The Audubon Society
It was a scene of real violence, like a fist fight or a car crash. Feathers floated in the air where the pigeon had collided with the railroad bridge and the bird flopped on the road like a ruined volleyball. Then it skidded around, flapping one wing and weaving back and forth across traffic. Very looked like she was going to cry, so I took off my jacket.
We watched while the pigeon exhausted itself, cars swerving to miss the thing, before it finally came to rest against the curb. I threw my jacket over it and scooped it up, careful to fold the broken wing against its body like a kickstand. This is ridiculous, I thought. The bird will die. If Very hadn’t looked like she was going to cry, it would be dead already, hit by a car or euthanized by the feral cats that lived in the prehistoric pickup trucks at the body shop across the street. But now we had it and we had to do something. Very picked at the bundle in my hands and uncovered the bird’s twitching head.
“You’d better wash your hands,” I said.
“You’d better wash yours,” she shot back. “I’ll bet it’s cleaner than you.”
We were polluted—from drinking and fighting and from the already thick morning heat—but that could wait. We walked back to the house quietly, me carrying the pigeon, Very deciding what to do.
On the front porch, I handed her the bird. I went inside and found a shoebox under the bed and took it to the backyard. I hadn’t been in the backyard in years. It was always hot, so we stayed inside, close to the air conditioners. The yard didn’t look so good. The grass had grown long and brown, and it looked like a scorched cornfield.
We pulled fistfuls of still green grass from a shady place by the backdoor and plopped them in the box, then rested the bird on top of the pile, jacket and all. It wanted to fly. It wanted to get away from us with every thought in its tiny brain, but we’d seen it try and knew it couldn’t. So we sat with it, hoping—I suppose—for a miracle.
My hands started shaking, so I volunteered to go back to the store. Very wouldn’t admit it, not in front of the bird, but she was shaky too. I walked to the store, back past the bridge and the body shop and the mix of restored and decaying brick bungalows (mine was in the latter camp) and returned with two cases of beer, one in each hand—like suitcases. Very had pulled the phone cord through the laundry room out the back door so she wouldn’t have to take her eyes off the bird. She was explaining the situation to somebody.
“It can’t fly,” she was saying. “It’s going to die.”
The person on the other end didn’t care about this any more than I really did. I stuffed the beer in the refrigerator and showed Very that I’d gotten her two packs of the thin, brown cigarettes she’d started smoking again. It didn’t cheer her up though, and it was shaping up to be a crummy Saturday.
Normally we read the paper and drank coffee. Then we sat at the kitchen table and drank, then laughed, then maybe fought, then fell asleep, then woke up and did it all over again until Very went to work on Sunday morning. Not today. Today we would babysit the bird. Very would cry, then decide that we should break up or stop drinking. These ideas would fade after the sun went down, but there was always a chance they would stick.
I brought four beers out and lit the cigarette hanging from Very’s lips. She looked at me with red-ringed eyes and I could tell she was thinking life wasn’t fair. The fact that she’d gotten mixed up with me was Exhibit 1A. She was young and I was old. She was sweet and I was mean. She was beautiful. I was ugly. She was just starting—or had been—and I was done, done, done.
We’d met at the Wichita Lineman, Very and I, a bar that serves two-for-one shooters when trains pass by on the tracks less than thirty feet from the parking lot. The shooters are concoctions with corny names like Custer’s Last Stand and The War of Northern Aggression—but they’re cheap, and they attract veterans and amateurs alike. At night, the bar is flooded with students, dropouts, and wannabe artists. Most days, the men who occupy the bar recognize this world as distinct from their own and clear out, although sometimes they linger.
They make slurred passes at the young women and strike up conversations with the men. Sometimes they are invited to join groups, who buy them drinks and interview them about their lives. While they’re not entirely oblivious to their status as curiosities—a deal’s a deal—these intercultural encounters can lead to misunderstandings. These might begin innocently enough. Let’s say Down and Out Dave (as even he calls himself) starts loudly expressing appreciation for a certain physical aspect of one of his new female friends—her ear lobes, perhaps—and he starts to go on and on about them, in prose and rhyme, his filthy knit cap clutched to his chest in maudlin tribute. Suppose everyone laughs and cheers. Let’s then say that D.A.O. Dave is not content to merely serenade the ear lobes, the left one in particular, behind which the woman has tucked one golden rope of hair. Suppose he wants to touch it.
The target of his affection might handle this good-naturedly at first, as she assembles the experience into a gritty vignette for later incorporation into her journal. She will ultimately decline Dave’s advances—a gesture he is likely to interpret as a move in a game where his role is to reach out and grab her ear lobe anyway.
“Hey, buddy!” you can imagine the woman’s musician friends saying when it becomes evident that she and Dave are locked in a full-out struggle, his hands darting across the table, hers clasped to her head like ear muffs.
“Hey, buddy! Knock it off!”
This might lead to a consensus that Dave has crossed the line. That he has ceased to be a picturesque token of hardscrabble American-style despair. That he has revealed himself, instead, to be an authentic creep.
The unspoken verdict might then be relayed to the bartender, resulting in the temporary banishment of Down and Out Dave and the reassertion of the border between night and day, between the kitschy appreciation of despair and despair itself, which—as the ear woman would later articulate on her blog—was often “totally skeevy.”
Now imagine that Very is the ear woman and I am (or was) the bartender. Her nickname, she soon told me, was short for Veronica, a name she did not like.
We were outliers in our groups. I was a little too together for mine. (Down and Out Dave set a pretty low bar.) She was too wild for hers. Plus, I had once sat where she now did. Then the day shift became so demanding I had to work the night shift behind the bar just to support it.
I hadn’t been the first to be taken in by the scent of two-for-one shooters and authenticity. The whole front row at the Lineman was composed of wasted talent. Bob the Brain—a name everyone now took to be ironic—still carried an Oxford Edition of Aristotle’s De Arte Poetica Liber in the pocket of his Army surplus jacket. Denny, who could easily be mistaken for a crank-addled trucker, had once toured with David Bowie. And Down and Out Dave, chastened by a previous night’s ejection, would always return the next day and wistfully recall the time he had starred in a two page spread in Artforum. How had it come to this? Not one of us knew.
“The shelters won’t take it,” Very told me. “Neither will the vets. We’re stuck with her.” I didn’t know how she’d decided it was a she.
The cats from the body shop began to gather, creeping through the tall grass and balancing on the fence like Olympic gymnasts. Very hissed and they scattered. She opened a beer and hugged her knees. I suggested we get up and sit at the rusted iron table, but she shook her head. I tried to put my arm around her, but she shrugged it loose.
I got up and sat alone, leaving Very on the crumbling concrete steps that led down from the door. I opened a beer and lit one of her cigarettes for myself, then watched the cats as they regrouped for more maneuvers.
“Sweetie,” I said. “Why don’t you go back to bed. You’re probably tired.”
“Fuck you.” she said. “Tired.”
She had changed. She was angrier, and the anger had gathered in her face, puffing it up and making her hard. It hadn’t been so long since we met, less than a year, but already she didn’t look as pretty or as young.
Between giving D.A.O. Dave the bum’s rush and the story her friends provided—dropout, loser, drunk—I became an instant anti-hero, an undiscovered genius, a subterranean alternative to the pale nerds who went home long before last call. She stayed until closing that night, then came home with me to the rented house I’d shared with a rotating cast of acquaintances I’d met at the Lineman. She never left, and slowly her attachments crumbled, as mine had. She left school, which she seemed bent on doing from the night we met. I tried to talk her out of it. She came to work at the Lineman and briefly (like me) was a hero in both worlds. But our relationship was tumultuous, at home and at work, and one night—after the last of many scenes—we were asked to leave there, too. She was a runner and a screamer, and the owner got tired of watching me chase her when we were supposed to be working.
Now I move boxes from conveyor belt to conveyor belt at the shipping hub by the airport—when I manage to get there—and Very waits tables at a Mexican chain out east, where she doesn’t get good shifts.
She was scowling into the middle distance, and I could tell things would be better for her (and me) if she got some more rest.
“I’m leaving,” she said. She often said this.
“I can’t imagine anything worse than you being with someone else,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be worse if I died?” she said.
I didn’t answer. But the thought of her with someone else made my body ache more than the thought of her just being gone.
“I’ll watch it for awhile,” I said. “You sleep.”
She was angry and resistant to anything that was my idea, but she was also exhausted. Her eyes sagged and again she looked like she was going to cry.
“Alright,” she said, flicking her cigarette the length of the yard. She stomped inside and slammed the door, knocking the phone out of its cradle.
I sat for awhile, shouting or stomping when the cats appeared on the verge of a final assault. When I’d finished the beers, I took the box with me to the kitchen. As I placed it on the counter, the bird rattled like a lifeless decoy. I shook the box lightly, just to be sure, and the bird was dead. I felt both relief and panic. I sat down at the kitchen table and considered my options. Very was going to be angry and desperate. There was no telling what she might do.
I picked the box up and carried it through the laundry room and down to the basement. I looked around and laid the box on my workbench, which I hadn’t touched in years. I put down a newspaper and some rags, for the blood, then I pinned its wings to the bench with long, sharp nails I fished out of a rusty coffee can of assorted nuts and bolts. I spread it out like the poor dead frogs we dissected in middle school. I found a strip of razorblades in the back of one of my tool drawers. I broke one off and leaned over the bird. This won’t hurt a bit, I thought, as I eased the blade into the bird’s chest just below its beak and gently sliced it open, length-wise, all the way to the tail. There was less blood than I expected. The inside was surprisingly airy, like the interior of a peanut shell.
I carefully removed the spine and teased the long bones that supported the wings from their feathered sheaths. I grabbed a coat hanger from the pipe above the washing machine and clipped it apart in three places. I worked the wires in and was able to get the wings to come to rest just slightly off the body, twitching, and ready for take off. Then I took the third wire and put it where the spine had been, terminating down by the feet and a door hinge I’d found. I wrapped the whole assembly—the wire, the feet, and the hinge—together with an entire spool of soldering wire. Beauty didn’t matter. You couldn’t see it from the ground.
When I was done, I filled my pockets with nails and put the bird back in the shoe box so it would easier to carry. I pulled the landlord’s ladder free from the tangled weeds by the side of the house and placed it against the peak of the roof. The cats returned and stared, puzzled by what I was doing. With the box under one arm and a hammer in my free hand, I slowly made my way up the ladder, praying that Very would not wake up. When I reached the top, I slid the hinge over the angle of the roof—it fit almost perfectly—and nailed it in place. I was bad with a hammer so I used more nails, bending every single one. I hurried down the ladder and stashed it where I found it, then stood in the yard and considered my work.
It was passable, I supposed, if crooked and a little off balance. The wings bounced sporadically with the wind, giving the thing some life. The cats were fooled, in any case, and they slunk away to curl up with their axles and shredded upholstery.
As if on cue, Very appeared at the back door, squinting into the muted sunlight.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Where are my cigarettes?”
“Look,” I said, pointing at the roof.
“Look at what?” she whined as she came to look.
“At the bird.”
She patted my shirt pocket and found the cigarettes.
“That’s not it,” she said. “What did you do with it?”
“No, that’s it. Look at the crest,” I said.
She lit a cigarette and her face softened.
“Did you see it?” she said.
“I did,” I said. “It flapped and wobbled in the air, and I wasn’t sure it was going to make it, and then it landed up there.”
“Do you think it will be okay?”
“Look at it,” I said.
“It’s like a miracle,” she said.
“A fucking miracle,” I agreed.
We stood there looking at it for awhile, and I could tell the danger had passed. Very decided to take a shower and invited me to join her. We rolled around wet in the bed and then got up and drank and watched a movie and then rolled around again and fell asleep.
In the morning, I opened my eyes to find Very grinning at me, like we were newlyweds or something.
“I wish I didn’t have to go to work,” she said. “I wish I could stay here with you.”
This was the sweetest thing she had said in months.
“I know,” I said. “But I’ll be here when you get back.”
I fell back to sleep listening to the shower running and the front door closing behind her. When I finally woke up, I pulled on my clothes and went into the backyard. I’d take the bird down, I figured, and tell her it had flown away. But I couldn’t see the bird from the ground, and I didn’t find it once I’d pulled the ladder from the weeds and climbed to the roof. The hinge and the nails were there—and some of the soldering wire—but the bird was gone. Not a feather was left. I got up on the roof and studied the gutters, then went down the ladder and circled the house several times.
When Very was late, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect her to call. She never thought of me like that. I sat in the backyard, drinking, and occasionally found myself scanning the sky for our bird, although I knew this made no sense. I also tried to imagine Very never coming back, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.