Ugarte! Kak groped for the box under the bench. Her knuckles scraped the coral softball that sealed the little bird’s prison. Still there. She relaxed and gave herself time to adjust to the light. How long had she slept? She twisted to reach her phone. Her body protested, stiff and aching. No wonder. It was almost three o’clock. Her stomach rumbled. She’d slept for hours with nothing to eat save the shots of espresso with Liliana. Well. And the doxepin.
By the time she had the box in the basket and pedaled east, the pangs in her belly were increasing. Each time she completed a rotation of the pedals her left thigh rose, stretching the thin fabric of her shorts. With each stretch, the key to Rudy’s room at Ocean Key Resort made a rectangular outline on her pocket. She thought of room service and a soft bed. He’d probably enjoyed a nice lunch and now snoozed poolside with a drink. The handlebars wanted to twist left but Liliana’s warning rung in her ears. She couldn’t take the chance. Food, though. Now.
She parked the bike against the front windows of a sandwich shop on Truman Avenue. This way she could see Ugarte’s box from the ordering counter inside.
Kak read the menu. For the first time in her life she couldn’t eat chicken. She ordered the veggie sandwich for herself, a roll of wheat bread for Ugarte, a cup of water and a second empty cup so they could share it.
Ugarte clucked softly to herself while Kak walked them west on Truman with their food. They found a seat on the shaded curb across from where Center Street ran into Duval and terminated. Kak removed the lid of Ugarte’s prison.
“Dinner,” Kak said. She tried to announce it cheerfully, in a way that might put Ugarte at ease.
Kak broke the wheat bread into several pieces and placed them inside the box. Ugarte pecked at her meal contentedly. A last meal for the condemned. Kak tried not to think of it. She tore at the empty cup until she’d removed all but the bottom inch, thereby converting it into a suitable water dish. She poured half an inch of water into it from her cup and set it in the box. Over and over Ugarte ducked her head into the cup, trapping a beakful of water, then stood erect to tip her head back. The bird opened and closed her beak rapidly to move the water down her throat.
A slice of cucumber protruded from Kak’s sandwich. She tore a triangle off the sandwich wrapper and folded the cucumber slice in it, shoving the small parcel down into the corner of her shorts pocket as a treat for Evelyn, the crab, when she finally got back to the room. Kak finished her last bite, watching Ugarte all the while and, remembering Liliana’s instructions, tried to think of something to say that would interest a chicken.
With nothing up or down the street to lubricate her mind, she fished around in her backpack. Her pencil.
“Ugarte,” she said, without knowing why the bird would care. “Did you know that a pencil lead doesn’t really have any lead in it? And never did?”
Ugarte paused her dining.
“I know, right? It’s a misnomer based on the poor knowledge of chemistry in the 1500’s when the first large deposit of solid graphite was discovered.”
The subject seemed to hold Ugarte’s interest so Kak launched into everything she loved about pencils. She explained to Ugarte that the precursors to modern day pencils were made entirely from solid graphite cut into four-sided sticks. The graphite came from the Grey Knotts mine in England’s Lake District. Believing it to be a form of lead, early pencil makers christened it plumbago, Latin for ‘lead ore’. She told Ugarte the mine remained the only large-scale deposit of solid graphite ever found, that the early graphite sticks were wrapped in string or sheepskin to give the users a casing that would not leave marks on their hands and that an Italian husband and wife produced the first wood casings from juniper wood. The Italians had first conceived of a single shaft of wood hollowed out to accommodate the thin graphite rod by pushing the graphite rod inside. This was effective but proper fit was troublesome. They discovered a more suitable method. Two pieces of wood, with the graphite rod sandwiched between them, and the resulting instrument held together with glue. Ugarte couldn’t get enough of this.
Kak went on to explain that during the wars that bore his name Napoleon wanted for good pencils and since the British held the only source of solid graphite, he requested a supply. The Crown happily informed him he could bugger off. The scarcity of English pencils resulted in one of Napoleon’s officers rediscovering an old method of mixing graphite powder with clay and forming the mixture into rods which were fired in a kiln to bake them solid prior to adding the Italian couple’s wooden concept around them. A higher clay-to-graphite ratio meant softer ‘lead’. A lower clay-to-graphite ratio made it harder. Over two hundred years later, Kak held a pencil made using the same concept. Produced more efficiently, for certain, but with no advancement in technology.
There was something good in knowing it. Something comforting in a process that didn’t change, that still had value. Something satisfying in possessing a knowledge lost on others.
“I wish I’d know the Italian couple,” she told Ugarte. She imagined them sometimes, felt the sweet sting of jealousy for the two of them, like the two halves of juniper wood, bonding around a common purpose. Working together. Excited from the developments of the day. Creating what had never existed. Testing variations of their new creation. Perhaps arguing over the particulars of a detail or refinement and becoming exasperated with each other in their shared intensity. Washing it all away in the evening with waves of love-making before drifting off to sleep in their small bed. Whatever their meager possessions and dreams, they shared them.
Kak knew she would never have that, with or without Philip. Why did she have to know it? She wished then, as she had so many times, that she could be spared self-awareness. Life would be so much easier without it.
These thoughts and others were best shaken from her head. Ugarte still watched her faithfully and, Kak imagined, listened. She picked up a piece of the roll she’d broken up for the bird.
“Did you know,” she said, “that breadcrumbs were used for erasers in the 17th and 18th centuries? You just carried around a stale baguette until you wrote something you didn’t want to see anymore. Then you broke off a piece of the stiff bread and scrubbed it out.”
The rest of the afternoon and most of the evening passed that way. She told Ugarte that Roald Dahl wrote his books exclusively with a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil on a yellow legal pad. She explored the various origins of names, that the word Ugarte came from the Basque language meaning ‘island’, wholly appropriate for a bird living in this locale. She did this to divert her own attention from the real reason she’d chosen the name and to avoid distressing Ugarte further in case she’d seen the movie.
Ugarte watched Kak, soaking it up. In return Kak shared every bit of the useless knowledge she loved having in her head. It helped her forget she was about to do something she couldn’t scrub out later with a piece of broken baguette.
By a quarter to ten it was full dark. She’d shared so much with the little bird that Kak felt something unexpected. Something she didn’t want to feel. Something that sickened her. The bird looked up at her expectantly. Kak worried that the something was love.
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