And there were the birds. The black ones, side by side, size so similar from as far away as we were, the two of us. Their ruffled feathers were smooth against the distance and we adhered to the illusion that they may all be tiny congruous features; seemingly nonliving. I remember them.
And when they sat next to one another on the spanning power lines across the bay, they would block the sun, little stitches against it, they stood out; barbeque skewers against a hot plate. We waited next to the bridge, casual admirers, for when they came in the evening. A pitch of seagull call in the salted draft signaled that they couldn’t be far. Above us on the two lane highway, traffic pornographers rubbernecked at the cars intertwined for several miles up and down the road bumper to bumper. Horns played semi-melodic tunes to one another, a thick mess after a blue and silver SUV mauled a bicyclist much too liberal with the road. They would be late, all of them, for wherever it was they meant to go. We, though, waited for the birds. Their resolve was quiet and final. This is where they would spend the night; the birds didn’t give a damn.
It was August, and we lived in the Cantina Del Mar, a bar inland with two apartments over it, one was Raul’s, the Del Mar’s owner, who had been there for three years.
His name was Raul, as in Ra-ool, he explicitly provided. He bought the building when the market was low. He said it was less than ninety thousand, and it came with a full bar, which he always said was, “Remarkable, these days.” He washed the bar with a rag that was no cleaner. He had worked in New York City.
“When we all walked into the building”, he spouted,” The supervisor came to ‘inspect’ us. He looked us up and down, and all I could see of him was the cuff under his chin; a rich roll of fat.” He spoke with his hands, “He looked us in the eye, passing each of us slowly (and we were wearing ten dollar suits mind you) and he said that if we didn’t come back from lunch, us twenty men, with at least a hat on our heads (they were a quarter a piece for a good one back then), and if we didn’t come back with a hat he said, we ought not to care to come back at all. So we went down there, the two of us, myself and a man named Ira Krawiec, some Pollack without a hair on his head, and we got hats, the thin, cheap kind for twenty cents at a quality goods store–now mind you, that was dinner for my wife and I that night and I thought, well if she can’t deal a night without dinner, then she can’t weather the fair! I mean, shit, what was I supposed to do? We put down our dimes and bought two gray felt fedoras, mine had a dull white stripe right there along the base—”
He held an imaginary brim and ran his finger along the imaginary base of the hat as if he were displaying it to us. And we looked upon it as if we might catch it in a flicker of barlight or maybe forge the charcoal grey of the invisible hat so well in our minds that we might force our eyes to discover it. He continued:
“We paraded back into that office (it was good the Pollack had covered the shine of his head), and the supervisor came down again—we looked side to side. Some of the men had bowlers, others trilbys, but we noticed there were six men gone. He gave us another eyeing. He said, ‘That shows dedication,’ and he cut us checks for a hundred dollars each and said ‘Show up Monday, you have the job.’”
Raul pulled my glass and wiped the underside clean of the perspiration. He threw a napkin below it. We met him there in the Del Mar, where we spent most of August. He rented us the apartment for three hundred dollars a month.
“Well, Raul, what did you do with the money?” I asked. He pulled his chest in pride, “I bought my wife and I a steak, I took her home, made love to her, then left and found myself a hooker down at the cat house. You know the cat house, right?” He leaned very close to me, dropping his rag, “Jefferson an Second?” He did a poor job of concealing what he was saying by covering loosely the front of his mouth with his wrinkled, liver spotted hand. “That one, my boy, is full service, ha he e e.” He curled the chuckle behind his thin lips riddled with scars.
She wasn’t happy that we spent most of our time there. It was just the two of us then, she had a streak of blonde in her hair, naturally, a streak of dirty blonde she claimed never to have had before, in the midst of her auburn curls, past her shoulder, that would stretch to her nipples before she got them cut. She would say, “It is your blond hair you are giving me,” she would laugh, “And you are marking me!” She put a hand on my chest, “You’re marking me.”
The Cantina Del Mar was just down the street from Kimberly’s Salon where there was a marijuana distribution center. We called it Kimberly’s Salon, I think it had another name, but no one ever used it. We didn’t have membership cards, though; we waited outside of the salon, on the sidewalk. Someone would come out and we might have to pay five or ten dollars more or maybe whoever got it would take a pinch.
We smoked near the bay. I rolled a joint and by the time we smoked it it was after six o clock, but the sun had not set. We lingered below the bridge, waiting for the time that it would, when we could rely on the birds and their stitches and their smell, and we could try to understand it. From where we sat, the lights overcame the bay, the fluorescent red and blue flashes of emergency vehicles, colors like the little machine in the bar, the old video poker game Raul bought from a yard sale on the border, a group of Mexican families selling what they could make or find. There were no advertisements. There were only guards who would carry guns. He bought it there, he said, in the eighties. And she and I would play it, two or three times in a row, and she would say, “You have to let me beat you, quit being so competitive.” “I’m not beating you, we’re playing the dealer.” “But you have more points.” She got up and went to the bar. “Raul, I want tequila.” He approached her and then gazed to me. She only drank beer, and rarely. She never cared for it. He stopped looking at me when she snapped at him. “Raul, tequila—Here we go.” She pounded an open palm on the bar. He asked, “Chilled?” “Nope, just how god made it.” Her hand quivered and she threw it back. It stuck in her cheeks for a moment until she pulled it down, droplets forming like tears in the corners of her mouth. She was shaking. I think it was then that I began to have some idea about it.
A swift wind pulled under the bridge. She was half in the water, still near the edge, in a fetal squat. She had the edge of her thumb between her teeth and rocked side to side. Near the opposing bank, on the cement of the bridge, a hammer or pick cut SONNET 94, a blurry topography of spray paint juxtaposed. Climbing the banks of the bay were sharp rocks, large ones, fifteen or twenty pounds each, and she had made the descent barefoot, slipping so often I was sure she would fall. She had a dull yellow sundress hanging onto her collarbone. Off the edge of her neck was a tattoo in script: Pilar, a cursive serif structure. Her mother’s name—it was vivid then. Her dress floated lifeless in the ebb of the tide, sand crabs sprinted around her feet, and her toes dug into the black dirt of the bay.
When we drove near the coast, as we did some days when we had no money but only gas in the tank, she asked me, “Where is it?,” pointing at several signs as we passed, “Where’s the street where Josiah lives?” I didn’t answer; she was rude to ask me. Several two story shacks with red tiled rooftops to keep the homes cool in summer months, insulation, washers and dryers; they had white stucco and landscaped lawns. “I don’t know what goddamn street it was—and stop calling it that.” I realized the radio was spitting static almost inaudibly, but when I turned it off, the underliers emerged. The wind hollowly spit against the windows and the scrape of the tires assaulted the pavement. We could hear it when one of us opened their mouth to say something, but didn’t. Fabric moved uncomfortably against the cloth seats. “I don’t remember,” I lied.
We passed it finally, I turned the car inland, and drove home. We remained taciturn, a quiet that was unlike the droning caw of the gulls on the power lines that reverberated, always restarting, like a child’s first attempt at a mower engine, filling the space below the bridge, it jarred against itself, a pull, an angry twang, the drip of noise and liquid; a sound, disturbing, that euphemized defeat and futility.
She was pale there in the water (the birds had yet to show up), not even the freckles on her nose bared themselves. She seemed skinnier, even more so than usual, the girl weighed exactly nothing. “Let’s move to New York,” she told me, watching drops of water fall from her extended fingers, hung like palm fronds. This was not the first time she had asked, “Why would you want to do that.” She turned and eased into a flat grin backed with little enthusiasm as she already knew the response, it was as if her mind was intentionally overcoming itself, a defense mechanism that was far too weak, she allowed herself to believe that it were possible, however half-assed. “Alright,” I said. A swift wind filled the space under the vulgar bridge; she tensed, but didn’t move. “You can wear a hat like Raul.” “Sure,” I said, watching the hair along her shoulders float in the breeze like sea weed in the tide, “Sure.”
She never cooked anything. She would go without food if I didn’t feed her and look after her. She couldn’t do anything on her own. I grilled fish over rice mostly. It was damn near the only thing I knew, except rice pudding, I could make that, or enchiladas, but I never made either, I only knew how. I would make halibut or other times mackerel that I would catch off of the pier, you didn’t need a license and the air was good, the surrounding wooden fencing covered in the little guts of bait fish and squid, the Vietnamese were the best fisherman. A Vietnamese man, who told me to call him Sinh, had more than four rods cast at a time affixed with varying tortured hooks, rusted most, he helped me catch mackerel. He also told me how to cook them. “First,” he said it in a heavy squeaked accent; his voice was very high, “You cut along the stomach and pull everything out,” he tossed the excrement and innards over the railing, “Then you cover this fucker in oil and put it on the grill.” His teeth were far apart from each other, and all shown when he smiled. He was very comforting to be around, a spirit, one could say, that endured the end of the dock for what seemed like morning until night. He wore a black baseball cap over a twisted t-shirt on his head. The shirt draped down over his neck and his long sleeves and pants covered most of the rest of him. It was hot, then, but he never sweat; he was an anomaly to me.
One morning in late August I went to the pier with a small white squid and when I arrived, Sinh was gone. There were three other Vietnamese men in his spot, I asked about him. Only one of them knew who I was speaking of, they fished mostly off of the Coronado Pier, “More stingrays,” one of them told me. None of them had seen him, and though I went back several times to the pier, he was never there. Sinh had disappeared, or better yet, departed. Every once in a while, though, I would still cook the mackerel the way he indicated, and we would eat it over rice, she and I.
She ate much like the birds, pecking away with her fingers; it was no wonder she was deathly skinny. She wore a thin grey dress when she was in the house; so thin that the fabric proved nothing hidden. It had a long neckline that fell below her breasts, and she was an extraordinary sadness in the thing, so frail. It clung to her ribs and the dimples in her ass, it made her a bland beautiful that I could rarely resist and we spent most of our time, in August, in the small apartment, naked. The patio a favorite spot, several times over, we had nothing else to do or occupy our time, but it wasn’t love, she knew that. This was near all that excited us, it was all that kept us together. But she never cooked, that much I remember; she couldn’t do anything on her own.
The sun was near down, and still the lines were bare. Above us, the cars sped up on the bridge and the flashes of light had mostly subsided. She drew something curved in the dirt with her hand. “Would you marry me?” She asked without raising her head. Her spoken efforts yielded the inclusion of the word ever. As in, would I ever marry her? “No,” I replied, “No, I don’t think it would be a good idea.” I added, “Maybe once, but probably not then either.” Her head jerked around, “I would have married you once—I would have.” How coy, “Of course you would have, why wouldn’t you?” I laughed, not in any way withheld, it was malicious. “You would have done anything for me. You would have lived in that shit apartment and fucked me for the rest of your life if it hadn’t happened, wouldn’t you?” It was so much more a statement.
“You didn’t have to come with me.” “No, I guess I didn’t.” “So I didn’t invite you.” Her head was down, her hair forming protective drapes over her eyes. I stopped laughing.
In the neighborhood where the white stucco covered walls and the red clay rooftops clung to one another, I stood outside smoking a cigarette. And when it was out, I smoked another. I wished that I had been to Kimberly’s Salon recently. When we left the apartment that morning, Raul shook my hand when she wasn’t looking. I don’t know why, but he nodded as if for a farewell. She wouldn’t have heard anything he said anyway, she ignored everything around her by then, she had lost vitality in a wave of nihilism, now mostly despondent. I smoked another cigarette. Where had Sinh gone? Another pier? Who knows anything about anyone these days. It was sunny, then, the cirrus clouds blended with the smoke I exhaled, I had to buy a hat. If we were going to move, I remember thinking that I had to buy a hat, I wanted to look like someone from old movies, maybe get one to match a suit, but that was too far in the distance, first I needed a hat, one like the grey fedora with a white stripe, a worthy hat.
She walked out of the building in the same vein as she walked in, “Let’s go.” She took my hand and pulled me to the car as I put out my cigarette under my foot. “Are you alright?” She opened her door and got in the car, grinning behind the glass, the sky glared back off of the window, she was barely visible.
The sun was half down and they came almost all at once, landing solid. They stretched across the wire, stitches, barbeque skewers, and the drone began. She stood up and kissed me on the cheek. “Are we moving to New York?” Her head on my shoulder, “Yeah, alright, I can buy a hat there.” The sun, burned brown, filled her face with color, previously devoid, she asked, “Are we getting married?” Her hand rubbed the small of my back. “No, we won’t ever get married,” I twisted her to face mine; the blonde streak fell between her eyes, “Don’t ever ask me that again, do you understand?” She nodded and I kissed her forehead. “Let’s go before we lose all light.”
Behind us the tiny congruous figures sat on the power lines, each of them pitching call. The sound was enormous and it echoed wall to wall under the bridge—though they slept here nightly, they cast a beacon into the wind that could be heard for miles calling home the strays. The coveted organic static had arrived. Above, the streets were clear and traffic had eased. Soon it would be dark and the birds would spend the night here not giving a damn. And that was for the best, those birds. I remember them.