Read an Excerpt
from "The Wind-up Bird And Tuesday's Women"
I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.
I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It's almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo. Still, on second thought, I figure I might as well turn down the flame and head into the living room, cooking chopsticks in hand, to pick up the receiver. It might be a friend, it occurs to me, possibly with word of a new job.
"I want ten minutes of your time," comes a woman's voice out of the blue.
"Excuse me?" I blurt back in surprise. "How's that again?"
"I said, just ten minutes of your time, that's all I want," the woman repeats.
I have absolutely no recollection of ever hearing this woman's voice before. And I pride myself on a near-perfect ear for voices, so I'm sure there's no mistake. This is the voice of a woman I don't know. A soft, low, nondescript voice.
"Pardon me, but what number might you have been calling?" I put on my most polite language.
"What difference does that make? All I want is ten minutes of your time. Ten minutes to come to an understanding." She cinches the matter quick and neat.
"Come to an understanding?"
"Of our feelings," says the woman succinctly.
I crane my neck back through the door I've left open to peer into the kitchen. A plume of white steam rising cheerfully from the spaghetti pot, and Abbado is still conducting his Gazza.
"If you don't mind, I've got spaghetti on right now. It's almost done, and it'll be ruined if I talk with you for ten minutes. So I'm going to hang up, all right?"
"Spaghetti?" the woman sputters in disbelief. "It's only ten-thirty in the morning. What are you doing cooking spaghetti at ten-thirty in the morning? Kind of strange, don't you think?"
"Strange or not, what's it to you?" I say. "I hardly had any breakfast, so I was getting hungry right about now. And as long as I do the cooking, when and what I eat is my own business, is it not?"
"Well, whatever you say. Hang up, then," says the woman in a slow, sappy trickle of a voice. A peculiar voice. The slightest emotional shift and her tone switches to another frequency. "I'll call back later."
"Now, wait just one minute," I stammer. "If you're selling something, you can forget right now about calling back. I'm unemployed at present and can't afford to buy anything."
"I know that, so don't give it another thought," says the woman.
"You know that? You know what?"
"That you're unemployed, of course. That much I knew. So cook your spaghetti and let's get on with it, okay?"
"Hey, who the" I launch forth, when suddenly the phone goes dead. Cut me off. Too abruptly to have set down the receiver; she must have pressed the button with her finger.
I'm left hanging. I stare blankly at the receiver in my hand and only then remember the spaghetti. I put down the receiver and return to the kitchen. Turn off the gas, empty the spaghetti into a colander, top it with tomato sauce I've heated in a saucepan, then eat. It's overcooked, thanks to that pointless telephone call. No matter of life-and-death, nor am I in any mood to fuss over the subtleties of cooking spaghettiI'm too hungry. I simply listen to the radio playing send-off music for two hundred fifty grams of spaghetti as I eagerly dispatch every last strand to my stomach. I wash up plate and pans while boiling a kettle of water, then pour a cup for a tea bag. As I drink my tea, I think about that phone call.
So we could come to an understanding?
What on earth did that woman mean, calling me up like that? And who on earth was she?
The whole thing is a mystery. I can't recall any woman ever telephoning me before without identifying herself, nor do I have the slightest clue what she could have wanted to talk about.
What the hell, I tell myself, what do I care about understanding some strange woman's feelings, anyway? What possible good could come of it? What matters now is that I find a job. Then I can settle into a new life cycle.
Yet even as I return to the sofa to resume the Len Deighton novel I took out of the library, the mere glimpse out of the corner of my eye of the telephone sets my mind going. Just what were those feelings that would take ten minutes to come to an understanding about? I mean, really, ten minutes to come to an understanding of our feelings?
Come to think of it, the woman specified precisely ten minutes right from the start. Seems she was quite certain about that exact amount of time. As if nine minutes would have been too short, eleven minutes maybe too long. Just like for spaghetti al dente.
What with these thoughts running through my head, I lose track of the plot of the novel. So I decide to do a few quick exercises, perhaps iron a shirt or two. Whenever things get in a muddle, I always iron shirts. A habit of long standing with me.
I divide the shirt-ironing process into twelve steps total: from (1) Collar <Front>, to (12) <Left Sleeve>. Absolutely no deviation from that order. One by one, I could off the steps. The ironing doesn't go right if I don't.
So there I am, ironing my third shirt, enjoying the hiss of the steam iron and the distinctive smell of hot cotton, checking for wrinkles before hanging up each shirt in the wardrobe. I switch off the iron and put it away in the closet with the ironing board.
I'm getting thirsty by now and am heading to the kitchen for some water when once more the telephone rings. Here we go again, I think. And for a moment I wonder whether I shouldn't just ignore it and keep on going into the kitchen. But you never know, so I retrace my steps back to the living room and pick up the receiver. If it's that woman again, I'll say I'm in the middle of ironing and hang up.
The call, however, is from my wife. By the clock atop the TV, it's eleven-thirty.
"How're things?" she asks.
"Fine," I answer, relieved.
"What've you been up to?"
"Is anything wrong?" my wife asks. A slight tension invades her voice. She knows all about my ironing when I'm unsettled.
"Nothing at all. I just felt like ironing some shirts. No particular reason," I say, switching the receiver from right hand to left as I sit down on a chair. "So, is there something you wanted to tell me about?"
"Yes, it's about work. There's the possibility of a job."
"Uh-huh," I say.
"Can you write poetry?"
"Poetry?" I shoot back in surprise. What's this about poetry?
"A magazine company where someone I know works puts out this popular fiction monthly for young girls and they're looking for someone to select and brush up poetry submissions. Then they want one leadoff poem each month for the section. The work's easy and the pay's not bad. Of course it's only part-time, but if things go well they might string you on for editorial work and"
"Easy?" I say. "Now hold on just one minute. I've been looking for a position with a law firm. Just where do you come up with this brushing up of poetry?"
"Well, didn't you say you used to do some writing in high school?"
"In a newspaper. The high-school newspaper. Such-and-such team won the soccer meet; the physics teacher fell down the stairs and had to go to the hospital. Dumb little articles like that I wrote. Not poetry. I can't write poetry."
"Not real poetry, just the kind of poems high-school girls might read. They don't even have to be that good. It's not like they're expecting you to write like Allen Ginsberg. Just whatever you can make do."
"I absolutely cannot write make-do poetry," I snap. The very idea.
"Hmph," pouts my wife. "This talk of legal work, though. Nothing seems to be materializing, does it?"
"Several prospects have come my way already. The final word'll be in sometime this week. If those fall through, maybe then I'll consider it."
"Oh? Have it your way, then. But say, what day is it today?"
"Tuesday," I tell her after a moment's thought.
"Okay, then, could you stop by the bank and pay the gas and phone bills?"
"Sure thing. I was going out to shop for dinner soon, anyway. I can take care of it at the same time."
"And what are we having for dinner?"
"Hmm, let's see," I say. "Haven't made up my mind yet. I thought I'd decide when I go shopping."
"You know," my wife starts in with a new tone of voice, "I've been thinking. Maybe you don't really need to be looking for work."
"And why not?" I spit out. Yet more surprises? Is every woman in the world out to shake me up over the phone? "Why don't I have to be looking for work? Another three months and my unemployment compensation is due to run out. No time for idle hands."
"My salary's gone up, and my side job is going well, not to mention we have plenty in savings. So if we don't go overboard on luxuries, we should be able to keep food on the table."
"And I'd do the housework?"
"Is that so bad?"
"I don't know," I say in all honesty. I really don't know. "I'll have to think it over."
"Do think it over," reiterates my wife. "Oh, and by the way, has the cat come back?"
"The cat?" I'm caught off guard, then I realize I'd completely forgotten about the cat all morning. "No, doesn't seem so."
"Could you scout around the neighborhood a bit? He's been gone four days now."
I give some spur-of-the-moment reply, switching the receiver back to my right hand.
"My guess is that the cat's probably in the yard of that vacant house at the end of the passage. The yard with the stone bird figurine. I've seen him there often enough. You know where I'm talking about?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't," I say. "And since when have you been snooping around in the passage on your own? Never once have you mentioned"
"You'll have to forgive me, but I've got to hang up. Have to be getting back to work. Don't forget about the cat, now." And the telephone cuts off.
I sit there looking dumbly at the receiver a second before setting it down.
Now why would my wife know so much about the passage? I can't figure it out. She'd have to climb over a high cinder-block wall to get there from our yard, and what possible reason was there to go to all that trouble to begin with?
I go to the kitchen for that drink of water, turn on the FM radio, and trim my nails. They're doing a feature on Robert Plant's new album. I listen to two songs before my ears start to hurt and I switch the thing off. I go out to the porch to check the cat's food dish; the dried fish I put in the previous night hasn't been touched. Guess the cat really hasn't come back.
Standing there on the porch, I look at the bright spring sun slicing down into our tiny yard. Hardly the sort of yard that lingers fondly in the mind. The sun hits here only the briefest part of the day, so the soil is always dark and damp. Not much growing: just a couple of unremarkable hydrangeas. And I'm not terribly crazy about hydrangeas in the first place.
From a nearby stand of trees comes the periodic scree-ee-eech of a bird, sharp as a tightening spring. The "wind-up bird," we call it. My wife's name for it. I have no idea what it's really called. Nor even what it looks like. Nonetheless, this wind-up bird is there every morning in the trees of the neighborhood to wind things up. Us, our quiet little world, everything.
As I listen to the wind-up bird, I'm thinking, Why on earth is it up to me to go searching after that cat? And more to the point, even if I do chance to find it, what am I supposed to do then? Drag the cat home and lecture it? Plead with itListen, you've had everyone worried sick, so why don't you come home?
Great, I think. Just great. What's wrong with letting a cat go where it wants to go and do what it wants to do? Here I am, thirty years old, and what am I doing? Washing clothes, planning dinner menus, chasing after cats.
Not so long ago, I'm thinking, I was your regular sort of guy. Fired up with ambition. In high school, I read Clarence Darrow's autobiography and decided to become a lawyer. My grades weren't bad. And in my senior year I was voted by my classmates runner-up "Most Likely to Succeed." I even got accepted into the law department of a comparatively reputable university. So where had I screwed up?
I plant my elbows on the kitchen table, prop up my chin, and think: When the hell did the compass needle get out of whack and lead my life astray? It's more than I can figure. There's nothing I can really put my finger on. No setbacks from student politics, no disillusionment with university, never really had much girl trouble. As near as I can tell, I've had a perfectly normal existence. Yet one day, when it came time for me to be graduating, I suddenly realized I wasn't the same guy I used to be.
Probably, the seed of a schism had been there all along, however microscopic. But in time the gap widened, eventually taking me out of sight of who I was supposed to be. In terms of the solar system, if you will, I should by now have reached somewhere between Saturn and Uranus. A little bit farther and I ought to be seeing Pluto. And beyond thatlet's seewas there anything after that?