CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Marguerite W. Sullivan
She hired a man to build a gazebo for her. The yard was green and grassy as any, but in an absent moment called out for a structure beyond its billowing color. She had been staring out the window talking on the phone when she knew. These were the sorts of visions that seized her from time to time.
He was someone fond of gazebos, he said, but his face betrayed him, whiskering back a mockery. In his beginnings were the telltale marks of an ignominy that only much later occurred to her, unspecific as such signs initially were. But she was taken in by some joviality, some irrepressible positivism in his manner.
She had seen the gazebo in a magazine, whether before or after her vision was immaterial. It was the quaintness she was after, or the quaint quality of time the structure might afford, even guarantee, the way she would spend time in it in a new sort of coziness, with a heightened propriety of time, as though the hours in it would produce something otherwise wholly unattainable, something truly belonging to her, and even then be something expressed in the world as hers alone, as though something retained from childhood might be reestablished, some immanent sense of freedom, something in a cup she could hold, as though the time would come to her in a froth and a surge that resembled something of some other time, some lost and bemoaned time, that was the best way she could define it.
He piled the dirt beside the pool so particles blew in. He stacked wood on the grass and let it sit for weeks. He banged erratically at lunchtime, a rhythm of bullfrogs. Sandpaper fluttering in the grass. Three sprinklers beheaded. Cigarette butts accrued near the fence (did he really smoke?). Sawdust in the geraniums. Later, he brought a radio and filled the blue with yammering guitars.
When he spoke to her he turned away, so she would have to get quite close to him, have to stand just behind his shoulder and repeat her question and hope to catch his words as they fell from his mouth down the front of his body. Invariably she pretended to hear him, averring this with a series of eager yeses.
Her husband wanted to know what was taking so long, why the bills were inflated, what right the man had to inflate the bills in this way, to diddle with his time like that, her husband wanted to hold something in his hand, some assurance that progress was real, her husband made a fist and blinked back something in his eye from the train, leaving the room in a string of small curses. Later, when the business of the day was done, she assured him he would use it more than he could ever guess, but he did not look up.
The painter failed to return her calls or show up. The time was like a box labeled PAINT placed where she would trip over it.
Her neighbor wondered why she had put it where she had, just in the middle of the line of vision. Why not to the side of the garage. She fingered her croissant and called the woman an idiot.
The builder stopped coming without so much as a goodbye. The brown rectangle where he had kept the wood swam freely in the eye.
The green turned out brighter than she wanted. The painter shrugged his shoulders and asked her for something cold to drink.
The autumn rains fell upon the blazing pentagon with three steps. She gazed out at it and clicked her tongue. Somehow the size was wrong; it resembled an overgrown birdcage. And that was not all, no, though she didn’t want to think further, the critical act was terrifying in its open-endedness. In what ways the size could be addressed now, after the end had come, escaped her. Perhaps it called for some manner of bird life. There was a thought.
She put on her coat and skipped across the wet grass and ran up the steps. Even her exhilaration couldn’t keep her eye from the bald spot of wood beneath the rim that the painter had missed. Obviously, you couldn’t sit without having your eye drawn to it.
The crows cawed in the pines. The space inside was filled with the shushing of the rain. She pictured a green parrot and listened for its exotic sounds. Wouldn’t a parrot talk? she uttered unselfconsciously. Her voice jarred on the surface of rain like something dropped off a table. Right there, a hanging cage. She imagined calling him, asking him to pick up the wood scraps where the chrysanthemums were trying to grow. She wanted to see him again, but at the beginning. To start at the beginning. Ridiculous. The parrot might need to come in the house each night. She spotted a shimmer of nails congregating in the grass as she rubbed the chill from her arms and ran down the stairs. It would say things, she would make sure it would say Good morning, Margaret, though this was not her name, not even close.
I was thinking you might have been a musician. I was thinking it a long time, however unwittingly. Not for your hands, which hang about in the air like unripe fruits, nor for your tempo, which I learn thoroughly as it shuts the doors and windows with the same contempt for quiet, nor for your ear, which I imagine remains hollowed out by the sound of your own footsteps, but perhaps since I don’t like to think that as you are you are, a sunset broken into separate swollen colors, and since too you sit so far off, in the company of your friends and family, sit remotely, feet flat on the ground, eyes narrowing as you watch the birds, like notes themselves trailing across the landscape, as if all the while you were wrestling under some elusive score. I was thinking such things all these years, thirsty as I was, for every day the sun seemed to intensify its heat, the objects waiting in the sun, at one time vital in their poses, became more liquid, began sticking in their ooze, and we tried to find relief in talk, we said to each other the small things out of our thirst (about which we never talked), talked lovingly of the things that wanted nothing of us, the dishes, old shoes, the time of day and the time of night, the temperature, we loved that we could say something from the common throat of our thirst, something sudden and wooden to begin with, breakfast, what time tomorrow, in our words, wasn’t there, the stupor of our love found out?
Then I was thinking you might have become a musician. A little practice, a little desire on your part. You would have been a natural, I was sure of it. At the age of ten, you would have found your instrument, your place, your chair, feet flat on the ground, it happens every day, in fact I might have wished it on myself, a place, a chair, a group of strings or reeds bearing out my breath, my neck tweaked, feet flat, back stiff, a puttylike face redrawing the shapes of someone else’s mind, my purpose splayed across a black and white page, the black and white of it final—can you hear yourself humming all those years ago?
I remember when I first thought of your life in music. You used to, you know, run your fingers over the keys—it was impossibly long ago, so little of it do I remember that I must admit the possibility that it didn’t happen at all. The one song would come and go haply, you played it loosely, as if it were a bit of fabric that waved in your line of vision, and you flailed it around to get clear of it, but even so people reeled a bit, even the slightest attempt on your part affected them, moved them. How much time has passed since you played it, just that beginning, the first notes always sullen and pathetic upon the adumbrated world, your hands hanging on to the rope of their sound? It must be years now, what resembles years, the people have long gone home, the time has gone by without any songs, or the mention of any songs, the time has got round your hands like twine and yet all the time they are free—how it hurts, I see in your white wrists the hurt of free, unconditional, and yet all unable now to pluck a note, the music stripped from you in ribs, the sunlight bandaging you into your words—I am always hearing the long absence you have become, thinking as I do, somewhat shrilly, that you are a fine musician.
When we go for our walks at night, I can hear in your footsteps on the gravel a sure resonance of things to come, of all the time counted out, the nights to come, nights so fitfully alike, like this one and that one, the one in which you pretend to hum the first notes, the one in which I listen so closely for the rustle of your pant legs or the littlest melody issuing out of your wakefulness, over and against which the night withdraws, leaving you and me and the music, your music, tethered to one another in the quiet, though the littlest melody is issuing out of your stride, I can just make it out and am afraid since as you are you are. All that I like to think and don’t like to think takes me to the same place: sitting, near you, as you are, far off in your music, steeped in it, sitting atop the things, in full vitality, being again today as they are, mired in their ooze, all of a sudden I might tell you what’s happened, I might start over, and there you are, too full in your thirst, dumbfounded in it, far off, steeped. I tell others of your life as a musician, the trials and the applause, the endless years of labor, your work makes you who you are, the inscrutable nature of it is difficult to describe to others, but I tell them as they go by, the beauty of it astonishes them, I tell it dumbfounded, they reel at the beauty of it all, the others, a little less weary for the sound of it.
Marguerite Sullivan’s work has appeared in elimae, First Intensity, and Clackamas Literary Review, and is forthcoming from NOON, Anemone Sidecar, and RHINO. She is the author of two novels and is at work on a second book of short fiction in southern Vermont, where she lives with her two children.