When Desire Can’t Find Its Object

Margaret Osburn
| Fiction


Three snowy egrets. The birds floated through the viewfinder. Stillness. I turned north, drove hard a thousand miles back to where I’d lived my entire life at the bottom of a bag—a cul de sac cut right out of a cornfield. Then, all but home, I had a change of heart. I went to see Iris. With no photographs to show, I handed her a slip of paper:

Three silk fans floated up to the sun.

“Happy birthday,” I said. “I didn’t have time to get you a card.”
Iris was my best friend’s mother and the mother-in-law to my wife’s cousin. She mouthed the words fans...floated...before saying, “My birthday was months ago. Go home to your bride.”

“Let’s celebrate,” I said. I offered her a white paper deli package and pulled a jar of mustard from my jacket pocket. “I heard you weren’t eating your dinner.” I hadn’t heard. It was just that I’d been overwhelmed with opposing urges. It was two o’clock in the morning when I’d stopped at the local convenience store to call Becky and, when she’d said what she’d said, I’d gone< back inside for a pound of pastrami.

Iris jabbed the air with her right index finger, a finger weighted by a faceted crystal ball. “Dinner...BAH!...My refrigerator is full of food. It doesn’t have any taste.” She had a perfectly puckered mouth ready to explode with laughter, but time and again, I found myself caught in her eyes.

“A girl’s gotta eat,” I mumbled.

“It’s been a while,” she said, as her fingers carefully opened the pastrami’s paper wrapping, only to smooth it flat, re-crease its folds and wrap it back. Before I knew it, she had carefully retied
the package with its red and white striped string and pushed it away.

“White Castle?” I asked. How many dawns had we driven forty miles for those tiny, square, smelly, greasy, onion-drenched gut bombs? Even with the miles I’d traveled that day, I hoped she’d say Yes.


It was true. I hadn’t been around in a while. I’d been on the other side of town, mostly. I’d managed to avoid induction without running to Canada, like some, like her son Mick who was still up there planting trees. I’d married, but hadn’t adjusted, no more than I might to boot camp—-or war. Yet, by anyone’s measure, I was set for life: I had a house, a car that was paid for, a union job spot-welding batteries at the edge of town. It just didn’t taste good.

“What is it you want outta life?” Becky had demanded. There was nothing I could name—not anything I could tell her. I’d bought myself a Nikon, taught myself F-stops and shutter speeds, and struggled to keep my subjects inside the viewfinder long enough to bring them into focus.





Margaret Osburn teaches creative nonfiction writing at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of regional press awards (IN) for news and feature writing and wrote a documentary film broadcast on PBS.

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