At the summit of Sallow Canyon, Jack adjusted the eyepiece of the telescope for his nephew Walter. “Just a bit more,” Jack said without looking up. Jack’s worn Stetson seemed a part of the telescope’s apparatus with the brim wrapping forward, hugging the white barrel. His face was completely concealed as he fiddled with the knobs and adjustments. It appeared as though the thing were part of his body. His hands and arms moved and twisted purposefully in order to get a clear focus on the point of the cliff near the shore. He stepped away and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, blew his nose, wiped his upper lip vigorously back and forth, “Here ya’ go. Take a look now, don’t bump it!” Walter stepped up onto the block placed in the dirt near the base of the telescope and carefully peered in. “I don’t see….I can’t really…It does! It looks just like an elephant!” Walter reeled his right arm back in order to keep his balance and not bump it. Jack smiled and said, “I told you so. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. Tonight we’ll come up here and look at it again, and the moon too; there’s a flag there.” “Is there a telescope that can see heaven?” “Yeah, it’s called your heart.” Jack poked Walter in the chest with his finger, which made Walter gasp for breath and smile.
* * * * * * *
Heidi held her breath and floated on her back. The water was warm. Mid-day and she had missed her appointment deciding to stay at the shore till nightfall. She’d left all her clothes under the large felled tree near the water’s edge. Duncan left her two hours earlier with an ultimatum. He was always laying down ultimatums - You need to decide. I can’t keep guessing. Really…..I’m dying here - that was the latest. It was always a matter of him guessing, and she figured at this point she’d keep him guessing. Not to be malicious or selfish, it was just that enough was enough. We all need to decide she thought, why should she decide for him? With her ears below the water she tried her best accent, “Bawston; pawck the caw.” She floated into a bed of seaweed. At water level all that could be made out were the sparkling colors bouncing off the flat thick greenery. Small pools of water collected on the kelp producing countless prismed droplets. The shimmering veins undulating atop the water created an iridescent light show; she breathed slowly not disturbing her drift and her nipples momentarily surfaced. A rainbow of colors radiated all around her. She was now full into the suspended forest. The rough edges of the leaves rubbed against her head and spread out arms then softly glided away again. Engulfed in the display, in silence, she thought, this is what real days are.
Overhead a bi-plane entered her view against the California sky. She breathed slowly. It crept across into her periphery from the lower right. She watched as it towed a trailing flying banner. The pilot must have worked hard to keep its trajectory so straight, she thought. It was bright yellow and small streams of red smoke trailed back from the tips of its wings. The banner read, WILL YOU MARRY ME KAREN? She followed the plane out of her sight as it exited into the kelp’s light show. She spread her fingers and felt a bulb with her right hand. “Oh, I wish I were in Dixie, Hurray! Hurray!” Her words were barely audible. “Karen will say yes,” she predicted aloud. Her small disc Kokopeli earrings tugged at her earlobes as they hung backward into the water. “What’s that word? They probably look like liars; no, not liars, something else.” Now she was entirely in the glistening light around her and had to squint to see beyond its aurora. The small knives of light cut through her narrowed lids and she tried to find a solid color in all of it. “Luge. Lume. I know it’s an L.” She imaged herself from above, what must she look like amidst it all, shimmering wings attached to her naked body, an angel maybe. I wonder if the pilot saw me as an angel? “Lure!” She smiled.
* * * * * * *
Duncan met Heidi a year earlier through a friend who was going through a divorce. “She’ll be a good match, you two have a lot in common.” Of course this was being seen through the lens of divorce and how could anyone in that state know what a “good match” was? Sure enough though, he listened and took the bait. They dated for convenience born from loneliness, dinners, and the expected socializing – probably more for the social crowds monitoring of the newly paired couple than for themselves. It found their friends humorous in their concern. He took silent pleasure in how everyone but he and Heidi were so invested in their success or failure. He approached this relationship as he did most things in his life—with detachment. She needed to decide; he needed to decide, he thought. He walked the short distance from the beach to the asphalt parking lot and left Heidi by the large fallen tree near the water’s edge.
He reached his car exhausted from his thoughts. Only his and Heidi’s cars were left in the parking lot and he somehow felt glad he was not the last one leaving. The low sun’s reflected off his window, momentarily blinding him as he unlocked his door. Tonight should be fun—a sarcastic satisfaction crept over him. He justified his silent content by reminding himself that everyone thought evil thoughts. Then, as moments like this had always manifested in him, he began an inward interrogation. What should he do? People need to be held accountable. Am I the only one present in all this? Why do I seem to be the only one concerned? She needed prolific justice, no doubt about it. “Shit, my hat.” He entered his car and accelerated up into Sallow Canyon to the summit where their apartment waited.
* * * * * * *
The moon began to rise above the dunes of Elephant Cove and Heidi pulled her jeans on, buttoned them and stuffed her underwear in a back pocket. The rising moon’s reflection on the kelp looked like a dying fire on the darkening water. Almost all the illumination was gone and only small bits of the kelp’s reflection could be seen when the tide rolled the leaves to meet the lunar light. From her other back pocket she took out an old leather shoelace and tied her wet brown hair into a tight ponytail—Duncan had to go. The blend of evening pastels revealed the silhouette of the nearby cliff out to the south. Off the top, the stark trunk of an old dead tree sagged from the uppermost point of the shear face. From the same precipice going backward, onto its plateau, stood a large leaf shaped rock. At night, with the moon behind it, the silhouette appeared just like an elephant with its trunk reaching toward the sea and its ears fanned out. Heidi loved this place. It felt big. Walking barefoot through the sand, sandals in hand, she noticed a kissing couple sitting on the beach directly under the elephant, and wondered if it was Karen.
Heidi carefully folded and placed the towel on the car’s vinyl seat to guard herself from its gathered heat. He’s not all that bad; I could do worse—What am I saying, he is, I couldn’t; he’s dangerous I think. His flags adorned the apartment and she hated them. Flags from Scotland, Canada, Spain, Puerto Rica, Guatemala, Germany, Hungry, Russia, all full-sized! Who wallpapers in flags? The worst was Turkey’s, right over the bed, bold red with a white crescent moon and a small white star, uncreative she thought, just like Duncan. He’s never even been to any of these places. And fruit, always fruit. Not that there’s anything wrong with fruit, but shit, every meal? If she had to see his banana joke one more time she’d scream. Grow up for Christ sake. She didn’t care about the clothes strewn about; that was normal guy stuff. The forgotten birthdays were a bit annoying, but again, he’s a guy. With each day came another negative. They saw life differently, she wanted realness and he shunned it. Each time they made love they each became progressively cloistered from each other until it was merely physical and they both knew it. All her friends reminded her with the usual, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but these things were full sized.
Let the car warm up for five minutes, get the oils circulating, otherwise you’ll seize it. She was fastidious about her Dad’s advice and dialed in a news station as she sat the five minutes. Duncan’s Yale baseball cap was in the passenger’s seat and she threw it into the back. He never went to Yale but somehow felt comfortable vicariously advertising the institution. The sea lights were now gone and the moon fully hung above Elephant Rock as she drove away. Some local talk show droned from the speakers. Apparently there was some danger of liberals and gays infiltrating the region and the voice warned her to be on her guard. She could never understand how these fanatics took it upon themselves to report on privacy of others and offer advice. There must be people out there who listen to this stuff. It occurred to her that her friend, the same one who introduced her and Duncan, had this station dialed in one day during a visit. She couldn’t help think that that was related to her current circumstances. She rolled the knob to an oldies station. Her stomach growled, Milo’s Market would still be open for another two hours, she decided to stop on the way home.
The mile markers on highway 10 passed slowly. Tonight was the night. She would tell him tonight. She told Stephanie a week ago that she wasn’t scared of breaking up; it was the barrage of empathy bullshit she wasn’t looking forward too. “I know this guy who’d be perfect for you.” That would be the standard. “You should meet Gary at work, he’s stable.” That would most certainly be Tammy’s response. Gary was perfect, but probably gay. She didn’t want a replacement, she wanted down time. Duncan was once perfect and now he wasn’t. A realization planted itself at the front of her thoughts—Most partners are perfect at first; why is that? Of course she knew the answer. The courtship, positive appearances, first impressions, etc.—all those things were obvious. It was the why that intrigued her. She’d once met a guy, from Australia, who was returning three days later. They hit off, and the time constraint had their walls immediately down—all defenses gone. She liked that, just the two of them, allowing access right from the start. They stayed in the same hotel in Vale Colorado for a ski weekend. They spent most of the three days in bed talking and making love. At the time she was sad to see him go. But it was only a week later that she realized how lucky she was. Now she always smiled at the memory.
The Sallow Canyon road sign appeared and she turned up into the hills. Maybe some asparagus, Milo’s has good asparagus. She stared ahead, detached from the scene past the windshield. She felt a small bead of water escape from her tight hair and run down the nape of her neck. She shivered and breathed. A sign read “Milo’s 2 miles” - maybe artichokes. Take the Last Train to Clarksville started and she sang along. Davey was hot but Mickey was better.
* * * * * * *
“Heideeeee!” Milo’s apron was smeared with various organic greens, yellows and reds as he wiped his hands on the bottom of it and offered her a long distance hug.
She passed through the few people that milled about, squeezing and thumping assorted vegetables and fruits, and gave Milo a hug. A regular she’d seen before, but didn’t know, had her ear pressed to a watermelon rapping it discernibly with her fat knuckles. “Milo, how old are these?” Heidi could tell her tone was friendly and familiar enough to be forceful in her questioning of Milo’s wares. Another man in shorts and deck shoes rolled tangerines in his hand detecting their weaknesses while his handsome companion hovered over his shoulder touching his back. “You should trust me, I know my fruits. Besides, you wanted me to make dinner.” The man speaking, the fruit inspector, pushed the other mans hat back on his head and pinched his cheek. Duncan never pinches, she thought.
“Heidi, I missed you.” Milo’s slim build looked like a vegetable itself. A long thin body with stringy limbs attached that ended in sprouts of fingers. His voice was akin to some bassoon, or other high reed instrument, that wined with disconcerting pleasure in conversation. “Now listen, we have Mangos, Kiwi, and asparagus, fresh today.” His large nose gave the words a nasally urgent quality. He was a proud man and it showed in his displays as well as his superfluous magician like presentation of them.
“I think Artichokes Milo, with a few extra hearts.” She stood with her hands in her back pockets. The forefinger and the middle finger of her right hand rubbed the silk material there. Her loose tan blouse hung comfortably from her shoulders accentuating her figure.
“Artichokes. Yes, yes, over here.” The displays were never in the same place and he led her to the back corner of the shop. “Now, I tell you; be careful. Here, I’ll show you, these ones, underneath; these are better.” He looked around as if trying to keep a secret from the other patrons. It looked at that moment as if the fat knuckled woman at the watermelons was craning to gain some insider information.
“Where’s Duncan. Do you need some oranges or bananas for Duncan?”
“No, no. No fruit today. I’m not sure, he’s probably home.”
“You tell him hello, from me.”
“I’ll tell him.” The artichokes on the bottom were better, softer—or was it firmer that is better for artichokes? Anyway, they looked better she thought.
“Yes, yes, he can come over, but I’m doing all the cooking,” said the Tangerine man from across the aisle.
Milo placed Heidi’s selection in a small canvas bag. “You take this, bring it back, I know you. Next time….” He threw in a lemon and pushed the bag into her hands. “On me, for color,” and waved her on as she thanked him.
As she drove away from the produce stand her tongue clicked in response to a memory. Once when she was eight she received a spinach popsicle from an elderly neighbor couple. Their names eluded her but she remembered that they always had popsicles in the summer for all the neighborhood children. She finished the spinach-pop just to be polite while the old couple tried their best not to laugh too hard; she noticed. Duncan was her thirty-two-year-old spinach popsicle and this time she wasn’t going to be as polite.
She entered her apartment and set the canvas bag o the kitchen counter near the front door. She immediately noticed the smell of oranges. There was a stack of boxes in the living room, each one labeled “FYC” with a large black marker in Duncan’s handwriting. She saw a pile of orange peels across the room on the coffee table. She completed the acronym with a whisper, “Finally Your Clearing out.” Stark white rectangles stood out on the walls where his flags once were. Hell, I haven’t seen those walls for three years now. She blankly held an artichoke as she scanned the room and absorbed how full and empty the apartment felt, all at once. It was eight thirty now—I guess he decided. Hopefully he went over to Howard’s or Mike’s, maybe I’ll have the night to myself. She went about getting a bowl out of the cupboard to soak the artichokes in some lemon water. She carefully cut the green leaves from their stalks and slid them into the bowl. Life for her took on a ceremonious quality now. Somehow, in this cleared room with bare walls she felt as though a cleansing was beginning; even if undefined for now. The same steps she took to prepare proper dinners for herself, dinners with self-rewarding style, were the same steps and reasons she needed Duncan downtime, and she felt relieved that perhaps he had made the first move. Once all the leaves were in the water, she placed another bowl on top to keep them submerged. She wiped up the orange peels on the coffee table and threw them away--Hopefully for the last time. He can’t even leave neatly. She crossed the room, closed the blinds, and unbuttoned her blouse. She noticed all the sides if the boxes had the same acronym. The hall closet was opened and she saw his coats and shoes weren’t there—That’s a good sign. She closed the closet door and went to check the bedroom. Turkey was gone from above the headboard; she let out a sigh of breath. His Yale pillow was gone too. She heard the water running in the master bedroom bath.
Light spilled from the bathrooms’ open door. She wanted to turn around and go to a neighbor, maybe call the police. It wasn’t like her to be scared, but for some reason she felt compelled to push forward. Her hand seemed to move without her and swung the door open. No steam came from the room as she expected. “Duncan?” She said it as she walked past the vanity and mirror to look around the glass brick-wall-divider to the freestanding tub-shower. He was naked, neatly lying in the tub with his arms to his sides, motionless and pale. She gathered her shirt closed with one hand. “Duncan?” She didn’t even hear her own voice the second time. The cold water of the shower rained down on him. The showerhead pointed directly at his stomach and beads of moisture bounced up onto his chest and shoulders. His head leaned away from her and she thought she detected a smile, or maybe a grin. She leaned against the glass wall and stared. All the social scenarios she had been running through now seemed selfish, egotistical. The water ran from the showerhead to his body to the open drain. All the evidence washed away. His wrists were noticeably bruised and slit but completely clean and exposed. His limp muscles limp still retained their chiseled features. A small pool of water gathered in the cavity at the bottom of his sternum where a concave spot was created from his tub posture. His semi-sitting position allowed his hair to remain dry. Sadness settled in and she noticed it wasn’t hers. She felt sad for him, this decision, and began shaking her head in pity, not sorrow. No tears. It was so long coming—anything was so long coming. She slowly slid down the glass-block wall and watched as the beads of water arced and landed. She wanted to feel something, weren’t these moments reserved for uncontrollable crying or something. I should be crying. I should be praying or something. These were more questions than statements. She felt guilt from relationship remorse more than anything else -- guilt for not breaking up sooner, maybe then she wouldn’t have to directly deal with this, after the break up she would have been absolved of the fall out, at least directly. Her faced winced and she clenched her teeth with the thought. How selfish was she. Here she was, not crying, not running for the phone. Where was her reason? Her thoughts were clear, and she was secretly ashamed and imaged herself never revealing them to anyone.
She reached over his body and shut off the water, and in the reaching, she smelt his deodorant, a wet suppressed musk. Then she felt full with a toss of emotional ambition. Without warning her eyes became cloudy, unfocused. Tears built in her and it wasn’t sorrow for Duncan she felt first. It was satisfaction for feeling at all. The moment of regret prior washed away and was replaced with the same emptiness that filled the de-flagged living room. The water in his chest divot slowly trailed down the creases below his pecs in both directions. His normally tanned body was stark, white, a flat void of color. Heidi covered Duncan with a large beach towel and noticed the note taped to the glass wall on the bathtub side.
“I’ve decided. For your convenience. Please see to Walter.”
Her phone call to the police was calm. They soon arrived. She only noticed the metal of their uniforms—badges, cufflinks, buttons, clips, guns, handcuffs, waving pens, gold hat brims, faceless, hovering, and talking. They understood her grief; this must be very tough for her. She was offered a card for someone to call if she needed - she wouldn’t call. As they lifted him from the tub, she noticed his Kokopeli tattoo on his back before they covered him. It seemed much blacker against his paleness. Who would be the first to say, “Don’t sweat the little stuff,” now? As they rolled him she thought maybe she needed to move and she breathed. Once the door shut, and the onslaught of activity in the small apartment gone, the phone began ringing.
* * * * * * *
“I know it’s dark. Just take your time; you’ll see it. Look in the center.”
Walter stared hard into the lens. He felt confident and blindly reached for the knob he’d seen Jack adjust so many times before. He turned it one way and things became a bit fuzzier. He turned it the other and they sharpened, he slowed his turning and the rock and tree came into focus as he saw it. Allowing Walter to be himself and enjoy this discovery, Jack noticed how much Walter looked like his father Duncan. Jack smiled as he watched him fiddle with the telescope. “You got it?” “Almost.” “When you get it, you’ll see the root of the tree looks just like the eye.”
James Celestino is originally from the L.A. California area, where he grew up in Glendale/Burbank. He has traveled Europe (Germany/Holland/France/Spain), and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah. He teaches English, Creative Writing Fiction, and Compositional Writing at Salt Lake Community College, where he is employed as a full-time instructor. He holds an English B.A. from the University of Utah and an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Antioch University L.A.