Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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Swan’s Beak

I don’t hang with the girls. I don’t cruise the mall. I keep my life simple. I paint my toenails. Love Shack, which the maker describes as a cool, calculating coral. I like that. The description. It’s better than the name. It’s better than the color. That’s what I want to be when I grow up—cool, calculating.

I’m from Texas. I escaped this year. On January 2 to be exact.

I live in Arizona now. My parents sent me to Cottonwood seven months ago for rehab. All the money in the world, they send me to some unknown twelve-step ranch. They could have chosen Betty Ford. Hazelden. Promises, where I might have gotten some star spunk. But no. Cottonwood. Cheapskates.

When you’re from Texas, people have ideas. Expectations. You gotta wear cowboy boots. Speak with a twang. Have bleached blonde hair bigger than Dallas. I have bleached blonde hair, but it’s more the size of Grand Saline.

I dip a limp fry in ketchup and peer at the guy on the left end of the bar. He’s my mark. I like his Sears uniform, the way his ass pushes against his gray cotton pants. I’ve seen him in my mother’s kitchen, squatting in front of the dishwasher, bending over the dryer. Hell, she’s probably fucked him, or the Texas equivalent.

I know what men want. This guy’s an easy get.

I walk to the bathroom. I let my heel slide off my mule just as I get to his barstool. I put my hand on his shoulder for support. His arm reaches around my waist to steady me. Our eyes meet. I apologize, saunter on to the bathroom. He’s mine.

I pull my curls this way and that as I look into the bathroom mirror. My hairstyle’s a cross between early Marilyn and early Shirley Temple. It speaks to me. I freshen my Butterfield 8 gloss and head back to the booth.

Before I can smear another soggy fry with ketchup, the waitress plops a drink by my plate.

“From him,” she jerks her head in his direction. “Wants to know if he can join you. Looks a little old. Could be your daddy.” She raises one thick black brow to the tin-tiled ceiling.

I look at him. He’s trying not to stare. I meet his gaze. I mouth no. But just in case he doesn’t get it, I tell the waitress to thank him but let him know that I prefer to be alone. You have to make them work for it. They appreciate it more that way.

I open my book back up and take a bite out of my hamburger. It’s greasy. He can go to a motel with me, but not until I finish my burger. A dribble of mustard slides down my chin. I lick it off.

Of course.


I unzip his pants as soon as we get inside Sierra Pines Room 122. I rented the room early today and turned the AC on as high as it would go. Frigid and impersonal, the way I like it.

He pops a button off my blouse he’s in such a hurry.

“Slow down, Pop. Get on the bed and wait for baby.” I could really make myself sick if I thought about it, but then my shrink at Cottonwood would probably say that was part of the buzz.

He nearly falls he’s so eager to get his pants and briefs off. I make a point not to look at the briefs. Nothing turns me off faster than dingy cotton knit. His belly’s white, like the underside of a good melon, although not nearly so firm.

“Take off your shirt, too, daddy. I don’t want anything to come between us.”

I take off everything but my ruby suede mules and my pink gingham ruffled thong and bra, and then I reach into my bag for a Wet One and a rubber.

“What’s that for?” He’s looking at the Wet One.

“You’ve got to be clean for baby,” I breathe. This guy’s starting to annoy me. It’s better if he keeps his mouth shut.

“Shit,” he says.

I put one leg across his body and pull my thong aside as I rub his penis with the Wet One.

He whimpers.


I go to the bank every day with Pap. It’s my favorite part of the day. I wear gingham dresses and ruffled panties and petticoats that jingle.

“You’re my vintage child,” my mother coos as she lifts me into the truck. She says this all the time.


I’m in my T-bird—Daddy gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday, his way of saying I’m sorry you’re not my favorite child (Kamela, Miss Perfect)—with the top down, driving along Highway 89. I left Room 122 and the repairman the minute I was sure he was asleep. He was one of those guys who wants to sleep with his arm around you. I hate that. Doesn’t he have a wife to go home to?

It’s cool at night here in the high desert. The wind hitting my face feels like witch hazel.

I drive all the way to Phoenix, listening to No Secrets. I wonder what it feels like to be held in a man’s hands like a bunch of flowers.


After I got out of rehab, I decided I wanted to stay out here for a while. My parents thought it was a good idea. The geographic cure, they said. They’re so smart. They think. I know they just wanted me out of their way.

I like the high desert. I like the pine trees. I like the horizon.

I like the anonymity.


I’m straightening boxes of goblets—fifteen ounces each, four to a box—at Dillard’s. My humility job. It’s all part of my recovery program. All part of the new me. All part of the agreement I made with my parents to stay here and enroll at the local community college rather than return to Randolph-Macon immediately. I can stay for one year, and then my mother says I’ll have to go back. We’ll see.

Brie is standing next to me, fiddling with her tangerine vinyl flower barrette and yapping about Drew, her boyfriend. Even though she’s just graduated high school, she’s two months older than me. I jumped ahead two years when I was in the sixth grade. I was excited at first, because I thought I would get to leave home and go off to college that much sooner. That was before I realized my mother was going to insist I go to a women’s college, her alma mater. (Kamela got to go to RISD. Daddy’s girl.)

Brie thrusts her hand in front of my nose.

“See? It’s just like J. Lo’s bling-bling.” Hardly, but it is big and lavender. It looks atrocious against her freckled skin and orange nails. She paints her nails every day. What motivation. What energy. She works too hard for it. You don’t have to.

How do these boxes get so dusty? I move to the next aisle. She follows, playing with her “bling-bling.” I wonder if bling-bling is hyphenated. I choose hyphenation.

“We’re getting married in Sedona. I’ll wear something white and lacy and cut down to here.” She touches her waistline.

“Married? You just turned eighteen.”

“He’s the only one for me.” She looks heavenward, as if she knows heaven exists above these florescent lights.

“How can you know that? Didn’t you say you’d only slept with three boys?” I stop dusting to stare at her in disgust. When I do, I see Ms. Akins, the assistant manager, walking our way.

“Look busy,” I warn and return to my straightening.

“I can’t believe he asked me to marry him. I’m so happy!” She floats to the register.

What an idiot. She’s never even slept with a man. Doesn’t she know boys are as easy to snag as ants at a picnic?

Jeez. No wonder I don’t have girlfriends. They’re as dense as butter.


My mother calls after I get home. I don’t pick up. I lie in my Dog’s Ear pink bedroom and let the phone ring and ring.


One day, at the rehab ranch, Alicia Jean, a fifty-something woman who’d been in twice before, said to me, “How can you know you’re a drunk? You’re seventeen. You’re supposed to be boozing it up.”

The counselor responded—too quickly—that I had wrecked two cars on my Christmas break and gotten a pink DUI ticket each time, and that it was admirable and mature of me to come out of denial at such a young age.

Alicia Jean sneered.

I think she was right. How can I know? How can they? I’m too young to be labeled. I think the only reason they decided I was an alcoholic is because I borrowed my mother’s $80,000 sable and left it at Local Charm. It was never found. Boo hoo.

But at the rehab ranch they taught me to always look on the bright side, and the bright side is that at least I’m not at Randolph-Macon.


My mother and I are having lunch at the Mariposa Room. We eat there almost every Saturday. I’m having potluck, which today is chicken sautéed in a brandy cream sauce accompanied by glazed carrots. My mother is having fruit salad. She is always watching her figure. (If I don’t watch it, no one else will, she’s said a zillion times, and it’s very important to her that people not only watch but desire her figure.) The women at the next table are gossiping about a friend who just paid a million bucks for a Jasper Johns. There is much rolling of eyes and raising of brows. I want to say I love Jasper Johns, that their friend’s money was well-spent, but I don’t. Instead, I listen to my mother describe her latest lover.

“His hands, child, the things they do.” She shivers dramatically. “One day, I hope you have a lover so  . . . so . . . seasoned. He. Is. A. Master.”

It has never occurred to my mother that it might not be appropriate to tell me, her twelve-year-old daughter, about her lovers. She has been telling me about them for years, and let me say, there have been quite a few. But who else would she tell? She has no girlfriends.


I am looking at makeup online. What shall I buy? What names appeal tonight? I love good names. NARS has the best. I add Night Breed, Heart of Glass, Deep Throat, Fire Down Below, and Rapture to my cart and check out. I have only picked up three men in the last two weeks, and I promise myself I won’t have sex again until this makeup arrives.

Express shipping is available. I click.


I think about the first night. The first night I held him inside me. I knew him—he was an old college chum of Daddy’s (not close, not hunting or drinking buddies) and a former lover of my mother’s (brief affair, at least ten years ago). I’d always thought he was devastatingly good-looking. (Still, I doubt I would have gone after him if it hadn’t been for the Jack. See? Liquor is a good thing.) His mom was Italian, his dad Venezuelan. He had one of those “sophisticated” marriages: His wife had moved here with their three children after two of them had been kidnapped (safely returned after major ransom had been paid). He kept a house (and a mistress) in Venezuela. He was here one weekend a month, and he usually stayed at the Four Seasons, not at the family swankienda.

I was tagging along with Kamela and an older photographer friend of hers who had just gotten hired at the Chronicle.

I saw him at our second stop (a benefit with an older crowd but an open bar—Mother had given us her tickets, since she was at our house in Belize, probably with her lover du jour). He was leaning against the bar with an artist (she had been one of Daddy’s protégés for a while—draw your own conclusions) and she was stuck to him like newsprint to Silly Putty. But he was oh so delectable, and the Jack had bolstered my confidence. I danced, and I made sure he noticed. My moves were seductive, of course. (This knowledge was payoff for all those hours of listening to my mother.) I perused the DJ’s selections, picked out “Let’s Get It On” and “Spirit in the Night.” Foolproof numbers. (Thank you, Mother.) I asked the DJ to throw in something to surprise me. I didn’t want to seem the rehearsed seductress. (Another tip from dear Mother.) Then I “accidentally” bumped into him. I asked him to dance. What could he do, daughter of an old friend and all?

Marvin crooned, “I’ve been sanctified.” You couldn’t slide a steak knife between us.

“Does your mother know what you’re up to?” Luis asked.

“She taught me,” I replied. “And your wife?”

“Touché.” Yes, he said that. It was a popular word in the romance novels my mother kept hidden in her nightstand, but I hadn’t heard it used much.

By the time Springsteen sang, “Honey, let me heal it,”we were kindred spirits in the night. All night.


It is Friday. I drive up to Sedona. I look for sex. I find it.


Mother calls. Her first words are “That lazy, good-for-nothing bitch princess!” No hello, how are you, what did you do today. Her oldest sister, Eleanor, is the lazy, good-for-nothing bitch princess. “You won’t believe what’s she’s done now.”

“Hi, Mother, how are you?” I always try to slow her down when she’s ranting, usually without success.

“She’s moved into the lake compound. She’s not paying rent!”

“So?” My grandparents own five houses at Lake George. They only use them for a few weeks each summer.

“Why should she get to stay there rent free just because she’s blown her inheritance and refuses to work?”

“You don’t work.”

“I haven’t blown my inheritance. I invested it. Wisely, little missy. She’s also borrowed more money from Daddy. She still hasn’t paid back her last loan. Nor the one before that.”

“What does it matter? There’s plenty of money.”

“She’s always been Daddy’s favorite. Always. He fried her eggs every morning when we were kids. He didn’t do that for me.”

“You hate eggs,” I say.

“He can’t say no. He needs to stop giving her money. That’s our money! Mine!”

“Isn’t it Nannygoat and Pap’s money? By the way, I’m fine, Mother. Thanks for asking.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, precious. How are you, my little vintage child? How’s school? How’s work? When are you coming home? I miss you. Without you, there’s no one to confide in. Oh, I must tell you about Joe. He loves to plate. We’ve gone through two boxes of Whip-Its in the last two weeks.”

I breathe. Deep. It’s always about my mother.


Buster was the first man I fucked. His band played the Junior League Christmas party the year I turned thirteen. My mother kept saying to me, those few times she left the dance floor, “They are nasty. Nasty.”

I watched my mother dance. We all did. She was 39, and she could have had any man in the room, she with her white shoulders shimmering like pearls above her strapless crimson velvet sheath.

I noticed Buster look from me to my mother, time and again. He probably thought I was her younger, shy sister.

Kamela had already left. She hated my mother. Especially my mother’s ability to claim the limelight.

My mother glided by the table. “Nasty!” She winked at me.

It’s a mean old world,” Buster sang.


Today, I am working with Merle, the only co-worker I like. She is sixty-three and works full time because her worthless husband died of a heart attack, leaving her with no life insurance policy, $1,610 in the bank, a leaky trailer parked at Shady Acres, which, thank God, she owns outright, and a $223 bar tab. She rarely even badmouths the son-of-a-bitch. She always looks at the bright side.

“At least he didn’t leave any credit card debt,” she says.


Kamela (perfect, Daddy’s favorite) and her friends are at the Spanish Flower. I am with them, and we have been drinking Jack in the car. It is four a.m. and the clubs are closed. I see Buster. He looks older in the harsh light of the Spanish Flower. He’s forty if he’s a day. I wonder if the light makes me look older. Most people think I am at least eighteen. Sometimes I don’t even have to use my fake ID when I get drinks. I want to feel Buster’s hands on me like a bunch of flowers. I wonder if he will come over. I could tell he found me attractive at the ball. I hear Nannygoat’s voice say gentlemen don’t speak to ladies first. I go over and say hi. I feel awkward. He invites me to sit down. He’s with his band and some women in leopard skin and pleather with enough makeup on to stock the entire makeup department at Neiman Marcus. They look like groupies.

He says he’s playing at a festival on the bayou next Saturday. His set is at one p.m. Why don’t I come?

“Why?” I ask.

“Lunch,” he says.


I am waiting for Pap at the bank. I didn’t feel like going inside with him today. I am writing in my diary. Nannygoat gave it to me last month for my tenth birthday. I carry it everywhere. I am a writer. Pap is taking forever—he always says hi to everyone. It is over a hundred today, and my thighs stick to the seats. I wish he would hurry. When I turn around to look out the back window to see if he is coming, I drop my pen behind the seat. I reach down to get it and feel a magazine rolled up. I pull it out. It’s a porn magazine. Porn! In Pap’s truck! Nannygoat always steers me away from these at the newsstand. What is it doing in Pap’s truck? Otie, Pap’s helper, must have left it here. I have never seen anything like this. Women and men are having sex in trees! In trees! Is that possible? I thought it was done in beds or cars or sometimes elevators. (Mother had done it in an elevator. Several times.) I am shocked. Excited. I keep one eye on the window. I know Pap will be very upset if he finds me with this filth, as Nannygoat calls magazines like this. In trees. I never imagined. Isn’t the bark scratchy?


I hate plating. Food is food. Sex is sex.


We go back to Buster’s duplex after lunch. There are niceties. Beer. Conversation. I answer but am barely present. I am already in the bedroom. Between the sheets. There are no trees in Buster’s apartment. Buster doesn’t know this will be my first time. I have heard enough from Kamela to know that I may bleed, and he may find out. I masturbated with a twig last night (the bark is scratchy) and tried to break my hymen. I don’t think it worked, because I didn’t bleed.

There is kissing. More kissing. Then the bedroom. At last. I am so excited I can hardly stand up. Every pore of my body feels like it’s being punctured. I feel like I’m wearing a prickly pear leotard.

Buster undresses me, ever so gently tongues each nipple. I am underwhelmed. This doesn’t feel nearly as good as I had imagined, as Mother has said it would. Then he licks my vagina. This is more like it. This feels like something magazines are made of. Yes. Yes. Oh, shit. My body feels like it’s made of twine and is fixing to break apart.

Buster. Is. A. Master.

He puts his penis inside me. He shoves. Fast. Faster. Hard. Harder. I scream. Loud. Louder. Buster must think I like this because he keeps going. I scream and scream. I think about the neighbors. Will they hear me over Junior Wells? Shit. Will the police come? Will my parents find out? Will my mother really be so pleased I have a lover? Oh damn this hurts. Will he ever stop? I try to push him away but he apparently thinks this is part of the game. I try to speak but cannot make my voice come out in coherent words. Only screams.

“You like it rough, huh?” he gasps as he ruts.

This is not what I expected. This is not what I expected at all. I am being gouged. I can see why the twig didn’t work. Damn shit piss fuck.

I look at the clock on his nightstand. I count the seconds. One two three. Surely he will stop soon. Four five six. How long can this go on? I am dying. I am dying in a strange man’s bed. Will it make the newspaper? Nine ten eleven. When Grampy died, it made page one. He was ninety-two. In his sleep. Shit. Fifty-three seconds later, he falls on me, heavy, deflated. He rolls off, reaches for his Marlboro Lights.

Buster can’t find his lighter and goes to look for it. I pull the sheet over my head. I want to sink into the bed like water.

When he comes back, he pulls the sheet aside, leans down to kiss my belly.

“Sheee-itt. Blood! A virgin? Shit. Man, you shoulda told me.”

Men are so stupid sometimes.

“Would you have fucked me if I had?”

“Hell, no. You’re probably jailbait, anyway.”

“Yeah, well.”

He takes a long drag off his Marlboro. I watch the smoke ring float to the ceiling, then lean over for the Lone Star on the nightstand.

“Well, I am one grateful bastard. Thank you, Little Willie Slow-Hand.”

“Huh?” I probably sound dumb, but haven’t a clue who Little Willie Slow-Hand is and what he has to do with losing my virginity. There was certainly nothing slow about Buster’s penis.

“Willie was the bass player in my first band. He taught me ya got ta lick ’em before ya stick ’em. That part was good. Right?”


“Good.” He blows another smoke ring. “I don’t want you scarred for life. The rest’ll be better next time. I’ll make sure. I got my tricks.”

“Next time?”

“Next Saturday?”

I swallow the last of the Lone Star, watch Buster blow another smoke ring.

“Was Little Willie Slow-Hand his real name?” I had to ask.


I went back Saturday. Buster proved to be a master. I know my mother would agree.


I am working with Brie today. She and the boy have purchased a house, with the help of the moms and the dads.

“It’s so cute.” She makes cute two syllables.

“We picked out paint last night.” She reaches into her pocket, hands me a chip.

“The third one down,” she says.

A pale yellow. The name is perfect. Cornerstone. Just the kind of color an oh-honey-you’re-so-big-you-make-me-feel-so-good kind of girl would pick out. The kind of girl who believes in ring-on-my-finger-happily-ever-after. The kind of girl who decorates her paint chips with big red ink hearts. Stable. Solid. Totally deluded.

“You go, girl,” I say. She doesn’t catch my sarcasm.


Well, I have known you since you were a small boy,” Carly croons.

The top is down and I am speeding along U.S. 60. I have a bottle of Veuve-Clicquot (hyphenated) in the ice chest and a Dixie cup and I am happy. The wind is Sea Breeze for my soul.

Still have the heart of a small boy, when you lend it out far too much . . .

It is Saturday night, there’s a case of Veuve-Clicquot in the trunk, and a packet of Wet Ones and a six-pack of Naturalamb Kling-Tites in my purse, my mother is twelve hundred miles away, and I don’t have to be back at work until Monday.


Luis calls on Wednesday. I do not pick up.


Luis calls on Thursday. I do not pick up.


Luis calls on Saturday. I do not pick up.


Luis calls on Monday. I pick up. He’s in Phoenix on business. Why don’t I come down?

I’ll see, I say.

Call me on my cell, he says.


How do you hold a bunch of flowers? I pick up three bunches of peonies at Safeway to see if I can figure it out. When I get home and take off the cellophane cuffs, I hold them several different ways. Close to the flower. Not right. I am choking them. I try the middle of the stems. Impersonal. I grip near the ends. They seem free. Too free. Lax. Unstable.

Hold me in your hands like a bunch of flowers,”Carly sings.

The stems hurt my hand.


Luis calls again on Tuesday. I don’t answer. Please call, he says. Please come.


I go to an AA meeting on Wednesday. Just in case Mother asks if I’ve been when she calls. I don’t speak.


Luis calls on Thursday. I pick up.

“Are you coming?” he asks.

“Does the bed have posts?”

“You can handcuff me,” he says.

“We’ll see,” I say.


Luis calls on Friday. I pick up.

“Did you shave your chest?” I ask.


“Get an extra room for me?”


I hang up. He’s too sure of me.


Luis calls Saturday morning before I leave for work. I am not going to pick up until he says, “If it’s easier, I can drive up.”

I grab the phone.

“No. If I see you, I want a real date.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. I just don’t want him in my house.

“I thought you were above dating.”

“I’ll call you when I get off.”

I hang up.


I don’t know why I am waffling. Luis has been my lover since I was 15. I want to go. I don’t. I want to. I don’t. I know I’ll go in the end.


Luis opens the door on the first knock. He shoots right through me. Through every fucking pore.


We disagree over where to go for dinner. I want to go to Rumbling Fork, but Luis knows the owner and fears being recognized with the daughter of a friend.

“I am the daughter of a friend,” I say.

“But I don’t look at you that way.”

“It’s been years since he worked in Houston. He won’t remember me.”

He wants to go to Mary Elaine’s, but I don’t want to dress up, and it seems too hoity-toity, anyway. Mother and I go there when she visits. We compromise and go to a Mexican restaurant south of town. It’s perfect. The dialectic is real. It exists. May God bless you, Hegel. (It was Hegel? Mother is the philosophy whiz. But I’m almost certain it was one of the H guys.)

I am good and do not order a margarita with dinner. But when Luis is eating his flan, I wave down the waiter and order one.

“Rehab?” Luis asks. “Money down the drain?”

“Rehab,” I say, “is never money down the drain. I was sober two months, and look at all I learned.”

“Thirty thousand dollars for two months of sobriety? And what did you learn? Exactly?”

“That rehab is never wasted money, that I should always look on the bright side, and that I’m too young to know if I’m an addict.”

“They said that at rehab?”

“Not exactly. Anyway, they just sent me there because they like the drama. Gives them something to talk about at cocktail parties. You know, our problem child.”

“And the two wrecked cars?” Luis asks.

“Stone-cold sober people wreck cars. By the way, Pops, I’m having another one.”

We go dancing at some club on the top floor of an office building. Luis and I have not danced in public since the benefit, when we both knew fucking was inevitable. They are playing crummy music, new shit. I hate it.

I drag Luis into the stairwell.

“You know these doors lock automatically. We’ll have to walk all the way down. Thirty flights. We can’t get out until we’re back on the first floor.”

“You’re in good shape,” I say. I sit down on the stairs and brace one Virgin of Guadalupe cowboy boot on the metal banister and the other on the concrete wall. “I drove ninety-eight miles. Deliver.”

Nobody delivers better, to paraphrase one of Carly’s weaker songs. Shit. I wish someone would.


We stop for drinks at the Biltmore bar on our way back to the room. I have two martinis. I am so drunk when we get back to Luis’s room that we fuck straight. In the bed. No restraints. No toys. I even let him kiss me. As I fade into sleep, I am vaguely aware of Boz Scaggs singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

Thank God.


Sunday, we eat French toast in bed and read the Times.

Luis asks when I am going back to Randolph-Macon.


“Will your mother allow that?”

“I have some money, you know. And UH has a decent creative writing program.”

“It’s harder for us to see each other if you’re in Houston.”

“We could come out of the closet. Although the illicit nature of our affair no doubt hikes the excitement.”

“Why don’t you go to Stanford? Or Johns Hopkins? They both have good programs.”

“I don’t have that much money.”

“I’ll pay.”

“I’d be your kept woman? Oooohhhh. Be still my heart,” I say sarcastically as I peruse the ethics column. “Would I have to be faithful?”

“Just don’t tell me about any indiscretions.”


I call in sick Monday. We do not leave the room.


I ask Luis to handcuff me Monday night. When he enters me, my body turns into a wire cable that stretches all the way to infinity.


I wake up Tuesday, depressed. It is four a.m. I realize I have not even opened the door of the room Luis got for me. “Spirits in the night. Oh, you don’t know what they can do to you.” Shit. I have to get out. Immediately. Without waking Luis. I grab my skirt, undies, Virgin of Guadalupe boots, the first shirt I see, and my handbag. I don’t even dress until I’m outside the door. Everything is replaceable.

I make it back to Prescott in time to make the 6:30 a.m. AA meeting at Yavapai College. When the leader asks if anyone has less than thirty days and wants to be acknowledged, I raise my hand.


Luis calls Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I do not pick up. I know he has to be in D.C. Wednesday through at least Monday. By then, I’ll be out of town. He’ll leave me alone after a week or so, anyway.


Friday, when I deposit my humility paycheck, I get a cashier’s check for ten thousand dollars and send it to Merle. I enclose a letter saying it’s from the Slaves to Love Foundation, and that our goal is to help make the lives of working widows more pleasant.


It’s Sunday afternoon, late, and I am driving from Springerville to Clifton when I get stuck behind a truck pulling a trailer filled with carnival swans. I am annoyed—the driver is riding his brakes down the mountain. But the swans are so gaily painted, I have to smile—the females have apricot polka-dotted dresses and huge periwinkle bonnets. The males have aqua jackets and red top hats. As I pull out to pass, one female takes flight. She bullets in front of me. I screech to a stop, just as something black lands on the seat next to me. I pick it up. A beak. I wait for the truck to stop. It doesn’t. I start driving again, blowing my horn. The truck finally pulls into the parking lot of the Golden Shutters Motel.

An older man gets out, walks back to meet me.

“You lost a bird back there,” I say.

He rubs his chin. His wedding band glimmers in the sun. He’s very handsome, teak of skin and hair, with eyes the color of oxypetalum.

“I can go back and help you find it, if you like.”

“That’s awful sweet,” he says finally, still rubbing his chin. “But I can’t go back.”


“I can’t go back. But I’ll buy you dinner for being so nice. The enchiladas are good here.”

“Sure,” I say. I never dreamed I’d get lucky so early.

He tells me he works for a carnival, and he’s on his way home. Hasn’t been there in a month, and he misses his wife when he’s on the road. Can’t wait to see her. I flirt madly. I tell him I’ve been driving since nine. I’m tired. I think I’ll get a room. He’s welcome to share it. He says no, hasn’t slept with another since he got engaged twenty-one years ago. Doesn’t intend to start now. Doesn’t mean to offend me if that wasn’t what I had in mind, mind you. I’m stunned. I can’t even think of anything to say. He pulls out his billfold and flips to a picture. “Here she is, a real beauty.” She doesn’t look like anything special, just your average middle-aged Revlon redhead who’s had a couple of Twinkies too many. He finishes up, insists on getting the check, “seeing as how you’re so nice, and I appreciate that.”

“I thank you kindly,” he says from the door. “Drive safe, hear?”

I have another cup of coffee. I’m still in shock. A faithful man. Is this possible? Maybe he just doesn’t like blondes.

I think of my mother. Luis. Randolph-Macon. I won’t go back.


Back in the T-bird, I fill a paper cup with champagne, slip Carly into the CDplayer (“We can never know about the days to come”), fluff my curls, glaze my lips with Butterfield 8. Then I see the swan’s beak on the seat beside me. I finger it. It’s rough, dented, and the edge where it separated from the body shows naked balsa wood. I open the glove compartment, slide it under my old ratty copy of Play It as It Lays and the Kling-Tites.

I turn south, heading for Clifton. But as Carly sings “The river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore,” I U-turn. The rest of the swan is back there somewhere, beakless and battered. I’ve got to find her.  end  

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