"A Closer Approximation"
by William F. Lantry


"And this did, actual, happen. This was so."
Henry, 15:4

"So perhaps lust is the ticket," I say, like I do all of the time but now walking along the Fenway this noon, when the light is rose on the inlet ice. It has been snowing, and it's going to snow. There aren't any cedars around, only shit-fruited ginkos, so I go across the field, heading for that immense monolith known to us mortals as the Hancock Building.

Lisa'll tell you it's a signal-- a replication of galactic lighthouses for wandering cosmonauts. She read about it in The Herald: "New Scraper Beacon for Betelguessers!" I'm not lying, I saw the headlines myself: "Betel's Beam Blocked by Barnes!" The Herald's like that, I told her-- it's always Japs and Nics. Line the birdcage with it. "You gotta read this, what if they come," she says, "You'd never find your ticket... " and she goes off to feed the jasmines

"It's a laminated plastic entry card," I say out loud as if to her, as my foot breaks through the snow crust over the inlet branch I thought was shorter. The card must look like that little piece of ice floating there, rectangular in a few feet of water-- cool, elegant, simple. I need it to get into the replica of that monolith on some distant shore. I constantly wonder, as now, how I'll find it: what strange trace will I be pursuing when I suddenly pause, turn to the south, and see it-- on the careless traveler's roadside altar.

"Putain de merde," the macaw screams as she flaps from my shoulder, getting an aerial view of the frigid situation. "Quelle saloperie." I always say that when I fall through the ice-- she's learning the phrases or all my recurring situations. When I told the committee I wanted a mockingbird, they remarked that such were reserved for deep south poets. The chairman whispered to me, "You're from a tropical port on a placid western sea: take the macaw before they give you a gooney bird." I took it. It wasn't the bird I needed but I took it, to my daily regret. I knew even then what a macaw meant; back home, I'd be out in the greenhouse tending the cattleyas, when I'd hear the screech wafting in on the onshore breeze. Then it was out of the greenhouse, into the foxglove bed, to watch the flash of crimson and sulfur squawk over on its way to pillage some old woman's fig tree. Even at two hundred feet, it was loud. So when I installed her in my fourth floor walk-up on Bay State Road, across the street from where an old man had declined, living off his checks from The Iceman Cometh, the din was nearly insupportable. A hyacinth macaw with a five foot wingspan can be heard at a range of two miles. Whenever it snows outside, her screeching bounces around the enclosing walls, and the she repeats my predictable assessments of the weather patterns.

I grab a broken branch and haul myself back up onto the ice and crawl to the now obvious shoreline. It starts snowing again; the crystals stick to my wet clothes, to my hair and beard. In a few minutes, I'm a short, fat, abominable ice creature, developing a three inch crust, with a hyacinth bird on my shoulder. "I gotta head back south and soon," she says, "where this crusty armor is not habitual." It breaks at my knees and hips, and I walk away from the fens and the inlet, heading towards the tower and Beacon Hill.

Lisa lives there, halfway up the hill, in an old brick apartment with gargantuan proportions and very little light. It's a great place for a macaw, but dancers don't get birds or animals, or even fish; they're assigned various kinds of flowering vines. Legend has it that Martha Graham nourished for years, perhaps still nourishes, a rare maurandia from the Yucatan in her summer cottage outside Providence. Lisa has bouganvillas and jasmines; she hasn't decided whether to stick to ballet or cleave to modern.

I pause a moment in front of her old teak door and scrape some of the snow off my face. Jessica shakes off her wings, and I flail at the lit-up doorbell, like a polar bear pawing at the red light of a lost oceanographer's homing beacon. The lit up name reads "El-kaiim": Lisa's father was from Carthage. Lisa's mother is a local, but a few years ago she left the apartment to her daughter and moved to Tahiti, where she wouldn't have to be constantly tending her plumerias.

The heavy door opens, and I enter the tropical environment. The crust starts melting all over the Persian carpet; I put Jesse on one of the bouganvillas, crack the armor, and throw my encrusted attire into the irregular basin Lisa devised last December.

"You're exceptionally lovely today," Jesse says. "I adore that skirt." Lisa leads me away from the vestibule directly into her chambers. I push aside the beads that guard her entryway and recline on a few of the tufted satin pillows she's arranged. She lights the benjamin and tells me she's almost done with her bar repetitions: I can watch and warm up while she finishes. I'm already sweating from her greenhouse effect, and her leglifts just make it worth. She does a few last pirouettes, unwraps her skirt, and sits down next to me, naked but for her hammered gold chains. Extracting a bit of kif from a turquoise box, she rolls it up, hands it to me, and I light it from a candle flame.

We retake consciousness of the exterior world at dusk. The northern sunset's arctic glow permeates the descending and drifting ice with its deep rose light. This localized event terrorizes Jesse each evening, and her screeches render the pleasure of further languid repose implausible. Incense burns on the widely scattered pillows are the only remaining indications of passionate energy. Lisa wraps several layers of cloth around her body, foots it to the powder room, returns.

"I totally want a cheeseburger," she says, and it is never sound policy to neglect her desires. My used Swedish army guardsman's coat is damp but donnable. Jesse reluctantly flaps to my shoulder, and it's back out into the storm, down the packed Beacon Street sidewalks, escorting her on her constant search for the tastiest possible Whopper.

The fluorescent plastic benches and realistic lighting are bad enough on a southwestern shore, but here the scene is unbearable. I mention skipping the evening's entertainment and suggest we take the B line to the reception. She makes reference to a previously unscheduled rendez-vous with an implausibly female dancing comrade, whose purpose it is to scrape a bit of rust off their tarnished pas de deux. So it's back out into the storm, bearing the bird and my abhorrence of the long darknesses of the solitary climate, walking towards the metro, occasionally casting a casual glance for some hint of the white plastic entry card, which may after all be hidden in the filthy piles of snowplowed ice.

The metro is quiet in its underground darkness. Neither the rodents of the office workers nor the goldfish of their managers can panic much without at least a hint of exterior light. But the trolley rises to street level at Kenmore Square, and the rabbits of the photocopiers and small does of secretaries begin thumping and clattering up and down the narrow aisles. A few run out each time the B line stops, and after a while, I ride alone in the rear car towards the frozen lake terminus of Brookline.

The trolley's lights fade as it stops. Thick snow blows in through the open doors. The sidewalk looks like a ski slope before the ice tractors pass: crusted moguls cast long shadows from the low streetlights. At the lake's western corner, I leave the sidewalk and cut along the bank towards the Jesuit stadium. There are evident tracks of bears and wolves, and an occasional wolverine; I deduce that all the honored guests have preceded me. At the fourth leafless oak, I turn left, clamber over the fence, and cross the tree-flanked street towards the promised warmth of a two-story illuminated brownstone.

Rosanna's husband examines me through the peephole then deigns to let me in. His house is already a complex menagerie of familiars, and tonight they are displaying something far from their best possible behavior. Galway's bear has been lapping up vast amounts of Coors since dusk. Seamus's wolf prefers Bushmill's, of course, and when it's reached its tolerance level, as now, it howls indecipherably at the chandelier, habitually mistaking it for the moon. Derek's wolverine doesn't drink, doesn't need to, but it's wild as a dingo and more amusing than a Tasmanian devil, even when sober. The mongoose of an imported professor acquired in the colonies gazes hungrily at the young ermine of a giggly graduate student.

Most of the evening is taken up by the cackles, roars and bon mots. The hostess glides from post to post, scratching fur or smoothing feathers, calming snakes and herding rabbits. Jesse perches on the fireplace grate, chatting up her read-headed amazon parrot. The delightful chaos endures and complicates, associate professors hold impromptu student conferences in the upstairs chambers. But the bear has grown annoyed and unruly, and the wolverine looks a bit too playful, even for moonlight.

The wolf trots unsteadily past the bristled fur grizzly. Seizing his best occasion so far, the wolverine slinks down and playfully nips the ornery bear's undefended end. He goes after the wolf, inducing a spontaneous leap towards an unpremeditated landing. It may be said that the picture window (which gives out on the frozen lake) blocked his flightpath, but this is inaccurate, as it proves no barrier to his trajectory. Most of the other animals rush through the breach, following the two disputants, as the heavy snowflurries rush in. I watch Jesse watching them, watch her leap off the grate and head out through the immense gap, terrified, into the downdraft storm.

I follow her out through the breach, keeping my eyes on her. Her left wing instantly ices up. She can't gain any altitude, and she begins describing a long, slow left hand curve: nearly straight for the first few beats, unavoidably veering as she passes the first line of trunks and moves out over the street. She squawks like a cockatiel during an earthquake, coughs and sputters like a canary in a coal gas mineshaft. The circle tightens as her wingbeats breed more ice: I can see it layering on her flight feathers, lit up by the headlamps of an approaching snowplow. She frantically tries to grab some air, to gain a little altitude; she only needs another foot or two to clear the unearthly orange machine, but her feathertips are stuck together now, and she plummets into the blade, falls to the ground beneath it, and is crushed into the four inch layer of ice that covers the cobblestone street.

I follow her out through the breach, still keeping my eyes on her. Like a 747 taking off with skyscrapers at the runway's end, she gathers a burst of speed and pulls up sharply, barely clearing the first row of towering limbs. A low level headwind coming off the lake slows her, she loses altitude and scrapes the branches of the second row, leaving a few hyacinth feathers to drift down with the illuminated snow, becoming no more than a trace of painful squawks as she heads out over the lake. I dodge the snowplow and clamber back over the fence. As I run across the field, I can see the headlights of the ice fishermen's trucks near the lake's center-- her screeching is heading right for them. I can't see any of their small baitflags in this light, but I can see their cardtable lit up by their trucks; all their holes must be cut and baited, and now they've nothing to do but play poker and wait with their labradors for the dawn to send them baggable flights of snowgeese. I run a little farther and fall into a chainsawed hole. I try to keep my head above the water, try to hear the receding screech... what I do hear is the unmistakable sound of a twelve gauge being pumped. The report is muffled by the snow but is still significant. As she falls, she comes into the domain of the headlights: I can see her, still flapping, in a last chance power dive towards the ice. Mimicking me to the end, she falls into one of the fishing holes, struggles a moment, then merely floats. The bleedin' Yankee walks over, picks up her limp corpse. "Done bagged me a bluebird!" he says, as the dogs rejoice.

I follow her out through the breach, still keeping my eyes on her. She's up to flight speed and climbing over the trees. She makes a quick right turn and heads due south. The last I see of her is her long pointed tail providing tentative balance in the crosswind. The snowplow's roar covers her screeching. When it's gone past, there is only silence and a cold glow out on the lake.

The other guests gather their beasts and bid goodnight, leaving in pairs (or, rather, foursomes). I stand in the street with the snow falling around me, gazing south. "I can't blame her," I have to say to myself. "I wish I could head back to the tropics right now." Thinking she might return, I recline in the snow and wait.

The hunters' guns, growing more and more legal with the approaching dawn, do some serious damage to the concentric patterns of the flights of snowgeese, waking me. The surrounding landscape bears no hint of blue, so I redescend afoot to the Back Bay and collapse in my now silent flat. Her squawking had been the curse of my tranquility and the salt poured on my opened nerves; now I miss it, long for it. For several days I return, haunting the lake, but find nothing. I stop going out, start screening my calls. Lisa's first messages are anxious, then travel through anger to incomprehension, and by end attempting a lighter tone. I return none of them. Instead, I go walking along the Charles at dawn and dusk, always on the left bank, where Jesse loved to be promenaded.

"So perhaps loss is the ticket," I say to myself, like I do all the time but now with a hesitant sense of intimate familiarity. The ice blue building towers distantly as I walk along to her favorite spot, a small bridge with a view of the Charles and a burning dome on the opposite bank. A few lost or injured mallards expect my visit. The Arctic wind came through after the storm, rolling a thick frozen crust over every available surface, so the ducks huddle together on the ice beneath the bridge. I bounce a handful of corn down to them and let my eye follow the riverbank towards the east, let it gaze out past the bridge to the sea.

I throw them another handful of corn, watch it skitter across the ice. I watch a small trail of smoke follow the wind from the dome on the opposite shore. Then I hear a distant squawk of recognition somewhere above and behind me. A blue streak is plunging down as if from the Hancock Tower, bearing something white in its mouth. And now Jesse hovers above me, beating her immense beautiful wings, dropping a piece of mangled plastic from her beak, screaming and squawking and repeating my tired phrases in an ecstatic succession. I offer her my arm for a perch, let her bite my nose and scream all she wants. The entry card's finally at my feet, but ruined: gnawed and chewed and worthless. Why should I care? All that seems now passing vanity. Maybe Lisa'll go south with us, as soon as the roads thaw out-- and we can build greenhouses together and aviaries on some distant southern shore, never worrying about drunken bears or northeasters or little white pieces of mangled plastic.


Previous

To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link