I see you, Birdie, pressed into your favorite gold brocade dress, somewhat shrouded in a turquoise Navajo throw. You were always a July blonde / September strawberry, but today your hair is transcendent, luminescent, loosely tied with a loop of jute twine you picked up at the side of Burnett Road. You walk ahead of me at that final curve before the smell of water hits us, you draw me closer with the shimmer in your hair, the shimmy in your hips, the sweet in your voice. A song is sung, “At dawn my lover comes t’ me / an’ tells me of her dreams,” a rat-sized chihuahua tramps along beside you, pauses at the dandelion stalks, the river birch trunks, pisses on the things it wants you to love.
In real life, Beatrice, you tend the bar at the Pinewood House in the West Saugerties. You gripe about the Club members who line up for their Tom Collins sacrament every Wednesday afternoon: ex-cops, mostly; tough guys who don’t know what to do with their hands.
“You think we’ll see him, baby?”
You turn to me, your hair a spray of candied sunlight. “Don’t you ever listen to his words? Dylan, silly. Do you think we’ll see him there?”
“Maybe. Probably not. But so what? Maybe he’ll see us. Do you think he ever wonders about us?”
“He should. Because we’re fabulous. He will receive us.”
“We’re just going for a swim, Birdie. We won’t see him.”
You decide I’m being mean, we walk on. You continue to sing “Gates of Eden” to your rat-dog: “The foreign sun, it squints upon/ A bed that is never mine.” Your shimmer and your shimmy and your sweet all compel me to walk further down the road with you.
We caught the seven o’clock show at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night, watched The Dirty Dozen for the third time.
“We should go swimming tomorrow,” you announced. “Lily and Jack said they’re going.”
“You know I hate that place.”
“Why would you hate Daley’s? It’s where we always go.”
“Because it’s where we always go.”
“So you’ve decided to hate it?”
“And you don’t? Honest to God, Birdie, we’re always running the same conversations: who’s going back in the fall, who’s up for an internship, who’s moving to New York, who’s screwing who and–”
“Sorry, whom. You can practically measure the beats with a spoon. And do we even bother to swim there anymore?”
“You make it sound so awful.”
“Isn’t it? I mean, can we at least stop pretending it’s fun?”
“Well, you’re in a mood. I’m not sure I want to go with you now.”
“We could do something different for a change. Just us. We could drive up to Canada, leave early, make a day of it.”
You frowned. “You want to go to Canada? Tomorrow? I don’t know, Harry. The car will be hot, the roads will be touristy.”
“We can visit Gananoque. You said you liked it there.”
“Seems like such a big deal just to avoid such a small deal. Timothy and Louise will probably bring wine.”
“Tim’s a fool.”
“Oh, he is not. You’re in a mood.”
“He pulls the wings off his ex-girlfriends and buries them in his backyard.”
“Oh, he does not. You’re just jealous.”
“Caroline says we’d make good breeding stock.”
“You and Tim?”
“Well, we are beautiful, don’t you think?”
“I– Jesus, Birdie, why do you do that?”
“Say those things?”
“You used to have a sense of humor, Harry. Did you pull off its wings and bury it in your mother’s backyard?”
“I — what?”
I sat for you at the kitchen table, my arms still steady, yes, but not what they were even a week ago. I stared at those turquoise vinyl curtains you set above the sink. They filtered out the natural light, turned it into something aquatic, not quite deep enough to drown in. Outside the window was the small shadowed path that divided us from the Ellises, a walkway that led to our respective backyards. There was barely enough space for even a small patch of grass to sprout between the houses. Every day I watched Tommy Ellis’s siding slide into a more anemic shade of beige.
Then there was the jar of blue Barbicide you kept on the table, where you soaked your combs, your scissors, the straight razor. Every Sunday afternoon you trimmed the hair around my ears, clipped the playfulness from my eyebrows, harvested the bristles that circumnavigated my neck. We listened to the radio, 950-AM, “The Summer Sounds of the Sixties.” We had been housebound for months, so there was little need for talk. We knew everything that needed to be known.
So why did we keep listening to the same goddamn crinkled static every Sunday afternoon?
“Jesus,” you said.
You seemed near tears, I almost felt the same. That song was like a freshly bloodied scar.
“Must be fifteen years since I heard this,” you said.
“At least,” I said, and straightened my back against the chair. “It’s an old one, alright.”
“You know I don’t like to go back there, Harry.”
“I know that, Birdie.”
Your breath hitched, you rubbed an eyelid with your thumb. “You haven’t called me that in a long time,” you said. You set down your comb, leaned your back into the counter.
“I thought you didn’t like me to call you that anymore,” I said.
“It reminds me of those days, same as this song,” you said, and we listened a little longer. “But we’re still here, aren’t we?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“We’re still here,” you said. “Look at us. You sit there in the same chair every Sunday morning. I still barber your hair every Sunday afternoon. Have you ever noticed that the Barbicide is the only real color left in the room? I don’t wear bright things anymore, just these gray and beige knits.”
“There hasn’t been a lot of color anywhere, Beatrice.”
“Leftover chicken tonight,” you said. “Maybe pot roast next weekend if I clip the right coupons. I’ll peel potatoes, you’ll heat a can of peas or corn, or maybe slice up those old carrots from the back of the crisper. Or maybe we’ll just finish that butternut squash from the other night, I don’t know, it’s all busywork, Harry. We take our trip on the radio every Sunday for the sake of the old songs. Sometimes we’ll mumble the words because we forget them.”
“Some of them, sure. But not all.”
“No. Not all. ‘Galveston’ was on the radio the first time we kissed, at that car wash on Arsenal Street, remember? All those fat suds sloshing down the windshield, it felt like we were floating on some strange river. ‘River Man’… I wore that short skirt you liked, kind of peachy with beige accents, a little tight around my hips? I had to sneak out of the house that night. I almost made myself sick, wondering if I looked too eager. I almost changed my mind.”
“And so you only wore it that one time. Yes, I remember it. You were so nervous. You kept shifting in the restaurant booth.”
“Yes. And I only told you the color of my underwear, I never showed you.”
“A very prudent blue, I recall. I had dreams that night.”
“Yes, that sounds like me. Prudent blue. Oh, Harry, all the music, all the songs. ‘Let Yourself Go Another Time’ still reminds me of the smell of candles at Mama’s funeral. Stevie Wonder singing ‘Superstition’, and I’m back pouring bourbon shots in Dixie cups at Doreen and Phil’s wedding reception. Your dad kept a cardboard box of Old Number 8’s in the back of his station wagon.”
“I remember. We were still kids.”
“Of course we were. Kids.”
“And we went swimming with our friends, we drank their shitty wine. We didn’t know a thing.”
“We knew enough. We stopped swimming there, remember?”
“Yes. Of course I remember,” you said flatly
and we were drowning again
under the light of our kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” you said, “but I don’t mean to dislike you so much.”
Dylan’s voice retreated back to a place where we could not follow
in a low-minded darkness, we swim across the Big Pool, our limbs fan the water with austere strokes. Only Timothy and Louise have stayed behind, pie-eyed on homemade jug wine, giggling over the dregs from Tim’s extinguished joint. That single ember is all that distinguishes land from water. The last of our childhood feels conspicuous, lost somewhere in the plumes we leave behind.
“Hey, are you two behaving?” yells Louise. Her voice is high, unintentionally shrill.
“Bobby Dylan and me, baby, we are just friends,” I shout. I hear your bubbled laughter as you dip below the surface. Then you rise like a great fish, water streams down your face, your breath atomizes the air, fills your silhouette with diamonds.
“Lay lady lay, baby. Yeah!”
You reach for me, hands blind to the dark. You whisper, “Do you s’pose they can see us from shore?”
“I don’t care if you don’t.”
“Well… if they can, we’ll pretend like we’re drowning.”
“No one to save us but ourselves,” is the last thing I say, and the light separates itself from the murk.
The world lays still for a little while, and the water is both quiet and big.