Through Another Window
Even with the window shut, I could feel the wind rushing into the upstairs room. Like air blowing through a straw, it whistled. I could have stayed there forever, plugging the seam with my thumb, feeling nature's power and changing at whim the draft's pitch and tone by sliding my hand up and down the window's cracked pane. From inside, I was stronger than I'd ever been, and for the moment, nature was at my mercy. Withstanding her was never more simple. By merely raising a hand I could stop her, and so I stood there feeling her against the thin window, thrusting herself into my opened palm as though she were writing a message in my hand.
For a moment, I thought of wedging a piece of cardboard between the pane and the shutter, but for some reason, I just stood there waving my hand in front of the passing air. Nature had come for me and stopping her, I thought, would have been cruel, for she had only wanted to be near me and if I chose to hurt her, all I had to do was simply walk away. I imagined her trying to knock, trying to unlatch the window and come to me. So I stood there, hand extended, as she touched me. And once she had, all I wanted to do was please her.
During the night, it rained, just barely. A cranberry haze soaked up the dawn's light and energy and crept through the freckled milkvetch and the season's first wintergreens only now beginning to stretch their cottony whiskers sideward. Now and then, when the weather's nice, I'll leave the front door open, as I had last night. The chinkapin's dying branches break up the wind coming onto the porch. Thick, woodsy air lingers there like a cautious neighbor before passing through the screen door and into the living room. Even inside the house, fresh coffee can be detected stirring and blending with air from the porch, the meadow and all around Dakota Creek.
Waking to the country's freshness each morning is more invigorating than a shower and more inviting than a church usher. Mangan's Sister understands this feeling. She enjoyed the morning, relaxing on the piano, carelessly waving her tail past some sheet music and a few pieces of neglected mail. A circular from a local market blew from a newspaper beside her and floated in the air, flipping once and then sliding along the floor like a heron landing on a still pond. Such was the condition of my home early this morning. But soon, a visitor would come, and the house, more or less, was too comfortably disheveled for guests.
Yesterday, before I closed the library, Mr. Campion left me some photographs of his son's recent wedding. He was planning to come by this afternoon to pick them up and of course, to visit. Mr. Campion seemed surprised by the fact that his boy, Robert Jr., was able to persuade a girl to marry him. All of the Campions, in fact, seemed astounded by the event and with the luck that brought young Robert and Elizabeth (or "Lizbeth" as old Robert had corrected me earlier) together, notwithstanding his obvious homeliness, though amply disguised by a cordial demeanor and a little creative grooming. I had never seen his bride in person. But in every photo she was lovely; she looked perfectly healthy and downright blissful.
The Campions on the other hand looked rather ghastly, almost certifiably ugly, in my opinion. I had always pitied the ugly, until I saw in those photographs love's less obvious conclusions. I thought of little else this morning when I woke and looked into the bathroom mirror. Robert Jr., by most accounts, had won a victory for ugly people everywhere, but a victory perhaps not all that uncommon and of course not all that undeserved.
Shortly after lunch I watched from the upstairs window the Campions' long, silver van pull into my driveway. It was a noisy machine dented and scratched on every side. Before it completely stopped I watched its side-panel door begin sliding open. Pairs of small hands pushed hard against it like a family of tiny aliens struggling to escape from their partially demolished space pod. By the time I reached the door the smallest two aliens had emerged waving sticks at each other and running around the yard and between the groomed hedgerow of holly and bright yellow pansies. I watched from behind the screen door as three more aliens left the wreck, yelling at the youngest two now balancing on the stones that encircled the once groomed hedgerow of holly and bright yellow pansies.
Mr. Campion smiled and waved when I walked onto the porch to welcome them. He moved slowly as if he slept all night on the floor and offered his hand still a respectable distance from the porch. Of course I reached for it offering an expected welcome and a little help managing the few steps up to my house.
The three of them stood in the doorway until I returned from the kitchen with the photos. Only when I knelt before the coffee table and laid the pictures across it did they finally approach me. Mr. Campion fussed with his glasses while his youngest walked slowly, but directly to Mangan's Sister still lying on the piano. She placed her on her lap and they sat together on the narrow bench, grooming each other with compliments and uninhibited affection.
We were soon disrupted by screams coming from the front yard. Apparently one of the two aliens had smacked the other with his stick. "I told you not to hold it like that," one yelled at the other. No one in the room, except for Sister and I, seemed to even notice the screams, or maybe the others were only attuned to the necessary ones. Mr. Campion just waved his arm and kept babbling about the wedding. So I too went back to the photographs, handling carefully each one by the edges, showing more respect to Mr. Campion by doing so. He shared a story about every picture. And every picture and every story featured the lovely Lizbeth. She stood out in every picture. But to stand out among the Campions, I confess, all one has to do is stand...I doubt if Lizbeth's family even brought a camera. It was that bad.
The oldest stayed close to her father, trying to disassociate from her sister and her two younger brothers outside. Eventually she relaxed and began to look around, examining the features of the room and associating with its antiquity, so romantic and yet so muted and confused. She studied at first a few framed photographs resting on a cambric throw on top of the piano. And from there she moved toward the stairway and gazed up for a time at the studio door. I was sure it was closed, but I wondered for a moment if she had seen the artist whom I had only imagined.
She wanted to see more. And as she did, I saw more of her. She wasn't bored as her father may have feared anticipating her displeasure to running errands on an otherwise promising afternoon. But a visit to my home, I assumed, was like a field trip to a museum or a monastery--someplace fabled and creepy and curious. Mr. Campion went on about the wedding and I listened politely while his oldest browsed the bookshelves against the wall, dragging a finger along the titles without reading a single word but feeling instead their dusty spines, moving from one object to another, discovering in the process something appreciable and attractive about herself. Like the expansion joints on a freeway, her fingers likewise bumped along each book and seam, each inch and half-inch, each ridge and groove of the shelf top. Her countenance showed her infatuation and I began to see her as another artifact, a figure of romance and mystery.
There were other items in the room that drew her attention as well. And, in turn, she touched them all: the ivory sphere, the wooden totem, the feather mask, the paper teacup. She was so dutiful examining the living room and absorbing the hidden properties of my personality, tastes and history. Her intrigue was contagious and reminded me of my visit to the ossuary. Almost overwhelmingly, I wanted to take her there. I wanted to leave her father and my all too familiar surroundings and escape. And I realized to my own delight and horror how I wanted to explore her. I wanted the bee to settle deep into the young begonia and become its complete and unfamiliar satisfaction.
Once she satisfied her curiosity, she settled onto the vinyl rocker in front of the window. The wind had picked up. I could hear the chinkapin on the porch scratch against the roof as sporadic gusts from the north blew into the valley. The sun was making its way to the western end of the house, stretching the shadows in the front yard and bending the lean, pale ones against the living room wall. The girl in the rocker turned her cheek into the warm vinyl, and within minutes, she too faded away, sleeping ever so lightly that a mere sigh could disturb her. Looking at her was like looking through a window at an image that can never change. She would always be plain and unattractive. But perhaps someone will see the light around her, perhaps that will change, perhaps that will be enough.
At last the ordeal was over. Mr. Campion rose quickly pretending to be late for another engagement. The youngest, with some reluctance, squeezed Sister and kissed her nose before setting her back on the piano. And the girl in the armchair raised her head and stood more eagerly than I expected, not bothering to stretch or to pull back her hair that had fallen across her face like a veil. She took her father's arm as I pushed open the screen door and said good-bye. The boys in the yard dropped their sticks by the driveway, climbed into the van and closed the sliding door more easily than they had opened it. Leaving seemed for them a simpler task than arriving. But I was glad to be alone again and accepted that jarring silence more willingly than I had in the past.
The wind at the upstairs window whistled and I concluded that the door had swung open. Branches above the porch tapped against the house, and briefly, I thought the two boys were standing in the wind knocking, batting at the chinkapin with their sticks, trying to get in before the old tree wrapped them in its feeble trunk and swallowed.
Sister stretched each leg independently, shook her face like a wet dog, then leaped onto the floor and disappeared into the kitchen. I stood at the front window until the Campions disappeared around a corner and then fell into the armchair still warm and soft and smelling like a young girl's perfume. The old chair had acquired another story and I another memory. The newlyweds, on the other hand, were just beginning a story, their story together that is. Getting married, I imagine, is like crafting a novel—merging two stories into one in the middle of a single tale. I was happy for the young Campions and replayed the stories in my mind of their wedding and engagement. Something was in the air the night they met, and some mysterious power took an ordinary night and made it something special.
They say there's someone for everyone. Young Robert, in that light, isn't any luckier than the next guy. But it is youth, I suspect, more than anything that assures even the plainest of companionship and love. In the middle of life, those without beauty or charm, have pets. And every morning that I wake to Sister purring in my ear, I am reminded of a fairy tale where the faithful, young beauty is revived from death by love's patient kiss. Tomorrow, like every morning, I'll wake after dawn, rub Sister's neck, and walk to the bathroom thinking about the Campions and gauging their plainness against my own.
Robert Jr. had youth and perhaps a beauty not obscured by a book or a peculiar charm unnoticed while walking along the creek or daydreaming at the upstairs window. Apparently, he possessed a different kind of beauty, the kind that girls do not smile at, but the kind that girls marry. My own superficiality was alarming. It surprised me no less, I'm sure, than luck surprised the Campions. So for the rest of the day I brooded about my own solitude which never before seemed to bother me, that is until I saw those pictures, until I saw that aging reflection in the bathroom mirror. What an awakening, I thought. What a surprise.