Following is an excerpt from Kim Church‘s debut novel Byrd, released this week by Dzanc Books.
At forty-one, Addie is taking soy vitamins for hot flashes. She rinses her hair with henna to color the gray.
William is forty-three and wears gel inserts in his shoes.
Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn’t big and deep and abstract. Love is particulate. It’s fine. It accumulates like dust.
William sketches Addie sitting in the red chair with the sun coming in through the window Peale has just washed. She is holding a leather-bound copy of Moby-Dick.
“You know what Eudora Welty said about Moby-Dick,” Peale says.
“What,” they say.
“He was a symbol of so much, he had to be a whale.”
On fall nights William and Addie go driving. William picks Addie up at the store after closing and they drive through State campus down Western Boulevard to Avent Ferry Road, out past the shopping centers and apartments and subdivisions, out past Lake Johnson, into the country, all the way to Holly Springs. The road through the country is narrow and rolling, lined with fences and barns. They drive past farmhouses with shades drawn, their windows yellow blanks. A few porches have jack-o’-lanterns.
William likes to imagine living in one of the houses. Coming in from his farm every evening, sitting down to supper with his family, clearing the table afterwards, helping the kids with their homework, teaching them long division, tucking them into bed. He and his wife sit up and read for a while, maybe watch a little TV. He goes to bed first. When he’s almost asleep his wife comes in and lies down behind him. She laces her arms around him. He can feel her breasts against his back, her heart thumping.
Addie keeps silent on these drives. She pretends this is the only life she’s ever had, in William’s truck, with William driving, and all she can hear is the hum of tires on the highway, and crickets. Always crickets, even in October.
William takes her flowers on Valentine’s Day, three dozen perfect red roses he has scavenged from a florist’s Dumpster because he knows she loves flowers but not extravagance or waste. He knows she will love rescued roses in a way she could not love paid-for roses.
Addie loves the sound of William, the quiet of him. The soft thump of his jeans dropping on the floor. His breath, which is quiet even when he’s breathing hard. He doesn’t talk when they have sex, or make her say what she wants. He keeps his eyes open all the way to the end. He doesn’t go inside himself like other men. With other men, you could be anyone. With William she is Addie.
He falls asleep curled against her, front to front, and she rubs her hands up and down his back, like she can learn him by his skin and bones.
They are in her apartment. It’s not yet dawn but she has an early appointment so she’s up already, standing over her sock drawer, deciding what to wear, mumbling to herself—quietly, she thinks, but she wakes William.
“Are you praying to your socks?” he says.
He always wakes up awake. It’s because he doesn’t dream, he says. He doesn’t have that layer to pass through.
“Sorry,” she tells him. “Go back to sleep.”
“You never know,” he says. “God might be socks.”
Addie and William like discovering important books that aren’t as famous as they should be, like The Diviners by Margaret Laurence, and The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Addie starts a list, “Unheard-Of Masterpieces,” and posts it in the store by the cash register.
“You never know,” William says. “One list in one store could change history.”
William believes that no act, if it’s purposeful, is too small. He protests junk mail by filling postage-paid return envelopes from one company with advertisements from another. Addie follows his example and sends Time magazine the fake check for $58,000 that came from the credit card company.
William lives in a house on a hill on a cut-through street where drivers often speed. He has made a sign for his front yard, a black sandwich board painted with big yellow letters, and set it perpendicular to the street so that it can be seen from both directions. One side says, THIS IS A NEIGHBORHOOD WITH CHILDREN. The other says, SLOW THE FUCK DOWN.
William is an open book, not afraid for people to know him. He throws big parties even though his house is gutted and full of lumber for the walls and cabinets he is going to build. On the Saturday before Easter, he has an egg-decorating party for all his artist friends. He rents folding tables and chairs. He orders dyes from a Ukrainian shop in New York. On the morning of the party he buys eggs, organic white ones that haven’t been scrubbed. He spreads newspapers and sets out votive candles and tins of beeswax and tiny tools with special names, and his artist friends come and sit around the tables and make egg art. They’ve all done this before: they know how to draw fine lines with wax, they know to use the pale dyes before the dark. They carry their finished eggs to the kitchen and blow them out in a big metal bowl in the sink. Raw-egg smell fills the house and makes Addie nauseous. This is her first time at the party, her first time decorating eggs that aren’t hard-boiled, and she does things backwards, blows out her egg first so that it can’t be dipped in dye, but she doesn’t want to waste the perfect eggshell so she glues cotton to it and makes a face and legs out of clay and calls it a sheep. It’s primitive, something a child might make. But William tells her he loves it, the wistful little face. He holds it up for his friends.
“I drank too much,” Addie says on Easter Sunday. She is helping William put the egg things away. “My hands won’t stop shaking. I can’t remember a thing I said to your friends last night, but I remember talking. I talk too much. My father always called me a bigmouth.”
“Did you know,” William says, “the mouth on the Statue of Liberty is three feet wide?”
To cure her hangover he takes her out for hot fudge sundaes. It’s a sunny day and the patio at Goodberry’s is crowded with slouchy, flirty teenagers, parents with strollers, children pitching pennies in the fountain. Car radios blare from the parking lot. Everyone loves ice cream, especially Addie. William is unnerved by how fast her sundae disappears.
Addie has a scar across her lower abdomen in the shape of a smile. She won’t let anyone see it. When she and William have sex, she turns off the lights.
One night, in the dark, under the covers, he runs his finger across it. He is gentle and doesn’t ask any questions. Addie doesn’t offer any answers.
Sometimes Addie wonders who will die first, she or William. She imagines the two of them old, their faces wrinkled, their eyes sunken but alert, stealing worried glances at each other, waiting.
William is not afraid of dying. He is afraid of being left. Three women have left him so far: his mother, who died when he was thirteen; a woman he lived with, who said he needed her too much; and another woman he lived with, who said he was too self-sufficient and didn’t need her enough.
Addie is afraid of her secret. Not that she gave up her child, which William would forgive, but that she didn’t tell Roland. Who would stay with someone like that?
A woman comes in the store with a grocery bag full of Joni Mitchell CDs. The woman is middle-aged, wearing a dowdy sweater, but there is something young and dimly hopeful in her face, some girlish devotion. Addie pictures her as a teenager, lying across her bed, listening to music on Saturday nights when other girls were out on dates, playing her favorite songs again and again, memorizing the lyrics. Collecting every Joni Mitchell album. Eventually replacing the albums with CDs. Buying every new release, though she liked the music less and less, believing that sooner or later she’d be rewarded, sooner or later there would be another Blue, another Court and Spark, another Hissing of Summer Lawns or Hejira. Now, finally, after so many years, she’s come to understand: there will be no going back, for her or for Joni. You’d think this would make her even more grateful for Joni’s old music, but no, just the opposite. Now she can’t listen to Joni at all without feeling betrayed.
Addie sees this a lot in the store: devoted readers turning on their favorite writers when the writers run out of things to say or interesting ways to say them.
The woman sets her bag on the counter and in a high, round voice that sounds a little Canadian, a little like Joni, asks Peale what he will give her for “the complete discography.”
“We don’t buy music,” he says.
The woman has the grace of someone used to disappointment. “Thanks anyway,” she says, and carries her bag out of the store as hopefully as she entered. The front door ca-chinks behind her. Addie watches her down the sidewalk, her slow, careful stride, the way she cradles her bag in both arms.
That night with William, Addie puts on Blue and they listen to Joni sing about all the people she ever lost or hurt. Joni’s voice is young and pure and sad. She is famous for her sadness.
Before she got famous, everyone now knows, Joni had a baby daughter and gave her up. Recently the daughter found Joni. Their reunion was in the news. Almost every news story mentioned the “clues” Joni had left for the daughter in her music, though really there was just the one song, “Little Green”—never one of Addie’s favorites—and a couple of lines in another. It didn’t matter anyway, because the daughter grew up never hearing any of Joni’s music except for the duet she did with Seal.
Addie has seen pictures of the daughter. She is beautiful, with long blond hair and high cheekbones. She is even more beautiful than Joni. When she and Joni were first reunited, she was gracious. She told reporters she was proud of her mother for making something of her life. Then Joni left her again to go on tour, and the daughter fell apart. She fought with Joni. Their fights were in the news. Addie tried to imagine them: the daughter saying to Joni, Tell me again why you gave me up. Joni saying, I had a gift. I had a responsibility to my gift. And besides, why would you want to be raised by someone who wasn’t cut out to be a mother?
“What?” William says. He is holding Addie’s feet in his lap, moving them to the music.
I’m not like Joni, she thinks. I didn’t trade my child for a music career. I gave him up for nothing.
Sometimes she and William hold hands, which makes Addie feel very young or very old instead of middle-aged. The best place for holding hands is the movie theater, where it’s dark and intimate and you can sit for a long time.
They are regulars at the Rialto. They go see whatever is playing there. The current movie is Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow. This is Addie’s favorite kind of movie, a what-if, where the main character gets a chance to see how her life might have turned out if fate hadn’t stepped in, if she hadn’t missed her train, hit her head, dropped her earring. If she’d chosen someone else. If she’d wanted a family.
Kim Church’s stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony for the Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband, artist Anthony Ulinski. Byrd is her first novel. Her website is kimchurch.com.