THE CORAL SEA
Robert Hill Long
A cardinal flies out a broken warehouse window, startling the whitehaired housecleaner on the corner. The red wings light a place in memory as she waits for the Desire bus. Cotton bales used to pile up on this building's noisy loading dock. Across the boulevard, she hauled braids of garlic and blond-leafed bundles of sugar cane from her daddy's flatbed truck to a stall in the farm market's breezeway. She'd pause for breath, brush city fog out of her face and watch young men wrestle the cotton into a wall, ready to ship. The black gleam of their arms and backs vanished behind the wall, but not their laughter.
Between a depression and a war, the city offered itself to her in the shouts of flower vendors. Lint-headed boys danced past her, dangling plucked chickens on colored string. She let the city take her in. The shuttered doors of good houses opened into a wealth of heirlooms which she polished and dusted as though they were her own: armoires, cases of heavy silverware, lacy ivory statuettes. Each evening sailors strolled out of barracks by the embarkation depot. First white, then black sailors, all in uniforms white as her own. She'd sit on her stoop fanning her arms and neck, hearing their laughter fan out among side streets that held no more love or danger then than today, when the bus is unusually late.
She crosses her ankles, inspects each white shoe for smudges. That cardinal must be nesting in the warehouse. She peered through a window last year and saw nothing--long shafts of light, full of eddying cotton dust. She still has a letter--pushed to the back of her underwear drawer--from one of those sailors, another farm kid the city took in. He wrote about apples, how many it took to make pies enough for fifty navy pilots in 1942. The letter's postmarked a week before her twentieth birthday: the day his carrier began steaming toward a rendezvous whose name--along with a few other harmless words--would be blacked out by an overworked censor.