Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
The man was doing chores when he noticed the first baby bird. His little boy was with him, in his arms, held against his hip. The boy was at this stage where he liked to help out with whatever his dad was doing. All the man had to say was, You want to go to the basement? Daddy needs to advance the laundry. That’s what the man said, advance the laundry. He wasn’t sure why he started saying it that way. He pictured a pawn advancing across a crowded chessboard. All he meant was he needed to take the stuff in the dryer and put it onto the folding table and move the stuff in the washer to the dryer, and then start washing the next load. That was how he advanced the laundry.
So the man had said to his little boy, Do you want to go to the garage? Daddy needs to take the garbage out. And, of course, the boy did. He ran to his father as if he had just been asked if he wanted an ice-cream cone. The man picked the boy up, and then they got the garbage ready. It was Sunday. Sunday was the day he took out the garbage. Monday, for the little boy, was the day the garbage trucks came. Monday was also for music class. Tuesday was the day the milkman came. The other days had not yet acquired firm identities.
After they set the garbage cans in the alley, the man decided he should do the recycling and the compost, too. Just to get it all done. He carried the little boy back up the stairs and told him what they were going to do next. He was always telling the boy what was about to happen or what had just transpired. That was when the man noticed the baby bird. It was lying on one of the steps, on its side. Its feet were pulled up under it, as if clutching something to its chest, and its beak hung partway open. The man was pretty sure the bird was dead. Flies were already buzzing around it.
The man and the little boy went inside. He washed their hands and then put his son down. Can you play with Mommy? he said. For a little bit? The man wasn’t sure when he started phrasing so much of what he said to his son as a question. Like it was all optional.
In the living room, the man’s wife was going through the week’s junk mail, all the catalogs and come-ons that had piled up. Sometimes something decent slipped in.
So, the man said, there’s a b-i-r on the steps out there. I need to clean it up. The man and his wife only ever spelled the first three letters of words, mostly the nouns, because the boy knew a lot of nouns already. Three letters were usually enough. Context was everything.
You mean, it’s—
Yeah, he said. A baby, too. Their son knelt on the floor, playing with his cars. He lined them up and then tried to balance his people on top of them.
I don’t think he saw it, the man said. I doubt he’d understand, but I didn’t want to, you know, make a big scene.
The man got a shovel and some gloves and a couple of plastic grocery bags and went back outside. Flies crawled over the bird, more thickly than before, and the man swatted at them with his gloves. He felt angry at the flies, as if, somehow, they were to blame. He slid the bird onto the shovel and thought he heard a chirp. He stopped and looked at the bird. The edge of the shovel gleamed. It couldn’t have been the bird. His bird was dead. He looked again, checking for some sign of life, some movement or breathing or anything, but he saw nothing. Then he heard another chirp. It sounded close by, somewhere, but it was not his bird. Definitely not his bird, he thought.
He eased the bird into one of the bags and tied a knot with the handles. There were ants on the step where the bird had been, all massed together in one intense spot. Could the bird have even been dead for longer than an hour? The man placed the bird inside the second bag and knotted it as well. He just didn’t want anything coming for the bird, some cat or rat or the man didn’t know what.
When the man returned from the alley, he found a second bird, lying at the foot of the stairs. Another baby, and the same type by the look of it. The flies were back, too, and, the man suspected, the ants as well. If they weren’t, they soon would be. What was worse, though, was the bird was still alive, if only just barely. Every few seconds, it flexed its legs out and then pulled them in.
Oh no, the man said. Like he was a child. That’s what the little boy said when he dropped a toy or spilled his juice all over the place.
The man wasn’t sure what kind of bird it was. He’d seen them around. They had dark brown feathers and speckles across their back. He thought maybe they were grackles, but he really wasn’t sure. He didn’t know all the types of birds and what people called them.
The man swatted at the flies with his shovel and then looked at the bird. He rested the shovel against the steps and then folded his gloves over the handle. Where were all these birds coming from? A tree grew in their backyard, a maple, taller than their home, but the man scanned the branches and could find no nest. He looked at their house then. There were, it seemed, openings under the eaves, just beneath the gutter. The man had never noticed them before. It looked like a mistake, something left off in construction, the kind of thing he should have fixed years before. They weren’t large, these openings, but he guessed they were large enough, weren’t they? He looked again at the bird. Poor thing, he thought. All skin and fuzz and bald on the head. The bones of its wings were visible. The bird moved.
Oh no, the man said. Oh no. He couldn’t stop saying oh no. He hurried up the steps and went inside.
His wife and the little boy were playing at a game they called bee in the box. The rules were vague and ever-evolving, but basically, there was a bee, and it could get stuck in a box, except sometimes, it could fly right out of the box and buzz around the boy or land on his head or shoulder. The bee could also walk along the edge of the box, singing its bee song, only to fall right back into the box again. The boy loved this game.
So, the man said, there’s another b-i-r out there.
Yeah, and this one’s alive. Sort of. I think.
His wife went back to playing. She was the bee, it seemed. Is there anything you can do? she said.
I don’t think I can nurse it back to health, the man said. I mean, not in the condition it’s in.
His wife nodded. Okay, she said.
I think I should probably—you know, he said. But I really don’t want to do that.
It’s okay, she said.
The man walked to the kitchen and looked out the window into the backyard. The bird was there still, on the ground. He thought he saw it move.
Why don’t you wait an hour? his wife said. Just give it a little time. Maybe it will be fine, you never know.
The man doubted very much the bird would be fine, but it sounded good, waiting an hour.
His wife buzzed the bee around their little boy’s head. The bee is getting so sleepy, she told him. Her buzzing became sluggish and then it became soft, like a whisper. The bee needs a nap, she said. No, the boy said.
In the days before their child was born, just a couple of days, in fact, before they went to the hospital, a baby bird showed up on their doorstep. It could not have been more literally so. They were just sitting in the living room, watching television, when the man heard the bird.
Did you hear that? he said.
The man went to the door and opened it, and the bird was right there. A tiny thing, crying. It was storming out, and raining rather hard. The man figured the bird had been knocked from its nest. Maybe their doorstep, narrow as it was and barely covered, was the best shelter the bird could find.
The man bent to look at the bird. It tilted its head back and opened its beak, then it cried again.
The man closed the door. There’s a bird right outside our door, he said. There is? his wife said. She got up to come see. She was hugely pregnant and lovely. She moved about slowly, holding onto the sofa while she walked, bracing herself against the back. One of her ankles had been bothering her for the last week. They had gone to see an acupuncturist but it only helped some. She was so tired and lovely.
The bird had moved to the top of the stairs and was huddled underneath the railing.
I think I should do something, the man said. To help it.
His wife sat back down. I’m too tired to do anything, she said. But you do something.
I just think I should, the man said. I mean, it’s too weird, right? Waiting for our baby and here this bird comes along. It’s weird, you know?
His wife agreed it was pretty weird. The man got an umbrella and some twine and tied the umbrella to the railing, so that it covered the bird and part of the doorstep. Then he got a shallow bowl and filled it with water. He just hoped the bird knew what to do.
I don’t think I can feed it, he said. His wife told him that was okay. I mean, what does it even eat? the man said. Regurgitated cricket or worm or something?
I’m sure what you’ve done will help, his wife said.
They watched some more television. Somebody was running this marathon of a sitcom his wife had seen when she was a little girl. She knew all the jokes and how all the stories ended.
Can you rub my feet? she said.
The man took her feet into his lap. Of course he could, he said.
In the morning, the bird was gone. The man looked around for it but didn’t see it anywhere, not under their steps or in their yard or in their neighbors’ yards. He didn’t even see any feathers on the ground. He was afraid, actually, he would find feathers. He brought the bowl inside and collapsed the umbrella, and he told his wife the news.
That night, the bird returned. Just as before, the man heard it and went to the door. He bent close, and the bird tilted its head back and cried.
Hey, the man said. Do you want some water?
He went to get a bowl, the same one as before. It’s our bird, he told his wife. He set the bowl down and then sat in the doorway. The bird looked better maybe, a little fuller perhaps. The man wasn’t sure. They look so rough when they’re new.
The next morning, the bird was gone again. The man picked up the bowl and emptied the water onto a plant. As he had before, he looked around to make sure the bird hadn’t fallen, or worse. He thought he heard a bird that sounded like his bird, but he couldn’t be certain. It was coming from a tree, up high. He craned his neck and he shielded his eyes but he didn’t see a thing.
While the little boy napped, the man went to check on the second baby bird. It was pretty much where he had left it and not looking at all well. He swatted away the flies. Stupid bird, he thought. Stupid, stupid bird. Would there be more? The man had to wonder. How many might still be hatching under the roof?
As he scooted the bird onto the shovel, its legs stretched out, as if trying to grasp his fingers. Nerves, the man thought. Just nerves. Life’s last gasp or whatever. If the bird was alive somehow, if it was, in some dim, barely functioning capacity, still alive, it wouldn’t be for long. The man thought he should kill the bird, probably, that it was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t, not with his hands and not with the shovel’s edge. He just couldn’t do it. He was, he supposed, a coward. Also, he was lazy. Even if he had noticed those openings under the roof, he wouldn’t likely have fixed them. He would have meant to get to the job, sure—he had good intentions— but he doubted he ever would. He wanted to be honest.
The man eased the bird into a bag. Before tying it, he forced as much air out as he could. If the bird were to suffocate, please let it die quickly, he thought. At least let it be quick.
When the little boy awoke from his nap, they went to see some trucks. The city had a thing where, every year, they brought a bunch of trucks out, parked them by the old stadium, and then let kids clamber all over them. It was something to do. They had dump trucks, diggers, bulldozers, and forklifts. There were ambulances and fire engines, garbage trucks and police cruisers. The little boy liked best the garbage trucks.
In the corner of the parking lot, families stood in a wide ring around a helicopter. The man held the little boy in his arms, against his hip, and his wife took photographs. Soon, the main rotor on top of the helicopter began to turn, slowly at first and then faster, until it was chopping the air, and all the man could hear was the heavy, regular beat of the blades.
Inside, two men readied themselves, checking controls, whatnot.
The man pointed at the helicopter. Do you see the men? he said. They’re wearing helmets. The little boy had just learned the word helmet. The man pointed to his head. Helmet, he said. He wasn’t sure the boy could hear him. He was shouting and he hardly heard himself.
The helicopter rose up, hovering a few feet off the ground. Dust filled the air, and the man covered his child’s eyes. The helicopter floated before them, bobbing slightly, like a toy. It rotated to the right and then back to the left. The man started to cry a little. He had no idea why. It wasn’t the dust, he knew. As the helicopter took to the air, he kissed the back of his boy’s head and held him tightly. They watched the helicopter pass overhead and then circle around the stadium. People waved, cheered, pointed at the sky.
The crying wasn’t a big thing, but it did perplex the man. One night, a few days after the fact, he asked his wife if she happened to remember the helicopter.
Of course she did, she said. Why?
That’s when he told her something had come over him. That was how he put it. They were reading in bed. His wife was lying backwards, facing the headboard, with her legs resting against the wall. It was some stretching exercise she did. For circulation, the man thought. He couldn’t remember now, she had been doing it since before the baby.
His wife thought maybe it was just because their boy had enjoyed the helicopter. He was so excited, she said. To see his face, the look on it.
The man wasn’t sure. It was like, watching the helicopter with him, he said, I saw it as he would see it, maybe. Or anyway, how I imagined he might see it. The man riffled the pages of his magazine. It all seemed, suddenly, too much somehow. It seemed like such a strange place, he said. The world and this thing in it, flying, and us there. And why was any of it there? Why were we there, you know, watching?
We went for the trucks, his wife said. Because he really likes trucks.?
Right, I know, the man said, but can you imagine never having seen something fly before, and then, right there in front of you, this thing flies?
I don’t know, his wife said. He looked happy to me.
That’s good, I guess, the man said. He stroked his wife’s legs while she stretched. He was thinking back on the time, trying not just to remember it, but seeing if he couldn’t feel what he had felt. He had this idea that if he could feel it again, then he might be able to understand it this time. He could move through it slowly, patiently viewing it frame by frame, pausing, rewinding, and then playing it back once more. But already, the experience had dimmed. It was like looking at a beloved painting hung behind a thick pane of glass.
Maybe it just scared me, the man said. He looked over at his wife. She was paging rapidly through her magazine, as if hunting for something she knew had to be there. Do you ever get like that? he said.
She stopped flipping. Like what?
The man put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling. How to explain? It’s like, he said, but then he stopped, because maybe, he thought, he should just bail, make an easy joke and scurry away. He could think about it later—or not.
Whichever, it didn’t matter. Somewhere, a rare tree stood in the middle of a meadow on an island that the man had glimpsed only a few times from the sea. The point was to get there. The only problem was he didn’t know how, not always.
It’s like there’s some basic thing, the man said at last, some basic, fundamental thing, but when you think of it, it’s scary now. It’s not basic anymore, it’s inconceivable or it’s strange or it’s whatever. But the thing is, he said, you’ve never given it any thought before, you never bothered, because why would you? And now, of course, now you can’t stop. You just keep thinking of the stupid thing.
The man turned to his wife. Do you know what I mean? he said.
His wife thought for a second. There was this one time, she said. I was climbing some stairs. I worked in an office, on the sixth floor of a building. This was years ago, she said. This was before I met you. I thought it was good exercise, you know, taking the stairs. They were on the outside of the building. They were glassed-in, but you could see out, so there was a view. I really liked that view. I liked to look down at the people as I walked up the stairs. I’d pick someone out and then I’d try to keep that person in my sight. Anyway, one day, in the middle of climbing, I was, I don’t know, four flights up maybe, when I thought, How am I doing this? The climbing, I meant. How does it even work? I took another step then and I almost fell. My foot felt weird, like it wasn’t my foot. I couldn’t control it. It wouldn’t go up, at least not as far as I needed it to. And the next step was just as awkward. I had to will my feet to move. I had to concentrate and really focus on what I was doing. First the one foot, and then the other. I was telling myself that. It was like I’d never climbed stairs before. Finally, I just had to stop. I sat down against the railing and I rested. What did you do? the man asked.
Eventually, I got up. I had to.
But about the stairs, the man said.
I made it the rest of the way, she said. Somehow.
And later? he said. After that?
Well, she said, I guess, for a while, stairs seemed rather odd to me.
Paul Maliszewski is the author of Fakers, a collection of essays, and Prayer and Parable, a book of stories forthcoming from Fence Books in summer 2011.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.