Unfinished Bird mural
by Mario Duarte
In the waiting room, I stew in the stale air, strain to ignore the echo of machines in rooms down the hall, passing feet squeaking on the shiny tile floors. Thank God, Jane, my lady, is here to wait with me for my treatment for my Alzheimer's, and brain tumors.
I wonder how much time I have left.
“I hope we don’t have to wait much longer,” Jane says, her face exasperated while dropping the magazine on a stand.
“For an infinity,” I say, and with my finger, I trace in the air a figure eight, the infinity symbol. She laughs, the laugh I love, flashing fleshy, pink gums.
I sit quietly for a while and watch the fish swim in an aquarium, bubbling, with one pale fish floating on the surface. Then, my morning coffee strikes. My bladder demands relief. “I have to go to the bathroom, Jane.”
“Okay, honey. Just let me show you where it is,” she stands up and puts the magazine down.
“I’m not a child.” My face feels flush. “I can find it.”
“Oh, all right,” she says. “I’ll just point it out. That’s all.” Before I can say a word, she takes my hand and leads me down a hallway. A heavy antiseptic odor attacks my nostrils. I sneeze.
“Bless you,” she says as we stop before the bathroom door. “I’ll just wait here for you.”
“No, it’s okay. I can find my way back. It’s not that far, really.”
“Are you sure, hon?”
“Yeah.” I kiss her check. She beams a bit. Nods. I step inside.
Inside, it reeks of urine and worst. I step out holding my breath and look around. I don’t see Jane or anyone ese. I walk down the hallway. I turn a corner, and keep walking. I stop. Nothing seems familiar. I dig in my back pants’ packet for my phone but it’s not there.
I can’t find my way back and wander down hallways, everyone busy, staring past me as if I was invisible. “Where’s the fire?” my mother use to say.
I feel frantic and have to step out. Maybe I just need some fresh air. I find a side door exit. I can breathe again. I start walking, hoping to see my truck in the parking lot. I cannot find it, there are so many cars parked here. Unbelievable. I see a spot of green, a park in the distance and decide to make my way there but somehow miss the park and find myself wandering down the street. Lost. More lost than I have ever been before.
Nothing looks familiar. Not the houses, the street, I don’t think I live here, in this city. I think I’m a visitor, a stranger here. The wind gusty. Cool on my face like a splash of water. The trees glow with a burnt orange, and blood red flames.
I feel fear; it feels like a bird perched on my shoulder picking my brain.
One dry brown leaf scrapes past on the sidewalk. Like a sailboat. I know I once sailed on a lake, with my deceased wife, Emma, many years ago when we were first married. We were happy when we were together. My whole life was in front of me then, like a flower slowly blooming, petal by glowing petal.
I just need to find my way back. To the hospital. To Jane, my lady. We’ve been together for a long time now. I can’t remember exactly how long. We love each other; I know that much.
On the sidewalk, heels are clicking. A young woman approaches, walking a small dog. It looks something like my Old Charlie. Best dog I ever had. He loved playing fetch. Never wanted to stop.
Closer up, she reminds me of my daughter. Something in her eyes.
“Hello,” I say.
Her dog sniffs at my shoes. She tugs at the leash and pulls the munchkin away. “Sorry, mister,” she says. Then, she starts walking faster. Every click of her heel strikes like the loud tock of a grandfather clock.
As she walks away, I want to say something, but my words are like a jumble of pebbles in my mouth. I want to ask her for help but she’s in a hurry, just like my daughter always is, kind but always busy, always running to the next thing.
Her dog casts a sad glance over his shoulder before they disappear.
I wander for a few blocks. Nothing seems familiar. I strain to avoid the fear, to push it away. I feel the bird’s talons clench down on my shoulder. I trudge on, despite the pain. I can’t stand still. Something, out of the corner of my eyes, grabs my attention. I stop, look. In a storefront, a mannequin seems to notice me, with arms raised in a greeting, wearing a blue suit. It reminds me; I used to wear suits to work. I recall sitting at a desk, looking down at numbers, working on a budget, one for the whole state. I used to wear a blue suit.
I step inside the store. Why not? Above the door, a bell chimes. A young salesman in a sharp black suit with a tie as red as the lipstick Jane wears nods and waves at the merchandise on display: the rows of suits. “Welcome, sir,” he says. “We have the best selection of men’s wear in town!”
Act normal, I say to myself. Don’t embarrass yourself. Say nothing about being lost. No yet, anyway. “Hello,” I say. I force a smile. I can feel my gums sticking uncomfortably to my front teeth. The salesman smiles back, and for a moment, I almost feel like me. Just a man shopping for a new suit to war to work.
“Follow, me, right here, sir,” he says. I follow him to the racks over the scrunching sounding carpet. A fine sweat rises over the palms of my hands, growing warmer, feeling misty.
In front of a long row of suits, mostly blue, black, brown, and gray, he stops. He touches the sleeve of one, rubs the material between his fingertips. “Ahhhh, so nice,” he says. “Feel this, sir.”
The material is soft; it feels like something I could sink into. Disappear into, and drift away, like a bird gliding on the currents.
“Please take a look around, sir, and let me know if you have any questions. I’ll check in on you, in a little while.” He bows, slightly and takes his position at the cash register.
“Don’t forget to take a look at the accessories,” he calls out to me, a hand cupped to his lips. “We have a fine selection of belts, ties, and hats, too.”
I sigh. A bit overwhelmed. Where to start? It’s like buying cereal or anything, really, at the grocery store, so many possibilities. What do I like? What’s the best one?
Gazing at the suit rack, I have a memory of the tiny suits on a rack that Jane has back at home for King George, her Chihuahua. She often dresses him in a suit with a tie and shoes to match. What a sight!
I reach out to the suit coat nearest me. The suit is deep blue like an ocean. I slip it on. Slowly, one arm at a time. Surprisingly, it seems to fit. Maybe the salesman led me to the suits that he determined were my size. I step up to the store mirror.
I button the suit coat. Inspect how it looks on me. It fits. Not too tight or too loose.
I see myself. How did I get so old? My hair is too long, too shaggy, and curly. When was the last time I bathed or cut my hair? Does Jane like it this way?
I turn around in the mirror. To see myself from all angles, although I only catch glimpses. A part of me wants to see someone else at the end of the turn, another man, with more time, more life in the mirror.
“It fits perfectly,” the salesman says. I nod, blink, catch a glimpse of my eyelashes, long and wavy. “I knew one of these suits would fit you,” he says. He smiles, a faintly reptilian smile. “You look great. Try on the pants.” He takes them off the rack and hands them to me. “Our dressing room is right over here,” he points. “Would you like to try them on?”
“Why not,” I respond. Isn’t this the normal way of things? With the slacks in hand, I enter the dressing room. He closes the red velvety drapes behind me.
I take a seat. Sit there for a while. I can hear the cars on the street, the whirling of a fan, and in the distance, a plane flying over the city. I imagine its metallic hull gleans in the sunlight, and then flashes out like a wink.
My fingers tremble as I remove my pants. My bare legs cold. My long black socks feel tight on my ankles, the soles of my feet warm, sweaty. I slip on the pants, one leg at a time, slowly but surely. The pants legs are bit long, but not bad.
I clear my throat loudly, swallow something caught in the back of my throat. The salesman calls out to me. “If required, alterations are free!” I step out. “Yes, our seamstress could adjust the length a bit. It would be no trouble at all and done in no time,” he says. “What do you say? Sir?”
Before, I can even think it over I hear the words roll out of my mouth, “Perfect, yes. And I’ll take it!”
“Good choice, sir,” he says. “Let me ring it up. When you’re ready.”
I return to the dressing room. Look at myself in the mirror there. I remember going to church with Jane some Sunday. I wore a suit, not blue but gray. A baby was crying at the top of its lungs with sprinkled water on its ruddy face. Her granddaughter?
I step out to the counter. “How would you like to pay today, sir?”
I feel the bird on my shoulder, and turn my head, and blink at is white feathers, and an impossibly long golden beak. Shake my head. It flies, circles around me, then returns to my shoulder.
I pat down my back pocket. Feel a wallet. No money in it but I find a credit card. I hand it over to him and the salesman has to show me how to swipe it on the machine.
“Wonderful doing business with you, sir. If you would be so kind as to give me your name and number, I can call or text you when the alterations are completed.”
I scratch my head. My scalp feels dry, flaky. “I…I. Just a moment. I forgot to bring my phone. I think I wrote my number down, somewhere.” I rummage through my pockets. Nothing. I feel a cramp in one toe. “I can’t remember anything these days,” I spout, “and I have a toe cramp to boot,” I walk around in circles a few times until the toe cramp becomes bearable.
“I understand, sir,” says the salesman, his voice sounding hoarse. “Please take your time. No rush. Maybe you wrote your phone number down in a piece of paper in your wallet.”
I search my wallet. I locate a public library card, various membership cards, no driver’s license, and no paper with my number. My face feels warm. The skin over my head tight.
“I can’t find the damn thing! “ I erupt. “I’ll come back with it later.”
“As you wish, sir. In the meantime, I’ll place the alternation order in for you, right away, sir. It should be ready by the end of the week.”
“What day is it, by the way?” I ask.
“Monday, sir. The first, the beginning of new week, month, and season to boot.”
“Yes, the beginning,” I say as I step out the door, the bell ringing too loudly in my ears like a siren as I step over the threshold. Somehow, I feel even more lost until I wander down the street, block after block, until the soles of my feet are sore, and take a seat on a bench. I look around; I peer down an alley, a mural on the side of a brick building painted white catches my eye. I walk over to it, the brick alleyway is dark, greasy, and with boxes stacked by doorways, and garbage bins overflowing with stink and rot.
Now I see it clearly, the unfinished bird mural. The bird sketched against snatches of tree and sky, talons gripping a branch. I feel the bird on my shoulder, talons digging in deeper than ever, until I drop down, sit there, hold my head; my brain, my brain hurts. A soft red light, as if I were staring at the sun with closed eyes, washes over me. Something is happening. I think about Jane, and feel love but wonder if she is better off without me. I step into the mural, I am the bird that was perched on my shoulder, and my wings are taking flight.
Mario Duarte is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. His poems and short stories have appeared in 2River Review, Abstract Elephant, American Writers Review, Bilingual/Borderless, Digging Through the Fat, Lunch Ticket, Pank, Rigorous, Sky Island Journal, Plainsongs, Write Launch, and Typishly. New work is forthcoming in Aaduna and Zone 3.
— Marka Rifat
"Looking at the plain lulled her claw thoughts. The fields had long gone, the green crops sickened, the shoots yellowed, turned paper dry and blew away."