Blackbirds lifted from the burnished tree…

by Jennifer Martin

Blackbirds lifted from the burnished tree like popping corn overflowing from a kettle lid. Bursts of compact body and feathers from the center of the tree. Their dark full shapes breaking the thick ashen veil of a coming storm and then dropping aligned to join others of their kind on the roadside wire. It surprised him to see them fit into so many others already sitting. They were beats on a line, a pulse, as he passed them by.

He followed the wires. He thought of the wooden toys of his youth, toys with a string to pull something behind him, an animal to follow. Usually the toy was some kind of wooden bird, a duck. The dream memory formed from gray and black to color and tactile. The duck with a green swath on its breast, a grinning happy child. He thought of the wide river to his right just behind the roadside strip of grass and thorn, imagined it dull, mimicking the sky. It flowed textured and dark. He knew this curve of the river where it almost turned back on itself, and where in heavy rains all manner of trees were pushed to the bank. The wires here, lazily angled to accommodate the curve of the road, were spiked with birds huddled to catch currents of air, insects, he didn’t know what.

On his left at the rail yards, he glanced at the Worker-of-the-Month sign. Peter Drew, it read. This always seemed humorous to him, the public display of pride in company, a thing of the past, of communities, of small towns, gone now. The word was recognition now. Pride, loyalty, a handshake, past. He pulled apart the words in his brain. Re COGS. That was it. Cogs in a wheel. Double wheels turning. Machines. Not even a pat on the back anymore, that was too close for comfort. Just company evangelism.

He looked to see how many trucks were in the parking area of the yards. Only a few. He didn’t know any of them but he imagined some as friends from high school. He kept looking, disappointed. How had he gotten himself back to Nashville?  Railroads were the future of America, Warren Buffett swiped them up, the new turn. He had thought at one time he would be an investor, young and rich and on the cusp of news, the playing fields open and women because of it. He had been mistaken about the path. He had not envisioned, then, the office spaces.

The sky settling into the earth, heavy and gray, cooling his fingers at the window’s edge and the tops of his ears just inside the car, pushing down through his shoulders, finally dissolved, a large cold bottom searching for the heat of the dirt.

He was an associate now, although his nametag read no title, just James Finney, First USA Bank. The correction from trainee to no title had come half a year later, an afterthought for everyone.

All the way, the veil extended down the Smokies flowing into valleys and in some places lightly filling over mountaintops. The white sky spreading a soft mist, allowing leaves to glow with color. In other coves, the darkening clouds stood away from the treetops, moving with shearing wind, tearing the leaves from their clips, all the way, tugging from the gulf.

His building, in the center of town, the Regions Center, stood seventeen stories tall, the largest building in Nashville. The storm locked and peaceful over the city draped in contrast to the bank, constructed, a white board.

Walking, he searched for any color to disturb the concrete tones of the city layering in his mind. Parking lot to sidewalk to steps. Planes, dotted, crisscrossed, smooth. Inside or Out. Concrete. His supervisors, seven of them, rotating were, just that. His coworkers, the same. The large windows were bright gaping mouths, too large for their function, James thought.

He imagined the building in a large swirling dust storm. If only Nashville were a bit more west, he thought.

Working in the bank allowed him an apartment, a dog, Buster Keaton, lying in a crate right now. Parental approval. He laughed, although deep-seeded within he consented to the idea.

He sheltered his eyes, taking the steps to his building, the light in the city an uninterrupted wash. A woman in gray skirt, gray pants, white shirt, androgynous, stepped to the revolving door entrance in front of him. A dark shadow breaking apart the planes of light bouncing from street to wall to sign.

He hesitated just in the foyer, enough to steal a glance at the saber-tooth skull in its informative case, the recess and crevice of the skull blue and inviting. The gold filigree of pillar and column of the room harsh and leading him to glance to the woman again as she walked.

His mind shifted to the blue-green vase of his center table, he never placed flowers in it, thought it pretty enough, shifting colors through the morning and night. She, plain, seemed uncomfortable in her attire. He thought she must be interviewing this morning.

She shifted her weight, left foot to right, looked at him as she waited for the elevator. “You ever visited the cavern below this place?”

“No, I heard about it. From 1971, it’s all in the case downstairs. Nothing much really.”

“I read they sifted through the construction piles after excavation, that’s all. You could have rooms, miles.”  Her floor, reached. She stepped to the swirled, stomach-turning carpet. “What built this building...The bills are light but greed is a heavy fill…We all got it…”

“Are you here for an interview?” The elevator doors began to close. “Yes,” he thought he heard her say. He liked the way her body displaced the light.

His floor, reached. No one in the hallway. Panel after panel of lighting. No color. He all at once felt the weight of his own bone and muscle and he felt his thighs resistant to collapse in his waiting office chair, tense, and bored.

Where had she gone? He felt disgust. He had not known her. An anguish for his height. A want for displacement.

He presses the first floor button and drops down.

The saber-tooth’s thigh muscles are perfectly shaped, prehistoric vines wrapping bone, anchoring the cat to the earth in one moment or uncoiling the next.

The bank executives promised to allow more exploration but none occurred. A few articles written and dismissed. A scientific report of the flora and fauna of the cave never published.

James sweet-talks Mrs. Fortnick, the secretary, into giving him the building keys. It doesn’t take much. A woman loves a man who loves a woman and he exploits the weakness. A mention of a girl he wants to impress, a brief description of her, and a boast of devotion and the keys lightly fall into his hand with a smile.

James left the gold and fluorescent lights of the building lobby. The potato soup sky of the morning now foaming clefts and bows edged with denim-blue. It was then as he watched the clouds beginning to churn that he decided he could not work in the office anymore.

He turned around to look out over the waterfront, the various walkways, stairways and facades constructed for access. He had slowly watched every single tree disappear from the riverbank. The willows and river cane went for the entrance to the grand. The elms and oaks for a boat dock. The mulch path and shrubs and bushes for a concrete path and viewing platform.

Nothing was to be found. It had already been done.

He turns the secretary’s key in the lock of the door of the basement room. James sees doors and paintings and artwork. This room used for charity storage. Tilted sideways, strewn, against the wall, hundreds of them, piled at his feet, all different colors. Oak, cedar, maple, ash. The unpainted doors as material labeled. Empty canvases. Sometimes stained glass in ovals, squares, diamonds. If not a door in front of him, a piece of artwork with a door reflected. A cabin door among aspens. A wreath decorating a red-painted gold-handled suburban dream.

Here the buildings constructs laid bare, the pillars unpainted, still white, plain as the outside. As the fluorescent light from the room begins to dim, the walls meld to cold stone. His hands trail seeping rock covered with the black and blue grits of lichen. Polished and buffed, the bands of color, rust, sienna, pale yellow. Cooler as he steps deeper into the cave. Finally to the rust, tan, and white of limestone, streamlets of water vertically cutting and collecting bracelets of stone.

On the way home, he walks down from the curve in the road. With the light rain tapping his clothing and the storm still yet to move from the city. There are no flowers, the briar, the mesh gold and brown of fall, filling the spaces from chest to the earth around him. He picks some leaves popping and lifting from moss and mud, half-orange, splotched yellow. He tucks them between his office shirt and his coat. He looks out over the river, brown, cloudier than he imagined and enjoys how a small square of current pockets the rain. Circle after circle of folds.

Jenny (Guin) Martin spent her childhood in the Appalachian Mountains, earned her stripes in the Piedmont (Wake Forest University), earned her nickname in Australia, ran from the South to California, and then from California back to Asheville. This winter, she is writing and reading in Colorado.

About Blackbirds…—The inspiration for this story is the French Broad River, in a way.