FOR MONTHS THE BLONDE HAD NO NAMEthat I knew of. There was no pinning a face on her for long. She might have been putting on weight, it occurred to me. Pete never mentioned her.
Pete was a regular guy: inch or two of graying hair below the collar, worn jeans with shiny knees, decade-old pick-up truck sporting the bumper sticker, Raise Hell Not Taxes. He shared a small square house with an ungrateful black dog named Magic and the biggish blonde whose face rearranged itself each time I caught a glimpse of her, which was not often. What went on behind the peeling shingles of their box, I never gave much thought to, though Magic followed me on my morning walks and Pete honked the horn of his pick-up as he passed by late for work.
I was new to the neighborhood, an outsider. From what I could see, the place virtually yawned with regular guys and black dogs. Nights both man and beast became silhouettes behind drawn shades, hunched in front of TV sets with the volume on high drowning out the crickets. By midnight the houses were dark, every alarm clock set for seven a.m. I would not have blamed any of my neighbors for walking out their front door, revving the pick-up, and tearing down the first highway as fast and as far as their tire tread would take them without ever casting a backwards glance.
That Pete's blonde felt as I did, I had no reason to suspect, having never gotten near enough to her to exchange so much as a hello. Once or twice I thought I saw her drive by in a flaming red Chevy with conspicuous chrome, blasting oldies Janis Joplin, Grace Slick out the open windows. There were sequins across the bodice of her dress. Her lank blond hair blew in all directions. She must have been singing along: her hand kept time on the steering wheel and the car zig-zagged down the road as if running on gin instead of gasoline.
My instincts told me to stand clear of her, but my curiosity made me want to throw open my kitchen door and call out, What's your name? Why does your face keep changing?
Winter came and Pete greased up his snow plow, threw a six-pack on the front seat, and slowly made his way from one driveway to another, always leaving mine for last. By that time he would be, if not drunk, chatty. He talked about the things any regular guy might: his horse's ass of a boss, rising property taxes, the baked ziti at Bud's Tavern... a litany of small annoyances broken by the occasional small indulgence. Then he'd empty his last can of beer, pocket his ten dollars, and head home looking pleased with himself.
Pete's blonde didn't surface until springtime, emerging suddenly from their back door with Magic at her heels to clip daffodils from an untended flower bed on the side lawn. She was already wearing short-shorts, I couldn't help but notice. And she was unmistakably plumper than when I had last spotted her. The sun was out that day, and she paused for a moment and turned her faceup.
Not long after, Pete's pick-up chugged up the road with the red Chevy in tow, its front end a mass of dents. The next time I saw the blonde June? July? her left arm, bent at a ninety degree angle, flopped against her side in a sling. From what I could see, the rest of her was intact, though she moved ponderously with steps too small for a woman of her size. Her face was paler than I'd remembered it, not at all the face of the woman picking daffodils, or of the woman singing behind the steering wheel... How can one woman have so many faces, I would have liked to ask her, but something in her mien said, "Don't." She wasn't ready to share her secret.
At the height of summer, the entire neighborhood got out their lawn chairs and inner tubes, and spent weekends beside the lake swatting mosquitoes. Pete was often there, moving from one cluster of folks to another, reaching shamelessly into their coolers for a beer or a wedge of watermelon. Magic also made the rounds, too proud to beg for scraps. Only once did the blonde venture to the water's edge to shoo them home; it was after sunset and her face was illuminated by fireflies. She was wearing a loose white dress that reached nearly to her feet, which were bare and made me think of beaches.
By autumn the lake was deserted except for the occasional child, come to ripple its surface with a handful of pebbles. The day I caught sight of the blond there, not another soul shared the landscape. Dressed from the waist-down in sweats and a pair of generic athletic shoes, from the waist-up in what appeared to be a satin pajama top, she was running wildly with her head upturned, and calling out at the top of her lungs, "Lodestar! Lodestar!"
My first impulse was to dial 911: the woman was crazy. It was no later than noon, not a single star had yet broken through.
But when I looked at the patch of sky ahead of her, I thought I saw a small white blur, a flapping of wings. Before I could account for myself, I was running along the side of the lake toward her, slowly closing the distance between us. Magic appeared out of nowhere and easily overtook me. The three of us converged on a wooden footbridge and clamored over it in single file, our eyes fixed on the glimmer of bird with the celestial name.
"My dove," the blonde sighed in explanation as I fell into place beside her, still running though my side was full of stitches.
"Maybe with a net you might catch him," I suggested.
"Oh no, I don't want to catch him, just to follow him..." and she ran harder keeping pace with the winged creature, though she was not a young woman, nor a particularly trim one.
We ran a while longer in silence, then she turned to Magic and said, "Go home, Pete'll be lonely."
The dog looked wounded but resigned, and licked her hand before he slowed to a walk and finally reversed his course.
The bird trod air for a moment just beyond arm's reach, then resumed its flight. Beside me the blonde ran a hand across her cheeks, which were streaked with tears.
"I love Pete to death, don't misunderstand," she said suddenly. "Maybe if I had a terminal disease or something, I'd stay here with him."
"Where will you go?" I asked her.
She pointed at the dove.
We had left the grassy slopes of the lake and were running toward the center of town. She wore no brassiere, I happened to notice, and her breasts swung freely under her pajama top making it billow out. She had to have just gotten out of the shower when the dove broke loose her hair was still wet, she wore no make-up and carried no purse.
"You worry me," I had to say.
She waved the comment away. "This is a very wise dove," she assured me.
I looked at her face then: it had grown younger, taken on color. Then pictured my own, flushed it had to have been. My heart was racing and I no longer felt my legs.
"My name's Soleil," the blonde volunteered.
You were never a stranger, I almost told her.
"Pete tell you how we met?" she said casually, and went on without waiting for a response. "A bachelor party. I was the hired squeeze Soleil, The Magic Stripper, that's what I called myself. No one had a clue how I got out of my clothes. It was a top-notch act. At the end, Lodestar would fly out of my panties and poop on the groom's head."
She cooed affectionately to the bird, and kept running.
"Living in that miserable burg put fifty pounds on me," the blonde Soleil said with more than a hint of malice. "Hell on business. Who wants to watch a cow strip?"
We passed the general store, the post office, the gas station... and entered the outskirts of town with Lodestar at the forefront drawing us on. Soleil grew more radiant with each step.
As we passed the last traffic light she exalted, "The sky's getting bigger!" and she took my hand.
Instantly my heartbeat grew steady, my stride lengthened. A southerly breeze tickled the nape of my neck as we cleared the town limits and made for the horizon. The pavement ended.
Faster, we ran, faster...
In a field of wildflowers.
Soleil's feet left the ground. Still holding my hand, she tugged me gently upward until my toes began to tingle and the earth fell away.
Above us Lodestar turned a figure-eight, then dipped and doubled back to perch for a moment on my shoulder. One fetching white wing caressed my cheek.
"You'll be great in the act," he cooed in my ear, hovering there to wink, and wink again.