Bower Bird by W.F. Lantry
We all have small, secret projects. We’re always building something, inside or outside, in anticipation of some event. Sometimes, we’re working on them even without knowing it. But most of the time, we know exactly what we’re doing and why. I bet you’re working on something even now, making a place for someone to dwell, a spot for someone to inhabit. It doesn’t matter if it’s for yourself or another. Maybe even someone you haven’t even met. What matters is the project.
And I don’t just mean some guy in his basement building a castle out of toothpicks, or someone out in his backyard building a playhouse for a child who hasn’t yet learned to walk. I’m thinking more about a bower bird, collecting every instance of blue.
I’ve never seen one, they live in Australia. But when a bower bird has nearly finished his nest, he goes around and finds small blue things he can carry back. Cigarette packages and bottle caps, curlers and clothespins and gum wrappers. A sapphire earring from near a park bench, the broken clasp of a turquoise necklace. It doesn’t matter to him how valuable it is, or rather, it’s valuable in that it’s blue. That’s his whole project: to gather blue things.
There were yellow lights on the sidewalk, flashing. Each one denoted a sawhorse. The city was tearing up the street again. I saw a manhole cover displaced and some hardhats standing around looking down into the hole. Something was going on beneath our feet. I went up to one who looked like a foreman, but he just shrugged. He was busy with something underground.
Miranda walked up to one of the policemen. “Officer, I parked my car right over there. Do you know what happened to it?”
“It probably got towed. Didn’t you see the signs?”
All up and down the street, there were paper posters stapled to the light posts and trees. They all said the same thing: Emergency- No Parking – 8pm to 12 pm.
“I thought I’d be back in plenty of time.”
“What color was your car?”
“It’s a blue convertible. The top was up.”
“I watched them tow it. They probably took it down to the river, under the bridge. I’d give you a ride, but I’m on duty here.”
For a woman, at night, Washington is nowhere to be walking alone. Especially not a dozen blocks down to the Potomac bank. I had to go with her. It wasn’t exactly romantic or elegant, but it would give us a chance to talk.
She talked about the acoustics inside churches, and how she never liked to sing in reception halls. “I need the space above me,” she said. “I need the feeling of windows and light, and the candles and flowers remind me of what I’m supposed to be doing. I like to fill the spaces above the pews with my voice. I like to surround everyone listening.”
We crossed the street to the second block. Clothing stores with their windows done up, advertisements for mediums and palm readings. Sidewalk cafes across the street. Students just hanging around or heading for one of the clubs. A few people walking their dogs. All the tourists were somewhere else by now, maybe near the museums or back at their hotels. Somewhere safe and uncrowded.
“What do you think of that dress?” I said, pointing to one of the windows. She thought it looked a bit tired and didn’t like the cut. I tried to imagine her in it, but the mannequin wasn’t her form. “Besides, I’d need larger breasts.”
“I must be slipping,” I thought to myself. “I haven’t even noticed.” But by then, it was too late to look, and besides, she was watching me. I turned towards the next window.
Maria the Palmist, in arched red letters. Have you seen your future? was written beneath. Maria clearly didn’t work evenings; it looked dark inside, or always in English: Quiromancia was lettered in vertical green.
“I once knew a man who read palms in bars,” I said. “He used it to get close to women.”
“I try to stay away from things like that,” she said. “What if it actually worked? It’s best not to mess with such things.”
“It worked pretty well for him,” I said. “Women he barely knew would give him their left hands. He could caress their palms and talk about their lives. Even a close guess would do.”
We were walking a little apart from each other. She would have noticed if I turned my head. Besides, I had too much to do: glancing around at each crossroads for traffic, looking in front of us for trouble, looking behind to make sure there was no-one. It’s a worthwhile habit in the city.
We crossed a broad street and started down a hill. The stores changed to jazz clubs and upscale sex shops. The window said Adult Novelties. I didn’t look inside, and she didn’t even notice. I thought of Beatrice, striding down through the circles on a mission. She was only thinking about her car. We reached the riverbank.
“Will you trust me with your key fob?” I said. She got it out and pressed the unlock button. Lights flashed against the underside of the bridge. Twice. She handed me her keys.
I went down the bank in the darkness. The cars were neatly lined up and spaced well enough for a tow truck to get in and out. There weren’t any streetlights. The buildings across the river were in Virginia, but they gave off a little light, enough to see where I was walking. It was the perfect place for a mugging: all shadows and nobody around for a witness.
But no-one leapt out at me there. Her car lights blinked twice again. This time, I could see it was blue.
W.F. Lantry, a native of San Diego, holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He received the Paris/Atlantic Young Writers Award, and in 2010 won the Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Award (in Israel), Crucible Editors’ Poetry Prize, and CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Asian Cha, Literal Latté, Istanbul Literary Review, Aesthetica and Blip (formerly Mississippi Review Online). He currently works in Washington, DC. and is a contributing editor of Umbrella.