Couches and Murders
Walt Blythe lets the hammer swing, and for a moment, he's exhilarated by the way the leg cracks as it bends inward and splinters. But then Walt remembers turning this same leg on his homemade lathe downstairs, the one he jury-rigged with a hand-drill and a wood frame, and the joy of the blow scatters like spooked birds. But he is committed now, and strikes again, and then a third time, until the leg breaks off and clatters uselessly to the floor. The deconstruction of his couch has finally begun.
Carol has been after him for months to do away with it. She's tired, she says, of seeing it, let alone sitting on it. She doesn't like the ribbed, black corduroy that Walt put over the orange vinyl some eight years ago now, when both of them got tired of sticking to it and standing up with a wet sucking sound. He's adapted, Walt has, changed the couch to suit them over time. But Carol is sick of it. Sick of the thin, wooden arms, sick of the straight-back cushion and the thin padding on the seat. Sick of the whole thing. It's a reminder, she says, of the days when they couldn't afford better. In this, Walt agrees, but argues that's a reason to keep it. Carol just shakes her head, and one day after lunch orders a new one from Crate & Barrel, a leather monster with brass studs.
Carol is a lawyer, now, having finally gotten her degree after years of schooling--one class here, another there, skipping years at a time when Walt traveled for work, so she could travel with him. Walt was a historian, and used to work at the Museum of Nature and Science before it became the Museum of Science and Technology, before he accepted early retirement and a small pension and a lifetime of bird watching in the mountains and puttering at home. Carol seemed to favor this, but then she worked hard to finish her law degree and landed a small job at a small firm. She's gone now, most days, even some weekends. She speaks about her cases over dinner, and says things that Walt recognizes as Latin but has long since stopped asking for a definition. He nods, now, and lets her speak. He thinks it's what she needs to do. He wishes that he knew more Latin, more than just the obscure scientific names of the birds in his department, but it's too late for that now, he thinks, and he's settled now for hearing his wife speak in a language he never bothered to learn.
Walt goes on bird-watching trips into the mountains on Tuesdays. Tuesdays are good days, with the fewest people in the mountains, and Walt doesn't like to be bothered with amateurs. The weekends are out, of course, families trudging up there in some obligatory gesture, eating their picnic lunches in the parking lots of National Parks, and then trudging back down again. Mondays and Fridays are nearly as bad--people taking a long weekend, or vacationers avoiding the weekend rush themselves. Wednesdays are for all the professionals--doctors, mostly, but Walt has seen lawyers, too--who take the mid-week off to go up fly fishing in their thousand-dollar gear to catch a fifty-cent fish and think they've accomplished something. Thursdays aren't bad, but are too close to the weekend. Tuesdays are best by far--the fewest people around making noise, riding around on all-terrain vehicles, screaming out and scaring away everything that's worth noticing. It's where Walt feels most at home, sitting on a log, eating a warm, compressed sandwich that he's made at home and kept in his jacket pocket, and listening to the whistle of the happy birds.
Walt has taken to seeing crows everywhere. He likes crows--what he used to call Corvus brachyrhynchos to the kids that would come to the museum, likes the sheen on their wings and their sheer size. They're the brutes of the bird world, he would tell the kids, though that was more his own thinking than fact. He loves the fact that they travel in murders, which is a far better name than a group of his second favorite local bird, the Magpie, which travel in tidings. Murder, he thinks, has style.
And murder, he considers, is what he's doing to his couch, at this very moment. Walt has never been a man to own all that much in the way of material possessions, so he's invested something of himself in everything that he does end up having. And this couch is no different--perhaps even more so, seeing as how he built it with his own hands, when a home-made couch was enough, when living for birds and history was a good thing, when he and Carol spoke the same language.
Walt pulls the backing off of the couch, skinning it like a strung elk, exposing the innards of the frame and the detritus of years collected in the dusty corners: husks of popcorn kernels, scattered pocket change, a single six-sided die, more. He scoops these out, lays them on the floor like artifacts from a dig.
In a few hours, Walt will cart the bones of his couch to the curb, come back inside, sit against the wall in the dusty outline of where the old couch used to be, and watch the shadows on the floor grow closer. He will wish Carol was home, and feel the arthritic ache in his knuckles begin. Outside, he will hear the cawing of a Corvus brachyrhynchos, and this will, for a moment, be enough.
About the author:
Teague Bohlen teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he helps put out the arts and literary magazine Copper Nickel. His fiction has most recently been seen online at Terrain.org, and anthologized in Please Stay on the Trail. His novel The Pull of the Earth is coming out this October through Ghost Road Press.