The Christmas Goose

The Christmas Gooseby Thomas McCafferty

Patrick Gibson had a gentle athletic build, which he credited to years of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, and a growing paunch that he owed to beer. His skin had lost its color since coming north—and lying naked on the floor beside Samantha, he felt he blended in with the boards. He’d slept with another girl three days earlier, and he hated that he couldn’t tell Samantha. He hated also that she was the only person he cared to tell.

They’d been engaged eleven months. The tentative wedding date was in May, year after next, and Gibson knew she wanted the ceremony out of the city, out in the air, magnolias and lilacs in bloom, with so many strings of white lights and lit ornaments. The south of France would be a perfect spot—she always talked about vacationing in Arles as a girl—but the Hudson River Valley was, how do you say, de plus prés, de plus bon marché. In any case, she wanted to finish her law degree first, and he indulged her by taking evening French classes meantime, pretending the language might actually come of use.

Samantha looked abstractedly at her arms, which were darker than Gibson’s. She’d recently returned from seeing her mother in Santa Barbara, and had, as much as she could, tanned in the California sunshine. She’d in fact tanned too much, if such a thing were possible, a point of debate, she felt: Her legs were red, peeling, and itching under her socks—she was wearing nothing else—but any hue looked better than sickly pale. She had an urge to hit Gibson, who was examining himself, paying her no attention; they had to plan a Christmas dinner. Her parents had recently divorced, and Mother, God bless her, was coming to spend the holiday in New York City.

“I wasn’t always so white,” Gibson was saying. He sounded more apologetic than defiant, as if admitting he’d forgotten to feed the fish and one of their green mandarins was belly up. “Twenty-four years in Florida, very bronze. The beach. The beach and the goddamned sun.”

“That’s almost a quarter century,” Samantha said.

“But put me in Manhattan a few months.”

“You’re twenty-seven, darling.”

“A few years? I can’t be expected to keep track, can I? Isn’t that why I have you?” He waited but she did not laugh. He said, “Sammy, Sam—Sam, all I ever wanted down there was a drink. My ambitions have flourished. Now I try keeping you happy, too.”

She leaned forward and pulled her green and white striped socks to the tops of her calves—they were festive, but more Saint Patrick’s Day than Christmas. She’d wear red ones tomorrow. She wrapped her arms around her knees, looked at Gibson, and noted that he was rather wan in appearance. And thin, except for his stomach. His hipbones were prominent, high, pointed—they tended to bruise her thighs—and the hair on his naval and around his crotch had gotten unwieldy since she’d last paid attention. She kept herself waxed. Still, his beard, thin, neat, and black, had him looking young; along the line of his jaw, its color faded to the tight gray curls on his head, like sky approaching the horizon. She let her tone soften when she addressed him again, saying, “I need you to get dressed. We’ve only got today.”

“I thought we had the rest of our lives.”

“Don’t be clever, Gibby. She’s coming tomorrow, and what are we going to make? I was thinking goose.”

“Then we’ve settled that.”

“I saw a very good recipe in The Times.”

“Mmm. Goose au prétensieux? With maybe a sculpted cranberry tree sticking out? Good vertical presentation—you know that phrase always makes me think of vertical integration.”

Please, Gibby.”

“Is that really the kind of language we need for food? Vertically integrated goose, right up into a jet engine.” He recalled the US Airways plane that had, after leaving La Guardia Airport, engulfed a bird and crashed, without casualties, sans les morts, into the Hudson River across from Upper Midtown. The passengers had piled onto the wings, shivering until boats came, looking not a little like men standing on the top of the water itself, and Gibson couldn’t help thinking that it would have been exciting to have been one of them. He didn’t know what was wrong with him to think that, to be so bored that he’d consider it. But he tried to sound cheerful when he said, “Yes, fewer geese would be fine. Maybe fewer geese would even be very good. Maybe we should go to Central Park and bag a couple.”

“Oh, please. I wasn’t asking approval.”

“I wasn’t trying to give it.”

“Just get dressed. And look nice. Gibby, I want you in one of those new shirts I got you, not in those threads you call clothes.”

“The importance of appearance—” he trailed off. He stared at her. He’d been picturing her for more than a week, not quite believing she’d fly back to New York. Now she was here. Now he wanted to get a good look at the girl he was supposed to marry, the sweat on her belly and the soft shadows at her navel, which were there even with the ceiling lights on, the least flattering in the apartment.

“Well, what about it?” she asked.

“It’s nothing.”

“Darling, don’t test my patience.

“The importance of appearance is second to the importance of liquidity. Who said that? Seems like William James, probably.”

“He never said any such thing—maybe your father did. Miracle he never told you to look respectable.”

Samantha and Gibson were supine, shoulder to shoulder, their cheeks on the floor and their faces reflecting across the waxed boards. His eyes were dark. They’d been the same color as hers once, but anymore she thought that they were richer, more startling. She knew eyes could change as people aged—it didn’t have to mean a thing—but still he was looking at her strangely. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been gone, I know, and we haven’t had time to talk much, but you understand? It’s not too much having her come, is it?”

“No, of course. Sometimes I even like seeing her. I can’t seem to do anything right anymore, is all.”

“Gibby, you’ll be doing a lot right if you wear a good shirt tomorrow. If you’re sweet to me. If you can show her you’re not some misguided fool like she thinks. But do look nice—it matters to her.”

“Let’s get her trashed before we ask for money, anyway.”

“Yes, well, I’ll talk to her about that. But we should stop off for a bottle of whatever that wonderful thing is that goes in those lavender-tasting martinis.”

“Saint Germain?”

“No, that’s elderflowers. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something warmer, like rum, would be better. It’s so goddamned cold in here.”

“We’re naked,” he observed. He let his eyes drift to the window to make sure he hadn’t absentmindedly left the thing open from when he’d been smoking earlier. He tried to limit himself to a cigarette a day, but he wanted another now. He’d liked sitting on the sill, looking down on the courtyard at the rhododendron bush and the stray cat that lay on the ground beside his neighbor’s garden hose. In the summer he’d miss having the chance to do that—an air conditioner would fill the window, and he and Samantha would stay in front of the manufactured cold until night came and it was temperate enough to move again. In any case, the window was closed. He coughed and drew up his hand to cover his mouth. “Is there anything else you want?” he asked. “That I can do for you so I feel somewhat useful?”

“Like a gift?”

“Yes.”

“Sincerity? Affection? You could give me a kiss.”

He lifted himself on his elbow and kissed her—it required some effort and he felt lightheaded. He didn’t want to move. He didn’t want to go out at all. He’d left Florida to pursue society and film, not hypothermia. He’d pictured sophisticated  fêtes and vegan-trended Holly Golightlys, but thank God Samantha ate meat. He didn’t mind giving up that part of the vision. And she was striking. If not exactly the same wide-eyed, delicate beauty as Ms. Hepburn, she still fit marvelously into a size nothing Marc Jacobs gray, and Gibson wanted to buy her satin stiletto heels at Stuart Weitzman to complement the dress, but he couldn’t afford them. His aspiration to be a director of photography was foundering. He’d stopped working on student films, which meant an end to artistic outlets; ad-lighting paid the rent. And the one and half-carat chandelier on Sammy’s ring finger had put him in a bit of debt.

He got up. Fitting himself into a black sweater and jeans, he said absently, watching Samantha pull on virtually the same ensemble in front of her closet mirror, “I wish I were buying you better gifts.”

“I’m not worried about gifts. I’m worried about goose.” She pirouetted, rising on her toes, looking first at herself in the mirror and then at Gibson. She laughed. “If I cut off my hair and gained fifty pounds we could be brothers. And don’t say I’m calling you fat.” She bounced down on the bed, which was in the same crème de cacao room as the kitchen, wiggled her feet into leather boots, and tucked in her pants. She wished he’d shut up about money—poor men should never tie masculinity to the dollar.

Gibson held the door as she put on her coat and picked a white and black polka dot umbrella out of the bin. They tramped down their sixty stairs, five flights, which their landlord kept surprisingly tidy, past the corrugated mail slots and loud, functional buzzers, and into the drizzle. Ten days ago, at that curb, she’d hailed a taxi that would take her to JFK. And he had walked to 156 East 3rd Street with a French-English copy of Candide in his hands. His class was in room 5C. The walls had been painted yellow, a shade more manila than Mediterranean, and the room was miniscule. Flower pots, furniture, books, papers and ashtrays took up most of the space; the students, drinking liberally and smoking decorously, took up the rest, and no one complained about spending more time gossiping than discussing French, though they’d all paid for the privilege. Gibson shared a cigarette with a girl named Claire Rollins. She lifted her chin when she exhaled, blowing smoke toward the ceiling fan and talking about how much she hated working in a wine shop. “Oh, I don’t really,” she said when Gibson pressed her. “But you can only sell so much Pinot Gris before you realize it’s nothing special—even if it’s local. I’d prefer to get out and grow it myself.” She worked at Late Harvest on 20th Street and Lex, near where he used to buy two-dollar soup at a bodega. He’d been lighting L’Oréal commercials in those days.

With Samantha’s hand in his own, he carefully skirted the water that had pooled in the center of the porch steps. He tried to forget about Claire, to focus on his fiancée and on the ground. A pair of thin leather shoes were all that kept his feet dry. He’d never owned proper rain boots, had never born the weather with anything more than a trenchcoat and hat. “I never thought I’d be an umbrella person,” he said, taking the umbrella from Samantha and opening it.

“But I love it when you hold things above my head, Gibby. Don’t you?”

“Everyone’s so careless with them. Spokes at eyelevel. You have to wonder how many people in this city wind up scratched and blinded. Am I the only person who thinks these things?”

“But that’s the reason to carry an umbrella! It’s our protective nylon bubble against the others.”

“Is it really nylon?” He rubbed the fabric between his finger and thumb.

Samantha put her arm through his. The air was cold, the weather bleak—it would fit a grange or moor or the dunes on Cape Cod better. New York was dismal enough without rain. She kept close to Gibson, trying to stay beneath the center of the umbrella, but the wind still spattered drops against her face as they strolled Barrow Street’s narrow sidewalk, under scaffoldings and past five- and six-story buildings to the corner of 7th Avenue. Her parents used to walk together with their golden retriever Penelope on Ledbetter Beach, but her mother always stayed a pace ahead. She hadn’t seen them touch each other in years. As she and Gibson crossed with the light and ducked into Ottamenelli’s Exotic Meats on the corner, Gibson said he hoped he’d never bore her.

“Bore me?” she said. “I just want for you, when you see me, to smile.”

Inside, glass display cases divided the store lengthwise and separated butcher from customer. Ottamanelli’s had a reputation in the Village for God’s own variety of expensive meats. At the back of the shop were freezers packed with specialty sausages, at the front a bulletin board, a ticket machine, and beef cuts hanging in the window. It certainly seemed the place to find a goose. The man behind the counter—thick, unshaven, wearing an apron permanently blood-stained—wrapped a sizeable pork shoulder butt, taped it, and handed it to a woman who held her purse in the crux of one arm and a wallet in her hand. She was the only other person there. Her coat, cut sharp on her shoulders and flattering her waist, looked tailored. Her stockings were sheer, her heels lightly worn, hair rolling at the base of her neck. Gibson stopped short—like any man, he felt he knew his lover completely, at a glance, even with her back turned. She was the same blonde figure, the same girl who’d walked to her bathroom to fill a water glass, flatfooted and naked. And now he could think of no brilliant way to leave before she saw him, before he’d have to introduce her.

“I’m starving,” he muttered. He wanted to say something more but could not. The girl turned, showing off her diamond earrings and dimpled cheeks. She was not Claire, and as she left the shop she wished the butcher a merry Christmas.

Under his breath, Gibson said how stupid and vain he was.

“Let’s not be too harsh on ourselves,” Samantha said. “Really, it’s quite a natural, biological, animal thing to look at piles of meat and want to put them in you. I hope you aren’t so harsh on me when I’m starving.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” He tried to recompose himself. In front of him were chickens, salamis, hams, chops, steaks, roasts, charcuterie, and chateaubriand, and all the other usual meats, all looking fresh, all neatly arranged and labeled. But the exotics, the meats as advertised, were few. Yes, he saw bison, ostrich steaks, Cornish game hens, pheasant links, and Argentine beef, but where were the venison backstraps, the wild boar, the wood ducks, quail, frog legs, even the guinea fowl?

“I see no geese,” he observed. He bent forward to examine a ham hock. “But it’s nice in here—it smells lovely, anyway.”

“It does,” she said. “The only other time I came here I ordered a giant sausage and downed it later with a bottle of wine. I was quite something in my single days. The sausage must have weighed over a pound.” She put her head next to his but saw nothing remarkable about the hocks—they were hocks and, just as surely, not geese.

“We met in your single days.”

“Was I that much better then?”

“You were lovely.” He noticed that the umbrella at his side was dripping on her toes. He moved it to his other hand.

The butcher, after making a show of rinsing then wiping his knife, finally turned his attention to the couple. Gibson explained that they were looking for a goose. “I have foie gras,” the butcher said.

“Gibby means a whole goose. You know, something freshly plucked.”

“I could put in an order.”

“But we need it for tomorrow.” She looked doubtful. “Surely you must have one. I mean, I see the goddamned things everywhere. You can’t walk ten feet without tripping over a half dozen.”

“Then you should have no problem getting one.”

“I thought this was going to be such a paradise of food,” Gibson put in. He had only just considered that buying a goose could be difficult—if not at Ottamenelli’s, he didn’t know where they’d find one. “For Christ’s sake. We’re not asking for it in March. It’s Christmas.”

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I hear turkeys are also popular.”

“Darling,” Gibson said, turning, “he’s an intellectual.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“That little quip flew like Venus from his head, didn’t it? He didn’t even stumble on it.”

The butcher went back to the sink and turned the water on high, so that steam rose in the air, and the couple left the shop and returned to the rain. The sky was still light, despite the weather, but the air felt cooler and the thoroughfare decidedly less festive than it had. “We’ll get one somewhere,” Gibson said.

“I don’t care. It’s just nice being out with you. Isn’t it fun? I wanted to talk to him about sausages. It’s too bad, really.”

“What do you say we get a drink at some point? Maybe at the Select.”

“Oh, yes. I want an eggnog.”

“Something frothy does sound good.”

They started east on Bleecker, confronting the rain and all of the pedestrians bunched together, trying to walk around each other with their umbrellas so wide. They passed the familiar cheese and ice cream shops, the record stores, boutiques, galleries, and menageries of leather, and at one Gibson stopped and asked if Samantha didn’t want a suede evening gown. Wouldn’t it go beautifully with sheepskin leggings?

The Select was on Waverly Place, up the street from the Italian restaurant Babbo where Gibson had eaten the best sweetbreads of his life. The café was bright and crowded and smelled of bread. They took two stools at the bar. A couple next to them were having belinis, talking about gun laws in New York City. Samantha whispered that she’d met them before at a house party. They didn’t notice her. Gibson asked about eggnog, but they were out. He ordered Irish coffees instead, and the girl behind the counter filled two cups with a French roast and added whiskey shots. He didn’t correct her. He said they’d take sugar and cream, and he mixed the drink a little closer to the mark, dissolving the sugar in each cup then pouring the cream over the back of a spoon so that it would float on top. The girl went to make a cappuccino, and as she worked the machine, Gibson said she looked like she knew more about rich foods than drinks. “What are the chances she can tell us where to find a goose?” he said.

They drank their coffees. Samantha asked what he thought about going to Union Square afterward.

“I feel like Chinatown,” he said. “But Union Square is so much closer.”

“I can never find what I want unless I know where to go exactly in Chinatown. It’s a much better place for wandering.” She nodded at the windows and the rain outside. “And another drink before we go back into that would be fine.”

Gibson ordered mimosas and a lemon cake, and inquired about the goose.

“I’ve no idea,” the girl said. “They don’t have them in grocery stores?” She called to another server then checked with the cooks after bringing the drinks and pastry, and finally came back and apologized because she couldn’t be of any help. No one knew about geese.

Gibson tipped her, and let Samantha finish the last bite of cake, which had been too sweet. He helped her into her coat, and they started the brief walk uptown. She said she’d prefer if it snowed. She’d once stayed in an apartment above Kristin Jones’ and Andrew Ginsel’s giant Metronome sculpture across from the park, and in the morning the streets had been covered in snow and the plows hadn’t come yet. There were no cars, and a man was skiing up Park Avenue.

“I can’t imagine affording an apartment there,” Gibson said. “Who were you staying with?”

“A friend of my father’s. He left New York before I met you.”

At 14th Street, they went into the Garden of Eden grocery. Gibson didn’t ask any more questions about the friend. They passed dry pastas wrapped in ribbon and vegetables in baskets, but found no geese. They continued to Whole Foods. They rode the escalator to the basement, to the produce, caviar tins, vials of saffron, vacuum-sealed ducks, and mounds of crimini, shitake, white, brown, morel, elephant, portabella, and French Horn mushrooms. At Trader Joe’s, they discovered chicken breasts packed in marinades and people packed in the aisles. At the Food Emporium, frozen turkeys and patrons who seemed confused, trying to find the items on their lists. Smoked salmon at Dean and Deluca’s, and candy by the pound as expensive as emeralds by the carat. But no goose, not one in a city that boasted an excess of every commodity a man could imagine.

“I think we’ve found New York’s Achilles’ heel,” Samantha said. They were on Broadway at 12th Street, a block from the grocery and across from the Strand and its self-proclaimed million miles of books. She thought about all the times she’d escaped there when she was tired and had to pee, and how she always paused on the stairs to leaf through the Taschen collection, to look at Modigliani prints or pictures of Paris. They could go into it now and browse the cooking section for other recipes.

“If we give up on the goose,” Gibson was saying, “someone will tell us next week about a lovely little shop in Queens or some place where you can get the damn things killed and plucked right in front of you.”

“But I’m tired.”

“I’ll get a cab.”

“We don’t need one.”

But he stepped off the curb and held out his arm, and she had to go with him to keep from getting wet. Four taxis passed and then an old sedan crossed over, and he opened the door and held it for her. She scooted across the fake leather. The driver looked Haitian and middle-aged. They started moving downtown before anyone spoke—Broadway was a one-way street. Gibson was frowning at his wallet.

“I have forty dollars,” he said. “It’s not a hell of a lot but it’s yours if you can take us to where we can buy a goose. The whole, raw animal. Going to cook it at home for her mother.” He put his face close to the glass. “Do you hear me? A whole goose. Her mother is a very exacting woman but she keeps us off the street, doesn’t she darling? And now I’ve got a hankering for a goose myself, you might say.”

Samantha leaned against her door, watching the cars and people outside. She tried not to hear Gibson. He wasn’t usually so impetuous, and it was unattractive. He certainly had whims, but used them only teasingly as threats—to wear plaid to the opera, say, or propose at Shea Stadium; he never actually did these things. The first time she’d taken him to Staten Island, when they were on the ferry looking back at Manhattan, he asked how far she thought it was, and she said a couple miles. “I can swim it in under twenty minutes,” he said. He’d do it right then if she told him to. Of course she didn’t. Now, here he was, against her wishes, wasting money on a cab that had twice turned and was taking them up University Place and right back to the park. They stopped, and driver told them to try the farmer’s market.

“Have a lovely goddamn Christmas,” Gibson said. He gave the man five dollars. They left. The taxi turned on 14th then pulled in front of Whole Foods. The Whole again, he thought. Hell is a road paved with organic groceries, and not a goose to be seen.

“Want to give the market a try?” Samantha asked. “I think this is the last day the Christmas tents are up.”

“I thought they stayed longer.”

“I wish they did. Mother would love shopping here.”

“There won’t be any geese, though.”

“But I don’t know where else to look. Maybe we should give up on them.”

Red and white striped tents displaying toys and puppets, moccasins and knitted hats, Turkish lanterns, candles, ornaments, and paintings of the Virgin Mary dominated the market, and people bustled amongst them. Their voices and the humming generators and the street traffic made a true cacophony. Gibson smelled alcohol and cinnamon. He stopped at a booth selling mulled wine. Samantha took the umbrella to the next tent. When he found her again, she was investigating the sculpture of a cat. He had two steaming paper cups and handed her one. A young woman with a New Jersey accent was telling them what a bargain the cat was, that the wood was ebony.

Samantha gave back the cup. “You drink it,” she said. The cat was sitting on its haunches, and she turned it over and looked at the dark grains of the ebony. She saw no price tag, and set it down again. “I don’t want to have to pee.”

“I can never get you what you want, Sam, can I?”

“You got me this ring.” She held up her fingers.

“But we haven’t set a date.”

She put her hands in her pockets. She used to bite her knuckles when she was irritated, and was trying not to anymore. “Gibby,” she said. “What the hell? We’ve talked about this.”

They started out of the tent under their umbrella, moving toward the Greenmarket where the booths, less grand and electrified, looked as if they didn’t belong in a carnival.

“I’m getting tired of being engaged.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Gibson. All you can do is argue about the same thing.”

“I don’t think that’s fair.”

“I’m going to marry you. I’m wearing the damned ring. Don’t be such a girl—you’ll get your own ring soon enough, and soon enough you’ll get sick of seeing it. I’m sick of seeing this one sometimes, believe me, and that doesn’t mean I think less of you. But God, you try my patience.”

They passed boxes of leeks, onions, shallots, white and orange carrots, and other goods all grown locally, all trucked in early in the morning and sitting in crates.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I’m hungry again. We keep looking at so much food.”

“So what do you say we get a bite?”

“I don’t know. I’m not much in the mood is the thing.”

I could use a chestnut.”

“That’s a bit romantic, isn’t it?”

“Then enjoy it for the fat and the salt,” she said. “And don’t sulk. Here we were having such a nice time, and I really needed to have a nice time, and you go off hailing taxi cabs and talking about not getting married. You don’t understand. I had to be in that awful state all alone, such a strange, depressing place where everybody is so unnaturally happy. What is wrong with Californians? Oh, Gibson, don’t be so upset. We don’t have any reason to be, do we?”

He agreed that they did not, and resigned himself to chestnuts. The stand, a mobile cart with an awning, was off the curb on Union Square West. As they waited in line, Gibson took out his wallet, turned it, opened it, glanced at the bills, closed it again, and put it back in his pocket. “I don’t treat you right always,” he said.

“But mostly you do.”

“A man should have more than thirty dollars left to his name.”

At the edge of the park, a small group formed under the canopy of a subway entrance that advertised the N, the Q, the R, W, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains. A young girl in galoshes watched the pigeons at her feet, and inched closer to them. The birds hopped away in equal measure.

Samantha ordered for them and handed the vendor her money. The man, who wore red wool gloves, of which the fingertips had been snipped off, reached into a hot bin and scooped the nuts into a bag. Would he know where to find a goose for cooking, Samantha asked. He harrumphed. He might. If they had a cigarette, it would help him think. Gibson tapped two out of his pack, gave one away and kept the other, lit them in the same order, and offered to share his with Samantha. She declined it, and he thought about how she could never smoke without coughing, and how Claire Rollins was just the same. After a minute the vendor told them about a Taglibue, who would be at the farmer’s market in McCarren Park on Saturdays.

“Well,” Gibson said. “What do you think, Sammy? Should we go to Brooklyn?”

Waiting for the eastbound L, they did not speak. The day’s walk had tired them. The romantic prospect of roasting a goose diminished when a train was late, and the tunnel was still dark. Long rectangles of brown water had formed between the tracks and rails. No rodents today—rat watching always passed the time—but at Union Square, where they thrived above ground, they were often poisoned and absent beneath it. Gibson rocked on his heels, wishing that he better understood why he’d slept with that girl. He turned her name over in his mouth. Claire Rollins. He’d bought her drinks at the Fat Black Pussycat on West 3rd Street. He paid cash. He said he’d never seen a woman so confident, tellment plein de vie. He did not have to say much. She took him to her apartment in Alphabet City and fed him beer in her linoleum kitchen. It tasted metallic and chocolaty, and the place smelled of urine. He wondered if the cat or the neighbor was to blame. He asked if she was married, and she indicated the apartment. “That’s too bad,” he’d said, and sipped his beer, happy that she was upset. She went to her room, a step away from the stove and the pots piled and warped on top of it. He didn’t feel invited, so he stayed in his seat and rubbed his thumb and fingers together under the table, trying to entice the skinny cat. When Claire returned, she was laughing and wearing a bright silver ring with a fake ruby in the shape of a heart, the kind of thing he’d seen on his drive north from Florida on racks at gas stations, next to dragonfly earrings and pendants displaying the signs of the zodiac.

The glow of headlights illuminated the tunnel and brought the wind.

“Isn’t it funny,” Gibson said, “the things we do to keep our lives interesting?”

Samantha put her hands on her head, patting down her hair. She stepped back from the platform edge and closed her eyes. “I love goose hunting,” she said. “But I am tired.”

They rode three stops to Bedford Avenue, walked out, and headed north on the street of the same name. A wineshop chalkboard proclaimed the end of the world and invited passersby to drink. “Alcohol,” it read, “is the cause of and remedy to all of life’s problems.” A place called Sir sold silk dresses. A record store doubled as a bar front. At the corner of 12th, an iron fence and a line of sycamores with their patchwork bark bordered McCarren Park. To the west were tennis courts, warehouses, an asphalt lot, a trade school, and beyond them, obscured in the rain, the Manhattan skyline looking like a dragon. The East River was hidden. No children ran in front of the school or sat on the concrete steps; no one lined up to play football in the mud or idled on the softball diamonds. It was the holiday in Brooklyn. The weather was poor. Only dog walkers and joggers, faces intent on every step, were active. But as they neared the end of the park where Williamsburg meets Greenpoint, they saw the farmer’s market. It was a small affair, and in the early afternoon the proprietors were packing their vegetables and cheeses into trucks, closing for the day. Squares of bare ground showed where some had already left, and Gibson feared that the goose man would be one of them. But he held their umbrella high as they went through the gates that cordoned off the park, and at the first booth, where a woman in a plastic raincoat sold paintings of a much brighter New York City, he asked where he could find Mr. Taglibue. She signaled the other side of the lane, where a portly man hunched over two tables.

“Is that really him?” Gibson asked, and when she said it was, he shouted and kissed Samantha’s cheek. Her skin was wet, and he smelled rain and chestnuts. He realized he hadn’t noticed the richness of earthworms in the air all day, and here they were in a park. Perhaps it was too cold. He’d heard that small worms die in the winter, after laying cocoon-wrapped eggs to propagate the species, and that big earthworms burrow deep to stay warm. He nuzzled his head down into her neck, saying, “Can you believe it, darling? What if he really has one? Wouldn’t that make you very happy?”

“It would, Gibby.”

“Do you mind when I kiss you in public?”

“No, I mind when you don’t.”

Then they were before the man Taglibue, whose head was folded like a gourd and whose eyes reflected the green awning above them. Coolers were stacked beside him, including an open one that appeared to contain plucked and frozen poultry. Gibson took out his wallet again. The cooler was unlabeled. No signs listed goods or prices. And he was about to speak when he noticed birds clustered at the edge of the park, close to the gate at Lorimer Street. They were not a hundred yards away, fat and waddling, and unmistakably geese.

“And what I can do you for you?” the man asked. “A sausage for Christmas?”

“We heard you sold geese,” Samantha explained. “We came all the way from Manhattan.”

“My, yes, so far.” He chuckled, and the sound was bright and effeminate. “And I love a good goose, but I don’t have any. You’ve been misinformed, I’m afraid.”

“Then what do you sell?”

As Taglibue listed off his pheasants, rabbits, ducks, and black pudding, which he said was made from bull’s blood, Gibson began walking. He stopped at the edge of the market, set his umbrella on a bench, and took off his coat. Most of the geese were just off the path, feeding near the fence. He stepped onto the mud and dead grass. The rain had soaked his shoes; his toes were cold. But he thought about the way the sand used to burn his feet in Florida, how he crossed the beach at a sprint and hit the ocean, running until waves knocked him down, and swimming until he was exhausted. The geese, honking softly, were not more than twenty yards off. A multitude of pigeons moved amongst them, and all of the birds strutted, bobbed, and pecked, their beaks to the ground, eating a wide swath of grain. Perhaps a truck had spilled it, leaving or entering the park, and the driver had not seen or had not cared enough to reclaim the spoiled food. And wasn’t it funny how similar they were, the man who eats goose meat with polenta, and the goose that eats a grub and a bite of corn or barley or bulgur, or whatever that grain was.

Gibson tested his footing. The grass was slick but did not concern him much. Already he felt committed, even fated to the task, to seek his absolution in a goose. He ran. The rain spattered his face and the pigeons flew, but the geese, which had been filling their bellies for hours, were slow. They honked, bleated, scampered, and flapped, trying to get into the air, their black necks unfurling. He caught one as it rose up in front of him, and he fell with it into the soft grain. Its feet clawed his chest as he lay across it. He pinned its neck in one hand, just below the head, and with his other began to twist its head and beak, as if to free a faucet that had rusted shut. From the market he heard shouts from different people and the pitch of Samantha’s voice and footsteps on the pavement. The animal stopped moving. He let go of it, sat back, and combed his wet hair with his fingers. He shook. He tried not to cry. Its chin was a messy white and the rest of its face velvet black.

 ♦

Samantha wrapped her hair in a towel and her body in another. She opened the medicine cabinet above the sink, found her toothbrush, placed it next to the toothpaste on the counter, and then found the floss beside a half full bottle of oxycodone. The prescription, which was two years old, was for her. She’d had her appendix out not long before she met Gibson. At that time she’d been dating another law student, a man who’d possibly saved her life by taking her in a taxi to the hospital, but then, she found out, had slept with a friend while she was recovering. There were probably only enough pills left to kill a small dog, if she were looking to do that sort of thing. She reached behind it for a felt envelope, which contained her birth control. She drank down a pill with a handful of water.

She used to want to be pregnant. Now she wasn’t sure she could even marry the man. Mrs. Samantha Gibson. If she went through with it, she might have to start going by Sammy to keep the sound right. Mrs. Sammy Gibson. It really was much better. Hopefully no one would start calling her Gibby.

She’d showered to relax but it hadn’t worked. She did not want to brush her teeth, floss, or pick up her mother at the airport tomorrow. Christmas was going to be just lousy, and what had Gibson done to help? He’d killed a goose in McCarren Park is what he’d done, and if she hadn’t gotten him home quickly, with the bird wrapped up in his coat, God only knows what the New York Police Department would have thought. She used to hunt mallards and teal with her father in California, and she’d learned her share about permits and bag limits and lead shot bans. They didn’t talk about it in her NYU law classes, but she was sure you couldn’t harvest a migratory bird without a license, and not to mention within the city of New York.

When she finished with the bathroom and walked into the kitchen, Gibson was rinsing the bird under hot water. She’d helped him clean it, cut off its neck and wings and feet, and showed him how to pluck it right away while the body was still warm.

“I’m not going back to that French class,” Gibson said when he noticed her. He turned the bird over and picked at it. The hot water helped make the last bits of fuzz and pin feathers easier to see and to remove. “I mean, I’ll find another one, but I wasn’t learning anything.”

“I thought you loved it.”

“I loved the books.” He placed the goose in a Dutch oven, then turned back to the sink and began scooping up all of the feathers and dumping them in the trash. “You look marvelous, by the way, with nothing on.”

“We forgot to buy any rum, Gibby. I need to head out again.”

“Wait so I can shower and go with you.”

“No, you take your time. I want to get out of this place awhile anyway.” She watched him clean out the drain and rinse his hands. The trash was overflowing with feathers. He started pouring brine over the goose. “Gibby,” she said, “you’d tell me if you slept with another woman?”

He opened the refrigerator, set a gallon of milk on the floor to make room, and slid in the Dutch oven. He replaced the milk, took a beer off the shelf, and closed the door. He popped the cap with his keychain. “If you wanted me to,” he said.

“I’d rather hear it than not.”

He sipped the beer, which was the same brand he’d had with Claire, which he’d bought for that very reason. It tasted as awful as before. He said, “Then I’d tell you. But Sammy, I’d never do that.”

 

The End.

 

Photo and content © 2013 Thomas McCafferty

All rights reserved.

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