms brushed. Todd glanced out the window briefly. There was that strange bird again, the one that frequented his tree, and every night. And perched on that same old dried-up branch with no leaves on it.
Then he whispered, "Honey, do you know if there's an Audubon Society or local bird-watching association in our town?"
"I don't know, dear, why?" Brenda asked him.
"Well, it's the strangest thing¾ever since we got married and bought this house up here in Vermont, I feel like I've become closer to nature."
Brenda was looking for something else. "Oh, and I thought you might have felt closer to the kids. But nevertheless, dear, you're still confusing me."
"I do love the kids, Brenda. I love them as if they were my own. What I'm trying to say is that every night before I fall asleep I see a black-winged owl outside our window."
"You do?" Brenda didn't understand the relevance of this.
"Yep, he just sits there on that rickety branch of that old oak tree, waiting for his prey," Todd said. "And the weirdest thing is he doesn't even hoot. Not a peep out of him. He's a quiet owl. He uses his eyes for contact instead…stares at me night after night as I try to fall asleep…almost in fixation."
"You can turn the lights down," Brenda said. "Maybe that's why he looks in so much."
He rolled over and dimmed the light, enhancing the placidity of the shadows. "How's that?"
Again he stretched flat. They both lay with hands folded primly over quilts, tensing instead of relaxing. Todd chuckled. "We gonna lay in this bed every night and pretend the other one isn't looking for something?"
Brenda smiled. She blew out a long breath. It was almost a relief to simply acknowledge that there was another person in the bed. Her first husband hadn't even been there for her. "I been jumpy as a flea since supper."
"You mean horny?"
"Yeah, somethin' like that wise ass." She laughed to herself.
They mulled things over silently for some time before Todd remarked, "A very strange wedding we had. Sorry about the minister and the kiss, you know."
"It wasn't so bad. We lived through it, didn't we?"
"Yeah, we lived through it. Though the honeymoon could have been longer." He crossed his hands behind his head again and contemplated the ceiling. "Hun, can I ask you something?"
"You afraid of the dark?"
She took her time answering; and she hoped this had nothing to do with that damn owl again. "Not afraid exactly…. Well, maybe some." She thought for a moment. "Yeah, maybe. You been sleepin' with a night-light for so long I don't know anymore." And she wasn't being sarcastic when she said this. Really.
Todd turned his head to study her profile. "Why?"
Her eyes met his, and she thought about her fanatic parents, her mother, her lonely childhood, her bad memories from school, all those lost years behind the green shades. But to talk about it would make her seem eccentric in his eyes¾ or manic-depressive like her mother¾and she didn't want that. Neither did she want to ruin this marriage with painful memories. "Does it matter?"
Todd studied her green eyes, wishing she'd confide in him, tell him the facts about what was really eating her. "No," he said softly. "I guess it doesn't."
Brenda lay in silence, adjusting to the feeling of his nearness. Outside, the black-winged owl twisted his head round and round, searching the grass for a cricket or perhaps a field mouse. "Tell me about you," she said at last. "Where you went to school, where you lived as a child…how you ended up tying the knot with me." The last part of her sentence was followed with a grin.
"I lived in Utah, mostly foster homes. I think Iowa for a while too. Sometimes people would take me in. I got belted a lot. All except for one place. The people there used to read to me every night. The mother was kind, and she had green eyes¾the prettiest green eyes. And you know what?"
"What?" Brenda turned her face to him.
Smiling, he told her, "The first time I walked into your apartment to deliver that computer that was what I liked best about you. Our paths crossing. Your green eyes."
For a moment they gazed at each other until their feelings came close to surfacing. But something stood in the way. Then Brenda said, "Tell me more."
"The last place I lived was with a family named Wilkinson, on a farm outside of Des Moines. I was almost eighteen. The old man's watch came up missing, and I figured he'd pin the blame on me, so I broke out. I had thirty dollars saved up. I caught a bus and headed east, with only one change of clothes and a few bags of potato chips to eat. From then until my twenties I was on the road. Then I met someone beautiful."
"But you had a family," Brenda said. "You were married once too." She dare not bring up the tragic car accident.
"A family but no friends. I'll bet you at least had friends." He shrugged even the slightest memory of them off.
"So what'd you do?"
"This ain't much of a subject for a couple of newlyweds. You know practically everything about me already."
"Go on. Tell me. What'd you do?"
"All right. You asked, I'll tell you. I used to go down to the strip to the welfare hotel there. Saturday nights I'd get all fancied up and blow my money on booze and floozies. Got to liking this one named Lola. A waitress. I had it bad for her."
Brenda knew about Lola, had even met her just before their engagement. "Go on," she said slight angrily.
Todd didn't want to go on. He was having trouble now shrugging off those memories. He'd never imagined happiness such as he knew in the days of good ol' Lola. Only one thing disturbed him in those days: she'd make her presence known everywhere and all the time. Even surprise kissed him one day in back of a Taco Bell driveway, while pulling the boys in the wagon. Luckily for him Brenda wasn't there.
One evening of a week within starting a new computer repair job, she walked in the back door of the warehouse and found Todd installing some microchips. "I knew I'd find y' eventually. So, sugar, where y' been hidin'?"
Todd jumped and swung around, startled by her voice. He was with Brenda a while by now. "We're closed, ma'am."
"Well now, so's the diner across the street, `cause I just locked up. I wish y' would come around more often, order y' usual egg salad sandwich." But naturally Todd didn't come around for a reason. "You thought any more about what I said, sugar?" Lola went on seductively. She draped herself against the doorframe. "A man like you makes a girl lay awake nights. Figured maybe you lay awake, too, what with that woman of yours. No sense us both losin' sleep now, is there?"
"I'm happily engaged, Lola. It's over. And I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave `cause I got work to do."
"You're blushin', sugar, you know that? Must mean you're hot. Let's have us a look."
She came forward to touch his crotch, but he grabbed her wrist and held it at bay. "Damn it, Lola, I said fuck off!"
Her eyes took fire, radiating excitement. "Well, that's an improvement. I bet you're hard as granite right about now."
"I don't want you comin' here again. Understand?"
"Some men don't know what they want," she challenged, then left. She had left her panties behind¾bright pink¾hanging on the doorknob.
Todd felt violated, angry, and guilty. That night, returning to Brenda, he held feelings inside, afraid to tell her about Lola, afraid to jeopardize their relationship. Afraid to jeopardize their closeness for each other.
Todd opened his eyes and fixed them on the ceiling. "She stopped coming around after that. I told her boss at the diner this sob story about how I contracted a venereal disease, along with two other guys on my job. The guy fell for it¾told her to leave me be."
"Or what?" Brenda sat up.
"Or else she was fired. But he wasn't stupid. That cook knew what kind of woman Lola was. I had an on and off romance with her for five years, but it still doesn't compare to the two that I know you." He kissed Brenda on the nose and ran his hand through his hair and sighed. "How'd we get on this subject anyway?"
"It all started with that silly owl," Brenda said. "Then you asking me if I was afraid of the dark. Then me asking you…. Well, about you." The mood had grown somber, and as they lay side by side Brenda could think of little except Todd's parentless youth. She had always thought of herself the loneliest soul on earth…
Minutes later Todd turned to her and found she had fallen asleep, flat on her back, lips parted, her eyelashes lying like fans against her cheeks. He watched her breath, a strand of hair on her shoulder catching the light with each beat.
He flipped over in the opposite direction. The owl had flown off into the night. He closed his eyes and tried to forget that the night-light was on.