A long weekend calls for an extra short story! This week’s comes from David Jauss. Take a moment to appreciate the people you love this weekend. We’ll see you again in September.
What They Didn’t Notice
When Frank stepped out of the doctor’s office, he didn’t notice the sky. If he had been sixty years younger, perhaps he would have noticed that one of the clouds scudding up from the southwest looked like an enormous white horse. Its long neck was outstretched, as if straining toward a finish line, but it had no legs. Still, its mane and tail were flying.
Nor did he notice the ground. The soil in the flowerbeds that flanked the sidewalk was unnaturally black for this part of the country—imported, no doubt, from some northern state. Had he noticed the dirt, he might have thought about the clay that lay beneath it, damp and tinged with red, as if so many animals had died here for so many centuries that their blood could not be completely rained away.
In a nearby tulip poplar, a gray-green bird with a yellow breast sang over and over a deep-throated song, fracturing its melody each time with four or five abrupt, awkward pauses, but Frank did not see or hear it. If it had been another day, or another place, he probably would have noticed the mask around its eyes—like a raccoon’s, only yellow—and recognized the bird as a yellow-throated vireo. Though he’d been an ardent birdwatcher since the year before he retired, it was a species he had never seen before, one he could have added to his Life List. But he did not see it, so it would have to remain on that larger list of things that were part of the world’s life but not his own.
And when he reached the parking lot, he didn’t notice how long he stood there beside his car, holding the key in his hand. He did not notice his hand either, how it looked like his father’s—liver-spotted, the knuckles gnarled with arthritis. It had been thirty years since he’d seen his father’s hands, crossed upon the black lapels of his last suit. If he had noticed, perhaps his hand would have started to tremble. But it didn’t. It was still, like a small animal that freezes where it stands, hoping it hasn’t been seen.
He stood there for nearly two minutes, a full minute longer than it took for the doctor to change his life.
When Frank left the house that morning, Ellie didn’t notice how his voice quavered when he told her he was going to meet a couple of his friends for coffee.
And when he came home, she did not notice how quietly he closed the door, as if he didn’t want to wake someone who was sleeping.
The doctor did not notice:
(1) The way the carotid artery in Frank’s throat pulsed while
he listened to the biopsy results.
(2) The squeak of his nurse’s shoes as she walked past the
(3) The way he kept clearing his throat, as if hinting that Frank
should say something now, anything, whatever he was
thinking or feeling.
(4) The fact that he nodded as he spoke, as if he were secretly
agreeing with Frank’s silence.
(5) The fact that he kept repeating the word options.
(6) A bird’s song outside the window.
(7) The telephone ringing at the nurse’s station and Loretta’s
bored voice saying, “I’m sorry, he’s with a patient right now.”
(8) His hand lightly shaking Frank’s shoulder, as if to wake him.
(9) The coppery taste of fear on the back of his tongue.
The vireo did not notice the man passing below him on the sidewalk. It was also unaware of the obsessive repetition of its song, or even of the fact that it was singing. Least of all was it aware that this day could be unlike any other, or even that there were such things as days, as time, as death.
That night, after they made love for the first time in weeks, Ellie did not notice Frank sobbing silently. And when, finally, his voice shaking, he told her what the doctor had said, she was not aware that the fingers of her left hand curled up slowly, like an animal dying, while her right hand stroked the back of his neck, the stubble left there by the barber.
After he told her, Frank looked at his wife’s face in the dim light the moon cast through their window, but he did not see it, not really. He was seeing her face as it was forty-five years before, when they first met, and he was wondering where that young girl had gone, and where he had gone, the young man he was then, tall and thin and so strong from lifting hay bales that she couldn’t stop touching his arms, his shoulders. Because he was thinking these thoughts, he did not notice the anger that tinged her voice when she asked him why he hadn’t told her about his symptoms or his trips to the doctor. Nor did he dare notice that he was angry too, offended even, that she would go on living without him.
By the time first Frank and then Ellie finally fell asleep, the vireo had been sleeping for hours, its feathers fluffed against the cold and its head tucked under its wing. Torn clouds were streaking overhead, scarring the moon, and a wind was stirring the leaves that surrounded its nest, but the bird was oblivious. It noticed nothing, nothing at all. And in the morning, when it would wake, it would begin to live once again the one day of its life, singing its beautiful, broken song.