Fiction > Slime



            “This is summer,” Hazel said, adjusting her truly tiny sundress.

            “What a bitch,” she added, not bothering to look to us for a reply.  “I just get back from New York where it was this hot too but that was New York.  Now this is Flint and there is absolutely nothing to do.  Not only that, my pool has slime. Damn.”

            She was a pretty woman but her hair was askew as if she never combed it enough, and she sure could talk.

            “Here I am,” she continued, “Forty years old and just broke up with Andre, but what was I doing with a 28-year-old artist anyway?

            “So I swim every day.  Big deal.  I can’t even swim in my own pool because of the slime.  So I have to go to the Y to swim laps.  I have to swim laps to get rid of my aggressions.  Anyway, I’m too depressed to do anything about the slime.  This town is so depressing,” Hazel said.

            My husband and I listened impassively to Hazel and ran our hands up and down our cans of beer, trying to get some coolness from the sweat beading out.  Hazel was our favorite decadent person, living off her second husband’s estate.  He had died of a heart attack in bed with his secretary on the west coast of Florida.  Hazel was left with nothing to worry about.  We’d heard about her lousy husband a hundred times, but we didn’t think Andre was any better.  So this was a good sign.  I bummed a cigarette from my husband.  Do you think you should, his look implied, but he slipped one out and lit it for me anyway, rolling his eyes away from Hazel.

            I watched my cigarette smoke curl up between me and Hazel.  I looked at my own bare legs on the picnic bench and drifted away, wondering if I was pregnant yet, figuring if I was I’d have to quit.  It could be some time before Hazel took a breather.  And no one could say when this incredible heat would end.

            It wasn’t even June yet when all this started, still spring really, but summer had hit us with a vengeance.  No one we knew had air conditioning, even Hazel, who had much more money than anyone else we knew.  I don’t know why, I guess it was the set we ran with.  We were all into cleaning up the polluted river in town once a year and we’d all read Earth in the Balance and we separated our recyclables.  A couple of times a week we’d meet our friends at a bar downtown and discuss how awful it is about global warming and the shrinking rainforest and the cutbacks at the University branch where my husband and most of our friends work. It all seemed like part of the same thing.  We’d meet our friends at this bar and drink until we were drunk.  Then we’d go home and turn on all the fans.

            My husband is an assistant professor of English – his specialty colonial American travel writing – not yet tenured.  “I’m tenuous,” he always says.  We never have enough money but we’ve kept our chins up.  We always expect things to get better.

            One night during the heat wave Larry ripped off his clothes when we got home and decided to throw his underpants at the light over our bed.  He was going to try to see if he could get the underpants (he favors clingy cotton bikinis – I like them very much myself) to hang on the corner of the fixture.  Crossed himself, laid back on the bed, ready, aim, throw.  He made it.  The next night, he did the same thing.  The next night, the same, and then there were three pairs of underpants hanging from the light.  One red, one brown, one navy, like bats, swaying in the breeze from the fan.  My husband enjoyed this hugely.  “This heat,” I said, “this heat has got to go.” 

            I shook myself back to the present, and heard Hazel say, “Well, let me show you my new pasta maker, come on inside for awhile before you go!  It makes good carrot pasta, you’ll have to come over for some, or maybe spinach, that’s good, too.”

            We both hoped we got invited.  Hazel didn’t give a damn about the Atkins diet – she kept the slim build of a rich city woman, no matter what she ate, no matter how much she laid around  – and even at her most slothful she had good taste and proper feng shui.  She had Ansel Adams prints and polished wooden floors.  It was cool walking on those smooth floors and I wished we could stay that night, especially if other people were coming.

            “Come over any time,” Hazel said, “I think I’ll try to clean the slime out tomorrow, maybe you could take a dip then, and we’ll cook up something interesting.”  She couldn’t wait to try the pasta maker, she said, but she’d have to let us know.

My husband and I climbed into our old Jeep, a hand-me-down from Larry’s older brother, who was in high-tech and bought some fancy SUV.  The seats were sticky and the Jeep started hard from the humidity.  Once we were on the way my husband reached over and put his arm behind me.  He squeezed my shoulder, which was sweaty, and said, “Do you think she’ll do the slime tomorrow?”

            “I doubt it very much,” I said, and we both grinned.

            I remember that night so clearly now, because really it was the last time everything was okay between us.  I remember being happy in the Jeep, and bouncing along, thinking, maybe this will be the month that I get pregnant.  I remember crossing my fingers and saying to myself, if I am not pregnant, I will know in exactly seven days, probably in the early afternoon, because that is when my period comes.

            My period has been exactly 31 days since the very first cycle.  We had been trying to get pregnant for several months, and I wanted it to happen now.  When you’re 33 and finally ready, you don’t want to wait.  But my body, an orderly little mechanism, continued to slough off my husband’s enthusiastic sperm every time.  Neatly my body went about its business, expelling a discreet amount of brilliant red blood, quickly and fastidiously, every 31 days.  I watched for signs that something was different:  a sore breast, a swelling, a craving for something crazy, unease in the morning.  Any deviation would do.  That night I thought, just wait seven more days.

            In the meantime, there was the heat.  Everyone was talking about it – did that volcano last year cause it, or some renegade current in the ocean?  All I knew is I had never been this hot for this long.  It was over 90 two weeks straight.  On the three to four days on which I expected to ovulate, the high was 98.  I could hardly stand to be touched, though I let my husband try.

            We had only one fan, a large blue box.  It had a plastic strip along the side with punched out letters that said “University Property.”  My husband had slipped it out of some forgotten closet in the English department one night after working late and threw it into the back of the Jeep.  I appreciated his considerate larceny.  We couldn’t afford to buy our own that summer, due to a financial reversal.  In March I got laid off as secretary in the sociology department, which was okay since I planned to become pregnant soon, before it happened.  We were putting everything my husband had left over into our baby fund.

            So we made do.  We slouched back and forth in our rooms, moving the fan with us.  Just when we got it into the living room window, we’d decide to take a nap or try again to impregnate me, and we’d have to move the fan again, its white cord trailing.

            Larry has never liked distractions.  For example, when we are becoming excited and he’s about to leap atop me in our bed, he’ll throw the pillows off, gunning them into a corner or onto the dresser top.  That’s just one example.  He can’t stand anything that breaks his concentration.

            In the seven days after that night at Hazel’s, a new distraction developed.  It had the face of a nameless brown bird.  We heard it, first, on our window glass in the bedroom.  It was just a light, tin sound, but regular.  You’d never think such a little sound would hurt anything.  You’d think you wouldn’t even notice.  But one morning, just as we were about to make love, it started up.  My husband groaned and said, Jeezus Christ, what’s that?

            No more whoopee that day.

            Then we could see it, hovering at the glass like a hummingbird, but much bigger.  Peck, peck.  Peck, peck.  It seemed that it was inexhaustible.  It would dive but not hit the glass, just peck, peck.  Peck, peck.  We’d see it fly off, not far, sometimes up to the overhead wires.  Most of the time it would retreat to the overgrown honeysuckle vines up against the house.  The bush of vines was huge, covering part of our bedroom window.  Usually, we liked it there, a shield, a little shade, a colorful and fragrant sign of summer. 

            We thought maybe if we exposed only the screens, the bird might stop.  But we had windows that slid open from left to right, and half the window was always covered by glass.  So much for that plan.

            One night before we went to bed, Larry had an idea.  He said, “Let’s cover the glass with newsprint, then maybe this dumb bird won’t see his reflection.”

            We had just come home from the bar, and I’ll admit we were a bit jollier than usual.  He got the masking tape and classified ads, and we giggled a little more than was necessary while we covered the inside glass.  It was 2 a.m.  When I stretched up to flatten the newsprint, Larry patted my behind before he reached up to put on the tape.

            That was Friday night.  We went to bed with the peace of established allies, war buddies.  But by eight the next morning, we heard it again.  Peck, peck.  Peck, peck.  Larry went outside in his bathroom, pulled up a stump from our landlord’s rose garden, and peered in at me.  He knocked on the glass.  I was exhausted, but I said, “What went wrong?”

            “You can still see it,”  he said.  “I can see myself right here.  I don’t look that great, either.”

            Morning by morning, it seemed that the pecking started up earlier.  Finally one day, the bird began its pecking at daybreak.  It was a shame, because we’d both been too hot most of the night, and it felt like cool air had finally made it comfortable to sleep.  But the bird woke us up.  Now that I think about it, I feel guilty about what we tried next, because it was my idea.  I rolled over to Larry.

            “Maybe if you cut off the branches down below the window, it won’t do it,”  I said.  “It wouldn’t have a place to land.”

            “I’m too sleepy,”  Larry said.  “Not now.”

            “I didn’t mean now, hon, just, I mean, as a strategy for later.”

            “It’s too early for strategy,”  Larry said.  But neither of us really slept any more.  We didn’t make love either.

            We tried to see what the bird looked like.  It had a black bib, with a spot of muddy yellow on its chest.  Its body was mediocre brown with white dapples on the wings.  That was the most we could see.  Neither of us really knew our birds.

            That day I called Hazel.  She’s citified but she’s also sage.  I thought she might know what to do.  And although she didn’t know we were trying to get pregnant, I thought she’d be motivated by the part about Larry and distractions.

            “Oooh,”  Hazel said.  “It’s affecting your sex life?  What does it look like?  Maybe I could sic the thing on Andre and get even.  He’s doing it with some nectarine college dropout now.”

            I told her what we knew.

            “Try the Audubon Society,” she said.  “I met one of them at a fundraiser for Sichuan pheasants at the art museum.  He was gorgeous.  Ask for Hank.”

            After several tries, I got through to Hank by phone.

            “You might remember my friend Hazel who met you at the pheasant benefit,”  I said, thinking, this must sound stupid.  And most people don’t remember Hazel anyway.  They try to get away from her.  “She’s blond, really interested in saving birds.”

            I heard a slight sigh.  “I can’t quite place her,”  the voice said.

            “Well, my husband and I need help with a bird.  It keeps pecking at our window,”  I said.  I told Hank what we knew.  “Honestly,”  I said, “It’s becoming a problem.”

            “That’s funny,”  he said, his voice picking up a little more interest.  “It sort of sounds like a dickcissel.  That couldn’t be.  But that would be pretty rare.  They’re grassland birds.  They never get that close to houses.”

            “Dickcissel?”  I’d never heard of the bird, and thought, I’ll never be able to say that name to Hazel without laughing.

            “Yeah.  I don’t know, I’m puzzled.  Do you have a field near your house or anything?”

            “There’s an empty lot, a little overgrown, but not much.”

            “Well, keep watching it.  I doubt if it’s a dickcissel, but I suppose it could be. They’re pretty rare these days, supposedly because of the rain forest.  They live down there in the winter, but the territory’s shrinking.  Numbers are way down.”

            “Why’s it pecking?”

            “It’s a he,”  Hank said.  “He thinks his reflection is competition.  He’d be mating this time of year.  There must be a nest somewhere nearby. He’ll keep it up until the babies leave the nest.”

            “When’ll that be?” 

            “At least a month.  Don’t expect to see the female.  They’re very reclusive.”

            Hank repeated, “If it is a dickcissel, I plead with you to leave the bird alone.  It’s rare.  You’re lucky to have one in your yard.  Think of it as a good omen.  Let them mate.”  He took my number and said if he thought of anything else that might be helpful, he’d call.

            That night my period came.  I had forgotten it was the 31st day.  It was almost painless, no cramps, a bright red burst.  I didn’t mention that to Larry when he came home from class.

            “It’s a he,”  I told him.  “It might be some bird called a dickcissel, and if it is, it’s pretty rare around here.  This guy from the Audubon Society said to try to leave it alone.”

            Larry was interested.  He took thirty dollars of rolled coins from our savings drawer and went out and bought a bird book.  He also got two pints of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie, and we sat on the couch and ate them while we looked up dickcissels.

            “Well I guess we should consider ourselves honored,”  Larry said.  I told him what Hank said about a good omen.

            We hugged and kissed.  Larry wanted to make love, but then I had to tell him my period came.

            “Oh well,”  Larry said softly, running his hand over my hair.  “We’ll try again next time.”  We sat there without saying anything for awhile.  Then I hugged Larry again.

            “He said the female’s even more rare,”  I whispered into Larry’s ear.  “Very reclusive, very private.”

            Larry licked the ice cream off my lips.  “Very selective,  very fine,”  he said as if neither of us had to make sense.

            We both really wanted to leave the bird alone, we did.  During the day, when we had our full faculties, we did.  But at daybreak the next morning, when the pecking started up again, Larry got out of bed without saying a word.  He was naked, so he got a yardstick from the kitchen and fished one of the underpants off the light fixture.  He left the room in the navy bikinis, and I heard him rooting around in the kitchen drawers.  Soon I heard the clipping sound.  I stood up on the bed and saw Larry cutting down the honeysuckle bush in his underpants.

            “Larry!”  I hissed.  “What’ll the landlord think?  We should bring him in on this!”  I had to admit it was my idea, but Larry really was pushing propriety.

            “But the time he’d do anything, the damn diskcissel’ll be back in the rain forest, if there’s any left,”  Larry hissed back.  “Matter of fact, by the time he’d do anything about it, the damn bird’ll be extinct.”  The bird was making wild chipping sounds, up on the wire.  Then I thought I heard two of them, a panicky duet.  My heart faltered.

            “Stop, Larry! Don’t take down the whole thing…they need a little natural shelter.”  The words came out prim and lecturish.  I could have used some sleep, but I didn’t want this bird’s family to be blood on our hands.

            “Listen, lady,”  Larry replied, “It was your idea.”

            “Don’t call me ‘lady,’!” I shouted.  But I sunk back onto the bed and let him finish.

            Later that day, when Larry was at school, I checked out the damage.  Larry had only left the bottom two feet of bush.  There was no sign of a nest.  Of course, there never had been.

            Well, I was taking naps during the day to make up for what I lost, but Larry couldn’t do that.  When he came home from work, he was cranky, and just wanted to sit in front of the fan.  We needed a break.  Still, I had to know.

            “Did you find a nest?”  I asked my husband.

            “Didn’t see a thing,”  he said.  “The bird was yipping at me like a poodle the whole time, but I didn’t see a nest.”

            “I thought I heard two of them,”  I said, my breath catching a little.

            “I don’t think so, hon,”  he said.  “I just saw the one.”

            I didn’t start doubting Larry when we put up the newsprint sheets.  I didn’t doubt him when he went outside in his underpants.  But when he told me he hadn’t seen a nest, something about it gave me a shiver.  That’s when I started doubting him.

            Why did I care anyway?  The bird had been driving us crazy for several weeks.  How did we know it was really a dickcissel anyway?  And wasn’t I somehow involved, too?

            If so, why didn’t Larry tell me the whole story?  Or, what made me believe there even was a nest?  And why was I afraid to ask him about it, anyway?  I knew the answer to that one:  there are some things a woman never wants to know.  I tried to think about Larry in a good light:  holding my hand when we walked through the hardware store, the time he told me he loved my mother.

            But I kept hearing those two birds, screaming on the wire.  I kept thinking about their home in the rain forest, how it might not even be there any more.  But why didn’t they nest where they’re supposed to, in some safe scrub out of town?  Had the heat affected them, too?

            The next morning, we both slept late.  We slept through Larry’s alarm, through two snooze delays.  When we finally came to, it was 9 a.m.  Cool air filtered through the screened part of the window, gently rippling the newsprint.  The intense heat had broken.  The bird was gone.

            I didn’t feel that good about getting some sleep.  I felt logey and bloated.  I looked at Larry.

            “It’s quiet,”  he said.

            “Too quiet,”  I answered, one of our tiresome old in-jokes.  Neither of us laughed.  Larry reached over for me, but after a minute his hand slid off my body, as if he’d fallen asleep, or lost interest.  How do these things happen?  Somehow Larry knew I knew.

            He went off to class and I stayed right where I was, not even getting up to have coffee or try the daily crossword.  Nothing roused me until the phone rang.  It was Hank.

            “How’s your bird?”  he asked.  “I thought I might like to come over and have a look, see if it’s really a dickcissel…”

            “Haven’t seen it,”  I replied.  “Must not have been.  I don’t think it was a dickcissel.  I don’t think it was nesting.  I just think it was some sparrow, passing through.”

            “I’m sorry,” Hank said.  “I’d have loved to see it, maybe confirm it for you.  It really would have been a privilege.”

            I hung up the phone.  I just knew I wasn’t going to get pregnant that month.  For that matter, I wasn’t in the mood.  I decided to call Hazel to see if she’d gotten the slime out of her pool yet.  I figured I’d go over there and stand in water up to my neck, maybe smoke a couple of cigarettes while I was at it.  Larry wouldn’t have to know.