He doesn’t want a damn thing from the world. That’s why he’s in the garage hunched over his workbench. It isn’t a real workbench but a small desk taken from his daughter’s room. She’ll never use it. It’s coated in white paint like a delicate candy shell. Raw umber underneath where his tools have scraped the shell.
“Hmmm,” he hums to himself, fiddling with his fake bird.
A small stuffed replica. A lark. Dusky gray with long iridescent tail feathers. The body, the beak, the glass eyes–not real. The tail feathers? Real. Incongruous, asymmetrical, but real. He collects them, slowly adds them, filling out the mealy plank of wood upon which he’s glued tiny whorls of peat moss, and, in the center, the bird’s feet so it looks like the bird has just landed. He can’t remember exactly where he got the bird. He thinks it came from the store-bought house plant someone had left on his doorstep when his daughter was born, but he’s not sure. He found it in the garage a few months ago, alone, detached, roosted on a pile of crusty paint brushes.
“Yup,” he says, lifting his newest feather to the overhead light for further examination.
He found this one at the reservoir. It has a bluish black sheen, a magic shimmer, like how he imagines the velvet heart of a jewelry box shimmers when opened. Or the scales of a mermaid. It’s a beautiful feather. Maybe grackle, maybe crow.
Now the hot glue gun comes up in his hand, and he experiences the thick, pleasing give of the trigger, and then the seething, crystal-clear glue sealing the dark feather to the bird in glistening drops and wisps. Carefully, tenderly, he merges the two objects.
“Men would destroy such things,” he says to the quiet, hallowed space of the garage.
The space smells of dust and concrete and stale cigarette smoke and the thin sharp flare of the synthetic glue.
“Don’t ask me why, but they would. Men would destroy such things.”
He’s said this kind of thing before, in his garage, talking to himself and his fake bird. Something about the setting compels him. The man lives in a small town in the intermountain west, Galoon, Wyoming. It’s the kind of town built on extractive industries–mining and oil, boom or bust, interstate strip malls and not much else–where kids in high school have two choices: art club or football.
He’s lived in Galoon his whole life, this man. He would have been good at football, but he never played. Nor did he join the art club. Boys couldn’t join the art club when he was growing up. They would have been called gay.
When he was older, after meeting Myrtle, he had a dream in which he lusted after a man. It was his first time thinking of a man in that way. He couldn’t see anything wrong with it. He felt he could love anyone who loved him back.
Like Myrtle. She went to Galoon High too. She wouldn’t go out with him until much later, when they were both working in the administrative offices at the mine, but he remembers once in their high school English class she read a poem she’d written about a meadow lark. The verbs were snappy, dancing in the air. Strutting and spinning its liquid song. He was shocked by the poetry inside her. He’d never imagined people could go about their lives with that kind of personal revelation, like beauty were an inner thing that no person or town or country could ever take away.
He was already in love with her when she let him take her out. They married within months. Her femininity changed something in him. It wasn’t what he expected. Not like the Hollywood romances his own parents watched in a sort of demurring acquiescence. No flowing dresses or polite curtsies. Her body was raw and vital. Like a creature born in the plain winds, scraped pink and determined to stay alive. The organization of her thoughts and actions fascinated him. For instance, he was enamored with the way she painted the baby’s desk and dresser and crib–a bright and brittle white. She did it so earnestly, sincerely, passionately, as if an enormous amount of strength were needed just to add the thinnest sheen of character to the wood, as if real strength begot vulnerability rather than power.
In his mind she was more heroic than all the cowboys and football stars he’d grown up with. He hated those men. They’d cross oceans and kill people just to prove they were men, but they couldn’t muster a kiss or a hug.
No, he thinks now. He doesn’t want a damn thing from them or the world they created. He wants to kiss his daughter, Maria. He wants to live forever in the deep magic of childrearing where everything is precious and beautiful. An enchanted world, where birds sing merrily in the dusklight.
“What grade?” he asks himself. “What grade does the cruelty kick in? Third, fourth?”
He turns back to his bird, unplugging the gun and propping a rag under the newest feather as the glue cures.
“Not this one,” he says. “They won’t get this one.”
Back in the house, after washing his hands, the man walks to his daughter’s room, opens the door. The blank space in the wall, where he removed the desk, looks weird and jarring in comparison to the adjacent dresser. It looks like a quarantine zone, the raw tan carpet shocked by light slanting through the blinds. And in the other corner, the empty white crib.
Then he sees it. He can’t shake the image. The county hospital room whirling in shades of gray. The doctors and nurses bent down in the deep dark river of blood that runs between things. Because Myrtle and Maria made no more sounds, his eyes drifted to the hospital window, where outside molten sun spilled on the plains. The wind was blowing fiercely that day, lifting the dust in a brown, unbraiding curtain, as if its only purpose were to uncover that which we hold dear.
Scott Neuffer, author of Scars of the New Order, is a writer, journalist, poet, and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Carson Valley Times, Nevada Magazine, The Nevada Review, Fiction Fix, Underground Voices, Foreword Reviews, Praxis Magazine, Construction Literary Magazine, GFT Press, Corvus Review, Shelf Awareness, Human Parts, and Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, among other publications. His rock album Perpetual Star is available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer @realpoecom @sneuffermusic