As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Unlike me, our neighbor Joubert didn’t share my fear of visitors. He unlocked the door swiftly and shoved it open with his hard belly, leaving his keys to swing freely in the deadbolt and dropping his puppy on the floor of the entryway, as though she were a cat that knew how to right herself.
When I unlocked the door to let someone in, I became afraid—never when I was alone and answering from inside, but only when we stood there together, outside, watching the key slide in the lock, watching the door swing open as our cones of vision widened into the room. The first time I had to open the door for a woman I expected her eyes to speed past me and land on a stack of pink bones underneath the coffee table. I feared her sight would drift to the walls of my home office and linger on the paper dolls I’d clipped from dirty periodicals, cringing at the paper clothes I’d cut out to fold over their flat crotches, their bodies made into a safe and approachable miscellany while their faces retained pleasure. Or she would see a setup—twelve chest-high data towers lining my apartment walls and six flat-panel screens angled down on a swivel chair. She would picture me sitting under the screens’ glow, rolling around on the clear plastic I’d put down in connecting pieces over the living room’s carpet, levering the height of the seat to match my mood. I feared we would open the door and she’d see no furniture at all, no tables or chairs, no shelving, not a single cushion. I was afraid that when I opened the door she would see right into the bathroom toilet, where her eyes would alight on a turd I’d left slowly spinning in the yellow bowl. I was afraid that she would finally see the full unflattering of my backside, a gob of putty spackled on by a hand that no longer cared. I remember being scared to let her stare at it, fleshless and unshapely, as I tried to find the keyhole in the dark. I didn’t know then that we would be married, but I knew that when I opened that door she would see something even I had never seen, a thing I couldn’t explain, a thing I wasn’t responsible for despite its appearance in my home.
This fear kept on for years after, and whenever I came home with someone I expected to discover some great perpetration committed during my absence. My apartment taken over by a colony of tents, mud-spattered and of all sizes. Tents squeezed into whatever spaces they could find, too many to resist, tents filled with sleeping laborers who had found my home through an international chain of whispers. When I opened my door there would be nothing I could offer my visitor to excuse the place I’d chosen to live.
With JJ, I avoided this problem by insisting that he be the one to open our door. Having given up my post as keymaster, I never stood between JJ and what he might find. Nothing fearsome and unwieldy got past me because I never put myself in its way. I would just stand a good way back and make myself the witness.
“Welcome to Bungalow 3!” Joubert said, giving an encompassing sweep of his foyer, and keeping his arm raised so that I might continue to behold it. The walls could not be seen. They were hidden behind shelves that started just off the floor and rose to the ceiling. These shelves held rows of cardboard boxes of all sizes, and each box had a label: GLASS PROTECTANTS. DOORKNOB ASSEMBLIES. LEAK SENSORS. CANNING JARS. VACUUM BAGS. SCENTED CANDLES. SAWBLADES. AC ADAPTERS. TO-GO CUPS.
He nudged his puppy into a living room, also full of shelves and boxes. A door laid flat across a pair of low, gray filing cabinets served as a desk and he pushed the dog into a small, steel cage just beneath it next to where his feet would’ve gone. He reached into a crumpled bag and dumped a fist’s worth of kibble onto the plastic floor of the cage, then asked, “Hey Polar, whaddaya think about getting the hook-up?”
At about eye level, Joubert had boxes labeled WINTER GLOVES, PYRO GLOVES, SYNTHETIC LEATHER GLOVES, NITRILE EXAM GLOVES (SKY BLUE), NITRILE EXAM GLOVES (SEA FOAM GREEN), and LATEX GLOVES (W/POWDER).
“C’mon Polar, you good girl, you wanna get hooked up, don’t you? You like it, yeah? Yes-you-do. But I gotta tell you now, you’re not gonna be eating Sniff-N-Chew forever. No you’re not, Polar-pie.”
He turned to me with his eyebrows up and raised his chin toward the grocery bag in my arms. “Well, fuck it. What say we get a couple of beers going, huh?”
“Sure, we can dr—”
“Come on into the kitchen.”
Boxes were stacked from floor to countertop: SAUCE. KNIVES. STEAK KNIVES. LADLES. SCISSORS. VINEGAR. MUGS. PAPER PLATES. SPONGES. GARBAGE BAGS. PISTACHIOS.
Polar whined limply in the living room, and I heard what I imagined to be her clear-white claws scratching the plastic floor of her crate. I turned toward the noise, but Joubert didn’t flag. He tapped a finger against his lips and scanned the shelves, “I see you bought good beer.”
His refrigerator was covered with magnets, magnetic clips, self-adhesive magnetic strips, tape and string, plus old drippings of sauce, red and crusted with crumbs and hair of several colors. The kitchen sink was dusty and had a magazine in it. It was folded open to a colorful spread of a starlet and speckled with dry toothpaste that snaked toward the drain. On the wall behind the sink was a pegboard hung with hooks and more boxes: MICROFIBER. HEADLAMPS. WIPING WANDS. CANDLE SNUFFERS. Both VELCRO (STRIPS AND ROLLS) and VELCRO (SHEETS AND SQUARES).
It seemed to hold the house together and was applied to many surfaces. There was a miner’s lamp velcroed to the freezer door, and a pen velcroed to its handle. On one of the highest shelves in the entryway I’d spotted a box labeled SCISSORS, and now there were two pairs of them magnetized to the refrigerator between an egg timer and a soup ladle. I assumed these items still had their boxes. The refrigerator’s magnetic clips held fun-sized bags of chips, laser-printed restaurant receipts, clutches of herbs drying upside-down, and quickly scribbled notes. There were dozens of old photographs, curled and brittle, photographs of cities, entire landscapes full of buildings and empty of people, photos captured as the sun was just going down or just coming up or already so high in the sky as to be out of view. The pictures were pleasing but had also been spared something important.
The beer I had bought was the brand that JJ preferred (easy to drink) and Joubert opened his second when I was only partway through my first. I wanted to coax him back down to the Boulevard so he could buy us some replacements.
“This stuff’s more like beer soda,” he said.
I continued to sip and Joubert took a long draw from the bottle. When he finished swallowing he asked me, “Do you like birds?”
* * *
I couldn’t answer immediately. I’d asked JJ the same question one evening back in Good Springs, and he just shrugged. I bought a couch, put it on our balcony, and asked him to come outside and look at them. The couch’s material burned the bottoms of our thighs on hot days, and when we started to sweat our skin would fuse wetly to its mesh.
Sometimes JJ sat on my lap, or we’d lay there on the hot cushions and play Spoons-in-a-Drawer, with JJ as the teaspoon and me the tablespoon behind him. I held him silently in the hot, dark drawer until someone came to retrieve us. We always whispered in the drawer so we wouldn’t scare anyone or arouse suspicion. We couldn’t risk speaking too loudly, and I could tell JJ knew it from the way he arched his back to put his ear against my mouth so I could talk into it as quietly as possible. I told him about the birds, or I tried to, but it soon seemed there was actually very little to say.
I wanted JJ to learn how to see them on his own, but I didn’t know how to say it, to have him see for himself the imperial glint in the wings of the Itterlings, or the hard, pewter bills of the Knighting Birds, the little clouds of yellow dust that puffed out of the Great Golden Trask when it jumped to catch a fly. There was the Rumped Warbler who destroyed the flesh of its nest once a month, only to rebuild it on a higher set of branches, and that certain song at the end of the summer when they’d made it as high as they could go. What could I say about the Meadow Glyphs—with their tough orange crew-cuts and the thin skin of their lungs, the exposed orange sack that filled and shrank with their breathing? I wanted JJ to see the Striped Poping, the Ducking Vulture, and the Tasselwing. I hoped he would feel something when he watched a mating pair of White-shouldered Sillbeaks, how the male pierced pecan shells so its mouth was stuck shut, and how the female would save him, curving her claws into a foothold and yanking him free. I wanted him to see how they dined together afterwards on the meat of the pecan.
JJ had never heard of the Looterbird before I asked him to come sit with me, but it soon became our favorite one to watch, killing smaller birds by muscling them over to fences to stab them on the blades of razor wire or the sharp, twisted top-ends of chain link. Looterbirds allowed their prey to suffer, leaving them to bleed out while they flew home and gathered the rest of their brood. When the Looterbirds returned they took up positions around the dying bird, all four or five of them hovering, waiting politely as though for a blessing, watching the stabbed bird’s last weak twitches before they began to eat. We sat on the balcony and watched the little birds get picked clean, bones the clear color of animal claws falling singly into the sweet-cut grass at the bottom of the fence. The Looterbird hen was always last to eat, licking the metal clean when everyone else had flown home.
When a Looterbird died in the yard of the apartment complex, JJ took it upon himself to rescue its corpse and bring it inside. He noted the pebbled skin of its feet, the beak routed like crown molding, and the dead marble eyes the smooth color of a dark uniform. When I told JJ he could keep it, he put it on a dinner plate and stroked its feathers absently. When he got bored he stood and washed his hands, and two days later I took it out to the dumpster when it began to smell.
Sometimes on our couch outside he would just sit in my lap, his thighs on mine, my arms wrapped around his belly, my ear pressed to his warm spine. Since I couldn’t see around him, I’d ask JJ to tell me what he saw, what kind of bird was doing what, how old he thought it was, how many eggs he might expect to find in its nest, and at what time of year. I listened to the words as they came through his backbones, and I stiffened predictably into the crease of his ass. Sometimes I would ask him if he wanted it. If he did, he would start to swirl his hips on me, like he was trying to find something between us and melt it. Sometimes I’d remind him to slow down and tell me more about the birds. When I asked him to imitate the breathing of a bird he saw, he did his best, each breath coming quicker than the pulse I heard through his back. He’d huff and jerk his head around like every breath was a new thought, a fresh update, a harmless tweet, each one only a second or two long, each one sudden and irrelevant, each one just enough to cock his head at a slight and additional angle.
When I asked JJ to hop like a bird, he’d act like he was tied to a chair. My arms were tight around him, pinning his down, which only made me harder in my pants and more desperate to reach him. I wanted to push through the fabric to get to JJ, or to burst through my own skin to meet him in the hell-hot place between us that was too dark to see.
“Do you see any birds, JJ?”
“I hear some but I don’t see any yet. Should I maybe go get the binoculars?”
“No, its okay, stay right here. Just tell me if you see anything.”
“Oh cool. I see a Looterbird.”
I squeezed him, “Tell me about the Looterbird, JJ.”
“Looterbird’s got that bandit face, like a mask. Hopping around like a little criminal.”
“Does he have any white on his belly?”
“White on his belly, yup. White right up to his Looterbird crime mask. Plus little feet.”
“Little feet. Little feet like nothing. Like little twigs under the white on his belly all puffed out.”
“How does he breathe, JJ?”
“With a big head too, gray on top, masked, like a bandito, just like a little felon or a misdemeanor. Spot of red just under his eye shaped like a prison tear, crying about a little stupid misdemeanor charge.”
“Should we charge him with a little misdemeanor, JJ? Or is he gonna get those charges dismissed? Maybe he’s gonna get acquitted?”
“Looterbird wants a mistrial, but I bet he won’t get it.”
“Looterbird’s found a Fern Sparrow. Got the whole family in on it now. Everybody’s flying around.”
“Is the Looterbird gonna kill it?”
“Yeah, the Looterbird’s killing it hard.”
“The maintenance man just put up this fence the other day, you know.”
“Yes, I saw him do it, JJ. Fine work, isn’t it?”
“And yesterday he unrolled a bunch of barbed wire and put it across the top.”
“And it rained right after. You heard it last night?”
“I bet those barbs are starting to get rusty, huh? Not the whole thing though. Just the tips.”
“Too bad for that Fern Sparrow. They got him on top that fence now.”
“How about now? Looterbird committing any crimes now?”
“Yeah, all sorts of crimes. The same old crimes. And not little ones either. He stabbed that sparrow right through. Wiggling and struggling.”
“Why don’t you struggle, JJ?”
“Yeah, that’s good, just keep it going. Struggle. Like Looterbird’s got you stretched out on a pole. Like Looterbird’s being a nasty little bandit, huh? A hungry little crook?”
“I told you he’s not interested in those little crimes, JJ. Not anymore, is he?”
“He didn’t take off his mask did he, JJ?”
“He’s still got those little feet, doesn’t he?”
“You don’t deserve a mistrial, JJ.”
“You need the full extent of the law. You need some hard time.”
“They’re eating him now.”
“C’mon JJ, talk to me—you got some crime in you?”
“Fern Sparrow’s almost gone.”
“And what’s his belly look like now, that Looterbird’s belly?”
“S’got a buncha stuff on it.”
“What kinda stuff?”
“Nasty stuff. Blood and gut stuff.”
“Start breathing like that Looterbird again, JJ. Like you just did one of those felony crimes. Like they’re about to come for you.”
“And put you up on the rusty pole.”
“And eat your stuff.”
“Stick you on the pole, crimeboy.”
“Yeah, you—you little fuckbandit.”
“Looterbird’s done now.”
* * *
“So. Do you? Like birds?” Joubert asked.
“Well, yes, I guess I sometimes—”
“Good. Hit that button, James.”
“That one on the fridge. Right there next to—yeah, right there.”
The button was plastic, like from a game machine in a video arcade, caked with a light grime on its edges, its topside scooped away to repeatedly receive a finger. It was mounted on a small block of wood attached to the refrigerator with glue, among the flock of magnetized clips and magnets. A thin, shielded wire came out of the wood leading down and away, behind the fridge.
“Not yet,” Joubert said.
I pressed it and heard something snap shut. My neighbor jumped to his toes, peeking over my shoulder and out the window.
He left quickly through the living room where his puppy yelped and rattled against the bars of her cage. I turned to look out the window but couldn’t get past all the things in his kitchen. Quart-sized soup containers filled with basting brushes, family-sized coffee cans overflowing with magnets, long hooks shooting out of the pegboard holding up hairbands, keyrings, and multi-colored pipecleaners. And I thought of JJ, finishing up his shift at the restaurant, draining the bottom of one ketchup bottle into the top of another, wrapping knives and forks into squares of clean, synthetic linen. He hated rolling silverware, almost as much as he hated marrying the ketchup bottles, and whenever he shared these small injustices with me a pout would sit on his lips like a delicate treat. After work, the skin on his neck tasted lightly of tartar sauce, and I usually had a way of getting my tongue on it before he jumped in the shower.
When I saw Joubert through the window he looked down at a small box in the yard with his hands on his hips. He lifted it to look under, then briefly up at me in the kitchen for a thumbs-up. He went down to his knees and snuck his hand under it, and his face wondered to itself for a moment. I saw that he was holding an ugly bird, a songless scavenger, its beak the color of bloodcrust, its wings black and gray. It was a Pessulus, known more commonly as a John Crow. Joubert tucked the bird under an arm like a half-empty grocery bag, and tried to calm it with his free hand, rubbing its featherless head.
He stomped back into the kitchen, and I noted the bird’s single nostril, a hole that went clean through the side of its beak, now with yellow saliva bubbling from it. The John Crow continued to hiss, its tongue as pink as mine but too short to protrude from its mouth. The puppy made rough, disgruntled yips at having another animal in the house. Joubert cooed and told me to pet the bird, even as it continued to hiss and struggle to open its wings. He brought the bird’s head close to his own and smiled, turning the smile over to me, his gray teeth leaning into each other like a family of old tombstones.
“Oh, he’s just talking to you a little bit. He likes you. Don’t you, Johnny Don’t you Johnny John Crow?”
“Let’s take him downstairs. C’mon.”
The walls of his stairwell had more boxes: OOLONG. NINE-VOLT BATTERIES. GLUE STICKS. SOLDER GUNS. MOSQUITO SPRAY. VEHICLE WAX.
I never liked the idea of taking stairs two at a time on the way down, but Joubert did it. We stepped into a bare room of concrete, a chamber with hard corners in all directions and short windows up near the ceiling, where you could look to a patch of grass. The room was empty, except that one side of it lay behind thick steel bars spaced a couple inches apart. It was filled with birds, about thirty varieties, each entirely quiet, sitting together on perches. I couldn’t see the floor of the cage for all the seed and shit and piss, purple-black kernels crumbling in pools of white urine, piles of moist marbles spotted with seed, like chocolates freshly rolled in a dust of nuts. To stand there was intoxicating, the thick smell of the room diluted me, and the future seemed to disappear only to be replaced by its coming. It was like being doused with a can of gasoline or slapped by thick leather gloves.
“Do you wanna be the one to put him in the cage?” Joubert asked.
“Put him in the cage? You’re going to put this bird in there too?”
“I mean, of course you are—I have eyes, don’t I? But put him in there for what—what is this?”
“Alright, Neighbor Nosy, I’ll do it. Can you just slide this door—yeah—”
There was a door at the bottom of the cage the size of a small dog. I popped the latch and slid it open. Joubert bent down to it, and the John Crow, seeing its future now in the serene faces of the birds, began to jerk and hiss again. They hardly moved, and seemed to expect him. Some of them flimmered their feather-tips in anticipation, others loosened and re-gripped the ledges they stood on, rocking softly from side-to-side. A bird I couldn’t identify let a small mound of excrement drop softly into the cedar shavings.
Joubert shoved the John Crow in, closed the cage door, and stood back. He looked at the birds with his thumbs hooked into his waistband. I handed his beer back to him and he didn’t seem to care about it, then he emptied it in a single pull, arching his back and pointing the bottom of the bottle up to the ceiling. He set it on the floor quietly, as though he didn’t want to disturb them. I took a sip of beer too and wondered about the time and how it always seemed to be leaving me without an apology. Soon it would take me to JJ’s tartared neck.
Joubert whispered, “You think we should let’m out?”
“Which one—the John Crow? Yes, of course I do! I still don’t know why you put him in there in the first place.”
“No, not him, James.”
“All of ‘em.”
“All of ‘em what?”
“Let ‘em all out.”
“All of them? For what? No, we shouldn’t—How will we get them back in there? Why do you even have this thing? To be honest, I’d prefer to set them all free, but it doesn’t look like that’s what all this is for.”
“You want me to just get you another beer, Joubert? How about I just get you another beer and you can point out what kinds of birds you have in here—”
“Oh, c’mon man, I don’t need another beer. Plus you only bought six anyway. I know you and JJ—”
I took a breath to protest that six beers were plenty, that there were plenty more where they came from if we wanted to get more which we could very easily, but he stepped in front of me and grabbed a latch I hadn’t noticed, a bigger latch for a bigger door, a door that reached from floor to ceiling and must have been heavy with its long bars of steel. He yanked it with a grunt and it slid back on gritty, invisible wheels. The metallic clang of the door snapped the birds out of their twitchy introspections and sent each of them leaping. They flew around the cage for a moment, then out into the room, passing us in pairs and handfuls, beating the stale air with their flapping. Even the John Crow stretched his wings and lifted himself into the air. Their songs were a tangle of whistled threads, warbles jumping off the corners, hisses hanging like streamers from my ears. Their wings cut quick, temperamental shadows in the light of the basement’s half-windows. It pulsed like a strobe. Feathers fell at varying speeds. A small spot of down floated over and stuck to my lip, which I’d been licking nervously. The birds were all out and Joubert slid the big door shut and snapped back the latch, bending to open the little doggie door. When he stood back up he squeezed my arm above the elbow and spoke flatly into my ear.
“C’mon—Now we gotta catch ‘em.”
He’d hardly let go when a Speckled Hivebird flew straight at his eyes. He ducked out of its way and snatched it by a wing, whipping it back into the cage through the doggie door. When it hit the back of the cage Joubert cried out, something high-pitched and repetitive, identical syllables I couldn’t understand. As the birds flew around the room it seemed there were more than I thought, and many I did not recognize, birds who might have trumpeted on some seashore as the waves tickled their knees, birds who might have displayed their colorful rears to their loved ones at dusk, birds who might’ve practiced their singing the old-fashioned way, without an audience, lifting songs to no one in a dry cave in the middle of the night—the kind of birds who loved to nap in the early afternoon and the kind who could not relax until evening was coming on.
A Redbill Rufus chased a Salt Wren around the concrete room, and the Wren hummed throatily as if it were already caught. The Rufus loped after it with a leisurely smile curled in its beak. Joubert kicked the Rufus with a bare foot. When the Wren turned, thinking the trouble had passed, Joubert snatched it out of the air and ran it over to the cage.
I tried to grab the stunned Rufus. His bill was red and narrow and long, glossy as a pair of lacquered chopsticks, and I hoped to take him by it and chuck him nonchalantly into the birdcage the way Joubert had done with the Northern Fee Pheasant, the York Goose, and the Hay Parrot. He tossed them in like so much trash, knick-knacks he might chuck into the cart on a limitless shopping spree, like near-diamond earrings, like watches with stretchy metal bands, like gemstone wrist purses with detachable chains. He caught them with an effort that implied he had done this many times, and they hit the walls of the cage with only the slightest whimpers of complaint.
Joubert took off his pants and used his shirt to catch an Australian Sailbird, a Hargreen, and a Crosswing. Their eyes shifted quickly in their heads, they flapped hard but got nowhere. I used my shirt like Joubert did and caught a Spotted Bird of the Heap. In anger the bird clawed through my shirt, and I had nothing to offer the cage but a snatch of rag patterned in pinstripes. Joubert said loudly that the shirt was too easy and went back to doing it the regular way—by hand, by elbow, by finger. He caught a Flute Owl between his thighs with a scissor-hold, and backhanded a Percybird that fell instantly. Hating to be confronted, Percybirds temporarily lose their vision whenever they are touched. I picked up the limp, silvery body of the Flute Owl as the Percybird wobbled in blind circles until I gathered it too, and put them both in the cage.
I felt nobility in my role, taking up their stunned and wounded bodies, shuttling them over to the cage. I handled each of the birds that my neighbor didn’t put in himself: the Tufted Breton, the White-Haired Half-Jay, the Nail Grouse, the Trouting Tawny, and three bright blue Shellyhawks. Many of them I had seen many times at many places, and now they were here together. Joubert stood near the cage when I saw that the only bird left was ours, JJ’s and mine, the one from our hot evenings on the balcony in Good Springs, the only one of these that JJ was certain to know. When I saw it I tried to turn away, but Joubert caught my chin midway with his thumb and forefinger and looked at me. Yes, it was a Looterbird, he seemed to say, and he blinked hard at me to affirm it.
I immediately wanted to touch it with my own hands, to knock it to the ground and confuse it, to stand over it and dance once I had made it woozy and indeterminate. I would watch the bird forget itself and find itself again slowly. As it came to, it would try to mount a defense against me that it would find to be of no use. JJ would love to hear about it when he got off. He liked to be entertained when he came home from work. He would like that I finally had something to brag about—me beating our bird while he was at the restaurant sweating all over himself, “in the weeds” he said they called it. He ran in circles and took orders, refilling bottomless sodas, bottomless soups, and bottomless salad bowls. As I told him the story, JJ would lend me the whole of his neck, from the back of his hairline down to the tops of his shoulders, from jawline to collarbone. I’d lay my tongue against the sternocleids that bulged like ropes when he turned his head, before I went down to wet the hollow below his Adam’s apple. I would tell him how I caught the bird, and lick all the places he sweat from, a curious salty film that tasted lightly of pickle relish and mayonnaise.
Many times I told him he tasted like tartar sauce and many times he responded, “I don’t even like tartar sauce!” laughing pertly to himself and turning away from me in the corners of his eyes. But he did taste like tartar sauce, and I would lick him between my sentences as I told him how I got the Looterbird, and how good he tasted. But now, in the basement, my mouth was dry and I was hot and Joubert stood next to me at the cage, sweat running down to soak into the elastic waist of his briefs. The basement floor was littered with feces and feathers and was cool to the touch of my feet. The bird was standing on the far side of the room, turned to the side so she could eye me.
“These Looterbird motherfuckers are vicious. Little, but vicious as a motherfucker. You know how they kill their prey?”
“I do actually. I used to wat—”
“Just vicious. Now I’m gonna step back and let you take care of it. I can’t be having all the fun now. She’s all yours.”
“Oh, and you’re sure it’s a female?”
“Yeah, man. You can tell from the d—”
“Different colored eyes, now I see them. Heterochromia, it’s called.”
“Yeah sure—you know it comes from when sh—”
“Ingests filaments of the metals she uses to stage and impale her prey. It’s something that almost never happens in the males of the species since—”
“Never understood why. They eat the same as she does—”
“Not true actually—by the time the female eats, most of the meat has already been eaten away by the rest of the family, especially by the male partner. So she ends up eating closer to the bones where there’s much more contact with the metal.”
“Fuckin vicious, man.”
Joubert walked away from the cage shaking his head, crossing the room to sit on the floor with his knees hugged to his chest. Both of us were sweating and he cheered me on as I tried, leaping and grasping after the bird as she nimbly eluded me time and again. In flight, she would dip suddenly when I began to soar, and as I was falling she would rise predictably away. After ten minutes of pursuit I had only come close enough to tear out a single feather, which she gave up with a sober, disapproving look, hovering out of my reach before she flew away with a fresh resolve. I loosened my belt and took off my pants. My neighbor was sitting on the floor in his underwear, and I was standing in mine. He slapped the ground as he observed my repeated failures.
“Use it, James. You gotta use it! All you’re doing is letting it get away from you.”
“Get up in there, James.”
“You own this.”
“No no no, James. You’ve got to watch what you’re doing.”
“A Looterbird may be vicious, James, especially the ladies, but a bird is a very stupid animal, James.”
“You play like she could even win! Like the possibility of winning is even available to her. You have to take it, James! Take away the option.”
“Stake a fucking claim, James.”
I gathered up my pants and threw them in a heap at the Looterbird hoping to tangle her up somehow. When that failed I jumped over to the cage and grabbed its bars with both my hands, trying to squeeze a fresh drip of fear from the broken spirits of the birds inside. I gripped the bars and climbed them a little, arching my back, pushing off the bars with my feet. Even though the bars did not rattle, I stirred something in the birds. They began to scream and shriek like they feared for their safety, and they hooked their heads from one side to another, ascertaining the level of the threat. I let go of the bars and screamed like they did, a yell for myself. I was still sweating, arms up, mouth open, and mostly naked. I didn’t mind it right then. I screamed over Joubert in the corner, who had already begun screaming along with the birds, and I swung my pants around in a wide circle over my head, whipping the air like I hoped to become a helicopter.
I chased her hard from corner to corner, hoping to strike her with the wallet wedged in the back pocket of my pants. It was cramped with cards and memberships and money and receipts. JJ liked to make fun of it sometimes when I pulled it out, and in more serious moods he asked me what it was like to sit on such a thing. Once, as we were walking through a parking lot after a movie on a perfect afternoon, he asked if he could see my wallet for a second. When I gave it to him he took it and threw it at a squirrel hopping toward a thin strip of lawn, a sight which he often told me he hated. The wallet landed in a pile of mulch and JJ refused to retrieve it, to simply pick it up and give it back to me, and I didn’t press him, since, in the end, the wallet belonged to me.
The wallet in my pants struck the Looterbird as she completed the downstroke of a hard flap and it fell out of my pants’ pocket onto the floor. It lay next to the Looterbird, who was now wheezing and spinning vainly on the concrete with a lame wing. JJ didn’t know it, but since I’d met him I’d started keeping a single serving of lubricant tucked in my wallet, in case we were out somewhere. The lube oozed out of my wallet and collected slowly in a pool. It was pink and claimed to taste like mixed berries. I spat at the Looterbird lying on the ground, but I missed, then dropped down to grab her before she could collect herself, or her speed, or her vicious sense of purpose. I felt her purr a little when I scooped her into a loose fist and left her gently just inside the door of the cage.
The hisses of her companions had died down considerably. Joubert stood and struck his palms against the walls in excitement, hooting at me in the gray light that slanted in the windows, “That’s the way, Neighbor. That’s the one right there.”
I put my pants back on and we went back upstairs so Joubert could lend me a shirt to wear home. I got the bag of groceries and the rest of the beer. When I got home JJ was sitting on the couch with a computer on his knees. He had already showered and the air had no flesh in it. It was moist and heavy with false fragrance. Through the open door, I saw that the bathroom light was still on, and the steam had already escaped from the mirrors. JJ’s hair was just starting to curl away from his skull. He didn’t look up at me when I walked in, his face firm and unwritten, typical when the computer was on his lap. It was the look he wore when he was hoping to find something to do.
Kameron Bashi was born in Oklahoma City and has lived in Baltimore, Seattle, Germany, Washington DC, and Providence, Rhode Island, where he received an MFA in Fiction from Brown University. He is currently living in the middle of the country as a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. This is his first publication.
For more by Christian Newby, visit his website.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.