the kite shop
THE KITE SHOP (a story about Oregon)
The rains swept in off the Pacfic, long grey clattering chains of cloud and wet that battered the pavement and knocked the light out of the sky. They chilled skin and bone and blood. Inside me, Simon thought, all of it is inside me. He pulled off the highway into a motel parking lot. The t was missing in the sign. Mo-el, he said with his lips. It sounded like Hebrew. But what did it mean? God of what?
His eight year old boy popped up his head from the back seat of the SUV.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“God of what?”
“Nothing what?” His wife opened her eyes. She had been napping in the seat beside him.
“Nothing, that’s what,” he said.
“Dad was talking about the God of Nothing.”
“What?” His wife looked at him.
“Let’s just stop the whole what thing right now. This is the place, right? I’ll go in. Is Cheyenne awake?”
“You and Austen can come in and help me pay for our room.”
After supper and TV everyone bedded down, Austen in a hide-a-bed, Cheyenne in a single twin, he and Alicia in a queen. Rain cracked its whip against the windows. Simon lay awake. He moved his lips in the dark: Three days in this stinking rain. Then he had another thought: The rest of my life in this stinking headspace. Where is the God of all mercy? Where is the God who turns darkness into light? He finally began to dream and when he did it was about building a huge boat that kept listing to one side and taking in water.
It had stopped raining in the morning but the clouds, it seemed to Simon, were only about a foot off the ground. The kids were racing around scooping up breakfast items laid out buffet style while he picked at his grapefruit. He glared out the window at the soggy sky.
“Why are we staying here?” he complained. “Let’s push on to California. It's almost Christmas.”
Alicia took a bite out of her slice of toast. “Our rooms aren’t ready yet. We aren’t due to be at Disneyland until Friday.”
“Let’s rent rooms somewhere else in Anaheim.”
“Do you know how expensive that would be? We’ve already paid for three days here.”
“Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
“Because the Oregon coastline is beautiful.”
“It’s across the highway.”
“A rock beach, right? Rock and stone and lots of boulders.”
“Is the grapefruit sour,” asked Alicia, “or is it just you?”
The beach turned out to be smooth and wide and white. Quite pleasant, Simon admitted to himself, if it wasn’t for the cloud cover scraping its belly across it. Austen chased Cheyenne with a seaweed whip and Alicia twisted her fingers around his as they walked.
“Honey, you can’t think about the church forever.”
“Why can’t I?”
“It’s over. Give it to God.”
“What is he going to do with it?”
“At least we got a nice vacation out of it.”
“That’s right. Two weeks in Costa Rica, all expenses paid, and then you come back, well rested and full of the Holy Spirit, and they fire you.”
Alicia kicked at a shell. “I guess that’s the only way they felt they could soften the blow.”
“Ah, yes. These three remain. Faith. Hope. Love. And the greatest of these is guilt.”
It began to rain again. Not too hard, he thought, just enough to trickle down the back of your neck and makeyour shirt cold and damp. Cheyenne was calling that she had found something in a pool and Alicia went over to her. Simon stood looking at the body of a dead seabird half-buried in the sand.
“The beautiful coastline of Oregon wasn’t very beautiful to you, was it?” he said.
He walked past. The wind began to blow. The Oregon coastline hasn’t done a heck of a lot for me either, he thought. Rain kept hitting him in the eyes but he refused to wipe it away. All he would do was shake his head. Like a bulldog with a grip on something, Alicia said, watching him. But speaking so quietly Austen and Cheyenne never heard a word as they dug a hole in the sand and planted gull feathers around its perimeter.
The rain increased during the night and Simon felt trapped. He put on a jacket with a hood and slipped outside without waking anyone. He crossed the highway and trudged along the beach until five in the morning. Dawn was the colour of mopwater. The black of the night, Simon decided, had been more attractive than the light of day.
“Nice place you got here,” he said to God.
Simon was a stormcloud all day. There was one walk in the rain - "It feels like pins against my skin," Alicia said and he responded, "Or like nails" - a pillowfight in which he was far too savage and had to apologize for making Cheyenne cry, TV shows the others liked but which brought out his sarcasm, a row with Alicia over who had eaten the last chocolate bar. He rumbled out into the night again and let the rain flatten his hair against his skull. Ugly outside, he thought, ugly inside. Light from streetlamps made the roads and lanes shine like plastic. He crossed over to the beach and went up to his waist in the saltwater. Waves churned and sloshed around him. One surge broke over his head and made him cough and spit.
"Your waves and breakers have swept over me!" he shouted. "With all your waves you have overwhelmed me!"
He crept back into the dark motel room and towelled himself off in the washroom. He lay down quietly beside Alicia but she was not asleep.
"You used to fly once," she whispered. "You had big wings. You went high above the canyons."
"I used to lead the procession to the house of God. With shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng."
"You smell like kelp."
"I went for a swim."
"Will you be any happier in California?"
"Not if it's raining."
It was still black as Coke when he got up at four and went outside. A massive cloud was being tugged out of the sky towards the north and the air all about him had a freshly washed gleam. He stood in the middle of the empty highway. He could smell the wet pavement. Seaweed from the beach. Sand. Saltwater. And something else. He could smell the sun. He looked inland to the east and there it was, the top of a yellow translucent head edging over a wall of earth. Enormous. Filling more sky every time he breathed. Black became metallic blue. Venus was as white and sharp as a silver pin. More blue now, more and more of it, seven shades of it, moving in and out of one other as if they were liquid, as if a silent wind were shaping them and reshaping them into an intentional cosmic pattern. That is what I would like it to be inside me, he thought. This moment. This dawn. These colours. This beginning. That is what I want inside.
It was Christmas Eve. He was quiet as they ate breakfast. Cheyenne held his hand as they walked the glistening white sand and Austen kept showing him crabs. Alicia sat with her legs stretched out in front of her gazing at waves bright as the tip of a welder's torch. A few dogs raced back and forth and several people had kites up. They were bits of colour loose in the air.
"Dad!" said Austen. "Can we get a kite?"
"Would you like one too, Chey?" he asked his daughter.
"Sure," she smiled.
The four of them went into the town and walked up and down the streets. They wound up back on the strip that faced the highway and the beach. Cars and trucks in a hurry flashed past. Austen pointed. "There's a shop."
It was long and low and more like an old cottage than a shop. The roof sagged, the windows were large and framed by unpainted grey wood, kites hung limply from the eaves right around the building. The windows were crammed with more kites and spools of string and long cloth tails. It seemed untidy to Simon.
"Look at the colours!" Cheyenne shouted and the children yanked open the shop door.
It was much bigger inside than he had expected. And darker. And cooler. The only light was what came in through the windows. The owner smiled through his grey and white beard and glasses and said hello and went back to talking with a customer. People were scattered throughout the store. Simon's family roamed from one display to another. Kites hung from the rafters by the dozens, they hung from pillars and posts, they rested on counters. There weren't really any aisles. You just made your way around as best you could.
Simon stood by himself next to a kite that was a biplane. He could hear people talking, even his own wife and children, in subdued voices, as if they were in some kind of gallery or sanctuary. There was a rustling and a movement around him every time the door opened. A dragon stirred over his head and nearby a unicorn tossed its mane. You seem anxious to get out of the store, he said softly. The sky is where you belong, isn't it?
"Gettin' kind of warm in here," said the bearded owner and he propped open the door with a great slab of silver driftwood.
The sea breeze moved into the store unchecked. A diamond kite squirmed on the left, a delta kite on the right near the ceiling. A spiral banner spun and stopped. A hawk on a shelf grew restless and sprang up and onto the floor at this feet. He picked it up. You are being cautious, Simon said to the wind.
A sudden gust made the store jump. Every kite leaped and strained at the string that held it. The breeze steadied and then came on without stopping. Colours whirled and fabric fluttered. All the rafters danced with eagles and dolphins and flying fish. Light flashed back and forth. The walls moved and the entire shop seemed to spring into the air, spin and drop. Brightness surged up in Simon's chest. Everywhere he looked there was life and a yearning for air and space and freedom. I would have to buy you all, he said with his lips. Then he scopped up an orca and a diamond with porpoises sewn across it and headed for the till.
"Come on, let's go!" he shouted above the flapping and creaking. "I've got two kites. You guys get two more."
They filled the blue sky that day because in the end they bought seven kites and put them all up to colour dance in the sun. Simon sprang across the sand and in and out of the waves. All that night they slept with the kites in the room with them and all that night everyone heard the kites moving about in the dark. They did not go to Disneyland and they did not care because the sun rose again and the west wind came swiftly across the waves of the sea and the kites flew and were free and they were free with them and it was the morning of Christ's birth. Simon returned to the kite shop - banners streamed from its rooftop, the kites attached to its eaves hurled themselves up against their strings and swirled, the entire store swooped and swung - and walked up to the bearded man.
"How can I help you?" asked the man.
"I will buy the shop," said Simon. "How much?"
The bearded man squinted through his glasses. "How much for all our inventory?"
"How much for all the inventory, all the kite tails, all the spools of string, all the windows and all the walls and every corner of the roof."
"You want to be a kite seller?"
"I will sell kites and they can have God as well."
The man looked at Simon, took off his glasses and looked again, breathed on his lenses and rubbed them with the bottom of his T shirt, put the glasses back on his face and smiled at Simon as if seeing him for the first time. He put out his hand. "I think that can work," he said.
Simon preached there and the kites spun and lifted over the heads of all the people who sat and listened. The door was always open during worship, even during the winter rains, and the entire shop seemed to smile because of it. Alicia played her cedar flutes and Cheyenne her keyboard and Austen his hand drum but when the church prayed there was only the sound of the kites moving. They were sold on every day but Sunday and once a month in fine weather the whole congregation trooped down to the beach with their favourites and let them fly free and high while they sang hymns and Simon fingerpicked the tunes on his Bernardo Chavez Rico handbuilt acoustic guitar.
Simon came back to life, he forgave and was forgiven, he loved, and stood on the beach most mornings and faced the sea and the west wind and prayed to God and put saltwater to his face. Deep calls unto deep, he said with his lips. And they never called the church anything else but The Kite Shop and a lot of people found life there, not just Simon. They stopped often on their way to work during the week to look at the cottage dance in the wind and the kites pull their strings taut and ache for the sky and to watch Simon stand among the kites and move his lips and, every now and then, as if he were a kite himself, stretch his arms towards heaven and float above the earth.