the red star sky

Sylvia and Grady cruised down I-66 toward Washington in their eight-year-old sedan. It was a bright February day and Sylvia wore sunglasses and clipped her fingernails over the floor mat.

Grady pushed a Dizzy Gillespie CD into the CD player. “Hey, you’re dropping your nail clippings all over the car.”

Sylvia flinched and clipped her pinky too close to her skin. “Ow!” she said.  She stuck her pinky into her mouth to catch a bead of blood.

“That’s what you get for doing that in the car.”

She bent down and pinched up the brittle slivers of fingernail, opened the car window and tossed them out. “There, you happy?” She dropped the nail clippers into her bag and adjusted the shoulder straps on her overalls. She dressed like a bum today, wearing overalls and one of Grady’s old football jerseys, in silent protest of the outing.

Grady ignored her.  He tapped one hand on his knee and bobbed his head in rhythm with the jazz.

“I wish a plane had crashed into our house before we bought it,” Sylvia said.  In the movie they had watched the night before, The World According to Garp, a small plane crashed into the house Garp was thinking of buying.  Proclaiming there was no chance a plane would ever crash into it again, Garp bought the house on the spot.

“Don’t tell me you’re worried about a plane crashing into our house again,” Grady said.

“It could happen!  We’re right in the Dulles flight path.”  She had never felt safe in their Reston colonial, which stood like a bowling pin in the flight path from Dulles Airport.  She hadn’t told Grady how often she cringed when she heard the roar of a plane overhead.  Sometimes the roar grew louder and louder, and Sylvia held her breath until the sound diminished. For ten years, she had suffered those planes in that house, as long as they’d been married.

“Listen to you,” Grady said, shaking his head.  “I knew a woman once who was convinced a meteor was going to crash down right on her, out of all the billions of people on earth. I’d think you could find better things to worry about.”

“Well, I don’t have anything else to worry about.  Our lives are peachy.”

“Oh, yeah, barrels of fun,” he said. He went on, about how she wasn’t any fun, how she wouldn’t come downtown anymore, how she wouldn’t go anywhere else either because she was afraid to fly.  “Our lives are really fabulous.”

“My fear of flying has nothing to do with it.  I just don’t see the appeal in surf kayaking or bushwhacking through the jungles of the Congo.  Your so-called ‘adventure’ vacations seem like a lot of hard work to me.  Plus dangerous.  I don’t need to have those kinds of thrills to be happy with my life.”

“I like thrills, but I don’t need them.  I take adventure vacations because you won’t go anywhere else with me.  I’d just as soon go to France or Italy or even to the Bahamas.  I don’t care where.  I’d lie on the beach and read a book just like the next guy.”

“Oh, but you’d be bored to death and then you’d try to make me feel guilty.  You need that rush of blood through your veins.”

“At least mine flows.  Yours just coagulates, making you staler and staler,” Grady said, stepping on the gas to pass a shrunken silver-haired couple driving a beat-up Hyundai.

“You can be such an asshole sometimes.”  She looked out the window.  “We can trade insults all day,” she said, adding that maybe they should instead talk about his idea of having a baby. “Who’s going to stay home with it?”

“We could put it in day care like millions of other working parents.”

“What’s the point of bringing a baby into the world if all you’re going to do is put it in daycare?  That seems just a tad bit irresponsible, don’t you think?”

“It seems just as irresponsible to live your whole life only thinking about yourself,” Grady said.

Sylvia’s face heated up. She stared out the window at the gray twiggy trees blurring along the highway, so Grady wouldn’t see the anger painted on her face. She straightened her spine. It was Valentine’s Day, and she was making more of an effort than usual. It was Grady’s idea to go together to the Corcoran for a photography exhibit.  She had no interest in photography, yet she was going along. She wondered why she even bothered.  She and Grady were at the point in their marriage where they were living parallel lives, rarely intersecting. Now he was going on about wanting a baby again.  Like that would solve all their problems.

They drove across the Potomac and into Washington on Constitution Avenue. The city didn’t seem its usual forbidding self on this February day.  Its expansive white buildings, tree-lined avenues, monuments and reflecting pools sparkled in the winter sun. Puffy clouds scuttled across the blue sky.  People walking along the sidewalks held their hats on their heads.  Their long coats whipped around their knees.

At a street corner where they waited for the Walk sign to flash, a man layered in sweats and a torn wool coat approached them.  He clutched a violin and bow in one hand and a coffee can in the other. He shook the can, Maxwell House, coins clanging. Sylvia shook her head, emphatic, but Grady reached for his wallet.  She grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?” She pulled him across the street.

“I was going to give him a dollar.”

“He’s creepy, and he smells,” she said.

“He’s down on his luck.  He needs some help.”

“Not from us, he doesn’t.  What if he grabs your wallet or something?  Besides, he’d probably just spend the money on booze.”

Grady shook his head, frowning.  “I can’t believe you sometimes.”

After crossing, she looked over her shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t following. She thought for a moment that maybe she should have let Grady give him some money, but there were too many things unknowable about the man.  Besides, he wasn’t playing his violin.  He wasn’t even working for it.

Once inside the Corcoran, Sylvia pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head.  A security guard opened Sylvia’s black leather bag and rummaged through her belongings, her wallet and nail clippers, her sketchbook and breath mints, her Tampax and Rolaids and lipstick.  Sylvia felt a little violated and embarrassed, but also glad to see people on their toes.

They bought their tickets and walked up the grand staircase to the second floor.  Grady wanted to see the exhibit titled “Secret Games,” by photographer Wendy Ewald. He had seen the show advertised in the Washington Post Weekend Section.  Grady was a wedding photographer who lamented the fact that he didn’t have time or energy to indulge his creative dreams. He barely talked about his dreams anymore, yet he periodically dragged her to exhibits like this.  In their early days, Grady dreamed extravagantly, and Sylvia’s dreams hitched a ride on his enthusiasm. Sylvia missed those days.

Before she met Grady, Sylvia had feeble fantasies of being a big-name fashion designer. In her late teens and early twenties, she designed and made her own clothes, and people complimented her on her stylish wardrobe. She earned her degree in Fashion Design. During her senior year in college, she met Grady.  She dared to let her dreams bloom, but her actual efforts to break into the fashion industry met with obstacles. Disappointed and lacking firm resolve, she settled for a full-time job as assistant manager of a fabric store, making a retail salary.  The only designing she did was lining up bolts of fabric so that they looked their most flattering. She placed large florals next to small checks, greens next to lavenders, solid damasks next to striped silks.

Now Sylvia wore things like overalls, sweatpants, or jeans with baggy T-shirts. She rarely sewed and spent her free time browsing through Glamour and Vogue magazines, and checking out outfits worn by sitcom actresses.

The galleries were quiet.  A fidgety woman security guard sat on a stool, her knees bouncing up and down.  She seemed to be bursting with something to say.  Sylvia looked down at the worn herringbone wood floor and moved toward the first photo collage.  Grady spoke to the woman, asking her how she was.

“I’m about to die, it’s so quiet in here.  I’m bored to death.  We’re supposed to rotate every hour, but we’re short today so I have to stay in this area for two hours.”

“I’d be bored having to stay in one place for so long without anyone to talk to,” Grady said.

“I’m about to jump out of my skin,” the guard said.  She lifted her hat and fluffed up her black fuzzy hair with her fingers.

“Hey, I feel for you,” Grady said.

Sylvia and Grady wandered over to a collection of black-and-white photos on the wall, titled “The Best Part of Me.”  The photographer had collaborated with children in a disadvantaged community in North Carolina. She had photographed each child’s favorite body part, and the child had written a paragraph about why it was the favorite.  The photos hung like a hodge-podge of windows on hands, feet, chests, arms, faces and backs.

“Strange,” Grady said, as he looked at a pair of feet standing upright on a pile of leaves.  “Funny how this girl chose her legs with all those mosquito bites.” He grimaced as if a mosquito bit him.

“I like this one with the hands.  Listen.” Sylvia read aloud from the essay, “ ‘I like my hands because they turn the pages of a book slowly and magically.  Reading makes me happy.  They wipe my eyes when I am sad. . . They touch the precious earth and ground. . . They’re mine.’”

“What’s your favorite part of my body?” Grady asked, straightening up and jutting out his chest.  He had been working out with free weights in the basement at home.

“I’ve always liked your eyes the best.”  She leaned toward him and put her finger softly on his eyebrow, then floated it downward to the corner of his eye.  She had always loved the brown and gold flecks in his green eyes, like confetti at an autumn party.   She looked into his eyes, hoping for a connection, a spark.  But, his eyes looked elsewhere, over her shoulder.  She pulled her hand back and turned to see a couple, probably in their late twenties.  The man was lanky and tall, with a goatee and straight blond hair, and the woman was long and slender except for a rounded belly that jutted out in front of her.  She was obviously pregnant, but her arms and legs stretched out gracefully from her body.  Sylvia envied her style.  She wore a short black knit dress with black tights.  She had flawless olive skin and black shiny hair pulled back into a ponytail.  She could have been a model for Fit Pregnancy magazine.

Sylvia turned her back on the couple and stared at a photo of an open pair of hands. Each finger sported a ring, one of which had Big Bird on it.  She moved down the wall, away from Grady, making it a point to ignore him.

She didn’t look behind her to see if he was following.  She sensed his absence, but she kept moving.  She looked at the pictures, disturbed by the impoverishment of the children and the landscapes.  Her shoulders tensed in front of a series of photos titled Johnny’s Story, Kentucky, 1982.  One black-and-white photo was Johnny’s house: a dilapidated shack, yard littered with bicycle tires, an overturned couch, garbage and a scraggly mutt.  Next to that was a photo of Johnny himself: a boy slumping in a vinyl chair watching an old television with a cloudy picture.  The boy wore frayed jeans and a too-large cowboy hat. An old clock on the bottom of the metal TV stand read 1:08.  A bread heel and bits of paper littered the floor.  The boy looked neglected and lost.  Sylvia wondered what parent would let a child live like that.

These photos were nothing like what Sylvia was used to seeing.  Grady’s wedding photos, with their perfect brides and grooms, hung all over the walls of their house.  Grady displayed his photos there since his office was in the house.  His clients, after all, needed to see examples of his work.  All the wedding photos of strangers in their finery felt to Sylvia like mocking interlopers.

At the far end of the gallery, Sylvia stared absently at double photographs of a young girl, about ten or eleven, in a wet bikini.  The two photos hung side by side in the same frame. The girl’s slender body was stretched out in two different poses, like dance steps stolen from the old John Travolta movie, Saturday Night Fever.  The girl, dancing on a patch of grass next to a half-painted cinderblock house, grinned furiously.  She had titled the picture herself, “Reaching for the Red Star Sky.”

Sylvia turned the corner in the gallery, but before she was out of Grady’s sight, she glanced up at him.  He was standing near the couple who had come in, acting absorbed in the pictures. His chest was puffed out; one hand hung in his pocket, the other ran through his short dark hair.  The couple chatted with each other; the young man twirled the end of the woman’s ponytail around his index finger as he rested his elbow on her back.

Sylvia wandered into the adjacent gallery, where the exhibit continued. She felt her heart sink with each picture she came upon: a picture of a black man wearing sunglasses reflecting a blob of sun.  He held a dirty white canvas bag and stood, his face unsmiling under a baseball cap, behind a tall wire fence.  A girl from Johannesburg, 1992, had written, “What I don’t like about where I live – a black man.”

Another set of pictures was of Indians from Gujarat, India.  The children were classified by their castes, Farmer Caste, Wine-Maker Caste, Untouchable Caste. One boy wrote, “We only have bad dreams, no happy ones.”  Another boy wrote, “Last night I dreamed I had a girl in my pocket.”  Sylvia felt sadness washing over her like a shadow.  These children had lived with things Sylvia had never known, hatred of other races, being untouchable.  She felt her hand moving toward the picture of the wide-eyed Indian boy, as if to console him, then caught herself, pulled her hand back to her side.

Sylvia felt irritated with Grady for not coming back to find her.  Here he dragged her to a photography exhibit that he wanted to see, and he wasn’t even by her side to experience it with her. The space around her in the gallery seemed to expand out from her, leaving her just a speck on an empty canvas.

She wandered back into the first gallery and saw Grady standing with the pregnant couple, apparently deep in conversation. The pregnant woman held her husband’s hand loosely, but she seemed to bask in the male attention.  Her face was unblemished and fresh; it seemed almost irritatingly angelic. Grady never looked up at Sylvia; he was obviously absorbed. Sylvia tried not to look at him, but slowly inched toward him as she stared at the photos on the wall.  As she moved closer, she overheard his voice, confidently explaining something to the couple, something to do with apertures, wide-angle lenses, shutter speeds, composition. The pregnant woman was listening intently, but her husband had backed off from her a bit.

Sylvia grimaced and wondered what Grady was doing.  He acted as if he knew something about artistic photography, about taking impromptu, black-and-white photos of people as unpredictable as children.  The photos by this artist were the nitty-gritty of real life, not staged events where people put on false faces and fancy bridal clothes.  Grady used to dream of taking photos like these, photos that meant something.  These days, he couldn’t be bothered with capturing the daily tedium of real life.  She shook her head, listening to him.

Sylvia looked back at the pictures on the wall, and again, she found herself face-to-face with the pair of photos of the dancing, bikini-clad girl.  Something about the carefree girl felt familiar to her yet disturbing at the same time.  She stared at the photos and remembered a sweltering summer day under a white sky.  Sylvia and her friend Vickie were visiting Sylvia’s grandparents in Petersburg, Virginia.  The thirteen-year-old girls, wearing bikinis, ran through a sprinkler in the front yard. Occasionally hollers sounded from the cars on the busy road in front of the house.  The sprinkler flung arcs of water, flashes of rainbow, over the girls.  They screamed, as girls can do, their limbs flailing in the sunlight. Sylvia remembered feeling that she was on the brink of something wonderful and mysterious.

Then, there was her grandfather, yelling at them from the front porch, gesturing wildly with his arms.  Inside the house, as water dripped off them onto the shag carpet, he ranted at them.  Told them to get dressed and stop acting like sluts out in front of his house.  He asked them what they thought his house was anyway.  Was it a brothel?  They were an embarrassment to him, flaunting their bodies like that, for the whole world to see.

Sylvia found herself back in the Corcoran, staring at the photograph, reliving that moment.  Her stomach tumbled; she felt dizzy, even queasy.  She had adored her grandfather. He made vanilla milkshakes for her every night during her visits, helped her catch fireflies in glass jars, and pretended to read her palm, creating exotic, fabulous futures for her. He was a tailor and he taught her how to sew.  He took her shopping in fabric stores and painstakingly showed her how to adapt patterns to fit her small frame.

After that incident, she felt devastated by his anger and didn’t understand it. She felt ashamed for deeply disappointing him. She carried around with her a feeling that she ought to behave appropriately, under all circumstances.  After a long while, she just felt an all-encompassing fear that followed her everywhere and then she forgot the reason for her dread.  Remembering it now, as she gazed at the photographs, she felt a buzz of electric current, an apprehension pulsing under her skin. She looked down at the worn tennis shoes on her feet, folded her arms across her stomach. She looked back up at the picture.

The girl in the photo had dreams.  That much was evident in the way her arms stretched out daringly. Sylvia had only dared to muster up flimsy dreams.  When she met Grady, his visions pulled her along.  She pilfered his momentum and strength.  Like a slow leak in a tire, the energy they shared between them fizzled out.

They had both stopped reaching for the sky.

She looked up at Grady and tried to focus on him, but he blurred around the edges. She breathed slowly, deeply. She saw for a moment what she had loved about him, his dark curly hair, the dimple in his right cheek, his long slender fingers that moved in tandem with his voice.  His green eyes reminded her of the ocean’s edge, cool jazz and lush grass. She had forgotten these things.

Grady told Sylvia in their early days that he wanted to keep their romance alive forever.  He said it took creativity and effort, but he was determined to make their marriage a perfect thing. He had been inexhaustible. He hired a limousine one night to drive them all around D.C.  They made out like ravenous animals, panting heavily on the carpeted floor between the facing seats.  Another time, he prepared a meal of aphrodisiacs – oysters, mushrooms, caviar, chocolate – and they spent a long night of lovemaking in unusual positions, with candlelight flickering around them and the radio tuned to the jazz station. Sylvia had secretly loved the things they did, while at the same time feeling like she was a dirty girl. She never admitted to anyone how much she enjoyed doing these kinds of things with her husband.  And she never would have initiated any behavior so risqué.

Now she stood alone, like a woman abandoned on the cold moon surface. She wondered what she should do. She could huff out of the exhibit, vanish to the gift shop, and make Grady search for her.  But her emotions twisted within her, like a spiny sea urchin pushing at the boundaries of her skin.  She needed something different, some new response.  She needed to break out of her own skin.

She pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, and she walked over to where Grady stood with the couple.  He didn’t look up, even as she stood, feeling short and dowdy, next to the graceful pregnant woman.

“Would you tell children that you were going to photograph them, or would you just try to take pictures inconspicuously?” the woman asked Grady.

“Well, it’s best with children, if you want true spontaneity, to take the photo with a long-focus lens at a fast shutter speed.  And to do it inconspicuously.”

“What if someone thinks you’re a child molester or a pervert or something?  You wouldn’t want to look like some weirdo hiding behind a tree taking pictures of children,” the man said.  Sylvia thought his voice sounded snide, as if he disdained Grady’s know-it-all attitude.

“You’re right.  You can only do that if the situation is right, if there are lots of other people wandering around.  Otherwise, it’s probably better to ask a parent or a caretaker or the child if it’s okay to take the picture.”

“Excuse me,” Sylvia said, clearing her throat. “I hate to butt in here, but I’m curious. If I had a child, and I wanted to take a picture, would I take it from my eye-level, or the child’s?”

Grady looked startled to hear Sylvia’s voice, but he quickly composed himself.  “Well, it depends what you’re trying to do.  If you want to emphasize the child’s smallness in a large scenic background, it’s probably best to take it from your eye level.  If you want to capture the child’s face and expressions, it’s best to be at their eye level.”

“That sounds like good advice.”  Sylvia felt secretly amused. She didn’t know what Grady was trying to do here, but she decided she needed to lay a claim to him. “You know, I think you could teach me a few things.  Would you be up for a cup of coffee in the cafe downstairs?”

He shrugged. “Sure, I don’t see why not.”

“OK. Well, then.” Sylvia said, a smile barely contained under her lips. “I’ll be down in the gift shop.”

“I was just telling these nice people a few things I know about photography.”  His voice had an almost imperceptible quiver to it.  Sylvia thought he was trying to catch her eye, but she knew he couldn’t see her eyes with her sunglasses on.  Grady turned to the man, “When is your baby due?”

“In a month,” the man said.

“It must be an exciting time,” Grady said.

Sylvia reached out and touched the woman’s arm, “Good luck. Take care.”  Sylvia turned, straightened her back, and tried to glide out of the gallery like a fashion model.  She almost laughed at the futility of trying to look sexy in a frumpy pair of overalls.  She walked downstairs to the gift shop. She knew again that Grady wasn’t following her, but she continued on down.  At least he knew where she was.

When he finally made his way to the gift shop, Sylvia was absorbed in a book about Jackie Kennedy.  She ran her fingers over a series of black-and-white photos of Jackie and little John, Jr., barefooted, walking hand-in-hand along the ocean’s edge at Palm Beach.  Jackie wore a knee-length white sleeveless shift.  A vine of O’Keefe-like blossoms curled down the front of the dress.  She wore a plain scarf on her head, tied under her chin.  Sylvia wondered whatever happened to the days when women wore colorful scarves over big hairdos.  Those were days of style.  Her mouth felt dry, as it often did when she thought about fashion, style, and her lost dream of designing beautiful clothes.

Grady walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.  She felt a tingle where he touched her, but she didn’t turn around.  He looked over her shoulder, pressed his chest against her back. She pointed to a photo of Jackie and her son.  “I wish I had her style and sophistication,” she said, almost in a whisper.

“You know how to create style if you need it,” he said, kissing her neck.

“Maybe we could have pictures like these on our walls one day, instead of all those strangers at their weddings.”

“Maybe, if I could take photos like that.  I really don’t know if I have that kind of talent.”

“You could.  You have it in you,” she said, closing the book. “Anyway, you sounded pretty darn knowledgeable upstairs.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know where all that came from.”

Later, as they walked down New York Avenue to their car, the sun was dropping and the sky edging the horizon looked like unfurled bolts of fabric, periwinkle satins and coral silks, pink linens.  When they crossed the street, they passed the man with the violin and the coffee can. The man didn’t approach them, but sat on the concrete sidewalk, huddled up against an iron fence, knees to his chest.  She felt a pang of sadness.  She also felt proud of him in some bizarre way, for not jumping up and shoving the can in their faces again.

Sylvia stopped for a moment, pulling Grady to a stop.  A thought, inconceivable for her even this morning, tumbled in her mind.  “Wait, come here,” she said to Grady.

She pulled him over in front of the man, who had his face buried in his knees. “Sir, excuse me, would you mind playing us a song?  I’ll be glad to pay you.”

He lifted his face and looked at her for a moment with his eyebrows furrowed, as if he didn’t trust her.

“Please, I’d love to hear you play.”

The man shrugged and stood up awkwardly, smoothing out his tattered layers of clothes.  “What the hell,” he said.

He put his violin under his chin and began to play a lovely song Sylvia had never heard in her life.  She bent down and dropped a ten-dollar bill in his can. She faced Grady and pulled his arms around her neck.  She put her arms around his waist and pulled him to her.  As the notes floated up, some secret language between an unlucky man and the setting sun, Sylvia swayed to the music and Grady moved along with her.

“What’s gotten into you?” he whispered, pulling her closer to him.

“I honestly don’t know.  Maybe just this strange thing I remembered.”

Next to them, on New York Avenue, cars were leaving the city.  People were going home to golden windows, rambunctious children, and steaming suppers.  Over Grady’s shoulder, she watched the red tail lights of the cars, blinking brightly as drivers sporadically stepped on their brakes.  The sky was darker now, and the brake lights of the rush hour traffic looked like red stars blinking all around them. The music swirled around them and they turned in slow curious circles, listening.


4 thoughts on “the red star sky

  1. […] wrote a short story once that embodies this theme: The Red Star Sky.  Reach for the stars!!  Hope!  And keep the faith even when everything seems hopeless… […]

  2. restlessjo says:

    Little bits of you and Mike in here, Cathy.
    Hope you find your happy ever after. You know it takes work. 🙂
    Hugs, darlin.

    • Nice of you to read my story, Jo. The main character is probably much like me, but Grady is nothing like Mike. I don’t know who he is! Mike is very successful and doing just what he wants to do. No dreams for anything different. Maybe Grady is a bit of my first husband, a long-time writer and newspaperman, who actually now has signed a contract with Viking Press for a non-fiction book called The Matthews Boys. It’s such a big contract apparently, with talks of movie rights, that he can afford to quit his job in order to finish writing it!

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