“Four stories,” she said, “and only fractures. Can you imagine?”
Henry nudged past the woman who was blocking access to the soda machine. She seemed not to notice him at all, her elbow thrust out and the phone pressed to her ear. He fished three quarters from the pocket of his jeans and jammed them into the slot.
“I can do more than imagine it,” Henry said, louder than he’d meant. The woman turned her head to look at him more closely, phone drifting from her ear. Henry heard someone squawking at the other end.
“What did you say?” the woman asked.
He straightened up. He tried to make his voice growly. “Ever think maybe I’m the one that dropped him?”
“Dina, I’ll call you later.” She shoveled the phone into her purse and zipped it closed. “Do you have a bottle of something?” she said.
“422,” she said. “Bring it with you. Sounds like you need someone to talk to.” She grabbed her bucket of ice and ambled down the hall. There were runs like pumpkin ribs in the calves of her black stockings. She didn’t titter at all in her high heels.
By the time he made it to her room, his palms were sweating. Henry stood outside her door for a full minute, the bottle of Crown hanging loosely between thumb and forefinger, the can of Coke cold in his other hand. He could walk back to his room, and she would never think about him again. Or maybe he’d be an anecdote she told her friends over gin and tonics in the lounge of a different hotel, one that didn’t rent rooms by the week or cash paychecks for guests who’d been there more than a month. I met him, she’d say, the one who dropped that sweet child off the balcony. Her friends would be incredulous at first, shaking the ice in their glasses, clicking their long acrylic nails in syncopation. Him? they’d say. Was it really him?
If he knocked, he wouldn’t be an anecdote. He’d be a story, and it was worth whatever was coming to be more than a glance, more than a ripple from the plunk of the skipping stone, more than a memory built up over time into something more than it was. He rapped the bottle against the door three times.
“You,” she said when she opened the door. “Come in and sit down. Give me that. I’ll pour you a drink.” There was a small kitchen alcove with a two-burner stove, the kind with spirals that grow glow for twenty minutes after they’re turned off. His room didn’t have a kitchen or an alcove. It was just an almost-square with a bed and a chair, a chipped nightstand near the window.
“How do you take it?”
“Fine,” she said. “That’s easy.” She cracked open the can of Coke and set it on the counter. Her glass was full of ice. She poured Crown almost to the top then tipped in a splash of cola. She poured three fingers into another glass and handed it to Henry. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“I don’t see how it matters, since I’m here now.”
She nodded like he was speaking nothing but the truth. “I always had family around,” she said. “Until I didn’t. The world gets lonely when your people start being gone.” She reached over and took his glass. “I’ll fill that up for you.”
“You here a week?” Henry said.
“Not really.” She handed him the glass again. “Do you read?”
“Can I read, you mean?”
“No. Do you read? Books, newspapers, whatever.”
“There’s only one book I read,” he said, leaning back. He wanted to cross his arms over his chest.
“I thought you might say that.” She sipped her drink carefully. He tilted his glass and there was a thin pool at the bottom. He couldn’t remember his throat getting warm. “I found a Gideon once,” she said, “in a hotel room in Tuscaloosa. It was signed by Jesus. I mean, not really by him. But by someone’s hand, and I could tell the Lord was moving through those fingers, running down each knuckle and into the pen itself. I could feel it just by seeing the writing.” The ice was loud as she shook the glass. “You must know what I mean.”
“I don’t, ma’am, no,” he said.
She stood up and glared at him, leaning in close to his face. “Are you calling me ma’am like a goddamn old lady?” He stammered and she bobbed closer and back, playing the distance between them like a theremin. “Here,” she said, taking his glass, “I’ll get you another.”
Next to the dingy gray couch was a small glass end table. On it was a rectangular box, gilded gold with an intricate pattern around each side. The top had a raised oval painted in a Swiss chalet scene, the whole thing shiny with enamel.
“Press the button,” she said from the kitchen. She wasn’t far away, but her voice turned up at the end like they were in different rooms.
There was a thin golden button on the front of the box, smooth and polished. Henry picked up the box and pressed the button. The lid flipped open on hinges and he started. A miniature cardinal popped up and sang a melody in clear, sharp tweets. The bird swiveled from side to side, tail feathers shaking, wings flapping softly. It whistled and turned, hitting each note in its strong voice, this tiny bird that was not real making his heart quicken, his hands tremble. Then the lid snapped closed and the bird disappeared.
“My daddy gave it to me on my eighth birthday,” she said, handing him the glass. He wondered if she saw his hand quivering as he took the drink. “He told me magic was everywhere. He figured it was a miracle to be alive. We never talked about what happens to the magic when you’re dead.”
Henry felt a lifting above his eyes, like he was raising his eyebrows. He ran a finger over his forehead to see if his brow was creased, but it wasn’t.
She walked to the glass door and slid it open. The room filled with the whoosh of outside air, and Henry breathed in deep. He inhaled as much of the air as he could. There was a small balcony beyond the sliding door, a patch of concrete compassed by a rusty iron railing.
“Four stories,” she said. “Just imagine.” She glanced at him over her shoulder, and he took another drink. The warmth was gathering in his stomach—he could feel that much. She shivered and slid the door closed.
She walked over and took the bird box from his hand, set it on the end table, and knelt down before it. She pushed the button, and the lid snapped up. The bird moved from side to side, carrying the song with it and giving the song to both of them. They shared the melody like two fish strung on a line. It wasn’t exactly the same. The line eddied in the same current, but they were two different points on the line. More like echoes of one another along the bounding of the current.
The glass was lifted from his hand, and now there was music—“Old ‘55,” the Tom Waits original and not the soulless, sanitized version the Eagles did later. He closed his eyes.
“Sometimes,” she said, “the ones who need to hear it most end up hearing it last.” She chuckled, and he looked down at the glass in his hand. The song was still playing, so he hadn’t lost much time. Her phone vibrated on the counter, turning in a slow arc, and he was glad when she answered it. The hem of her dress was a jellyfish rippling past him. She stepped onto the balcony and slid the door almost closed.
Henry’s mouth was chalky. He held the liquid up to the light and it moved like the oil and water wave from the playroom at his nanna’s house. He willed his pinky to the rim of the glass, dipped his finger into the liquid, marveled that he could not feel where dry ended and wet began, reckoned the whiskey was at body temperature. He rubbed his finger in a fine white grit at the bottom of the glass, put it to the tip of his tongue to taste it. It tasted like whiskey.
The door slid open and she was smiling. “My friend, Dina,” she said, “is so easily moved. I told her about you, and she started crying.”
He tried to ask why, and he might have asked because she answered as though he had. “She always feels like people can be saved, you know? Like everyone can be saved with the right number of chances. That baby got a second chance, didn’t he? But that isn’t what I mean about being saved. You know that.” He nodded the best he could.
She nodded back and gestured for him to get up and follow her. I can’t, he was going to say, but he found that he could, that it felt good to move away from the shine of the bird box. He moved his legs and it felt good. He walked toward the fresh air, following the pleats of her dress, and it felt good.
There were no stars, but there never were. Not in the city. He’d visited the way-out suburbs a few days ago, to his cousin’s house where he hoisted the children and threw them into the sky. He caught them by their armpits. After some time, they stopped doubting he would. His cousin called him godfather, told the children that. It didn’t change the way they looked at him, but it changed the way he looked at them.
“Come on, sugar,” she said. She was holding his fingers lightly, leading him onto the balcony. The sky was a gray ocean, and the iron rail was peeling. He felt the rust blisters on the underside of each rail. He worried at them with his nails.
“What did it feel like?” she asked, turning toward him. “To hold that child,” she said, “to feel the weight of him and the letting go.” She closed her eyes and shivered. She knelt down in front of Henry, her knees creaking, fingers splayed on the concrete. She balanced herself and wrapped her arms around his thighs, the warmth of her so different from the air. He thought of the jet streams from an old high school textbook, the sweeping red and blue arrows that circled the globe. All that air moving from one place to another. She squeezed her arms tight.
“Like air,” he said. He had meant to say It wasn’t me, but he felt she must already know, and his ears were ringing. Behind that ringing a plane droned overhead, or maybe it had already passed, the sound coming after. He never saw the blinking lights.
“Four stories,” she said. “Can you imagine.” He sensed a dark corona spreading around him. She heaved, grunting audibly, and lifted him up, her forearms sliding up to the ridge of his buttocks. His tailbone pressed against the iron railing, and she rested him there for a moment, panting. “The powder,” she said. “You really shouldn’t feel a thing.”
And then her arms were no longer there, the pressure hiccupped free from his tailbone. It wasn’t like flying. Even the bird in the box didn’t fly, but it sang and it sang, and his heart was a song that was falling, not flying, the red tail feathers moving until the lid snapped shut and the silence reclaimed the room. The lid snapped shut and the silence reclaimed the air. The air snapped shut. The air and the lid and the feathers. Every bit of it was a miracle.
Jad Josey is a writer from the central coast of California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Passages North, Palooka, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Visit his website at www.jadjosey.com or reach out to him on Twitter at @jadjosey.
“Four stories,” she said, “and only fractures. Can you imagine?”