The Boiler

Joseph Alan Hasinger

WELL, I HEARD YOU LOVE ME

On the way to dinner at the Adams’s house I kill one of their peacocks. Traci and I have been at it the whole ride over. She’s just said the word divorce, which makes twice in one week. I look at her, try to read her face in the country dusk, but she turns away, stares out the window, her fist to her lips. When I put my eyes back on the road the son-of-a-bitch just waddles out from the tree line and steps in front of us. There’s nothing I can do.

If it is not against the law to kill a peacock in Virginia, then it should be. They are magnificent birds. One can tell this even in the fraction of a second that the peacock is sliding up the hood of your Hyundai, past and over your windshield.

When we hit, feathers go everywhere. I press the brake hard, the tires and the bird make nearly the same funny squawk, and the car skates to a stop near the edge of the road. Feathers filter down through the beams of the headlights. I watch them, like strips of patterned fabric, until Traci says, “What was it?” and I hear fear in her voice.

“A bird,” I say.

“A bird?” she asks.

“A peacock,” I say.


“A peacock?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “A peacock. A big damn peacock.”

“Oh,” she says. “I’ve never seen one.”

I unfasten my seatbelt and turn the engine off. Sink back, exhale. “They’re fucking beautiful,” I say.

I go around the front of the car to inspect it. Traci gets out too, walks toward the body of the bird, left about fifty yards behind us.

“Not much damage,” I say. “A few dings.” I pick a long feather from the grill of the car, let it fall slowly to the asphalt. I look back at Traci and see she’s still hovering over the peacock.

She says, “You killed it.

“It killed itself,” I say, but I can’t help but feel guilty.

“It’s dead,” she says.

I start toward her. “Of course it’s dead,” I say. “It got hit with a car.”


“Dusty has peacocks,” she says.


“What?” I say.


She lifts her eyes, stares past the Hyundai, down through the black of the road in front of us. She bites her bottom lip. “Don’t tell him,” she says.


I’m beside her now. I put my hand on her shoulder. She moves away. “This is Dusty’s peacock?” I ask.


She shrugs, still staring. “Maybe,” she says. “He talks about his peacocks all the time.”


“It was an accident,” I say.


“Damn it, Ted,” she says. She turns to me and says, “Just don’t tell him.” Traci starts back to the car and I follow her. She closes the door hard behind her.


Dusty Adams is some kind of mountain hippy, yuppie—I don’t know. Runs these little holistic grocery stores spread across southwest Virginia. Traci works at one as a cashier, but she’s supposed to get promoted to manager. That’s what this dinner’s about, and why Traci is scared to tell Dusty about his peacock. And I can understand that, I guess, but she likes Dusty a little too much, I think, and I can’t get why we had to drive out to this farm in who-the-fuck-where for dinner.

Traci thinks Dusty’s some kind of genius, a practical saint. She goes on and on over what good he’s done for the community, for the children, for turning them onto natural, wholesome foods. I’ve seen Traci polish off an entire bag of Hot Fries in a single take, a whole pint of rocky road, so I’m lost on where the admiration comes from. And besides, Dusty Adams is no saint. I’ve known Dusty for years, back before he was an entrepreneur. We came up together, but we’re not friends. Dusty sells me cocaine. I’m not sure how wholesome his coke is, but it burns like fire and sales seem just fine, and I’d bet it’s that money that keeps those damn grocery stores afloat, keeps his little farm paid for.

Of course, Traci doesn’t know I use again—and for a long time I hadn’t—and so I listen to what an angel Dusty is and let him keep his secret for the sake of my own.

Once we turn from the main road into the Adams’s driveway I’m pretty sure the bird was his. The yard around his house, closed in by a little log fence that seems too short to be of much use, is full of peacocks, wandering dumbly this way or that, feathered in brown and green or green and blue like some kind of royalty. They sound like a new litter of kittens, mewing, mulling about the yard. We park just outside the gate, and I can see Dusty and Maureen, his wife, waiting for us on the porch, waving us in.

When we get out and open the gate, walk up the path to the house, the birds hush in a wave and turn to stare, follows us with their eyes.

Maureen shakes our hands and says hello, then lifts two metal buckets of food from the porch and heads out into the peacocks, who have returned to their mulling about. “I’ll be a minute,” she says, and she sinks into the birds and begins to squawk.

Dusty shakes my hand, too, and winks. He turns to Traci, rests his arm around her shoulder, and leads her inside. “Who wants drinks?” Dusty says.

I look down at my hand. Dusty has slipped a bag of cocaine into my palm. I head after them into the living room. Traci takes a seat on a long white sectional and fluffs the pillows and Dusty starts pouring drinks at a little bar. When right away he starts in on high-fructose corn syrup I turn and head down the hall. “Bathroom?” I say.


***


When I come out, Traci and Dusty are sitting beside each other on the couch. I don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t care. Dusty is leaning in, talking with his hands. Traci is nodding and smiling. I’m afraid I’ve been gone too long, but no one seems to notice.

The windows and doors are all open, and the breeze is nice but it’s still hot. It was hot in the bathroom too, and I stayed in there, with no windows at all, doing cocaine off the end of my car key until half the bag was gone.

I take a seat next to Traci, but not too close. Maureen comes in. “Hen got out,” she says.


“Pardon me?” I say, too loud, and she gives me a funny look and turns to Dusty.


“You hear?” she says.


Dusty waves her off. “She’ll be okay,” he says.


Maureen stands there for a minute, just waiting, kind of glaring at Dusty, but Dusty starts back into whatever conversation he was having and ignores her. Maureen looks old for Dusty. Looks like she could be a waitress at a roadside diner. Her hair is graying, the skin on her face and arms weathered. Plain-looking. But Dusty has to be getting up there himself. He’s five years older than me, at least, which means he’s pushing forty. But he’s so cool, or thinks he is, and that’s the difference between them. Dusty has an earring. Dusty has a ponytail. Dusty is hanging on, in a sad way, to the kind of life Maureen has long stopped caring about.

Maureen moves along into the kitchen. “Dinner in twenty,” she says.

I’m anxious. My heart is pounding. Foot tapping. I keep running my fingers through my hair, massaging the skin of my face. Once I think one of them is talking to me, asking a question, but I don’t bother to respond. I can’t really hear them, just a word here or there. Organic. Profits. Expansion. Peacock. And then I’m thinking of that peacock, and I can’t stop. I can’t shake the image of its limp body against my windshield, or the sound it made when I hit it.

I look at Dusty, smiling at my wife, laughing, probably telling jokes, the gold of his earring catching the overhead light, and I am filled with a desire to run him over with my car. I can’t stop picturing this now. And it’s not the same feeling as the bird. I don’t feel bad at all. I’m laughing when his face slides by, a trail of blood smeared behind it. I almost laugh out loud, maybe I do. Dusty shakes my hand, too, and winks. He turns to Traci, rests his arm around her shoulder, and leads her inside.

The air’s cooled down outside and I’m sweating and cold, feverish even. I peek back toward the door and take the cocaine and my car keys from my pocket. I do a little more coke off the end of a key, then put it all back again.

My hands are shaking.

I stand there and watch the birds—there must be a dozen of them, peacocks—waddle around the yard. It’s dark now, and in the soft glow of the porch light and moon I can only make out their shapes. They’re less impressive in the dark, clumsy shadows stumbling, and every so often, fluttering a few feet off the ground and then down again.


And for whatever reason I begin to cry and I close my eyes and listen to the funny sounds the birds make and to the other sounds of the farm at night, crickets or other birds or toads, or a truck rumbling down the road up past the end of the driveway.

Inside, I can hear the piano going and Dusty’s best Bowie singing “Ziggy Stardust,” and my hands are shaking, I can feel them shaking, and my heart’s beating fast, too fast, and I know I’ll have to leave soon or I might just go in there and strangle Dusty to death. I’ve already killed your goddamned bird, Dusty! I think. And I know, I’m almost certain, I’ll kill him too if I don’t run soon. Choke the sound from his throat so he can never tell stories or sing songs or talk about his stupid peacocks again.

And then I hear this sound, the shuffle of feet in the dust, and I open my eyes quick, afraid someone’s seen me carrying on like this, crying, but it’s just a bird. A peacock, a big fucker, standing before the porch steps with his plumage all fanned out. Dozens of freaky feather-eyes catching the porch light and staring up at me, and he’s staring too, with his own eyes, cocking his head from one side to the other, trying to figure me out.

“What do you want?” I say, and he does a little dance, cocks his head, shakes his tail. I can’t help but smile then, and I look away, off toward the barn and the moon just behind it, and wipe the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand.

“Don’t be sad,” he says, and I think for a moment that my heart has stopped.

I look down at him. He backs up slowly, just a step or two, his eyes still on me. I glance up at the sky, to heaven—don’t fuck with me now—and then back down at him.

The peacock speaks again. “She’s always doing it,” he says. “Only a matter of time.” His voice is like an old man’s. He sounds like my grandfather.

I slip my hand into my pocket and press the bag of drugs into my palm. “Who?” I say, and his neck cranes back, quick, and he squawks, like he’s surprised to hear me answer him.

“Esther,” he says after a moment. “The hen that ran off. It’s not your fault, man. She knew better.”

“How’d you know?” I say, surprised.

“Word gets around,” he says.


“Her name was Esther?” I say.


He does something like a nod. “So don’t be sad,” he says, and turns, as if he might walk away.

“She had it coming,” he says. He says, “Always running.”

“That’s not really it,” I say. The peacock turns back and bobbles toward me. “I mean, I’m sad about the bird—Esther—too. You know, she was beautiful. But that’s just not really it.”

“Well,” he says, turning back to me. What is it?”

“What’s your name?” I ask. I inch closer to the edge of the stairs. His head is just above my waste.


“My name?” he asks. “My name is Ted.”


I laugh. “Wait,” I say, “my name is Ted.”


“No kidding,” the peacock says. “Small world.” Then he says, “So, what’s the problem, Ted?”


I look out into the yard. I fidget with the bag inside my pocket. “My wife’s leaving me,” I say, turning back to Ted.


The peacock makes another squawk. “That’s too bad,” he says. He’s shaking his head. He’s laid his feathers back down again. So much smaller now. I take my hand from my pocket, stroke my beard with my fingers.

“You have a wife?” I ask.

He shakes a little. “Not really our thing,” he says.


“Oh,” I say.

“But I understand the allure,” he adds. “Sure. I get where you’re coming from. So tell me, Ted, why’s she leaving?” he asks. “What’s the problem here?”

I put my head in my hands. “I don’t know,” I say. “We fight.”


“Who doesn’t?” he says.


“We really fight though, and something’s just not there, you know? It’s not how it’s supposed to be.”


“Can’t you fix it?” he says.


“I don’t know. I’m not sure she wants to fix it. I don’t know if there’s something left to fix. I mean, I love her. I just—.”

I look up and the peacock is gone. “Ted?” I say, knowing how crazy I must sound, but I only see the shadowy figures of the birds in the yard now, out beyond the circle of porch light.

Then I hear another “Ted?” as if my echo has come back to me, only this time it’s Traci’s voice and not mine, and when I turn toward it I see she’s come out onto the porch, a drink in her hand.

She lets the screen door close behind her. The piano and singing has stopped.

“Hello,” I say.


“What are you doing out here?” she asks. She comes closer. “Dinner’s ready.”


I look back out over the yard, past the spot Ted had just stood. “Nothing,” I say
.

Traci is standing beside me now. Her elbow is touching mine. “You talking to yourself?” she says.

I shrug, embarrassed. “Yeah,” I say. “I guess I was.”


She laughs.


I look at her and she looks up at the sky, swirls the ice in her drink.


“What did you hear?” I ask.


“What?” she says.


“You heard me talking,” I say. “What’d you hear?”


“Well,” she says. “I heard you love me.”


Out beside the barn, in a pale patch of moonlight, one of the peacocks—maybe it’s Ted, I can’t tell—flutters its wings and perches a fence post, its feathers, in full bloom, silhouetted against the faint glow of sky. Traci points. “Would you look at that,” she says. “Isn’t that something?”

__________________________________________

Joseph Alan Hasinger holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University. His work can most recently be found in Jersey Devil Press and Citron Review. He lives and works in Charleston, SC.