by Kobina Wright
October 19th was thirteen days away. After verifying that Marssarah Rabbat, known as March, had no plans, Bali Favre, decided to gather a few friends for March’s birthday. Bali had initially planned for it to take place at her house, but it was the day after her gray morning, though she no longer felt the energy sucking dread of it, Bali felt a gnaw at the ragged tail of her mind and asked March, if she minded a change of venue. March was thrilled, until she remembered Bren’s Sunday night meltdown. Maybe meltdown was too strong a word, but there was definitely a waddling cycloptic attitude.
“If you don’t mind, run it by Bren before you set this in stone. She was offended we didn’t invite her to Roman Sports Bar and Grill on Sunday.” March was on her cell phone in the breakroom at her coffee shop, Steaming Mug.
March glanced up at the clock on the wall in front of her and then out through the small window that allowed her to watch her two employees tend to a short line of customers. It was the time where morning rush was slowing to a trickle as break-time approached.
“Seriously? She has to be invited to everything you do?” Bali was standing at her bathroom mirror applying eyeshadow, then eyeliner with one hand.
“So… I think she’s under the impression that all my friends are her friends too.”
“Oh yeah. Sunday night when I got home she was all pissy. Yesterday, she acted like she was so busy she didn’t have time to speak to me. Not that I care…” The line was growing in the coffee shop. The young woman, at the cash register, glanced over and observed March on the phone through the tiny window. The woman raised an eyebrow and smirked.
“Wow. Okay. I’ll call her. Get her permission to have your friends over to your house for your birthday.”
“Thanks lady. I’d do it myself, but the line here is almost out the door.”
Bali examined herself for a time in the mirror. She felt the breath of the troll in her head about to criticize her, so instead of waiting for it to speak, took two steps back from the mirror; tugged at her blouse; patted her butt through her jeans; grabbed her phone and walked away. She dialed March’s landline. Bren picked up on the second ring.
“Hello Bren. Glad I caught you.” Bali slid her ten painted masterpieces into a pair of four-inch black suede booties.
In an unlit closet, Bali stretched on tiptoes to the high shelf above her clothes rack for her Mark Cross, python tote. She tossed the empty handbag onto the bed and retrieved her full butter soft, milk chocolate leather handbag from the chaise near her bedroom window. She picked up a bath towel from the floor and spread it onto the bed.
“Well, I called because I’d like to host a little shin-dig over there for March’s birthday. It’s nothing fancy and it’s not a surprise. I just got the ‘ok’ from March a minute ago, and wanted to call to make sure you’re cool with it.”
There was pause.
“You’re asking my permission?”
“It’s March’s house…”
Bali thought, yes, girl, I know… I don’t think you should have any say in the matter either… but to Bren she said, “You live there too, Bren. I just wanted us all to be on the same page.”
Bali dumped the contents of the milk chocolate leather bag onto the towel and sorted through the contents. Only the essentials would be invited into the python tote, which was a third of the size.
“Am I invited?”
“Of course you’re invited. Bring your boyfriend, Alvin. It should be fun!” Bali could sense Bren’s eyes rocketing happiness, a cascade of glittery light.
“Okay! Yeah, we should totally have it here. We should make it a big party. She’s got a ton of friends…”
“No.” Bali stopped the content transfer between the two purses. “Nothing big. This will be a small intimate gathering. Nothing more.”
Bali’s firmness startled Bren. “Sure. That makes sense. A small party will make it special. Who needs all that work planning a big party anyway, right?”
Bali didn’t dislike Bren, but hovered in a magnetic field in which Bren both annoyed and concerned her. Bali noticed the widening of Bren’s eyes when Bali was near. She saw the plastered benevolent smile, lips twitching ready to laugh at Bali’s smallest witticism. Bren was too old for that – but there it was, posted on every corner of interaction.
She softened her tone. “What are you doing today? I think I might try to find March’s birthday gift. You wanna come with?”
“Aw! I wish I would’ve known about your plans yesterday. I plan to meet Alvin for lunch.”
“He’s not working either?”
“No, his shift ended early this morning. He’s done for the rest of the day. I figure I’ll let him sleep a few hours before I bug ‘im, then we’ll have a late lunch.”
There was a weasel in the story Alvin was giving her. It hid a stolen truth in its quiet earthy hole. It was Alvin’s random work schedule that sounded a silent alarm. She had no hard evidence, or even nearly opaque circumstantial evidence. It would’ve been pointless to bring up unfounded suspicions. She couldn’t articulate her concerns so then wished Bren a beautiful day.
This morning Elias would open the gallery while she drove out to Riverside Art Museum to take a look around in the museum’s shop. If she had time, she’d have preferred to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead. Where else could you get a Sister of Arp Coat of Arms scarf and a David Hockney, Expanding: February 1990 print? But time was short and buying from LACMA’s online store didn’t really fit the aesthetic of the occasion. Buying local was charming, even responsible, she decided. It was her duty to support the efforts of local artists. She was a gallery owner, after all, even if it were lowbrow, and sold no art by any locals.
She had no doubt that Elias would open the gallery late, though Bali asked that he do his damnedest to be on time. It was an issue, one that she didn’t want to knot bricks to. She tried her best to be concise and professional in her brief speech, pointing out the value of his punctuality. Without any emotion, he gave her his word. Done. The truth was, even if he were a few minutes late, she had no real room to balk. Elias was remarkably reliable. His craftsmanship was professional. He even seemed drama-proof.
When she told him of the incident of the noise outside Saturday; her investigation and the shadow that moved towards her; the police coming by, finding nothing; he raised his eyebrows and mumbled a couple of phrases of disbelief, but didn’t appear overly concerned. Despite his zombiesque reaction to the episode, he would, nonetheless, feel the ripple from the strange currents. Yesterday’s three phone hang-ups were surely proof of it. She felt a tickle of guilt over it. Calling and hanging up… such a childish thing to do.
Bali picked up her cell phone again. She was prepared to leave a message, but it was picked up on the first ring.
“Hola! Perdon! Tengo el número equivocado.”
“Don’t answer the phone in Spanish if you’re not prepared to speak it.”
“Bali! O-M-G! I would have never guessed in a million years you’d be calling! Hold on a sec.” Jane placed Bali on hold, then picked up again. “I’m back.”
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Oh. There’s no school today. It’s some kind of teachers’ training or meeting day. Or whatever.”
Bali remembered her days in school when the announcement came that there was no school on a certain day, for no apparent reason. She remembered how lucky she felt, like finding a $20 bill on the street. She reminisced about the feeling of unexpected breaks with Jane, giggling through adolescent spirited conspiracies about what the teachers were really doing on such days.
Before Bali, ran too far down the rabbit hole, she remembered why she was compelled to call. It was all the ripples. It was the acrid smell in the air left behind by childish logic. Remembering her last interaction with Jane, Bali reflected on a silly battle of wills. An ironic game of chicken played by a teenage girl and a very grown man. The puzzle pieces from recent events needed further examination to determine if her young friend fit on any side.
“You remember when I introduced you to that guy, Max, at the gallery?”
“The one with the beard?”
“Yes, the one with the beard. He doesn’t have a beard anymore though.”
“In the gallery, were you trying to out-stay him?”
“Were you trying to stall and make him leave before you did?”
A smile flickered in Jane’s voice. “Maybe.”
Bali walked into the kitchen. She scanned the contents of the refrigerator, pulled a bag of coffee out, then began prepping the coffee maker.
“Okay. Maybe. What about yesterday. Did you call the gallery yesterday?”
“Just to be clear, you didn’t call the gallery, maybe by accident… and then hang up?”
“No! I wouldn’t just hang up like that. Even if it were an accident, I’d at least say I messed up. ‘Sorry. My bad.’ Something.”
“Okay. Just checking.”
“Somebody did that?”
“Indeed, they did, but it was probably nothing. Stuff like that happens all the time.”
“But not all the time to you.”
Bali smiled. “No.” Bali riffled through her cabinets and then went back into the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic carton of lemon, poppy seed muffins. She placed them on the counter then popped the lid.
“Since there’s no school, what are you plans today?”
“I don’t have any plans… I figured I’d live atomically today.”
“Right. So atomic living is like, a theory made up by this girl, Kiran Ghandi. It goes like this: when you have a choice between doing something, like, spontaneous or like, something ordinary, you should always choose the spontaneous one, if the spontaneous thing makes you happy.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I saw Kiran Ghandi explaining it in a video on the internet. That’s how I want to live for now on.”
“You should do it too!”
“I’m afraid that theory doesn’t quite work as well when you have to maintain a business and have bills to pay. I suppose, though, it could be applied in small bursts in certain situations. I’ll consider it.”
“At least I got you thinking about it.”
“In that vein… I’m going to drive out to the Riverside Art Museum Gift Shop today. You wanna come with?”
“Heck yeah! See! Atomic living…”
“Now we just have to get your grandpa’s permission.”
“I’ll call him back right now!”
Jane left the house wearing printed jeans and a white pullover sweater. Her strawberry blond hair was swept up in a top knot, adorned with an artificial daisy clipped to its base. Jane’s perfume permeated the car with the scent of raspberries, licorice and vanilla. She held a white handkerchief edged with lace. Her eyes were watery and most likely red rimmed under her blue eyeliner.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just tired. And I kind of feel like a headache is about to come.”
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling so hot… but you look so cute. And you smell nice!”
Jane beamed. Jane had worked methodically on acting cool, not wanting her to ever know that she very badly wanted to impress Bali, who was always so impressive to her. Jane practiced setting her eyes a certain way. She studied her look, determined to master hanging her lids at the center of her iris to nail the impression of world worn seriousness. Bali, however, was aware of the effect she had on the 15-year-old, and the attention she gave the girl gave Jane a sense of accomplishment.
When Bali and Jane had been on the 215 north for nearly fifteen minutes, Bali’s cell phone rang. She had been expecting it and had considered letting the call roll into voicemail, but there was an opportunity mushrooming. She would never admit – not even to herself – the petty enjoyment this call was about to bring her. It was Bren.
“I have good news! I just became free! I can come with you to shop for March if you like.”
“Sorry. I’m already on my way. I’m on the 215 and I have Jane with me.”
“Jane? Who’s Jane.
“You don’t know her. She’s a brilliant fashionista who practices Atomic Living.” Bali glanced over at Jane who smiled back at her.
“Oh. Okay.” Bren was afraid she might sound stupid if she admitted she didn’t know what Atomic Living was. She’d look it up later on the internet. “Guess I missed my chance. Maybe I can meet the two of you there.”
“Don’t worry about it Bren. We’ll only be there a second. You take care and enjoy the rest of your day.”
Bren sighed heavily. “You too.”
The phone was not on speaker mode, but Jane heard the exchange clearly as the brown hills in the distance approached and passed, approached and passed. She felt a tidal wave of disappointment building up, racing towards her in the passenger seat at the thought of someone else butting in on her first outing with Bali. She exhaled when Bali shut her friend down, and felt the wave recede. No one as sophisticated as Bali ever wanted to hang out with Jane like this. Her truth was, she hadn’t even known of anyone else as put together as Bali. This was Jane’s day off and she got to spend it (at least part of it) with the most bad-ass woman she knew.
“Who was that?” Jane dabbed at her nose and studied Bali’s profile.
“A friend of yours.”
“Not exactly. She’s more like a friend of a friend. She thinks she’s my friend. I let her.”
“Why would you let her think she’s something she’s not?”
“There’s no harm in it. She’s not in a good spot right now. She doesn’t have a steady job, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to want her around much and as far as I know she has few friends of her own. She kind of attaches herself to my friend March and her friends.”
“Like a parasite.” Jane was proud of her quick assessment. She studied her nails to hide her pride.
Bali chuckled. “I don’t want to admit it, but that’s actually a spot-on comparison.”
“She sounds like a loser.”
“You shouldn’t call her that. She’s not a loser. She’s just a woman who’s just lost her way, I think. Something has chipped away at her self-esteem. She has a good heart. She’s just very needy.”
“So you think she’ll eventually become your real friend…”
On the 215 north, they were passing the grounded airplanes behind the chain link fence of the old Air Force Base. “I don’t know about that… Bren is a nice person, but she wants something from me that I can’t give.”
“And what’s that?”
Bali’s brown eyes twinkled as she glanced at Jane. “I don’t know. I have no words for it.”
The twinkle extinguished into a matted blank stare when Bali noticed, on the side of the road, a great white egret standing on the shoulder, as still as if it were standing dead. Jane had spotted it too and they drove a half mile in silent reverence until there was another.
“Bali! Another one!”
The second great white egret stood much like the first but Bali saw it quickly turn its head in their direction. It didn’t look into the car, but beyond it and in less than a second, the car shot beyond its gaze. Its lean white body was almost blinding in the desert sunlight.
Bali and Jane saw six more just as the first two, standing still, facing traffic on the dusty shoulder of the 215. Some looked down at some crawling thing unseen by human eyes. One looked up at the sky calculating. Others were just seen, the details of their behavior lost from the shock of their presents and numbers.
Jane glanced at Bali with a mouth shaped like the letter “O.” Her eyes were wide with the shimmer of a smile at the edges. If the skies had opened up and suddenly snowed, the effect would have been the same on Jane.
For Bali, the sight of one great white egret would have been an anonymous gift of stolen breath. The sight of eight was worthy of tears of gratitude, no doubt, but the birds, for Bali, were also a fence that surrounded a dark fog in which she could not see through. It delighted her just as it had Jane, but it also brought a chill that pulled on the hairs of her arms and made her heart want to look away. The army of great white egresses were ushering or guarding. An unknown something was coming. Or maybe it was going.
Kobina Wright is a second generation California native with a degree in Communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer and entrepreneur and is a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.
Some of the publications Wright has written for include LACMA Magazine, The Daily Titan, and CYH Magazine. In 2001 she wrote her second volume of poetry titled, “Growth Spurt,” and in 2004, wrote her third volume titled, “Say It! Say Gen-o-cide!!” − dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Wright’s work has been published in: The Bicycle Review; Boxcar Poetry Review; Burning Word Literary Journal; Crack the Spine; The Fiction Week Literary Review; The Missing Slate; Orion headless; The Passionate Transitory; Subliminal Interiors, Wilderness House Literary Review, Blackberry: A Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Extract(s) and SNReview.