RAUL AND THE SWAN
Christopher Johnson lives in Chicago, where he works and writes. He's originally from Minnesota.
The day after Raul finds out he has cancer and will die, he buys an empty distribution center on the edge of town and commissions construction on a swan habitat inside. He orders a swan on the Internet. He plunks a cot in one corner with a bookshelf and a leather cadet's chest. Then he takes out a loan -- one he will be too dead to repay -- and the construction begins. Slender Russians with endless supplies of cigarettes and cologne appear along with one Detroit Lions fan and an itinerant Kiwi; day after day they come and build, laugh, and bitch. The itinerant Kiwi makes cracks to the slender Russians, calls them all Igor, every single one. The Russians just stare and smoke and notice that their daydreams now contain half-fictional plots to bludgeon the Kiwi.
Raul's wife leaves him after he buys the warehouse.
"It's no way to live, Rocket." She tells everyone she calls him Rocket because he looks like Roberto Clemente, but she means Roger Clemens.
"It is a way to live," he says, "and this is where I will die. This is my tomb."
"Why not just Lauderdale or the Smokys?"
"I can't wait. You wait. I'm going."
His wife leaves him in pursuit of frequent flier miles.
"Is this a divorce?" he asks.
"No. You're dying. And I'm going to get platinum status. I'm not going to just sit around and wait. And I'm not living in your distribution center."
"Yes, I'm dying. But I ought to be happy."
"But you are living in a distribution center. How can you be happy there? We will not get a divorce."
A day later the phone rings; it's her, calling from an airport.
"Rocket, this is unbelievable."
"Yes...we shouldn't do this."
"No, not that. My pee. It's true: asparagus makes your pee smell funny. Can you smell that? No, course you can't. My pee smells like asparagus."
"You're in the restroom? At the airport?" He's not sure if she has replied when he starts wondering who she had the asparagus with. He can't get the image of her dining with an insurance executive in the suburbs of Middleton, or wherever she is, out of his head.
"Where are you?" she asks.
"Memphis. I have to go -- they are calling my next flight." The toilet flushes, she hangs up, and he wonders if he'll see her before he dies.
"You like?" he asks, with a quivering smile.
Raul says nothing and continues to walk around the structure. The general contractor falls in behind Raul like a phantom, marching in perfect silent lockstep.
Raul's cell phone rings.
"Rocket. I'm in Newark! The air is putrid. It's big and gray. It reminds me of the distribution center."
"Wait. Where are you?" But the line goes dead. He is half concerned and half sure that she forgot she was talking to him and hung up or what.
"I met a very famous man on the airplane."
"Johnny Blanco White."
"Blanco means white. Which is it?"
"No, it's Johnny Blanco White."
"Never heard of him."
"I know you haven't. Virtually unknown here. But he's apparently huge in Barcelona."
"What does he do?"
"Everything. He's an entertainer."
"Did he tell you that?"
"Yes. But the stewardesses were looking at him -- the way they do when it's someone famous. He's a doll, Rocket. Said we're welcome in Barcelona anytime. He's very, very European, you know -- porcelain skin. It's that Mediterranean diet -- good fats."
"Hold on," he says, walking into the corner of the warehouse, the general contractor falling in. He turns on his laptop and googles Johnny Blanco White. An ice sculptor in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan, a tattooed cabana boy, and twin physics PhD's with the same name and apparently masochistic parents. But no entertainers. Raul doesn't have the heart to tell her.
"Are you coming home?" he asks.
"No, this feels like home now. On the road, nothing to lose, only progress and motion. Better than watching a swan swim in circles in a box. I'm going to Ontario."
"But the swan will be so beautiful. The picture of majesty and dignity and grace."
"Rocket. It's a swan in a gray dreary box."
He is not sure if she hung up or if he did.
The weeds flicker like snakes in the current. The generator hums.
"Where's the swan?" Raul asks.
"Back order. Should be here in a week tops."
"What will you name it?"
"Lee Harvey. Maybe just Harvey."
"Very good name."
He means to say, "Oh, hell" or "oh, shit" or "oh, stop this while I still miss you" or simply "fuck off."
"We're delayed," she says again.
Is this for effect? Is the 'we' for him? He covers the phone's mouth piece with his hand and mouths we? with a look of astonishment. Is this to identify her and her fellow passengers? Or is to make him feel part of her idiotic odyssey? Or is this a slip? Is the "we" indicative of the Doug, Keith or Mark sitting next to her, stroking the back of her neck, with a bulge in his pants? Feigning static, he hangs up.
She calls back. He tries to sever the phone cord with his stare. This fails and the phone continues to ring. 19 times it rings and 19 times he does not answer it. It's over, he thinks. I will just die. She can deal with the distribution center.
There's a knock at the door and it must be the biologist delivering the swan. Raul drags his leg to the door and eyes the peephole and indeed sees a distorted version of the biologist and a line behind him containing the many Russians, the fat Detroit Lions fan, and the gregarious Kiwi. Raul opens the door and cannot believe how forlorn the biologist is looking. So terrifically forlorn that there can only be one piece of news he is harboring; and he does not need to say it. Raul can tell and the biologist knows this; they simply look at each other. The swan has died in shipping.
For days, Raul does not get out of his bed. The only sound is the hum of the generator and the normal once-in-a-while creaks of a distribution center. The shades are drawn and he lays in the dark. He wonders if the swan would have made it, if the generator's hum would have been too much. He wonders if even he would have outlived the swan.
The mood breaks: and he is overcome with a firm knowledge, and that is that he killed the swan. He moves to the water's edge and kneels. He murdered the swan. He ordered it on the internet. His final confirmatory click of the mouse was its death knell. There is no overcoming this; this will not be outlived.
He puts his hand into the water and slowly makes it dive under and back up, like a mechanized fish. The phone rings, and it's her. He can tell by the way the phone rings. He thinks of his wife and the groping insurance man in the Italian-make ties with his hands on her neck and on everything and he vomits again, onto the floor. He looks at the offending phone and hucks it underhand into the water. He swears he can still hear it ring. He throws the keys to the distribution center into the water after the phone, leaves the generator running and walks out the door, it locking behind him, lugging his leg behind.