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Martha Conway

Fall Migration

Melina was twenty-three, and had never had a heartbreak.  There were plenty of guys who never asked her out and one who broke up with her after a few weeks, but she had never known the crushing feeling of a collapsed love.  The man who broke up with her was a poet.  They stopped seeing each other during her sophomore year in college, right after Thanksgiving, when the campus was just beginning to get muddy and cold.  Melina had taken out a red silk scarf from her suitcase and on impulse she circled it over his eyes then kissed him as he sat there blindfolded.  There was something in his lips, a lack of response, a restraint, so that later when he said the words (what words? she couldn't even remember), she wasn't that surprised.  "So this is what it feels like," Melina thought when he left, meaning to be on the other side of a break-up.  She went to the dining hall and was pleased to see fried clams, her favorite.  "This isn't so bad," she thought.

When her father left her mother for his secretary, Melina realized she was wrong about the poet -- his leaving was nothing.  It was so cliché -- a boss off with his secretary -- that she had to joke about it when she told people, but she still felt bitterly abandoned and angry and she also felt she would do just about anything to get her father back.  It was foolish; she was twenty-three.  She had graduated from college a month before with a degree in communications.  She went to Rome by herself after graduation.  Her parents' marriage was peripheral.

The secretary's name was Candy, another cliché.  Really, she could hardly tell the story for laughing.  They moved to Hawaii together.  They studied Tae Kwon Do. 

"I'm not kidding," Melina would say.  She laughed, but her face was pulled into an angry frown, like there was a knotted thread tugging through her.

After her summer in Rome Melina went back to San Francisco, which was where she grew up.  But her father lived in Oahu now with Candy and her mother had lost twenty pounds and gotten herself transferred to the San Jose office.  Melina's younger sister Catherine was still in college but was threatening to drop out; she was taking their father's defection very hard. 

To make matters worse the vacancy rate in the city had dropped overnight to only one percent.  Melina finally found a flat in a gritty apartment building way out by the undesirable side of the ocean.  The neighborhood, once Irish, was now mostly Chinese. 

In contrast, her parents' condo -- where she grew up -- had been near Ghiradelli Square.  From the living room windows you could see the great Ghiradelli sign hanging over the bay (the letters backwards since the sign faced west), and long wet piers, and sailboats that swung around in the water like glistening white sharks. 

Melina's new flat had no side windows and a cemented-over yard and low, cracker-colored ceilings that creaked whenever anybody upstairs walked around.  The first night there, sitting on a milk crate watching her parent's old color T.V., she felt shadowy and alone, a nobody.  Already she wanted to move out.  But the worst part was, since she had grown up in San Francisco she couldn't just give up and go home -- she was already there.


* * *


"Bastard," her sister Catherine said over the phone sometimes, when she called Melina up to complain about their father.  Melina circled want ads in the morning paper.  She felt it was her duty as an older sister to seem optimistic.

"He still loves you," she said.

"He's a fucking bastard."

"You know, he might just get it out of his system."

"I might just get him out of mine," Catherine said.  "And anyhow why doesn't he call?  Coward."

"He's probably embarrassed," Melina said, though secretly she agreed with Catherine. 

The job search was proving even more difficult than the apartment.  Every morning Melina diligently sent out resumes, but for a few weeks she had nothing to do in the afternoon but watch soaps or drive around in her little red car.

She loved her car.  She loved the color, she loved how shiny and compact and fun-looking it was.  She wanted to drive along the water but to get there she first had to pass all the ugly row houses with their treeless front yards and squat driveways.  A few had small front lawns, but most had pebble gardens or -- unbelievably -- cement painted green. 

Fog floated across the hood of her car like waves of damp white ash.  Melina turned down Noriega Street, which was wide and dirty and crowded with banks and manicure shops and a surprisingly large number of laundries, none of which looked clean.  Neither did the sidewalks for that matter, or the building facades.  Even the sky with the afternoon fog rolling in looked like a dirty billowing curtain overhead.  She had to brake hard when a huge Lincoln Continental suddenly pulled out in front of her.

The worst drivers in the world drive down Noriega, her father used to say.  There was one very good Mexican restaurant where they used to go, Casa Aguila, which served barbecued fish platters with fruit.  Showing up is nine-tenths of being there -- that was something else her father said. 

At the end of Noriega Melina doubled back to get to the Great Highway, driving the upper part so she could see the ocean.  But the dunes, black with bus fumes, obscured most of the water, while stalks of tall brown grass bent in the wind like a row of musicians.  Just before the pump station Melina turned into the Ocean Beach parking lot and shut off the engine, then sat in her little car facing the water.

Why did he do it, this is what she could not figure out.  Was it sex?  Her mother was a beautiful woman, and Candy was merely pretty.  It didn't make sense.  Her mother was intelligent, hard working, at times locked into her own world, okay, but she always came back.  Candy was not stupid, but nice was the best you could say about her really.  Was it just the thrill of something new? 

Below her, on the sand, a couple of surfers holding boards under their arms followed the departing water.  They weren't the sexy, casual kind of surfers like you see on T.V. -- they looked dedicated and cold.  San Francisco is not a beach town, it's not a Santa Cruz or Los Angeles, the wind is too sharp and abrupt.  If people go on the beach it's for more serious pursuits -- jogging, Tai Chi, or at the most frivolous, kite flying.  But certainly not the frivolity of sex.  It occurred to Melina, watching the jittery kites, that Candy was young enough still to have children.

I have too much time on my hands, Melina thought.  It would be better when she got a job.  Less time to brood.  Or if I was seeing someone, she thought.  But that was too weird -- the idea that she'd get over her father if she just had a boyfriend.


* * *


Her mother bought a ranch-style house in a development just north of San Jose, using some of Melina's father's money to buy it.  When Melina saw the house for the first time she was surprised to see some of the furniture from the Pacific Heights condo -- without really thinking about it, she had assumed everything from the old life was gone.  But here was the painted oak chest, her grandfather's desk, their living room couch, the etching of a San Francisco pier.  There was also a new rug and a smaller dining room table with less comfortable chairs.

"How's the job hunt going?" her mother asked.  She wore a spandex shirt and tight black exercise shorts and her legs and arms had become muscular, almost taut.  Her face was less fleshy too, but since there was no muscle to tone, her skin seemed to sag under her cheekbones.  Her face gave a different impression than the rest of her body -- not older, just less hopeful.

"Okay," Melina said.  "I think I might have a job, actually."

She was having trouble with the sight of the furniture -- their furniture, she kept thinking -- in her mother's very new house.  It smelled of plastic and wood chips, and the door knobs looked too new.  The house had only been completed six months ago, and from the dining room window Melina could see two pale unfinished houses, insubstantial, like woodcuts.  The solid oak and walnut pieces from their old life seemed out of place.

"What's the job?" her mother asked.

"Testing software.  Well, hardware first, then hopefully moving up to the QA department."

Her mother smiled her crooked, joking smile.  "For this they needed a communications major?"

"It's an engineering company," Melina said.  "I don't know."

They went out to a Mexican restaurant for dinner because all her mother had in the house was frozen fat-free pizza.  They stayed on three topics during dinner: her mother's office (chaotic and challenging), the food (not spicy enough but not terrible), and Catherine.  After a while Melina realized her mother was not going to be the one to bring up her father.  As they waited for the bill, Melina said, "Have you heard from Dad?"  She tried to make it sound casual.

"No," her mother said.  "I don't expect to for a while."

"I haven't either."

"He hasn't called you?"


Her mother said nothing for a moment.

"He will, though, sweetheart, don't worry."

"What's going on?"

"He loves you and Cath.  I'm not sure what's going on."

The bill came, and they discussed the problem of Catherine again.  But later in the car, her mother said,

"You know Mel, you might think of moving down here, if you want a job in software.  There are lots of those jobs.  And you could get a fabulous apartment right on the Bay."

She didn't say live with me, Melina noticed.  Her mother was doing all right.  It was hard, but she was doing all right on her own.  She was smart and warm and good looking and she laughed at all the right places.

"Maybe, if this job doesn't work out," Melina said.  She looked out the car window into the harsh unvarying sunlight and tried to imagine living there.  It was still very bright out even though it was after six o'clock and light-ringed palm trees lined the streets, giving little shade to the sidewalks.  At dusk the city sprinklers started, and small orange flowers, which were in bloom all year long, dropped petals in a trail down the highway.


* * *


The engineering company finally called to offer Melina the job.  They were developing a board for high-end PCs; when the boards were ready it would be Melina's job to test them -- "see if they blow up the computer," as her soon-to-be manager explained over the phone.  Entry level, he called it.  She would get nine dollars an hour.

But the night before Melina was supposed to start, Catherine showed up at her door.  She had dropped out of college.

"Why?  Shit, Catherine," Melina said.

"I'll go back."  Her face was doughy, as if she had been crying, but her voice was pointed and sharp.

"You'll let me crash here," Catherine said.

"Is this the Miss Manners approach?"

"Please," Catherine said fiercely.  She was only twenty, and Melina was worried.  At seventeen Catherine used to hang out with god-knows-what lowlifes on Fillmore Street, and it was only after the most constant haranguing that she applied to college at all.

"You have to get a job.  That's my condition," Melina told her. 

"I was going to, anyway."

Melina thought she should have asked for more: a time limit, money for rent.  Her mother would have known what to do but Melina was new to all this.  And Catherine really looked awful: she was puffy and pale and her skin was bad, as if she'd been living on chocolate and sourdough bread.  Melina ordered take-out Thai but Catherine would only eat rice.  The semester was a wash, she told Melina.  She couldn't work, she couldn't read.  The print became tiny ants leading off of the page.

"I figured, it's time for a breakdown," she said.  "I mean, someone has to."

"Cath.  You can't just decide something like that."

"Mom acts like she doesn't care."

"I don't see that at all."

They sat on purple chairs that Melina had purchased from Costco for two dollars each.  The table, a chipped white metal fold-up, came with the flat.  Catherine did not seem to notice how ugly everything was.

"I just want to know why," she said.  "Has he called you yet?"

"No," Melina said.  "And you know what, maybe it's none of our business why."

"Don't give me that therapy crap.  I want to know."

Melina noticed a funny smell -- was there a gas leak?  The oven was very old, she never used it.  Usually she ate cereal for dinner in the living room, watching T.V.

"Do you smell something?" she asked Cath.

"No.  Have you realized it's been almost three months since he left?  He's got to call some time, right?"

"He'll call," Melina said.  She went up to the oven and sniffed around the edges.

"What are you doing?"

"I thought I smelled gas."

Catherine inhaled, her nostrils flaring.  Then she sat still for a moment.  "Is there a baby upstairs or something?"

"No, that's a bird."

"That's not a bird."

They listened to four short calls then a cry that was rough and somehow casual, like a scratchy yawn.

"It's a mockingbird," Melina said.  She had identified it from a bird book, which had once been her mother's.  "It's been here for a couple of days.  I saw it yesterday afternoon."

"No way.  In the city?"

"And I saw a red-tailed hawk on a telephone pole near the park."

Catherine shook her head.

"Welcome to the sticks," she said.


* * *


Catherine found a cafe job almost immediately at a place called Java-Bound on Irving Street.  To get there she could either take the 71 bus or walk six blocks to the muni.

"Why did you move all the way out here?" she complained.

"A hundred and fifty dollars a month," Melina told her.

Melina's job was worse than she feared.  The good news was that no one cared what she wore or when she came in as long as she put in six hours.  But the job was brain-numbingly dull.  She worked in a cubicle the size of an outhouse, where a computer lay open on a tiny desk as if waiting for surgery.  Metal boards and wires were fitted like orthopedic necessities into the computer's plastic casement, and it was Melina's job to pull out one board and insert another, then re-boot.  If the computer re-booted successfully, the board could be shipped; if not, it went into an old milk crate as garbage. 

There were hundreds of these boards to be tested, piled up in cardboard boxes on the floor.  In addition, Melina answered the phone when the receptionist went to lunch, and filled in pre-printed reports about the tests.

Once the board was in place it took about three minutes for the computer to re-boot or fail, during which time Melina could read or do whatever she wanted.  The second day she was there she brought a magazine with her, but she could only read maybe one column during boot-up, and then she always had to re-read a lot trying to find her place again.  The monitor sat on top of a phone book next to the computer, a false window in the airless space.  Melina thought about Rome, the Spanish steps where she sat for whole afternoons watching the pigeons and spooning up gelato.  Was it only a month ago?  And now here she was, in her life, her real life, not the one she had been born into but the one she made for herself. 

"It will get better," her mother told her over the phone.

At night she and Catherine ate burritos or made pasta with canned sauce or brought back udon tempura from the Japanese noodle house down the street.  They passed groups of Asian women wearing short flared trousers and orthopedic shoes.  The hobblers, Catherine called them.  They all had tired, disappointed looks like they wished they had just stayed in Tientsin or wherever it was they were from.  No one even glanced at Melina and Catherine, conspicuous white girls carrying boxes of noodles and one order of sticky rice mango for dessert.  Melina went out with friends from high school a couple of times, but they mostly wanted to go clubbing and she didn't really have the money for that.  So instead she stayed home with Cath and watched bad T.V. or talked about their father, or both.

"This is what Dad would call kiddie porn," Cath said.  They were watching a show about high school students with dyed hair and tight sweaters. 

"He'd say, You are what you watch."

"I wish," Catherine said.  She had gained weight and wore an odd assortment of makeup -- green eye shadow, brown lipstick, mascara that tended to clot.

"Maybe that's what happened to him," she said at the commercial.  "Too much us watching this."

"This show wasn't on last season."

"You know, or something like it.  He thought, hey that looks good, let's get me some."

"You're right," Melina said.  "It's our fault."

"I mean it could be," Catherine persisted.  She was sitting sideways on the futon couch and she was biting her pinkie nail though it was already down to the quick. 

"I don't think so, Cath."

"There's a girl at the cafe?  She just broke up with her boyfriend.  I mean, he dumped her."

"Another waitress?"

"No, she just hangs out there.  She told me that we ordain everything that happens to us.  We make it happen."

"Oh Cath."

"No really, it makes sense."

Melina said, "I'm going to bed."

"You're just like Mom, you don't want to talk about anything."

Melina took off her sock and picked at her toe.  It was cold in the apartment, and the wall-to-wall carpet was had spots of something suspiciously dark.  But Cath seemed to like it, and even bought a few posters to hang on the walls.

"We talk about it every night," Melina said.  "And anyway, Mom will talk about it.  But you have to start."

"She's coming up to see me tomorrow," Cath told her.

"I know."

"Do you think she'll be mad?"  She meant, because she had dropped out.

Melina put her sock back on and adjusted the toe seam.  Her mother never got angry.  It was her father who suddenly snapped, went into a rage.  Once he broke her grandmother's gravy boat.  Another time he dented the kitchen table with a hammer.

"She'll just want to know why," Melina said.


* * *


Melina had thought that all this talk about their father would help her think about him less, but instead the opposite seemed to be true.  Why didn't he call?  What was he doing?  Any news of him (he was still taking Tae Kwon Do and had begun meditating in the mornings facing west) she got from her mother, who got it from a senior partner in his old office.  Melina thought about him as she tested the bare boards at work, or she thought about how to stop thinking about him.  There was no way her old life would come back even if her father returned or even if he never even left, but that seemed to have no bearing on how her thoughts ran. 

She wanted to respect him again.  She also wanted to move on but she didn't know how.  Her work bored her; it was not the distraction she'd hoped for.  The manager made it a point to pop his head in every day and give her meaningless praise but that didn't help.  One day he told her if she could just hold on (he "could see how the work might be tedious") he would get her into QA and give her a more permanent, full-time position. 

Her spirit lifted slightly.  Then, a week later, Melina found a cafe near the beach which was only a little bit out of her way.  It was painted some foregone color and on one side there was a mural of a seagull sipping coffee, but inside it was like any cafe in the city -- the espresso counter, the danish display, a glass jar of madeleines and another of biscotti (some of them dipped in dark chocolate).  The counter girl was appropriately pierced, and there were small round tables with slightly warped particle-board tops.  Melina sat at a table with her latte and a bear claw and the Chronicle.  It was warm inside and there were lots of interesting people to look at.  The guy at the next table had dark hair all combed forward and wore trendy clothes and trendy dark-framed glasses and was very pale and thin.  When he noticed that Melina was looking at his magazine (Scientific American) he said, "The universe has a preferred direction."

That evening Melina sat on her living room couch after work and looked out the window as the sky darkened and the street lamps came on.  Brooding, her mother would have said, but actually for once she wasn't.  She was watching the birds.  She was surprised how many kinds there were just here on this block.  There was a small diseased-looking tree by the curb, and birds darted from the telephone wires onto its nude branches and back.  One -- a finch? -- was singing.  They were dull-colored birds, brown and black, with no dramatic markings to help her identify them.   A red and black bird with a very long tail landed briefly on a telephone pole then flew off.  She guessed that some of these birds were on their fall migration.  That meant the rain would start soon.


* * *


Catherine began hanging out with Audrey, the girl at the cafe, when her shift was over.  Melina hoped they were not doing drugs.  But their bond seemed to be over betrayal -- the father's and the boyfriend's.  Cath was usually done working by two, and then she went to Audrey's house to analyze stages of pain or to look at Audrey's clothes.  But Audrey, when Melina finally met her, turned out to be nothing like Melina's mental picture of her.  She was not tall, she was not stylish, and her face had an open, vulnerable cast.  Although she carried some trendy accessories -- a pink plastic handbag with large white flowers, for instance -- she seemed to buy most of her clothes at The Gap.  Audrey had read Catherine's Tarot, Catherine reported, and apparently there was a woman with silver hair that she should avoid.

"And that would be Candy," Cath said.  "Her hair is almost silver."

"We've got to get going," Melina said -- she didn't want to think about Candy or her hair.  Catherine was working the morning shift, and Melina had agreed to drive her to work.

"It was like this very silvery blonde."

"I'm getting my coat," Melina said.

But in the car Catherine continued to talk about Audrey and the color of Candy's hair.  Then she explained her role in the break-up of their parents' marriage -- the phrase grated on Melina's ears.  When Catherine finally got out of the car -- they had parked in a bus zone for almost ten minutes while Cath finished up her theory -- Melina drove to her own job with a new People and a latte from Jonesing Java.  But she found she couldn't bear to look at all the bare women in the magazine with their long legs and their spaghetti-strap tee shirts.  Her boss came in around noon and said, "You're really moving them," and Melina smiled and thought how she hated him.  She was becoming an angry person, she noticed.  In the car, driving Catherine to work, Melina had almost told her to shut up. 

"The thing is not to take over each other's roles," Cath had said.  "I'm the baby, you're the oldest.  That's why my coming to you was a good thing."

You need to be in school, Melina thought.  Was it possible her sister was just dumb?

"I'm sure it's fine," she had said.

After her boss left with his trailing shoelaces and bad upper teeth, Melina bent a board as she tried to take it out of the unit.  And it was one of the good ones.

"Shit," she said, and then she threw it against the soft cubicle wall.  She wished she had something heavy to smash.

"Fucking job," she thought.  A phrase of her father's.  Was it possible she was becoming him?  Taking over his role, she thought.  But her father, like Cath, had a whimsical side that Melina didn't have, and envied.  And if she really wanted to hurt something she would have thrown the board against something harder than a cubicle wall.  The moment passed.  But for a second, Melina felt the way her father might feel -- like something tied up, wound up, and the happy release of letting go and spinning.  So easy.  Just let go and smash the thing.


* * *


There were a few short showers in early November, though they were nothing like the heavy rains of winter.  Shrill starlings and sparrows came out afterwards.  Melina watched them land on the tree in front of her building; they also liked the roof of a house across the street, despite the three plaster owls meant to keep them away.  Sometimes crows as big as cats flew in, and there were also finches and chickadees and fat pigeons from the Safeway down the street.  They liked the misty weather, the rain that brought up worms.  In addition, the woman who lived in the house next to the plaster-owl house put out seed every evening in shallow wooden salad bowls.  Melina watched the birds peck at seeds with their wings folded back behind them, like creatures in bondage.  Sometimes a gull would fly in from the ocean.  Then a complex performance would start as the gull scolded and bullied the other birds out of position.  Melina came back from work and sat on the couch with Golden Guide to North American Birds on her lap.  She read that goshawks, which she saw several times near the park, sometimes swooped down and carried off small birds at feeders.  She would like to see that.

The trendy science guy from the cafe asked for her telephone number, and for a whole morning Melina was light with happiness -- maybe things were starting to happen at last.  But at lunch she realized this was another phone call she would have to wait for and maybe never get, and her happiness seemed to dissipate into something she couldn't regroup.  That same afternoon she noticed her car was making a noise like gravel rolling in a cardboard tube, and the next day her manager told her the hiring freeze was definitely on.

"But the minute it's over," he said.

Melina wondered if he was just stringing her along to keep someone, anyone, testing the boards.  She looked at a few want ads in the paper with a feeling of punishment.  Catherine told her she could help with the rent, but that worried Melina too -- she didn't want Cath too comfortable here.  Neither one spoke about next semester.

"Catherine has to find her own way," her mother said on the phone.  "She seems to be happy."

Melina thought this was exceptionally bad advice.

"You can't get a good without a college degree," Melina said, then stopped, thinking about her own job.

"She'll figure that out," her mother said.

Her mother had such faith.  That was one of her problems, Melina thought.  Though look at her now -- by all appearances she's given up on their father and moved on.  It was all very confusing, but Melina could swear that on some level her mother had faith in her father.  Melina herself had no faith, only hope: the worst combination. 

She wanted to give up.  She wanted to think about something else.  The sky darkened but the rain held off, and the neighborhood surrounding her building seemed even more dirty, abandoned by the city proper.  Who would want to live here if they didn't have to?  She saw whole pigs, their skins glistened with Crisco and their tails curled, delivered by truck to the Chinese barbecue down the street. 

The trendy science guy did not call.  Melina went to the cafe once or twice but he wasn't there.  Then she stopped going, not wanting to go all wooden when she finally saw him.  Better not to see him ever again, she thought. 


* * *


On the evening before the first winter storm, when Audrey was over and they were all eating burritos carnitas in front of the television, the phone rang.  It was Melina's mother.

"Your father phoned me," she said.

Melina let her fingernails rest on the silty window.  It was cold from the fog. 

"He wants to know if he can call you."

"He called you to ask this?"

"We were discussing other things as well," Melina's mother said, though she didn't say what.

"Are you getting divorced?" Melina asked.

"Who is that," Cath said suddenly.

"We didn't get that far," her mother said.

"Who is it," Cath asked again.

"It's Mom."

"Let me talk to her."

Melina gave her the phone and sat back down next to Audrey.  She trickled more tomatillo sauce into her burrito.  She couldn't believe that after all this, whether or not he called would be her decision -- that she would have to grant her father permission.  It made her angry, and then she felt ashamed of herself for being angry.  After a few minutes Catherine came out of the kitchen looking animated, excited.  Melina knew that in spite of everything, Cath had said he could call.  She probably said yes instantly, from the look of her -- she showed no signs of conflict.

"Come on, let's go get a beer or something," Cath said. 

They went out in Melina's car, and from the inside the fog looked like dirt.  Melina turned on the wipers.

"Let's go to that place next to Cazadores," Cath was saying as they pulled out.  "The one with the pool table." 

The next minute Melina gripped the wheel and was breaking and turning.  Something went thump under the right front tire, then again under the rear.

"Shit, what was that," Melina said.

They stopped the car and got out.  It was cold and the pavement was wet, but the rain was still out over the ocean.  The rear tire was streaked with feathers and a large fat bird lay nearby.

"Only a pigeon," Audrey said.

"No, that's a starling," Melina corrected her.

"A what?"

"It's like a blackbird."

They looked at it, and Catherine scraped something off of her shoe.

"I stepped in gum getting out of the car," she said.

For some reason, the remark made them laugh. 

"Let's get back in," Melina said.  "It's dead.  I'll call the ASPCA or something from the bar."

"No, wait, this is good," Audrey said.  "A dead bird.  Let's get a bag."

"What do you mean?"

"It will be a good ritual for us, to bury it."

"Bury it?" Melina asked.

"Where would we bury it?" Catherine asked.

They got a few plastic bags from a store across the street called Quarts and Pints and Audrey put a bag on each of her hands and sort of rolled the bird along inside another bag.  A few small feathers stuck to her bagged hands.

"I don't get this," Melina said.

"Trust me," Audrey told her.  Like Catherine, she seemed very excited.  Melina cleared a spot in the trunk and Audrey put down another plastic bag and put the bird bag on top and closed the trunk. 

"Do you have a flashlight?" she asked.

Melina took one out of the glove compartment and turned it on and off then handed it to Audrey.

"Go into the park at Twenty-fifth," Audrey said.  "We can do it there."

Melina was afraid the bird was going to stink up her trunk, so she drove fast.  Also rain was coming -- an offshore storm was being pulled in from Hawaii, and there was another one right behind it.  She turned into the park and they drove to the interior, towards the Polo Fields. 

"Pull over here," Audrey said.

Outside it was dark and muddy and fresh smelling.  The park spent thousands on sprinkler systems and pumped in water every day to keep everything green and in bloom -- otherwise the park would revert to its original sand dune state.  Nearby ponds had been filled in, and other more pleasingly shaped ponds created.

Melina opened the trunk but made no move to touch the bird.

"Hold this," Audrey said to Catherine, giving her the flashlight, and then picked up the plastic bag with the bird inside.

They walked up the bank and stopped near a few small trees.  The air seemed green and hostile.

"We don't have to go far," Audrey said.  She knelt and began scooping out dirt with her hands, making a small oblong hole.  The grave.

"I wish I had a sage branch to wave over the body.  To cleanse it," she was saying.  "But anyway we can say a few words about boyfriends, fathers ... whatever we want."

The bird lay on the ground beside her.  They had chosen a spot near one of the park's street lamps, and a diffused orange glow lay over Audrey's back.  Melina noticed plants sprouting on the side of the road that looked like the tops of wild carrots.  Just then the bird jumped in its plastic bag.

Audrey shot back.  "Fuck!" she said.

They looked at the bird.  It lay still.  Then all at once: another twitch. 

"It's just a nerve," Catherine said.  "Right?  They do that sometimes.  Or at least chickens do."  She was holding the flashlight and now directed it towards Audrey.

"Get that off me!  I don't know."

They stood in a line with their backs to the road, looking at the plastic bag.  Melina could feel the wind on her neck.  And maybe a drop of rain?  She shifted her weight and felt one of her loafers sink slightly in mud.  At her college graduation last summer -- the last time they were all together -- she had watched her father on his cell phone, standing in the wet grass laughing, and she remembered thinking he never laughed that way with a client.  How could she have known?  It was probably Candy.  But she wished she had known, maybe that could have prepared her for all of this now. 

Christ, Melina thought all of a sudden.  Here I am watching a bird suffocate or something in a plastic bag and still I'm thinking about him.  The bag moved again.  Melina looked over at Audrey and Cath but it was clear they were useless, they had no clue what to do.  They could stand there with their mouths open forever.  Christ! Melina thought again.  It was time to go home.

"Let me see that," Melina said, and she took the flashlight from Catherine.  She walked over to the bird, which twitched again as she approached, a wing lift like a tight brief shrug.  Melina gripped the flashlight and crouched down and hit the bird on the skull.  She looked at it.  She hit it again, hard.

Nobody moved.  Melina watched the bird.  It didn't move.

"There," she said.


* * *


The rain started as they drove back out of the park and it was still raining the next morning.  The car was making its funny rattle, and Catherine was talking and talking about what she was going to say to their father, but Melina didn't care.  She felt fine, maybe even good.  After dropping Cath off she decided to stop at Jonesing Java on the way to work.  The trendy science guy was at the counter when she walked in.

"There you are!" he said.  "I lost your number."

Melina thought he was lying, but she said, "You want it again?"

"Well, I was thinking, you want to just go out somewhere this Friday?"

"Sure," Melina said.

He'll break my heart, she thought.  She knew the rule: never go out with anyone better looking than yourself.  But she was just glad to be back at the cafe with its warm bitter smell of espresso and newsprint.  For a moment the wind changed direction and rain spattered at the glass door, hard, like tiny claws on the pane.  Everyone turned to watch it.

After work Melina stopped at a small Mexican grocery and bought Ibarra chocolate for cocoa, which is how her mother used to make it.  She got some Bailey's Irish Cream from a liquor store, then decided to drive around Lake Merced before the sun went down.  The rain had moved east, but the next storm was on its way.  Melina passed a pale blonde woman who was driving a Mercedes the same color as her hair.  She thought of something her father used to say about one of his law partners: he has a face best seen from a distance.  She laughed, remembering his deadpan delivery.  The air was clear and beautiful, and the lake, emerging suddenly after the dunes, was a wonderful vision of lush green plants and green water. 

That night Melina moved the television into the bedroom and she and Cath drank their cocoa and Irish Cream drinks in her bed as they watched T.V.  Around ten they heard the next storm move in: the first uncertain taps on the eaves, then sudden downpour.  Earlier Melina had looked out the living room window, but the birds were gone.

It was warm and comfortable in the bed.  Melina refilled her mug, and Catherine's mug, and they found a re-run of a really bad show they both liked.  Melina felt almost very drunk.  At a commercial she stared at the web of cracks on her ceiling which fractured then tapered to nothing.  A small thin crack seemed to open as she watched.  Was it actually getting larger before her eyes? 

"Maybe he really loves her," Catherine said, her eyes on the T.V.

"Maybe," Melina said.  She thought about her mother.  Then she thought, or does she mean Candy?  The rain hit the window in a hard loud continuous spatter, and Melina could hear something bumping and falling on the balcony above them.  It was going to be a wet weekend.  That morning the waves were two stories high in some places, and down south, near Santa Cruz, a high school boy on the beach had been swept out to sea and lost.  The thin window panes shook and the heat came on through the wall vent.  Melina knew this was the start of the long, indoor season. 

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