Bird Brain

Birds were nesting inside the two ‘O’s of COOPER’S HARDWARE. I could see the mother bird fly in and out, she fluttered from one ‘O’ to the other—sticks and feathers and leaves occasionally spilling out with her back-and-forth movements. I couldn’t see details from the ground, but I envisioned her spitting worms and slugs—and whatever else birds eat—into the squeaking, pink beaks of her young.

I thought about how these birds were sitting in their nest, thinking this is it, this is as good as it gets, and then one day—sooner than later—they get shoved out of the nests and they better react, instinct better take over, or—Splat. Got wings man, spread them, flap them and fly. Even if they’re not going anywhere they can keep themselves above ground just by doing what they were put here to do. And then, when they feel like it, they can fly the fuck away, anywhere they can go.

I was thinking about the birds and nests and cages and making some moves when a rock pinged off the ‘P’ in COOPER. And then another one cracked the first ‘O’ and the mother bird shot out. I looked around. Nothing, nobody. I moved around to change perspective. There, where the concrete met the woods, about thirty yards away, was a group of kids—four or five—throwing rocks. They didn’t see me. But they saw the bird, the nests, and they were on a mission.

With my shirt tied behind my head, I strolled out into the deserted parking lot and stood in front of COOPER’S HARDWARE, the ‘O’ nests some twenty feet above me, my muscles and skin-art on full display to the gang who now saw me dead on. A rifle was raised. There was some grumbling and then a window exploded behind me. I closed my eyes; spread out my arms like wings and, after drawing in a deep, deep breath, hummed like a madman, like a mystic. When I opened my eyes the kids were gone. Above me a bird was circling and a plane had streaked a white line in the blue.

Outside I heard tires crackle over gravel. I looked through the blinds and saw it was Zeke’s pick-up in the drive-way. He decided to visit with his mini-cooler on Wednesday. I grabbed two bottles and met him out on the back-porch before he had a chance to knock.

“Zeke.” I handed him a bottle of birch beer and sat down. It stopped raining just before he got here and now the sun was splitting clouds, light coming and going like someone was playing the dimmer switch in the sky.

“Thanks,” he said and sat down, examined the bottle, the front and then the back. “My father used to give me this—or root beer—when I was a kid, he’d say ‘here, have a beer with your old man.’” He took a long sip. Shadows of tree-branches crossed his face.

“He was a drinker. Your old man?”

Zeke laughed. “Turning the tables on me, eh Doug?”

I smiled. “Well, you’ve gotten to know me so well over these last couple months…so, I thought I’d give you a chance to open up.”

He took out the piss cup from inside the mini-cooler and set it down on the wicker table next to the Jesus candle. “He left when I was a kid. I saw him in a bar when I was twenty-three, ages ago. That was the last time I saw him.”

“What you say to him?” Often as a kid I wished my father would’ve disappeared.

“Nothing,” Zeke said. “I just saw him sitting at the bar. I was there with my buddies shooting pool, you know…just hanging out. I never said anything to him. He didn’t know who I was and I wasn’t about to tell him. Every now and then I’d look over at him just sitting there. He was alone. Not talking to anyone. And then one time when I looked over he was gone. That was it.” He took another pull off the bottle.

“You know, as your parole officer, I’m not supposed to be sharing like this.” He burped and looked out into the street. A school bus stopped at the corner and a swarm of kids got out.

“Not even supposed to be drinking this here bottle. No divulging of personal information…no accepting of gifts.” He shook the bottle. “Them probation department rules they give us PO’s.”

“Not much of a story, Zeke.” I thought about the bus being like a sort of egg for these kids.

From one egg to another. Bus to school to home and back again until one day you’re the driver, but the car and house are not yours and you end up back on another kind of bus, in another kind of school.

“No. Suppose not.” He set the bottle down between his boots and then rocked back in the chair. “So, tell me some good news, Doug. You found a job. You met a good woman. You won the lottery. What? Give me something.”

“No, none of that. Been walking through the old neighborhood a lot. Passed by the old abandoned hardware store the other day. I used to work there in high school. Like you said, ages ago. I was good friends with Colin Cooper. His father owned the place.”

Zeke pulled a small black pad from his flannel shirt pocket and then removed a tiny pencil that was hidden behind his ear. “Walking a lot,” he said and scribbled in his pad. “What else?” He held the pencil in his right hand, circled his thumb of the same hand over the dull pencil tip that poked past his folded, red fingers. On his left hand he wore a wedding ring I hadn’t noticed before.

“There were birds nesting inside the store letters. Inside the ‘O’s. It got me thinking, you know, about moving on…getting out of here.”

“You can’t do that, Doug.” He scribbled back in his pad. “You know that.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. But I can think about it. I can do that.”

Zeke looked at the piss-cup and nodded his head. “You know, Doug…you’re going to need to find work. Have you reached out to anyone yet? From the list I gave you last time?”

The sun was out full now and I could see beads of sweat on Zeke’s forehead. I stood up and grabbed the cup and turned sideways, unzipped and pissed into it. “Who would hire me?”

“You’d be surprised, Doug. Certain employers prefer parolees. Especially non-violent types like you. They know exactly what they’re getting. It’s cheap, good labor. And they know—how do I say this—well, that you’re being monitored. That’s why their names are on the list I gave you. They know the score.”

“I’ll make a few calls. I will.” I zipped up and capped the cup and set it back down on the wicker table. “Hey, Zeke?”

“Yeah, Doug?”

“Your father, in the bar…how you’d know it was him?”

Zeke took a swig of his birch beer, finishing it and setting it down on the porch next to the rocker, then he grabbed his mini-cooler and stood up. He opened the cooler and held it against the wicker table. I tipped the capped-cup of piss into it. “Thanks,” he said. “See you soon.” He stomped down the steps.

Inside I heard my father yelling, “Soup…Bruce…Soup.”

There was a dream that night. I was with Ava. We were in a canoe. The water was calm and then we were spinning towards the center of the lake, like crumbs in a sink of dirty water heading for the drainpipe. She was scared—eyes wide and the mouth in silent scream—and I told her not to worry, told her there was a strainer that catches people like us. But the canoe split in two, my half much bigger than hers, and then I woke up.

I went back to COOPER’S HARDWARE the next day. Things had changed. The sign was spotted a rainbow of colors—orange, yellow, red, purple, green, blue—from paintball guns. The mother bird was dead on the pavement. She’d been shot. Her black feathers now slicked over with paint—mainly bright green and yellow—giving her the appearance of a toy parrot. The two ‘O’s were more stained than the other letters—none of the original gray-white color remained— confirming the kids were gunning for the nests inside.

I remembered killing a snake when I was a kid. The snake had done nothing wrong. He was just being a snake, sliding through the grass and mud for prey, but Ava screamed when she saw it so I went after it, stepped on its tail with my boot. It reached its head back at my ankle, the thin tongue stabbing air, the opaque eyes frozen on me when I crushed my father’s bowie knife over it, on its mid-section, and, with much more force than expected, cut at it until the thrashing stopped. I cried confused that night in my bed.

Ava slept in a bedroom next to mine and, like she did every night that summer, knocked—three times—on her wall before she went to sleep. I faked sleep that night and didn’t knock back. In the morning I returned to bury the dead snake but it was gone. Soon after that Ava and her mother were gone too.

I leaned my head up against the brick wall of COOPER’S and listened. I was hoping to hear baby-birds squeaking above me. Then I hoped I wouldn’t.

I got a job installing fences. The guy actually called me. I checked the list Zeke had given me and there he was: Burt Salerno of Freedom Fence. Burt was a big dude with huge hands, looked like all the years digging holes had turned his hands into shovels—they were that big. But his digging days ended long ago. He had men to do all the digging and lifting and post setting now. Burt started the company by himself when he was just twenty-two. He was a hard worker and built the company up to half a dozen crews in less than three years.

Now Burt was pushing seventy and still kept only six crews, but that’s the way you want it, he said. Get too big and you lose sight of the original plan, you no longer run the business, the business runs you. Said he always had time for his family and friends, always took vacations—at least once a year, every year—and that’s why he named it Freedom Fence, he believed your job should work for you, not the other way around. He told me all this on a late Saturday afternoon inside his office.

He also told me he believed in second chances, even third and forth chances, however many it takes, and that’s why he was hiring me. We all find our way, he said, it just takes some longer than others. I told him I saw his vans on the road before, the golden fence fixed in the clouds, sunlight glinting off a painted river below—Freedom Fence “Defining Your Paradise.”

Burt called Walter into his office. “This is Walter. He runs Crew Six. Walt, Doug.”

Walter put out his hand and we shook. “Good to meet you, Walter,” I said looking up, smelling coconut. He removed his sunglasses and held them in his left hand.

Walter was basketball-tall and pale, almost albino white. “Yeah,” he said. “Call me Walt.” His hair was thin and colorless and it looked like a strong wind would blow it clear off. I wondered how he managed to work outside in the elements.

“Walt passes by your house,” Burt said. “He’ll pick you up, drop you off. Until you get on your feet, or well, should I say…off them.” He chuckled. Framed pictures of the Salerno’s— and friends of—hung from the walls of Burt’s office. “Walt’s a good man. He’ll show you the ropes.”

Like clockwork, Walt picked me up in the Freedom Fence van every morning at seven-thirty and we drove to the Fast-Break Mart for coffee and buttered rolls, scratch offs. “This is where I stop in the morning,” he told me the first morning he picked me up. “If you don’t like it I’ll come here first and then go back for you. It’s no problem. We all have our routines.”

I told him breakfast would be on me, that it was the least I could do since I was already breaking up his routine. Depending on the predicted UV index, he’d reapply sun-block—he would try for unscented—while I got the coffee and other stuff. He told me he always applied one layer in the morning after his shower regardless of the forecast. He said he had a different baseball cap for every day of the year, although he seemed to favor the White Sox.

We parked in the lot listening to AM news radio—traffic, weather, sports, breaking news—and watched women go in and out of the Fast-Break Mart. For the last couple of weeks they’d been reporting on the disappearance of an eleven-year old girl, Jena Buehner.

“What movie would you pick,” Walt asked me. “If you knew it would be the last movie you’d ever see?”

“You mean what’s my favorite movie?” She was last seen wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with a picture of an ostrich on the front, blue jeans and knee-high Ugg boots—tan colored. Jena is four feet ten inches tall and weighs seventy to eighty pounds. She has long brown hair and brown eyes. They always repeated her description followed by a number to call should you see someone fitting it.

“No, it’s different than your favorite movie. I mean it could be, but…”

“Like a last meal thing?” Her bike was found only three blocks from her home. She was playing with her friends and then they all went home for dinner. Nothing suspicious was reported by the other girls.

“No,” he said. “A last meal you’re picking something you know you like—pizza, lobster, steak, a Big-Mac—but a movie is different. You might want to see something new. The latest box-office smash. Something you always wanted to see but never did. Or it could be your favorite movie…but what’s the fun in that, you probably already seen it a hundred times. A 3D cartoon maybe. Shit, even a porno flick.”

“Do you think she’s still alive?” They explained how an Amber Alert couldn’t be issued for the girl because she was, at this time, considered a missing person—not yet abducted—and there were no suspects, no leads.

“Is who still alive?”

I turned up the volume. Again the parent’s recorded voice pleaded for help, for Jena’s safe return, and then the news switched to traffic.

“Oh,” Walt said. “She’s been missing a long time. Odds go down every day, every hour. But you never know.”

“You would watch a porno flick as your last movie?”

“No, I’m just saying it’s wide open. Nothing is off limits.”

“I heard Cast Away was good.”

I was looking in the basement for an umbrella when I heard the doorbell ring. Zeke knew my job was weather dependent so I figured it was a random visit from him. But Zeke always came around back? I went upstairs and opened the front door. There in a brown rain-coat was a young woman. She was holding Zeke’s mini-cooler in one hand and looked to be carrying a computer bag in the other. “Hello,” she said. “I’m looking for Doug. Are you Doug?” Her hood was up and her black bangs were wet. “I’m Sandy. Sandy Link. I’m with the Probation Department. Are you Doug?”

“I was just headed out for a walk.” She obviously knew I was Doug. My file had my mug-shots and other photos in it. She had to have seen it. “Where’s Zeke?”

“Can I come inside…to talk?”

I told her to go around back and that we would talk on the porch.

“Zeke was reassigned,” she said coming up the steps. I was sitting down already. She sat on the edge of the rocker. “It’s pretty common. To be reassigned. Especially after a milestone. Like a job. Hooray.” She flipped the hood off her head and shook out her hair. “Excuse me one second.”

The rain drew a citrus scent from her. “Is it because I gave him a birch beer?”

“What?” She smiled. Her teeth were too white. “You gave him what?” She stood up and took off the rain coat and hung it on the back of the chair. “Birch beer?” She dried her hands inside the coat and then grabbed her computer from the bag and sat back down; set the laptop on her thighs. “It’s an Apple. Great battery life. Expensive, though.” She sat back and her sneakered feet came off the porch a few inches. She opened the computer and started typing. “So, tell me, Doug…how is it to be back at work?” She looked over at the Jesus candle on the table.

“The wick is gone,” I said. “I like the design but it’s worthless as a candle.” I held it up and turned it so she could see inside. “Waxed over.” Some condensation dripped out.

She had a photo badge strung around her neck. “Oh,” she said. “Are you religious?” She stopped typing and grabbed her badge, played it back-and-forth on the shoe-string. Zeke never wore a badge.

“Work is fine,” I said and pointed to the mini-cooler. “Are those state issued? Zeke had the same one.”

She laughed nervously. “The cooler? I don’t know.” She leaned down and grabbed a bottle of water out of her computer bag and took a sip. “That’s what they give us.” She put the water back in the bag and went to typing again. “So, Doug…I understand you live here with your father. How’s that relationship?”

“He has dementia. There is no relationship. He calls me Bruce.”

“Oh. Who’s Bruce?”

“No clue. Yells, ‘Bruce…get me some fucking soup.’”

“Where is he now?”

“In his bedroom. I bring him soup. He’s gone.” The rain started up heavy again. “Sandy, don’t play dumb,” I said. A misty wind blasted our faces. “You know my story.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, I know your background, yes…but not, well, the details.” She used a finger to brush her bangs away from her eyes. “Anything else you want to tell me? Have you made any friends at work? Anywhere else?”

“You know they issued an Amber Alert for that missing girl last night?”

She started typing again. “I heard, yes. It was in a mall parking lot, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s a long shot. Just an account of what someone said they saw. They didn’t even get a license plate number. Just a dark blue truck with shiny wheels.”

“Oh,” she said again. “Have to start somewhere I guess.” She looked down at the cooler.

“I’ll go in front of you if you want.” I stood up. “You know, with my back to you.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary.” She closed her laptop and scooted forward on the rocker, set her sneakers back on the porch floor. “If you can, just…empty your pockets.” She put the computer back in its bag and then stood up with the cooler. “And if I can just check the bathroom before you go.” She handed me the cooler. “Deal?”

I grabbed the candle on my way inside. Later I would use scissors to dig out the wick and then light it.

The news was forecasting the hottest day of the year. Pete working the Fast-Break Mart told me there were only three bags of ice left. “Record breaking temperatures,” he said. “Supposed to break into triple digits before noon.” The TV above his head then flashed to Breaking News: The missing girl, Jena Buehner, had been spotted at a rest stop off I-90 in Euclid Ohio around seven-thirty this morning, about ten miles east of Cleveland. Someone snapped a shot of Jena in the back-seat of the vehicle with their smart-phone and Jena’s parents had confirmed it was her. Her photo came up on the screen: a blurred face with brown hair behind a grainy car window.

“Doug. You want it?”

“Want what?” The abductor was driving a dark blue 2002 Chevy Tahoe with chrome rims and Pennsylvania plates reading DULCE-1. He had ties to the girl’s father and was assumed armed and dangerous.

“The ice, man…the ice.” He looked up at the TV and then out the window. “It’s in the freezer out front.”

Through the window I could see Walt outside. He was standing in front of the van applying sun-screen. He was wearing a mesh safari hat that he didn’t have on before and his arms—which were sleeve-covered when he picked me up—were now sticking out of his t-shirt like two birch branches.

“Yeah, I know where it is.” I paid Pete extra for the ice and then stepped away from the counter holding my bag of Gatorades and waters and buttered rolls. The TV reporter said the suspect was thought to be headed west on I-90. “I’ll see you around, Pete…keep smiling.”

I handed the bag to Walt. “Put the drinks in the cooler,” I said. “I’ll be right back with the ice.” When I came back there was a yellow Firebird convertible parked next to our van. The driver had left the car running. Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ played from the stereo. “Nice car, huh Walt?”

‘Blue, blue windows behind the stars…yellow moon on the rise…’

Walt was now back in driver’s seat of the van, adjusting his hat in the rearview mirror. I was standing at the side of the van; he had left the sliding door open for me. He looked over his right shoulder at me and then leaned back to get a view of the car. “Damn, looks like a sixty-eight big block. Sweet.” He lowered the volume on his AM news radio and went back to fixing his hat. “You know, I was thinking about our movie talk the other day…maybe I would pick Braveheart.”

I slammed the ice-bags to the pavement, separated the chunks. “Great one, William Wallace…‘they may take our lives, but they’ll never take…OUR FREEDOM.’ But haven’t you seen it before?” I picked up the bags and split them open with my fingers, dumped the ice over the drinks and then closed the cooler. “You got our waters up there?”

He pointed to the bottles by the dash and took a bite of his roll. “My roll is stale,” he said. “Yours?”

I slid the side-door closed and hopped in the front with him.

Birds were feeding around the garbage pails at the front of the store. I opened my roll and took a bite. “Like buttered cardboard.” I tossed it out the window to them. Those birds were on it and then more dove in. “You know, Walt, they got a lead on that girl. The one who was missing. Said she was seen at a rest-stop off I-90.”

The birds spotted me and were now cautiously closing in. “Guy who took her drives a Tahoe with chrome wheels, plate reads DULCE-1. They think they’re headed west.” I flung a piece of Walt’s roll out to them. “You know…she’s right under our noses.”

Walt grabbed his sun-screen and tried to squeeze more out. “Well, I guess now they’ll get the fucker.” He rolled the tube from the bottom up in hopes of one last spurt but it was empty.

“This is no good,” he said. “I need to get more. I’ll go up in flames today.” He opened his door to get out and then stopped himself. He took the keys out of the ignition. “No offense, Doug. Burt’s rule.” He got out of the van and tipped his hat to me. “I’ll get fresh rolls for us.” He then turned—sending the birds aflutter—and lumbered towards the store, smiling back at me a few times before he entered. There was a long line at the register.

The birds had settled back to their low ground frenzy. I smashed Walt’s roll into pieces and got out of the van, stood sweating in the space between the van and the idling convertible. Neil whined, ‘Big birds flying across the sky, throwing shadows on our eyes, leave us…helpless, helpless, helpless.’ I threw a few pieces in front of the car, some onto the car’s hood, and the rest I tossed into the car, onto the front seats.

I closed my eyes—the sound of flapping wings, of Ava’s voice—and extended out a hand, found the door-handle, lifted it. When I opened my eyes I was behind the wheel of the convertible. The leather bucket seat was adjusted perfectly for me. The birds, they were now all around me, hovering inches from me like I was center-nest; it seemed they had multiplied in numbers. The sun changed level in the sky and reflected off the storefront window. No longer could I see Walt’s towering frame inside, only sun-glare.

I turned the radio to AM and shifted into gear, my foot soft on the gas-pedal until I was out of the lot—then I gunned it—the back tires spitting up gravel and spinning smoke. The birds flew above me for a few miles, swooping across the blue sky like a whirling black cloud and, as I took the on-ramp and floored it onto I-90, one bird broke away from the flock, speeding ahead of the others a good distance, then soaring up and over them to spy the storm ahead.

Chris Conroy’s fiction has been published in several online and print publications, some including Whetstone, Word Riot, Ward6 Review, Zingmagazine, Scissors & Spackle and The Hell Gate & Wanderlust Reviews. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.