I sat with my friend at the kitchen table, sturdy as steel but worn to bare wood from a hundred years of use by families in their own kitchens during wars and recessions, presidential crises and moon landings. I found the table at a thrift shop, the last stop before becoming kindling.
My friend and I sat and drank coffee, his sweetened with sugar and muted with milk, mine black and unadulterated. We spoke of the frailty of lives touched by defeat, the pain of losing love, and the rubble of broken marriages filling suburban streets. Our conversations were routine; we had only questions, no answers.
We had been talking for almost two hours when I spied something move in the periphery of my view. I turned to see what had captured my attention. Outside the window, stuck to a broken and dangling twig attached to a branch swinging in the soft current of air was a feather, twisting in the steady breeze. The tree bent gently in the soft wind, hunkering down with each slight gust. My eyes could not withhold their gaze from the feather; my friend looked outside to see what commanded my rapt attention. He asked me what held my gaze. “The feather, the twig, the swinging branch,” I said, nodding to the world outside the window.He cocked his head and looked at me with questions in his eyes. “The feather? What feather?”
“That one, the one hanging from that twig,” I said, pointing out the twig and the feather.
“Right. A twig. You been drinking all the sudden?”
“Jesus! Are you deaf in the eyes? It’s right there,” I said, turning to point my finger toward the tree.
But when I turned, I saw no tree. Outside, there was just the scrub of the desert, the same scrub that’s kept the cabin company for forty years. There were no trees, no twigs, no branches. Muted shades of straw and brown and grey danced among the cold, parched ground; no tree in a hundred miles. A flat, desolate desert filled with low-growing plants desperate for just a sip of water.
I stood and walked to the window, almost afraid to say a word to my friend. What have I been thinking to allow myself to venture so far from reality? I heard myself think. I stared out into the barrenness, wondering what I had seen, if not a tree and a branch?
“Shit, I must have been in a daydream, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was about!”
I turned back to face him, but saw only my chair and my cup of coffee at the table. The table’s leaf hid beneath the tabletop. My friend’s chair was back in the corner of the cabin, its usual resting place when I had no company. I was confused. Had he gotten up and folded the leaf down to fool me? Did he have time to move the chair back to the corner? I turned around quickly, hoping to catch him in the act of trying to play a trick on me.
There, outside the window, was my tree, along with a hundred others, all covered in thick, green leaves. Cardinals and blue jays chattered among the branches; I could see and hear them. The path from the front of the house was steep, dipping along the edge of a precipice, below which were more hills and, in the distance, terraces of cultivated fields.
I spun around again, my head reeling and my senses trying to comprehend the changing scenery. But confusion reigned; I could not understand what I was seeing; could not gather which scene was real and which was imagined.
Another turn to the window revealed yet another vision; rolling hills, covered with desert scrub as far as the eye could see, but there, close to the house, a tall, crooked, almost barren tree. A rope hung from the highest branch, culminating in a noose, tied tight around my friend’s neck. His slumped body twisted, slowly, as if his corpse was unwinding the spindly rope. I could barely see his face because the sun was setting behind him.
As his body made the next revolution, I saw the face come clearly into view, illuminated by the rays of the sun. It was my face, the face I see when I look in a mirror. I grabbed the mirror off the dresser, just two steps from the dining table. I looked into the glass and saw nothing but the reflection of the wall behind me; that, and the kitchen window. The reflection wasn’t clear, though; I could not tell what I was seeing through that reflected window.
“Goddamn! What is wrong with me?!” I screamed at the empty mirror. That voice was not mine, although it escaped from my mouth. That scream was my friend’s voice, his unmistakable voice, like hissing gravel bouncing and reverberating inside a bass drum, questioning my sanity.
I spun around, facing the window again. The flat scrub desert was back, but this time the road leading away from the cabin was awash in dust spraying from the back wheels of my friend’s truck as it sped away. I stood, silent, watching as it disappeared. The dust began to dissipate; eventually, the road was clear and the dust had settled.
My coffee cup sat on the kitchen table, alongside the half-full mug of milky coffee in his mug. The weekly paper, spread out across the fold, lay across the table in front of the chair where he had been sitting. A black ballpoint pen sat at an angle on top of the page. As I moved closer, I could see a heavy line of ink drawn around a half-page article. My picture, an old black and white portrait, featured prominently at the top of the article. The headline read: “Suicide or Murder: Resident’s Death Remains a Mystery.”