She’s not coming back.
I sit on the balcony of the duplex and look out towards the horizon. The sky is cluttered with the slow movement of conjoined clouds, stark white and unthreatening. I watch where the mountains break odd angles into the sky and wait for movement. I look for an object to separate itself from the shadow of the mountains and take shape against the clouds. I wait for something to return.
I work at The Tin Can, a cramped diner with aluminum siding and a tar-covered roof that bubbles and scrapes the ceiling in the summer months. The floor of the diner is burnt orange, like dirt that won’t hold crops. The tables and chairs are scuffed-white plastic, stained with grayish-orange drops of congealed grease that has now bled into the plastic. The food is good, cheap and quick and covered in gravy and grease, and twice a day the diner fills with construction crews and factory workers who drink lots of coffee and smoke lots of cigarettes. I stand in the kitchen in the back, sectioned off by several clear shower curtains, and watch eggs and bacon and hamburgers sizzle and pop on the big silver grill. At peak hours, when waitresses stack up paper slips on the order pile until it stands like an unsteady tower of Babel, I pull back the curtain and look out at the diner, at the cigarette smoke and boot dust and the glaze of heat. I watch the guys eat and drink and wonder why they eat here, wonder if I would come if I didn’t work here, and then I realize it doesn’t really matter. They’re here, I’m here, and we’ll all be here for a long time. I let the curtain fall back and move around frying mounds of food with my spatula.
The pigeons started about twelve years ago, when Macey moved in beside me. One night not too long after they’d moved in, I heard the sound of birds outside the duplex, shuffling around on the Parker’s half of the porch. It was pretty late in the night and I didn’t want those birds to wake the old couple, so I grabbed a broomstick and chased them off the porch. The next night it was the same thing. I chased those birds away for a week before Macey told me they was pets. “You could chase those pigeons away every night for a year. They’ll be back the next morning. Guarantee you.”
Homing pigeons come home and no one really knows exactly why. Maybe it’s the magnetic fields of the earth or the angles of the sun or acute olfactory senses, but the point is, homing pigeons come home and that’s what I liked about them. I’d drive one of my Homers clear across town, into the woods beside the river, and release it. I’d stop by the diner, work my shift, and when I got home, most of the time they were already there, sitting inside the little aviary on the balcony. I’d see those blank-eyed pigeons look at me, knowing something I couldn’t ever possibly understand, and I’d feel like they came home because of me. It had nothing to do with nature; you just had to love them enough and they’d come back. Which is why this rogue bird has got me so messed up, making me think about things I always thought were true.
“Where you coming from,” I asked her.
“That where you’re going back to?”
She laughed, letting a dribble of her shake swirl down her chin and onto the counter. “Not if I can help it.” We let it go at that, left it alone, and I went back to stacking chairs until she dropped the plate and glass into the washing bin and we walked out to the parking lot.
“You going home?”
“I reckon,” I said. “You?”
She kicked at the gravel, swinging her leg back and forth. She was wearing black baggy jeans with the cuffs frayed into hundreds of inch-long strings, a white tank top streaked with black smears of oil. “Denny hasn’t squared me up with the motel just yet, so I think I’m gonna lower the seat in the truck and camp out tonight.” She opened the door to the truck and climbed in. “Never knew Denny to let anybody drive his truck,” I said. She honked the horn and laughed. “Not his anymore. Traded him my Pontiac and some cash for it. Figured I’d better start trying to blend in.” I got into my truck and as I pulled out of the parking lot, I circled her truck and rolled down my window. “You could stay at my place if you wanted” I said quietly. “It ain’t much, but won’t be any funny stuff if you’re worried about that.”
She raised up out of her seat and looked out her open window. “I’d take you up on that but see over there?” She pointed out to the horizon, towards the mountain range that shadows one side of the town. “I’ll be going over there sometime soon and I don’t want to get too comfortable—and you seem like the sort one could get comfortable with pretty easy.” She pushed her shoulders into her seat and reclined it until her head disappeared from view. As I pulled out onto the road, I called to her, “There ain’t a single person who’s comfortable in Coalfield.” I could hear her laughter echo inside my head as I drove home.
For the next couple of weeks after I left her that night in the Tin Can parking lot, I saw Liza Beth and that truck parked all over town. I’d drive to work and catch the dim gray truck out of the corner of my eye and it was like spotting a shooting star, like I’d seen something I could keep just for myself. One night, once I’d closed up the diner, I walked out into the parking lot and saw the truck parked in the far corner with the windows down, an arm hanging out. I don’t rightly know why, can’t say for sure, but seeing that pale arm sticking out of the window just didn’t seem right to me, and I ran over to the truck, kicking up gravel with my work boots like a car spinning tires.
When I peered into the truck, I saw that she was asleep, or at least not moving. Her other arm was draped over her eyes, her feet propped up on the dashboard. I watched her body for movement, for breath, and suddenly, as if I’d willed it, she snapped awake, damn near kicked her feet through the windshield. “Jesus Christ, you make it a habit to sneak up on women late at night,” she yelled at me. I backed away from the truck, aware now of my closeness to her. “It’s not a habit,” I replied, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Must not be too good at it if I woke you up.” She almost laughed; I heard it catch in her throat, but she managed to swallow it back down. “That’s just on account of my being able to tell when a man is hovering over me in my sleep. Lot of women have it.”
I opened the diner back up and made her a milkshake for her troubles while she told me about the motel over on Pendergast and why it hadn’t worked out. “I can’t believe my own brother put me up in that place. It’s got flypaper strips hanging in the bathroom and the carpet makes this squishy sound when I walk on it in the morning. I figured I was better off saving some money and sleeping in the truck.” She had long, sandy-blond hair, a million strands and each one a different shade of brown-gold. She had it up in a ponytail that sat on top of her head, so her hair fell down like a fountain around her face. While we talked, she would dip her hair into the milkshake and then chew on the tips.
“You want to know why I left Richmond?” She stirred the dregs of her shake with a straw, tipping the glass back and forth. “If you want to tell me,” I said. She replied that she didn’t want to really, but she’d do it anyway.
Her ex-husband sang Country & Western songs from the 1960’s at the Honky-Tonk Lounge in the Holiday Inn there in Richmond. From what she said, he was not a bad husband, just misguided and apathetic, and to her that was worse. “The man sings country songs for a living, and not once did he ever get really low-down depressed. We’d argue and he’d break something and I’d walk out on him and all he’d do was get really drunk and then wake up the next morning and forget anything ever happened. There was just something missing at the center of that man’s soul.” Finally, one night after he’d drunk a bottle of Dickel and passed out on the back porch, Liza Beth walked up to him and told him that she was leaving him, was taking the car and two suitcases and a stack of books and half of the savings account and not coming back. He lifted up his head, managed to prop himself up on an elbow and said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a woman make a George Jones out of me,” and she was gone.
I told her that if she wanted, she could still stay at my house until she found a place. I repeated that there wouldn’t be any funny stuff. “What does that mean really” she said as she grinned back at me. “So, you won’t pull pennies from behind my ears or squirt me with a fake flower?” I didn’t really know how to answer that without saying something wrong, so all I could do was walk out to my truck, pull out of the parking lot, and hope she’d follow me. As I drove, I could feel the reflection of her headlights in my rearview mirror, but I didn’t turn around, never looked back, and when we got home, it was as if she had just appeared there beside me.
When I was seven years old, a car drifted into the lane that my father was driving in and smashed head-on into us. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and got shotgunned out the windshield, landing on my face fifteen feet from the wreck. When my father ran over to me and saw me, he screamed, “my boy’s broke his goddamned face,” but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I got myself stitched up, too many to count, and after a few years, you could hardly tell. I had young skin, that’s what the doctor said. Now my face looks like a piece of paper that’s finally been unfolded, showing deep creases that run across my face. Liza Beth would constantly brush her fingertips across them, tracing the lines, and it made me nervous. “I got a jigsaw puzzle face,” I’d say, but she said it was beautiful and she’d point to different sections made by the scars and say, “this is the best one.” It changed all the time, her favorite piece, and now I can’t ever remember if she ever finally decided on any one of them.
Even though she lived in the house with me, even though we slept in the same bed and never once thought of not being with each other, Liza Beth never quite gave herself over to the idea of stayingwith me. Even after those late nights with the sheets kicked onto the floor, cooling ourselves under the ceiling fan, she always stayed a little bit apart. As I would drift off into sleep, into those moments when everything around you seems to be falling away, I would pull her close to me, trying to hold onto those last moments of being awake. And she would tell me, “Remember, no funny stuff,” and wriggle free of my grasp just as I’d fall asleep.
Liza Beth did not like the pigeons. “Rats with wings. Just a big rat that can fly around and shit on your head,” but I picked up one of my prize blue-tails and placed it in her hands. “Feel those muscles? These ain’t like those city pigeons. City pigeons feel like a big puffball in your hands, nothing but feathers and digested garbage. This here is an athlete, like a race horse or a greyhound.” She placed the pigeon back into the aviary and brushed her hands against her jeans. No matter what I said, I couldn’t convince her otherwise. Late at night, when the pigeons were cooing in broken fits of harmony, she would roll over in bed and whisper in my ear, “a damn nuisance, that’s all there is to it.”
Every one of those pigeons was a ranking officer in the army, and a lot of them got special medals, parades once they got back home to the states. One of the pigeons Macey trained, a gray-tail named G.I. Joe, flew over fifty successful missions. He had a wing clipped by enemy fire and still made it to the base. One of Macey’s friends, a soldier who’d been in battle, told him that he once saw one of the homing pigeons get shot out of the sky, fall to the ground with its wings still flapping. He told Macey that even though it had broken both of its wings, it was still trying to get back to base, flailing because of some deep, innate instinct before it finally dragged itself a few feet and then died. After Macey told me the story he said, “Makes you wonder sometimes just what it’d take to make those things just give it up.”
“I just need to read myself back into shape,” she would tell me at night. “You should see that place. It’s a graveyard over there, just a bunch of old people with nothing to do and a few retarded guys who just like to sit on the couches and look at magazines.” Pretty soon, she was at the library even when she wasn’t scheduled to work, coming home with a stack of books just about the same time I got finished closing up the diner. On her lunch breaks, she’d walk over to the Tin Can, eating a plate of French fries and reading a book over in the corner booth.
One morning, I woke up and realized she hadn’t even come home, and when I drove over to the library, she was sitting at one of the tables in the back, looking through thick books about choosing the right college and writing down things in a spiral notebook.
“What’s all this stuff?” She looked up from a book and smiled, holding her notebook up for me to see. “Mapping out my escape plan.” There were a dozen colleges listed in neat penmanship, ranked in numerical order. None of them seemed very close to Coalfield.
What happened, what no one can explain, is that not one of those pigeons came home. Pigeon owners searched all over the East Coast, tracking down pigeon sightings, trying to recover their renegade birds. Scientists tried to figure it out, blamed it on a storm that had come off the Atlantic a few hours after the race began, perhaps a shift in the magnetic poles of the earth, but there wasn’t any real concrete evidence to make sense of it. It’s hard to imagine, to think of all of these birds, all flying through the air and suddenly, all at once, disregarding everything they’d ever known and just going.
One of Macey and Juanita’s old friends from back north came down to Coalfield a few months after the race. She’d lost her pigeons in that race, every last one of them, and she had come to Coalfield to relax, to stop thinking about where those birds were now. Why anyone thought she’d be happy in that house filled top to bottom with homing pigeons is beyond me, but I did my share to help. We’d sit out on the porch and pretend not to notice the pigeons wobbling around out feet. Every night, Juanita and I would make dinner while Macey and the lady looked at weather maps and maps with raised topography, mountain ranges bubbling off the surface of the map. She would stare at the maps, start her finger at Pennsylvania and trace it all across the country, different paths each time and Macey only stood and watched. The last night before she left, after another day of tracing pigeon routes, she sat at the dinner table and told us that after her husband had died, she really didn’t have much else to do but take care of those pigeons. “They were my pride and joy and now they’re gone.” I offered her a few of my pigeons, a rare breed couple that I’d always found to be reliable, but she shook her head and said she’d only lose them too. A few minutes later, she dropped her fork, watched it clang against the floor and slide under the table and she began to cry. She kept repeating over and over, her head in her hands, “It just seems like everything I touch runs wild on me. Just runs wild.”
All during those months, early in the morning before Liza Beth stirred from her sleep, I would untangle myself from her and take a special pigeon Macey had given me out to the truck. When he’d heard that Liza Beth was leaving town pretty soon, he took me aside while we were feeding the pigeons. “Got something you may be interested in.” He took me inside his house, to a special cage he used for rare breeds, and pulled out a female blue-tailed pigeon I’d never seen before. “Got this just a week ago from a friend up in Rhode Island. It’s a direct descendant of Barcelona Blue. Pretty much the best two-way breed you can get.” Barcelona Blue was a European homing pigeon in the early 1900’s. He was called the greatest pigeon of all time, winning more races and siring more cup winners than any other homer. People spent months tracing breed records for their pigeons just hoping to find a branch in Barcelona Blue’s family tree. More importantly, it was a good breed for flying two-way, which was what I needed.
I offered Macey to pay him for the pigeon, but he only shook his head. “Don’t think I have the inclination to train a two-way, but I think I’d like to see it happen.” So, for the next month, I drove that pigeon away from Coalfield and set him off back to find home, each time moving us a little closer to North Carolina. Pretty soon, I was taking full days off of work, shrugging off questions of where I had been from Liza Beth. A month before she was due to leave, I gave her the pigeon. What’s rare about a two-way pigeon is that it can fly from one home base to another, basically a link between people. I told Liza Beth, “you can watch for the pigeon and when she comes, you’ll know I’m thinking about you.”
Even though she wasn’t much for pigeons, she liked this one, its royal blue coloration and proud stance. She’d sit out on the balcony in the morning and let it eat seeds out of her hand. She named it Sheba. She told me, “In the Old Testament, when Solomon was king, he would send love letters to the Queen of Sheba by carrier pigeon. They’d write back and forth across miles of space with that pigeon.” It made me happy to see her with that pigeon. At night, she would kiss Sheba goodnight and then crawl into bed beside me, wrapping her arms tight around my body, and I felt as if she wasn’t really going. She was within flying distance and I thought that after a while, once the bird was flying back and forth so many times that it left a trail worn into the sky, Liza Beth would look up and see that link, that pattern in the sky and she would eventually follow it back here to me.
She took the bird with her when she left, along with a small aviary to house it. I told her to feed it once she arrived at her apartment and then release it. When it returned, I would know she was home. For the next few months, I sent letter after letter stuffed into a pouch tied to Sheba. Sometimes she came back with a letter from Liza Beth. Other times she came back with nothing, only the understanding that she had dropped off my note. Still, it worked well. I worked the main shift at the Tin Can everyday and when I got home, I’d sit on the balcony and watch for Sheba. It got to be a pretty easy routine, to sit and wait.
We’d talk on the phone too. It’s just that the pigeon was something special to look forward to. Liza Beth was enjoying her classes, working a job in the school’s library at night, and so we didn’t have many chances to talk. “I’m learning a lot but sometimes I feel like it’s just pushing out other things I’m supposed to remember,” she told me one night. “I wonder if there’s only so much you can know and after that it just spills out.” She asked me if I was planning on coming to visit and I told her I’d think about it but the truth of it was that I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go. I wanted Liza Beth back in Coalfield, in the context I knew her best. I hoped she would go back to school, finish, and come right back. I think now that I should have known better.
We talked less frequently once the school year got going. She was always busy, either working or studying. She seemed happy though, glad to be back in school. She stopped asking if I was coming to visit and after a while we were calling just to see how each other was doing. We always told each other we were fine and I wonder know if that was true. I imagine it was for both of us but not in the ways that we wanted it to be.
Sheba didn’t show up for a few weeks after I’d last released her and I started to worry. I called Liza Beth at the library one night and asked her about the pigeon. “I let it go a week or so ago,” she told me. There were papers being rustled and pages flipped while she talked. It was obvious to me that she had other things on her mind. I asked her if she’d been feeding it regularly, making sure it remembered the line between its feedings. “It’s a homing pigeon,” she said, “it’ll come to you eventually. Look, I’m really busy right now with this term paper. I promise you it’ll come back.” I asked her what if it didn’t. “Well,” she said, “then maybe it wasn’t supposed to.”
Last night I dreamed that it was a new morning and there were two thousand pigeons crowded around my house, wobbling around the front lawn. I got up and looked over each one, searching for Sheba and her pouch, but I couldn’t find her. The link between our homes has been broken and I think that the pattern in the sky has faded away, that Liza Beth can no longer see the path home. So I sit quietly and watch for movement. I hope that the things I have held will feel the fingerprints I left on them. I hope that they will remember me, will remember that I am here, and they will come back. But the sky is calm today. So I wait, relying on instinct, on something stronger than anything in the world, to bring things home to me.