A vireo sang its dry wooden flute notes somewhere to Allen's left—a whistle, pause, and chip. He glanced into the trees, finding the torpedo body at last when the shiny, green cottonwood leaves shifted in the breeze and sunlight gave its feathers a gleam like wet lead. "Solitary," he thought, looking at Cleo. Her muzzle was buried in the crisp yellow grass at the base of a bush. Then he directed his eyes, with a minimum of motion, back to the warbler-sized bird. The bird sang again, and he was near enough to see the throat pulse as it pumped notes into the air. Cleo abandoned the bush she had been studying, glanced back at him, and trotted away. She highstepped like a proud horse, leading him south.
He saw a woman coming. He could hear voices upstream, behind him, and the thud of feet—men. The woman was jogging, a bit heavy-footed, with a hesitant gait, her weight shifting dully from foot to foot. He had seen her before—a young woman, trim but soft, her new spandex covered by a USC tanktop. Her cheeks were flushed, and sweat beaded her upper lip. She smiled as she passed. No names, but the familiarity of regular encounters on the walking trail. Beyond the jogging woman, Cleo was approaching an elderly couple, man and woman. They walked slowly. The woman was staring at the ground, as if scanning for obstacles. The man carried a ski pole like a cane. Cleo wagged her stump tail at them and the woman fished into her fanny pack. Cleo's bottom fell to earth, and she took the offered treat with the delicacy of a violinist.
Allen nodded and smiled. "Ever the beggar," he said. Two men passed them from behind him, legs pumping like machinery.
"She's so sweet," the old woman said. The old man nodded, to the dog, to him, to her, and they went their ways.
Cleo's walk was a stop and start affair. Allen had explained to friends who jogged that the point was not the aerobic value of sustained movement. Sometimes he stood for more than a minute while she vacuumed up odors hung like moss on the side of a tree. She didn't make him run, but she ran herself sometimes, darting after a rabbit or squirrel then coming back proud and pumped.
People might pass them twice, coming and going, joggers or bicyclers. Even walkers would appear in the distance behind them, approach, pass, and disappear. That was what Denise Spector did the first time he noticed her. She passed at a steady, natural walking pace, while he had his back to the trail, looking for a wren that was scolding him—or Cleo—from the underbrush. When he turned to continue down the trail, a woman was unaccountably ahead of him. He was startled, but recovered before he knew what had startled him.
Walking behind her, he studied her back. She was built like Anna. More than that, she walked like Anna. Her hair was too light and too short. But the proportions of her back, almost boyish, the slight exaggeration of the muscles in the upper thigh and the curve of her calf were right. And her walk, loose-limbed but emphatic, was the same. He looked away, uncomfortable.
It did not occur to him that she might be Anna. That was a foolishness behind him. Anna was dead. He could say that.
He saw Denise Spector, on and off, for nearly a month before they spoke. She would pass him while he stood at the edge of the trail, intent on the songs around him, sometimes with his head down to listen better. They would pass from opposite directions, making eye contact long enough to say hello and flash smiles. She watched the dog as she approached, not him. He was usually engaged in the hunt, tracking a bird call or a glimpse of color or movement, but aware more and more, as the weeks passed, of her coming and her passing. She moved at about their pace, but steadily, leaving them behind, catching them again on the return. When she had gone by, he would watch her go. He wondered if, as people said, she could feel his eyes on her back. She gave no sign.
He felt a bit guilty, watching her walk away, imagining she was Anna. Her back filled him, sometimes, with a terrible hunger to imagine. She was not Anna. There was no Anna. Only an empty place where she had been in the world. Wreckage, a sealed coffin, silence, a trial he skipped, a conviction, places he could not go, things he flinched from remembering or imagining. Truth. There was no Anna, and no revenge would change that. Retribution was meaningless, and no bringing her back, no magic to bring her back.
She was coming toward them the day she stopped. He had seen her more than a quarter mile away, recognizing her walk and proportions. She was wearing red and yellow, colors Anna favored, shorts and a T-shirt, and a yellow bandana capping her blonde hair, pirate style. She wore calf-length athletic socks, white, with two red stripes, and white running shoes. The shorts were big and loose. She watched Cleo as she approached, but she glanced at Allen as well, quick darting looks. Behind her, two magpies sailed across her wake, balked suddenly, and dropped to the ground.
"Hi, sweetie," she said to the dog. Cleo wagged her tail politely. Allen was twenty feet away, approaching slowly. She kneeled and took Cleo's ears, one in each hand, kneading the drapes of skin and the sides of the dog's skull. Cleo turned her head when Allen was upon them, checking for approval. Her mouth fell open a bit in a doggie, sensual grin.
The woman looked up. "What kind is she?" The bandana said "Cuervo" in red letters.
"Shake and bake," Allen said. "Weimaraner from the color. Probably some greyhound, or something deep-chested. And her muzzle is kind of bulldoggy. Who knows?" he concluded, shrugging with a deprecating smile.
"She's the same color as the Flatirons," the woman said, still massaging Cleo's ears. "Boxers have that bulldog look, and a deep chest," she added, looking up at him. Then she stood up. A vireo began to sing; Allen's eyes shifted involuntarily The sound was a bit behind the woman, and she turned to look where he was looking. "What is it?" she said. "So pretty."
"Solitary vireo," he said, pointing into the cottonwoods. "Up there. Grey, like a grey canary." Obligingly, the bird sang again and the woman said, "Oh, I see it!"
They watched the bird.
"Are you a bird watcher?" she said. Then she snorted, as if clearing her nose. "Well, duh, Denise! Of course you are. I meant.... Well, what did I mean? Oh never mind, Ok?"
She blushed. "I've always wanted to know what the birds are," she said. "We walk along, surrounded by all that beauty and, you know, life, and I don't know one bird from another any more than I can identify cars by their horns. Well, my car. But that's different."
"There are lots of birds along the creek," he said. It seemed inane, but she looked around, as if birds would emerge from the bushes.
"I know," she said. "I hear them all the time. And there's one, I saw it once, that makes a noise like cartoon laughter, kind of cackling. It's bigger than that, but I only saw one once."
"Kind a rattling sound? Like one of those pull toys with a clacker?" She nodded. "Could be a kingfisher. There are kingfishers along here. They have a square head, sort of, like a scruffy bluejay. Did it make the noise while it was flying?"
She nodded. "And it flew like it was swinging on a rope. I remember thinking that was really strange. Kingfisher." She looked toward the tree. No kingfisher appeared.
The next weekend, she caught up with them at a place where the creek elbowed toward the trail. Allen was waiting for Cleo to climb out of the water. He could hear a chickadee's mournful two notes, answered antiphonally from the distance. He had his hands in his pockets.
"Hi," she said. "I know what that is. Chickadee. I saw one on TV," she added. Then she smiled. "I'm Denise." Cleo spotted her and came, sopping, to greet her.
"Pomerance? What an interesting name." She was scratching Cleo's head. "Mine's Spector, like the musician," she said, without looking up. "Denise," she added.
Allen sorted through his memories. "Spanish Harlem."
"Uh-hunh." Denise grinned and nodded. "And his sister, too. Ronnie."
Cleo moved away, headed purposefully south. Denise took a step forward, and he came with her. They walked together, stopping, starting, observing the sights and sounds of the trail, the sun a warm lamp on their faces when they looked west.
They talked in low tones. She told him she worked at a software company, a programmer. He knew nothing about computers; she didn't want to talk about that. She told him her mother took her baby Saturday mornings. "So I can get out and walk," she said. "A break. I'm divorced," she added, watching a big bird take to the air from a limb above them. "Like that," she said, pointing. "That's how the other bird flew. Swooping."
"That's a flicker. Was your bird bluish or more brown?"
"Blue, I guess. Not brown. And smaller, I think."
Allen nodded. "Kingfisher. We'll see one eventually. There are two or three living along the creek."
She walked with her arms crossed and her head down, as if studying the path. She would raise her head and look around occasionally, and look at whatever caught his eye, but when she talked, she talked to the ground.
The next week, he timed his arrival in the parking lot to meet her. He calculated backwards from the time she had caught up with them. He gambled that he had arrived first, and he loitered, to Cleo's puzzlement, for ten minutes. When he was about to give up, she stepped from a white Civic, waving as she emerged, a bright smile on her face.
"Hey, Allen!" she said. Cleo spotted her and rushed to meet her, wagging from the base of her spine. Denise knelt as they collided. Cleo offered a single lick of greeting; Denise rubbed her cheek on her shoulder. She was wearing a Buffs T-shirt. Anna had one, his actually, that she wore to bed. He looked away, then he looked at Denise's face, nothing like Anna's. Anna had blue eyes, almost green. Denise's mouth was wide and tight-lipped, thin, and her nose tilted up a bit. Anna had a bold, Indian nose that she was self-conscious about. He looked at Denise's car, a white Civic with a rust scrape on one fender. The tires were curb-scuffed.
"We just got here," Allen said. She smiled again. Cleo made a kind of curving lunge to launch the walk, and they fell in behind her. They talked about her job, the trivial events of her week. Then his week, stopping for birds. They watched a redstart do its scuffling dance in leaf mold.
"Trying to scare up bugs," he said. She nodded. They moved on.
"You always come here alone," she said. She was watching the trail just ahead of her feet
"Shh. You'll hurt Cleo's feelings."
She shook her head, snorting, a nose-clearing sound she made for laughter sometimes. He thought about the right words. "Widower" invited questions. Somehow "not married" seemed a betrayal, though. "I live alone," he said, and then he realized how much more that offered than her implied question had required.
She nodded. "I bought that book, the Peterson guide you told me about. My yard is full of birds."
"Lots of bushes?"
"Uh-hunh." She told him what she had identified—three sparrows, a house finch, a meadowlark in the field between her fence and the road. "I think I saw a hawk driving to work. I mean I was."
"You see them on the telephone poles."
"Uh-hunh. Some dark bird came after it. It flew. It looked like a little eagle."
They met this way for three months, as fall passed into winter and winter hardened down. She wore a beat-up khaki parka on the coldest days. As they walked, she brushed his arm sometimes, as if she had staggered a bit in the slick of ice and damp soil. One day in February, he touched her elbow, a light tap, and pointed silently to a Swainson's hawk huddled on a bare limb and watching them. It was discreet and polite, a gentle touch that barely hit bone and then withdrew.
"Were you ever married?" she said. Her 'r's rolled like Anna's, and he felt as if his ears moved, tipping into the sound. When he didn't answer, she said, "You look like someone who would be married."
"How does that look?" he said, looking at her face and grinning.
She was flustered. "Oh. Geez, my mouth. I don't know. You know. You look like someone who would be comfortable with a woman in your life. And don't ask me how that looks. Ok?"
"Coyote," he said, looking beyond her shoulder. She spun around to face the same way.
He pointed, his upper arm touching her shoulder and the rest extending like a rifle; she followed the line and saw the coyote just as it did a strange arched hop, rising out of the snow. "He's mousing!" she said.
"Yup." They watched the coyote lunge down and come up with an unidentifiable mouthful. The coyote looked around, a tail dangling like a shoelace from its jaw. It saw them, then looked at Cleo, some thirty yards ahead of them, then back at them—cool, appraising. Then it turned abruptly and loped away toward the reservoir.
"I was married for a while," he said to her back.
She stepped into him, colliding softly, then forward again at once. "Me, too. It didn't work out though. I guess when it does, it's almost an accident."
It had not been real for him, it had not been visual or real, until nine months afterward, when Dave Glick and Andy Wood got him to go see Felony: Wheels. He should have known better. He should have read the reviews, read something, put things together, but he went blind, and when it happened, when the hero's girlfriend wrecked the car and she was trapped inside, screaming and screaming, her hair a blooming rose of fire and then death and melting, charring, then it was real and he had vomited in the theater aisle. Andy said, as the three of them fled the scene, "I should I have thought. I should have remembered. Shit, I'm sorry man." He had not seen them since. He had not seen another movie since.
"Sometimes, I guess," he said.
"It didn't work out?"
"She died in an accident."
"Oh God. When?"
"Years ago. It's Ok." He whistled Cleo back to them; she had ranged almost out of sight. She came at a dead run, like a greyhound, and they made a fuss over her for being so good. Then she was off again, cutting her zigzag patterns in front of them.
"An automobile accident?"
He nodded, watching the trees. "It was a few years ago."
"I had a cousin who was killed in a car wreck," she said. Then they saw their first kingfisher together. It gave them quite a show, falling like a dropped knife into the icy creek, emerging with a small fish in its bill. While they watched, she took his hand.
He never drove the Boulder Highway. Anna had been killed near the McCaslin exit, rear-ended by a semi when the traffic suddenly went sluggish in snow. It was evening, and her car was gray, a Stanza, nearly invisible and one taillight out. The driver of the truck had started a double shift, driving more hours than he was supposed to, and on less sleep than the law allowed, and there was no question of fault, no doubt of a conviction. Justice was served. Anna was gone. He never drove on the highway, finding other ways to get around. He never went back to the Golden Lotus, where they'd had lunch that day. She had called him at 5:30 to say she'd be late, the snow. He was watching TV when the Highway Patrol called. They identified the car from the plates. There was no question of identifying the body. Dental records. For him, she was just gone, sucked out a window, into a black hole, not even a departing cry.
By late spring, Denise was taking his hand after they had walked into the trees. She would hold it sometimes with both hands. Sometimes she wove her fingers among his. Once she brought Cleo some scraps of steak. She fed the treat to her while they sat on a boulder and listened to the creek. She told him about her husband. They had been together three years before she called the police.
"I had to," she said. "He hit my jaw and I had to go to the clinic. When they saw it, they reported him." She stared at his hand, between hers. She squeezed his fingers. "I should've a long time ago. I know. We don't," she added, turning to look at his face. He nodded. "But I did."
"He would have started on the baby one day," Allen said.
She flinched. "No, I don't think so. But I couldn't take it, and when they reported him, and the police came, I let it happen. I got a restraining order. He's been gone a year."
She talked about her daughter. She was four, a beautiful miracle. "You didn't have any children," she said. He shook his head and stood up. They began walking. "Was she beautiful?"
"I thought so."
She nodded. Cleo routed a squirrel and the two of them raced for a tree. The squirrel won, and Cleo sat at the trunk, alternately looking up and at them, grinning, her tongue lolling.
"I'm glad you left him," Allen said.
"I had to."
It was all they had, the walks along the creek. He didn't think he wanted more than that. He would not have resisted, if she had suggested coffee, dinner, a visit to her home, but it seemed to be all she wanted, too. That day, when they had almost reached the clearing that stretched from the last trees to the parking lot, she had turned suddenly and hugged him, a quick, fierce clutch that she broke even as his arm came up behind her. "No," she said when he tried to pull her close.
He walked Cleo on Saturdays. Sundays, he shopped for the week. He was a creature of habit. It was unusual for him to be in the store, looking for pasta, on Saturday afternoon. He had taken Cleo home, watched a football game, and then discovered no pasta for the sauce he'd had brewing all morning. Otherwise, he would not have been shopping that Saturday, standing in front of a dozen kinds of pasta, and hearing the harsh male voice in the next aisle over, where the canned vegetables were.
"Kuner's cream corn. S 'n' W spinach. We don't buy Kuner's spinach. What's hard about that?" He was enunciating like a man spitting watermelon seeds. Hard seeds, at someone, trying to hurt them. "We don't buy Kuner's spinach!" the voice said again. Something clanked, a can hitting a grocery cart. "Stupid fucking...." The voice went on, sinking to a fierce blur. Allen mimed a shudder. He took a box of red pepper spaghettini from the shelf, and moved toward the bakery, wheeling idly forward, not paying attention to the shelves now. When he got to the end of the row, he made the turn into the next row and stopped.
The man was towering over her, a good foot taller than she was, six inches taller than Allen. He had oily black hair in an old, thick style. She had her back to Allen, her hands on the cart, her shoulders hunched a bit, her head down. A little girl was leaning her back into the side of the cart, her fingers laced in the wire mesh, her eyes intent on something at her level, intent on something other than the two adults. She had dark hair, dark as chocolate or ravens. The light in the store was fluorescent, deceptive. The child was in jeans and a T-shirt. She glanced at him, back to the shelves. Denise was wearing a minidress of some flat-toned, cotton fabric, and a kerchief binding back her hair. Her legs looked more naked for some reason. The false light. Allen stared at her familiar back, long enough that the man noticed him. Then she saw the man's expression and she turned and saw Allen and turned again, as if she didn't know him, and picked up a can from the shelf. The man's attention swung back to her.
"Get two, Denny. They're two for one. 'Buy one, get one free.' Can't you read?"
She did not come the next week. He waited. Cleo became impatient at last and glared and scuttled, then sat and stared at him and he started the walk. And she never came, not that week or the next.
The week after, the third week, she was there when he arrived, waiting when they got out of the car.
"Hi," she said.
He smiled and nodded. They began to walk.
"I've been busy," she said as they descended into the trees. "I didn't have any way to reach you."
"I'm in the book," he said.
"Well, duh," she said.
She was not in the book. There were ten Spectors, none of them a 'D' or "Denise." He wanted to be angry. But the best he could do was sad. They saw a hawk, a kestrel, actually, worrying something on the ground.
"My brother saw you in the store," she said. "He said you were staring at me." She made the snorting sound. "He said you were staring at my ass."
"Your little girl is pretty."
"He was drinking. He was being a jerk, or I'd have introduced you."
He pointed at a redstart a bit ahead of them, and they stopped to watch it.
"I missed walking with you," she said.
"I missed you."
She made a face, like a smile, watching the bird fuss. "It makes my week," she said.
"I'm glad you came today," he said and she nodded. "I missed you," he said again.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. She took his hand. "I hate liars," she said.
She looked at him. She kissed his fingers, then she let go and stopped and turned away. They were in the deep shade of an aspen stand bisected by the trail. She was staring east, into the trees, her arms crossed. The heart-shaped leaves were big, pale green and alive, oily; they rattled in the wind. "I don't know what to do," she said. A kingfisher laughed upstream.
"Come with me," he said. He waited, watching her stiff back. She didn't move; she gripped her elbows. He turned away and began to walk. Then he heard her steps behind him. He watched Cleo lope forward, fall back. He could hear her walking, and he began to whistle an aria, an old song he scarcely remembered. He could hear her walking, and he did not look back.