Patty has accepted an invitation to join Daniel and his friends for a Sunday afternoon junket to his family's farm outside Fargo. It´s mid-May and the apple blossoms are ushering in ever more balmy weather. In spite of impending exams scheduled for the following week, Patty and her crowd have chosen to spend their time picnicking.
Natasha made a split second decision to join the other students then carefully stuffed her backpack with whatever she thought she might need for an afternoon in the country: a pink fleece hoodie with the Northern College logo on the chest, a pair of Lolita sunglasses, a six-pack of almond Granola bars, and a dog-eared copy of Tolstoy´s War and Peace that she´d once picked up in a used book sale and has hauled around with her for the past four years without logging any real mileage in the story. Nonetheless the heavy tome gives pause to people who might otherwise mistake Natasha for an airhead. Like hiding behind her sunglasses, the book was a kind of talisman against her own sense of insecurity rather than anything that might have contributed to a girl´s education or broadened her frame of reference. After all, her chosen course of study was agronomy, not Napoleon. You know? Seeds and sods?
Stuffing all six of themselves into Daniel´s vintage Volkswagen Beetle was entertaining at first but after a grueling two hour drive and their having to push the semi-ambulant wreck nearly a mile to a gas station because the car lacked a fuel gauge and Daniel couldn´t remember when it was he´d last filled the tank, Natasha was experiencing second and third thoughts about having consented to go at all. She could have better spent the day studying inside the air conditioned dormitory without distraction from Patty and her gang of rowdies, and especially Daniel with whom Patty had recently taken up a relationship in the face of Natasha´s objections. As it was, she expected to be flat out exhausted when exam time came on Monday morning.
Things had not been going well with Natasha and Patty lately, but the end of the school year and graduation were rapidly approaching and they´d talked casually of renting an apartment in Fargo or perhaps joining the Peace Corps together. This gave Natasha some hope and reassurance that their closeness might endure once they´d left Northern College. It implied a sense of trust that Natasha needed in the relationship and relied on as her boat anchor. She´d confided in Patty like a sister, something that only-child Natasha felt she desperately lacked.
Patricia Chauncey was, in a word, everything that Natasha Pennyfeather was not. She came from a big Irish-American family, the youngest of seven unruly children growing up carefree somewhere out on the Dakota prairie. Natasha, on the other hand, without siblings and having New Yorker, urbanite parents, suave sophisticates too involved in their professions to offer her the time of day, never mind a share in their hearts, hadn´t learned what it was like to bond emotionally with another human being before Northern College threw the two roommates together.
Whereas where Natasha was reserved to the point of timidity, Patty was outgoing and brash. Patty jumped in with both feet, eyes wide shut, while Natasha trembled on the brink and more often than not retreated back to the relative safety of the familiar. Patty lived her life large, savoring the rich banquet before her while Natasha only sampled the sauce. Natasha had come to idolize Patty and take her pleasures by intimate association..
Daniel was a year behind them in his course of study and, unless Patty decided to change their plan in order to follow him as he more than once suggested she should, Natasha´s jealousies would soon be a thing of the past. Forgive and forget. For now, she would be patient and try to manage her insecurities. For Natasha, the stakes seemed uncomfortably high. It was her relationship with Patty that provided whatever vestige of emotional security she currently enjoyed. During the final run-up to exams, the terrifying thought of losing what Natasha had recently come to think of as love, or at least the only evidence of this fragile emotion she´d so far experienced, was never far from her consciousness.
When the arthritic old Beetle finally huffed and puffed and clawed its way into the farm lot, Natasha´s mood shifted to something more consistent with the idyllic qualities of the setting. A newly painted white picket fence encircled a large flower garden, at the distant end of which stood a two-story, white clapboard house with a veranda covered in gingerbread that flanked the entire front of the little home around its main entrance. On the veranda was a rope swing where Daniel´s dad might have once romanced his mom, two young hayseeds fallen in love while the outside world tottered on the brink of world war. At these times, Natasha was prone to flights of imagination. The sight of this little house on the prairie brought a rare and welcome smile to her face.
Daniel´s mother had anticipated their arrival with a picnic lunch packed inside a wicker trunk with quaint leather handles on the sides and a frayed leather strap with a brass buckle that secured the lid, something left over from a Quaker upbringing perhaps. The kids carried the basket down to a grassy knoll above the farm pond where they spread out a worn woolen blanket over the damp ground then flopped themselves down. Someone produced a package of Wheat Straw and made a sloppily rolled joint after first checking that Daniel´s parents were well out of sight.
When the stubby cigarette came around, Natasha sucked in her breath and let the sweet and sour aroma of the Dakota-grown weed drift through her nasal passages, causing her to sneeze, followed by an embarrassing trickle of mucous descending from her nostril to spoil what was left of the joint. It was the pollen in the meadow, she said. She toked up all the time, right? In fact, she was trying to inhale as little of the smoke as possible. Marijuana made Natasha feel faint and she usually came off the buzz with a splitting headache. She reached into the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie and felt around for her inhaler.
Patty was lying diagonally across the blanket with her head resting on Daniel´s bare chest, counting the puffy white cumulous overhead as if it were a meandering flock of weightless sheep. Natasha feared that Patty, in her reveries, might even now be dreaming herself mistress of the charming little farmhouse with the gingerbread covered veranda, a thought she attributed to being stoned and nothing whatever to do with reality. The other three had drifted off to who-knew-where, searching out new continents perhaps or decoding the meaning of life. Soon they´d return with the Munchies to demolish the contents of the wicker chest. The mid-afternoon sun was still high in the sky over North Dakota.
Natasha the loner decided to do some skinny-dipping and rolled up the cuffs of her Farmer Brown overalls as far as her knees then kicked off her running shoes and tossed away her socks. In this somewhat reduced state, she tiptoed her way down the slope toward the farm pond just out of sight of their encampment. On her way, she needed to pass through a swatch of poplar where the ground cover pinched her feet and caused her to step gingerly, as if walking on eggs, not wanting to break any.
When she was about to clear the poplar grove, she heard a cheep-cheep-cheeping sound coming from somewhere in the ground cover and discovered a tiny bird lying at the base of a tall poplar tree, obviously a recently hatched chick fallen from an overhead nest. Natasha knew that unless she did something to rescue this helpless creature, the ants and ground beetles would soon make a picnic of it and, failing to have been eaten alive by ants, the owls, foxes and raccoons would devour it soon after nightfall. She reached down to pick up the little bird that frantically opened and closed its yellow spotted beak as if begging for food, and deposited the orphan snuggly inside the bodice under her hoodie, warmly nested in the cleft between Natasha´s own breasts. The bird stopped cheeping, turned its tiny head to one side and buried its short beak in its downy back feathers, asleep.
Daniel´s father, Rollie, topped up the Beetle´s gas tank from the battered steel drum of tax-exempt farm gas he kept for the tractor on a rack behind the rust-red barn and stuffed a few dollar bills into his son´s hand for the journey back to campus. The rapidly darkening shadows suggested that they would arrive near midnight, barring any mechanical failure or other mishap along the way.
Meanwhile, Natasha collected some grass and straw and created a temporary home for her new pet, whom she decided to call Archimedes, inside a small cardboard carton that Daniel´s mom provided and covered the opening with a piece of cheesecloth secured with a large rubber band.
“If it was up to me,” Rollie said, never removing the broad Dakotan smile from his lips, “I´d put that accursed thing out of its misery right here and now. Them starlings are a plague around here. Nothin´ but a damn nuisance. Foreigners. Invasive species. Come from over Europe way, I been told. They pushed out all the local blue birds and cardinals and took over the place. A lot like what´s wrong with the rest of this damned country, if you ask me. Of course, you didn´t ask me, so I´m not gonna tell ya.”`
Daniel´s mother, whose name is Betty, has boiled up a chicken´s egg and crushed the yolk and white into a paste to which she´s added a bit of honey for sweetener.
“Here you are, dear,” she said to Natasha, handing over the mixture which she´d placed inside a paper cup. “You just feed him with this here eyedropper thingamabobby and he´ll be fine. It´ll be a few weeks before he gets his full feathers then you can release him outside. Meanwhile, be sure you feed him some of this mash every hour or so. These baby birds get powerful hungry. Their mamas are constantly bringing them worms and bugs that they´ve already digested. The hardboiled egg will do just fine til the little one can take some cracked grain. Make sure the mixture is moist enough. Give him some drops of water too. Look! He´s opening his little beak now.”
“Betty Boop here has a soft spot for orphans,” Rollie added, a kind of trailer to his truncated monologue on what´s wrong with America, at the same time glancing over at his son Daniel who pretends he doesn´t hear the comment. Betty threw her husband a look that told him she keeps a shotgun behind the door.
“You kids get going now. You all got exams tomorrow. Should be studying if you don´t wanna end up strugglin’ to make ends meet on a dirt farm out here in the middle of nowhere. Wish I´d listened to that piece of advice myself.” The scowl on Betty´s face cancelled out the smile that was permanently etched into her husband´s features, the result of too many years of squinting into the sun from his perch on the tractor, rather than any expression of what was actually going on inside the man.
Days later, when Natasha returned to the dorm room she shared with Patty after her final exam session, she discovered the door ajar. The academic year had ended and her course of studies at Northern College was now finished. She was free and happily thinking of their plans for joining the Peace Corps. The thought about what to do with Archimedes intruded on this daydreaming but she´d work that out somehow. In the two days since rescuing him from certain death at the base of a poplar tree down at the farm pond, Natasha had bonded to the little bird that was by now sitting comfortably on her finger and taking his food from an eyedropper every hour or so.
Suddenly, Natasha felt herself a mother and loving it. When she´d closed her eyes in the wee hours of Monday morning after returning from the picnic, Archimedes had continued to chirp happily, even after burying his tiny beak in his feathers, contentedly singing himself to sleep. Next day he was even perkier, balancing on her finger and cheeping in Natasha´s direction, as if speaking to her and her alone. Natasha´s heart had soared. Suddenly she had someone or something that truly needed and wanted her. It was the closest to happiness that Natasha could remember herself having come.
Now the room looked as if it were ransacked by burglars except that there wasn´t anything the two students possessed that might be of interest to anybody, never mind worth stealing. The girls had pushed the twin cots assigned to them together to make a larger matrimonial-style bed that they shared. Pillows, bed sheets and blankets littered the floor as if someone had torn the place apart in a fit of frenzy then not put it back together. Natasha stuck her head inside the bathroom door, expecting to find Patty preparing herself for a last-minute dash to class. Instead, she noticed a used condom floating in the toilet bowl.
Her heart began to pound when she saw the paper box that Daniel´s mom had prepared for her little orphan bird lying on its side on the floor, the cheesecloth cover missing and without any sign of Archimedes inside or outside in the room. Where was he? She´d been faithfully feeding him almost hourly as Daniel´s mother instructed except for the last two hours that she´d had to spend writing her final exam. That could not be avoided but she was sure the baby bird could survive a little longer without her attention.
Now the emotions of the previous day were dashed.
Natasha ran in panic from the room, not even bothering to lock the door as was her habit, down the hall toward the Student Union building, past the cafeteria and into the complex of classrooms that radiated like spider legs from the central core, searching for Patty. The more frantically she searched, the more agitated she became. Then, like a scene in a television sitcom, she was rounding a corner when Patty suddenly ran straight into her, almost knocking the two of them to the floor.
“What´ve you done with Archimedes?” Natasha screamed.
A group of curious students began to hover like jackals around ripe carrion, sensing the entertainment value to be had in watching a couple of their classmates tear into one another. A few were motioning to their friends down the hall while chanting “Cat fight, cat fight, cat fight….”
“Nothing. I didn´t do nothing with your precious Archimedes.”
“Then where is he, huh?”
“He´s in the fucking toilet, okay? Daniel flushed him. The thing was dead.”
It was as if Natasha had been impacted by a freight train, so hard that all reason was immediately knocked out of her. Or maybe it was that she´d been turned to a block of ice. Instead of tears, there was only ice, smoking-cold dry ice.
“And what was Daniel doing in OUR room? I thought we discussed that. You´re a fucking faithless little whore, Patty. I wish I´d never met you! “
“Look, Natasha,” Patty replied in a much-too-suddenly-calm voice, as if she´d been rehearsing this scene and would get it over with now and move on, “Two lesbian lovers don´t make a family, okay? I´m thinking about what I want for myself and it looks a lot like where we went last Sunday. I don´t wanna get old and grumpy living a sad parody of life, like a couple of wrinkly old witches, one pretending to be him, the other a dried up version of her. I want the little white house with the gingerbread and the porch swing and the snotty nosed kids and you can´t give that to me, Natasha, as much as I wish you could. Only Daniel can give me that. Anyway, we already decided.”
“We? Who’s this ‘we’? Huh? I thought ‘we’ decided on the Peace Corps. Anyway, your big fancy Hollywood wedding didn´t have to include murdering a defenseless little bird. You don´t need to wound me to get rid of me, Patty. Anyway, Archimedes meant more to me than you ever will. So, go ahead and enjoy that dick-headed hayseed husband of yours and I hope you both die of crop failure. And please clean his shit out of my toilet. Oh, sorry. I forgot. It´s your toilet now ‘cause I´m leaving and you´re never going to see me again. Ever!”
Natasha turned her face away before the ice melted and the tears came streaming, then hiked straight down the wing in the direction of her former dormitory room. She´d stuff her few items of clothing and copy of War and Peace into her rucksack and go, to where she had no idea. For the first time, she began to think that maybe agronomy at some hick college wasn´t her thing and that her parents had been right after all. She was a city girl. She didn´t like gingerbread, not even the cookie kind. Anyway, the gingerbread man was a fool, wasn´t he? In the end, he got himself eaten by the fox.
Natasha suspected that this time she really was losing her mind. The analysts and counselors that her parents had employed for her throughout a lonely and cheerless childhood had all been right.
She was so angry that she forgot all about her inhaler.
Excerpted from the novel VIRGIN QUARTET. Download sample chapters at https://www.francescorizzuto.com/portfolio-1