A New Short Story by Robert Sparrow Jones
I had been staring at a child who patiently waited at the head of a line of my next scheduled class. The intensity of my attention may have appeared too hard except I was wearing a ridiculous smile on my face appropriate for only the inner-thought, front-of-mirror-thinking. The first grade class marched inside the library doors in a meandering gaggle that brought me back to my unusual morning and the starlings I had seen and as I leaned alongside the heavy stilted tripod I caught myself in a mirror. The mirror was glued to the side of a bookcase directly next to the first young student waiting at the head of the line. With the fluid words, “Who Are You,” written across the bottom in a woman’s hand, I had to read the words over a few times as if I couldn’t understand and seeing myself inside was like looking at a photograph. My presence was rendered still and antique and, with my thin semblance and my clean-shaven chin, my face took on an even more gaunt tenderness. Except that there was the black ink pen jetting straight out from behind my ear. It looked as if it might fire off like a missile and the young student had been addressing the pen for some time. She calmly studied my eyes as they shifted from my own still image to her silent rocking. A boy who was second in line and a few inches over the little lady’s well-prepared hair fidgeted awkwardly. The frightened look appearing on his small face careened him slowly and without too much caution to the front of the backdrop. Taking the tough edge of the screen in his mighty thumb and forefinger he quickly rattled the backdrop into a myopic pool of water above the thin carpet. The brute force seemed to double his nervousness and afterwards the culprit wielded around to a boy who was behind him in line and whispered his fierce observation.
“You, my dear,” I finally said to the young lady at the head of the line, “you are wearing the most lovely dress I have ever seen. I mean—ever,” I addressed her politely, not so much coming out of my thought but more of a half-sleepily, somnial beginning.
The young student firmly retained her unfaltering position. I quickly scribbled down on a slate tablet; Teacher: Mrs. Rosenthal, Grade: First, Number of Class: I left that one blank and set the tablet down on my undersized table. The young student crossed her bare arms behind her back and set her little feet one shoe in front of the other in a perfect straight line. The little dress she wore hovered above her knees and she had on a great pair of black and extremely polished patented leather shoes. Her socks, embroidered in detailed ribbons with blue birds along the rims, matched perfectly the flower pattern of her white dress. Keeping the tightrope pose she uncrossed her arms out in front of her and stretched the sky of dress in opposite directions.
“I know you,” she said—“you’re the picture guy,” her voice was not at all different from what I had expected, a slight sadness in the downward turn of her phrasing.
“How did you know?” I asked, looking playfully confused at her.
The brute young boy peeked around the backdrop again. This time with his hand flattened behind the screen he patted the backdrop into a viscous daub where perhaps he could see, as a god, what the waves could destroy while leaned frontward to watch.
“I remember you from last year,” the young girl continued—“you wore that same brown coat.”
I knew I had. Uniform was really the only good jacket I owned. It was late-sixties corduroy sports jacket in good enough condition with authentic leather buttons and buttonholes in leather to boot. The corduroy had the slightest amount of edge-ware but remained mostly straight. Remembering back briefly, I recalled the jacket had cost me three-dollars in a Salvation Army. The day I bought the jacket had actually been my very first day of taking school portraits. I was in a small town somewhere near the Delaware River but on the Pennsylvania side. I often though the real reason I bought the jacket still resided prostrate at the bottom of my inside pocket. I touched the breast of the jacket and felt the presence of a small child’s toy, a nondescript female superhero. If I took it out you could see the paint mostly worn away from her hardened spandex that detailed the slight possibility it had been backyard-excavated. Her body was flecked with only a few remainder marks of patriotic red and levitating blue while the rest of her fleshy pale color rendered her nude appearance both strong and liberating. If for no other reason than superstition she remained in that pocket where I found her for the past five and half years. Her bumpy contours lay against my side and poked into my heart every once in a while.
“Oh, right,” I said—“Yes, I remember you too, Miss—” I paused and stepped towards the young first-grader. I extended my hand out sideways and took the edge of her card. But the young student stood her ground firmly and she tightened the grip of her small fisted hand. It was only a moment and then she let go. All the while she hadn’t changed her solemn eyelids but rather tilted her head forward like a bull. It crossed my mind then that the fresh skin of her face positively expressed such lady-like impressions that I double-took her as an old soul. It also claimed her eyes. In a way her eyes hardened a slightly stern gloss that assured she would not be easy to fool. I read the card over while she uncrossed her arms, arranged her skinny legs and distributed her slight weight on one foot into a petulant slouch.
“Miss Kronenburg, yes, Miss Catherine Kronenberg, if I am not mistaken. Aren’t you the one with the wonderful dress and the terrific smile?” I scanned the card again noting, Package; Number Five with Wallets—a good package but not the highest. Nonetheless I would make sure her posture was exceptional and that her eyes were open for at least one photograph.
“You make me laugh,” Catherine said in her expected calm demeanor—“how come you’re so funny?” She squeezed her arms tightly behind her back.
“I guess, Catherine, because I am happy,” I lied though I was almost singing it. With my tired head I gently led her by the hand from the front of the line. She sat down on the squat little box before the gray tarnished backdrop, still palpitating from the power of the boy.
“You’re happy,” Catherine said suspiciously, “—why are you? I’m not. I actually hate school. The only reason I even come at all is because of Matilda,” she arranged herself a little more precisely on the box.
“How extraordinary,” I said to her as I swiftly turned to the camera, stamped her card with a sequential number and plugged the card into the camera back. And when I looked up her pose remarked a subtle curve of elegance.
“Otherwise,” Catherine continued—“Matilda and I—I’m in love with her you know, we’d live together in my treehouse and have tea daily. All we need is two little teacups and two tiny little tea saucers and two tiny little spoons and one teapot and two little chairs and a great big atlas. I don’t watch the television because I can’t have my brain rotting out completely,” she drew out the word in rhythmic dramatics, bobbing her head three times to the syllables.
“Your eyes could fall out as well, and I do love those eyes,” I said leaning against the black boxy camera. I took its swivel to frame a good composition looking down into the viewfinder.
“My mother says I have eyes like Ava Gardener,”
Catherine said curiously studying me as my head was ducked down though I could see her perfectly.
“Ava Gardener, my, my. You certainly do, don’t you? I almost never see a film unless Ava Gardener has the lead.”
“You’re so funny,” Catherine scrunched up her small shoulders. Her eyes hung pronounced like two moons above a storybook forest.
“I’m just lucky,” I noted in the single tilt of my head. I had to steady the pen to keep it from taking flight.
“Why are you then, won’t you tell me?” Catherine pressed maturely, engaging the conversation in her curious lean.
“Because it’s Autumn, Catherine, and you are one of my very first customers. In fact you are my very first client. That makes it a special day for me. OK, Catherine, eyes up here.” I tapped the hard metal shell directly above the camera’s lens while scrutinizing the side viewfinder. I framed her petite womanly face, her barretted hair. I brought the lens out of focus and then sharpened it, detailing—Hair, good—Dress, fine—Collar, OK—Necklace, none—good. I peeked off the side of the camera and took two frames. And the strangest thing happened then. During the flash charge I blinked. And it was like an angel appeared. Catherine’s afterimage rose up from her little body to the library roof.
Though I was confused I thanked her for coming and Catherine hopped off the box. This immediately metamorphosed her into an abashed ultra-slow meander. It was as if the whole time she had been someone else and now she was just little Catherine. I stood behind the camera quietly watching her as she paused and straightened out her white dress took the hem of blue birds in her fingers for a moment. Then in a coy slight turn she 5-4-3-2-1-darted off from the library doors and down the hall at full force. Her gallant sprint paralleled the dotted line of children until she swept the corner where, in the square of enamored plate-light, she slid and almost wiped out. I had to divert my eyes to the tall boy who was next in line. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind coming around and having a seat on the small box. The boy entered quickly by beginning to sit four paces from the seat. Upon contact with the box he lunged his arms straight to his sides with such an immediacy that they looked as if the life had come right out of them. He hunched his back then and in a dramatic and motionless hysteria he began to cry. It was the strange, long-suffering call of starlings that surfaced beneath the tiled library ceiling from the open mouth of the boy.
That morning I woke up in darkness before the alarm clock sounded off. I dressed quickly put on a kettle for coffee and methodically packed the trunk of Red Jetta. Once the entire photography studio equipment was packed, I pressed out coffee and drove into the turning roads of the county. Morning inked into dawn and the racing absence of landscape framed the red sky. Until the morning detailed the woods I hardly paid attention to the conduit of farmer’s fields and they usually ran together, sprawling out from the fins of Red Jetta. But this morning something happened unexpectedly. There had been a heavenly—almost above sensory, audible remark that barely resonated above the drone of Red Jetta’s over-worked engine. It took my absolute attention though I don’t understand how I might have noticed it. And I’m not sure why, it was so unlike me, but I desperately lunged from the road. I had to grab half-full Green Mug from the dashboard as Red Jetta went into a hasty skid and gravel sprayed into the car-metal. The disturbance caused an amorphous dust cloud to float down the road in font of me. It was as if another Red Jetta and a different me kept going except ghostly and gray. As the apparition dissolved quickly I shut the engine off. I rolled down the window with such alacrity that the warm swirling coffee in my saving hand slopped onto the arm of Uniform.
Outside, with the reddened sky fading to gasoline there was a farmer’s field. I port-holed my head out of the window to take in the cool layers set out before me like a child-made diorama. The hasty illustration was the tempest of early memory and I searched from one side to the other as if trying to recall a childhood that was not mine. My eyes were quick without movement from my head, running swift lines of the field. All edges of landscape were lost between the tint of red and a soft ground that inclined right from the road in a sifting drift. I was thinking that the field was a lake. I felt I could have driven straight from the road and right through that field with the spiny heads of dried grass floating me toward the horizon.
I took a deep breath and held it tightly inside. With my chest heaved, the way a hunter might take for better aim, I scoped the thatches of wavering grass and the whole field seemed to illuminate. The intense growing temper undulated and brushed away. It was as if the action was an erasure of the creation it was building. All the while the incessant high-registered song was weaving through. The circled turbulence reminded me of the way Tibetan monks round three undiluted notes all at once. I kept picturing hundreds of tiny robed monks blowing about the field.
I did not step from the car but rather studied the field until the sound hushed. In absolute silence the air felt as though it pulled an ocean wave foreword. It felt the clarity push into my chest. My heart pumped through my body twice in that hush. At that moment there was an oak tree in the center of the field I had not noticed. With its dark branches gathering the red sky it appeared to absorb one gracious breath and then exhaled all its leaves upward as hundreds of starlings billowed from every branch. Taking flight. Their palpitating wings oscillated into the tea-red air that was then turning golden in the rise. The starlings streamed into ribbons. They gathered and subtracted and then lit divided in the treetops along the far dark border beyond the periphery of the meadow. The air was syrup. The road was wet and dark.
After the starlings everything somehow changed, I was thinking as another line of first grade students went out of the library doors of Burchfield Elementary. They dotted the deep tomb-like hall, aiming to a far glass exit like heated white enamel. I squinted down the line of children, tumbling them all into the headache-box of day. Their stringy teacher backed up against a row of red bound books that looked as though it might topple over and spill red fluttering books across the carpet. Perhaps my blinking eyes made her nervous. She blinked her own eyes despondent and then touched them absently. I asked the next child into the studio. I took the child’s portrait and with the camera’s flash an easy blue breath rose from him. There was a pause here, just a moment, as if the afterimage was collected in an antechamber of eternal life and then it peeled away to the library windows.
The weight of the children quietly circled into film. Inside the camera the reels wound tightly from one side to the other. Between the two reels the so-glossy, slippery film threaded against a plate where, arms like taffy, the opaque and unexposed film changed into nomenclature of color. Cellophane hues etched clear for light to pass through so that the never changing faces and the millions of happy cheese teeth were luminously halted forever in tiny little rows. The black medium format camera rolled them inside its belly while on the outside, to my eyes only, every camera flash distracted the cool morning into an electric darkness. Though I tried to ignore them, the flashes fluttered continuously and caused trails of light to wash across the quick-varnish walls of the library. The afternoon classes blended together. All the children’s portraits circled together, as the all mornings appeared from darkness and blended, as the days had blended into each season. Today they were blending and the last child of the morning had left the studio. Their teacher turned away from the whole thing and her stringy hair crossed her face and the red book row was left perfectly unattended. The good children followed her out in a line and I was grateful for it. Outside through the library windows the morning drew dark; they were calling for a storm. My eyes strained to those fields and the grayed-out plots disappeared into nothing, into a painful white.
A break in my schedule allowed me to bring an apple down a hallway to what seemed the farthest point from the exhaustive fluttering and everything else in the school. The hallway funneled a weak channel of light taking me to the metal door of the gymnasium. The door had been propped open with a milk crate cage-ing a red rubber kickball, an empty water bottle and a five-pound free-weight nesting its bottom. I peeked my head through the doorway and the interior of the gymnasium appeared as though it were an abandoned aquarium through which the blue had been entirely sucked out and what was left was only an air-tightness that pressed eagerly around my head. The ceiling fell to darkness of the on arriving storm even though the florescent bulbs bubbled in an eternal almost coming on but not quite coming on that pressed through to my brain but at least it was quiet.
When I passed through the doorway and into the gymnasium an unmistakable lather of moist light fell on my skin. It descended from a large grid of glass panes wavering ten-feet from the ground and allowed the day inside as cloisters of mellow, even light. The watery calm laid around me and lent its fluidity to weaken the pain surrounding the casings of my eyes. I attempted a deep breath. The holding swell was a cool surrender to dark lake water. My knees bent and let dead-man-weight take me under the meniscus I imagined to be shoulder-high. However courageous, the exalting breath revealed itself more a sigh than anything else. The sound, my own sound, was a hunger call of an unnerving bird. I was ferociously looking at the sticky pinkish walls of the gymnasium as if I could see right through them. I was staring hard until I realized the walls almost really were not walls at all. Instead there were high rows of doubled-up chairs and folded-in-half tables that were stacked with such a force that their compressed construction seemed to enrage the weak cast that fainted over them and slipped onto the dusty floor. The pink-painted walls and the intricate scaffolding melded into one. They edged in so tight to each other I imagined just one more chair and the entire school would absolutely be devastated to a fine white powder. I thought of the tangled walls vanishing around me and me standing in a perfect rectangle of hardwood floor where yarrow meadows and the tall cornfields fanned out on all sides of me, vanishing to the white horizon. The dark clouds pulled overhead.
It was then I was taken by the hulking familiar form of an upright piano. It sulked beneath the tall window row near the far corner of the gymnasium. The looming body, draped in stiff olive canvas, checked into the hapless metal stacks and slumped off into the pink-painted cinderblock wall. The piano was so evidently cocked by its one missing caster that it resembled an old recluse, cloaked and mounded over in the misery of long life. When I approached I could not help myself, I took cautious steps not to frighten the old boy. I actually paused momentarily before lifting the blanket, before startling it’s stardust in swirls that kicked off the edges of pink gymnasium light.
Such a warm resin and deep red finish the piano emitted. The gouges and scratches effacing its old gloss were marks more complicated than Rachmaninoff, a crude and intimate map of the decades children’s hands. I shifted into the tight shaft of space between the chair stack and the piano front. I half expected its golden upright heart to break out in bright sonata while I searched the Braille of its mahogany. The cover was the round of a young shoulder and, with my arm vanished into shadow I tried to lift the lid but it would not open. I reached further underneath for a latch of some sort until I discovered there was an encumbering padlock fixed at its center.
“It’s a good thing,” I said out loud—“someone might play it.” My voice threw echoes off the pink and tangled walls—“And then that would be the end,” I added, thinking that it was a funny thing to say out loud and not laugh at myself for it, but I didn’t dare.
The sleeve of Uniform bunched to the elbow when I reached further inside the narrow crevasse and it looked as though the piano had swallowed my arm whole. Then with just the weight of my hand my gentle fumbling knocked the padlock to the hardwood floor. The hollow shot circled the inside of my head like a drain, winding around and around and finding its way to the most sensitive center. When I craned up to meet the emptied blue aquarium windows, I saw the glimmering treetops wipe away at the opalescent sky and then spray the windowpanes like buckshot. At that moment the room seemed to grow two stops brighter as I lifted the worn lid and suddenly the antique keys appeared luminous from within the row of darkness. Each ivory had been tooled unique in a design only time could have crafted. Of longing, of timid sensitivity was accomplished in pearly blue eyes that were serrated in a cloud-like invisibility and ran here and there throughout the entire scale. They were never blinking, always seeing as if they had never closed, never cleared themselves from what had gone before. Of sensual first love, of awkward discovery, there were whispered rosy hints, striations subtle enough to be wiped away by the slightest touch, always whisking away from the player. It was as though you were lying in a tall grass field and looking up through the posy heads at the ivory sky. There was the varying loss of sharp edges, a whittling away of all edges, edges worn thin as a fallen blue jay’s feather. I let the back of my hand click silently down the keyboard from middle C and each ivory tongue rubbed up against each other in the downward graze.
A powerful breath lifted my chest as I leaned further inside the red dark belly. There was a silence first that was just the moving air between stardusted canvas, the engraved mahogany and my own pale skin. I began a melody then. Beneath the chested shadow of the old piano my hands were clumsy. But the score warmed and hinted, accidental notes of Monk or maybe Powel. As I reached just so with my hands cut off at the wrists, the empty pool gymnasium slowly filled with such a lovely order of plinking. The bell rang out sharply. The gymnasium rushed to a swarm of changing classes, spinning around my aching head.
From one end to the other I cycled through the entire school. I had taken a photograph of everyone including; principal, vice principal, faculty, the entire young student body, custodial staff and cafeteria workers. All filtered into the library, joked in line and flashed incisions across my aching brain. I blinked and blinked and their ghost images rose up. Instantaneously they ascended cold white like forced stutter openings as I packed up the studio and drove out of the small town of Burchfield. Into the winding rural roads I rubbed my temples in slow pressing circles and the whiteness behind my eyes smeared into red.
There was a song on the radio that murmured into clarity under the window-hiss of Red Jetta that I don’t remember because the next thing that happened transpired as if in an absolute eternity. But for the onlooker—in this case a beautiful, fearless black and white Holstein, the event unfolded fast and rather un-noteworthy. Driving at an increasing speed, in tune to both the unremembered song and a rising thought of my own demise, this black and white Holstein hoofed into the road. She did not move but otherwise remained nonchalant and bored about the eyes and I had come up upon her too fast. I really almost drove through her and, not thinking, I swerved left to avoid collision. Immediately I had to cut sharply back into my lane while a tall faded tractor was pulling up the road. Nearly colliding, I followed off the road as the wheels of Red Jetta rimmed a rapid pebble-pelting ferocity that snake-danced the packed dirt. My heart pounced to my throat and I took the steering wheel hard to edge back onto the freshly oiled road until, without warning, my front driver-side wheel took a steep balls-out dive into a bottomless pothole. It happened precisely as the new oiled road halted and the old road quilted on miserably. The jolt felt as though it had invariably totaled the entire front end of Red Jetta. On impact the radio shut off. Red Jetta slipped out of gear and left me coasting down the road into the quiet.
The black and white Holstein, behind me some ways then, held her heroic pose and leaned as if to follow the car. When I looked back again she was standing perfectly still. The tractor dipped over the hill and then she turned from the sun flash and, one leg at a time, disappeared into the thick row of woods. Red Jetta was silent, slowly coasting and bumping down the road. I caught Red Jetta in second gear and the engine stuttered and sent us off like a motorboat. My heart was racing. The radio would not come back on.