The first time Molly sees a peacock, an expression comes to her: “I never forget a face.” Where the phrase comes from, she isn’t sure. Maybe it’s something her grandmother says. More likely, she’s lifted it from a lipstick commercial, or a movie about a stalker. Late movies on cable are usually about stalkers.
It’s a July morning when, without warning, Molly’s father invites her to spend the day with him. She has had no time to get excited, to stay awake, sick with anticipation. She hears her bedroom blind snap up while her eyelids are still sealed together, two shut envelopes.
“Leaving in five,” her father says. He looks at his watch. “Four.”
Molly scrambles. She tears off her skin of warm sheets; finds a small leather jacket in the back of the hallway closet; fastens her helmet under her chin with the taste of toothpaste still on her tongue. The stripe of mercury on the window thermometer is skyrocketing.
Her father waits in the driveway, the sun winking off his pale egg-shaped face. “Lock the door!” he yells. Molly climbs on the back of the bike and feels the motor chugging in her belly. Most mornings, her father whirls protein powder and bananas together in the blender. He checks his stocks, his finger descending a column of newsprint, descending and pausing, descending and pausing, like an elevator stopping at floors as it glides through an office building. He is poised for the future, ready with indexes and profit margins, monitoring the climate and his own heart rate, fortified with liquid astronaut food. He is prepared to go lightning fast, for speed and change. Molly barnacles herself to his back.
They breathe wind and gasoline. Molly stares deep into the trees reflected in the back of her father’s helmet. When she leans back, she sees her own reflection, her wonky oversized helmeted head, the road being pulled backwards, rewinding into a road they have already passed. There are cows and gold bales of hay, antique shops and roadkill, campers and cop cars. It’s tiring, the holding on, and she is glad for the break when they stop.
A piece of Bristol board stapled to a telephone pole reads CORN BOIL 75 CENTS/ EAR. Molly dislikes corn on the cob; it gets stuck in her braces. But she likes the wooden silhouette painted with cartoon vegetables. Ovals are cut out where the vegetables’ faces should be. People take pictures of their relatives, still recognizable as stalks of asparagus with arms. Kids strain over a fence to pet the goats. And inside a box of mesh is the peacock.
His head bobs in the air like a question mark. He steps awkwardly to one side. In the right mood, Molly knows, he would strut and show off his tail. She and her father and a bunch of little kids cling to the loops of wire, waiting for it.
When he spreads his tail, deliberate, the feathers shine green and blue. Each is marked with a black spot, like a hole or an eye. “It’s cool, eh, kiddo?” Molly’s father says. She nods. She bites her fingertips nervously, even though the bird is completely enclosed. He looks like he knows the way out.
Eyes on the prize, her father likes to say. Molly can’t believe they were both just amazed by the same thing at the same time. A stray tail feather, a small one, floats to the ground at the edge of the cage. Molly steals it and sticks it inside her t-shirt.
Once a year, her father asks her what she wants. “Make a list,” he says. Molly’s grandmother comes to stay with them at Christmas. Her mother lives two colours on a map of Canada away, with her husband and twin boys who leak tears and snot. Molly will spend Easter with them.
After her grandmother arrives, the house smells like turnip and onion every day when Molly gets home from school. She begins finding silver dust on the floor, the tops of bingo lotto cards scratched off. Her grandmother believes in luck and early suppers.
Holidays in late fall always seem to blend together, Halloween bleeding directly into Christmas. Molly knows kids who celebrate Hanukkah and Ramadan and Kwanzaa and all the moods seem the same to her. Secrets humming under the surface; people coming and going. The costumes and disguises. Messages in code, repeating the same thing, come hurtling over telephone wires and air mail. The whole period of time opens up a wanting inside Molly that scares her. When she was younger, it was a focused desire, a fixation on one thing to clench in her fists. Now the wanting is huge beyond the outlines of any animal or object. It just keeps opening up and opening up.
Molly spends most of her time drawing birds and fish in the furnace room, the most private place in the house. Her father is either at work or working out. Usually, she asks for coloured pencils and socks for Christmas. It is only this year that she realizes: This is the time for implausible requests.
On a Saturday, Molly’s feet pound out a satisfying rhythm running downstairs to the basement. She passes castles of boxes, a spiral of green hose and a red toolbox. Her father lies on his back on a bench press, pumping weights in the air. Molly is afraid he might drop them if she startles him, so she stays quiet until he sets the silver bar into the hooks, gasping.
“Dad,” she says. “I know what I want for Christmas.”
“Hmm? Jeez, you scared me there, buddy. Can you write down the store?”
“I would like a peacock,” she says. “I’ll take care of it. All you have to do is get it for me.”
He laughs. His blue t-shirt is stained with sweat; his lips wobble.
“You’re a card,” he says. “A case. A riot. A real trick!”
Molly turns and starts back up the stairs, fast. If her father saw her puffing like this, he would say, “Out of shape!” in a pleased way.
Her grandmother is an eager participant in the late movie. “I love a story,” she says. She and Molly sit on the couch, stabbing popcorn with needles and thread to make a garland. Her grandmother has a rum and eggnog. Molly just has eggnog, but she
will put some rum in it when she goes to the bathroom.
When Molly returns, there is a woman onscreen wearing a lace negligee. She is sticking a knife into a man’s neck while
“I’m beginning to wonder if this is appropriate,” Molly’s grandmother says.
“Shh,” Molly replies. “Just wait and see what happens.” She sighs and leans into her grandmother’s bathrobe.
The peacock feather is kept in a Mason jar on the coffee table. Molly reaches for it now and drags it along her forearm. Feathers feel fake, she thinks: their plastic spines, doll’s hair textured plume. Until you feel one against your skin and close your eyes, and you’re suddenly millimeters away from a rapid anxious heartbeat, the hard tip of a beak, the flapping of wings. A shiver goes down Molly’s back and she imagines something alive.