David Byron Queen
You never noticed birds and then they were everywhere. You’d see them out on the sagging power lines at dusk—dark, bobbing mouths of teeth set up against the steel blue sky. You’d see them hopping the sidewalk, careening under clouds in pairs, trios, flocks. You’d hear their songs trilling from your window, cracked in the gauzy lull of morning.
Your daughter brings the bird in the morning. It’s been dead for days but you haven’t had the heart to tell her. She loved that thing, carried it everywhere. Only yesterday, her bus driver had to inform you that she couldn’t bring a dead bird to school. Only last night the thing was sitting upright at her dolls’ tea table, a tiny mug on a saucer in front of its dry, scraggly claws. “Tea for you, Dr. Seedbreath?” she’d asked. What a name—Dr. Seedbreath! And you’d watched her with such sympathy, hating the way the world was poised to break her heart.
Now, that moment is here. She’s standing aside your bed. Her eyes are puffy and red and snot bubbles from her nose. You wish it hadn’t happened during your days with her. You wish you hadn’t had those six (well, five and a half—wait, no, yeah six) drinks after she’d gone to bed the night before. You wish you hadn’t risked that breach of your agreement. You wish you didn’t have the feeling of an old man pressing his bony thumb into your forehead like you have now.
But what can you do?
The bird’s limp body lies between her hands. It’s a songbird of some kind, though you wish you knew what kind. Not knowing what kind gives you a distinct sense of failure. Your room is cold and messy. Clothes in heaps on the floor. Tang of feet in the air. It fills you with shame to have your daughter see it, but she also doesn’t seem to care. Behind your head is a vintage concert poster you bought on eBay when you were in a state one night. You’ve never been able to enjoy it. All it reminds you of is having to explain to your daughter why you suddenly didn’t have the money you’d set aside to buy her the bicycle with the pink ribbons on the handles. You’re no good with money. Your wife told you this once at a family barbecue, standing in a park next to the Cuyahoga. “You’re no good with money,” she’d said, only an hour or so before she’d get the bit of hamburger stuck in her throat and her face would turn blue and she’d stagger over to the tetherball court to die.
You sit upright. Your head is throbbing. Sleep sweat has mortared yesterday’s jeans to your thighs. You reach over and pull your daughter close. Her tiny body heaves as you hold her. So sensitive, this girl. Too weak. You want to toughen her up; you want to show her enough evil in the world so that she will be ready for it when it comes. Because you’ve seen it. In some instances, you’ve been it. But you can’t. You love her too much. You love her more than anything. You’d protect her forever even if it hurts her.
When she asks you to bury Dr. Seedbreath, you agree.
You agree, you agree, you agree.
But that’s not what happened, is it, the thing about your wife. There was no hamburger, no death on a tetherball court. You only sometimes wish it had happened—a truth that still unsettles you, prominent among your most despicable notions.
In the kitchen your daughter’s doing that thing she does where she dips raw broccoli into peanut butter.
“What’re you eating?” you ask.
“My meal,” she says.
“That’s not a meal,” you say, “those are ingredients. Let me fix you a meal.”
You place your hand on her greasy head. She smells un-showered, like the inside of a sock filled with old pennies.
“That’s OK,” she says, with something of a shudder. You know at once you’re both thinking of the chicken. God, that chicken from a few weeks back. Inedible, really. Like the rubber-gloved thumb of a dentist in your mouth. You try to explain all of the other, better, food options you can provide for her, but she’s not listening. Or, maybe she’s listening but choosing to ignore you. Neither hurts less. You find it macabre that she’s able to eat with the bird so close to her on the table, but at the same time you admire the level of compartmentalization it requires. The small, collective power of moments confounds you. Because you worry about these things. The little things. How what she eats may affect her health, her psyche, later on. You want what’s best for her, of course. For if you allow it, what will happen? Will she grow up thinking it’s normal to dip raw broccoli into a jar of peanut butter? Could someone, a year—five years—down the line make fun of her for thinking this? The fickle brutality of children overwhelms you. But what if you tell her no? What impact would that have? Would she resent you? Or, no—shit—it’s more than that. God, what a late pick up at school, a missed breakfast, a troubling image on TV might do to alter the trajectory of her movement forward in space and time.
When she’s done, you go to the back of the house to retrieve a shoebox. Your home is still mostly unfinished. Covered in loose stacks of marked, unopened boxes; you see them everywhere you look. Only about half of the house is in any kind of livable order. The rest remains empty and plastic-lined, like the kill-lair of a serial murderer. Erratic, painted streaks on the walls remain as an emotional black box—tracking four years of manic false starts, now embarrassing bursts of reparative motivation. Once found, you line the shoebox with the newspapers you’ve been saving to recycle, if only you’d actually look into how (you know…you know…). You bunch it up, line the little cardboard coffin. You place the bird and its wet-baseball-glove smell inside. Your daughter asks if he’s comfortable, and you tell her he is, of course he is sweetie, he is, but he looks awful and mangled and inexplicably moist. Like something run through the intestinal tract of some other sick animal.
The textures of death. You’ve never seen them like this. So clear, so tangible, so unable to be anything other than the things that they are.
But, also: Ick.
Not your daughter. She’s not ick. In fact, the opposite: a lovely little being. But still capable of ick. Right, because she’s human. Right, because—ick, ick! It’s death she’s carrying! You can’t unsee it and can’t unthink it. You should have stopped her the moment she’d picked it up! But it’s been too long, so now what? Will she come to think you enabled her ick through inaction? Why didn’t you say anything, Daddy? Why? Why? What if her mother finds out? Oh, god! How hadn’t that even occurred to you? Oh god, oh god! Why doesn’t anyone ever tell you what to do? Shit, there’s entire industries built on telling you exactly what to do! Not to mention the accumulated knowledge of all of human history!
Maybe it’s guilt though; the death is your fault, of course. You’d opened the cage to clean the seed pan that day and out it’d fired across the living room. You’d let it zip around the A-framed ceiling. You didn’t have the energy to chase it; you never have energy anymore. All week (and the weeks before) you’d felt so heavy and empty—as each minute passed you didn’t know how you were going to get to the next. And, god, what about the following week, month, year, decade? Only the thought of your bed at night keeps you going. Of having a few drinks and some ice cream and letting your eyes un-focus on your Internet browser. You’d curse yourself for buying the bird those years ago, for ever being talked into it at the pet store by your daughter. You’d lobbied for a fish. A nice little betta. Something to drop into a bowl and forget about. But Seedbreath, M.D., was a truce, perhaps. For having to, only a few days prior, explain how mommy and daddy were going to be living in different houses from then on.
Then with a soft pop, the bird lay motionless on the floor, underneath the window overlooking the back yard. “Shit,” you’d said, and went over to examine it. Seeing it there, you’d felt such pity. Its eyes were open, but there was nothing in them. Its tongue hanging slightly out from its beak. Dead alright, but, like, cartoonishly dead. Like the way you used to protest going to school in the mornings when you were young, how you’d roll onto your back as your mother came into your bedroom to wake you and point your stiffened arms and legs at the ceiling, chanting funereal dums: dum dum dumdum dum dumdum dumdum dumdum. How she’d play along, announcing to your father that welp, I guess the kid’s a goner, and would divvy your belongings—Power Rangers, Pogs, SNES game cartridges—in a pile in the center of the floor, until you’d be forced to cry out: Stop! Stop! Stop!
You’d cradled the bird in the orange tendrils of late-day light climbing through the window. You hadn’t known what to do. Quickly you’d called the vet and, based on the symptoms—lack of chirping, movement, breath—it appeared that Dr. Seedbreath was, indeed, passed. Your poor daughter. You wanted to let her down easy. Over breakfast, remark, casually: remember how Dr. Seedbreath used to throw his seed? But then you’d heard her new sneakers coming down the hall. So, you’d grabbed the bird and jammed it back in the cage. You’d primed an explanation, to buy yourself time (time to return to the Pet Hut to find its twin): how sometimes sweetie, birds just like to go to sleep for a bit, but your daughter requires no such explanation.
An hour later, she’d had it in her pocket.
The grass is icy and crunchy as you walk the back of the property—a modest half-acre that you and your wife bought together (on which she’s still sharing payments; as though she’s paying to keep you away) on one of the scarier days of your life. A day you’d always placed in some vague, distant future—an age of self-driving cars, robot maids—when everything in your life had naturally dropped into place. And then it was there and then it had passed and you were, more or less, the same. You could have never imagined that you’d be year four into a thirty year mortgage with all the same fazed jumble as before.
Because, guess what, your ex-wife suddenly had money. She’d never had money. Neither of you had. You were the Clearlys, after all (Clearly struggling, so went the tease). And yet she’d scraped along through your patchiest spells—those glorious sweat suit wiles!—as you’d tried and tried and tried to find the thing that would be the thing to change everything. But now, with her assets combined with The Bank Stooge—a perfectly decent and likable man, of whom you could find no serious fault, no matter how hard you tried; god, that awful, hot morning two summers ago when you’d met them late and hungover at the notary’s office, two years to the month of the down payment, the move, the ultimatum, separation—she really had money. Sometimes, you’d drive by her new house. A spectacular place, you had to admit. Set against five acres of woods. In-ground pool trickling in the back. Once after a few drinks (okay, so maybe it was more than a few) you may have parked in the cul-de-sac at the end of their street and tried a back door, before finding a window you could crawl in through. How you may have (though it’s hazy, your memory of that day) crept through the empty house, taking it in. How you may have imagined yourself living there, finding new pockets of resentment within you that you didn’t know were there. How you may have used their downstairs bathroom, and napped on the master bed. How you may have sat in their den to watch TV and pet their beagle Tulip and cry. For what was your life back then? Left middling in the job you never wanted but took because your wife left you no choice when the baby was due. Or, no, that’s not right. No, no. Maybe that’s not fair. It was that talk, wasn’t it, with your ex-father-in-law, the one he’d had with you on his porch the day of the baby shower. The casual pitch he’d made over whiskey sours, the buoyant giggles from inside the house. The one about the importance of art that wasn’t at all about the importance of art. More about the enrichment found in hobby and the importance of financial stability, sacrifice. A pitch calculated to break you out of the cycle of service jobs that had carried you since college, but wouldn’t carry you much longer with your increased responsibilities. And man, how it’d succeeded. And man, how you’d kept his words in your head for so long. How many decisions they’d justified. Because it was a relief too, wasn’t it? Because there was a vision and savvy you knew you didn’t possess, to do the difficult and uncommon things you’d been trying to do for so long. Those post-college years spent scraping the outskirts of the city. Living and working with others like you, vaguely pursuing the arts. Ah, those cyclonic self-discoveries. There you’d been, the Metallic Crypt-keeper. There you’d been, Lord Denim & His Ouch Cubes. There you’d been, the Dharma-Durango, the fabled pauper of experience, struttin’ the city with your poncho, ego, and the cane you didn’t need.
Your daughter pulls ahead. Her pink hood waggles as she moves. Framed by the neighboring hill house above you. You remember the summer your neighbor took to firing in the woods behind that house. All day firing, all night firing. For weeks you’d fallen asleep to those echoing booms and cracks. All the stupid lines to your daughter: God’s bronchitis, giants in the clouds, or some other thin dodge. It wasn’t long before you’d reached your break—the afternoon he’d had nothing better to do than to shoot wine bottles off his split-log fence. Such reckless narcissism! God it still spikes your blood to think about it now. So, you’d charged over. But when you got there, you hadn’t known what to say; you hadn’t thought that far in advance—you rarely do. Typical monster truck wastoid, with all the requisite chin-hang. A t-shirt he wore loosely showed two squirrels humping, bannered by a lewd pun involving “nuts” that you now can’t and don’t want to remember. A strange, post-rain fog gulped up the yard. There he’d taken one look at you and spit at the grass. “I’d haul off clear and I’d haul off fast,” he’d said, and when you did not haul off clear nor fast, and when you’d made threats of calling the police, he’d lunged, jabbing the cold, double barrel into your neck. A warm, uric trickle ran down your leg as you’d watched his eyes up close—frenzied and detached, like a cornered stallion’s.
“Please,” you’d urged. “Let’s talk this out.”
As he’d backed away, slowly, he must have bumped the fence in such a way. Such a way that caused an energy-spasm to conduct from his hip to his trigger finger. The muzzle exploded. Shriek of white light. Fleshy chunks of your shoulder and head sprayed the grass. Down you’d gone. Fans of blue-red liquid opened around you; a veil of plasmic spindrift discharged outward, in fluctuating, pressurized, ebbing, squirts. But then, something miraculous. You’d pulled your headless body up from the ground, staggered across the lawn, arms flailing. Mummy-moaning, you’d knocked tree-stumps and neglected lawn tools. The neighbor’s face slung ajar in horror. Then you’d taken to the woods, zigzagging poorly through the trees and brush—a challenge, considering your significant lack of head. You’d tripped, stumbled. You’d pinballed the trees. You’d shredded what was left of you in a fierce gauntlet of buckthorn and aralia. All while the air that remained inside of you effused the newly opened holes of your neck in a hot, wet, pant. The lingering adrenaline sent you walking. All the way to the next town over. Four, five miles, along a country road—something crazy. There you’d sat in the back of a coffee shop, with your piss-rot pants, retching in horrific, violent waves. Aggressively grabbing at your face and shoulders, as if re-sculpting yourself from memory. Scared that if you stopped they’d be gone again forever.
You carry your weight across the yard. Your blood wobbles tired in your veins, and you feel an innate need to cough—to expel whatever’s giving the back of your tongue its flat, metallic kick—but you can’t. The air is cold. The kind of cold that leaves a soft ring in your ears. Each breath comes out full, visible in front of you. Your daughter points to the shadow of the lone, decrepit Douglas fir that stands in the northeast corner of your yard. A mist whirls from the core of the creek behind it. You ask her if she’s sure if this is where she wants it to be, and she nods and says it is. You say okay, and lower to a knee. You stab with the trowel, but it clanks against the cold, hard earth. Your daughter watches. Her eyes are clear, though the skin around them hangs swollen. Her arms stay crossed in that awkward way you’ve been noticing she does now—one hand grabbing the elbow of the other arm, as it distends outward. After a few minutes, you roll back into a seated position. Your sweatpants integrate the ground’s moisture in a displeasing way, your buttocks marinating coldly in the dank leaves and mud and tiny bits of pebble. You rub the soreness in your wrist, careful to hide the bleary discoloring on your palms from the recent time you came to on a gas station curb. That morning the birds were chirping, and the dense, chilled shreds of mist and light pulled across the neighboring yards near the golf course you couldn’t afford to get into, and your hands were all torn and bloodied by the un-twist-off-able bottle caps from the sixer that had materialized at your feet. You want to quit, but you can feel her disappointment growing, so you carry on. Next, you try wedging the trowel into the ground and landing your boot on it. You try this three more times, but you miss and roll your ankle and cry out a word that you regret saying in front of her. Luckily, she doesn’t ask. It disappears between you.
What a kid, though. Polite. Poised. Sweet, plucky eyes and pink-blue cheeks. That tangle of brownish helices. You take back what you thought about her sensitivity—standing there, you see a strength in her you can’t remember seeing before. It fills you with pride and then unexpected fear: someday she may betray you in her inevitable graduation into the world of the well adjusted. How it scares you that this girl holds the power to break your heart.
You give up on the ground. You see this as your out. Out of this cold, and back into bed. A hot towel on your eyes and a burbling glass of make-feel-better in reach on your nightstand. You explain that you need to let the ground thaw, suggesting a hypothetical date in mid-April, but she’s already moved on. She points to the creek.
Soon after, you’ve coated the exterior of the shoebox with twigs and dry pine—all held together by duct tape. So that it’ll float, you’ve attached a Frisbee to the bottom. It doesn’t look good. You know it doesn’t, and pray that your daughter’s memory of your shoddy work fades in the clouding powers of retrospective sorrow. You drop it in the creek, holding it in place. “You know the Vikings used to do this,” you say.
“What’s a Viking?” your daughter asks.
“Like a pirate,” you say. “But bigger.”
You strike a match and drop it into the kindling. Your daughter releases a wail that pushes the headache you’ve been carrying to the forefront of your skull. You let go of the poor bird’s casket-boat and watch it pull away in the current until its gone.
You tell her it’s your fault. There, you said it. You tell her about the seed pan, the open cage, and the window. She nods and takes it in and says it’s okay. You had wanted this to feel cathartic, but it doesn’t. In fact, it feels like nothing. Just some words, that’s all.
Some time later, you’re driving home from work. A piece of cake for Phyllis in Accounting’s birthday sits uneaten in the passenger seat. You want to think you’ll restrain from eating it—you’re a work in progress!—but you know the moment you get home you’ll eat it. You’ll eat the whole thing off your hands, without even bothering to look for a fork. You’ll ignore the call from your sponsor that night. You’ll skip out on your meeting—Mensa for Normals, you once heard it called. You’ll anger yourself with the internet for a while, before you get discouraged. What you see everywhere wears you down. You’ll fix a drink. You’ll listen to the music you listened to in college. You’ll think of something your daughter told you the last time you had her. You’d just been to some dumb movie and in the car on the way home she’d said it was a waste of time. Think of that, a waste of time. “Life’s too short to waste on a movie like that,” she’d said. And you’d remember the way she’d brushed her hair from her face and chewed her thumbnail—how she’d looked like her mother then. Only weeks ago it seemed you’d been tying her shoes and now here’s this growing woman, pulling steadily away from you, worrying about the passage of time. Time, time, time. You’ll take down the drink and stare out your window. You’ll fix another. You’ll think of that bird. You’ll think of all the other offerings to the creek—all the neighborhood’s birds in boxes, being sent on down like sweet baby brother of Aaron. Years and years of them, collecting in some nebulous, glistening repository. You’ll imagine yourself, even later in life, coming across them. Sleepwalking the creek-beds at dusk, in the pale and Paleozoic ooze of the moon. Your body aging with every etiolated stride. Jerking vegetation, opening and closing, opening and closing, in fluorescent, varicolored time-lapse. Silence, silence. Then: the bi-polar clicks of beaks and talons in the brush. The flap of wings. The moon clots with avian murk. Grunting, groaning, you’ll find new chaos in the shoals every time your eyes settle. Flaming hunks of rock crack open the sky, volcanic detritus slings about. Over time, you’ll build a structure with the greasy feathers, tiny bones. A structure about yay-high and sturdy. A place to live, to block out the world—a home.
David Byron Queen grew up in Northeast Ohio. Since graduating from The New School, he has worked in restaurants, advertising, and on a reality cooking show. His work has appeared in VICE, Hobart, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, NANO Fiction, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Find him on Twitter @byron_queen.