The Birdman

FICTION

By VERNA AUSTEN

The feeder hung from the ginkgo tree in the shape of a cross. Dried ears of yellow corn jetted from the head, hands and feet as David’s offering to the squirrels in hopes they’d leave the birdseed alone. He’d seen them running the length of the garage roof with their pouchy cheeks stuffed, and the dome-shaped baffle only worked for a while. The bottom feeder was full of suet cakes for the nuthatches and wrens who fed upside down, and one of the new ones even had a tail prop for the woodpecker Ginny named “Woody.”

At the farm stand he bought the heaviest sack of black sunflower seeds for the male cardinal he called “Papa,” a brilliant red bird with a diamond of black feathers spread around his eyes, and his smaller dour-colored mate, whose only hint of her true nature was the faint outline of crimson along her wings. He sat on his front porch and waited for them to fly up the gravel driveway to rest on the telephone wires that criss-crossed his backyard. A half bushel of fresh corn sat next to him, and over his lap was a spread of old newspapers to catch the husks.

It was the feel of corn silk in his hands that brought her back; the softness, the color, even the clean scent was the same as Ginny’s hair. When she was alive she loved to walk around the house and peer up to the second floor window ledges under the air conditioners where there were perfect places to build nests.

“Babe,” she said once over a supper of meatloaf and mashed potatoes (real ones—not from a box), “this morning when I watered the tomatoes, I saw a sparrow carry a tiny stem of straw in its beak to the window ledge of the upstairs back bedroom. Then, later, when I went to get the mail, the ledge was full of straw, and at least four other birds were sitting on the phone wires with twigs and things in their beaks. They watched me and waited til I went back inside.”

“A whole family?” he’d said, and watched how her eyes lit up.

“Yeah, not just the mated pair. They were all working together to build a nest.” And they marveled at how such a thing was possible.

When he thought of her and knew he’d never see her again or touch her face, he did what his mother said to do about painful things. He thought about something else. Often he’d nap on the swing on the front porch, and in the magic time just before waking, he’d smell her shampoo or feel her fingers gently brush the hair from his forehead. He’d always pretend for a while until he forced himself to see that it was just the breeze.

The bank gave him until the end of the week to leave the house, and his sister Rita told him he had no business buying bushels of anything and should be eating from the pantry and freezer to empty them—and how was he doing finding an apartment? She wasn’t going to be able to come down from Bloomington at the last minute to help.

He knew she was right, and each morning for the past month he’d taken the same small plastic container out of the freezer with “beef stew” scripted across in Ginny’s neat handwriting and set it on the counter for supper. But he could never bring himself to eat it and returned it to its place next to the ice-cube trays every night after he stopped by the Chinese buffet in town.

He didn’t know what he’d do with the frozen containers stacked neatly in five rows of four. There was no way he could leave them, but there wouldn’t be room for them in the small freezers in any of the apartments he’d seen, so he’d just put it out of his mind.

The house was just the same as before Ginny got sick. Her copper pots hung from the rack above the island in the kitchen, and the same handmade quilt covered their bed. One of the things he missed most was the radio playing constantly and her sweet voice singing along with the words. He hated coming home to a dark, quiet house, so he left the television on in the morning to welcome him at night. He’d loved to watch her putter around in the kitchen. She loved to cook and even knew the differences between olive oils.

“By the color,” she told him and held the bottles up to the light streaming in through the kitchen window. “See how this one is green and this is pale yellow? The greener the better,” she said and poured a spoonful into a glass bowl and whisked it with a clove of crushed garlic and lemon juice for their salad dressing. “I know you only married me because I’m a good cook, not for my looks.”

She knew that wasn’t true. He thought she was pretty and liked how she didn’t wear a lot of makeup. Her grey eyes were clear except for the few flecks of black freckles and sat over a tiny nose and bow mouth that along with her skin gave her the appearance of a porcelain doll.

Her smile was what he remembered when they met in Milner Library at ISU where she worked shelving books as a work study student. He made excuses to talk to her: the copier wouldn’t take his change, could he borrow a pencil, what time did the library close. There was something different about her, and he was happy she said yes when he asked her out.

They went to the new Japanese restaurant in the student union for shabu shabu. While swishing the thinly sliced beef in the hot broth and dipping pieces of carrot in ponzu sauce, he told her how he wasn’t much interested in his classes, except for the ones in programming. He liked how the world of computers operated in a practical and logical way. He understood the language.

When he knew her better, he asked if she remembered the summer of the big flood, how it had rained for weeks without stopping. His grandparents had owned a farm just outside the town that became famous when the Mississippi River rampaged its banks, destroying everything in its way, and left the entire town under water. It’d been the wettest June in over a hundred years, and when the river receded the people left had no place to go and relocated to higher ground a few miles away.

For weeks David’s grandparents made dozens of panicked phone calls to his father, who dismissed their fears and said they were old and exaggerating until the 10 o’clock news in Chicago broadcast footage of people driving down the streets in rowboats. The river pushed cars through storefronts as it rushed through and reclaimed the land as its own until it crested in August at 30 feet.

Once David answered the upstairs extension and listened to them pleading with their son.

“Please, you don’t understand,” his grandmother said, her breathing heavy and labored with a small sharp wheeze like a whistle when she inhaled. “It’s so hot. If the power goes out again, I need to get your father to a hospital, and I can’t drive at night. Please,” she said.

David’s father drove them all down to see for themselves. His grandparents had been rescued by the fire department and evacuated to a shelter, and David’s heart ached as they drove by what was left of the farm. Rows and rows of wilted corn and soybeans lay in dusty heaps, and the house was caked with a line of mud near the second-story windows. Doors and windows were broken and hanging loose or missing altogether, but the gingko tree had stood its ground. Rita and their mother stared open-mouthed, and all the while David looked at his father, whose face was caught in an expression he had never seen before. Not regret or pain, or worry or sorrow, but a mean spark lit through his eyes. David knew his father would say not to apply for any of the federal loan money, that his parents should take the insurance payout and whatever offer came their way first. But the house was willed in a trust to David, and when he wouldn’t sign the real estate papers, his father told him he’d see it abandoned and vacant until he was old enough to live there.

His father then moved his parents to an assisted living center in the northwest suburbs, and his mother had known all this. David always wondered if that had been the beginning of the end for her; he couldn’t be sure but thought she had begun to retreat into her own private world around the time of the flood.

He told Ginny how he loved the summers he’d spent as a child on the farm with his grandparents. He was so glad to have escaped the noise of the city and the lonely silence and angry dinner table of his family’s home. He loved the vastness of the unburdened sky and the smell of the grass and the farm filled with growing things. His grandfather had let him drive the tractor, and one year he was given his own patch of land that he pretended was an acre, though in reality was probably only five square feet.

Every day he watered and pulled any upstart weed that dared poke its head on his acre. He talked to his plants, too, like his grandmother did in a soft gentle voice until the end of August, when they began to droop from the heavy bunches of plum tomatoes and corn and beans.

One afternoon his grandmother was bent over along the shed where the wild ramps grew. A scarf protected her hair and eyes from the sun as her tanned arms rustled through the long dark green leaves. David knelt among the caged tomato plants with a round wire basket next to him and stretched out to reach through the furry green vines when he felt something crawling up the inside of his knee. He slapped it away and saw that his hand was sticky with blood.

An open end of the wire had caught itself onto his skin and torn through as it unraveled, cutting a spiral into his inner thigh. He had bled into the ground and not felt a thing. His grandmother ran into the house as he took deep breaths and felt the sun hot like a hammer on his forehead until she came back with a wad of toilet paper and pressed it to his leg. From the pocket in her apron she pulled out a bottle of mercurochrome and dabbed the wand over the cut and said she thought it would leave a scar.

That night after supper they sat out on the porch, and his grandfather gave him a cigar box full of seeds wrapped in paper towels.

“These are heirloom seeds, David,” he’d said. They had names like Cherokee Purple Tomato and Blue Lake Beans. “These come from plants older than you. I saved ’em myself from my best years. You keep these safe and come next year we’ll plant again.”

And that night he propped his aching leg on a pillow, and as he tried to sleep he held the cigar box on his lap.

They had no television, though the radio played each morning, and David grew so accustomed to waking to its comforting sound that when he returned home he couldn’t sleep without it. His grandmother told him all manner of stories—how the land was older than anyone they knew and that it would always be his home, a special place to go when he needed comfort. And she knew the story behind every tree and plant and flower.

As a girl she had seen a picture of a gingko tree in a library book that called it a living fossil. She liked how they were strong and had lived before the dinosaurs and had survived the ice age. After they married, his grandfather ordered a sapling by mail, and it arrived in the spring just when it was best for planting. The ground had been thawed for several weeks, and the buds hadn’t yet filled out.

They chose the perfect place in the front yard where there was just enough sun and where the tree would be close enough to the house to provide shade after it grew to size. It took his grandfather an afternoon to dig the hole three times bigger than the root ball, and his grandmother watered the roots through the burlap sack to keep the tree alive until it was planted, then mulched it with wood chips.

***

It wasn’t until he was in high school that David’s mother’s illness began to reveal itself. She’d wake in the middle of the night and set the dining room table with the good china or decide to clean out the pool and light the barbecue during a thunderstorm. And she became obsessed with math; she counted to herself all the time. Whether she was folding laundry or watching a program on television, her lips would silently move as she mouthed numbers like the names of old friends.

Rita spent most of those years in her room and willed herself to become invisible while David marked the days until summer with heavy red lines through boxed dates on his calendar.

Late at night he heard his parents in their room, and his mother’s voice began like a low hum and grew louder and louder, and his father said words like “hysterical” and “hospital,” which resulted in things like their going to Florida for vacation instead of the fishing cottage at the lake that his mother had planned or a new Buick for him instead of the station wagon for her.

She never had a fighting chance against him and was long gone now, and his grandparents, too; they only lasted a few years away from the farm. His father was as good as gone; he was Rita’s cross to bear. What kind of life is it when everyone you ever loved was dead?

Ginny never talked much about her own family. “I’ll spare you the sob story,” she said. There was a brother, a Gulf War veteran who lived in California but didn’t make it to her funeral. David knew she had a rough time of it growing up. The signs were plentiful.

She never forgot any kindness, no matter how small, and always paid close attention to the costs of things with the finely tuned awareness of someone who had gone without plenty of times. When they were still in school, she took him to the diner where she’d waitressed summers.

“Pancakes for $1.99, can’t beat that,” she’d said.

He noticed she wore the same shirts and jeans in the winter as she did in the summer, only with a black cardigan over them, and didn’t have a closet full of shoes like his other girlfriends had.

To be loved for himself was too much to ask, he’d thought. He wished merely to be liked; that was safer and more of a tangible thing than to say one person wanted you above all others for the rest of her life. He’d been sure he’d never get married and was doomed to a solitary life. But he would make it up to Ginny for all the difficult years they’d both had, he’d thought when he slipped the ring inside her makeup bag.

Over spring break their senior year, they drove to the Cahokia Mounds, which Ginny had never seen despite growing up in Mount Olive. He booked a room in the Rainbow Motel, and for days they hiked the ruins—the central plaza, the twin mounds —until finally they came to what he had longed to see, the tablets that had been found under Monk’s Mound in 1971.

Though he hadn’t been to church since high school, the site felt religious to him, particularly the birdman tablet of engraved sandstone. On one side of the impression was an etching of a man whose arms were wings held high and reaching, and the reverse side was filled with diamond shapes like tiny crosses, or the scales of a reptile, depending on the angle of view. Like most of the ruins, the exact meaning of the birdman was a mystery, but he was thought to bridge heaven and earth and live as part of them both.

She didn’t notice the ring for days, until finally he asked her what kind of perfume she was wearing and if he could see the bottle. He never forgot the look on her face when she came back holding the small velvet box. They agreed not to make a big production of it and planned a low-key day for just the two of them a week after graduation. Ginny found a lacy sundress she liked and bought it on the spot.

The day of, as she was having her hair done, the owner of the bakery next door to the salon popped in for a manicure on her lunch hour. She said everyone needed a wedding cake and returned with a small yellow one with cannoli filling and pink roses on top.

They went to the McLean County courthouse on a Wednesday afternoon for the ceremony and had lunch together at the fancy restaurant in Jumer’s afterward. During the two-hour drive to Chicago for their honeymoon weekend, Ginny wore her wedding dress.

“I love feeling like a bride,” she said.

On the following Monday he started full time at Egghead Computers in Collinsville, and she got a job at a small branch of the library. Every minute they had and most of their paychecks went into the house, scrubbing away the layers of grime and sludge, scraping old blistered paint and scouring with bleach.

In one of the small upstairs bedrooms, Ginny found a layer of old wallpaper. It was a pretty and old-fashioned design; a mint green background covered with creamy ovals filled with tiny rosebuds. She liked it so much that she wanted to keep some of it, maybe just one wall.

“It’s perfect for a child’s room,” she said.

With new windows and wiring and updated plumbing, it was hard for them to believe what a beautiful house they had. All the rooms had been freshly painted in pale neutral colors to match their new furnishings. But David couldn’t bring himself to throw away the furniture his grandfather had made. Even though it was waterlogged and most of it ruined beyond repair, he carried it up to the attic in hopes he could save some of the beautiful maple wood.

They settled into the farmhouse and planted a small vegetable garden in the same soil his grandparents had once touched when they tilled and planted what was then their own land. He put up a white fence around what was left to keep the condominium people away. What would his grandmother have said had she looked out her kitchen window to see an apartment building instead of the prairie she loved so much?

He was glad when Ginny bought a new ceramic turkey platter for their first holiday as man and wife. After long weeks of thought, he invited Rita and asked her to bring their father. He wanted to be the bigger person, but his feelings of dread started long before Thanksgiving and sat like a bowling ball rumbling in the pit of his stomach. He secretly hoped it would snow so Rita would be afraid to drive, or, even better, he prayed for a winter storm warning and a blizzard that would last for days.

When he heard the familiar low rumble of Rita’s old car pull up early in the afternoon, he felt like a child afraid to leave his room. He watched from the upstairs window as she got out and walked around to the passenger side to open the door for their father, who was small and crooked in his shabby brown plaid coat. The sunlight reflected off the snow, bathing everything in bright light. Rita held his arm as they made their way along the walk up to the house. Ginny met them on the front porch, her arms open.

He was glad to see Rita. It’d been a long time. He saw her eyes linger on the new furniture and the table set with china and silver. He hugged his father, though he wanted to retch at his smell. His father had once been so vain as to shower and shave twice a day and had often worn a tie to the dinner table.

Ginny carried the perfectly cooked turkey into the dining room, and David stood at the head of the table and carved. His father sat across from him during the meal, and it sickened David to listen to his father chew. Then he felt ashamed, so he invited them for next year.

“Let’s make a tradition,” he said. It would be something to look forward to as they settled into a comfortable routine.

And then Ginny found the lump.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said. “I’m really too young.”

It was the ninth of December— a Thursday and a bad luck day. It was an upsetting omen, but he didn’t tell Ginny since she didn’t believe in that sort of thing anyway, and she’d just start worrying about him again.

When the doctor called with the results, he wanted to admit her to the hospital that same day and schedule surgery as soon as possible. But Ginny didn’t want an operation and called the surgeon “Dr. Doom,” because he was so pessimistic. David told her this was no time to be so picky and that she should do everything the specialist said since he was written up in the journals as one of the nation’s best, and his last name had seven letters.

The treatment sessions went well at first, until three days afterward, when she thought dying wouldn’t be any worse than how she felt. She was too sick to sit up, too sick to lie down. No matter what happened, she said she’d never have another round of chemotherapy again.

Each time he drove her to the hospital, he stopped in the gift shop and bought a candy bar and a newspaper that he read back to front. He wouldn’t change a thing in his routine since she was responding so well to treatment and had finished the first round of chemo. By Easter she began to regain her energy, and her hair started to grow back soft on the top of her head like a tuft of bird feathers.

She took naps often and was careful not to do too much when she felt good, and they were beginning to feel confident enough away from the doctors that they’d planned their first vacation together when David saw a small pool of bright blood on the bathroom floor tile. He knew from his reading that blood loss was a bad sign for a cancer patient, but it was worse that she’d kept it from him. He called the doctor without telling her and at the next visit, Dr. Doom suggested a new MRI just to “see what’s what,” he said.

The scan showed that the cancer had spread, involving numerous sites. But Ginny shook her head. “No more chemo.” Then he told them about a new experimental treatment of chemotherapy in pill form, just as powerful yet with virtually no side effects. The down side was the cost since it wasn’t covered by insurance. That was no problem, David said. He’d mortgage the house and cut down to half days at work to spend more time with her.

He couldn’t leave her home alone and tried to divide the days with a home health nurse, but his benefits wouldn’t cover the visits on his part-time status. It would all be worth it when she got well; he was sure she’d get better. But she grew weaker and weaker and didn’t leave their bed for days at a stretch.

It was around that time that the aides and nurses first said the word “hospice.” He wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted her at home, and when the time came to stop trying to save her life and just keep her comfortable, he’d know. The day he raked leaves from the yard and saw the two pieces of straw folded over each other like a cross, he knew the time had come.

On that last day she wore a terry cloth cap over her head to keep warm, and her lips were tinged blue, her tongue swollen and grey. She looked at him as he held her hand, papery and thin. The same hand he’d held when he slipped a simple gold band onto her finger six years earlier. The same one that had tucked inside his own and folded itself closed like a rose every night. He found comfort that the last thing she ever saw was his face. One minute she was there, and the next she wasn’t.

But where did she go? He looked around the room in hopes of seeing a trace of her, a small burst of light like a star as she left the dark planet. By then he’d read all the books about life after death, knew there would be a pop or a flash when her spirit left her body. But he heard nothing, saw nothing except her last breath.

Riding her bike. When he closed his eyes he imagined her as a child riding her bike along the foot path that outlined the river and saw her gripping the pink plastic handle bars, streamers flying out the other end. He heard the click-clack of the Charlie’s Angels baseball cards turning in the wheels. She rode faster and faster until her long hair freed itself from the ponytail elastic and slapped against her back.

He thought about all the things there were to believe in, the things you wanted to do when you had time until time runs out and all that’s left is what you wish you would have done.

In the bathroom he washed his face and opened the window to see the view of the prairie for the last time. He could drive by after today, but that wouldn’t be the same. He hoped the new people would leave the gingko tree in the front yard. Its leaves had finally returned to a bright green color for the first time since the flood. Ginkgo trees were as old as the dinosaurs. He picked up his tote bag. In the front pocket of his jeans he rolled his fingers through the old heirloom tomato seeds that would never grow anymore, but were important in another way.

Verna Austen, of Chicago, received a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University. Her work has appeared in Minnetonka Review, Flying Island, Barnwood International Poetry Mag and Clapboard House, among others.

Editor’s Note: This story was a finalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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