By Bruce Holland Rogers and Robert Hill Long
This wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. Another story about the great crab, the way it worked its pincers into love’s original body. He wanted instead to tell about yeast, how it swells the loaf and fills the kitchen with its breath. His mother never baked such bread—her idea of a kitchen was strictly cans, jars, packaged preparations. What kind of love was that? He needs to know because now he’s lost her. At the moment all he can remember is how, once a week or so, she’d hand him a bag of bread heels and stale bagels and send him across the road to their waterway dock, where it was his job to bait the crab trap.
One of his first memories is of an orange-tipped claw pinching his finger. “Hush,” she told him when he bawled. “Wait.” As her condition worsened, he’d found himself having to prick her finger for blood tests, and then having to withdraw syringes full of her blood, because she was too weak to be driven to the lab. He never had to tell her to hush when he gave her the afternoon shot of Demerol.
He lays the pen down for now and goes into the kitchen. The real kitchen, not the kitchen of memory. He slices a seeded roll in half. Real bread, not the bread of memory. And he stands beside the sink, now, chewing. A relief, to feel the tiny black seeds lodge between his teeth. Poppy is for dreams, or the end of dreams. Where his back yard falls away into arroyo and chaparral, he can see dozens of California poppies, waving small claws at the burnt edge of his lawn.Crabs were free for the taking. With cabbage and rice, crabs made a meal that he could start cooking even before she came home from work. He’d half fill the kettle with water and set it to boiling. Later, it would be his job to carry the shells down to the water and throw them in. Shells weren’t for the garbage. "Everything goes back,” she liked to say. If the shells were still wet, they would plop into the water like bones. But sometimes he’d forget until morning, and overnight the shells would have dried light and airy. They sailed like paper boats. Or like the fragments of bone among her ashes. When he had scattered her over the water, wind had blown her ashes back into his face, dusting his lips.
He sits at the breakfast table, warming his hands with the coffee cup and trying to remember a dream. He doesn’t hear her question the first time she asks it.
The dream had been about flying, he thinks. Or swimming. The sensation of weightlessness. On other nights through the years he has dreamed of rising like a balloon to drift just above the power lines. Sometimes he has dreamed of breathing water, of dozing at the bottom of a pool. Was last night’s dream like that? He remembers weightlessness, but no definite images, no story.
She has to ask a second time, and he says, “I’ve already seen them.”
“Not this morning, you haven’t.”
“No, really,” he says, “I saw them flying above the oxbow, I got up early like you said you had to.”
She says, “Come look again,” and turns toward the stairway, one hand extended. The stairs will creak and remind the bones of his body that one day he will be old. But he sets down his coffee on the City/Regional section of the newspaper, and starts up after her.
“Do you remember what you dreamed last night?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t turn. She has lost the sash of her white robe. She’s using a strip of red cloth instead. The smallest things can make him sad. In the photograph the nurses made of the stillborn girl, they had put a tiny red cap on her head—like they did for living babies, to keep them from losing body heat. The front brim was pushed back enough to reveal a tiny widow’s peak of fine, nearly white hair.
The upstairs ceiling slopes with the roof. One side is fitted with a scuttle that he has opened exactly once to watch the stars. At the other end, she opens the window and leans out into the rain. He stands beside her. A few cormorants still roost, black fruit in the bare trees. The rest are circling the river. “Do you ever get tired of life in houses?” she asks. “What would you give to be able to dive out of the air, right into the water, and under?” The fine rain beads on her black hair, it does not penetrate.
He wants to touch her, but doesn’t. He leans closer, but not too close. “I like the house,” he says, watching the spiraling birds. “I like having a refuge.”
“I dreamed something about a house,” she says. “Not this house.”
He waits for more. He keeps waiting.
The last cormorants are taking to the air. They turn greater and greater circles until the birds in the widest circle break off, a dozen at a time, and fly off to the west, towards the sea.
West is the direction of ending, of forgetting. In what sense can a forgotten dream be said to exist? A dream not remembered in the first hour after waking will be gone, irretrievable.
A God who knew all of our thoughts, a God who looked over our dreaming shoulders, He would remember. All dreams, and all daughters scarcely more than dreams now, would be known to God.
Bruce Holland Rogers recounts: "Robert and I met on the pages of the W. W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction. Really. We had never met, but when our stories appeared in Flash Fiction separated only by Heinrich Böll, we began to have a conversation. (Böll added nothing. He was already dead.) Eventually, we began to write stories by each adding one sentence to what we had, passing the manuscripts back and forth."
Currently Bruce and Robert both live in Eugene, Oregon, but Robert is about to move to Pennsylvania and Bruce is about to go to London for the 2006-2007 academic year.
Photo "The End" courtesy of T. Al Nakib, London, England.
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