“The Destinationist,” by Margaret Weatherford

Circa six a.m., the rising sun cleared the eastern ridge of Oak Canyon and cast a nasty eye through the trees of El Venado Way, onto the curtainless windows of Hector and Helen’s ranch house, tucked into a fold halfway up the canyon’s western wall. Hector, in bed with his back to the window as the light stole in, was still asleep—or pretending still to be—or possibly even convinced erroneously that he was asleep. Whichever it was, some deficiency in his character made him turn from his right side to his left, and daylight swallowed him whole.

For a moment he lay motionless with his eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge his change in status. If he could prevent a thought from forming in his mind, if he could stave off all sensations, he would not technically be awake. Outside, the canyon was as good as silent: sprinklers switched in their lazy, elliptical errands; a dog barked maniacally; a jet’s engines funneled into hearing and then faded as it descended toward the airport, far away across the city. Hector let the distant, oceanic roar of the freeway bear it all away.

Then a voice said loudly in his ear, “Hello?” and there remained no purpose in distinguishing or declining to distinguish among grades of sleep and near sleep. All were gone. “Hello?” It was Helen’s bird, in its cage on the patio below the bedroom window, waking up and ready for breakfast. It rattled its perch with enthusiasm. “Hello?” it repeated, and then at short, irregular intervals, “Hello? Hello? Hello?”

The bird had never learned to say anything else, but it put a lot into its one word. Each hello was identical: startled and indignant, the way you’d call out to a stranger wandering into your kitchen, a coyote in the garden, someone on the verge of doing something they ought only to do in certain privacy.

“Hello?” the bird shouted again, and Hector got out of bed.

Downstairs, Helen was already back from her run. She was swinging a leg and reading the funnies. The bird, whose cage was just outside the kitchen door, was louder here. As Hector came in, Helen looked up and smiled at him as though awakening from amnesia, but Hector saw her put her index finger down to keep her place in the middle frame of one of the “serious” strips, possibly Rex Morgan, M.D.

“Good morning!” said Helen. “Sleep well?”

“Hello?” said Helen’s bird.

Then her other bird chimed in. Its word was a wistful “Hi!”

“Hello?”

“Hi!”

“Hello? Hello?”

“Hi!”

“Hello?”

“Hi!”

“Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?”

Helen was still looking at him, smiling, and Hector just nodded, letting the birds’ greeting ritual stand in for the morning pleasantries. Something ought to be said, but Hector never knew if these exchanges really called for the truth. Better to leave it at “hi” and “hello.”

“What’s on your schedule?” said Helen. She pronounced it “shedule,” some kind of joke to her.

Hector opened the refrigerator. Helen had squeezed him a glass of orange juice and it was waiting there, fluorescently. He took it and sat down across from her. “Baker,” he said. “Air conditioning.”

Helen added a rueful twist to the smile she already had going. She did not, however, lift the finger marking her place in the funnies, so he didn’t elaborate. Hector filled a bowl of cereal and unfolded the front page. The main photo showed shoes scattered on a bloody sidewalk. A suicide bombing by “insurgents.”

A few minutes later, as Hector was deep in the article, still trying to discover who had bombed whom, Helen said, “Air conditioning in Baker? That’s—” her mouth closed. Helen’s sentences often ended abruptly, as if her kidnappers had slammed down the phone before she could blurt out the crucial information. “It’s?” prompted Hector.

“Kind of—”

“Yes?”

“Well, it’s just—” Her clairvoyant’s eyes focused elsewhere.

“What?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she began, her standard disclaimer. “What do they say? ‘Carrying coals to Newcastle?’ What would be the opposite of that? You don’t carry coals to Newcastle because that’s where the coal comes from. But you don’t install air conditioners in Baker because—” The analogy foundered.

Hector drained his orange juice. “Air conditioners are really catching on in Baker,” he remarked. “They started installing them a few years ago, right after they got their waterclosets.”

Helen shrugged. “They can install as many as they want,” she said. “It’ll still be Baker.”

He couldn’t argue with that. “They want air conditioning. I don’t get all existential over the blueprints.”

One of Helen’s hands floated from the table and began to describe a cloudlike shape. If she lifted the other hand, Hector thought, he would grab the funnies.

But the response she was seeking escaped her, and her hand sank back to the table. As Hector rose to rinse his cereal bowl, she said, “Well, whenever I head up that way, I feel like I’m driving straight into hell.”

She said this so bitterly, and so certainly, that Hector supposed she must be recalling a specific event. He left his half-rinsed bowl in the sink and said, “I didn’t really know you’d been there, particularly.” Helen’s smile stretched latitudinally into an expression he declined to interpret. Her bird said, “Hi!”

That brought the conversation to its natural conclusion. Hector filled his insulated coffee mug from the thermos and gathered his things from the table by the door. In any case, she was right about the heat. Before him lay an hour and a half drive into the desert in the standard May heat wave, in a forty-year-old car with no air conditioning, naugahyde seats, and an engine so loud you couldn’t hear the stereo with the windows down. Even the early start wouldn’t do him much good. He clamped the blueprints under his arm and said, “Enjoy yourself here in paradise.”

Their neighborhood lay in one of the furrows of heavily wooded backcountry that remain here and there about the Los Angeles basin, where hills and canyons too steep and wild for proper subdivision assert the region’s native flora and topography. Several of these outposts have become sanctuaries for those suffering from wealth or artistic sensibilities; others are more rustic, cluttered with rabbit hutches and broken-down cars; others still are entirely inaccessible, except to the deer and coyotes. None is far from a freeway.

Oak Canyon, a corrugation of the Puente Hills just east of the San Gabriel River and its namesake freeway, fell between categories. Amid bygone avocado orchards returning to oak forest, it sheltered a sparse jumble of ramshackle hunting lodges from the Prohibition era, do-it-yourself mid-twentieth-century ranch houses, and huge, stucco-and-tile mansions from the turn of the millennium. But despite the trees and wildlife, the remoteness, the quiet, the hawks circling, the lizards genuflecting on the patio, “paradise” was going a bit far. It wasn’t yet eight a.m. and already nearly ninety degrees. Helen would be stuck home alone, carless since he’d smashed up their Toyota, isolated, with her meaningless telecommuting job and the birds saying hello all day.

They couldn’t afford to run the air conditioner.

But Helen just said, “Will do,” and looked back down at the funnies. Her leg started swinging again as she took up where she’d left off, with Rex Morgan and his happy wife, June.

Read more in Little Star #1

“The Destinationist”: new fiction from the inaugural issue of Little Star!  Read more in Little Star #1!

Read Margaret Weatherford’s story, “East of the 5, South of the 10″ in Zyzzyva

Margaret Weatherford recommends:

The Serial Garden, by Joan Aiken
The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls

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