It was only eight months ago when Lowell Collins moved into the 24th floor penthouse of the Park Evanston Apartments, silencing the sadness and guilt in his heart by imagining the possibilities: a fresh start in life, romance, a new business of some kind? He signed a one year lease, declining the free month they offered as an inducement to a longer term: Who knew how long he’d want to stay here? There was even a chance, he thought, that Catherine and he might reconcile. Although their divorce settlement was proceeding, matters might look different to both of them after a physical separation.

Indeed, he is vacating the apartment today, the first Sunday in November; but in a direction no one could have foreseen. Not even the falcon, surely, anticipated Lowell’s sudden flight.

In his first week of settling in, he happened to be standing in his bedroom watching a sailing class rig boats on the beach three blocks away when a gray-brown bird with surprising wingspan swooped upward past his bedroom, startling him. Although the building’s exterior walls were glass, floor to ceiling, the dark shape swept through his vision too fast to identify. It lacked the long neck of a Canada goose—the only large bird one sees year round in the Chicago area—but was bigger than any hawk or crow he’d ever seen.

Lowell stood there for several minutes, close to the glass, hoping to see the bird again. If it was an eagle, he thought, it’s a long way from home. The wind chill was single digit, vapor forming behind every moving vehicle, while the morning sun, blinding white off snowy roofs and lawns and the shining ice along the shore, made the sky look blue as a sapphire.

A month later, one afternoon in early April when the trees were just budding and the last piles of shoveled snow from a late March blizzard had melted, Lowell was at his desk in the living room, assembling a spreadsheet for his wife and their opposing lawyers, when something made him turn to the right. A hook-beaked bird as big as a cat stood on the railing of his terrace, its wings folded patiently, staring in toward him—or through him. Hello, he said. What are you looking at? If it replied before turning away, he didn’t hear it. The bird dove off the rail, extending its brown, pointed wings. In five minutes on the internet, Lowell identified it as a peregrine falcon.

Although the sliding door was partially open, the bird might have vocalized without his hearing it. He wasn’t in the habit of putting his hearing aids in unless he was going out. He didn’t need them for the telephone, and they worked poorly anyway. Just that week, his son, who lived in town with a sweet wife and two little girls, invited him to the older granddaughter’s birthday party. Lowell thought Robbie said five o’clock, but when he got there they were done with the games and Alison had blown out her candles. His would-be-ex-wife and his daughter-in-law were serving out the cake. Robbie told me five, he explained.

Wrong, Robbie called out, raising his voice above the din of six-year-old girls. He held up four fingers: four o’clock. Then he tapped his ear, meaning I keep telling you, you need a new hearing aid.

Sorry, Lowell said, though he was sure his son had said five.

He did hear the bird the second time it appeared on the terrace rail. He was working at his desk when it landed in almost the same position. He didn’t see whether it came from the sky or from the edge of the roof above his bedroom. What he heard was Wow. Not as a person would have said the word, but in a croaking bird voice, barely audible yet distinctly Wow-sounding. The bird stared into his apartment as if amazed at something it saw there. It had a shiny black cap, pale throat and breast, and as its head rotated toward him Lowell saw for the first time its dark mustache, like his own before it had turned gray. Wow? he replied. You like my new Crate and Barrel furniture? Maybe it hadn’t said anything at all; what he’d heard might have been one of those phantom tricks the brain plays sometimes. But he persisted: What were you saying Wow about, my friend? As he moved toward the door, it took off.

In their first winter, they leave home on their own. From Canada they migrate as far as Central America, but those fledged in the upper Midwest don’t seem to feel the necessity to go much below the Mason-Dixon Line. He learned all this from websites.

In the spring, they return to the home region, though not the exact spot, and continue to travel over a wide territory until they find an available partner. Thus their name: peregrinus, traveler. Radio devices have tracked males establishing a nest, then searching over a hundred mile radius for a female. The male performs elaborate aerobatic displays to attract her and lead her back. Once paired, their traveling days are over. If all goes well, they’ll produce four or five chicks a year, which, after a few months and some harrowing first flights, take off unescorted for southern climes while the parent couple hold their territory through the winter and re-use the same nest—a pair for life, unless another determined male succeeds in luring the female away.

A more attractive male? More energetic?

Lowell had spent three depressed weeks in a grim, blustery February looking for an apartment. The high-rise was more cheerful than the other places he looked at, sunless warrens that matched his darkest forebodings about divorce. In hopeful contrast, this aerie had a small private rooftop terrace, the sweeping view, a large living-dining-kitchen space and a den, where he set up his television and bought a sleeper sofa so he could assure his daughter in Arizona she had a room here any time.

Catherine looked stunned when he told her—as if she hadn’t asked for the separation, after thirty-three years together.

Did you expect me to live at the Y?

I would have helped you look for a place, she said.

Why, since I’m no longer your husband? Yet he was and, eight months later, still is. They’ve got bank accounts, the house she doesn’t want to sell, stocks in revocable trusts, art work to divide. Not to mention grandchildren’s parties. All that was supposed to be their life together. She wanted more, apparently—more of something, but less of him. Nothing she said made sense. She made no mention of his few brief affairs over the years. (She had only ever referred to them obliquely, contemptuously, letting him know she knew or suspected: “… while you were supposedly working late,” or “that weekend you said you were in New York.” He had assumed a tacit understanding, as between his parents: a husband showed fidelity by how he treated his wife at home, and by doing nothing to embarrass her within their circle.) She didn’t blame him for anything. One of Catherine’s attempts at explanation that stuck with him was too settled. Our life is too settled, she said: I look ahead to twenty or thirty more years of marriage and it makes me vomit. At one point he accused her, tearily, of having got everything she wanted out of a man and now chucking him out like an empty bottle. Not chucking you out exactly, she said. Think of it as recycling. That was a joke, but essentially she was saying yes, she no longer needed him. The question of what he needed only added to her aggravation: His needs were the problem.

Don’t you owe me any—he searched for the right word—lifelong … attachment?

I could have predicted you’d react like this, she said. As if it’s about you, about how I owe you the rest of my life. Did my credits fall short of my debits in your balance sheet? Haven’t you heard anything I’ve been saying? It isn’t about you—my needs have changed, that’s all.

They had gone around that circle a dozen times or so, over a miserable December-January, until Catherine got a lawyer to write him a letter and told him she was looking for a condo. He was damned if he was going to be the one left to spruce the house up and put it on the market. So it pleased him to have found a place for himself without her help.

It wouldn’t be as messy as a lot of divorces you hear about. The kids said it was the right thing for both their mother and him. Having recently sold his textbook publishing company, he was free of debt for the first time in his adult life, with enough for both of them to live in modest comfort for the rest of their lives. So he set to work settling the divorce with a minimum of rancor and legal fees while scouting other business possibilities.

Looked at in a positive light, it was a time of liberation. Lowell started thinking about buying a boat. Free of demands, he could play golf twice a week for the first time in his life. He let Catherine have their Steppenwolf Theatre subscription seats. He liked deciding at the last minute whether to dine out or cook for himself or order in. He even liked having a whole bed to himself for awhile.

Catherine soon managed to let him know she’d become involved with, or met, or was dating someone. Lowell had stopped by the house and let himself in to pick up a box of old family albums—his mother’s—from the basement. Catherine’s car was there, and he thought of ringing the bell or calling out after letting himself in, but decided not to disturb her. As he came up the basement stairs, however, she was waiting for him in the kitchen. Please don’t come over without calling first, she said. I might have someone here.

Had Catherine been seeing the guy, whoever he was, before? Was it someone Lowell knew? Robbie refused to answer. It’s her business, Dad. Mom doesn’t ask me about your social life.

What social life do I have?

Come on, his son said, you won’t be an old bastard forever.

What? But then he realized Robbie had said old bachelor. Even that hurt.

He wasn’t in any hurry to date. He saw no candidates among his acquaintances, but he’d meet plenty of interesting, interested women in due course. The thing to do was take it one step at a time: furnish the apartment, get through the divorce. Take stock of himself, as he told his lawyer, in more than the financial sense. He loved the penthouse. At night, the view from his terrace was Chicago’s skyline, ten miles to the south. On the clearest sunny days, he could see southeast to the power plant stacks at Michigan City and northwest to the hotel on the beach at Zion near the Wisconsin line; a sixty mile panorama. All views disappeared dramatically on the occasional day of heavy rain and fog, when he couldn’t see anything at all but wet, gray, gloom.

When summer came, he planned to buy a Weber grill for his terrace and have the kids and granddaughters over. One of the few big items he took from the house was his flat panel screen for the den, to watch sports and movies. And now there was this falcon.

It lifted his spirits every time he got a glimpse of the bird. Visits to perch on his railing were rare. Sightings in the air weren’t all that frequent, either. He might see it one day and again the next, then not for a couple of weeks. One windy day when the flag on the library pointed straight out toward the lake, he watched the falcon soar back and forth, rising into the wind and plunging on the downwind leg, for half an hour. Alone in the air, it didn’t appear to be hunting; just flying for exercise, apparently. Or fun. Years ago, Lowell had toyed with taking up hang gliding, but it turned out to be impractical in the prairie flatland. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, he said aloud as the bird banked at the bottom of its course, soaring up out of its dive.

One day, Robbie and the girls came over with hopes of seeing and photographing the falcon, which showed up as though summoned, soaring back and forth. It moves too fast to film, Robbie said. Lowell remembered Catherine and the kids complaining about his videotaping all their events. He had two boxes of cassettes in the basement of the house, in a format Robbie told him was no longer playable on the current equipment.

What’s his name, Grampa? Alison, the six-year-old, asked.

Peregrine. It means traveler.

Is Traveler a he?

I don’t think so, he said. I think he’s a she.

How can they tell, she wanted to know.

He explained that the males were smaller and striped with gray and white. Never much of a naturalist before, he’d become an expert. When the female sailed toward the roof above his window, Robbie agreed that her wingspan was close to four feet. His granddaughter asked, Where’s the Daddy falcon?

I haven’t seen one. Maybe she’s a young lady falcon, not married yet.

Like me, Alison said.


Another day, it flew past the window with a small animal in its talons—a rodent?—it went by too fast to be sure. The victim’s little legs fluttered in the air stream. He’d read that falcons had been clocked at more than a hundred miles per hour cruising, and over two hundred in a dive. They kill by striking a hard blow in flight, so unless this falcon had unusual skills, that lunch in its grip couldn’t be a rodent.

Finally he witnessed a kill. Stooping, they called it. He had just seen the bird fly past the corner window, its barred belly and underwings sunlit as it banked upward. He watched it climb until he lost it in the sun—as did the prey, a pigeon that never knew what hit it when the falcon plummeted, wings curled, knocking it senseless with one fisted talon, right in front of Lowell. He whooped aloud, Who-oa!—not from care for the pigeon as it dropped lifelessly out of the air, but in admiration for the accuracy of the blow. The falcon circled down to catch the falling bird in its talons and flew by the window again on its way to its rooftop refectory. Just before it disappeared, he thought he saw it dispatch the stunned victim with a bite to the back of its neck. His heart raced as though he himself had won a fight to the death.

He hadn’t seen his daughter since Christmas. In May, in an email, Sarah said It must be hard for you, living alone. She lived in Tucson with her boyfriend, an athletic young man working on a Master’s degree in a subject that straddled the line between engineering and mathematics. He didn’t seem like the sharpest yucca in the desert, more like one who might make a career out of graduate school. Still, Lowell was in no position to evaluate anybody’s choices.

I’m not alone, he wrote back to Sarah—I have a falcon.

The big change in his life wasn’t so much his marital separation itself; it was how much time weighed on him. For thirty-five years, since he’d left graduate school with an M.A. and came to work for the old man, he had employees and authors and distributors to deal with every day. There were always people to talk to, some who owed him money and some he owed money to. And there was never enough time. Now his life was suddenly reduced to reading magazines and watching movies. He would see something on one of the cable channels—some old classic he’d forgotten, like Marty—and then he’d rent a whole string of Ernest Borgnine movies, making it a project, more than mere channel surfing. But he had consequential projects, as well, like managing his portfolio, which was consequential because he knew he’d be lucky to wind up with half of it. And he was looking, though half heartedly, through lists of businesses or commercial properties for sale. His other project was to get into shape. He was thirty pounds over what he weighed ten years ago, when his handicap was eight strokes better. He would have preferred to lose the years, to be starting this new life at fifty rather than sixty, but he tried to stay off that line of thinking. At the Evanston Health Club, Mary Chao, who used to play violin in the high school orchestra with his daughter, showed him how to use the elliptical trainer. Running without impact, Mr. Collins, less wear and tear on your legs, was her tactful allusion to his seniority (which at least got him the discounted membership).

That was his routine: four times a week at the health club, a movie a day, restaurant meals, visiting or eating out with his son’s family once a week or so, a Sunday night call to his daughter. The rest of his time passed haphazardly. He became adept with Google. He uninstalled the solitaire and minesweeper games from his computer because they were so addictive, then for a few weeks he got heavily into online chess, a game he hadn’t played since his children were in elementary school. He phoned his granddaughter and asked whether she would like to learn chess. No thank you, Grampa, she said politely, which made him laugh. He started reading novels—Grisham and Turow, mostly—instead of the non-fiction he’d preferred in the past. He decided not to buy a sailboat until after the divorce was settled.

Separately tuned to compensate for the different hearing loss in each ear, his hearing aids clashed with each other, like having two people say the same words in different voices on each side of you. Hearing a word like bastard for bachelor was a minor, sometimes amusing inconvenience, which the doctor said would diminish as he got used to the hearing aids. But it had continued too long by now. Robbie was right, he did need new ones. These were an innovation brilliant in theory but not in practice, like many things he could name: water beds; e-books; the United Nations.

In June he had lunch with his friend Joel at their usual Italian place. They had met long ago through a publishing venture, then played in a golf foursome for years, until Joel’s wife got him to join a more chi-chi club five towns away. I must tell you, Joel said, last time we saw you and Cathy, Bonnie and I thought your marriage seemed sneaky.


I didn’t say sneaky, Joel laughed, attracting glances from the next table. I said shaky. Your marriage seemed shaky. You didn’t look happy. He added that he and Bonnie found Catherine cold. This piece of news made Lowell want to protect her. He changed the subject. By way of telling Joel about the vista from his apartment, he described the falcon: the speed of her soaring, her deadly accuracy when she stooped, diving out of the sun.

I’ve never lived alone, Joel said.

Nor had I, Lowell said, but it’s got advantages, let me tell you.

Last month, Joel said, Bonnie took Jules east for a week to visit colleges. I came home Friday night and didn’t need the mouse until Monday morning.

Why was it noteworthy that Joel hadn’t used the computer for a couple of days? The point was obscure enough so that Lowell asked, Didn’t need the mouse for what?

Mouse?—I said I didn’t leave the house—just read, watched late movies, slept—didn’t even make a phone call. It was good being by myself. A vacation, didn’t have to accommodate to anyone.

Exactly, Lowell said. That’s the up side.

I don’t think I’d like it as a steady thing, his friend said.

Walking the few blocks back to his building, Lowell thought about Joel and his wife having seen his marriage as shaky. And Catherine as cold. Was she cold? Heartless? Had she always been? How had he failed to see her that way until she dumped him in the recycle bin?

In the apartment he picked up the Scott Turow novel he’d been reading last night, but he couldn’t keep his mind on it. If she wanted a lover and a relationship, what better one could she find than the one she had? What about him could have made her vomit? He hadn’t mentioned to Joel that Catherine had implied she was seeing some guy. It might not even be true. He thought about calling her, emailing, writing her a letter. To say what? He could propose they see a counselor, something neither of them had suggested. Had he failed to see her impulsive decision as a cry for help? Her firm conviction and selfishness about it were out of character, yet he had resigned in stunned submission. True, she hadn’t expressed the slightest ambivalence, but might that be a way of convincing herself, denying even a normal amount of self-doubt?

Such questions revolved through his mind often in the weeks that followed, even as he encouraged his attorney and, through him, Catherine and her attorney to close the deal. On balance, he was inclined to get it all over with. The idea of counseling was hardly more attractive than a protracted legal battle: a costly, painful dragging out of the inevitable. But in the early dawn hours, trying to sleep and not to think, he tossed back and forth between arguments he could have made to Catherine and recriminations to himself for having made her sick of him. Maybe they’d both lost their feelings for each other after Sarah graduated. His last real affair was years ago, except for one fling with a funny, flirtatious woman he met on an airplane; she broke it off after two meetings. He’d stopped having sex with his wife then. Catherine never asked him why, and he was relieved that she didn’t. It felt false; she didn’t seem any more interested than he, and he wasn’t impelled to it from any internal libido. Then, to his surprise, she’d wanted out: Let’s just acknowledge that we’re not in love, we fulfilled our contract to raise and launch children, we’d both be happier being alone now—or free to find other people.

That makes me sad, he told her. But he couldn’t argue with her logic. What he couldn’t understand was why it didn’t make her equally sad.

Joel called a few days later to say he and Bonnie wanted to take him to their Barrington club for dinner. Lowell’s instinct was to make some excuse and decline. He barely knew Joel’s wife, and he’d just had lunch with Joel. But his calendar was blank, so why not? Bonnie turned out to be more fun than he’d remembered, an energetic redhead who started in right away about who they could fix him up with. She didn’t say anything about having thought Catherine cold. She said, Joel tells me you’re our third lover. When Lowell looked puzzled, she added, You’ve got a pet falcon?

A bird lover. Right. At least, a lover of one bird, he confessed, and went on about the falcon in more detail than necessary. He promised to have them over some time for brunch, because he more often saw the bird in the mornings. But as he drove home he realized she wasn’t there every day, so if he did invite them for brunch, odds were they wouldn’t see her. Anyway, he was not at the stage of entertaining yet. Then he fantasized an affair with Bonnie, which she would have had to initiate. The phone call from her didn’t come. He neither expected nor really wanted it.

Summer had always been his happiest season. Now his bird’s-eye view of the wooded campus, parks, and the elms and oaks shading all the houses made the change even more dramatic. At the end of June, when the lake warmed up enough for swimming, he began walking down to the beach in the mornings while it was still empty, save for an occasional couple embracing at the water’s edge, or an early bird who brought out a folding deck chair and a book. In the middle of July he found a woman there in a broad-brimmed straw hat and one-piece yellow swim suit. When he plunged in, she was standing knee deep in the water, her arms crossed. She looked to be in her forties. By the time he returned to shore, invigorated and pleased with himself, she was reading in her chair. She looked up and smiled as he walked past with his towel. He said good morning. If she’d asked about his swim or made the slightest remark about the weather or the morning light—anything—he might have started a conversation with her. Perhaps she had the same thought. It occurred to him that when he was living with Catherine, he’d have said something to the attractive woman. What made him less inclined to do so now?

Traveler was on the terrace when he got home. Lowell said, Still alone in the world, my friend?

Look who’s talking, the bird said.

I’m single for good, he said. Not in the market. I’ve been there, done that. As far as I can see, couples spend their lives deceiving, disappointing or despairing of one a... what did you say?

I didn’t say a thing, the falcon said, and took off.

Although her flights were magnificent, he waited weeks before the next time she would perch within speaking distance, on his terrace railing. Finally, one morning in August, reading the Tribune, he sensed the falcon’s presence, turned, and there she was. He sat still, and the bird sat—should one say, stood?—still for several minutes. Occasionally she would turn her head but seemed to keep looking in his direction, through him, without making eye contact the way a dog does. At last she spoke: How long do you expect to keep this up? Without elaborating or waiting for a reply, she spread her wings and dove.

The falcon was the one whose family situation was perilous. Seeing her float high in the air between his building and the lake shore, Lowell worried about her lack of a mate. He himself had had a wife, thank you. And he had progeny. Wasn’t that the real purpose in life, such as it is? How would Traveler pass on her genes? The bird looked lonely.

Lowell almost welcomed the possibility that Catherine was dating someone. It would mean she was all right. He didn’t hate her, and oddly felt some residual responsibility for her happiness. He did wonder, though, how long she’d been seeing the guy, and who he was. Then Sarah, home at the end of August for a week, made reference to a Tom. She clearly made a point of saying it, implying she’d already adjusted to Tom’s presence in her family. He didn’t know any Toms, so he supposed it was a recent thing. In former times another man in the picture could have made a difference to his case, but the lawyer said it was irrelevant now. Still, Lowell said, If she’s really enamored of the guy and is eager to marry him, it might put us in a better negotiating position.

I wouldn’t count on that, the lawyer said.

His daughter declined to sleep over during the visit, but she did drop in a few times, once with three friends to show them the aerial view of their town and lake. He had known two of them since they were eight-year-old soccer players. The mother of one had been their coach then, and Evie already looked exactly like her (an observation this twenty-something medical student didn’t take as the compliment he intended). Sarah asked him how often Traveler flew by—explaining to her friends, My little niece named it. They laughed at the idea of the bird’s having a name. Unfortunately, the visitors never saw her. Shortly after they left, the bird appeared, standing on the terrace rail.

His son and granddaughters had only seen the falcon the one time, and Cara, his daughter-in-law, never had. When they stopped by one Saturday, naturally the girls wanted their mother to see it, but as he noted, Her name isn’t Traveler for nothing.

Lowell wouldn’t have said he missed the bird when she was away, but he had developed a habit of scanning the sky so he’d catch sight of her whenever she returned. He began to see Traveler as the ideal low maintenance pet, a presence in his life yet still wild and free. Traveler and he were a pair of unattached birds, perched high above the town, watching and waiting. One day in September, he saw her on the roof edge above the terrace, when he happened to be standing a few feet inside the closed glass door. The falcon wasn’t looking straight at him, but her great black eye seemed to take in the whole apartment. He moved slowly toward the door. When he reached for the handle, the bird turned her head toward him but remained there, wings folded. He slid the door open in a slow, steady motion, careful not to make jerky movements or raise his arms. He expected the peregrine to take off as soon as he stepped outside. But Traveler allowed him to walk out to the middle of the terrace—only a few yards below her perch—before raising her wings a bit as though preparing to fly. Instead of taking off, she hopped down to the railing—and turned her back, though keeping one eye toward Lowell. The bird knew she had nothing to fear. The man knew she knew. Neither of them had said a word.

What happened then was so extraordinary Lowell knew as it was happening that he wouldn’t be able to tell it without making people think he was delusional. The bird dove into the sky and he followed. He climbed over the railing and dove, arms spread, steering through the air by shifts of his weight and the angle of his body. The bird and he flew together. They soared out over the low buildings across the street and over the church in the next block, once around its steeple, then over the homes and the park with its lagoon and fountain. It was a warm day under a high overcast, the trees and beach and the lake all suffused with shadowless light. Families and couples were walking in the park, others threw frisbees on the lawn, and though the beach had closed for the season, children splashed in the shallow cold water. No one looked up or appeared to notice a falcon taking its human companion for an aerial tour of the town.

It didn’t feel like moving through air; the air seemed to go through him. He saw rather than felt wind passing through his feathers, as though he’d become weightless. Traveler called to him in her own language as they flew, and Lowell understood, though he wouldn’t recall later what the bird had said. After they soared out over the water, made a few circles and turned back to the beach, he was back on his terrace again, alone. The whole journey had taken, at most, ten minutes. The bird flew on about her business.

Should he call Robbie? Sarah? A friend? No. Much less, Catherine. For an hour afterward he lay on one of the two vinyl lounge chairs with which he had furnished the terrace. He almost didn’t believe it himself, yet he had circled the church steeple and flown over the fountain in the lagoon—he retained a sharp bird’s-eye view of the fountain, which couldn’t be seen from his apartment windows because of the tall elms in the park. The children on the beach had looked, from directly above, like beetles in a sandbox. The expression out of body experience came to mind. He’d been there, traveling through the sky, but perhaps his corporeal body hadn’t. On the other hand, a kind of deep fatigue came over him, as though his body had been through an uncommon exertion, and when he went inside he fell asleep on the couch, not waking until the evening, when again he had to ask himself if it had been a dream. No, he said aloud, I really was flying.

Traveler’s appearance was always a surprise and a little thrilling—though the falcon took little notice of Lowell. She didn’t seem to feel that their flight together had forged a special bond. Only occasionally did the bird respond to his comments when she rested on the roof edge or the railing.

No dates? Lowell asked.

Just waiting for the right man to come along.

He didn’t expect his own flight to be repeated. It was a once in a lifetime event. The falcon had given him no reason to imagine that he could fly solo. A few weeks later, after she put on a soaring display on the north side of his building, the bird shot up over the roof and appeared on the other side, alighting on her perch on the railing. Lowell said Still alone, old girl? The peregrine turned to look at him through the closed terrace door. Lowell said, You’re better off, you know. Marriage isn’t all sweetness and light.

What relationship is? Traveler challenged him. It beats the alternative, doesn’t it? Did the falcon know this was one of the days when Lowell hadn’t had contact with a soul? He usually went out for groceries, if nothing else, but that day he hadn’t left the apartment, not even down for the mail, and neither made nor received a phone call all day. He realized that most of his acquaintances had seen him as their boss, or publisher, or as Catherine’s husband, and acted as if that Lowell Collins had died or moved away. Whoever he had been to them, he had ceased to be.

He didn’t see the falcon for three weeks. The next time she appeared in the sky, early one gray morning under threatening clouds, there were two. The new one was male, by its resplendent brown wing feathers and the gray and white bands running out to the end of its long, thin tail. As they flew around one another, Lowell’s spirit soared. Another week passed before they appeared again, a few minutes apart. The future Daddy falcon—he called his granddaughter to tell her the news—hadn’t yet lured Traveler away, but her soul mate had found her, and was courting, and it was only a matter of days.

As he waited with Catherine in her lawyer’s anteroom for one of their ongoing settlement discussions, she broke the silence: I hear you’ve become a bird watcher.

Become? I’ve always liked birds, he said. When she harrumphed, he added defensively, Who’s Tom? She gazed at him blankly and made no reply.

He had never noticed how many people were alone in the world. He began to see people his age or older, in the supermarket, the library, on the elevator in his building—always alone. Of what did their life consist? Thank God he had his kids, grandchildren, enough money, and he was healthy. Elderly folks on small fixed incomes, or no incomes, depressed him. Some appeared to have no families at all. There was a tiny old woman in the neighborhood who bent ninety degrees at her shoulder blades, so her face was parallel to the pavement and she could barely raise it enough to see forward over the shopping cart she used as a walker. If she’d had a family, surely someone would have done her shopping for her. Yet, wouldn’t that be just as depressing? Robbie and Cara, or Sarah, looking in on him out of obligation. Lowell’s father had been a widower the last six years of his life. Fortunately, he had passed away without becoming as frail and dependent as some. Even so, the old man’s memory went to hell and their relationship consisted of nothing but filling his medicine dispenser and answering the same questions. It was a burden for both of them, Lowell’s mother being gone.

A man in his seventies sat in front of Whole Foods every day, selling the paper StreetWise. In late October, the first cold day, with a chilling wind along the front of the building and dead leaves blowing through the air, the man wore woolen gloves with open finger tips. Winter had already come for him, and Lowell, who had walked past him a hundred times since moving in next door, bought the paper for the first time, because he now saw the old man as something worse than homeless: alone.

He thought of himself as a gregarious person, not shy about striking up conversations with strangers. Only he didn’t see anyone whose acquaintance he wanted to make among the apparently unattached people his age, least of all the women. It wasn’t a matter of knowing what to say. In fact, once or twice he was in a situation that could have led somewhere. A woman in the video store was reading the blurb on the Short Cuts box. He said, That’s one of my favorite movies.

I saw it when it came out, she said. I loved it, but I haven’t seen it in … I can’t believe it was eleven years ago.

Are you an Altman fan? he asked.

Oh, yes. And there it ended. If this had been a scene in a movie or a play, the two strangers would watch Short Cuts together and a love affair would ensue (or a grisly stabbing). In life, even if nothing ensued, at least he might wind up watching a video with another person rather than alone. What stopped him? Afraid she’d turn him down? No, that wasn’t it; nothing lost if she did. He just didn’t know if he wanted the relationship to go beyond that pleasant exchange. Where could it go but downhill?

Waking up in the mornings, he liked having the bedroom, the whole apartment to himself. If he woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep again, he’d turn on the light and read without anyone grumbling at him to turn it off. He didn’t have to make plans hours in advance about where he’d be going for dinner or whether he’d want to go out at all. Having spent his life accommodating others and supporting them, now he could please himself. It was a mystery to him why most people put up with—no, they positively seek—all the extra trouble and aggravation of sharing their lives with someone from, as we say, another planet. Lately, he had to strain to convince himself of all that, and when he did, it was a fleeting conviction. Traveler, with all the freedom in the world, had used it to find a mate.

Joel invited him out to his club with the two guys they used to golf with, Bud Nash and Al Friedman. Bud said if he could afford to retire like Lowell, he’d play three times a week. You’ve got the damn life, all right—no more business hassles.

And he’s a bachelor, Joel added. They pretended to envy this. Friedman made a gesture with his fly zipper and the others laughed. Although they’d been friends for years, none of them knew him at all.

Shut up and play the shot, he joked.

That night, or before dawn the next morning, he had a nightmare. He was in the stage of sleep where he was conscious of lying in bed under his comforter, and of being just before waking but still mostly asleep. He reached out to hold onto Catherine’s arm. Something made him realize that it wasn’t his wife: Another woman had been substituted for her in the bed, perhaps a revenant or shape shifting monster of some kind. Whatever it was, in terror he clutched the alien forearm and wrist as though clinging to Catherine, though what terrified him was the fact it wasn’t her, was possibly no human arm at all. He started to cry, whimpering at first—both dreaming this and, he realized afterward, whimpering aloud—and got hold of the other arm, pinning both of the creature’s wrists tightly together with no sense of where its other limbs and head were but hoping desperately that it was, after all, Catherine. He cried to her to wake him from the nightmare, but she wouldn’t identify herself and he couldn’t make his cries loud enough or coherent enough to wake her. Finally his noises (which he heard now as pathetic grunts rather than the forceful calls he dreamt he was making) woke him, sweaty and trembling, and he lay there for several minutes amazed at how frightened he had been, before he crawled out from beneath his quilted comforter and switched on the light, relieved to be physically safe, yet still feeling that his plaintive pleas for help had been well founded, and unanswered.

Although the hubby never joined her there, Traveler did appear on the terrace railing one more time, looking neither more nor less satisfied with herself. Lowell happened to be standing in the open doorway. She no longer seemed to acknowledge his existence in the same way; he sensed she would fly off, as a wild bird would, if he moved toward her.

How’s married life? Lowell asked.

Still a fool, I see, the bird said.

Say again? He hadn’t done anything about the damned high-tech hearing aids.


I don’t under … what are you saying, I should go back to …?

God no, the bird said. Travel! Get out, get around. Circulate.

I’m thinking about it. I may do that.

Lowell Collins realized he had shut his mind to the falcon’s clear message. For all of these months he had resisted acknowledging that a fourteen inch tall, illiterate creature could possibly represent a role model for a Princeton educated book publisher with a Master’s degree in European history, grown children and a couple of million in post-divorce net worth. The bird was a magnificent animal, and the fact that the two of them communicated after a fashion was remarkable. Yet he had seen her as merely a creature of raw instinct. He himself was a man, a prudent man embodying the achievements of civilization and the complex, subtle dilemmas of mental life. Human relationships were far beyond anything a bird, even a peregrine falcon, could conceive.

At last he saw what nonsense that was. Traveler had revealed the only path for a man in Lowell’s situation. The falcon had actually led him on a soaring flight. How much clearer a sign could he ask for?

It is the first Sunday in November. It has taken him eight months to absorb the import of what the bird was trying to teach him. Now it is Robbie’s younger daughter’s birthday. Lowell is on time, having double checked the invitation with Cara who said, hesitatingly, Catherine wanted me to let you know she won’t be bringing Tom? He is wondering what that message is meant to convey. Why would he care if this Tom came to Chrissie’s party? Lowell is content. Neither Tom nor Catherine figures in his future. His eyes have been opened.

The high pitched hysteria of nine little girls aged four to six would be bad enough. Who had the idea of hiring Kiddy Karaoke to pump up the volume? To a metallic tape that sounds more urban disco than bucolic country, the girls scream out verses of Old McDonald’s Farm, drowning one another’s oinks and baas with squeals of laughter at the hired kid emcee mugging and aping farm animals, in (unaccountably) a karate jacket and black tights. Cara and Robbie exchange a look of What were we thinking? but Catherine laughs with the children and even, crazily, tries to shout something affable to Lowell across the pandemonium. He nods as if agreeing with whatever she said, puts down his plastic cup and removes both hearing aids.

When did he last see her smile like that, or in any way? Not that he misreads her gesture. Tom or no Tom, she has no remorse about pulling the plug on their marriage. Lowell is no closer to understanding this, no closer to imagining what could have happened to his wife, than he was a year ago. Nor does he understand how she can be content. All he has learned, with excruciating clarity, is what life does and does not have in store for him.

After they stand around eating Chrissie’s birthday cake and bundling children out the door with their treat bags, Catherine shows no sign of leaving, so he kisses his grandchildren and daughter-in-law and departs. He stops in Peet’s for a coffee to go. A woman in her sixties sits at one of the tables nibbling a piece of zucchini bread. He doesn’t like the orangey red color she dyed her hair, and it’s too short for a mature woman. Her hairdresser must be some youngster with no taste. Also, her veins show through her skin. She is wearing too much lipstick, not enough makeup under the eyes. But she does have taste in clothes, expensive looking and layered. He feels sorry for her. He has sat at that same table more than once, and sometimes he, too, had a slice of Peet’s zucchini bread or a muffin with his coffee. She has Bob Woodward’s book about the Bush administration open in her lap. She isn’t reading. She is looking out, not at the street, at some distant place in her thoughts. Or at least she wants to appear so.

This is the dilemma. Supposing his life to be incomplete and hers to be even more so, what’s the chance of two incompletenesses complementing one another to make one whole? Isn’t it more likely, doesn’t it in fact nearly always happen that the voids clash and echo off one another like his mismated hearing aids, each intensifying the other’s confusion and unhappiness—doubly so, first because of the loneliness and then all the more because of hopes raised and disappointed?

In the foyer of his apartment, he hangs his winter coat in the closet and puts his Russian-style fur hat on the shelf. Coatless and hatless, he slides the terrace door open and walks out briskly. Ten miles to the south, Chicago’s skyscrapers twinkle under the starry sky. He climbs over the railing where his friend alighted so many times and turns to face the night, holding the rail with both hands behind him.

He spreads his arms and soars into the air.

© 2007, Ken Kaye

No comments: