A story written for heyoka on her 32nd birthday, July 24 2000
'We can't really be here,' she squirmed.
'Yes we can, just ignore the ants biting yer bum,' he insisted.
They'd escaped to look at clouds. Up to the top of a hill in this countryside shaded by a tree. The sky was a deep blue filled with stormclouds. The sort of stormfront gearing up that left a series of Etch-a-Sketch billboards passing overhead. Blocks of cotton the opposite of ice sculptures.
'It's not so much the ants as last night's rain.' She bunched her trousers up in ruffles to keep the moisture from soaking through.
'Here, sit on my hat.'
They lay back and eyed the skies. A rumbling elephant reared by. The sun peeked through the trunk, making it all trumpet alabaster, a pachyderm carved into a stampeding air current. Behind it drove a double-decker bus, with polar bears frolicking on its side, ready to devour any passengers when no one was looking.
'Is the secret to cloud watching the same as viewing Cubist art?' he asked, squinting at a wine glass held by Ghengis Khan pausing to celebrate in the middle of a slaughter..
'No, it's all psychology. What you see in the clouds tells me more about you than about the cost of tea in China.' She closed an eye and burst a bust of Mozart into a rainfall of caterpillars.
'That cloud looks all... bulbous. While that cloud reminds me... that we left the laundry out.'
'You're putting words in my mouth again.'
'Here, have a grape instead.'
There wasn't much to be said after that, just feeling the breeze travelling like shadow fingers across their faces. A plane speared overhead, twining the sky closer. Right behind them was an old maple tree and they stared up through it, watching the leaves break blue and white with green, until distraced by two birds leaping out and floating circling around each other, like crossed fingers unsnapping. Wait, they were fluttering for they were butterflies wiggling in circuit. The bright green leaves fanned out in the breeze, clapping the edges of each other. A cloud -- too large to be named, but containing the faces of people found in school history books -- took over the sun and the butterflies blinked from brilliance to two newspaper clippings. The leaves cupped the sky.
He sat up and picked wet grass from hair and shirt. 'I think the wine is getting to me. And I'm cold.'
She was gone. Had she been there? His hat was a stone, looking like his hat, and also like a smashed cakebox.
The fog had come in, like a sheet flapped over a lawn. He wandered back the way they, he?, had come.
The park table was still filled with the bounties of picnic. Baguettes torn in half. A knife covered with cheese. Several empty bottles of wine. A bowl of crisps. a half-eaten tortilla. a saucer of soy betrayed the missing quickly devoured sushi. Triangle of melon and orange in danger of bugs landing on them.
Around the table sat five people in candid conversation. They spoke, shared food and looks, touched shoulders, tipped wine glasses and soda cans together. He seemed to be standing just far enough away not to hear them. Just watching them enjoy the day and each other's company. He must have arrived here with them, but why they were all treating this as a nice summer day, instead of windswept fog covered bluster, he couldn't understand. One woman leaned back and laughed, the strap of her tank top falling from a tanned shoulder. A redheaded man in shorts reached over the table and knocked a glass, spilling wine onto the bread, which two others immediately grabbed and drank/ate. More laughter, and he felt he somehow was hearing it.
The redhead left the table laughing, and he joined him walking away.
'Turned into a pretty nice one, hasn't it?' the redhead commented. It had, the sun had leaped out, putting a shine on the green fields that glinted when turned by the breeze. He squinted as they turned around a hillock and found a cloud sunk into the ground.
'We used to come out here and play, remember?' the red-headed man said.
He didn't. It was a quarry, a wide expance of white, chalk. Tufts of dry yellowed grass wisped here and there. He walked down into it, leaving his companion urinating in a gulch next to an abandoned truck. He felt his footsteps change from soft to scrunch as he moved from grass to mineral. A hundred yards in, towards the center, was a wooden framework, half-finished or almost fallen apart. He went to it, stepped around weathered two by fours holding up a ghost wall and sat in a beaten rusty chair.
Behind him was the plains, the grassy fields, the sun on green, which warmed his back and cast his shadow across the quarry towards the cliff cut into the hill. On the cliff he could now see roots from long dead trees wriggling like the routes of rivers on maps. There were also the scrapes of graffiti from visitors, connections between two people, support for sports teams, curses at industry. He needed to shift his head to let shadows pick out various words. The breeze puffed chalk dust in tiny lifts from the ground like invisible footfalls.
He rested an arm on the table. The table? This wasn't... there was a clear glass table next to him and now the sun glanced off and spotted his eyes. He blinked, and blinked at the fingernails tapping on the table. He found himself with vertigo as he collapsed focus, for now there was depth above, a white on clear on white, the fingernails attached to fingers to an arm to a body in a white dress and flecks of black lifted to reveal her eyes.
Around them, a black tie revealed a waiter serving powdered doughnuts and glasses of milk to other patrons. He could now hear the plunk of piano and the small murmur of conversation.
She slowly closed her eyes, but she was still there, and when she opened them, she was still looking at him. 'I've been here,' she said. 'The entire time.'