Robert Kostuck

Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction, essays, and reviews appear in many American and Canadian print journals and anthologies. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and novels; his short story and essay collections seek a publisher.

My story, Sparrow, was inspired by a camping trip twenty-five years ago at the Grand Canyon with my then-wife; and my friend and her wife. It was an enjoyable time; nothing untoward happened. The autumn-winter light of the Colorado Plateau and a deep-seated friendship remain in my memory.


Sparrow

We eat lunch outside the deli at tiny tables on the edge of the pavement and watch women office workers in skirts and sneakers. She watches the top half: breasts, shoulders, hair; I watch the lower half: legs, heels. Trisha is one half of a domestic married couple, the other half is Kara. Should I be jealous or envious? Shadows shift and the noon hour pauses, passes, fades. Perky, fatalistic, pantyhose swish, designer bags, polyester business ensembles. I’m in a trance.

“Laura,” says Trisha. “You’re in the zone.”

“It’s all I’ve got,” I say. “Empty heart.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“Some things exist whether we believe or not.”

“You’re not eating.”

I wave away a fly from my sandwich, wrap dried bread and wilted lettuce in a paper napkin for later. Trisha gives me a heron look: that’s to pierce and pry as you hunt.

It’s the time spent working together, not working. It’s t-shirts, sneakers, inky hands, solvent perfume. Fashionably spiky hair—same acrylic hair gel—but that’s one of our small secrets. I bump against her as we walk along. She pretends to not notice—a stupid joke, a play on words, innuendo; but we’re arms-around-each-other’s-shoulders. That’s easy enough and it’s neither a silk purse nor a sow’s ear.

We stand on either side of a manual printing press. It’s what unsuccessful artists do to earn money. If only, if only. She rolls the ink across an aluminium sheet and I alternate with sponge water swipes to keep it wet. Roller, sponge, roller, sponge. A black and white line drawing of a barn in a snowstorm. Just a pair of experienced technicians: the artist, Harold, is an octogenarian with a stolid history—decades of black line drawings of Cape Cod bungalows, lobster pots, snow on upside fishing boats. Covered bridges and barns. I imagine everything else pales against the repertoire of New England images he holds onto—here in an art print shop in the heart of Tucson.

I look down at the plate. Swipe the sponge, gesture for her to wait. I open two windows for a breeze. Early November, desert winter, seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit.

“I’m getting a headache,” I say.

“Dust and pollen get in the ink—”

“No one will notice.” Pause. Swallow. “When was the last time you saw snow?”

“When we lived in New York City.”

“I haven’t seen snow for two years,” I say. I’ve got an agenda. “We should take a trip north this weekend—to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. There’re access roads to the edge just outside the park boundaries. I’ve got maps—camping gear—everything we need—”

“My wife is jealous,” she says, but she’s smiling. “Jealous of you and I—or maybe just curious—” and I can see she’s got her own tumbling-out to do—“kind of worried about this relationship. Sponge.”

I swipe back and forth, moisten the plate. She makes another pass with the leather roller.

“Fan.” I fan it dry.

“Paper.” I pinch the edges of the paper, align it with the T and bar marks on the aluminium. Together we unfold the layers of felt, smooth out wrinkles, bump fingers. I turn the handle. Then reverse: fold the felt, remove the paper, set it in the drying rack.

Repeat. It’s a small edition of forty with ten artist’s proofs—Harold’s doing a charity thing at the museum. Wealthy donors bid on the prints and the money goes to help underprivileged art students, or to import some very minor European paintings for a couple months, or maybe they need help paying their utility bills. One of us will keep the signed artist’s proof we’ve got pinned to the wall.

We finish in the middle of the night, pull on rubber gloves and clean off tools and surfaces. She takes a phone call in the bathroom.

“I told her not to wait up.,” says Trisha, “and that we would stop somewhere to eat. And. She said yes, I can go with you. We can go together. This weekend. Leave Thursday, come back Monday. Sound good?”

It’s Wednesday night. A drive-through, Mexican food. Another greasy meal minus secretarial skirts. I fold a polystyrene lid over my food. I’ll save it for later.

*

“After I back the truck out, you pull into my parking space,” I say. “I’m number fifteen. Your car is safe here.”

We pack a bagged tent, ice cooler, frame packs in the back of the truck. A wooden box of art supplies. Inside I stand before the refrigerator, toss food takeaway containers in a trash bag. She wanders into my bedroom, sits on the edge of the bed. Picks up a book.

“The Communist Manifesto? Where are the red flags, comrade?”

“It’s the original document for equal rights,” I say. I sit, close but not touching. “The original ideas were sound. Are sound. The trick is to implement them.”

“And you’re doing that?”

Politics ruins the mood. I shift one centimetre and her gaze shifts to a far distance. I lean across her, pull nature guides from the bookshelf; animal tracks, trees, stars, rocks, birds. A pair of binoculars.

“You’re a birdwatcher?” she says.

“We say ‘birder’. I like to look.”

We take turns driving my truck north, four hundred and fifty miles, two stops for gasoline and snacks.

Eight hours travelling, distant bird song, hazy light, diesel exhaust. Trisha snaps photographs, loads and unloads rolls of film: random clouds, green interstate off-ramp signs, a stray dog near a service station pump.

We stop at the new Navajo Bridge: parking lot, waist-high railing: look down at the ice-cold Little Colorado River. Green water, orange canyon, purple shadows, and an impossible chalky blue sky. Chromium oxide green, Paris green, imperial green, viridian leaves on stunted shrubs at the edge of the world. A clicking camera, ephemeral light. She records air temperatures, the movement of the wind, humidity. Ultraviolet sun rays singe our pores; we’ve got our arms around each other, an affirmation of affection, P.S. I love you. Who knew two artists could swallow this much bright colour? We gulp like surfaced divers; I imagine how years from now it will pour from our fingertips.

“We’ll stop here on the way back,” she says. “I’ll do some sketches then, maybe one or two watercolours.” It’s so beautiful and my subconscious makes me imagine Trisha and Kara making love the night before, very soon after my incomplete and spicy Mexican dinner. The sky accommodates me, shifts from blue to grey.

Late afternoon, De Motte Park, the rim of the Grand Canyon, a narrow paved road unwinds. A medium-sized brown and grey raptor paces us, hunting; hovers and tilts at shoulder height above the open grassland.

“It’s a Northern Harrier,” I say. “They fly low and hunt mice and rats. I’ve never seen one before. It’s in here.” Trisha pages through the bird identification guide. “I dream I’m a hawk or eagle, or a harrier, perched at the edge of a cold canyon. Free to do whatever I want. You’re like that too. Independent, like a bird.”

I remember the turnoff from previous trips: a graded gravel road that edges the canyon and follows an arbitrary line on a map tracing the division between national park and national forest. I roll down the window, smell wet, deciduous leaves. The map says eight thousand eight hundred feet above sea level.

We set up the tent in fading light. Eat from boxes and bags and lock the rest of the food in the cab of the truck. Warm air pours away into the canyon and leaves behind something I cannot see but which I know is there. Leftover aspen leaves rattle at the tops of the trees. There are down sleeping bags and folded blankets for pillows. Sweatshirts, underwear, socks. Flashlights and hand shadows on the walls of a green tent.

“Where’s the snow?” she says.

“Just wait.” I think about a friendly good night kiss. She pulls on a knit cap and turns away. I’m confused.

*

Morning is still, taut; condensed with foggy breath and intimations of winter. Across Marble Canyon the surface of the Navajo Reservation is black ink laced with strips of neon glow: the pre-dawn sky reflected in water tanks and seen sharply on edge. We boil water on a fire that seems to give off no heat: tea and instant oatmeal. High clouds shut out the light. A few days past the last rainfall of the year: the musky door of slow oxidation, invigorated orange and lemon lichens, damp chunks of chalk- and charcoal-streaked Kaibab limestone gently tumbled, sharp, eternal. She loads and unloads rolls of film. There is a jeep trail covered with wet yellow and brown leaves. We walk parallel to Marble Canyon.

“It’s colder than I expected,” she says.

“It’s November,” I say. I feel prickles of irritation. “Brisk. No time for half-thoughts or indecision.” I kiss her—try to kiss her—beneath the lowering grey. She stands her ground and turns her head, stares ahead at a rough trail winding down into oblivion. She wraps her arms round her body.

“Never?” I say.

“It’s good,” she says. “Let’s keep on the way we’ve been going.”

“I want—”

“That’s too bad.” Full eye contact. “Maybe you don’t know what you want.”

“But you do know what you don’t want?” I say.

“It’s not that easy.”

The jeep trail becomes rocky and mysterious, a zigzag descent. Steep stretches of dead, wispy fescue, bare deciduous trees. A tiny songbird flutters onto a branch. Trisha removes a lens cap, exposes an even dozen frames, commits stillness to memory with a ramped-up intensity. A flock catches up to the single bird; together they move on, vanish into a side canyon.

On the way back to our campsite the snow begins. Rabbit and mouse tracks cross the trail. I boil water for tea. It cools quickly. We retreat to the green tent.

“Why did I pack these field guides?” I say. “No starry nights, trees without leaves all look the same. Rocks—everyone knows the layers of this canyon.”

She thumbs one of the guides. “Rufous-crowned Sparrow with a reddish-brown crest. Beautiful. And maybe out of its range, according to this map. Not a bird that likes the snow.”

A single page with a questionable photograph. How they blend in, grow into their camouflage, vanish in plain sight.

Outside she flips down the tailgate on the truck, props up a blanket with a couple of sticks, sits sheltered from lightly falling snow. Arranges bins and boxes, tapes rough paper to a thin sheet of wood, drips water into the tiny wells of the palette, swishes a brush in a plastic cup. From recent memory she constructs: grey breast, rufous crown, black-tipped feathers, black streak on the throat, dull yellow bill. A palm-of-the-hand image: beautiful, plain, solitary. Organic swirls, deft pencil crosshatching, highlights and shading; and me, peering out from a false honeymoon tent with a cup of cold tea.

Late afternoon, the light fails. Ice crystal clouds sink into the canyon proper and the storm envelopes over us. Easily four inches of snow. She fans the watercolour to speed up the drying.

The park ranger stays inside her carryall and tells us they’re closing the roads early this year. We crumple up tent and sleeping bags, coffee pot, a plastic bin of dried food. The snow is soft and dry, the tires slip. The ranger follows, touches my bumper and pushes us through the slippery spots. At the paved road she waves us on.

“The road is clear all the way to Jacob Lake,” she says. “After that, I don’t know.”

“Some camping trip,” I say. “I thought—”

“We do what we can,” says Trisha, “and hope for the best. We make plans but life rolls on without caring. Sometimes it rolls right over us.”

Four hundred and fifty miles of shifting silence. What was wound up, unwinds. A string breaks and a simple five and dime diamond-shaped kite vanishes. Tucson and the night. I leave the motor running. She leans over and kisses my cheek, vanishes in plain sight.

*

What I look for, seek, discover.

Alone I watch mockingbirds on wiry trees from a transitory kitchen window. Lights sparkle on Mount Lemmon microwave relay towers.

Does a single day have any meaning? Do I care enough to tell anyone if I leave; when I return? I sleep late, wake to afternoon light filtered through possibilities.

A tangle of forgotten corners, eroded intersections, buildings bleached with high desert sun. I push the edge of ignorance and foolishness, laziness and sloppiness. Falcon, vulture, cardinal, waxwing, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, mockingbird: I translate the words and compose songs which last mere seconds. Random sheets of paper, a #2 pencil. I sketch appropriate landscapes devoid of civilised images: dry arroyos, angular granite mountainsides, opaque rainbows in trickles of water, patches of glue-like mud, ringtails waving paws at a food sack suspended in a tree, a bear bumbling across a pasture.

What I look for, seek, discover. Leave behind.

Three weeks pass. Autumn comes to a full stop, leaves bicycle tire skid marks on the sidewalks. Traffic is a thin scrim, flat and false.

*

Kara calls me in early December. “We need to talk.”

We meet. She talks and I listen.

Next day the three of us fill a quiet waiting room at Arizona Oncology.

“An album,” says Trisha, “like my grandmother used to keep. Something to hold on to.”

Kara and I lean in from either side. Photographs of a lost paradise. Clouds that might be anywhere, blurred road signs. Whirling snow that might be ash, river and canyon shadows that might be an artist’s fever dream. Tree bark, twigs, dry leaves, impossible light. A plethora of birds I don’t remember.

The nurse speaks her name. Kara offers her arm and Trisha waves her away, sets the photo album on the empty chair. She doubles over and throws up on the floor. The nurse is nonplussed, leads Trisha into the interior; returns with a dustpan, sponge, and a roll of paper towels.

“We’re ninety-nine percent sure we’re going to proceed with the hysterectomy,” says Kara. “It takes time to wrap that around your heart. Fourth of July picnic she just tumbled over. Bleeding of course, and a decrease in appetite. She’s tired all the time.” She swipes pink mucus into a pan, sponges non-descript carpeting. “Make me happy. Tell me you care.”

Inside of me is greediness the colour of aspen leaves and a hazy distance that lingers like a common cold; awful and ninety-nine percent sure of itself. Kara can see that; it’s why I’m sitting here. A greediness that shames me. I can’t let go of it—or—we’re bound, like a planet and a moon.

Eventually we leave the waiting room, stand in a paved parking lot. Clouds press down. Anger and sadness wash away from me like melted snow, leave behind embarrassed possibilities for weeping.

They leave at the speed of continental drift without looking back. Shouted imprecations catch in my throat. I swallow them, whole.

A cold room and the edge of a narrow bed. A framed lithograph: a black and white line drawing of a barn in a snowstorm. I’ll sleep for a day and a night. I slide the photo album across the blanket and there’s something tucked inside, near the last pages.

A palm-of-the-hand image; beautiful, plain, solitary.

This winter light.