ONE FOOT INTO NOTHING
From American Writing, 2000
© 2000 George Bishop

 

“Come on in,” she said.

Fran’s sister was sitting on the couch in the living room when I knocked on the side of the screen door. “Come on in,” she said. We could see each other through the screen. She didn’t get up.

She was smoking a cigarette, rolling the ashes off the end of it into the neck of an empty beer bottle. “Long time no see, Archer.” She spoke like this; she was watching a Dallas Cowboys game on the TV across the room, her socks up on the coffee table. I almost forgot her name for a second.

“Hey Margaret. How ya’ doing?” I said.

“Not bad, can’t complain.” She didn’t get up, but she took her feet off the coffee table and sat up on the couch, putting the beer bottle down on the table. “Frannie, Archer’s here!” she shouted over her shoulder. “Here, sit down. You want a beer or anything?”

“No, thanks,” I said. I sat in the chair at the end of the coffee table. The table was varnished wood, the kind with the dark grains that looks like it’s not even real wood, and with a dark glass top. Smoked glass they call it. It was a set, the furniture in the living room. It didn’t look like Fran, it didn’t look like something she’d buy. The whole condo thing wasn’t like Fran, living with her sister and all. The off-white carpet, already some stains on it; the chrome and wicker barstools at the kitchen counter; the home entertainment console, with more of that smoked glass—it was all fairly new, somebody had picked it out, paid for it, had it delivered, maybe it was even high-quality stuff, I don’t know; but to tell you the truth it made me depressed just to even be there.

Margaret and I talked a little—the usual, jobs, so forth—and then she said, “I’m glad you came, Archer. She’s been really bad.”

This was strange. I didn’t say anything and she went on.

“She won’t go out or anything, she just stays in her room all day, I don’t even know what she does in there, it’s like she won’t even talk to me . . . She’s so weird.” She paused, then said, “I think she was happy you called.”

“Frannie!” she shouted again, and then I thought how Fran hadn’t answered the first time Margaret shouted for her either.

I hadn’t seen Fran for three years when I ran into her at the Arby’s the week before. Which was strange, too, because Fran wasn’t the kind of girl that you would normally see at an Arby’s. I mean, I never pictured her going there, I figured she was a vegetarian; though it’d been a long time, and I don’t honestly remember if she was even a vegetarian when I first knew her. Still, you wouldn’t expect to see Fran in a fast food place. You wouldn’t even expect to see her in a grocery store, for that matter. Unless it was about three o’clock in the morning and the store was completely empty and she was buying one pint of milk or something, holding it rocking in one hand while she walked up and down the aisles just to, I don’t know, look at things. I couldn’t imagine what she ate.

Fran finally came out, from down the hallway. She was wearing all black, like she always does. “Hi,” she said, and made a smile that looked like it took a lot of effort and lasted for only half a second and then came straight across the room and hugged me and said “Archer.” Which was strange. Margaret had turned back to the Cowboys game. “Okay, we can go,” Fran said, and we left, she didn’t even say goodbye to her sister. I turned back while Fran was holding open the screen door.

“See you later, Margaret,” I said.

“You kids have fun,” she said.

Fran always wore black, from the very first I knew her. Whenever I saw her I would always say, “Somebody die?” Mainly because this was about the stupidest thing I could think of to say, and also because it always annoyed her. Usually she would roll her eyes and pfuff through her lips. Sometimes she would laugh, like she couldn’t help it. “You’re so queer, Archer,” she’d say.

But today, and last week at the Arby’s, I didn’t say this, “Somebody die?” I wanted to when I saw her; it was the first thing I thought to say practically. But it’d been a long time, we were older, and she didn’t look like she’d laugh. She looked like somebody had died. So I didn’t say it at the Arby’s, and I didn’t say it now, when we were walking away from the condo. But I thought it.

It was almost winter. We’d had some really cold days here already, but today it was bright and sunny again. It felt good, the warm sun, and the air seemed especially clear, and the sun seemed especially bright, like it does when it’s still a little cold out. We walked, Fran and I, towards the campus.

I knew Fran from when we were both at the university. She was in the art department there, I was studying broadcasting. I used to go hang out at the art bungalows sometimes, and that’s how I met her. The art department was in these buildings that had once been R.O.T.C., white wooden bungalows raised up off the ground, a little colony of four of them off at the edge of campus. Very plain buildings, all of them the exactly alike. But one of them, The Office they called it, was always being painted by the art students in these crazy colors. It was funny, standing there in the middle of these other white shacks. The Office had a refrigerator that was always stocked with beer, and this is where the art freaks used to hang. That’s what they called them in the other departments, the art freaks. Our university was big on sports. Still is. Football, especially.

So I used to go by there sometimes, a friend of a friend thing, but nobody seemed to mind, even though I didn’t know their names and they didn’t really know me. They got used to seeing me around, I guess. “Want a beer?” they’d always say. Almost every night at sunset you could find some of them hanging out there. Especially on Fridays. “I’ve got an Office meeting,” was their big joke then. “Got to go to The Office. Important meeting.” Fran was the one who finally explained it to me, that they called this bungalow The Office. They had an old couch there, orange, its stuffing coming out in places, really ugly, like it’d been thrown out by another department years ago. But when the weather was good they’d move this couch outside in front of The Office. They’d have the music going, Talking Heads, music like that, art music; but also stuff you wouldn’t expect, like Hank Williams, whom I happen to admire tremendously, both Senior and Junior. The tape deck was daubed and splattered with different colors of paint—from people having it in their studios while they were painting, I guess. But it looked all right. I mean, it looked African or something. And after a few beers with the art freaks, all of them so weird and strange, the couch out there on the grass in front of The Office, the music going; after a few beers I’d be looking at the tape deck, how it seemed to change its colors every week, like some wild African bird, and I’d be wishing that if I could have even one cool thing in my room that it’d be this tape deck. I was living in the dorm then; it was pretty god-awful.

At the Arby’s it was Fran who asked me out. Drop by sometime, she said. We can go get a beer or something. She was holding onto an orange plastic tray with a Coke and french fries and Arby burger, her hair chopped off, her face small and white under the fluorescents. “Please,” is how I heard it. “Please drop by.” So that’s where we were going now, heading over to Maple Street where the campus bars are.

You could tell there was a football game on that night because of all the students out in their cars and jeeps. They’d drive by screaming, the girls in their sorority shirts in the backs of the jeeps screaming and waving their beer cups. Fran seemed to bend in to me every time they passed. I’m glad I’m done with all that. Couldn’t wait to leave, to tell you the truth.

But it was nice now, to be out walking. When the weather’s nice like this we’ve got a really pretty campus. The live oak trees hanging down over the streets, the old buildings standing there. Fran was telling me about what she’d been doing since she graduated. It sounded interesting: She’d been to Greece, and then to some island in Georgia to work with a museum or a gallery there, then she was in New York—I mean, I’ve barely left the state myself. But she didn’t seem very excited about any of it. I’d say, Wow, that must’ve been great, Greece. And she’d say, Yeah, it was okay. And then, we’d be walking, and if there was a pause when neither one of us was saying anything, she’d make these sighs, out of nowhere; you could hear them, they were loud. Like black airy pits opening up in the sidewalk in front of our feet. It was strange. She did this a lot.

She’d just finished a job here at the university, she said, on the bell tower. We have a bell tower on the campus, in the quad. It’s like a landmark; if you visit here it’s probably the first thing they’ll show you. “And this is our bell tower,” they’ll say. Fran said she just finished helping to do some restoration work on it. I said I didn’t know that, and she said she’d show me if I wanted to see it; which was fine with me, I wasn’t really looking forward to Maple Street anyway. So we kept walking past the gates to go to the bell tower.

Fran used to do pottery. That was her thing, ceramics. But she also used to do about everything else in the art department—drawing, painting, sculpture. She could make beads. Which as we all know is one of the most practical skills a person can have today—bead making. I still have one someplace that she made, a bead necklace. I don’t guess I’ve ever actually worn it, but I’ve still got it somewhere. We didn’t talk about this then.

We crossed the quad to the tower. Little kids were out playing football on the grass. “Hey, watch it there, tiger!” I said when one of them ran into my legs. Fran nearly smiled.

At the bottom of the bell tower Fran walked right up to the glass doors. They were still unlocked. You can go into the bottom of the tower; there’s old photographs of the campus on the walls. But I didn’t know you could go up inside the tower, I’d never heard of anyone doing this. “I know the guard,” she said while she was opening the glass door. On account of the work she’d been doing there.

This old guy, the guard, said hello to Fran like they were old friends. Only he called her Annie. “Hello! Annie!” he said. “How’s it going, Marco?” she said. “Okay!” He’d been sitting at a desk reading a newspaper when we came in; he took off his glasses and set them down on the newspaper when he stood up to say hello. They were both grinning like crazy, Fran and this old guy. It’s the first time I saw her even begin to look like she was feeling okay. She introduced me: “This is a friend of mine—Archer.” I shook hands with the old guy; he was tall, he had huge hands. I didn’t think he knew much English. “How are you, sir!” he said. He was almost shouting. Maybe he was hard of hearing. I was smiling, too; I was practically laughing, I don’t know why. He had on a guard hat that looked like it was three sizes too small for him. “Fine, fine, thank you, sir,” I was saying. “Okay!” he said.

Fran said, “Marco, can we go up? I want to show him the tower.” “Of course, of course, Madame. You may!” He was nuts, this old guy. He pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket—they were fastened to his belt with a chain—and we followed him across the lobby to a black door in one corner. He didn’t walk like an old man, he didn’t shuffle; he loped, if you could say that. “Thanks a lot, Marco,” Fran said while he was unlocking the door. “We won’t be long.” “My pleasure, Madame!” he said, then he held the door open for us and I followed Fran through. It was a little door; you had to bend over to go through it. “Thanks,” I said to the old guy. His glasses were still sitting on the newspaper under the reading light where he’d laid them.

After you squatted through this little door you were inside. Fran turned on the lights. Above us was the tower. Wooden stairs cut back and forth to the top, as far as you could see. The inside walls were red brick. Which I never expected somehow. “Wow,” I said. She was already climbing the stairs. “Come on,” she said.

We started marching up to the top. There were lightbulbs in wire cages up along the inside of the bricks. And slits in the walls—for bow and arrows, you could imagine—from where you could look out and see how high up you were. The dorm where I used to live was four stories high; this was two or three times that. “Jesus,” I kept saying, and things like that. Fran looked like she’d done this a lot.

Finally we reached a wooden landing and then just above our heads were the bells. I counted six of them. They were huge; I don’t know they got them up there. Fran opened a door and then we were outside, very high up, standing in the balcony that runs around the top of the tower. Right above us was the clock.

I could see the little kids down on the quad playing football. You could see the whole campus from up here. You could imagine the tower moving in the wind.

“Here, I want to show you,” Fran said.

You could tell they’d been doing work because of the old plaster and drippings of paint around the floor of the balcony. Fran took me around the balcony, walking me around the outside of the tower, pointing out the reconstruction they’d done. There were the scrolls and things around the balcony that had to be done over again, and then all the decorations and curls and things higher up around the clock as well.

She’d been working on it with another guy, Roger, one of her old professors from the art department. He’d gotten the contract for the work, set everything up and then brought in Fran to help. It’s not really her line of work, she said, you should really have a specialist. They’d had scaffolding and everything going up here, working on it for three months. I had no idea.

She showed me how they had to chip away the old work and then reconstruct it with a special concrete. You needed special tools for this, and they had the original blueprints so they could see how it was supposed to be. It’d been a lot of work, she said, but she enjoyed it and she’d learned a lot. She seemed pleased about it. She was telling me all about it. I told her I thought it looked good, it looked like they’d done a good job. And it did. You couldn’t even tell where it was new, where they’d done all the work. Which I guess is the whole idea. But to tell the truth, I don’t think I’d noticed any of this up here before. When you’re down there, walking across the quad or running to classes, you don’t usually notice it. I don’t think I’m alone in this—you just don’t.

So we were standing on the balcony below the clock, both looking up at something she’d been pointing to, when there was one of those silences. Then she wasn’t pointing anymore, and then we were just standing there, facing the wall, not saying anything.

“I almost fell,” she said. “Before we finished. I was working up there on the scaffolding and one day I turned and walked off into space. One foot, right out into nothing. I don’t even know why. Roger caught me at the last second. But I almost fell.”

We were talking quietly now.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” I said.

“Yeah. I guess,” she said. “We had safety lines anyway.” Then—“Why does it have to be so cold up here?” she said, and she turned and then she was in my arms and she was crying.

 

One of the things I’ve always liked most about our campus is the doves. Around the bell tower, and around on some of the other buildings and especially in the quad here, are white doves. Most places have regular pigeons, but for some reason our campus has all these white doves. And not only that: there’s fantails, too. If you’ve ever seen one of these birds you know what I’m talking about. You can’t believe them. Their tail feathers fan up behind them, like an open fan, and below, smaller feathers drape over their feet. They have their heads thrown back resting on their backs, with their white chests puffed out in front of them, and they walk like this. You can’t imagine why these birds.

I had my head resting on hers now, my head turned to the side. I’m not a tall person, but that’s how it was. It was cold and I had my arms around her, my hands in the pockets of my jacket. I began to tell her about how when I used to raise doves.

When I was a kid, I told her, I had a coop in the backyard where I used to raise doves. White doves, like here at the campus. I had a dozen or so at one time. I used to go and sit in the coop with them, sometimes for hours. Kind of weird, when I think of it now; but I did, I used to go and squat down in the coop just to watch them, or to hold them.

When I got older I began to lose interest in them. Some of them I sold off, some of them died. Finally I had just two left—the oldest couple, the first birds I ever had, Hansel and Gretel.

One day, in a kind of experiment, I left the cage door open. I guess by then I was pretty bored with them. I wanted to see if they’d fly away, and then if they’d come back on their own, or what. I wouldn’t have minded much then if they’d flown away. I’d really lost that much interest in them. So one day I left the cage door open and sure enough they flew away, flew straight up into the trees behind the house. All afternoon they stayed in the tops of the trees, at first hopping from one branch to another; but later they began flying big circles above the yard, very high up, like they were amazed they even knew how to fly like this after living all their lives in a cage. High up and in great swooping circles above the yard. I’d leave and come back, and they’d still be there, way up in the trees and flying around the yard, just the two of them.

Later that night I went out with some friends. I checked the backyard before I left. It was sunset, and the birds were both perched up on the roof of the garage now, looking kind of puzzled. I left, we went out drinking, and I forgot all about them until I came home later that night.

It was one or two o’clock in the morning when my friends dropped me off. I walked around into the backyard—I was still a little drunk. The door of the coop was still open, like I’d left it. I didn’t see any birds anywhere. So, that’s it, I thought. Flown the coop. But then I went closer to the cage, and when I was right at the door I saw that they were both inside, sitting together on the back perch, pressed up against each other like they do to keep warm. And there the door was, wide open.

After that, everyday, I would go out there and open up the door. And all day long they would fly around up in the trees, flying giant looping circles above the backyard. But they always came back to the cage at night. Always. And every night, I would go back out there and close the door for them.

 

When I stopped talking we stood there for a minute. Below us, I could see the little kids still playing football in the quad. Over at the north edge of the campus the stadium lights were just coming on. Off in the other direction, I could see the empty place where the art department bungalows used to be.

“What happened to them?” Fran said.

“What?”

“Your birds, Hansel and Gretel. What ever happened to them?”

“Well—nothing. I mean, that’s it. End of story. ‘Course they, you know, died eventually. Had to.”

“Oh. I see.”

She pulled away from me, wiping her nose with the side of her hand. “I got your shirt all wet,” she said. It’s true, it was soaked. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ve got two more.” Which I guess was supposed to be funny but really didn’t make any sense at all. She didn’t say anything.

Then behind our heads came a humming sound from inside of the tower. Like it was just waking up. Like it was just coming alive.

“Oh—this is my favorite part,” Fran said. She turned to look up, and just then the gears clicked and the hands fell into place and the bells started ringing, and up above was a great rush as hundreds of white birds came flying out of the tower and over our heads to swoop down low across the quad and up over the buildings in a great white streaming of wings.