Just as she had in every crisis since first hitting the campaign trail, the mayor turned to Katie Glynn. Invaluable Katie: carrot haired, forever displeased, and wearing at all times the clamped, life-soured frown of an underfed governess. Of course the mayor knew all about the eye-rolling whispers that dogged Katie’s every step, tart-tongued Katie who dressed down for even the most formal occasions. Still, the political cost had proven to be slight. Katie Glynn, special assistant to the mayor, was the sort of all-purpose bulldog that any successful politician would give their eyeteeth, or even their soul, to have in their bullpen.
Not that the mayor considered herself to be by any stretch “successful.” Do what she would, her city refused to flourish. Yes, its citizens paid lip service to the bright, shiny concepts of urban renewal and civic engagement, but in private, they subscribed as one to the notion that the city’s best days were far, far in the past. And what could possibly be done? The Ohio’s river traffic had faded to a shadow of its former, nineteenth-century self. Interstates gave the entire region a wide berth. Young people, having tasted the world beyond during family vacations or college adventures, fled in droves toward brighter lights and bigger cities.
Hardly any of the city’s inhabitants really blamed their stocky, fifty-something mayor, or at least not any more than they blamed the previous eight to ten administrations. Time marched on, and there was only so much that even the most determined local official could do.
But Janet Bentham, two years into her term, was tired of settling, and this showed in her frayed temper, her regular bouts with sleep apnea, and her return, after eleven years clean, to the guilty comfort of cigarettes.
Katie Glynn, ever grim, always assessing, tracked the mayor’s descent with a clinical eye but never intervened, never even volunteered an opinion. Duty and habit, habit and duty. Katie did what she was told, and did it well—which explained why she did not hesitate when her steel-haired boss called out, “Katie? I need you in the conference room.”
The two women faced off across the silent, neutral gray of the room’s twelve-foot laminate table. Outside, a pleasant spring rain knocked the blossoms from the crabapples and hinted, in the greening world beyond the city limits, of crops soon to be planted.
“Katie,” said the mayor, “I grew up here, I’ve given my life to this town, but I’m at the end of my rope. We’ve tried everything, and so did every mayor before me, but we’re just withering away like some . . . I don’t know. A husk. There has to be a way to promote lasting civic pride, there just has to be.” She picked momentarily at one cuticle, then forced her hands to settle. “I am desperate and I am open to suggestions.”
Katie Glynn, infamous for cowing opponents with her unwavering gaze, looked away and out the window, toward the white and pink shower of petals gusting to the glinting, puddled sidewalk.
Without a word, Katie plucked up a legal pad and a pencil. In a neat, precise hand, she wrote a few words, then slid the pad across the table. On the paper, Katie had written Don’s Salvage Yard – 2201 Fraser.
“What is this?” the mayor asked. “An address?”
Katie pushed herself to her feet. The mayor could not read her expression, but if she’d been forced, she would have said that Katie seemed, inexplicably, to be battling an onslaught of tears.
After a church benefit that dragged until well past eight, the mayor called Roy, partly just to hear his voice—God, how she loved to hear it still—and partly to let him know she had one more stop to make. “Don’t wait up,” she said, knowing he would. Not an exciting man, her husband, but loyal and considerate; no matter what hour she came in, he’d have a mug of warm milk waiting on her bed stand.
She typed the address to Don’s Salvage Yard into her phone and got a map that placed 2201 Fraser someplace past where Fraser actually ended, at the levee walling off the bottomlands of Mouse Creek. With a frustrated grunt, she plopped the phone into the car’s cup holder and set off, certain she would find only a dead end. Katie, bless her overworked heart, had remembered the address wrong.
Fraser Street, once she reached it, went on its potholed way between fences and warehouses, faceless and deserted. The occasional streetlights glowed bluish white, their splayed beams making the darkness beyond seem darker than ever. Once, in the distance, she spotted a forklift moving pallets; at an intersection, a garbage truck hefted a dumpster on stiff hydraulic arms. Her Subaru splashed through gravelly puddles and then, just when she felt sure she’d reached the levee, the road swung to the right, evaded a guardrail, and led downhill through a shadowy warren of trees. Her headlights beamed through mist, the light diffracting, turning even the pavement to whitish haze.
Ahead, barely visible, she spotted a wall of chain-link fence shining like crystal in the rain. With surprised satisfaction, she noted a wide sign reading, DON’S SALVAGE YARD. VERY PRIVATE. KEEP AWAY. HONK TWICE IF ENTERING.
Janet Bentham took a moment to light a cigarette, then obligingly honked twice. Across a gravel lot, a single light clicked on in a low runt of a building; with no gutters, its roof shed the rain in a curtain of ever-shifting strands. Then an outside light stuttered to life, its electric buzz audible even inside the car. A single mercury floodlight, it revealed dents in the shack’s siding and brought out hints of what lay beyond the parking area: great mounds of junk and scrap, heaps of rising shadow and pressing darkness.
The door to the little building opened invitingly, but also slowly, as if it were backing away.
The mayor piloted her car as close to the building as possible—the rain was pelting now—and parked. For reasons she could not fully explain, she debated leaving the engine running, but then told herself not to be a ninny—this was her town, Goddamn it, the town where she was mayor—and after stubbing out her smoke, she switched off the ignition, opened the door, and made a dash for the office.
Inside, it was all warping panels and faux wood. A curling calendar from 1969 advertising Falls City beer. A single floor lamp, its incandescent bulb conspiring with its dusty shade to turn the whole room dimly yellow. A file cabinet. A rumpled man lounging contentedly in a fat beige armchair rocker, his dark blue coveralls smeared with oil. On his head, a brown Pennzoil bill cap, pulled low to the bridge of his nose. His hands stretched across his stomach as if belting him in.
“Bad night,” said the man, his tone affable. “Brave of you to come out.”
“Thanks,” said the mayor, brushing off water. She remained where she was, on the welcome mat. It hardly seemed worth going farther inside; the office was no more than twelve feet across.
“So,” the man went on, “how’d you get this address?” He tilted his chin so that his eyes, friendly but feral, winked in the light.
“My assistant. Katie Glynn.”
“Glynn.” The man nodded pensively and steepled his fingers. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. You head on through the door, there. You’ll find what you need.”
The mayor was only somewhat surprised to spot a door, closed. Had it been there when she’d come in? Well, of course it had. Half-hidden behind the man’s rocker, it was no wonder she’d missed it. The habits of political life: you learned to take in the essentials, people first. Back doors were for burglars.
“Thank you,” she said, and started forward. “You wouldn’t happen to have an umbrella?”
“No, but I do got a rule. Just one. You take home one thing and one thing only. Now some things come as a lot, obviously. A bag of marbles, a set of tires. But you’re a smart lady, I can see that. So you know the deal.”
His expression—well, it was discomfiting, to say the least. Like being stared at by a highly intelligent rodent, sharp and intransigent. Uncompromising.
“I understand,” said the mayor. “Thank you.”
She opened the door and stepped through.
All in an instant, the world was bright. She stood in the blinding, bleached sunshine of a parched, unlovely desert, and everywhere lay ramparts and battlements of junk. Wide aisles stretched away in all directions, veering toward unseen compass points that originated with the office shack behind her, the door to which was now firmly—inexplicably—shut.
The mayor blinked rapidly and raised a hand to shade her eyes. A moment ago, hadn’t it been nighttime, raining?
She swung around, searching for some clue to tell her which way to go. When she returned her gaze to its original position, there was a man, seated at a cheap metal table, not ten feet away. Dressed in a plum-colored button-down, he was heavyset and Mexican. He was poring over the classifieds of a distressingly yellowed newspaper.
“Hello?” said the mayor.
The man looked up, grunted, and set down his newspaper. “Buenos días,” he said, in a voice rich with clotted phlegm. “You know where you going?”
“Claro.” He paused and stared down the various avenues, squinting. “Okay. I think, for you? That way.” He pointed a beefy finger. “Look around. You’ll see.”
I’ve gone down a rabbit hole, thought the mayor. I am in a new place, and I don’t know the rules. Still, she could see no reason not to continue her lifelong reliance on manners.
“Thank you,” she said, and she walked off briskly, wishing she’d brought her menthols, and worn different shoes.
The avenue, dust and dirt, was in no way paved. Defined solely by the heaps of junk and refuse to either side, some of it in low piles, some of it stacked to incredible heights, it continued on, level and wider than a two-car garage, for as far as the mayor could see. Sometimes the clutter hemmed the avenue, walling it in, but then it would open up into bays and coves, each weirdly specific: recliners here, buckets there. Over that direction, rigid blue insulation. Beyond? A landslide of comics, Casper the Friendly Ghost from top to bottom.
How, wondered the mayor, was she to find anything here? Was there, in all this infinite waste of cast-offs, anything that could possibly benefit her city?
She walked for half an hour and grew more demoralized with every step. She was all set to stop and retreat when she heard a sort of honking squawk: high pitched, each note separate, not unlike a rubber bicycle horn. It was coming from behind a heap of unruly printer cartridges. Curious, she crept around the blockade, and there, sitting on a grand old oaken desk (burned on one side by some long-ago fire), stood an enormous wire birdcage. Inside it fluttered two hefty birds, resplendent in bright white and iridescent black. Their crests gleamed scarlet in the sun.
The mayor was no bird-watcher, but she thought she knew a woodpecker when she saw one. The heavy, off-white bills were a dead giveaway. The birds did not, however, look like any woodpecker she could ever recall seeing. She stepped closer, fascinated despite herself, while the birds, unhappy with her presence, jumped from perch to perch, searching for room to fly. The larger of the two let out another series of honks, rhythmic and repeated. The smaller bird joined in, and the mayor, to her surprise, felt a smile warming her features.
Straightening, she inspected the cage itself, over three feet high and painted pastel yellow. On its conical top, a paper tag had been affixed with white string. The mayor reached up and angled the tag so she could read it. It bore a single word: Bentham.
Nuts, thought the mayor, channeling her father’s favorite response to anything not going his way. Double nuts.
She turned and strode to the wall of refuse beyond the birdcage, made mostly of exercise equipment. Each, she realized, came with a paper tag. She flipped up the nearest and read the name: Haller. The next said Youssef. Gomez, Schwartz, names and items, on and on and on.
Double nuts and blast it all to hell.
Turning back, and without allowing herself the luxury of doubts or second thoughts—indeed, she had none—Janet Bentham hoisted the birdcage and set off back the way she’d come, the woodpeckers hopping and honking as she went.
The avenue, however, did not look as she’d remembered it. It curled slowly to the right, and the plain it crossed was full of dips and dells. The junk rose higher, the coves and pockets more frequent. Intersections cropped up, first at right angles, then at disconcerting diagonals, with each new path haring off to unknown distances. Down one, she saw forest; along another, what appeared to be the distant foot of a glacier. Overhead, the baking-stone sun shone too high in the sky to be any use in navigation, and at last the mayor, frustrated and thirsty, plunked down on a long-abandoned riding mower and admitted that she was irrevocably lost.
Dust and grit grimed her face and roughened her hair; had she brought lens cleaner for her glasses, she would have used it. Water was the first thing, that was certain. There’d been some in a dish in the birdcage when she’d started, but in all her walking, it had spilled, leaked away. As she tried to puzzle out a best course of action, she massaged her arms, the muscles complaining bitterly from hauling the cage.
Across the avenue lay a tumble-down heap of telephones, everything from Mickey Mouse, cracked, to sturdy hotel switchboards, their black spaghetti cords limp with the misery of abandonment. One phone stood apart, resting upright on a tidy wooden barstool. As the mayor’s eyes settled on this, the telephone, a clunky fifties-era rotary, began to ring.
Besides the still-nervous woodpeckers, the only significant sounds she’d heard since entering this trash-defined wasteland had been the breeze riffling whatever items would shift under its touch: sheets of crinkling plastic, drifts of rustling newsprint. The phone—strident, insistent, bracingly loud—startled more with each fresh note. Nor did it stop. Ten rings, twelve. Fifteen.
“Oh, fine.” The mayor abruptly stood, smoothed out her jacket with her palms—a habit, quite unbreakable—and, leaving the birdcage, strode across the avenue toward the telephone. She seized the receiver and put it to her ear. “Hello?” she said, her tone demanding, aggrieved. “Yes?”
“Hello, dearie,” came a cheerful, distant voice. Female, a clear soprano made throaty with age. “I thought for a minute you weren’t going to answer!”
Janet’s eyes pinched themselves shut. “Gramma?”
“Of course, dearie. Who did you expect?”
Janet hung up, fast and hard. The phone clattered on impact. She took two steps back, expecting at any moment to be—what? Assaulted? Surely not, and in any event, nothing happened. The sun blazed, the wind preened her hair. The woodpeckers, satisfied with the sudden silence, gave up their frenetic hopping and rested, watching.
The telephone let out a single jangling ring that hit the mayor with ear-punching violence.
This time, she almost knocked the phone from the stool in her hurry to answer.
“Gramma? Is that you?”
“Of course. Why did you hang up?”
“Why—?” She swung around, eyes to the sky. “Gramma, how can you ask that? You’re dead!”
“Um, yes, well. After a fashion, I suppose. But now, if you like, we can talk. Would you like that? You and I, Sugarlumps? Talking again?”
Memories darted in. The house on Second Street, the hulking yellow-sided Eastlake Victorian, the shingles on its steeply sloped roof layered in fish-scale waveforms. The massive catalpa out front, its stiff, papery pods littering the sidewalk. The swing hanging from the catalpa’s lowest limb, the wide seat a single flat board, hung there long ago by Grampa not for children but for Gramma, for evenings of iced tea and Glenn Miller. Inside, the narrow, high-ceilinged hall leading down to the black-and-white tiles of the kitchen. Janet would run the hall’s length, the tip of her index finger dusting the chair rail as she scampered closer to the waiting glass of lemonade, the fresh-baked oatmeal cookie. “Welcome, dearie!” Gramma would cry. “My little straight-haired wonder. And what adventures have we had today, eh? Tell me everything, everything you can.”
The mayor swayed, tasted lemon on her tongue, scented oatmeal baking. The wind carried humming, Gramma’s, the nonsense of Gilbert and Sullivan to speed the day’s chores: laundry by hand, the floors scrubbed down with baking soda, the endless patching of Grampa’s overalls with strips of blue bandana.
“Janet, honey? Are you there?”
She managed a whisper. “Yes.”
“Oh, good. You do sound very grown up. Do you have a beau? Wait—oh, my. Don’t tell me you’re married.”
Married? Of course she was married, twenty-six years come August, but Gramma had died a year before Roy had even come into the picture. A bad match, some had said. Roy was too old, a decade farther down the track, and too mild by half. But Janet had known from the start the match was perfect: neither she nor Roy wanted children, and better yet, Roy’s every move and mumble brought Grampa to life. Gramma, sadly, was another matter. Search as she might, Janet had never been able to find a replacement, some younger Gramma mimic to tie, like a mnemonic string, to the finger of her life.
“Gramma,” she said, “I don’t know where to start.”
“Anywhere you like, Sugarlumps. We have plenty of time.”
“Where are you?”
“Here, dear child. Right here.”
The mayor’s free hand fretted at the twist of cord, and she suddenly felt a loop of string. She glanced down and spotted another of the little paper tags. Helplessly curious, she plucked at it, raised it so she could see. In blue ink, it read Bentham.
The junk man’s one rule roared in, drowning out Gramma. You take home one thing, and one thing only.
Stricken, Janet whirled to glare at the woodpeckers, so still and expectant, their white-ringed eyes peering, steady as snakes. In her hand, the receiver lowered as if of its own accord.
“Janet? Janet, honey, are you there?”
She murmured, “I’m here, Gramma,” but even as she said it, she’d placed the receiver in its cradle, deliberately, firmly.
Some things come as a set. The birds, then, paired in a cage. They were what she had come for; they were for her city, although what good they would do, she still could not imagine.
Janet Bentham let out a strangled shriek of frustration. Straight-armed, she crushed her hands to fists. Then she stomped across the avenue, scooped up the birdcage, and set out for the missing exit.
Two weeks on, everything had changed. “City Besieged by Audubon Society,” read the local headlines. “Ivory-Billed Bonanza,” trumpeted the not-so-distant St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In New York, TV’s late-night comics rode the region’s sudden woodpecker craze to a ratings bonanza. David Letterman himself telephoned the mayor, begging her to appear on his show. She declined, laughingly, blushingly, citing the many pressing needs of her job. “I’m on the phone twenty-four seven,” she confided in a giddy radio interview with Garrison Keillor. “I have meetings every half hour for the rest of the year.”
But the advent of the two ivory-bills did more than cause conniptions among the nation’s ever-ready media and a handful of bird enthusiasts. Against all odds, and very much counter to the mayor’s expectations, the birds stirred a latent civic pride. The city’s populace, in discovering that they had the wider world’s attention, became invigorated. As the news broke, not as a single wave hitting some isolated, undeserving beach but as a rising, beneficent flood, people smiled more, laughed more, made eye contact. More often than not, what would before have been only fleeting nods of “How’s it going?” became, instead, launch pads for burgeoning conversation. People littered less, and weedy, unloved yards got spruced up, even without anyone from the mayor’s office urging it to happen. And all because, as Katie put it, of two doomed birds.
They were doomed, of course. If these were indeed the only two remaining ivory-bills, they had no hope of repopulating. Even if they filled their nest each year for eternity, their chicks would be woefully, hopelessly inbred.
“Yeah, it’s a miracle,” said Katie, as she collated the latest economic reports, her thin fingers forcing each set of papers into neat, precise order. “It’s also a very temporary miracle. A firework. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Of course the mayor saw this, and understood why. So, too, did all but the most irresponsible of the reporters who’d swarmed her city. Even the general population seemed to grasp that the woodpeckers could not, for good, reestablish themselves. What was incredible, startling, was that no one (except, perhaps, Katie) seemed to care. The ivory-bills were here now, and that was enough. Their eventual extinction neither registered nor signified.
The mayor could, perhaps, have predicted this based on her husband’s reaction on the night that she’d struggled home, birds in tow. She’d banged into the front hall, lugging the birdcage in two hands, the ivory-bills squawking and fluttering. It was late, but of course Roy had waited up, and he shuffled in on slippered feet to meet her in the living room. He carried her glass of warm milk, but he nearly spilled it on seeing the ivory-bills.
“Jan!” he demanded, one finger jabbing toward the birdcage, his expression a freeze-frame of consternation. “Where’d you get them?”
His surprise caught her off guard. She’d arrived home still stewing over her time at Don’s Salvage; indeed, her drive home had been spent in berating herself, top to bottom. Why had she gone in the first place? And where had she gone? Better yet, why had Katie sent her?
She was seething by the time she reached home, but Roy’s response short-circuited each and every recrimination. “I need to take a picture,” he said, stumbling over his slippers in his hurry to fetch the camera. “Holy Toledo, no one’s gonna believe this.”
Holy Toledo. Such a throwback, her Roy, with his neat silver goatee and his habit of blinking in spurts. He’d been bald for so long, she had trouble recognizing him in older photos—pictures of, say, their wedding. Who was that man she’d married? He looked so appallingly young.
Roy took ten shots of the ivory-bills, some with flash, some without, then perched on the armrest of the sofa, breathless. “They’re extinct,” he explained, “or I thought they were. But one thing for sure. In the continental US, these are the rarest birds going. Bar none.”
The mayor swallowed, feeling stupid, jilted. She’d traded contact with Gramma for two useless birds.
Then Roy insisted they open the living room’s glass doors and let the birds go. “Are you kidding?” she spluttered, balking. “I just got them here!”
“They’re birds, wild birds. Not pets. They need to be out.”
It struck her that he had not yet asked for any kind of explanation. Indeed, once past his initial shock, he seemed to have forgotten all about the why and how of the woodpeckers. They simply were.
“Jan, honey. If these birds stick around—and they might, the Mouse Creek floodplains are perfect for them—my point is, if they stay, you will not believe the uproar.”
“What do you mean, uproar?”
“Nobody’s seen one of these for a century. Not reliably, anyway.” He held up his camera. “But we have. I’m telling you. This is news.”
So they’d let the birds go. They’d watched their confused flapping as they hopped out of the cage, circled the yard, and, unaccustomed to flying at night, settled quickly in the canopy of the corner magnolia. But the next morning, even though Roy got up early to check, they were gone.
They didn’t go far. Early morning golfers spotted them on the Engelman links, then commuters found them in Centennial Park, downtown. Later that day, they turned up at Howell Wetlands, where a squadron of delighted children got to see both birds drilling their bills into a long-dead willow. Their teacher, an amateur birder, had his pictures on the internet by four o’clock, and between his images and Roy’s, sent to three universities, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to a city gone completely bird crazy.
Restaurants served “Woodpecker Specials,” and the bars inaugurated a new mixed drink, the Ivory-Bill. Banners appeared on the overpasses, welcoming visitors to “Woodpecker City.” Local television (all four networks plus PBS) created animated woodpecker logos to introduce their programming. In the schools, science teachers amended their curricula to include, immediately, ornithology. They had questions to answer, after all. How, the kids wanted to know, could these birds keep banging their heads into solid wood without knocking their brains out?
By the end of the month, the city’s moribund budget had done an abrupt about-face. “Occupancy taxes,” explained Katie. “Every motel for forty miles around is packed full, and based on reservations, they’ll stay that way for a while. By the time the fiscal year ends, we’ll have a significant surplus.”
Katie shrugged her narrow shoulders as if such good news could not possibly matter. “We were running a deficit. Now? We’ll be twenty percent ahead, maybe thirty.”
Another aide informed the mayor that as of that morning, the city’s major invitational soccer tournament had just renamed itself the Ivory-Billed Classic. “Last year, they had six slots vacant. This year, they’ve got a wait-list.”
So far as the mayor could see, only two people seemed unaffected by the city’s newly ecstatic tenor: Katie Glynn and herself. Katie, always dour, seemed to have sunk even further into her funk, as if she were readying for hibernation or preparing for self-burial. She still dispatched her duties with acceptable efficiency—indeed, the truculent city council positively leaped to do her bidding—but whatever limited joie de vivre she’d displayed in the past now faded to a perfunctory nothingness, the relentless task-mastering of an automaton.
As for the mayor, she felt unreasonably trapped. She would normally have confided in Roy, most likely in bed, propped against the pillows and sipping warm milk, but about the woodpeckers’ provenance, he still had no interest. If she even started in on the night she’d brought them home, he simply rolled over and went to sleep.
Katie, then, was the only person she could talk to, but Katie avoided the mayor—avoided, especially, any situation where they might be alone, and able to talk in private.
By the second week of June, the mayor (now charging through two packs a day) could stand it no more. “Katie,” she said, accosting her by the copy machine, “you and I are going bird-watching. Just the two of us. This afternoon at four.”
“I can’t, we’ve got the Rotary Club at six, I’m nowhere near prepared—”
“Katie. Four o’clock. That’s an order.”
But four o’clock came and went, and Katie Glynn was nowhere to be found.
The next day, the mayor tracked Katie through the Civic Center’s various offices, and she pinned her at last in the cul-de-sac of the Department of Metropolitan Development, newly decked out in all sorts of woodpecker-themed decor.
“Katie,” said the mayor. “I am not pleased with you.”
Katie glared belligerently. “Why? Didn’t you get what you went looking for?”
The mayor paused. “Katie. You know more than you’re telling, and I don’t like secrets.”
The office head, a portly man in a vast blue sweater, waddled around the corner, but on spotting the mayor and Katie, he retreated, mumbling apologies.
“Not here,” said Katie.
But Katie brushed past her boss and strode away, past the receptionist and out. The mayor felt her eyes narrow and tried immediately to relax; having seen herself photographed in the newspapers with that exact expression, she knew all too well that “narrow-eyed” was her most unflattering look.
“Katie Glynn,” she muttered, “you are going to talk to me, and you are going to do it before you leave work tonight.”
As the mayor expected, Katie absented herself from the office until five, and then, breezing in as if she owned the place, proceeded straight to her desk and gathered her things for a hurried exit. The mayor, watching through the glass of her private office, watched Katie pause, hesitate, then renew her search for the car keys she always stowed in her desk, top drawer left. When Katie had finally given up, the mayor stepped into view and held up the jangling keys.
“My office, Ms. Glynn. Now.”
Katie’s eyes shot rusty daggers, but she came, and the mayor shut her office door firmly behind her.
“Sit,” said the mayor, striding to her side of the oh-so-formal desk.
“Give me my keys.”
“When we’re done.”
With an exasperated groan, Katie flopped into a chair and leaned her head up against the floor-to-ceiling window that separated them from the office at large. Beyond, the bulk of the mayor’s support staff had gathered as a group, chattering like teenagers as they made their way out for a round of Friday shots at Jazzman’s. Once in a while, the mayor went with them—but never Katie, the self-styled Cat Who Walked by Herself.
“I really don’t,” said Katie at last, her eyes on the ceiling, “know anything.”
The mayor’s eyes—photographers be damned—were slits. “When you went, why did you go?”
Katie winced, stilled her escape-minded eyes, and said, in a newly deliberate voice, as if testifying in court, “I was sixteen. I’d just broken up with my first boyfriend, Curt. He was twenty, and he was the one who broke it off—sort of. He just, you know, skipped town. I wasn’t pregnant, it wasn’t like that, but I missed him. In a very unhealthy, very teenage sort of way. I was literally telling myself, sometimes out loud, that if I couldn’t have Curt, I didn’t want to live.
“So at the same time, I was into some other things that were, well, not very healthy. Drinking, sure. What kids call ‘partying,’ now. But other stuff, too. Wicca that wasn’t Wicca. Spells I was pretty much just making up. Hopeful shit. And so there I was, two nights after Curt said ‘See ya,’ and I laid out some sort of summoning spell on my bedspread, all holly leaves and hazel twigs and this weird grinning terra cotta sun from my mom’s garden, plus a whole deck of tarot cards. I had those taped to the ceiling in a pattern I thought was, I don’t know, evocative, and I was doing this chant and I had all these candles going and next thing I knew, I’d grabbed a pencil out of my school pack and I was writing an address on the wallpaper. I didn’t mean to; I didn’t even want to. It just came. 2201 Fraser. And as soon as I’d written it, my hand felt like I’d pinched a nerve, and I dropped the pencil—I can still see it disappearing down the crack behind the bed—and that was it. I had to go to that address. And the next night, I did.”
“What did you bring back?”
Katie sat ever smaller in her chair, remembering. “I went in thinking I’d bring back Curt—and he was there, sort of. His wallet was, anyway. All his ID. So I grabbed that. I figured that way, he’d at least have to visit. But on the way out, I passed this little table, and on top of it was a key ring with three old brass skeleton keys. Each one had a red ribbon, and the first said ‘Key to the City.’ The second said ‘Key to the Statehouse,’ and the third said ‘Key to the State’—and just like the wallet, the ring had a little white tag attached with my name on it, Glynn. So I picked them up, and—God. Holding those keys made me feel hungry—or not hungry, more like starved, but it was the kind of starving where it’s okay, because you know there’s a feast right around the corner. And I wanted that. Needed it. So I left Curt behind.”
The mayor gave her protégée a confused look. “So the keys lied?”
“I don’t know.”
“But surely those ribbons—I mean, shouldn’t I be working for you, not the other way around, if they were telling the truth? And shouldn’t you be on track for the Senate?”
Katie drew her knees up to her chin, and her arms hugged her skinny, denim-clad legs. “I changed my mind.”
“After a couple of days, keys or no keys, I missed Curt. So I went back. And there was Curt’s wallet, right where I’d left it. I grabbed it and I walked out. Drove home. But the keys were gone—I’d left them in my underwear drawer. At the time, I didn’t care. I knew that if nothing else, I’d have Curt.”
“But you didn’t.”
Katie nodded into her knees. “He called and said he’d drive up for the wallet. The last thing he said before he hung up was ‘Baby, you make me so hot.’ But he never made it. Wreck on the interstate. The people in the other car, they were fine, but Curt, he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, so he got thrown, and the car landed on him, and . . . you get the picture.” She hesitated, licked at her lips. “He wasn’t much of a guy, and he sure as hell wasn’t good for me. But he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve what I did to him.”
The mayor, to her own surprise, abruptly stood. “Oh, stop it. You had nothing to do with it.”
“You know I did! You’ve been there!”
“So you avoiding me, this is about you worrying? You worrying that I’ll change my mind, go back?”
“You didn’t find just birds. I know you didn’t. And whatever that other thing is, you’ll go back for it. And when you do—”
“Katie Glynn! If you were so certain I’d screw this up, why did you send me?”
Katie’s arms shot out and her feet dropped to the floor in a gesture of surrender, hopeless and lost. “I told you, I made a mistake! I’m sorry!” Her face flushed maple-red; tears welled. “This was supposed to be my city, remember? And I hated watching it die.”
The mayor marched around the table, leaned down, and planted a firm, motherly kiss on Katie’s forehead. “I’m a big girl, Katie. And I forgive you.”
“Now. Woodpeckers or no, I need you at your best in order to run this town. In fact, I’m pretty sure I need you more than ever, because maybe these birds are a flash in the pan. If so, all the more reason to strike while the iron is hot. So enough wallowing. Go home, stop worrying, and next week, bring your A-game. The one you used to bring every day. Clear?”
Sniffing, wiping stubborn tears, Katie gave a tiny nod and let out a gasping whisper that the mayor took to be a yes.
“Good. See you Monday.”
All through the summer and on into fall, the ivory-bills held the city rapt. Everyone had a story to tell of how the birds had flown right over their yard, or pecked at their very own cypress, or landed an air-raid dropping right splat on Great Aunt Jessie’s best Sunday bonnet. Stores that sold binoculars couldn’t keep them in stock. Murals appeared on formerly derelict buildings, depicting the birds in full color, thirty feet tall—and then the buildings changed hands, got renovated, and filled up with woodpecker-crazy tenants.
The mayor and Katie and all the mayor’s staff worked like dogs, amazed to discover just how much there was to do once a city allowed ambition to trample ennui. With money in the coffers, and more pouring in every day, every department dreamed better dreams, then shoved those dreams toward reality. New parks and bike trails appeared, roadways underwent long-overdue repairs, and brand-new bus lines trundled around unexpected corners. It was an all-at-once avalanche of urban renewal.
Roy Bentham died October fifth, a Friday. Janet found him when she came in from a fundraising party (a fundraiser she hardly needed, since her reelection was now entirely assured). Roy lay sprawled across the bed, felled by a massive coronary. His black-socked feet were still on the floor, and the mug of milk he’d set out for Janet steamed gently beneath the orangey glow of the bedside light. Janet shook his shoulder, once, just to be sure, and then, feeling wooden, dry-throated, she walked quickly back to the kitchen, picked up the phone, and called not the police or her pastor, but Katie Glynn.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I couldn’t think who else to call.”
She grieved, of course, but she was so busy—the work of being mayor had become so frantic—that for long months, she did not miss Roy so much as note his absence. Then, in February, with a furious ice storm snapping branches and toppling power lines, she found herself not resting in bed where she needed to be but huddled in a corner of the bathroom, and she could not rise, she could not cry out, she could only tremble on the floor, her body wrapped in a fat terry cloth bathrobe, flamingo pink, warm and soft. She shuddered dry, tectonic sobs and thought, Dear God, how did I get to be so lonely?
In the kitchen, the telephone rang.
That, she thought, would be Ed Brauner at Transportation, or maybe Police Chief Dan Vaughn. It was getting bad out there, the trees were really popping now, and most departments were in crisis mode. Katie was still at work, of course, refusing to abandon the ship.
The phone rang again, and now her cell was buzzing. Out of reach, the both of them, but the mayor could not bring herself to rise. She did not want to talk to her department chiefs, not even for the sake of her city, her flourishing city. Not tonight. Tonight, just for once, she wanted to let loneliness settle. She felt a primal need to suffer.
The answering machine in the kitchen picked up. No voicemail, not for the mayor. Roy had preferred not to modernize quite so much, quite so fast. “Nothing wrong with the old answering machine,” he’d said when she’d proposed switching. “Shame to just throw it out.”
“Hello, dearie,” said a voice, a quavering soprano that whispered its way out of the kitchen, ghosted down the hall, and sidled its way into the bathroom. “I know you’re home—but I understand. Call back when you can. Let me know how those pets of yours are doing, all right? You know which line to use. Love you, Sugarlumps. I’ll be waiting.”
Her eyes flew wide; she pressed her spine to the wall. Images of the Eastlake Victorian careened past, instantly replaced by equally vivid memories of the salvage yard with its wide, forsaken aisles, each one leading to an ugly, well-preserved telephone.
The ice stopped falling at six the next morning, and for two weeks, the mayor had no time to be lonely. She worked eighteen hours a day, more, to get her pulverized city back on its feet, to return power to its shivering, in-the-dark citizens. But at last the final out-of-state power crews drove off, and the mayor, forgetting to thank Katie (who had worked harder than anyone), took herself home, on time, to the hazards of an empty house.
She made it through the winter, bleak as it was, and she made it through spring on the strength of blooms and buds and a city that loved her. Summer was long, hot—hotter than usual—but the swelter became, in its way, its own barrier against temptation.
And then—like magic—summer was gone. The city’s children, in bright columns, filed back into their schools. On the trees, the leaves colored and crinkled, then drifted to the ground, too crippled to rise. October was at the mayor’s throat almost before she knew it.
Somewhere out in the Mouse Creek bottomlands, two famous woodpeckers huddled together, fifty feet up in the hollow of a towering tulip. It was late, well past dark, the air cooling and crisp. Normally the birds would have been fast asleep, but instead they fluffed their feathers uneasily, weighed down with a nameless, dread disquiet. Had they been able to speak, one would certainly have said to the other, “Something just stepped on my grave.”
They were only birds, after all. Two birds that were, sooner or later, doomed. Neither was surprised when in the distance, they caught the sound of a garage door opening. A car backing up. They could even hear, in their way, the thudding, miserable heartbeat of the driver within, and her needful certainty that somewhere in all the crap of Don’s Salvage Yard, there would surely be one other working telephone.
Mark Rigney is the author of numerous plays, including Ten Red Kings and Acts of God (both from Playscripts, Inc.), as well as Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition (during its off-Broadway run, Theatre Mania called Bears “the best play of the year”). His short fiction appears in Witness, Ascent, Black Gate, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, The Long Story, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Black Static, among many others. The Skates, a comic (and ghostly) novella, is now available as an ebook from Samhain Publishing. In nonfiction, Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press) remains happily in print one decade on. Two collections of his stories are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy and Reality Checks. His website is www.markrigney.net.
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