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Sheetz vs. Purple Martins by B.G. Firmani | Word Riot
Short Stories

July 15, 2014      

Sheetz vs. Purple Martins by B.G. Firmani

Danni and I became friends only after the son of the owner of the café where we worked, a trash-gourmet lunch place called The Hurrah in downtown Wilmington, tried to throw his mother down the cellar stairs. No one liked the mother, our boss, who was a delusional piece of work and who smilingly insisted we all call her Ma while treating us like thieves and convicts, but no one thought throwing her down the stairs was any kind of solution.
     I was the Salad Girl and Danielle, Danni as she liked to be called, had been hired as a dishwasher. I had to start early in the morning and she didn’t come in until the end of lunch rush, so what with our staggered hours and her being so particularly silent, small, and strange, I didn’t take her in at first. She wore dark ignore-me clothes and what my little sister Anna called a “choo-choo-head” cap, pulled right down to her eyebrow line. She walked with feet of lead as if wherever those feet could take her could only bring punishment, and yet she had tiny, industrious hands which, as I got to know her, I’d always see engaged in some nimble activity such as painting a fine line with a detail brush. As my mother would have said if she hadn’t already been dead by then, Danni had la bella mano.
     In the neighborhood where Anna and I grew up, people who wore engineer caps were the people who sold drugs, so even though by that time I’d lived in a real city and seen its sights and big-city ways, Danni’s cap made me write her off. I was nineteen and had already finished my first year at Philadelphia College of Art, and I was just back in Delaware for the summer to live with my dad and Anna rent-free in the sad house of my childhood and save up some money for school. I wasn’t there to dwell on specific Delaware behaviors or specific Delaware stupidities. Hard to explain, but the half-hour by train from Philadelphia to Wilmington in those days, the late 1980s, might as well have been from here to the moon.
     When my workday was over at three-thirty, my little sister Anna would come to pick me up in our dad’s old Chevy beater. Anna was the sweet, friendly sister to my brooding, sarcastic self, and she was actually the one who got to chatting with Danni and came to find out that she was an artist. Like me. Understand that in the context of The Hurrah, an artist could be only Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, or your cousin Timmy who drew metal-breasted Amazon women on the pages of his remedial language sciences notebook. In my mind I took to calling the place not The Hurrah but The Yahoo, owned as it was by a family of lunatics and staffed pretty exclusively, among the older folks at least, by bitter alcoholics.
     We all had a kind of pity for Ma’s son Bennington, who was a nice enough guy. He was gay in a campy show-tunesy kind of way but Ma was in an elaborate state of denial over this, and so she was always talking him up to whatever attractive young woman happened to walk in – each of whom would take one look at chubby, forty-six-year-old Bennington singing along to “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and turn her eyes to Ma as if to say, Are you kidding? For some mysterious reason there was only one tape that was allowed to be played at The Yahoo, the Best of Eydie Gormé, and we heard it so many times that summer we were practically bleeding from the ears. I’m not sure what song was playing when Ma arbitrarily erupted at Bennington in her delusional way one afternoon and was suddenly screaming You fucking faggot at him loud enough for the dining room to hear.
     She was standing at the top of the cellar stairs and Bennington, who was holding a big container of Cajun Sparkle, reached out and shoved her. It was like a reflex, chef Glen told us later. Ma somehow caught the banister and catapulted herself back up the stairs, flying at Bennington and catching him in a chokehold. Everyone agreed she would have killed him if chef Glen hadn’t pulled her off.
     I’d been putting things away deep in the walk-in and only copped to what was going on once the screaming began. I had my own delusions at that age, about “class” and “style” and conducting oneself elegantly through a self-constructed world of Art and Beauty, and so standing there I can only bet my mouth had fallen open in a flap of disbelief. I was still holding a metal mixing bowl of rémoulade when a voice next to me drawled: “Well, there’s a hot mess.”
     I turned to see the choo-choo-head dishwasher, Danni, with a lopsided smile on her face. It was as if she were watching a movie, as if these things didn’t touch her.
     “I can’t believe I work here,” I said.
     We went out back to smoke a cigarette. She offered me hers, Pall Malls, which seemed to me like some old-man brand, chosen as a novelty. The back was the trash area and since it was summer things were smelling pretty ripe, but Danni didn’t seem to notice this. I realized she was bursting to talk since she knew now that I was also an artist, and though I was the know-it-all culture snob in those days, I listened. She spoke in a deliberate way I would come to know well, as if she were weaving words in the air, tactile words, fantastic words that contained in themselves everything she loved, light and color and pigment, Symbolist painters like Fernand Khnopff and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmerand, the Vienna Secession, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Frida Kahlo, Bob Thompson, figurative painters of things unseen. You just did not routinely come up with people like this in Delaware.
     And in fact she was from South Central PA, near to Amish country, “Pennsyltucky” as some called it. Which was perhaps an even more unfertile ground. She was just my age and it turned out she’d gone to Tyler School of Art in Philly one semester but dropped out for reasons she didn’t go into. She was meaning to go back. In the in-between time, she’d somehow found her way to Wilmington and was living with some random acquaintances in a falling-down house on Baynard Boulevard, bizarrely near Salesianum, the all-boys’ Catholic high school where my cousin Frankie went. Despite the deep culture of her mind, the way Danni talked about this let me know she thought of Wilmington as a big city on a par with Philly, which showed me what a country mouse she really was. I was forever playing the sophistication game, so I’d never let myself to be impressed by something like a collection of small-town skyscrapers. I hated Delaware anyway, and was only looking to get away.
     At the end of that summer, my little sister Anna turned especially gloomy at my going back to school. Our mother had been dead in the ground not a year by then, and our dad had retreated into a kind of a fugue state. He worked for Red Clay Consolidated School District, which meant he had the summers off, so all that June-July-August we got to see him barely shift from his armchair, where he was forever watching episodes of “World at War.” He only seemed to rouse himself on Sunday mornings, when it was mandatory mass time at St. E’s. It would be impossible to measure how much I hated St. E’s, which was my family’s parish as well as the grammar school I’d been forced to attend. Even though like mine all the families who sent their kids there lived in the same poor-people’s row houses, my family had been branded the local weirdos, something to do with my mother being an artist, my father liking to read books instead of going to the Don Bosco Social Hall to play pinochle, and me talking in a little cat voice for the first three months of the first grade.
     Anyway, Anna, an innocent born and raised, was devoted to me in the most dreamy-eyed little-sister way. I felt bad to leave her but I needed to live my own free life, away from the land of Dupont, diocese gossip, and endless discussions about the efficacy of Bond-O. Anna had just turned sixteen and was now lamenting how she had no special talent, she wasn’t artistic like I was and like our mother had been, she was more like our father – earthbound, unimaginative. If she did have any special talent I would say it was in being a kind, mild sort of person who was always putting the needs of others before her own. I told her I knew she’d get out of there herself in time. She would be fine. And yet she always seemed to take my leaving as a kind of abandonment.
     Once I was back in Philly, Danni and I wrote each other long and intense letters, which seems unusual now but was what art kids everywhere, I guess, did in those days. We would decorate the envelopes lavishly, with Aubrey Beardsley-like grotesqueries or homages to the Belle Epoque. Sometimes Danni wouldn’t put her name at all above the address on Baynard Boulevard in Wilmington, but write something funny like “Hum-A-Car Rentals, Inc.” or “The Tragic Emporium” or “Direville USA.” The longer she was away from art school, the more her mood seemed to sink.
     And then, over Christmas, I finally saw her paintings.
     I was, and am, artistic in this way: I have a design eye. I see composition. I see bold lines, pattern. I see surface. I see these things clearly, I understand them. But Danni was the artist. She was painting on the edge between the abstract and the figurative, depthful work that you leaned into and kept seeing and seeing, work that was its own world. It was like layers of dreams and meaning and emotionality, built up, depleted, built up, negated, rediscovered, deeply and intricately modeled, and she felt color like you feel the skin of your hands, of your body, like the way you touch your face in circles to rub lotion into it. Deep reds, thick purples, hard blues were her colors: colors like bruises or wounds. I had thought art was a necessity for me but I realized then that I was not that kind of artist. I put too much distracting thought into things: as more than one of my teachers at school had told me, I intellectualized. I was serviceable. But her talent was so huge that I didn’t even take offense at this. I didn’t lick my wounds. She was incomparable.
     There was one shape in her paintings, in every painting, which always showed up, sometimes almost clearly, sometimes almost completely obscured. It was a white shape, almost like a house, but instead of windows it had holes in it. It was repeated like a kind of visual tick. I traced it again and again with my fingertip, and then finally asked her, what was this thing?
     “It’s a purple martin house,” she told me. She was cleaning a brush as she spoke, pinching the bristles with her small, spidery fingers. She said she’d always loved purple martins because they feed on the wing, meaning you’d see them swooping in the air, eating all the bugs right out of the air in the summertime. And the thing was they can do this amazing thing, feed on the wing, but they don’t even know how to house themselves. So people out where she was would build these houses for them, often way up high, on twenty-foot poles. You saw them all over, she said, out by where she was.
     I was a city kid, if a small-city kid, and I didn’t really give a fuck about things like little birds. I wanted to talk about her work. She seemed pleased that I liked it, but took no deep notice of the awe it inspired in me. Weird to say, she didn’t see it as being in any continuum with the painters she loved so much, and when I grew more insistent in my praise, she told me that painting was just what she needed to do, an adjunct to breathing or drinking or eating. That she did none of those other three things especially well was also spectacularly apparent. She seemed to live on Pall Malls and the cheapest beer possible (usually Yuengling), and for food she might eat some crap from the Wawa like pork rinds or an ancient rotisserie hot dog. Probably without the free daily meal at The Yahoo, where she was still washing dishes, she would have ended up in the hospital with an IV drip in her arm.
     “They hired a new Salad Girl,” she said, in the drawly way she used whenever she was borrowing someone else’s pat and ill-fitting words. The new Salad Girl was a serious freakshow, she said, and was always doing things like plunging her unwashed hands into the mashed potatoes or blowing the sous-chef Marky in the walk-in. I was suitably appalled by these descriptions but Danni, as was her tendency whenever she was talking about anything other than Art or the Unnamable, seemed to treat this as all in a day’s work.
     That afternoon, since I had my dad’s old beater, we went over the art museum on Bancroft Parkway to look at the Pre-Raphaelites. This was what I grew up doing with my mom. My mother thought these paintings were terrible, corny, bad-perspective Victorian disjecta membra, all her words, but she loved them anyway and because of this I did too.
     I thought the paintings would interest Danni, but the whole time we were there she obsessed over how she was going to afford a new tube of Cobalt Violet. She said this many, many times: how would she get a new tube of Cobalt Violet? And though she was thinking out loud and not asking for anything, I realized that it was clear to all parties that she was the genius who didn’t know how to live in the world, and I was the problem-solver, the clever one who knew how to get by. Afterward, we went to Wilmington Art Supply and I bought her a big tube of Cobalt Violet, a Christmas present.
     She was so grateful and inordinately happy with her new tube of Cobalt Violet that it was all I could do not to choke myself up at my own munificence.
     Such a thing put in place a new aspect to our friendship.
     Anna was thrilled that I was home for winter break, and couldn’t get enough of staying up and talking. Anna and the miracle of Danni notwithstanding, all the sights and sounds around me were wearing on my nerves – to hear twenty people in a room all related to you and all called either Frankie, Anthony, or some version of Mary all saying “water” like “wudder” over an endless Christmas dinner can only plunge a person like me into the deepest depression – and I was counting down the days until I could get back to my real life.

*

In one of those bad-timing things, my junior year I transferred to Pratt in Brooklyn just when Danni had finally managed to re-enroll at Tyler in Philly.
     I’d just got sick of the scene there – it seemed like in that particular little alterna-world everyone was in everyone else’s business and was constantly picking fights over the pettiest possible thing. I needed something new. I’d spent that summer living in Philly with some punk-rock chicks from around town, and I realize now we were all fronting in the worst sort of pretend-tough way – an attitude that can suddenly morph into the real version of the thing if a person pretends too well. And so one of these nice Main Line girls was a confirmed crackhead by the end of summer, and another, who arrived from New Hope with the sweet face of Pollyanna, had got a tribal tattoo across her face and was threatening to “cut off the prick” of her cheating rock-star boyfriend. Plus, the particular dilapidation of Philly was getting to me. I remember being at the Rodin Museum one weekend when Danni was up visiting and seeing huge puddles of dirty water on the floor, as if we were in some untended bathroom. It made me angry, I remember, in the way someone’s civic-minded teacher might get, but when I turned my eyes to Danni I saw she was in tears. She cried inconsolably all that afternoon.
     So at the end of that summer, I was only too happy to leave Philly and get a share in Fort Greene with some other Pratt students. And it was in that apartment that November when I got the call telling me that Danni had had something called a “manic break” and been found wandering shoeless in the snow in Rittenhouse Square.
     She went back home after that, to the little town in Pennsy out near Amish country where she was from, to live with her parents. At some point she voluntarily went into the local “rest home,” and stayed there for almost a year.
     She didn’t like to write letters now, so we talked on the phone. Even this was hard because of all the meds she was on, which made her muzzy. When in the course of a phone call I’d run out of my funny stories and her already spare words on the other end of the line had dwindled down to nothing, I’d ask about her painting. She’d inevitably perk up and tell me about what she was working on. She was always painting. I always heard this with great relief and this was what I latched onto, because for me it was the mark of normalcy. I told her to hurry up and get better so that she could get back to our real life. We talked about her coming to Pratt, and she liked the idea. We talked about this so much that it seemed like an inevitability. She just had to get well again.
     Strangely, my senior year Anna announced to me that she’d got into college up in Vermont to study some kind of animal science thing. They’d given her a full scholarship; she didn’t have to pay a penny. Somehow I’d always just assumed she’d go to University of Delaware or some school nearby in Maryland. I remember feeling competitive with my little sister for the first time in my life, and having to swallow my annoyance. And I remember opening my mouth to say something like, Shouldn’t you stay by dad? But I closed it again without speaking. I hope I congratulated her. I hope I said I was proud of her.
     When I finished at Pratt it was easy to stay in Brooklyn. Williamsburg was wide open in those days and I got a two-bedroom with a friend from school, $400 between us, right on Metro Avenue amid the Italian bakeries and salumerie. We all of us got entry-level jobs at Pearl Paint, which was enough to get by on in those days, and also scored you a 20% discount on art supplies. I would mail boxes of alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, phthalocyanine blue out there to Danni in her lonely stretch of Pennsyltucky, which I always pictured as a large, flat place of soybean fields and broken-down Repent billboards.
     Eventually Danni enrolled in a community college out there, a place that barely had an art department – a place good enough for plenty but which I saw as an insult to her talent – and that was where she dug in her plodding feet, way out in South Central PA. Again, where she would be sad I would be angry, and I hated the way she accepted this diminished state of affairs as a kind of ho-hum inevitability. It was like she was burning down her great gifts with a series of cheap matchsticks.
     “One guy here,” she said on the phone one day, telling me about her teachers, “is way into portraiture based on Major League Baseball greats.
     We were both twenty-five when Danni finally got her art degree. I remember reading in a book about Renaissance artists around that time that twenty-five is the age at which most men feel they have failed. By then Pearl Paint kinds of jobs were becoming a thing of the past, and I was doing design production work for an art book publisher; in fact I read those words about failure in one of the books, in a section about Leonardo, which I was laying out.
     There was a big celebration for Danni around her graduation, and I rented a car and drove down there.
     It was a strange route in that once you got out of the thick parts of Jersey there really was nothing there at all, nothing but fields and signs advertising dairy products and the very same dilapidated Bible-quote billboards of my imagining. I was somehow surprised by how nice Danni’s parents’ house was, a large Craftsman bungalow with a groovy sunken living room, all of it filled with relatives and local friends and schoolmates and everyone so happy for her. Who were all these people, these strangers I didn’t know? I felt obscurely infuriated by them and dreamed that Danni and I still had a special connection. And I guess we did. Because at some point, late in the afternoon when everyone was outside in the nice backyard, lazy with beer and scotch and hot dogs from the grille, a storm suddenly came up out of nowhere. It was one of those lightning-quick storms that maybe you only get in flat big biblical country such as that place, a huge rushing of wind that struck me as nothing so much as a tremendous beating of wings, a laying out over fields and towns and patchwork countryside. The great wind blew back the trees all around us, thick old poplar trees, and the sky went dark with huge streaks of light, and the undersides of the poplar branches flew up, showing their leaves all brilliant silver. It was beautiful and uncanny and no one was seeing it at all, they were all carrying on with their chatty party ways but I turned to find Danni and there she was just gazing up at the trees, a look of wonder on her face as if she were alone with this in the world. And then she must have felt me looking because she lowered her gaze to me and we locked eyes, as if to say:
     How is it that no one else can see what we see?
     Why does no one else see what we see?
     And it was then, so late in my internal realization clock, that I understood Danni was going to stay there, stay there in that nothing place for good. That she was never actually coming back at all.
     The day after that I got in my rental car and drove away. In the patchwork countryside, over near Lititz or Mt. Zion or maybe as far out as Kutztown, I saw my first white building way up on a pole: a purple martin house.

*

At the publishing company everyone was always telling me what a great graphic design eye I had and how I could certainly do more than production work, so eventually I got my portfolio together and started shopping myself around.
     I got a job offer from, of all places, an advertising agency. Advertising agencies were the kinds of places that, in the past, were roundly condemned by me and people like me as the seat of the enemy. As everything that was wrong with American “culture.” This one was all the more corruptive because it wasn’t a stodgy old baking-soda-jingle kind of place but a “hot,” “cool,” ad agency where they especially prized “edgy” “creatives” – people who cussed at work or had Nirvana on vinyl or had sported punk-rock hair in the ’80s. It was repellent to me but they waved money in my face and I took it. I was sick of being poor.
     I was thrilled to tell Danni all about this on the phone, and I was careful to cast in it the light of look-how-I’m-sticking-it-to-the-Man-right-under-his-nose kind of way. I could tell by the way she took her breaths that she was chain-smoking, endlessly sucking down her stinky Pall Malls as I talked. When I had finished my funny story and I was waiting for her to respond it seemed like forever before she spoke.
     “I guess you’ve hit the big time,” she said.
     I thought I found some extra-absurd edge to her voice, almost a mean edge, a condescension, but I let it go. It was not as if she could find any kind of art gig down where she was. She’d found something, as she said, in food service, slinging hash in the cafeteria of the local junior high. She told me it was good because she could walk to work, which was important because she couldn’t drive a car. I pictured her in her vulnerable and strange smallness walking along some miserable road past trim and ugly one-story houses with ersatz deer or big metallic balls on weird pedestals in their front yards. I pictured her walking with her head down, choo-choo cap on, searching the ground for the random gifts of the rural suburbs, pieces of quartzite or cicada shells or a tiny Barbie spoon. I pictured people looking at her and wondering, What is wrong with that girl?
     It was after this time that my little sister Anna moved back to Wilmington. She’d always been closer to our dad, and it was she who realized just how sick he was, “sick with the cancer” as people in our neighborhood liked to say, and since I was the one with the career while she’d only been working part-time as a veterinarian’s assistant in Brattleboro, it made all the sense in the world that she go down there to take care of him.
     Our dad went pretty quickly after that and in a way it was all the same to me, I mean only in a way, it wasn’t as if I hated him or anything, but it was just that all life had gone out of Delaware for me when my mother died. Died so quickly ten years before. I was the only one close to my mother. My father told me he realized too late he had married a princess, a person with irrational ways, overly artistic and not practical at all. A burden. He said this to me as if confessing, said it to me when I was still a little girl, and so I knew the grief he felt at her death was nothing so much as guilt. He was no one I needed to hear from.

*

So in the time that followed sometimes I’d go see Danni down there in that boring town and sometimes she’d come up to the city. There was even a pass when she thought she could live in New York and there was some younger friend who got an apartment out in Ozone Park, which lives up to its name in being no kind of pleasant place whatsoever, and Danni set up house with her and got a job at a chicken wings place. It was touch and go. I remember one afternoon we happened to be walking past Bryant Park and there were a bunch of Amish-looking women lined up in their neat caps and plain frocks, their hands held down at their sides, and they were singing. Danni veered off course from the sidewalk and went to them as if magnetized.
     There was a table in front of the group with a bunch of tiny booklets on it, all in different languages. It was some kind of evangelistic outreach thing. I picked up the booklet with the most unfamiliar alphabet and looked at the back of it, where someone had written in old-school cursive: Thai. Danni was transfixed and stood in front of the singers as if they were not humans at all but a movie she was watching.
     “You like these Amish folks?” I said.
     “They’re Mennonites,” she said. “They’re from near me.”
     Her eyes were filled with tears.
     And so it was not surprising that she landed back down there after that, in her parents’ house, then back at the rest home, then back in her parents’ house. She still would call me a lot and we would talk. One day, on the phone, it occurred to me that almost everything Danni said now was like something almost anyone else in the world might say. Anyone else in the whole wide world. It occurred to me that the things that made her Danni to me were lost in this medicated and diminished Danni suit she had to wear. I realized even the borrowed-speech-quotation drawl I had grown so used to was in some kind of deep abeyance. I guess more time passed than I knew.
     After our father had passed, Anna stayed in Delaware, a fact that left me blinking. I didn’t understand her lack of rancor. Her complacency. Anna with her rose-colored glasses, with her skimming-along-the-la-la-happy-surface way. And she must not have ever really understood how sad our parents’ marriage had been, what a warning it was to us both, because before she was even thirty she got married herself, to a guy named Kent, decent and boring as oatmeal. They eventually bought a house in Hockessin, which is like winning the snob lottery for a kid from the crappy part of Wilmington where we grew up.
     At some point I went down to visit them at their new house. Anna was having an afternoon barbeque thing, and she introduced me around to all her new up-market Hockessin friends as her incredibly talented big sister who lives in New York and is an Artist, which made me feel like a fraud and a cheat, and caused me fill up on booze in order to get through the time without killing myself. At some point I retreated into the big new house and looked out the window at all the people on the lawn. Except for Anna and maybe Kent a little they might as well have been a movie for how much I cared about them. I knew what they were talking about and it was still Dupont and diocese gossip but in these new, elaborate money years it wasn’t Bond-O anymore but buying up foreclosed houses to make money off other people’s misfortune. I had no business being there at all.
     I had no business being anywhere at all. What happened to me? It was like I’d left that place only to get lost in a huge sad world.
     After all the guests left and it was just Anna and her husband in the back yard putting things away, I went outside again. It was dusk. It had been a rainy season with a lot of bugs and Kent was showing me these bags of water he’d hung from what he called the pergola and how by some trick of the light, the bags of water, of wudder, kept the flies away. I was looking at the dying light refracted in the water when all of a sudden I heard this kind of frantic whoosing sound. I stepped out from under the canopy and looked up and saw the sky suddenly filled with hundreds of black birds, all swooping in the air. Anna and Kent had come out from under the canopy and stood there looking up too. I had this kind of quicksilver unexpected rush of feeling, and I said to my sister, Where did all these swallows come from?
     “They’re actually purple martins,” Anna said. “They’re feeding on insects in the air.”
     “They’re not purple,” I said, annoyed with her know-it-all exurban ways.
     “In the light you can see they’re purple,” she said. It was night by then and I couldn’t see her face but I somehow knew she was smiling kindly at me. Mild, sweet, unimpeachable Anna. I hated knowing that she was smiling kindly at me.
     I needed to get out of there. I felt like I was pretty sober by then, I’d been made sober by ennui and air conditioning, and I walked around the outside of their huge house and got in my rental car without saying a word. I knew it was maybe four hours out from that part of Delaware to Danni’s house in South Central Pennsylvania. I needed to tell her, and it was important, I needed to tell her that I had finally seen the purple martins and I understood what they meant to her.
     Out there in those eastern counties, out there over the state line, I stayed on skinny ribbons of country roads lit only by the moon. I had to stay alert and hunker down and I put on the radio and played all kinds of crappy music, braying along with the songs to keep myself awake. I realized at some crucial point deep in the night that I’d left my cell behind on the kitchen counter at Anna’s house so I had no GPS or anything, and couldn’t even call Danni if I got lost.
     All the roads got to looking the same in the moonlight, so of course I did get lost. Finally I pulled over, pulled over by a field that had some kind of diamond-shaped metal plaque on the fence around it, probably something telling you what kind of GMO seeds had been sown there. At least I saw a plaque like that when I woke up again. It was earliest dawn, the light just coming in behind me from the east. Only then did I understand how drunk I’d been the night before.
     I pulled out and drove, my mind much clearer. I had the sun behind me so I knew I was driving west. I understood the route now, and so it was not even seven in the morning when I saw signs for Danni’s town. She was a hair-trigger sleeper and early riser and I knew she’d be awake by then, but I wanted to stop and call to let her know I was coming.
     It struck me that it must have been ages since I’d been there, out there with Danni in her parents’ Craftsman bungalow, which was filled with Danni’s paintings. I thought of how years back she’d told me how her paintings were duly revered by her mother’s visiting Sodality group, an uncritical cohort of butter-sandwich ladies, as the work of a local eccentric. She still was able to roll her eyes sarcastically back then. And it was with this memory that I realized that when I’d get there now, this morning, the paintings hanging on the wall would be the very same ones that I’d seen those years before. Nothing would have changed.
     And I wondered how many years had passed since Danni had painted anything at all.
     On the outskirts of town, I crested a hill and was brought up short by the sight of an enormous new gas station. It sprawled, more like a campus than a gas station. I was used to the compressed scale of things in cities, and next to that this thing was huge, with multiple pump bays radiating out from an enormous store advertising coffee and sandwiches and dog food and ice-cream treats. Everything was glisteningly new, and the brand color was a bright, fire-engine red. Sheetz, I read, the name of the store. I thought of a thousand bored teenagers out in cow country making fun of this name in a thousand bored ways.
     And I thought of an unfulfilled artist kid, stopped here for reasons hard to explain, sitting in someone else’s car and leaning her forehead against the old cracked dashboard, thinking how joyless, how man-made it all was. No kind of dreaming, no kind of beauty any part of the equation. I thought of how a girl like that would only be wishing to escape.
     I parked the car and found a phone, to call her.
     Danni picked it up on the second ring. I felt a lightness in my heart, inexplicable, at the familiar sound of her voice.
     “Guess who it is!” I said to her.
     “Hi,” she said, knowing it was me but sounding confused.
     “I’m near you, I’m close by,” I said, looking out to the west, where the road continued, the road that would take me to her house.
     “I just wanted to see you,” I said.
     “You wanted to see me?” she said. I pictured her sitting at her parents’ kitchen table, her hand held around a warm cup of coffee, slowly smoking a Pall Mall and staring off into the driveway.
     “Yes,” I said.
     “I don’t know,” she said. A distrustful note crept into her voice. “Where are you?”
     “I’m at this huge, gross gas station thing called Sheetz,” I said.
     “You’re at the Sheetz. Oh, you’re at the Sheetz.” Her voice was excited. “It’s so clean there. Do you think you could get me a sandwich? They have a turkey one that comes all wrapped.”
     I felt my heart welling and I knew my voice would go but I had to keep it normal.
     “I guess I just wanted you to know that I finally saw them,” I said. “I finally saw the purple martins.”
     “You saw the purple martins?” she said.
     “The way they swoop around, the way they ‘feed on the wing,’ it’s so fantastic,” I said. “I understand now why you love them.”
     There was silence from her end. I heard her inhale on her cigarette, and then exhale.
     “Purple martins,” she said at last. “They’re a kind of bird.”
     I looked back into the bright blank morning, as all of my memories melted into the sun.

BGFirmani2013VeniceAbout the author:

B.G. Firmani has published fiction in the Bellevue Literary Review, BOMB, the Brooklyner, the Kenyon Review, and Philadelphia Stories. She has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and was a 2012 Fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She also (occasionally) writes a blog about Italian-American literature and folkways called Forte e Gentile.

    1 comment to Sheetz vs. Purple Martins by B.G. Firmani

    • Russ

      I can see the heart in this one Beegee, and feel the loss. I struggle with the longing for that radiant essence of who we all are for a brief moment in the light of our days before the chain reaction of our lives rips it out of existence like neptunium in a quantum collapse. All of us time travelers of memories on different clocks, finding each others, and often our own, moment out of sequence; finding them too late. Sweet agony indeed to be aware of the ravaging poetry of time that defines us.
      This story touched me with the bitter-sweet reality among the fiction. Well done. Hope all is well with you.
      -Russ

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