ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010
We aren’t really made the right way for flight—extend your arms, rotate the top of your hands forward, and flap from your elbows. That’s a start. Forget all you’ve seen about flapping from your shoulders. You’ll never get any lift that way.
. . .
Cowboy is a wiz at putting things together. Like my wings—he rigged them up so I can open and close them by flexing my wrists. These skinny tubes run down my arms, under my shirt. He offered to run the tubes under my skin. I told him I’d think about it.
Cowboy is smart, but he’s goofy, too. I mean, look at his getup. All this cool stuff he does for me, and all he does for himself is stick a couple of horns on his head. Then he wears holsters and chaps and a ten-gallon hat. How cheesy can you get? I tell him, either you’re a cow, or you’re a cowboy. It’s stupid to be both. But you can’t tell Cowboy anything.
We have our own street act, a kind of freak show. Don’t tell me it’s “dehumanizing.” Man, getting stared at for money is nothing. Try cutting up chickens all day. Or being a telemarketer. That’s the worst. Sometimes we hook up with a carnival. Most of the time we’re on our own.
It’s a good way to meet girls. We’re just a story to them, a way to one-up their friends: I hooked up with this guy, get this—he had wings, like an angel. Or he was a cowboy—you know, he had horns like a cow. That’s okay. I used to try to get to know the girls a little bit, talk to them, ask their name, stuff like that. Not one has asked me my real name. So now I just call them all “Angel.” Don’t bother to ask their name. They’re just a soft bed.
Cowboy tells me he moos during sex. I don’t know; you can’t believe everything Cowboy says. I don’t see him getting that much action. And if he really moos, well I don’t think he gets it twice. Now a guy with wings—the girls really dig that. You would not believe what they want me to do with these wings. C’mon, they’re just hacked off a bird that’s getting turned into nuggets, and if they are more than a day or two old they’ve started losing feathers already. I can open them. I can let them fall closed. That’s it. Do they think they’re really my wings? Like I can control them? Of course, I never got any action before the wings. Before Cowboy and I started doing the show, we were two lonely dudes.
I have to admit things didn’t really happen until Gash joined us. Anyone would look sweet next to him. It looks like someone grabbed him by the jaw and tore off the side of his face. He doesn’t have much more than a hole for his mouth, and nothing below that. One side of his nose is gone. He dresses real fancy, a top hat and tails, and wears a mask that covers his face from just below the eyes. Gash makes a show of not wanting to remove it, of not wanting to scare anyone. And then he takes it off all on a sudden, no warning, and you’re looking at this red raw hole. A guy puked on him once. Gash picked a fight with him after the act. The guy wouldn’t hit him back, I mean, could you?
Gash never got any love. Until Sarah.
. . .
It’s mid-July and we’ve got the show down. Cowboy and I used to do the show just the two of us, back at the start, but it was different. Now it’s a whole good versus evil and redemption thing. Cowboy goes on first. He ambles across the stage, hands in his pockets, that ten gallon hat on his head. Then he turns and looks at the audience, like he’s surprised to see them there. He bows, and sweeps the hat from his head so that you can see his horns. He moves his head back and forth so everyone can get a good look at them.
Then I come on holding a red cape. This is the trickiest part of the act for me. I’ve got to keep turned so that the audience doesn’t see my back yet. They may get a glimpse of white, but nothing much to draw their attention. I want to wait for the right moment. I shake the cape at Cowboy, and he turns and wriggles his eyebrows at the audience. Then he turns to me, scrapes his foot on the ground, and charges. He charges me a few times and then runs into the audience and charges a girl there. A pretty one of course—why waste this on one who isn’t? He lays his head in her lap, tickles her with the horns. He always gets a big laugh. I guess when you’re as smart as Cowboy you don’t mind looking stupid.
I go to the edge of the stage to help Cowboy back up. Gash comes on stage behind us. I never know he’s there until I hear the audience react. He skulks from side to side. He starts playing with the mask, moving it from side to side, pulling it higher or lower, so that although you can’t see it, you know something is really, really wrong with his face.
Cowboy and I edge to the side of the stage, and start whispering together. We keep our eyes on Gash. He knows how to play the crowd, performing a macabre striptease with the mask. Cowboy and I rush him, and he turns to us, tears off the mask, but turns to keep the audience from really seeing. It’s not hard to react with disgust and fear, even after all the times I’ve seen that face. That’s when he turns to the audience and shows them the face, too. And then he does the thing that really gives them their money’s worth. He laughs at them. It’s a distorted hooting sound, with his tongue moving in that hole and spittle flying out.
Cowboy kneels down, folds his hands together, and looks for all the world like he’s praying. Really, he tells me, he’s making a list of all the girls he’s had. I grab the mask from the ground and set it back on Gash’s face. He takes a swing at me, and that’s when I back away and open my wings. If I’ve done it all right it’s the first time the audience has seen them. I stand firm before Gash until he stumbles towards me and lays his head on my shoulder and pretends to weep. Man, this still creeps me out, the idea of that face of his touching me. But I put my arm around him and Cowboy gets up and puts his arm around Gash too, and we leave the stage together. We all return to the stage to take our bows before we pass the hat.
It’s our second night in town, and the crowd and take were even better than last night. After the show we go hit the bar. I get a beer and scan the crowd. I walk over and touch this girl’s hair, and say, “Hey Angel.” She turns around with that look on her face—you know the one—but then I open my wings, just a little bit. A rustle of feathers, a little shiver running through me. Like I just couldn’t not react to her. She gets this smile on her face, and turns around on her stool, leaving her legs just a little too far apart for the black mini she’s wearing. And I’m thinking, yeah, here we go. Then I feel my wings spreading apart. Felt eerie, not doing it myself. I turn around slow, because the wings aren’t all that tough. So the woman is leaving before I get turned all the way around.
“Hey,” I call, but she’s still moving away. “Hey, you can’t just go pulling on a guy’s wings and then walk away.”
“They aren’t your wings,” she calls back. She never turns around.
“Hey,” says the girl next to me. “I thought I was your angel.”
I turn back. “You are,” I tell her.
“Just what can you do with those wings?” she asks. She’s a freak fan for sure.
. . .
I leave the girl’s apartment early—it’s just getting light—and head back along the lake to the bar, wings tucked under my arm. Cowboy and I tow a trailer behind his old pickup. If the trailer isn’t at the bar, Cowboy will know to come pick me up. Gash stays in the trailer sometimes, too, but never if Cowboy or I are there. I don’t know where he goes then. As I head back along the beach gulls watch my approach, turning first one eye upon me, and then the other.
Further up the beach a woman kneels beside a dead gull, slowly moving its wings out and back, up and down, testing their limits. She grasps the bird’s wing tightly and wrenches it loose in a spray of feathers. The other gulls startle into flight. She holds it along her arm and tests the movement.
She stands and tosses the wing away.
I recognize her voice from the bar. “Norman,” I reply. The word feels strange in my mouth. Looking at the dismembered gull, I think of her spreading my wings at the bar.
“Where are your wings?” she asks.
“Where are yours?” I ask, but I’m smiling.
“I lost mine.”
We walk together down the beach. When we get to the bar Cowboy is walking up to the trailer, too. The door swings open and Gash comes out, blinking at the daylight. He’s wearing blue jeans, a dirty t-shirt, and no mask. He sees us and raises his hand to cover his face. Sarah walks up to him and extends her hand.
He takes her hand in his own, but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. You can see his tongue moving around, but he doesn’t say anything.
“That’s . . .”
I don’t know his real name. I never asked, and he never said. He lets go of Sarah’s hand. “Gash. Can’t you see?” He spreads his arms wide and sticks his face close to Sarah’s. I flinch, but Sarah remains still. Gash stomps back into the trailer and slams the door.
Sarah turns to Cowboy. “And you are?”
“Cowboy, at your service ma’am.” He takes off his hat and bows to her. The horns are still on his head.
Sarah climbs into the truck with me and Cowboy. He looks at me and shrugs. We drive to the next town quiet. When we stop Sarah gets out and pulls a dead butterfly from the truck grill.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” asks Cowboy.
“Why are you looking at the wings?”
“An interest of mine.”
“Did you see our show? I made up those ones he wears.” Cowboy jerks his thumb at me. “I could make you a pair. Just need to find a bird. Then I could make you wings and dinner.” He laughs and looks at me. Sarah stares straight ahead.
. . .
That night after the show I go to the bar. Gash never showed up for the act. Even when we haven’t seen him all day, Gash has always found us in time for the show. I’m scanning the bar for him, to see if he found a perch there. There are more flies than customers. One buzzes around my head and I wave it off. A big blond with too much makeup waves back and comes over. “Never met a guy with wings before,” she says, and slips off her stool. She sits down again and leans over toward me. The fly settles in her cleavage. “But I guess I already know how to fly.” She lifts her glass to me and drinks. The fly hovers over her glass. I wait until it lands on the rim. There’s a secret to catching flies—they always take off backward. I close my hand around it and feel it darting around, humming against my palm.
“I gotta go,” I say.
I find Sarah and Gash leaning over the hood of the truck with an assortment of winged insects spread out before them: flies, crickets, cicadas, fireflies, even a wasp. From behind, with their heads bent together, they could be anyone. I hand Sarah the fly. She holds the wings apart and watches it struggle to escape. “Good for maneuvers,” she decides, “but not for every day.” She releases it into the night.
“You missed the show,” I tell Gash. He grunts and hands Sarah the wasp. He’s wearing his mask, but it has slipped a little and reveals the ragged edge of his nose.
“You could check out my wings,” I say. My voice sounds too loud outside of the bar, outside of the crowds.
“I already told you I’m not interested in your fake wings,” Sarah says without looking up.
She and Gash turn over the wasp. I think about the girl in the bar, leaning over and smiling at me. Three days now, and I’ve never seen Sarah smile. I lean up against the truck, in line with the bugs. I’m right after the caddisfly.
“Where would my real wings be?” I’ve never thought much of it before; if they looked okay, that was enough for me.
Sarah picks a moth and examines it closely, studies the way the ghostly wings attach to the body. She pulls one wing off and extends it to me. She turns me around and moves her fingers over my back. She isn’t touching me, but I swear I can feel the shadows of her fingers on my skin. She finally alights, near to my neck, maybe the fifth vertebrae. Her fingers mark narrow channels along my spine.
“No,” she says and turns to look for another wing.
The lines burn on my back, first a small flame and then a conflagration. “Erase them,” I say through gritted teeth. The fire increases, and I can’t hold back the moan. “Erase them.”
Sarah places her palms flat against my back and holds them where she had drawn the lines. The fires slowly settle. She holds her hands to my back until I release the tension across my shoulders.
Later I will look in the mirror. Not the merest mark lines my skin.
. . .
Have you ever looked closely at an insect wing? They’re a marvel, really. Different from a bird’s wing, but no less successful. A guy, said he was an engineer, told me it was impossible for insects to fly, to lift their heavy bodies. Don’t believe it. Back before the dinosaurs, insects were huge, the size of pigeons and crows.
The more time Sarah spends with Gash, the more I want her to spend time with me. I catch a couple of dragonflies and take them to Sarah. She’s sitting in the trailer with Gash. He isn’t wearing his mask, and I can’t help staring. Gash stares back, then laughs at me.
“What do you think of these?” I hold the dragonflies out to Sarah. My face burns. I concentrate on Sarah’s face to avoid looking at Gash. I watch her face a lot. The expression barley changes. The corners of her mouth don’t lift. I’ve never seen her smile, not even at Gash. She turns the wings over, measures their length with her fingers.
“Here and here.” She lightly strokes the inside and outside of my legs, just above the ankles. She hands back the dragonflies and turns to Gash. I stand there for a few minutes more before I leave.
. . .
Cowboy sews the dragonfly wings into my skin. He runs them deep, attached down to the muscle. With every step I can feel them pinch and pull.
“They don’t add to the act, man,” Cowboy says. “Why do you want those little wings down there?”
“That’s where Sarah said they should go.” I don’t tell him that after she marked me, these places on my skin tingled—sometimes with a low hum, sometimes a clamor. They were hungry until I fed them with the wings.
The wings move and flap as I run. I accelerate and a hum rises in the air from the vibration. When I stop the wings continue for a moment more, up and back, rowing through the air. Cowboy sees it. Gash, too. He crouches and gently touches one of the wings. My leg twitches in response, and the wing flutters.
“How did you know where to put it?” Gash’s intensity makes me step back. He looks to Cowboy and back to me.
“Sarah marked the place.”
“You know about Sarah’s wings?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you seen the scars?”
I look at the scars spanning Gash’s face, and at first I think that’s what he means. He meets my gaze for a moment, then turns away.
. . .
We know now where to find Gash before the show—we just have to find Sarah first. The last two nights Cowboy and I have dragged him away from her and the bugs to join the show. His heart isn’t in it. Instead of scary and dangerous he just seems pathetic. Our take is down. But without him, Cowboy and I will have to change the whole show, and the take would be even worse.
“C’mon, Gash, it’s time.” He doesn’t even turn around. “We think we can get one more show out of this town before we move on.”
When he turns I see the wings, delicate and iridescent, that sprout from his temples. Either the wings are misaligned or his face is; they don’t line up side to side. “I’m quitting the show. Sarah and I have plans here.”
I swallow hard; my pride hurts going down. “You know the show’s no good without you in it.”
Sarah comes over and Gash puts his arm around her. “Take your fake chicken wings and leave us alone.”
. . .
Cowboy convinces me to talk to Gash one more time before we leave town without him. Clouds of dust rise up even though Cowboy drives the truck slow. We find Gash and Sarah walking toward the lake. Wings bristle from Gash’s shoulders. A double row lines his arms to the wrists. They flock at his knees and along the muscles of his thighs and calves. My leg muscles twitch. I can see that my idea of a pair at each vertebrae was too much, an ostentation, a vanity. Closer, I see a variety of wings—the large brown ones from the Cecropia moth, the long wings of the praying mantis, fly wings at the wrist. Nodules of blood and pus mark every point of entry. Not Cowboy’s work. Gash stumbles, and Sarah waits while he stands again. Beetle wings flash their iridescence at his hips. Gash shuffles forward.
We follow them out to where the beach turns to rocks and the rocks into cliffs that fall to the water. The winds are calm. Sarah keeps talking to Gash, low, leading him to the edge.
I climb out of the truck. “Sarah, tell him it can’t work.” Cowboy shifts the truck into park, leaves the engine running.
“You need lift. Think like a raptor,” we hear Sarah instruct Gash. “They can hardly get off the ground, but they can soar from a high tree or a cliff.”
He turns from Sarah. “I have a name. Just like you, Norman, I have a name.” He spits on the ground.
“What’s your name?”
He nods his head at Sarah. “Ask her. She knows my name.” He rolls his shoulders and the wings beat at the air. Sarah leans close and kisses his cheek.
Gash hunches over, and a cicada wing falls from his arm, twirling on its way down. He launches forward, arms extended, and begins flexing his muscles in a giant shivering. The wings flap and row and buzz.
I feel the wings at my ankles flutter, maybe from the truck exhaust, maybe from their own desire. Every spot Sarah has ever touched me comes alive, throbs and burns and urges me forward to the edge. I can feel where those wings should be now, I can feel the muscles pull and tense as they spread the wings. I want Gash to fly, and I want to fly with him.
I don’t notice that Cowboy has left the truck until he tackles me. “No,” he growls. Gash steps forward. I struggle against Cowboy and spit dirt from my mouth. “Look at her,” Cowboy says. “Look at Sarah.”
His hand relaxes enough for me to lift my head. Funny; I start thinking about the next show. Cause I can see we’d gotten the old one all wrong.
While Gash hovers there for just a moment, dark against the sky, Sarah smiles.
Nancy Gold lives in Ann Arbor, MI, where she is an educator for a science museum. Her work has appeared in The Huron River Review and is forthcoming in The Moon City Review.