About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud
By Killarney Clary
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Through a panel of controls in the post-Panamax crane cab, the container is raised from the ship and set on a trailer from which it will be transferred, at the intermodal yard, to a train through the Alameda Corridor. Switched through to the Inland Empire and beyond—the clothing, electronics, and toys from Asia are on their way.
From the warehouse in Sparks, Nevada, to fill a catalog order in Emmett, Idaho—a blouse for a woman who will be better when the parcel has arrived. Summer's coming. She slits the tape, unfolds the pale tissue, lifts the thing. Dust on the dresser, powder on her throat, a fine quiet glow on what she has gathered, and a siffle in the blinds, heat leaning on the outside wall of the dim bedroom. The color is different from what she expected. She pulls her shirt off, feels a tingling surge of shortfall behind her eyes.
We watched ravens ransack the truck-stop trashcans, plastic blowing across the blacktop out onto the desert, catching on fence wire, blooms of Styrofoam in the tumbleweed. As long as we were not speaking, I wouldn't hear what I was afraid you'd say. I wouldn't say the words I'd be sorry for. Doesn't the wind need to rest? A motley sparrow turned his working, calico eye to the sun, heated the mites then dusted them. Tending to himself, he looked bad.
There is nothing said to her from which she does not shy. Another word will come, irritate delicate privacy. Seen parts, well formed, finished, don't give. She will not give way. The sores of our voiced care she tends with long rests, rising in the afternoon for a drink of water.
When her mother dares, You promised to eat, she is silent. Help is arranged and she goes along with it. Help is a sad song playing in the background. Distance clothes her cooling body, promises to keep her, like dry ice, ever without the middle part.
He pressed his fingertips on the rim of the coffee mug, let up. I want to know what THIS is. He swore he wouldn't settle for belief. We ate sandwiches and he went away.
Trucks pass on the highway around the lake. Stuff is transferred at every hour, pottery fired, racked, packed in custom cartons to keep down damage, to eliminate rattle. The enterprise narrows to a delivery at my door. Box opened, the vase rests on its own against my hand.
His question moves up my arm, one cell against the next relaying uneasy wonder. Jet Skis on the lake, summer in the tall yellow grass. THIS is, each tick, the Good night we nod as we cross—greeting and goodbye.
The matter resists my touch. The world resists my thinking. Maybe he stopped. Maybe he broke his resolve, gave himself over to involuntary muscles to keep from choking on the stream of marvel.
She taped a note for me on her window, and I one in return; she answered. Now I am expected and will do anything else. If there were another place to look, a periphery, I might bear a thing said and then the waiting. She is four years old, watching my window, and I am counting. If handing over and standing still weren't a trap.
I see through the glass the glare on ornaments. Her Christmas tree was cut to be this exactly, to last as this. Needles dry and drop. We might become friends, set these houses adrift, refuse to promise.
When she stops at the two-thousand-year-old body she is silent. Can she think of her apple in a bag on the bus? We will pass to the next dimly lit exhibit—darkness protects the weave and finish—then to peppy questions about magic, and a wishing well at the end in the light. Here, a vial of berry seeds eaten twenty centuries ago, a leather rag. I look and look away through the north door to a pavilion where butterflies scatter in the April afternoon. I've noted the exits, measured the hour. What I learn catches on what I already know. Her damp fingers trail, lift away from the glass. For her, too, the forms harden.
A four-sided traffic light hangs above the intersection, swaying, dim through the dust. No cars. It changes. Four flat treeless streets reach four horizons. After ten years the woman says, I never loved you.
Red train across the Mojave, rose quartz glitter rises in drafts against the mountains, curls back to fall in dunes. Ocotillo whistles for the wind all night. No place. Called waste.
His hand barely against his shirtfront, he leans forward to smell the bitterbrush. Bees. Late sun on the red rock, dark in the deep verticals, engine idling. How can I tell what it is to be alive? Why do we say love, or paint pictures of a limestone outcropping? When he climbs back into the truck he leans against me. What is weight? The cab smells like honey.
If we hadn't kissed goodbye a second time, the car coming off the freeway at the Vine Street exit would have hit me.
I am careful when trees move without wind. Careful of what? The dead love me. The evil ones have not secured my signature and must remain attractive. They will not hurt us.
You say the only thing you want now is for me to worry less. You remind me where we sat yesterday, across the ravine, on that ridge. See?
As long as the edge of the chair's shadow touches the doorframe, we are alive.
The girl falls in love and wants to be well, is well, and forgets to measure. She is noticed or not in the supermarket by the boy she met at last night's party. The day is bright; she hears thunder, and mist sprinklers come on above the lettuce. Bitterly, the word comes—Silly. She is chilled and losing. The list is numbered. Each shape and color announces at once it is against her and at her service. To keep from reeling, she could use her telephone. Her hand is lax on the cool lemon.
Worry touches the loaded brush tip to the wetted paper and the color floods into a sharp-edged shape, darkens to be a thing, my own. Want draws a picture, so the strain is milked.
You smoothed my hair. Your big fingers combed, caught, pulled away so as not to feel the rough spot too long; it was long enough for me to know you had felt it and wonder if you were repulsed. You moved on. I haven't had this thought.
You came into the room where the two of us were talking and you looked only at her. I am not thinking this. I won't say. I will dress in red next time.
Pigeons nest in the crooks of neon tubes above the man doubled over at the pay phone who presses 9-1-1 for himself while the cop nearby pats down a bored boy. When the ambulance comes, the Metro Rail crowd crosses anyway in front of it, so the paramedics wait.
Hollywood and Western. How thick a medium will we share? Static crackles—a moist breath in contact with heat. Where'd she get the money? Wind kicks dust off last year's burn. Ruby glass casts a red shadow. The woman in the wheelchair accepts with a sigh the weight of her caretaker's head on her shoulder.
I say downtown's beautiful at night. But on Saturdays he drives a cab. What I've seen. He closes his eyes and fists. I leave him off and head home toward the sparkle, over the four-level stack, this time suspecting that in the dark shafts between the blocks there is a driver whose fare is a perfect fourteen-year-old Guatemalan girl handing him a Beverly Hills address. He can't word the question. She shakes her head, pays him quickly, and drops, glinting, into the deep.
My practice of leaving throbs in the carpet's design. While you talk, shapes spin then settle—bats in a cave. The city whir and repetition of blue accompany the dream of elsewhere. A walkway supports a footfall. Doubt prods the hive.
I watch along the border's stems, count the leaves in case I have to come back. While you tell me what is wrong, again, I trace the figures with my sight in order to finalize: This is the best road away from hearing what is asked of me. The single thing forces the hum. Against your I need you, a pattern rises in the weave.
The wooden pieces were strung on elastic, which was loosened by a button on the pedestal of the toy. The body collapsed into a pile of colored bits. I eased my push; the doll snapped tall.
The woman stood in front of her husband, her back to him, and she fired the gun, at his instruction, at the cardboard target. He said something else, and she turned, asked, What? and shot him dead, by mistake.
And then what?
It can be drawn, she thinks, if it can be pictured. It could be any shape, any with error, if she could say, These are the colors, if outside weren't called for, song, not called forth, no dreamt dress, invented love, no purpose.
She wanted to be certain of the shapes' edges, before the color bled, to hold the flatness. How crooked his nose appeared in that light. She drew it her own way and was disappointed. Her opinions, once out, were unimportant to her.
The design can be explained. She can rest with it, store within it what the impulse was. They will ask for an account of the painting. She will talk about the shapes.
One woman calls to the other to turn around and come back. They've found her. She stands very still to keep phone reception at the edge of the fire road, halfway up Mount Lee. The paramedics found her in a parking garage. We have to go. Now. And the other woman says to me, Look at the horses, how beautiful. I ask if they need help and she smiles, No, and heads toward her friend. Three crows fly above me. One drops a scrap of white tissue paper and another catches it, flies higher and drops it for the third to take. I map their loops in my mind, a pattern in the sky above the city park. The women jog down the road to the gate with their good news. How can it be good news?
I have no say over what my expression does in your head. The trinket was slipped into the pocket, the pocket picked, the cheap treasure lost in the seam of the bus seat. The bus in the ravine off the Ortega Highway is burning. A mole lifts its nose into smoke.
At the crossroads, at the city limits where taxes aren't certain and unusual bargains are struck, I said I was your friend. I wait while you talk. I wonder what you mean. On your shoulder, shade-lace swells. I don't want to hold you still, sun in your eyes, but yes I do. Stay until we are referring to the same, third thing: cat chasing what might be a lizard, might not.
She has put the cup where I can reach it. She's said the cruel thing and gone. Across the grass, ice spills out of a pitcher into plastic tumblers, onto sticky oilcloth in the afternoon swell. At the feeder, a hummingbird drinks and perches, and again. Clear surfaces flash quick spectrums onto the lawn, onto the shadows of leaves.
There is no end to the gifts, no place to put what is left over. To dress the sore, a patch is strong, but close-by the difference makes a weary place. The smart doesn't last. From the glass flower, sugar water.
He rustled in private in the wooden dressing closet next to mine at the pool. Hazy heat reached through the door cracks across my skin to the wet palette floor. The white plastic ball played its hollow double beat on the table in the shade. I never said hello to him. Pale and dark-haired, younger than I, he paddled in the shallow end while near my hold, near my face, water lapped into the overflow gutter. The frozen taffy bar I'd broken melted eye-level on the concrete deck. My mother and aunt whispered. I thought I could save him from the whispered thing.
The game he plays he plays with his weight on one knee, on the press of a few toes. Where to place the black marble, how to look and measure by looking, and have his push work with the measure to put the thing—there—is a way away from time.
Beads of rain heavy on the leaves between his nape and the sky are not included, a late light on the hand he holds behind him for balance is. Narrowed then opened, throbbing slowly like fever's edges, the space is not entirely outside, so his frame wavers, so he was never this, forever this.
What else is now is not now for him. The round glass is shiny between his thumb and middle finger, cool and dead. It will be tossed, will reach, or not, the mark. This matters repeatedly, is broken by hunger, is hunger. He will pitch it to its end, and be free of it.
My feet are soft and quiet against the cool floor. Midmorning I understand there are no birds.
I have gone through the first night, the worst.
Dry gravel ticks, crumbles into rivulets. Sparse grey foliage and its shadow tremble in a dusty wind. I spent half the party saying goodbye.
You hold your T-shirt at the label, pull it up and off your back and lie down.
Why is there still a world for me?
Mama lied, What you have made is good. So many gray clay pots were proudly collected at the school gate. There is no one like you, my darling.
Thin clouds hold the sharp heat off. Rocked in shallow swells, a drift of minnows pulses. Suspicion hangs in monsoonal moisture. A swirl of pale hair in the bay—pressing forward keeps the weight suspended.
Powdered, loose skin gives, cool against a kiss, receives, I love you, which veils with sheer fabric—I love you enough to lie.
At the edge of the Pacific, a speedboat wake taps the shore. The speckle of shadow disperses; castles collapse into their tunnels, and a woman shakes her sunburned boy, Where's your sister?
My whispers come back off your skin; we hear our spittle split, our breathing while we hold quiet. They can't hear, can't read what we've written with the dry cleaner's clear wax zipper crayon on the flat blue-gray paint on the closet wall: a phone number, a hideout place—below the elm behind the camellia where the oily soil stays damp, after the last bell when the swing chains hang still. The marks glisten in the angled penlight. Meet me there.
Christian's Hut burned down within an hour—dry palm fronds and tikis bright in the August midnight. In the holiday crowd, we flickered and dimmed on the far side of Balboa Boulevard while inside the rented house, Mama watched Chiller over her glasses, over her knitting, not not hearing the sirens. Her needles worried the purl stitch. The black-and-white face melting in acid reflected off view windows dulled by salt.
Down to the cold sand to play with phosphorus, we didn't talk about the man assumed drowned, missing two days, his shape, a ruined castle near the tide line. When we crashed through the screen door, laughing for cake, she went up to bed without a kiss.
I sit on the sunny pantry floor and read repeatedly the label on a can of mandarin oranges, its best-by date years past. There will be noise; they will need me.
My hands are exactly as I remember my mother's hands, now gone. The morning itself is gone. Near the stiff hinge and scratching in the wall, I fall through the floors, and when the bottom isn't hit, after a while I start again to sweep up.
Dust rises in dragons, their scales stretching into feathers, into flames, then dust. Tufts of pink insulation whisper behind the plaster: an amen to my anti-prayer. What's been gotten into now?
The beaded velvet jacket Mama gave me is in the attic. The ugly pin Daddy bought for her is locked in my case, the figurine with its various stories, polished and treasured for the version I prefer: clumsy and wild, he brought it across Germany on a bicycle in 1938.
I hand you her silver monkey ring, its belly an opal—another gift she pretended to like. She kept it throughout her forever. The metal is worn thin, the animal's features smoothed, abstract. I'm not sure you will take it.
Excerpted from Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud by Killarney Clary. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsShadow of a Cloud but No Cloud Acknowledgments