Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It's a lovely day outside as The Observer writes this, one of those rare February days when we wish we still worked outside, or at least at some job that included outdoor naptimes on the list of employee perks. On days like today we can't help but recall tales from our days working a roofing crew. Why, here's one now:
When The Observer was 16 or 17, we — brother, Dad and Yours Truly — went out on a patch job in Little Rock somewhere, a bunch of identical houses in a cul de sac. Dad went up to the door and knocked and wiped his feet and went inside to stare grimly at dark ceiling spots with the homeowner. The Brothers Observer, meanwhile, hung around the truck, lounging there, lean as wolves. It was springtime, for once. It was beautiful.
After awhile, the garage door went up — clack! whirrrrrrrrrrr — and then this very old man came hobbling out on a walker. He shuffled down the driveway, the wheels on the walker going "squeak, squeak, squeak" in The Observer's memory, even though we know they didn't in real life, because that would just be too perfect. A mummy risen, he shuffled down to where we were standing and rattled to a stop at the line where the driveway met the street.
"BURDS!" said he. "Been trying to tell her. Peckin' holes in the roof. She don't listen to an edgewise word, why I oughta, to da moon, BURDS! etc." The Brobservers, meanwhile, stood there in our holey concert T-shirts and ball caps with sweat crusted around the brim, nodding, trying to figure out how to handle the situation through glances, saying the teenage equivalent of "that's nice," which sounds like "Uh-huh," only more condescending. Soon, through passed frowns, we had come to the completely unanimous agreement that the old dude was completely peanut butter-and-pickle-sammich crazy.
After a while, the old guy's daughter came out of the house and rushed down the driveway with the tails of her cardigan flapping, saying: "Oh, dad!" and "I've been looking for you!" and "Stop bothering these men about the birds" and "Come along dear." She took the old man by the shoulders, bodily turned him, then steered him away up the driveway: squeak, squeak, squeak. As they went, she turned and made that face, the Apology Face, that So Sorry to Have Been Any Trouble Face. Now, grown enough to decipher, The Observer is touched by the humanity of that gesture — the connection that existed in the space of a pained smile, even though she was wearing an outfit from M.M. Cohn's and the two of us were wearing day-old flashing cement around the rim of our cuticles.
They disappeared back inside, and then we were standing there again in the sun, ready to work, feeling young, feeling glad that we aren't some addled old fart who had to be led like a child back into a bland, comfortable, identical house in this cul de sac. And so we exchanged a glance of guilty relief, both of us not quite buying yet that one of these days we might be the old man — squeak, squeak, squeak — or that the broken-strapped watch on the dash of our father's Dodge was, even then, saying tick, tick, tick.
It was at that moment when we saw the crow. Black as asphalt, winging out of a stand of trees behind the cul de sac, just a sparkling obsidian flake at first, but bigger and bigger as it came. We stood there in a dream and watched it come. Watched the crow light on the ridge of the house. Watched it stalk up and down the wood shake, looking, looking, looking. And then it stopped. Thirty feet away, The Observer could imagine the hot-tar eye of the bird, which cocked his head. And then, in one practiced movement, a Zen archer, the bird genuflected, grasped the crown of a shiny roofing nail in his beak, and then tug, tug, tugged it free. Prize gathered, the crow fluttered its broken umbrella wings and flew off, back the way it came.
It's hard to keep from assigning some kind of moral to our own stories, friend, these old books The Observer carries in our head. In the end, we have to just keep telling ourselves: Nobody likes a blowhard, and besides, the world just isn't orderly enough most of the time to create fiction, neat as French polish over walnut grain. Existence is inherently messy, and the best you can do is just tell the story and let people get out of it what they will. Sometimes, a crow is just a crow. Maybe not in this case, however.
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