Story for a Cold Night

by Mark Morganstern

Ron says to Harry, "Let's say there's this guy who inherits an island from some benign son-of-a-bitch."

"What the hell do I care?" Harry presses the heels of his hands against the cold cement, easing his butt off some insulation. He stares down the alley into a block of dusky light that makes him squint. He watches the forms passing. "Must be six by now."

Ron hikes up his sleeve. The watch is just under the elbow--for security. He wonders if he'll outlast the quartz movement which is good for a year. "It's 5:22," he says.

Harry says, "I need a bottle."

"The island's in a warm climate. There's fruit trees, good fishing, and a fresh water spring. And birds, of course. Birds the color of wet oil paints reflecting in the sun. The man should have been a bird, I suppose," Ron says.

"Fuck your story. It's going to freeze tonight," Harry says, staring at the larger rectangular forms rushing along the street.

Ron gropes through his parka. "I had a cigarette." He takes it out, but most of the tobacco has spilled out of the paper. He can't bring himself to stick it behind his ear. He remembers he doesn't have a match.

"I'm going to find Fred. He owes me." Harry's face is gray. The stubble on his fleshy chin and neck is white. "Fred'll be around."

"There's a condition that comes with the title to the island. The man can't take anyone with him, and once he's there he's got to stay there. That means he has to decide. His wife and kids. His house and sports car and the country club." Ron bares his teeth. He often does. They're still good, show up white and even in the gloom. He's figured it out. The wine diet gives you about five or six years before your teeth fall out. Not counting caps. Caps ought to hold at $475 a piece. "What do you think he does? Stays with his loving wife and precocious kids? Sticks by his country club?"

Harry works himself on to his knees. Palming the wall for support, he stands up. Bits of wiry hair and fluff cover his overcoat. His pants are shiny. He waits for the dizziness to pass. "We better go to the lot. Can't have a fire here," he says, waving his arm over the debris.

Ron considers this. "See if Fred has some matches," he says, squeezing the paper to see how much tobacco is left. "So what do you think he does? He gives up everything--his life as he's know it--to inherit an island where he has to live alone. Now why would he do that?"

"I'm going to find Fred--see what he's got. You want to stay, that's your business."

Ron watches Harry make his way. The light seems to blind him as he gets near the street. There's the smell of chestnuts. Suddenly it's snowing. Ron looks up, follows the line of fire escapes and sees the shaggy head of a dust mop jabbing the air.

"It's not snow," he says. Harry moves unsteadily into the crowd of shoppers, his eyes on the sidewalk looking for coins.

Ron takes a piece of insulation, wedges it between his back and the plastic garbage can he's leaning on. He crosses his legs trying to cover his feet with his parka. It's too short. Across the alley, hugging the wall, is a pigeon, bloated sick, deathly gray, listing to one side. "You want to hear?" he says. "Perversity. The man is perverse. That's worse than being greedy. Perversity is a death wish. Going into isolation accelerates the process. Just the ticket for the man who hates himself. For the man who has everything. You know what I mean." Ron bares his teeth. Nose crinkles up, lip rises. This helps him think. "I don't envy this guy," he mocks.

Button peers into the alley. Starts in cautiously. His army trench coat hangs in faded green shreds and is tied off with a thin chain. Hanging from it are a spoon and a pair of toeless sneakers. He carries a cookie tin of buttons that he shakes like a maraca as he walks. "If a billy goat come 'cross your lawn, that your billy goat. If a billy goat don't cross your lawn..." Button's eyes widen; his mouth turns down at the corners. "If a billy goat come 'cross your lawn, that your billy goat."

Ron scans Button's pocket for a bottle. "Hello, Button," he says, "just telling myself a story. This guy inherits an island. The thing is, he has to live there alone the rest of his life. Sound good?"

Button stands over Ron, swaying. "Billy goat, drinkie," he says, sinking to his knees. A dust ball has settled in his kinky hair.

"I could use a little antifreeze," Ron says. Button kneels beside Ron. The bottle comes out. Button holds it to Ron's mouth, cradling the back of his head, maternally, in his black hand. That's how Button shares.

"Strawberry. Sign of life," Ron says. "There's strawberries on the island. The man builds himself a little hut. He cleverly fashions a raft and paddles out to the coral reef for some spear fishing. Never taught his kid how to fish. At night he has a fire. Occasionally he gets an iguana cutlet. Soon he's looking for ways to kill himself in earnest."

Button offers another "drinkie," cradling Ron's head. He settles down on a discarded tire, holding the tin of buttons in his lap. He takes a squashed cigar from his sock and lights it. Ron holds out his cigarette. The flame catches and burns the empty paper to an ash. A small glow of burning tobacco catches. Enough for one shallow puff. Button slides the bottle into his pocket, a stream of smoke pours from his wide nostrils.

"One night the man swims way out past the coral reef until he's exhausted. He panics, thrashes his way back to the shore. Lies there in a heap of self-pity. The stars offer him no solace because he's murderously self-centered. The moonlight is like a cold slap to his face. He asks God to help him or at least kill him. He can't do it himself. Then comes that whore, Hope. Tomorrow he'll build a big fire and send smoke signals. He'll write H-E-L-P in the sand. Someone will rescue him. A troller, a military ship. An airplane will spot him. He isn't going anywhere.

"That billy goat don't cross your lawn...he ain't your goat." Button looks satisfied. "Talking shit tonight, billy goat," he says loudly.

"There's more," Ron says. Button nods, works his tongue over the thick shore of his lower lip. At this angle Ron sees the scar that goes from his ear to under his neck.

"The man gets hisself a mermaid. She take care 'a him," Button says.

"No. What happens is he falls in love with a bird. A Great Blue Heron. I don't mean sexual love. I mean friendship. Something he doesn't know much about. The Heron befriends the man. Lets him swim with him in the lagoon. Tosses him a fresh fish every now and then. When it flies in from the ocean, it circles the man majestically, saluting him with powerful wings. 'Have you seen any ships?' the man asks the bird. He wants to use the bird, corrupt it because he doesn't understand what it is. The bird flies low along the shore. The man touches its wing as it passes. But he's not satisfied."

"Mermaids got tits out to here," Button says. He unscrews the bottle and takes a drink. Ron puts his hand out. "All I got 'til tomorrow," Button says. "S'posed to freeze up tonight."

"All right." Ron is resigned. "The bird leads the man to a hollow where there's a fermented spring. Tastes like California red."

"Where's that island? 'Cause I'm movin' there. Spring full 'a wine. Mermaids got tits out to here. Let's slide."

"After a while the man forgets some of his troubles. At least he's not so lonely. He gets a little philosophy, maybe. One night, he comes in from the surf, naked as God made him and trim and tan from healthy living. Throws himself down on the warm sand by the Heron. He's talking to the bird, looking at the moon thinking that it seems to get brighter each night. The next thing he knows it's lights out. With two quick jabs of its tapered bill, the bird skewers his eyes out."

"What in hell that bird go do that for?" Button says, freeing himself from the tire. "You said they's friends."

Ron fights to get deeper into his parka, but it's too short and thin for use. The sky is clear. The stars are pumping brightly up there. That promises a frost. "Who says they're not friends," Ron says. "All the bird did was reduce the man physically to what he's been mentally and emotionally all his life. Now he's terrified inside and out. So off he goes running in every direction. Knocking into trees, stumbling in the sand, he falls on his face like Harry and you and me, but not from drink. Here's this blind fool. Can't fish or climb trees for food. You know what's on his mind? Revenge. All he cares about is killing that bird, breaking its long, feathery neck. The irony is the man's dead--walking, stumbling dead. But he wants his revenge." Ron raises his head as Button kneels beside him with the bottle.

"What's ironin' got to do with it? The man's blind--he ain't about to do no ironin'." Button cradles the back of Ron's head, tips the bottle. Ron takes a big swallow, then coughs some of it up.

"Strawberry. Sign of life," he says. "Where you going, Button? Don't you want to know what happens?"

"Got to see a man 'bout a piece of chicken. And get out of the cold." Button slides the bottle in his pocket, gives his chain a tug. "You better move on. Wind's gettin' nasty." Newspapers lift up the vertical shaft of the alley like small printed angels. Windows have been lit up for a while, and the smell of cooking mixes with the sour urine and rotting garbage below.

"I'll be along. Harry's up at the lot--big fire tonight. Hey, Button," Ron says. Button is already made more visible under the street light. "Don't I get a button?"

"Don't remember a goddamn thing these days," Button says, turning around. He pries off the tin top, stirs the contents with a finger, and picks one. He tosses it to Ron. "Good luck," Button says. The wind carries it off target. Ron gropes for it behind a box of rags, raking grit under his nails. He picks it up and holds it towards the light. It's a shiny black button, for a formal overcoat.

"Thanks," Ron says.

"You got it," Button says. Then he's in the street, walking slow to everyone else's fast. Fast to get to warm apartments and hot meals and someone waiting for them there. Someone to watch TV with or lie down with. The digital display on the bank says 6:38 P.M., then changes to 30 degrees F.

Ron takes a look at the pigeon. One of its eyes had faded--pale white; half of the two-starred constellation is dead. "The man gets hungry," Ron says. "He scrounges around for food and water. Gets good at catching sand crabs. Sort of crawls along the beach working his fingers like a typewriter until he finds a hole, then digs it out. Or he hears them--if the sea cooperates--little claws scratching the packed sand on the beach. What fruit falls from the trees is his. Every day he makes a bang-up pilgrimage to the spring, cutting his feet on roots, his flesh welted by branches and thorn bushes. Finally he memorizes a path to the spring. He starts to develop blind-man skills, relies on hearing and smelling. But at night he lies in his hut, dreading the sound of wings. Sleeps with his hands fisted between his legs in case the bird comes back to finish the job on him, eat his privates for a delicacy."

Ron pinches his toes through the worn leather. Numb. "He spends his days sitting on the beach, waiting, listening for a ship's horn. Or the miraculous blades of a helicopter come to rescue him. But he doesn't hear any of that. Just wings, hundreds, thousands of wings. Are they mating? Migrating? Has the island been contaminated? Every day the sun gets hotter, as if the island has drifted down below the equator. His skin is dark. The scars and sockets of his eyes have been baked dry. He could be on another planet for all he knows or cares.

"Then one day, the Heron comes back. It hovers over him, beating its wings. He runs from it, with his hand clamped over his privates he runs. When he stops, he hears the bird nearby. It follows him. If he put out his hand, he'd feel the familiar softness or the coarse hairs of its neck. Again the whooshed flapping. The bird telling the man it's there. Slowly, crouching, protecting, he reaches a hand out to rest on the bird's back. The bird is perfectly still, a life-like replica, waiting. He slides his arm around its side, stroking it with his other hand, working up to its neck. He takes it with both hands and strangles the bird. Lifts it up off the sand, his arms stretched out, the bird going limp, not fighting him at all. This throws the man off, and he relaxes his grasp, is overcome and buries his face in the softness, thinking about his wife, his accumulated losses. Then in a sudden rage, he's wringing the Heron's neck, swinging it around in a crazy dance. Man and bird in a death dance, in the straight overhead sun. The man feels like his body is ripping in two, starting with his brain. He lets go of the bird, touching its breast for a heartbeat. Nothing. The creature is limp. He scoops it up in his arms and runs to the surf. Supporting its neck, he douses salt water over its head. Nothing. He tries again, tries to stand it up in the shallow water, hoping instinct will breathe life back into it. But the spindly legs buckle with the force of the waves, the head hangs, and the feathers are matted to its breast.

"Revenge. He's had his revenge now. He leaves the bird for the surf. Goes back to his hut and gets his fish spear. Wedging it in a tree, he positions the point over his heart. But he can't make himself slam against the point. It leaves a scrape, a burn, a marker over the entrance of his dead, trapped heart. He tries again, muttering a prayer for courage. No good."

The pigeon stirs, fanning an irregular wing. Its claws are bloodless pieces of notched wire. A sticky paste is forming on its beak. Gradually, like the sun, it's rolling off the horizon. Should he pick it up, Ron thinks. Should he give it a stomp--save it the misery? But his feet are numb to the ankles, and he works his numb fingers in a cat's cradle without string.

"I'll tell you what happens," Ron says. "A story's no good if you're not in the world to hear it. The man heads for the waves again. This time he means business. If he gets out far enough, he won't know where the shore is. He'll just swim way out and start gargling brine. He doesn't do it. Stops in his tracks. Stops and listens to the sound inside himself which is like a radio playing crazy music that's suddenly shut off. He waits. Quiet. He sits on the sand, notices the graininess which kind of pulls something out of him. There's a studying you do before you die, I'll bet. A kind of quick addition or division a man does. But not for any result, I guess. There he sits. Doesn't care about the wings flapping, the sun burning, or where in hell the island's floated off to. He just sits there waiting for the benign son-of-a-bitch who endowed him."

Harry comes cursing from the lot, put out, inconvenienced, and with Fred in tow, reluctant and drunk, shriveled under his pea jacket. They turn into the alley. "Fuckin' freezin'," Fred says to the bank clock. Ron feels himself rising. He smiles behind the frozen spittle of his beard.

"Goddamn jackass," Harry says. "Get his arm," he yells at Fred.

"He ain't walkin'," Fred complains. "Jesus."

Harry loops Ron's arm over his shoulder. They drag him into the pinkish street light, people side-stepping the stink they give out. Harry slaps Ron's face with his free hand. "Come on. Snap to, goddamn it."

Ron feels a vague but crippling ache. But he keeps his eyes shut tight to prolong that feeling of rising up and up.

Add a comment to the Expresso Tilt Guestbook or view the guestbook.

[TiltHome] [GipperIssue] [EarlyMadness] [No.5] [No.6] [No.7] [No.8] [No.9] [No.10]
PenisPage] [PeoplePage] [FeaturedWriters] [StoryCollection] [ExpressoPoems] [TheFunnies]