Read The Invention of Flight Online

Authors: Susan Neville

Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Fiction, #General

The Invention of Flight (2 page)

Eva pulls into the lane leading to the farm where the auction is being held. The house and outbuildings are a local oddity, painted a light green with parapets on the top trimmed in gold because the farmer's wife had been from some place in Eastern Europe or Asia, nobody knew where. There are already around two hundred people in the yard, women picking through tables of linens, glassware, kitchen equipment, Christmas decorations, cheap jewelry, all of it arranged in boxes by the auctioneer but already out of order as someone sees a box of things she'll bid on and something, a potholder or bracelet in a box next to it that she likes also and she
transfers it to the box she wants, this going on up and down the tables. The men stand at the edges looking at rusted farm equipment, sitting in overstuffed living room chairs on the lawn, eating chili dogs and bologna sandwiches, drinking lemonade. It's like a fair and Lorrine and Eva are excited, now and then hold on to one another's hands like children. They see people they haven't seen in years; they finger quilts and talk about embroidered pillowcases and they feel younger. Eva sees some green depression glass and she decides right then to collect it. Lorrine stands by the bee equipment and feels uncomfortable when anyone else comes to look at it, as if they're looking through something that belongs to her already.

The first thing sold is a gun. One of the auctioneer's helpers stands on a table, dark hair slicked back and workshirt sleeves cut off at the shoulder and unbuttoned, strong chest and arms. He holds the gun above his head and the men group around him. Everything wood, the gun and furniture, has been polished with lemon oil. Lorrine watches the boy hold the gun, thinks that someday he will be dead, and she wonders where a crazy thought like that comes from; she won't think of her husband that way. It's impossible really that he isn't still alive, his cuffs filled with sawdust and arms dark with sticky resins from his work so that he always smelled of pine. The way he would unconsciously crook his arm like an usher at a wedding whenever she'd take it, like a schoolboy, the pleasure in that. But she won't allow herself to think of that, looks instead away from the men and at a pot of begonias on the porch, a stack of books on one side of the begonias,
an old jewelry box on the other, empty no doubt or someone would have hidden it in the bottom of a box of fabric scraps and spoons.

The gun sells and the fishing tackle sells and the tables full of boxes. Eva gets her depression glass. Only one person bids halfheartedly against Lorrine for the bee equipment and she gets it for ten dollars—two hives, a veil, a smoker, gloves, and a book. Someone tells her where she can get some inexpensive bees and she is so pleased that she bids five dollars on the jewelry box that no one wants and gets that also. On the way home she is so content that she almost sleeps. The air is the color of apricots and the fields stop looking like the ocean. The earth becomes solid again. She runs her hand over the worn velvet of the jewelry box in her lap and something small falls out the bottom and onto her dress. She sees that it's a delicate pink cameo and she almost cries at the beauty of that, not of the cameo as much as the fact that it has been hidden and now it isn't, something this lovely. Eva pulls up in front of Lorrine's house and Lorrine asks her in but she says, “No, Bill probably misses me,” and Lorrine says, “And Papa me,” and Eva helps her get her hives from the backseat and carry them to the porch.

Lorrine leaves the equipment outside and takes the book inside, is greeted by the old man, who shuffles in from the kitchen and says, “Hello. Hello. You know a palm tree grow tall but you put it in a bucket, even outside, it only grow to six feet.” She walks into the living room and sits on the sofa, opens her book, and begins trying to read. He follows her in and sits on a chair beside her. He reaches over to touch her knee and
she looks at him and nods and he takes it as a sign that he can begin a story and again it's the sea and places she hasn't heard of after the lovely day with Eva and she feels something unfamiliar. She knows he's tired, if only from having to get inside by himself and the walk from the kitchen to the living room, something he seldom does. She knows that he's tired and that he's probably hungry, but she doesn't get up to fix dinner; she sits and reads the book, holding the edges of the book tightly. He talks and she reads and finally he looks at her and is puzzled. He gets up and moves slowly out of the room, his legs so thin. In a while he's back with two bowls of dry cereal and two spoons. He hands one to her and says, “The milk I forgot,” and she says, “Thank you,” and begins to eat the cereal as it is without offering to go and get milk. Again he is puzzled, but he eats it that way too, his mouth slightly open and crunching loudly.

He finishes eating and sits with the bowl resting on his knees. He plays at trying to balance the spoon on his middle finger. “I tell you about bees,” he says. “The workers all female.” She looks this up in the book and finds that yes, this is true. Her father had taught her how to care for the bees and gather the honey, how to find the old queen and replace her in the spring with a new one that would arrive in the mail in a small wooden box with a screen, but he had not told her much about the bees themselves, how they lived their lives. The old man turns in his chair to look out the window. The cereal bowl falls to the carpet, but he doesn't seem to notice. He begins a story about Jamaica, a family he lived with for a while when he was ill, the meals they served and the color of the ocean there, the design on
the wallpaper in his room, the taste of breadfruit.
Queen bees
, she reads,
can lay eggs and hatch them without any fertilization. All the unfertilized eggs will be drones, male bees. The fertile ones become workers.
She looks up drones.
Their sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen. All of the drones leave the hive with the queen on her wedding flight. One of them mates with her and he dies. He is not killed by the queen, as is often thought, but he dies at the moment of intrusion due to the structure of his own body. The queen rips herself away from the dead drone and in the process takes part of his organs with her. She then is able to fertilize the eggs as well as lay them.
He runs his fingers along a slick pinkish scar on his arm. “Fishing,” he says and leans his head back on the chair. “I want to fish.” There is a picture in the book of fat drones gorged with honey lying on the ground outside the hive where they have been turned out to die. This happens in the fall or sometimes in mid-summer after the first honey flow between apple bloom and white clover.
He has no baskets on his legs in which to carry pollen and his tongue is so unsuited to the gathering of honey from flowers that he might starve to death in the midst of a clover field in full bloom.

She puts the book down on the sofa and stands up, walks away from him and to the other window. The sky is clear and the sun just setting, the window glass filling with a deep blue. She looks over at him, his head still back, mumbling, needing to be bathed, to be fed. She feels giddy, is ashamed of what she feels. I could turn you out, she thinks, and my life would be mine. No more sea stories. The house would be quiet. She goes across the room to him and says, “He's dead, you know, he's nothing, not any place.” And then she feels more
frightened than she has ever felt before. She puts her arms around his neck, so fragile, and she says, “What kind of life is this, Papa?” and he puts his hand on her hair and says nothing.


The wife of a pianist with hair to her waist leans too close to a candle and for an instant the spray of hair burns and glows like hot wires, filaments in glass. The pianist is sitting in the corner by another candle, in conversation with an androgynous cornet player who feels that she is in some way carrying on a secret though spiritual affair with the pianist right under his wife's eyes, because they are of course talking on a much higher plane than the pianist could ever hope to reach with his wife, who is much too pretty and too blatantly feminine to have any kind of intelligence. Neither of them notices the wife's burnt hair, and she runs outside the house, past the other musicians, and into the back yard. The cornet player sees her leave and feels triumphant, assuming it's jealousy, thinking kindly that it might help the wife to grow if she begins to face realities such as this, if she begins to stand on her own in the way that the cornet player has always had to do, choosing first the trombone and finally the cornet over the flute and violin, to the confusion and anger of her parents who were certain that instruments were extensions of the body, of the voice, and were created for specific sexes, but who were thankful at last that she hadn't chosen the cello, a woman's
instrument that a lady would not play. This had been the first place where people listened to her, where they seemed not to notice the blue shadow of a beard on her chin, the thick shoulders and waist that she had begun to emphasize in defiance. At the end of the year she can go back home to her parents or she can go to New York and begin making the rounds. But she's afraid that she is not good enough. She leans toward the pianist, toward his words, desperately afraid of leaving.

The teacher, a composer and director, sits near the center of the room, drinking straight gin. He brushes a hardened crumb of cheese from his lapel, scans the room for a victim. He sees the flutist with yellow hair who is talking to a tuba man who has a wife and a new child and soft muscles in his stomach but who is no doubt thinking, as the teacher is thinking, only of the way the flutist's lips bloom on cold metal, cheekbones like soapstone. She is obviously uninterested in the tuba man and uninterested in the percussionist who comes over to join the two of them and begins to rub the back of her hair territorially, runs his hand down to the small of her back, the fingers of the tuba man's right hand tensing, swollen beefy lips tight. Most of the women and half of the men in the room are in love with the percussionist, and the teacher is for a moment worried, watches the flutist's eyes for signs of dilation, of interest, when she looks at him as he taps the stretched skin of her wrist, and, finding none, settles back. He knows that even though he hasn't written anything true in years they all hold him in awe, that that supports the illusion this is the only musical universe which exists, that the
flutist will eventually make her way to him. He looks around at them, the students, knows that though they wouldn't admit it, didn't like to think about it, some of them know this is the only place they will ever have the courage to think of themselves as artists and that, too, the impossibility of the adjustment from being artists to being teachers or salesmen, hawking band instruments and uniforms at small high schools, will destroy some of them. At times he feels that he should discourage them, tell them they are no good—the good ones will only benefit from that. But he can't, says you are good, so good, possibly brilliant, and in turn they sit at his feet, they say it is only because of you that I am great, only through you that I am great, only with your greatness that my greatness grows.

The pianist has come to feel that conversations like this are somehow shallow, small talk about large things, has grown weary of them, would like to cultivate some distance from this, from all of it, the talk of techniques and composers, harmonies and forms, buildings filled with the cacophony of too many voices, too many instruments. Singers walking in the open, across a field, across a campus, still going over an alto part in Latin and singing aloud, not noticing or caring about the heads turning. The phrase from a Bach invention that follows him through the daily domestic things and at night will not, no matter how hard he tries, let him sleep. But the cornet player is obviously enraptured with him and he is kind so he continues talking to her though he feels nothing for her, not even pity, only a mild curiosity about what she will be fifteen years from now, older, in
a place she is not accepted, of course a failure. He listens to her and looks around the room, envies the percussionist his ease with women, with the beautiful ones, his hand a moment ago resting on the flutist's back, and now he is slumped against the wall, the dark-haired singer taking a drag from his cigarette, light gathered and reflected from her bracelet, an earring, as she turns her head, the beautiful line of her forehead a cool that he can almost feel on his own lips, the touch of ivory on his hands, the way she looks at the percussionist now, brushes against the sleeve of his jacket, not accidentally. The pianist wonders what it is about him, how people, things, are drawn to the percussionist to be taken, subdued, some lack of something civilized in him, of domestication, a pull of something somewhat like death. He sighs, turns to the cornet player, and tries to think of something intellectual, says God would come, possibly, if we called Him by His name, Jehovah, Yahweh. Peter would turn if called Pedro, but not if called Boy. He sighs, leans into the rough fabric of the chair, looks at the singer, and thinks Janice, thinks Juanita, says the trouble is that some names are too sacred to be spoken.

The flutist sees that the teacher is watching the singer with the percussionist and, triumphant from having ignored the percussionist's touch, she leaves the tuba man in mid-sentence and goes over to sit on the floor in front of the teacher, to bring his gaze to her, secure in the knowledge that she is the one true genius, that her music is not derivative. She can feel the cool underside of the flute on her thumbs, the complication of the valves on her fingers. She purses her top lip and blows downward,
feels the warmth of the air on her chin. There is music in that also. She knows that the teacher knows this, is drawn to her because of it, that he in fact loves her, sees her in his fantasies, slim and smooth as metal. She has been his student for years, only lately has she begun to demystify him, to realize that the abstraction, the look of the composer, is cultivated, as his music lately has become, neat formulas repeated from when he was younger, the hair and the skin graying too fast. He is prey to imaginary illnesses, sellers of vitamins and magical yeasts, close to but not yet an old man and afraid of it, fewer women each year. He is bear-like, hoary, reaches out to touch her arm, the roundness of it, tells her that she is quite beautiful, says let us invent one another, and she feels her head bow, her arms slyly and consciously rise toward him until they are level with her face—elbows, wrists, fingertips touching as if bound.

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