Grant was walking back along the highway shoulder, binoculars in one hand, a man completely at home in the middle of this vast, hummocky, salt-rimed grassland, an elegant and firmly muscled beast. There it was again, that old flush of desire, intact and undiminished, as far as Beth could tell, the eight years they had been together, living in separate apartments and playing house on the weekends, with all the ordinariness of marriage, all of its takings for granted, but none of its illusions of safety. She enjoyed seeing him this way, from a scientific distance, the way she had seen him at the start, on the elevator in the First Security Building, where they eyed one another judiciously for months, then, one afternoon, on the way down, traded comments on the fragrance of the disinfectant that the building crew was using.
"Did you see anything?"
"A marsh hawk, probably, but he was too low, I didn't get a good look at the dorsals. Hawks can be hard. The females are like a whole different species. And then some of them go through a dark phase, like black panthers. Their plumage changes completely. There's a word for it that I can't remember."
"It starts with an m."
By the time they got to Socorro, her blood sugar was plummeting. They stopped at a parking area with a bronze plaque ("Prize Winning Rest Stop, New Mexico Dept. of Highways and Transportation") and ate apples and sandwiches under a drab concrete and steel shed, one of many, oriented in random directions, like Secret Service men at a press conference. Things kept blowing away, and they had to finish eating in the car.
"Where are we staying tonight?"
"Socorro. There's nothing else between here and the sanctuary."
"Let's pretend we just met and get a sleazy motel room."
"That's all they have in Socorro."
Two months earlier, before Christmas, she had suggested they go somewhere together for a weekend. They were in her kitchen making gingerbread. He had flour on his hands and a smudge of dough on one cheek that she would have brushed away, except that he might have taken it as overly proprietorial.
"Just an experiment," she said. "When was the last time we went somewhere for no other reason than to be together?"
"That was your convention."
"What about Corpus Christi?"
"That was an afterthought. You went wind surfing, then you got lonely and enticed me to come down with tales of cheap beer, hushpuppies, and the statue of the giant shrimp in Aransas Pass. Couldn't refuse."
"We had a good time, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did."
"I got my first long-billed dowitcher."
"How could I ever forget?"
South of San Gregorio, the country got even flatter, and through the open windows came the smells of standing water and sour vegetation.
"Look!" said Beth.
"Snow geese. They're beautiful, aren't they?"
"There's a green one. What is he, a punk?"
"It's a marker goose."
"If I dyed my hair green, would you still love me?"
"Depends on what? I thought love was supposed to be unconditional."
"It is. Until you get to be about two years old."
At the gate, a ranger in a Smokey the Bear hat gave them a pamphlet and a map. They followed a narrow drive through salt cedar breaks and along manmade levees between tongues of dead black water. The road swung back to the east and opened onto a large bay where multitudes of snow geese gathered on the water and along the banks of gray mud that surrounded it. They parked next to a sign that said "Marsh Walk," where a couple in identical running suits and dazzling white running shoes were herding a poodle with a red ribbon tied to its collar.
"Have you folks been here before?" asked the woman. "Seems like there were a lot more geese last time."
"That's because it's Saturday," said Beth. "They do shifts on the weekend."
Something invisible touched off one corner of the flock. As a body the geese lifted from the water, peeling up and away like a turning page, and settled into a huge, wheeling, undulating wafer that filled the sky. Grant ignored them and scanned the far shore of the lagoon with his binoculars.
"She called us folks," said Beth. "She thinks we're married."
"They're from Texas. Everybody's married in Texas."
He swung the glasses around to the south, to the distant, other thing that always summoned his attention ahead of what was right in front of him.
"Are you all right?" she said.
"The sandhill cranes left already. It's not even March. They should still be here. I really wanted you to see the cranes. That was the whole point."
She felt absurdly responsible even for this. Why was it her job to humor and console him?
"So tell me, Grant, what are those black ones bobbing up and down over there?"
"What do you call the babies? American cooties?"
They looked at every motel in Socorro. The Golden Manor was too expensive for what it was. The Sleepy Hound was too cheesy. The San Miguel had the nicest vibes. There were little golden flecks that caught the light in the ceiling texture, which she approved of, and a real oil painting of an Indian with a disproportionately large head beating a tom-tom, which Grant criticized.
"Maybe it's just a big-headed Indian," said Beth.
They ate in a sort of a house trailer on concrete piers overlooking the main strip. The whole building swayed every time a big truck went by. The waitress took their order and hollered over her shoulder at the woman in the kitchen: "She never took care of us when we were little. Why should we take care of her now?"
"Sorry about the cranes," said Beth.
"Nothing to be sorry about. We'll just have to come back. Maybe we'll even get to see a whooper. Last spring they escorted a pair of them in an Ultralight all the way from Alaska to South Texas. They disguised the Ultralight to look like a whooping crane, and they followed it all the way to the Gulf."
"No wonder they're endangered. They never get any privacy."
A family of Mexicans came in, a father and mother and two unbelievably beautiful little girls wearing party dresses and black patent-leather shoes, their hair in perfectly constructed French braids. The father and mother talked seriously across the table while the girls crawled over them and were paid no attention except for the unconscious balancing hands of the parents. How was it possible that these people, who probably had so little compared to her, were obviously so content with what they had, while she was forever wanting something or other? It didn't seem quite fair.
Only once had the subject of children ever come up between them, on their first date, on the patio at El Girasol, over baby salad greens and bloody slabs of beef, when they knew next to nothing about each another. He said that children were a biological possibility. She wanted to have children, but only in theory. Children were certainly the last thing on her mind when, over the flan, she reached across the table, seized his tie, and gave him a syrupy kiss. Since then, the subject had taken its place alongside the other subjects that they had tacitly agreed not to bring up.
She could only guess what swampy region of thought she was summoning him from. He looked the way he looked on Sunday mornings when he did the Times crossword, brushing bagel crumbs from the page and blindly reaching for his coffee cup.
"What do you think about us? Or maybe I should rephrase the question. Do you ever think about us? Maybe this is not the best time to begin this conversation. We should probably have dessert first."
"What's going on?"
"I guess that's what I'm trying to figure out. I should be deleriously happy. We almost never do anything like this."
"But you're not."
The two little Mexican girls were standing by their table, studying them with somber curiosity. When she was noticed, the younger one clamped her teeth on the edge of the table and rolled her eyes.
"It's complicated. I think I'm not happy because you are. What I mean is, you being happy doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with being with me."
"That is complicated."
"Maybe I'm expecting more than I have a right to expect. Maybe we should just go back to the motel and watch TV, like everybody else."
The mother called off her children and smiled at Beth and Grant apologetically. Beth had a sudden craving for pistachio ice cream. She, her mother, father, and brother had gone for rides in the car on summer evenings, spying on the homes of rich people, then over to HoJo's, she and her brother in the back seat, chanting, "We want pis-tach-i-o!" It seemed like such an uncomplicated thing to do, to be a family.
"And I'll tell you another thing," shouted the waitress, refilling their cups, "if she thinks I'm going to feed that goddamn canary of hers while she's off getting rehabilitated, she's got another think coming!"
At the San Miguel, Beth hung a wet towel over the Indian, closed the drapes, and turned off the lights. She climbed into bed and gathered herself against him. He was wearing boxers and the T-shirt she'd given him for his birthday: "THOUGH I AM OLD YET AM I SPRY AND LUSTY." He smelled like rye bread, but not quite. It was a smell that no one else could have, although she had long since forgotten what the other men smelled like.
"What are we watching?"
"Nothing. Should I turn it off?"
"You don't have to."
The light from passing cars on the highway leaked past the drapes and shot diagonally up the far wall.
"Tell me something," she said.
"Anything. Tell me about the cranes."
"What do you want to know?"
"Why are they so special? Are they endangered?"
"Not really. They're special because they're such big, gorgeous birds. They're like flamingos, they attract a lot of attention. I used to see them over Medanales in the fall, on their way south to the Bosque, and again in the spring, on their way north to breed. You'd be doing something outside and all of a sudden, you'd hear them, that soft purr of theirs dropping down out of the sky. Prrrooo-a-a-a! Prrrooo-a-a-a! They fly at such a high altitude when they're migrating that sometimes you have to look for a while before you can see them."
She shoved her fist gently into his ribs. "Do it again."
He turned off the sound of the television and called to her.
He seemed at once to be very far away, and very close, a creature of cellophane and sunlight, riding on the invisible clouds of heat that rose between them.
"That was magnificent. What do you suppose it means in crane language?"
"It doesn't mean anything. It means I'm a crane. If you're another crane, you recognize it and answer back. So now it's your turn. Go ahead."
She did her best. What came out sounded more than anything like the pigeons that roosted on the statue of Saint Anthony in Minnehaha Park.
"That's it!" he said. "That's it exactly!"
"Really? You're putting me on."
"No, that's the way they sound, honest." He looked at her in an oddly adoring way, as if, until that moment, he had never had the slightest idea who she was. It frightened her a little bit to be with this strange man in boxer shorts who had suddenly entered her motel room to look at her with such loving intensity.
On the screen, a team of sequined Chinese acrobats with flaming torches clenched in their teeth were soundlessly making themselves into the spokes of a wheel. Eventually, he switched off the TV, and they lay in the bright darkness together, listening to the traffic and watching the car lights rocket up the wall and spill across the spangled foam ceiling.
"Do endangered species know they're endangered?"
Issue #34, September, 2003 :
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.