Maybe We’re on the Ocean
by Dan Korgan
Suzy’s neck is smeared with dried yellow paint. With a streak of blue across her mouth, it sure looks like she’s been eating paint again. Hands trembling, she sets the paint brush on her easel, grins through her crooked teeth and tucks her thinning brown hair behind her ears.
“Hon, you ready?” she says.
Suzy smiles at me. “There is one thing though. This dog growls at men sometimes.”
I follow her to our bedroom. When she calls me Hun, I imagine long boats, dragonheads at the bow, men with long beards and horned helmets, but I know better than that.
Suzy lays three skirts on the bed. “Now, which one do you like?”
“The one in the middle,” I say.
“Here,” she says, “take it with you.”
She hands me the skirt. It’s thin cotton paisley, one of my favorites. Seems like just yesterday we got naked in the field at the college, under a maple tree, close to the trail, long before we had thought about bringing a child into this world.
Suzy opens the front door for me and waves goodbye as if she’s farther away from me than she really is. “Good luck with the dog. It’s a real beauty. You wait and see...
“The Huns didn’t sail,” she says.
“But they did wear magic helmets,” I say.
Across the street, Miller is mowing his front yard with one of those old-time push mowers. He’s a well-developed man who keeps his hair as short as a putting green. I wave good day and he goes on with his grunting and pushing.
I start the car and drive past the high school. Back then, Suzy and I had the same teachers but she graduated in ’84 so we barely crossed paths. I pull the car over and kill the engine, look across the football field’s fresh chalked lines to the green and gold sign that welcomes the Huskies. In the passenger’s seat the lifeless skirt gets me a little nervous. Who would think of something like a garment?
Then I get anxious and tickle my own company. Sometimes I play Suzy. Some sailor plays me. When I play Suzy, Suzy likes sailors. There’s a sailor in me. There’s a sailor in us all. That’s what I think anyway and move right along past the VERN. The neon sign used to say TAVERN but the first two letters went haywire. Sometimes it just flickers RN.
When the letters VERN fail it flickers T & A. Seriously, it’s not that kind of place. The afternoon before last, I was sitting next to a local at the bar. She drinks beer over ice. She told me her kids were all grown and never call her anymore. She has three cats, though, and each has its own diet. “My cats are very very particular,” she says. Beer and ice, ugh.
So Suzy made this deal with a friend of ours who handles strays as a hobby, rescues cats and dogs and sometimes even birds. Leelin’s got a reputation for nurturing lost or maimed animals and finding their rightful owners. Sometimes I drive while she hunts down strays.
At the park last summer, we shared a bottle of wine and talked until the birds began to chirp at four-thirty in the morning. Then we climbed a tree to look over the marsh where the blue herons hide, to talk about our ups and downs, the swings and merry-go-rounds.
When I arrive at her house, her daughter skips down the sidewalk wearing a collar studded with diamonds, a black leather jacket, and army boots. I pass her on the way to the front door.
“Here to get the dog?” she says.
“Right-on,” she says. She skips past me. “Mom’s in the backyard, follow the stones.”
“It growls at the male species,” she says.
“I know.” And I hold up the skirt.
Around the side I find a Western Yew, pluck a red berry, and roll it between my thumb and index finger. I hear the bark of this plant is a medicine, helps cure cancer patients and all, but it’s not what Suzy needs. Not what I need either.
Carrying a basket of patty-pan squash, Leelin gives me a wink as she walks up the deck stairs. I follow her up.
“Don’t slip,” she says.
“Green stuff,” she says.
“I’ve got this skirt,” I say.
“I can see. Would you like some tea?”
“Gotta shot of whiskey?”
“It’s Saturday,” I say.
“OK. You OK?”
I rest the hanger on the deck railing. The skirt swings in the wind, and I want to tell Leelin that Suzy and I are not genetic dead-ends. She brings me a clean Jack and takes small sips of tea.
“Her work is not all that normal,” I say.
“OK,” she says. “But many of the greatest...” she continues, but I do not want to hear about Virginia Woolf or Sandy Duncan or Vincent van Gogh, or any of those high-functioning “crazy people.”
“She’s cutting up her meds,” I say.
“She’s gained five pounds, that’s good.”
“She told me about the sailor.”
“It’s part of it you know,” says Leelin. “She sold a painting for five-hundred.”
I finish the shot. It slips down my throat burning, and the wind picks up. When the leaves fall, it is an amazing thing. The wind takes them into flight. I squint my eyes and try to imagine they are birds, thousands of wings flapping — thousands of birds. But they are maple leaves and there is no getting around that.
“Take it easy on yourself,” Leelin says.
“I’ve been trying to do that, Leelin. Remember the park?”
“Warren,” she says. I follow Leelin to the living room, the skirt taking flight behind me.
“The dog is upstairs. I’ll be right down.”
I make myself at home, take off my shoes and pants, and find Leelin’s cosmetics in the bathroom cupboard. I smear on some lipstick, Red Cedar Brown, looks fine. The perfume bottle says, “Secret Gardens Light Musk Scent Oil .40 Fl. Oz.” Smells good enough. I dunk a Q-tip in the bottle, place a swab behind both ears, slip on the skirt breezy between my legs, and address the living room.
“What kind’a dog is it?” I ask.
“Bundle of nerves, I tell you.”
“A real beauty,” she says.
While I drive home, the clouds soar above us. I’m driving and driving from here to there. Maybe we’re on the ocean, maybe we’re not; I’m driving because I have lived here all my life and the shore is farther away than it seems to be. And you should know, Mini, that Suzy and I are just a couple of renters and Suzy is a legendary artist. I do not very often talk about her when she is not present.
Besides she can hear every word I say even if it is just a whisper or if it is just a thought and she’ll know our exact location even if we are a thousand miles at sea — but this is a most untried time, a time when the most unfamiliar birds are sailing. So let’s put on our magic helmets, Mini, and we will take care. We will take care...
Copyright © 2011 by Dan Korgan