May yet a transport be--
It was April and the pigeons took flight in front of the bus as it pulled out of the terminal. Their quick shadows glanced over puddles of rainwater shimmering with rainbows of oil, across the windshields of cars, across the faces of the passengers and across the shoulders of a little man bent over a magazine filled with photographs of birds.
His clothes were rumpled; a stubble of pale beard shown in the sunlight. He would look up from illustrations of exotic tropical birds--and smile, an impish, childlike grin--as though enjoying a private joke, then turn back to his magazine, underline a passage, circle a title, carefully tear out an advertisement from the classified pages. His fingers were long and delicate, the skin, almost translucent. I set myself to imagine where he lived, and saw a narrow street of little row houses, all with identical porches, identical brick fronts. He would rent, perhaps, an efficiency on the third floor. At the end of the day, I could see him climb the narrow stairs, stand in the dark before his door, work the key in the lock--and open it to a blaze of light and tropical heat.
Cages are hanging from the ceiling, lining the walls--professional breeder's cages like the ones in the magazine--and hand built, many-tiered, of wicker and whittled cedar, cages with hinged doors like garden gates and roofs like Chinese pagodas. There would be incubators with dials and gauges to measure humidity and temperature--and lights! Lights, like the light that shines through the very topmost leaves in the canopy of an Ecuadorian rain forest ...and of course, the birds.
You would have to be there to believe the sound. And the colors, colors unknown and unimagined in our gray, northern cities.
I sat beside him and pointed to a picture of a blue and red bird with yellow tail plumes. He looked at me, smiled shyly, his eyes bright--and began to explain in the softest voice, to tell me who had bred and raised the bird in that picture--a winner of many trophies, he said--a man famous among lovers of birds. He explained how difficult a feat this was, told me how it was hunted for those long, yellow tail feathers, hunted almost to extinction, how its future on this earth rested in the hands of breeders, keepers of birds. He turned the pages for me, reverently, slowly--pointing out other birds, repeating their names, sounds strange and mysterious to my ears, went on, bird after bird, and when I reached my stop and rose to leave, he was still whispering their names like a chant, like the words of a secret prayer.
In 1996, Philadelphia's Frankford El had no air conditioning. On an August day, the sun beat down on the ancient steel cars; the overhead fans roared and rattled, re-circulating the heat and stench. Passengers sat or stood in a daze, heads lolling this way and that with the motion of the train, eyes glazed. Pages in my journal written on the el that summer show tell-tale wrinkles from perspiration where I'd rested my hand; the letters run and blur with sweat. In the those stains, images pool before me on the page.
There is a woman across the aisle. The sun bears down on the black roofs of the little brick row houses that face the elevated, reflections from their windows flash over her face as we pass, alternating light and dark, light and dark. She arches one eyebrow, parts her lips in an arrested movement, carrying on a conversation with a companion no one else can see. Her head nods, now in ascent, now in denial.
Her hair, a pale blond, is pulled tight to the back. Her eyebrows, white on equally pale skin, and her eyes--a blue like the sky close to the sun where the last color vanishes into pure white. Her face is pressed to the window, she whispers--looking nervously about to see if anyone is watching, winces as though in pain. The eyebrow shoots up again, quivers in place--and then is still.
Her face keeps moving like this--from animation to repose and each time, the intensity of the daydreams which seem to cross her face like the light from the passing windows, draws me to her. I stare, helpless to turn away, until it is too much and I close my eyes. Even then, I follow her.
I see her on a stifling summer night, her husband in bed beside her, the air conditioner off, the window open to catch the night breeze--such as it is, and the sounds of the street drift into the room. He reaches over and lays his arm across her body, heavy and moist; his hand fumbles at her breast, reaches down for her sex. Overhead, squares of reflected lights from passing cars traverse the ceiling, move rapidly down the wall, and gone. She watches them it seems for hours and the light plays over her like passing dreams, and her lips move, whispering into the dark.
Far into the morning a noise in the distance, a siren, a bottle breaking on the pavement--something that stirs her from her reverie. Her husband, long since asleep, lies beside her, his heavy breathing the only sound. In the silence beyond, they are whispering her name, calling to her. Soon, sinking into her first real sleep of the night, she will answer their summons.
When I first saw her she was waiting for the eastbound train, close to the edge of the platform. It made me nervous to watch; she had a way of standing--feet spread a little wider than normal, knees slightly bent, like a skier, or a child trying to decide whether or not she wanted to jump. She held her arms away from her side, like broken wings.
On the train, she rolled up her shirt sleeve, exposing a suppurating sore. She dabbed it with a piece of brown paper towel, neatly folded, inspected the stain on the paper, crumpled it, let it fall to the floor of the el where it lay at the feet of swaying passengers.
There were other sores, now healed--small round scars, like cigarette burns. A young man with long hair stood beside her; their bodies brushed together as the train swayed and rocked. Now and then he would open his eyes wide, lean over whisper something in her ear. She acknowledged him with quick little nods, folding another piece of paper towel, lips pursed, eyes fixed on the sore. They rode all the way to the end of the line where we boarded the same bus, got off at the same stop. It seemed they lived in an apartment building across a parking lot from my house; I would see her now and then after that from my window. The last time was the day of the big snow; it was getting on afternoon, the storm was tapering off; they were making their way through the drifts in the unplowed parking lot.
About half way across, she stopped. I couldn't hear them, of course, but it was clear she wanted him to wait--he only wanted to get out of the storm. He shifted from foot to foot, rubbed his hands together, held them against his cheeks for warmth. She stood there--that wide tentative stance, staring down at her feet. When her friend gave up and headed for the apartment, she turned around, carefully positioned her feet at the edge of the unbroken sweep of white on the lot and suddenly--her hands braced to catch herself--sank backwards into the snow. Slowly, she began to move, spreading her legs, closing them again like a scissors while her arms swept up and down at her side in easy movements as though she were flying.
Careful not to disturb the pattern, she pushed herself forward to her knees, stood up, gazed for a moment at the opening in the fence at the end of the lot where her friend had disappeared--turned to view the impression she'd left in the snow. For a long while, she stood there like that--arms suspended at her sides, dark hair clung with white snowflakes, motionless--watching her winged image fill slowly with new fallen snow.
About the author:
Jacob Russell teaches part-time at Saint Joseph's University. Presently in a late summer crunch to finish a second novel (first one still looking for a home). The segments in "Transport" began as journal entries, notes taken on the Frankford El. Join him on his literary blog: Jacob Russell's Barking Dog.