Author Archives: Grace O'Connor

Stop the Birds from Giving Up

They empty feathery nests,
smoke cigarettes for breakfast,
and grow black lung trees.

If you asked them anything
about their flight maladies,
they might croak something like:

my wings started folded up—
my chest was a suitable drawer.

or

when they said ‘down’ I forgot
I had feathers with the same name.

or

I built this nest inside myself, so
I have a darker place to hide

or

why do you want to know anyway?
Find your own forest to burn.

A Scenic Painter Steps Outside

If you sit and stare at a wall,
maybe hoping it will move,
first you notice how many colors
are contained in the red of the bricks

in dry-brushed variations of
burnt and raw sienna,
raw and burnt umber,
creating patterns that ripple and move

changing in the high noon sun.
The longer you stare at the wall
the more you come to realize
they are really all the same

color, contour, and composition.
The clear cut lines of mortar
stem across the wall in beige veins,
pencil lines hastily traced

between the stamped on bricks
from sponges dripping with reds.
The longer you look at this wall
the more you begin to wonder

if it wasn’t painted onto another wall.
even splashes of color spatter the bricks
as if a painted hip brushed across
or a brush from up high

couldn’t keep the paint in its bristles.
You can’t help but walk up
and touch it, make sure it is real.
Lay your face to the brick and feel the heat

of the manmade stone
erect and meant to daunt,
a big stick made of brick.
Look across with your cheek to the grit

see the lines expand
and lengthen to your eyes
look up and see the arrows
pointing to the blue sky

hidden behind the corner.
The stairs formed of brick
to that cloud country
where the robin and bluejay

sit on cloud nine, tails turned up,
discuss politics of the wall beneath them,
whistle through toothy grins
and quaffed plumage.

The stains of the brick remind you
of spotting, the rusty red of new blood
that disrupts the other colors.
You spot a spider sneaking between cracks

and the longer you stare at the wall
the more you begin to wonder
if he could find his way through
the maze of red and blue bricks.

Burning Polaroid

Simon waited on the hood of his car on the third floor of the parking garage of the mall that was two counties over from where his wife lay sleeping. It was almost midnight. Simon smoked a cigarette. His wife hated cigarettes. He only smoked them when he was out of the house. He would roll down the window when driving back home and let the air blow-dry him clean.

The source arrived in an old Cadillac. At least, Simon thought it was a Cadillac. He didn’t know much about cars. It just seemed like the right word. The source exited the car. The source was a man. He was old, but not elderly. He was short, but not squat. He was balding, but not hairless. The source hobbled over from his car. Simon stubbed out his cigarette on the ground. The source gave Simon the pictures and Simon gave the source five thousand dollars. They shook hands. The source went back into his car. The source left. Simon waved as he drove off. He looked at the pictures.

Picture 1: A man undid his belt.

Picture 2: A woman exited the bathroom.

Picture 3: Fellatio.

Picture 4: Some other sex act.

Picture 5: A cat.

Picture 6: A penis.

Simon didn’t know what to think of the pictures. He felt for a moment that maybe he should be shocked or maybe even upset. He decided to think about how he should feel on the ride home. He put the pictures in the glovebox. He drove home. He listened to “Sweet Home Alabama” the whole ride back. It reminded him of his brother.

Simon got back. He parked in the street. The garage door was loud. He did not want it to wake up his wife. Or the dog. Or the son who was home from college for the night because he was avoiding seeing his ex-girlfriend on campus. He opened the door slowly. The light was on. His wife was in the living room. She was smoking. The window was down. Simon didn’t say anything. She looked angry, so she was smoking. It happened. From time to time. She asked Simon where he had been. Simon said that he had been out. Simon’s wife accused him of sleeping around. This was not the truth. Simon said this was not the truth. She tossed the cigarette outside into the bushes. Simon said she shouldn’t do that because there was a drought and the plants were dry and that she could cause a forest fire. Simon’s wife didn’t care about forest fires. She asked Simon where he had been, again. Simon said he had been meeting a source for a story. Simon’s wife didn’t believe this. She asked for proof. Simon said he didn’t want to show her. Simon’s wife was getting loud. She asked for proof again. Simon didn’t want to wake the dog. Or the son who was home from college for the night because he was avoiding seeing his ex-girlfriend on campus. Simon showed his wife the pictures. Simon’s wife was quiet for a second. She asked if the people in the picture were who she thought they were. Simon said that yes, they were. Simon’s wife was quiet. She reached for another cigarette. She laughed. She told Simon to go to bed. Simon went to bed.

Simon’s wife had trouble focusing on the road the next day on the way to work. When Simon had been sleeping, she had taken another look at the pictures. She felt like she was part of something secret and important. It reminded her of the games she would play with her neighbor when she was a small thing living in the woods just outside of Pittsburgh. Her neighbor would pretend to be her secret wife. She would bring her flowers and they would smile at each other. No kissing though. That was against the rules. Simon’s wife thought about the pictures more at work. Her coworker remarked that she looked distracted. Simon’s wife lied and said she was okay. Simon’s wife’s coworker was not convinced. She could tell when her coworkers were upset. According to a man in the office, she had a success rate of 65% when predicting divorces and interoffice relationships. She asked again what was the matter. Simon’s wife told Simon’s wife’s coworker about the photos. She whispered quietly so that no one could hear. Simon’s wife’s coworker did not believe her at first, but Simon’s wife insisted that the photos were real. She made sure to mention the cat. It was important, she felt. The cat added humanity.

That afternoon, Simon’s wife’s coworker called her husband, who was currently in Las Vegas for a business meeting. She told him about the photos that Simon’s wife had seen and that there was a cat involved in sexual activity. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband was also skeptical about the contents of the photo, but Simon’s wife’s coworker insisted that the photos were genuine. She said she had seen them herself. The cat was there. It saw the whole thing. She lied. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband called an acquaintance of his who worked for a newspaper based out of Washington, D.C.

Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., asked Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband for verification regarding the details of the location. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband apologized and said that he did not have any specific details beyond an anonymous tip. Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., hung up and Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband returned to doing lines of cocaine off the stomach of a stripper, who wore her hair in a black and red pony tail and liked to call him “daddy.” Simon’s wife’s coworker’s husband’s acquaintance who worked for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., contacted his editor regarding the possible lead they had for a potential story. They made sure to mention the cat.

Simon woke up the next day and made himself a cup of coffee. He sat on the porch and sipped at the edges of the steam and watched cars go by. He remembered when his dad would do this with him when he was young. They would stay out even when it rained so, they could watch the thunder. Simon’s wife joined him on the porch. She reached for his hand because she felt guilty. Simon grabbed her hand. They sat for a moment. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon laughed. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon laughed. Simon’s wife told him what she did. Simon cried.

Simon’s source was tailing a man who wore a red leather jacket when he got the call. Simon told him that the secret was out. They knew about the photos. Even the cat. Especially the cat. Simon’s source stopped following the man who wore the red leather jacket and bought a plane ticket to Indonesia.

At work, Simon avoided calling his client all morning. Simon’s wife had taken their son out for a bonding day which he didn’t want. Simon thumbed through the channels on the television if only to catch glimpses from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, WQSTEF, News News News, and the local cable channel. Staying too long on the channels made him uncomfortable. So he flipped up and down a few dozen times. The man in the pictures was in a bad spot. He was having sex with animals, the report said. The woman wasn’t mentioned. It was just a rumor now. Word got out somehow. The pictures hadn’t. The one man on CNN who looked like a starving owl made lots of angry faces and tried not to dwell too much on the rumors.

Simon got the phone call from his client that evening. His wife was still out. The client on the phone asked if he had the pictures. Simon nodded. Then he remembered he was on the phone and his client couldn’t see. He said yes. The client asked Simon to get rid of the photos. Maybe they could squash the rumors now and prevent further damage. Simon said that was probably the best idea. The client asked if it was true, what the news was saying about the cat. Simon said he didn’t think so, but he couldn’t say for sure. The employer cried. Simon cried too. Simon asked if the client wanted to see the photos before he disposed of them. The client shook her head. Then she remembered that Simon couldn’t see this and said no.

Simon drove home. On the radio the man in the picture made a promise to the public that the rumors were false. He was not involved in feline fornication. He had two missed calls. One from his wife. One from a newspaper based out of D.C. He ignored both. He made a fire in the fireplace. He took the photos and tossed them in one at time like he was dealing cards. He watched the faces, fur, and genitalia blacken and twist and form together into some sort of crumbling polaroid mess. Simon was still watching when his wife returned. She came and stood next to him and took his hand in hers. Simon watched the fire for a while. His wife went to bed without him.

Simon stepped outside and lit a cigarette. Simon called his brother. He asked his brother if he was okay. His brother said yes. Simon told him mentioning the cat fucking on the radio was probably a bad idea. His brother said yes, he was probably right. Simon told him he had seen the pictures. Simon’s brother didn’t ask how. Simon said the pictures were the first time he had seen his brother’s penis since he walked in on him pleasuring himself in middle school. Simon’s brother laughed and then stopped and breathed into the phone for some time. Simon asked how his brother’s wife was. His brother said she wasn’t talking to him. Simon wasn’t surprised. His brother sounded tired. Simon was too. He told him they’d get lunch tomorrow. His brother said yes and that he would clear his schedule. Simon suggested the place with the crab cakes that Oprah Winfrey had really liked. Simon’s brother said that was okay and that he’d talk to his people. Simon said goodbye and hung up.

Unfit Conditions

There were many people in the lobby of the Bestland Hotel, but Uri was looking at the chandelier. It was as wide as a park fountain, but it spilled with crystal facets instead of water, making Uri—a slight man with a cheap haircut—feel vaguely dizzy under its shine. The hotel had been booked by a very prominent board of directors for an international scientific conference. He found it funny that men who were in charge of grant funding for his department always seemed to have good taste in hotels with chandeliers.

Uri was representing his company as an experienced frequency-measuring equipment lab technician, or, he feared, as a man whose job was quickly becoming redundant to a lab whose budget was being sucked up by other labs who could quench the military’s thirst for weapons development. He felt like a frog in a pond that was being baked into the earth. He needed to find his chance to jump. And so the long, out-of-country flight with an economy class ticket. The kiss from his wife at the airport. The jetlag. And the mild nausea from the shine and spill of cut glass over a lobby full of men speaking loudly.

He walked toward the bar, looking for a glass of real water. On his way, he spotted something familiar. It was a loudly-printed, orange paisley shirt, worn by a man with curly hair. Uri knew only one man who would wear a shirt like that to a professional conference.

“Marc!” he exclaimed to the man. The two had worked together two years ago on a collaborative project between their two countries. “It has been years! How are you?”

Marc turned from the conversation he was having. “Uri! My friend!” he exclaimed, grabbing Uri’s hand and pulling him in close. “Let’s go,” he whispered. “I need to gracefully escape this conversation.”

Uri let Marc steer him further into the crowded lobby until they reached a spot too inconvenient for Marc’s former conversation partners to catch up with them.

“What was that? Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“Not a big deal. Just some people trying to convince me that I need to do more work for them for less money. A lot of people are willing to push your nose to the grindstone, but not willing to pay you enough for the ointment to put on it afterward.”

“Oh dear.” Uri lowered his voice a little. “Are you also having hard times? The news makes it seem like things are going so well for your country, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they…there is a lot of talk where I work. Many people are saying that your country is the place to be right now.”

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way,” Marc sighed. “I bitch too much, and I should be thankful.” He ran his hands around the rim of his cocktail glass over and over while speaking. “I have work to do, and it’s useful work, or at least my supervisor has told me so every time I’ve tried to take a day off this past summer! But I’m sorry to hear you’re doing badly.” He had a desperate look, Uri thought. Like a man who did not want to hear any more bad news.

Uri pulled up a false smile from some dusty corner of his being and tried to adopt his friend’s flippant tone. “Maybe I complain too much too. Maybe it is not so bad. And at least we do not have to suffer through eating your food. You are a physicist, yes? Are you sure that the things your women are calling ‘meatloaf’ is actually matter?”

“Wouldn’t know what the women are calling anything these days, would I? I’m not married.” Marc clapped his arm with the free hand that was not holding the cocktail glass. “Tell me Uri, don’t your people still eat horse meat?”

“Only on Sundays. Every other day, it is rat.”

As they talked, the two men migrated away from the crowded lobby. They paused in a side hallway by a Coca Cola vending machine, which was possibly the only thing in the hotel that was not covered in department-store brocade and crystal fittings.

“It really is good to see you,” Uri said. “Actually, I have been thinking”—he paused and stroked the names of the glistening drinks on the machine’s buttons—“of taking some time off from work and traveling. I think it would be best if the kids got to leave the country. Maybe before they are too old to enjoy traveling with their parents.”

Marc nodded, but Uri could see that the sympathies of parenthood were uninteresting to him.

He paused. There was sweat in his hair and under his arms. This was it. The moment to jump. “I know my wife would like to meet you finally. Do you think maybe we could stop in at your place for a few days, see the sights, and even give your food a fighting chance? She likes to joke, actually—my wife—that I used to talk about you so much when we worked together that she wondered if Marc was a woman’s name in this country, and I was cheating on her.”

“You’re a cruel man, Uri, if you want to put a woman and children up in my sad bachelor’s apartment,” Marc said, laughing. “But really, there’s not a lot of room. I’m sure the conditions just wouldn’t be fit for them to want to stay. And also, I’m involved in a pretty big project this fall. I’ll be spending a lot of time working. Not really the standards you’d want for your vacation home.”

“I think you underestimate how much my wife hates to spend money. Her passion for saving money is almost as incredible as her cooking.”

Uri maintained strong eye contact with Marc, until Marc flicked his eyes to the vending machine. It would have been too easy, he thought. You cannot try to make the women and children save the sinking ship.

“What are you working on? I have to admit, though I’m ashamed, that there just isn’t that much work for a man in my field anymore back home. Maybe I could even help you out with this project. We could be partners again.”

“I’m sorry, pal, but I really am in deep on this project. Technically, it’s confidential stuff, with a lot of international interest, and I’m not even very comfortable talking to you about it, much less having people around my apartment all the time from whom I have to keep it secret. I’m really sorry. Really sorry, I just can’t.”

“That’s perfectly okay. We couldn’t impose ourselves if we weren’t wanted. Perhaps we can have dinner sometime anyway,” Uri said. His eyes were flat now. Marc fished around in his pockets until he found enough change to buy a Coke. The machine grumbled and turned its wheels but didn’t spit out anything.

“You were right on with what you said before.” Marc was rubbing his neck quickly. “This really is a good place to be in right now. I think all the economic stuff… I don’t know. I’m no expert on that kind of thing. If you give me shares in a company, I’d probably ask you ‘Where’s Sonny?’ but I think it’s safe here. I do. I’m sorry to kick you out into a hotel, but I think you should visit. We can talk about your research.”

“Oh yes, my research. Can’t say much has changed. I’m still studying things you can’t see with instruments nobody wants to pay for.” Uri attempted one last smile. “I should really get back to the conference and try to be charming, I suppose. Maybe I will see you again someday soon.”

“Maybe.”

A day later, Uri boarded a plane at the airport and got off in his home country. He did not notice very much about the ride, except that it was long. It was his last.

A few months after he failed to secure any grant money for his laboratory at the conference, he was let go with the budget cuts. These cuts also sent the machines he had been working with for fifteen years to a scrap metal processing plant, where they were turned into aircraft parts. Not parts for commercial aircraft. For military aircraft.

Uri was watching out his window when those planes came into the air over his city. He wondered if the instruments in the planes that contained the metal of his laboratory equipment were any more sensitive, if the metal was endowed with any special finesse from the hours he spent slaving over it to understand the frequency of the universe. He was imagining that the metal beasts felt a shiver or a vibration from the presence of their former master when the bomb hit the city, leveling everything, blowing clouds of concrete dust and streams and streams of broken glass.

When Marc watched the news on the night of the bombing, he was sitting in his armchair, bouncing his legs and smoking more than usual. He watched every night lately, looking for cities and names.

He’d left his job a week earlier, first becoming stubborn and aggressive, then dropping out altogether. “I won’t do it,” he had said to his supervisor. “You don’t know the right frequencies.” But he had done it. On that night, the planes made from Uri’s equipment sung like tuning forks with the frequencies from the override protocols that Marc had helped to develop. Their pilots could not regain control. A man somewhere in Marc’s country pushed a button, and Marc watched on TV as the planes’ dark bellies yawned open and loosed their cargo.