Michael Heffernan

The Mouth of the Cave


A man I didn’t know was reading the paper on the sofa when I came in for breakfast.  He had folded it into one small section the way commuters do on the bus.  The cigarette under his moustache had a long curled ash that was about to fall off onto his shirt.  As I passed toward the kitchen, he didn’t look up or say good morning.  My wife was pouring a glass of grapefruit juice. 

            “You’re finally up,” she said. 

            “I had a rough night,” I said.  “Nightmares kept waking me.” 

            “You and your nightmares.  What was it this time?”  She was stirring the grapefruit juice with a spoon I never liked to use, the old souvenir spoon with the word Denver in script on the handle. 

            “Oh,” I said, “in one of them, we were up in the mountains, and for some reason Fred Castroff was there, and he suggested we take a canoe ride through an enormous gorge, and in one place there was a cave by the water’s edge, and a pack of wild dogs were lying around at the mouth of the cave chewing on human arms and legs, and behind them was a pile of arms and legs, and suddenly Fred was gone and you were gone and the canoe was gone, and I was riding a bicycle down the Champs Élysées.  Only it wasn’t the Champs Élysées.  It was Vandersee Avenue with the Arc de Triomphe at one end of it, and I rode my bicycle right on through it, and then I woke up.”           

       The man in the living room walked into the kitchen with the paper under his arm.  He was holding his cigarette by the filter-tip between two fingers, balancing the long curved ash.  “Is there an ashtray somewhere?” he asked us. 

            “Right over there by the toaster,” I told him.  He picked up the ashtray, tapped the long ash into it, and took it back to the living room. 

            “Your nightmares are boring,” my wife said.  She took two pieces of toast from the toaster and began searching around the countertop for a knife to butter them. 

            “Where did I put that knife?” she asked. 

            “There’s a perfectly good steak knife in the sink,” I said.  “Why don’t you use it?” 

            She buttered the toast with the steak knife, leaving streaks in the butter from the serrated edge.  “I don’t like streaks in my butter,” she said. 

            “Can’t win ‘em all,” I muttered, thinking she would sneer and say “Very funny,” but she just kept gobbling her toast by the sink, looking out the window where some bluejays were swooping from limb to limb in the backyard, and beyond the backyard a pair of joggers were trudging up the street. 

            I stepped back into the living room.  The man on the sofa had opened the paper full size and was shaking it to readjust the folds and creases.  He folded it the way he wanted it and gave it one last shake so it was smooth as new.  He sank back into the sofa with one elbow over the arm, almost touching the ashtray on the endtable.  There was a smoldering cigarette on the ashtray, and beside the ashtray a picture of my wife’s brother in the Army in his cap and uniform. 

            Back at the window the joggers had disappeared.  What looked like a swift or a sparrow was pecking around on the picnic table. 

            “Look at that sparrow out there,” I said. “Or is it a swift or a finch of some kind?” 

            “Don’t ask me,” she said.  “They’re all the same to me, except for bluejays.” 

            “Is there any more of that toast, or anything else we could make for breakfast?” I asked.  “I’m starving.” 

            “The toast is as you see it, over there on my plate,” she said, pointing out two bits of crust she hadn’t eaten.  “And there’s no eggs or cereal.  I didn’t get a chance to go shopping yesterday, and someone I know never manages to find his way to the store.” 

            “I guess I’ll eat those bits of crust on your plate,” I said.  “Where did you put that knife you used for the butter?” 

            “You’re sick,” she said.  “You need psychiatric help.” 

            She went into the living room on her way to the bedroom to get dressed for work.  I ate the bits of crust unbuttered and went to the living room.  The man was smoking a fresh cigarette.  The paper lay beside him on the sofa. 

            “Is there anything to eat?  I’m starved,” he said. 

            “I’m sorry, but we haven’t anything to eat,” I said.  “Not even a piece of toast.  I’m very sorry.”

            “That’s all right, never mind,” he said.  He leaned back and stretched out his arms and knocked over the picture of my wife’s brother in the Army.  It fell off the edge of the endtable and clattered on the airvent by the wallboard. 

            “What was that?” my wife asked, standing in the bedroom doorway buttoning her blouse. 

            “Your brother’s picture.  It fell off the table,” I said. 

            “You two ought to be more careful,” she said, turning back to the bedroom.  “Andy won’t like to see that next time he visits.  You better get it fixed.”  There was a single crack in the glass that crossed Andy’s cheek and curved up over his forehead to cut his cap in half on its way to the frame.  I put the picture back on the endtable.  The photograph, which was too small for the frame, slid down below the matting, so Andy’s chin was hidden at the bottom. 

            “Well, I’m off to the saltmines,” she said, adjusting her scarf as she marched back into the living room.  “Do you mind my taking that paper to read on the bus?” 

            “Be my guest,” the man on the sofa said.  “It’s probably old news anyway.  I found it on the bus myself.” 

            She had already tucked the paper under her arm and headed for the front door.  “Maybe you could get your friend to take that picture down to Simpson’s.  I see he’s got his bicycle down here by the steps.” 

            “Maybe,” I said. 

            “Bye-bye,” she said, and stepped out the door. 

There was the usual silence after my wife left.  I thought how pretty she looked in that heather-green suit with the gold scarf her mother gave her one Christmas and the tourmaline necklace an aunt had left her.  The man on the sofa rose to his feet. 

            “I wish I could help you with that picture,” he said, “but I have an appointment downtown and I’m already a little late.  Sorry,” he said. 

            “No problem,” I said.  He put his cigarette out in the ashtray and I walked him to the door. 

            “Your wife looks wonderful in that sort of heathery ensemble with that striking gold scarf,” he said.

            “Doesn’t she,” I said. 

            “I’ll bet you gave her that necklace,” he said.  “Is it tourmaline?” 

            “No, I did not,” I said.  “It’s an heirloom that belonged to her aunt Louise.  And yes, it is tourmaline, I think.” 

            “It’s a splendid gem,” he said.  “The way it lends that moment of heavenly blue just at the rim of that exquisite clavicle.  I adore a woman’s clavicle, the sweet declivity in the midst of it, a little goblet for the wine of love.” 

            “I know what you mean,” I said. 

            “Your wife’s is perfection,” he said.  “Absolute perfection.”  

            “Yes, I’ve often thought that,” I said.  “It’s pleasant of you to say so.” 

            “Well, you are a very lucky man,” he said. 

            He looked around toward the living room, while I held the door open.   He let his eyes pause momentarily from point to point, as if memorizing particular objects, the sofa, the endtable with Andy’s face, the china cabinet near the side window, the bedroom doorway with its door half closed. 

            “The heartbreak of perfection,” he said.  Then he turned stiffly and stepped past me onto the front porch.  

            “By the way,” he said, “I don’t know whose bicycle this is by the steps, but I’m going to borrow it if you don’t mind.” 

            “Be my guest,” I said. 

            He skipped down the steps without saying goodbye, climbed on the bicycle, and began to crank bowlegged up the sidewalk.  The bicycle was a girls model, at least two sizes too small.  Duchess, a neighbor’s Dalmatian, trotted after him down to the corner, wagging her tail.  She paused to sniff some spirea bushes while he pedaled into traffic on the Champs Élysées.  The shrill tune of a police van ripped through the sycamores.