The Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds
Alan was a good boy. He grew up when things were easy in the world, and he kept up his end of that easiness. Good grades, chores done, friends that stayed friends. Up to the very end. Up until the day he died.
He wasn’t so different from most boys back in the 50’s. Tall, lanky, with dark brown hair like his father’s and light brown eyes like mine, and a grin that lit him up. Like the Walbright men before him, he liked to follow the rules, not for lack of curiosity, but out of respect for those who had already paved the way. He didn’t cheat; he didn’t lie; he didn’t steal. He laughed at his father’s jokes when I didn’t; he kept his elbows at his sides and off the table at dinner; he leaned into me when we watched My Three Sons, once surprising me, asking why he had no brothers. I didn’t answer, not wanting the truth to sit like a wedge between us, the simple fact that I couldn’t have any more children, and as if he knew, he never asked again.
Back straight and head tilted, he listened to his father tell stories about his side of the family. Jack, ignoring my sighs, would go on about rifles and heroics and medals of honor. Tales of those who fought in wars—Germany, France, Korea—fell around our supper table like the shotgun casings, duck feathers, and debris from Jack and Alan’s hunting trips. Jack explained that learning to aim and shoot was not just for sport; it would lead to duty.
A few days after his high school graduation, Alan took stock of all he’d learned and enlisted in the army. In May 1969 he boarded a Greyhound for infantry training just one northerly state away, but Georgia may as well have been a nation away. The diesel fumes of the bus station, the summer heat, and the initial goodbyes crowded against the memory of Alan’s departure from the airbase in Orlando that September, when he received his orders for Vietnam.
Six months later, the world leaned hard to one side. 1970, not even half spent, became a new decade going straight to hell. There was a rift in the days, an opening I fell through, Jack peering down, not reaching to catch me, the wide expanse of silver lake below. I fell for days and somehow, once I landed, the splash was gentle. I floated, suspended between what was real and imagined, wanting another drink, wanting to swim out into the middle, surrounded by flat water, and lie on my back looking up at nothing but the white, blank April sky. No heaven, no clouds, only an unfinished canvas, a wash of drifting thoughts.
I knew that I wanted not to feel anything, not to remember anything, for inside the remembering was the fear that instead of drawing nearer, I might fall farther away from the memory of Alan’s newborn head, the way he laughed over small things before he could even speak, how he walked away from me on his first day of school and turned at the door to wave, as if reassuring me when I should have been doing just that for him. Mornings became afternoons became evenings and the thoughts came anyway, tumbling, tinted with color, fading, bright, fading. I thought about what had been, back when my son was small, learning not to be timid, a mere boy.
At night, age eight, he slept lying on his back, his knees raised and the covers tenting over them. He’d turn to one side and the covers would collapse, eventually kicked off, the warm Florida air enough. Above his headboard the curtains I’d made, the ones he’d asked for the summer after first grade, lay flat against the window. The pattern of ducks, dogs, and canoes seemed odd and pointless to me—strange symbols of boyhood. Alan always slept soundly and, standing there in his doorway, I realized he was almost too good. There was comfort in this, and a puzzlement that all this happiness might come at the expense of a sorrow not yet known.
When he was twelve, his father went out and bought a Labrador. The two of them taught the dog to hunt. They brought home ducks and muddy boots and on one occasion, after a day at Ponce Inlet, a seagull they’d shot by accident.
“Lyman retrieved him any old way,” Alan said. “He didn’t care that we made a mistake.”
“I see that,” I said, holding the gull over the kitchen counter. “Take this thing outside. There’s nothing I can do with it.”
“Soup?” Jack pointed to my saucepans. He knew better. “Come on, Lil. Surrounded with onions and thyme from your garden. A good dousing of wine. Delicious.”
“Outside, please. Now.” The white breast rose up, as I laid the bird back on the counter. I could work with dead ducks, but somehow that gull seemed wrong. The black beak and feet made me nervous, and the bird had a peculiar smell. I wanted it out of the house.
Lyman lay in the corner, not even raising his head. White and gray feathers littered the floor, and I gestured again. First at my husband, then at the bird.
Alan brought in the Peterson’s field guide from the porch, where Jack kept field glasses and a log. He pointed to an open page. “Look, it’s a laughing gull.”
Jack carried the bird to the back door. “Not anymore,” he said.
The Peterson’s guide had a lot more in it than gulls. The insides of the threaded green cover were lined with avian silhouettes, the first fifty pages dedicated to wood ducks, mergansers, shovellers, herons, cormorants, kingfishers and kites, harriers and skimmers. The water birds. From our lakeside porch we saw an occasional heron overhead, loud blue kingfishers, a rare black cormorant. But the rest were the ones Alan sighted on hunting trips, the ones he told me about later. Without making a fuss, I recorded the list, separate from Jack’s infrequent inventories, in the back of the log. Date, time of day, place and weather sat alongside each entry, and anything Alan had noted about the markings—the tufted green-black crest on a merganser, the one Jack swore was a Bufflehead; the despairing cry of the wood duck; the soft, low bark of the black skimmer over Wilbur Bay that had made Lyman look skyward. Years of scribbled entries marked our years as a family.
When Alan left for Vietnam, the book stayed on the glass table on the porch, like a reminder, open at the last entry. It was late September, and several weeks had passed since his departure, 1969 slowly stretching out, the days thinner, more diminished. I sat on the porch, looking past the rain and waiting for something to come along so that I could record the date, time, wingspan, markings, the shrillness of the call, the lonely glide down into our yard. But only jays and blackbirds came, and dusty little tree sparrows. Nothing that Alan would have bothered to mention, and so I didn’t write them down.
Instead, over the weeks and months, I wrote letters which I sealed in envelopes and at first didn’t send, afraid to acknowledge the APO, the enormous distance between central Florida and the central highlands of Vietnam.
Alan wrote us, his letters on weightless blue paper. They came out of order in bundled groups of four or five. He wrote about his buddies, where they came from and how they handled their rifles. He wrote of mountains, their sheer slopes crowded with trees he couldn’t identify, their limbs heavy with black monkeys and dotted with blood-red sunbirds that shined in the dark. Sometimes there was just a single page with a line or two, the ink smeared, with promises to love us always. I took my time opening the envelopes, sometimes leaving them on the entry table for several days, as if time would season the words inside. I dreaded mid-morning when the postal truck pulled up, the mailbox’s metal latch swinging open, the sound of the mail nesting together, magazines against leaflets against bills. I considered the deliveries in the same way I considered Alan’s decision to enlist, the decision that Jack agreed with, the one that divided us into three parts, none of them equal, all out of balance.
I knew how the news might come, on a perfect day when I least expected it. And so I remained unquiet and on edge. Waiting for the doorbell to sound, and answering it to find a boy Alan’s age, his head down, holding the uncommon, unwelcome telegram on yellow paper, its lines besieged and betrayed over and over by one word—STOP. I listened for the car coming up the drive, or perhaps out of respect, parked on the road. The doors of the black sedan opening wide, and men in Army green walking down the drive, their shoes hitting the pavement like shockwaves, their hats in hand, the news exiting their dark mouths like misunderstanding, like news that was meant for someone else’s mother. The bright ribbons they wore above their hearts would not offer solace, their promises of honor and medals and arrangements already broken. And as they left, the day reflecting from the sedan’s windshield would leave with them, taking away everything including the sun.
Drinking helped. I thought of recording all the drinks I’d had since Alan left, setting them in columns the way I had with bird calls, mating rituals, time spent nesting and brooding and feeding young chicks. More pages for gin than scotch.
Jack, the good husband and the head pharmacist at Rexall, continued bringing home his samples. He searched his supplies for a happy marriage and found how easy it was to help that along. Back when the other pregnancies didn’t take, when it was clear that Alan would be an only child, Jack placed vials of Miltown into the corners of the medicine cabinet, next to the book on my bedside table, into my drink before dinner. Later came the Librium, and when Alan entered high school and then the Army, the Valium. Capsules of pink and yellow, small tablets of baby blue—innocent pastel shades that tasted bitter and bent the world into an easier shape, one I could understand. Chicken casseroles and steaks on the grill. Martinis. And then slipping into something more comfortable. Something bright and small, against the tongue, followed by another drink, a two a.m. swim in the lake. I became the waterfowl, common and American, fascinating to observe, so different from the ones my Alan loved.
Disconnected, I moved through the days slowly. In October we celebrated the birthday without the boy. I wished the year already spent, I wished for another autumn, for Alan to be home and heading to college on the GI Bill. I separated thoughts from actions as if they could be categorized—getting in the car and driving across town, seeing a neighbor wave, yet unable to raise my hand and wave back; differentiating the Florida landscape from Alan’s descriptions of Vietnam, one pocked with lakes, the other veined with rivers; studying the way the mail moved across the Pacific and then a sea of states, back and forth, slowly. I tried to write another letter and instead took out the last one Alan had sent.
20 October 1969
Dear Mom and Dad,
I hope you’re both fine. Dad, I guess you and Ly have been checking out the marshes. Bring home some mergansers for me, okay? And Mom, are you still planning on making new curtains for my room? You know you shouldn’t bother.
The birthday package with all the cards and presents was really great. Tell everyone thank you. Funny, I’m one of the oldest in my platoon now, but then I was always one of the oldest in my class.
We’re moving out tomorrow. I can’t tell you where exactly. Out there, somewhere in the boonies. I’m sure it will be as green and jungled as all the other places we’ve already been. Everyone is geared up and ready to go. Thanks to the CO, who’s a decent guy, we all feel good about this mission.
The words flew off the page and I couldn’t finish reading. I folded the letter back into its envelope. Whether I sat, unmoving, trying to read my son’s handwriting, or washed every window in our modern house, the thoughts still crowded in. I considered making the new curtains I’d promised for Alan’s room but only held the car keys in my hand, unable to walk through the foyer or find my way to the fabric store. Instead, I stood in the bathroom before the mirrored medicine cabinet, looking at my reflection and daring myself to leave the door closed, thinking of the little pills, neatly windowed into their foil pages.
November pushed in with clearer skies and colder weather. I recalled an earlier November, years before. The day was crystalline, cloudless, and not yet cold. Jack had allowed Alan to miss school so they could hunt blue-winged teal. Lyman was young and still learning, but they brought down fifteen birds that day. Out on the water they didn’t know that four states away, on the same afternoon, another man named Jack was shot dead in Dallas. At twilight the evening news repeated the story, the same story I’d heard all day: “President Kennedy has been killed.” My husband’s car pulled into the driveway, but I didn’t go out to meet them and congratulate Alan on his first successful hunt. Jack cleaned and dressed the birds and put them into the deep-freeze. Alan watched the reports, then sat down and rested his head on my shoulder. He smelled of ocean, wet sand, dank water from the boat’s floor, and the light from the television shone in his eyes. He saw that I was looking at him and smiled. Even then, only thirteen, he’d been the strongest one in the family. I imagined how cheated he must have felt.
In my mind, Alan had always been too willing to do things for others. Raking leaves, taking out the trash, walking Lyman, getting his homework done. I wondered where the bad was buried in my boy. I suppose I hoped for a little bad, something to taint him just slightly, to make him less vulnerable.
When life got complicated, he always took it in stride. The broken arm he’d gotten but blamed on no one in his fifth-grade Phys Ed class; the wooden canoe he and Jack had worked on one summer, that sank the first time it was launched; the lead role in the school musical that should have been his, but was handed to the Callahans’ youngest boy, the one who couldn’t even carry a tune; the girls who turned him down, though he was one of the better-looking kids in his high school class.
“What’s wrong with those girls?” Jack said. “They don’t know charming when they meet it?” He kneeled next to the shotguns that were stripped down and laid across the porch floor, along with gun oil, brushes, and stained cleaning cloths.
“They don’t want charming, Dad.” Alan held his Remington an arm’s length away and, one eye shut, glanced through the barrel.
From my place on the rattan sofa, a month of mending in my lap, I imagined the narrow cylinder revealing the future: long and sure, with more girlfriends than hunting trips.
“What do they want?” I asked.
“Hey, breech to muzzle,” Jack said. “What the hell are you thinking?”
Alan set down the gun and didn’t respond to his father. Instead, he stood up and opened the back door, letting it slam as he walked into the backyard and around the house out of sight.
“What the hell is wrong with that boy?”
I stopped stitching the loose collar of my husband’s shirt, thinking Alan had finally found a thread of impatience for his father’s usual gruffness, and then I responded. “What the hell is wrong with you, Jack?”
Outside, in the sycamore tree a chirring started up. A mockingbird making it clear, the terms abrasive and hard until a succession of sweeter remarks began. Farther away, Alan whistled and the bird stopped and then mimicked him.
Another bundle of thin blue letters arrived, stained and thick with pages. I held them for a few minutes and then tore open each envelope. I read them straight through and out of order, only understanding that they were all sent from base camp and had been written in the same week. Between Christmas and New Year’s. I had to concentrate to make out the lines, as most were smudged with red dirt and something like oil, black and smelling of a place, far-off and unknown.
Christmas had come and gone and we were well into 1970, March moving into April, and here was Alan telling me about Bob Hope performing for the soldiers in Chu Lai, officers dressed up as Santas and dancing girls dressed up as elves. An elf named Margaret had kissed him and she’d smelled of peppermint. I thought of all our Christmas mornings, candy canes poking from the top of Alan’s red felt stocking, and now of women’s stockings, of how finally a girl had taken notice of a boy who had always been good.
I looked at the date he’d printed at the top of one letter: December 27, 1969. And then at the others—Christmas Eve, the 26th, the 30th—and here, one from the 29th.
29 December 1969
Dear Mom and Dad,
Nearly New Year’s! I wish both of you a very happy one. The months are ticking by. Still though, we count the days till DEROS—you know, Date Eligible to Return from Overseas. I’ve got way too many to go, so I try not to count too often. One fellow in our platoon, Maurice from LaPlace, Louisiana, marks the days off on his helmet, a tick for every day he’s been in country. He’s short now, only a few weeks left, but not too nervous about going out again. Says there’s good duck hunting waiting for him back home. I imagine so.
Your loving son,
I thought of time, of tallies and counting the remaining days. I was afraid to try. There was a space on the kitchen wall where the calendar had been. I hadn’t put one up for 1970. Tracking the months backwards and forwards in my mind, I had no idea where I was, where my son was. I wondered where he’d been since he’d written these letters, what he’d seen and done, and how he was now.
“Lyman!” My voice echoed across the lawn. The dog was gone again. He’d taken to wandering since Alan had left. At first I let him roam, but well-meaning neighbors had begun to call. “I worry about him, Lil,” Jack had mentioned. “I worry that something will happen.”
A routine began. Lyman taking off and Jack expecting me to track him down and bring him back home. And me, the dutiful wife, going out for a walk every morning, searching for the light yellow dog under light blue skies.
It was mid-April, the weather warm, and the neighbors were out watering their flowers, raising their flags, sitting in their driveways in idling automobiles, watching me without making it known that they were watching me. Mr. Callahan stood in the center of his lawn and sprayed the hell out of his azaleas, and down the block, Margot Lingstrum tiptoed across her front walkway to collect the newspaper. Every morning she lingered at the curb in her pale purple bathrobe, just long enough for the automatic sprinklers to catch her and flatten the robe against her round thighs.
“Lyman,” I yelled again.
Margot gave me a dull look and carried her damp Orlando Sentinel inside. I could see why she didn’t open her shades. Those days, many of us didn’t, the world outside assuring little. I wondered why she even bothered to get the paper at all. The news was always the same. Bombings, hijackings, political promises, body counts, and Westmoreland’s “positive indicators” that the war was working, that we were winning.
“Dog run off again?” Mr. Callahan walked out to the edge of his yard to examine a pair of boxwoods. He kinked the hose and a tiresome hiss took over the quiet morning.
I nodded. “Every morning these days. Looking for something, I suppose.”
Callahan looked down at my scuffed loafers. I guessed he’d retired: the early morning watering, the plaid shorts instead of the business suit. “Might try the Blackwoods.” He pointed around the bend. “Seems he likes the boy down there.”
“Thanks,” I said, nodding again. I did feel grateful to know that a neighbor cared. Or seemed to care. “Thanks so much.”
“Sure,” he called, as I walked away.
The Blackwoods’ house was a low one-story like most in the neighborhood. It sat on a corner with a wide expanse of dry lawn and dying flowers out front and the remnants of the Sybelia citrus grove in back. From the branches of a live oak that shaded most of the house, colored glass bottles swung in the slight breeze. The morning sun reflected through them, geometric patterns shimmering, then shattering over the ground.
Lyman lay across the front steps, Saul Blackwood at his side. Sometime before his senior year, Alan had stopped spending much time with the Blackwood kids. Still, I’d seen Saul around, mostly barefoot, in cut-off shorts, his hair in his eyes. I guessed by now he was fourteen or fifteen, his parents rarely keeping an eye on him. The Labrador hardly looked up as I approached.
“Is he camping out over here?” I asked, pointing to the dog.
“Sometimes,” Saul said, his hand following the length of Lyman’s blond back.
“You feeding him?”
“When he comes around.” Saul stood up now, his head tilted, gazing at me through his tangled brown hair.
I had my hands on my hips now, trying not to be mad, trying not to pity the dog who’d looked for a new boy, trying to understand the shape of things, as upended and disorienting as they felt. “Your parents okay with that?”
“Not really,” he said. “I mean, my mama doesn’t want him in the house. And my dad’s not back yet.”
“Yes, that seems to be the occasion. They’re all not back yet.”
Saul stared down at his feet. As usual, I’d said too much with so little. I settled my hands across the front of my thighs, patting them, calling to Lyman. Lyman wagged his tail and stayed where he was, lying down in the cool shade.
“All right then,” I said and turned to go.
I turned back, wondering what more needed saying. Even so, I held out my hand. “Don’t you remember me? I’m not much for formalities. Keep it simple. Just Lillian, though I’d prefer Lil.”
“Okay.” He paused and then took my offered hand, resting his inside of mine for mere seconds, the touch unsure and damp. “You better take him home.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “He’ll only come back here.” The tilt of his head unnerved me. “Why don’t we both take care of him until Alan comes home? I’ll give you money for dog food. I certainly don’t want to upset your mother, but Lyman seems to like you.” And then I was sorry I’d rambled on.
“Should we write Alan and tell him?” Saul asked. “Do you think he’d like to know?”
“Sure,” I said. “I think that would be fine.” I considered how well the boys knew each other. Swims at the lake, the crossover of years at school, but what else?
“Do you know where he is now?”
“I don’t. I only know where to send his mail.” I crossed my arms. “I don’t ever know exactly where he is.”
Saul shifted his feet on the uneven stones of the front walk. “He used to come over, and we’d listen to albums. I set up speakers by my bedroom windows, so we could hear the stereo in the backyard, and we’d sit out there with Lyman. Sometimes with Rainey and my sister, too.”
He looked away, down the road toward the lake, the gray asphalt rising up to meet the gray morning.
“Alan liked to put on Buffalo Springfield,” Saul said, looking back at me. “I never did get that. That he liked that kind of music. I mean, it didn’t make any sense.”
To me, it made sense, Alan always agreeable to all sides of a story, without judgment, without disdain. And yet, I didn’t want to cloud a boy’s memory, so I left it alone.
“Yes,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
My letter to Alan that day explained Lyman’s latest antics, how he’d come out on top instead of in trouble. How tying him up in the yard wasn’t an option, so we let him roam through neighbors’ rosebushes and into the grove and around the Blackwoods’ house. I thought about the bottles swinging from the tree out front and decided not to mention them. I knew Alan had been inside the house, that he knew the color of the carpet, the sort of art they’d put on the walls. I wrote in blue ink, sent my love, sealed the envelope, attached the stamps and put the letter in the silver tray that sat on top of my desk. The lone white envelope sat on its side, next to the letters we’d received, ready to mail the next morning.
“Did you find the dog?” Jack stood across the kitchen, peering into the cabinet where we kept the liquor. Behind him, outside the windows, a blue evening settled over the lake.
“Yes,” I answered, not offering more. On the cutting board in front of me was a head of lettuce and two tomatoes. In the oven a chicken roasted. I wished for better things. Silver corn and sage, duck dressed with figs and red wine, a son safe at home.
Jack held a bottle of Scotch, single malt, rare. The bottle I’d bought for guests we no longer invited, who no longer invited us, my behavior in the past months too quiet or too sudden for social gatherings.
“You didn’t bother to bring him home?”
“No.” I felt the apron at my waist and adjusted it, tying it tighter.
“Why the hell not?”
“Why the hell don’t you just have a drink?”
“You sit around here all day—”
“No, I don’t sit around.”
In the laundry room I’d spent three hours ironing Jack’s shirts; at Hull’s Marketessen I’d gathered items into the shopping cart for Jack’s favorite meals—simple, basic, unadorned; the beds were made, floors were swept, furniture dusted. All Jack’s. And then I dressed a bird and put it into a slow oven. Only then did I sit for a moment with an iced glass of gin and lime and re-read three of Alan’s letters, the ones that were written last year, the last ones we’d received.
The ones in which he joked that “home for the holidays” had a different meaning now, home being the base in Chu Lai. That the South China Sea had taken the place of the Atlantic, and that he finally understood that brothers don’t have to be family. The shape of his handwriting, the sheer blue paper still in hand, I swallowed the last of my drink and wondered why Jack had never read a single page of Alan’s letters. And why I had never asked him.
I looked at Jack now, his eyes uneven and sad, the bottle like a weight in his hand.
“Just what do you do then?” He slammed the bottle of Scotch onto the counter and tore the thick shiny paper from its neck.
“Today? Yesterday? Obviously nothing I needed to.” I watched as Jack poured the scotch against the side of a glass, how he added cubes of ice from the insulated ice bucket I’d prepared, how he didn’t bother with soda or a splash of water and simply downed the drink all at once. He poured another and drank it more slowly, glaring at me.
“This isn’t about Lyman, is it?” I ventured, looking for peace, expecting none.
“God dammit, Lil. What do you think?”
The space between us widened every day. It pushed us apart and threatened to leave us that way, on opposite sides of the house, no dog to walk, no reason to keep on going, to wait it out as others did, quietly and bravely, in church, at business meetings, in line at the bank when the teller asked, “And how is Alan doing, Mrs. Walbright? Such a handsome, brave boy. You must be so proud.”
“I think the chicken is done.” I opened the oven door and the kitchen was filled with the scent of sweet poultry. It was then that Jack started to cry.
Sometimes morning came too suddenly, the twist of light through the blinds, the day already worn. This was one of those mornings. Jack had already left for work. He’d slept on the sofa, and a blanket lay across one upholstered arm and throw pillows were scattered across the floor. In the glass cabinet that divided our living and dining rooms, the sun slanted over intricate glass figures, vases, and china that Jack had given me over the years, things I’d never asked for, and a myriad of colored reflections flew across the hardwood floors, the path shaped by the brilliant springtime sun.
Not intent anymore on being the good wife, I left the room alone and fixed coffee and walked down to our dock. A mist hung over the lake, and I thought of the thin glass shelves of the mirrored bathroom cabinet, how a pink capsule might fit into the day. Something to lighten the already sharp sky to a paler shade.
I heard a pair of oars, someone sculling, heading across the lake to a different shore. And then a small movement, a slight separation in the low-lying clouds, a lone seagull diving. I considered my own selfishness and it cut deeply, like the gull before me, piercing the surface of the lake. After a few moments, the bird didn’t resurface. I understood that it didn’t matter anymore, not what I felt, not what Jack felt. What mattered could be measured in the number of times Lyman had roamed the neighborhood, in the months Alan had been gone and how many more lined up until his return, and in the hours I spent waiting for yet another water bird to record in the log and lingering over Alan’s handwritten entries, his words slanting sideways, each one leading into the next. In his letters he’d rarely recorded the artillery fire, the helos coming and going, the heat and dust, the rain and mud, the boredom and the chaos. Details that the morning paper and the evening news supplied. Instead, he’d protected us, trying to account for the good, rather than the terrible.
The letter I’d written the night before was still in the tray on my desk, waiting to be sent. I left my coffee mug on the wooden boards of the dock and ran inside, hoping I had added enough postage, that the post office wasn’t closed for a government holiday. With my wallet and the single-paged letter, addressed to PFC Alan Bonner Walbright, I searched for the car keys and couldn’t find them. So I walked. Down the drive and down the road past Mr. Callahan and his drenched azaleas, just in time to see Mrs. Lingstrum shut her front door, the sprinklers going around, whipping water across the lawn and out into the street. Mr. Callahan motioned to me, but I kept walking.
The gray strip of road stretched out ahead. I could hear Callahan, calling me. I turned to look back for a second, and a flint of fear, deep and weighted and centered, the very same that I’d once numbed with pills sent me forward. I glanced down to the envelope in my hand, the San Francisco APO written neatly across its center, and lengthened my stride. I rounded the bend at the Blackwoods’, where the yard was empty and a group of blighted daisies leaned out from the house. Off Lakeshore Drive a stiff wind was coming out of the west. I held tight to the letter.
Across the intersection the small post office was empty, other than the lone woman in blue who stood behind the counter, and the full-length windows reflected the sunshine, which grew brighter and warmer by the minute. A flagpole was centered in front of the building, with palmettos and a swarm of red and orange lilies around it. Long shadows fell across the road, the sidewalk, the path up to the door. The glaring brilliance of the lilies and the flag’s moving shadow made me stand still. I didn’t look up to see the stars in their block of blue, the thirteen bold stripes. Instead I saw the silhouette—dark, definite, and ribboning in the wind. It moved and changed and promised nothing. It was a ghost, a dark gray memory of movement, of what once truly was. The way Alan ran, laughing, on another morning, the sun behind him and his shadow lengthening, pulling him into places I would never know, mysterious and miserable, and even now, magnified beyond belief.