Blackbird

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1. In the Cemetery

The girl walked slowly into the park. She had a heavy sack on her back.  When she reached the man’s gravestone, she swung the pack from her shoulder and let it fall.  Then she sat down on the damp grass above the man’s grave and leaned her back against his clean white headstone. Her brown braids slapped the stone. The girl’s knobby knees poked out of two holes in her jeans. She drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. After a while the girl reached into her sack, pulled out a book, bent her dark face to it and flipped its pages.

Beneath the girl, the dead man blunk. He observed the sun—high in the bright air—and the stillness of the park. Bees buzzed around the clovers by his feet but didn’t land. A fat blue hornet whirred its gossamer wings, and buzzed south toward the mausoleums. Above him, the girl flipped her pages without reading a word.

“Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?” the dead man said.

The girl turned her head to the west and watched cars roll along the parkway toward the mountains.  One, two, three, brown sedans passed by, a semi, a moving truck, a white sedan, a sleek silver convertible. They all tooled up the incline toward the mountains.  She watched them round the bend of the road and disappear into the pines of the foothills.

“I didn’t want to be in my house,” the girl said. “I came here to take a nap.”

“You can’t sleep here,” the dead man said.

“Why not?” 

The girl spread her legs on the cool grass. She pushed her butt into the dirt and leaned back further against the headstone. She felt the heat of the sun on her face, and through her thin T-shirt, the cool of the white stone. The sun’s yellow light spread over the whole green park and the twinkling line of distant cars moving along the black road into the hills. In her head buzzed a thousand bees.

“Well you can,” the dead man said. “But… it is a cemetery.  The beds are all sort of taken, right?  If you’re the kind of girl who likes to sleep outside, why don’t you find a nice patch of grass in, say, a park?”

The girl leaned back further against the headstone.

“I’m a little older than you are,” the man continued.  He was embarrassed that she had not responded.  He hadn’t meant to make her feel uncomfortable. “I’m an old married guy,” he said.  “So my generation’s habits may be different. But from what I remember, a favorite pastime of young girls—perhaps girls older than you, maybe I’m thinking teenagers—is to put on bathing suits and bring towels outside and sleep on a patch of lawn. Or I suppose a park will do. Girls, I mean women, at the college where I taught were always doing that. But they did not, as far as I knew, sleep in cemeteries.”

The girl flipped through the pages of her book.  A breeze passed through the rows between the headstones. Far, far off, an old couple wandered through a row.  A hundred yards to the right, cars rolled along the highway to the mountains upstate.

The girl said, “Parks are crowded.”

“Oh,” the dead man said.

After a minute he said, “And your backyard?”

She shrugged.  “If I sleep in my backyard, my parents can see me.  My mother will have a fit about whether I’m wearing sunscreen.  Besides, when I sleep, I don’t like anyone to be near me.  And I have to have light on, if I’m indoors.”

“Oh,” the dead man said.  “I suppose you’re in the best place then.  Except,”

“Yes?”

“Modesty forbids my saying.”

“You?”

“Well…”

You can’t see me.”

He observed her.  She reached under her shirt and scratched a large, dragon-shaped birthmark on her ribcage, just below her left armpit.

“No,” he said.

“And I like you—”

“Thank you.”

“—moderately.”

“I couldn’t ask more.”

“To be honest, I just like cemeteries.”

“I wish I could say the same,” the dead man said.

She peered down at the grass between her legs.  It was normal-looking grass, bright green, decently thick, no ants.

“What’s your blood type?” she said.

“What?”

“What’s your blood type?

He paused.  “Why do you want to know my blood type?”

She put her book down and stared at the cars.  “No reason,” she said.  “I’m just interested.”

He realized he had no idea what his blood type was.  He should know, he guessed, he’d gone to the doctor a million times, his doctor must know—“I don’t know.  What’s the one that’s most common, O?  I think I’m that.”

She nodded briefly.

“Why?”

“No reason.”  She picked up her book and began to read.

A strange girl, he thought. Strange. Everyone was strange these days, blood type, Pitui-sees, the new debates about Neanderthal versus Cro-Magnon blood, the rallies against the tap-water, alien-worshipping cults, the hormone-Vites at Duane Reade… he’d closed his eyes and was drifting to sleep when,

“How’d you end up here?” she asked. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Well,” the dead man said.

The dead man wished that he could stretch.  He wanted to adjust his shirt, which was clinging to his skin, and to open his eyes, which were stitched shut.  You die with the taste in your mouth that you have when you die.  He would have brushed his teeth.  He felt ashamed that he was decaying and that the thick, creamy makeup that the undertaker had smeared on him was mixing with his softening flesh.

“No good reason,” he said.

“That’s funny,” the girl said.

The dead man frowned: “Why?”

She plucked a handful of grass from the lawn, brought it to her nose and smelled it.  “I don’t want to offend you.”

She’d already upset him, he thought, asking about his blood type, but she looked sad, her face all scrunched up, weird girl alone in the park.  He wanted to be kind.

“I doubt anything you could say would upset me.”

“It might, trust me.  Just because you’re in a cemetery, Mr. Big-time author, doesn’t mean you’ve seen it all.”

He mumbled: “I never said I was a big-time author.”

She held the grass to her nose, then stretched her arm and sprinkled it delicately on the ground between her legs.

“Don’t you think,” she said, “you’re feeling sorry for yourself?”

“It’s neither here nor there,” he said.

“How do you know that?” she said.  “I met you once, by the way.  It was at a reading you gave at the Barnes & Noble on Orchard Boulevard.  You read from your novel, Terminal Ha Ha Ha.  After the reading, I waited in a line of 32 people to get your autograph.  We talked for six minutes and twenty-eight seconds.  It turned out we’d lived in a lot of the same places.  Two, to be exact.  Syracuse, Wen Kroy, and Claremont, California.  That’s three. But Wen Kroy doesn’t count. My dad moves around a lot. He’s bus-force.  Unless you count White Plains as separate from Wen Kroy, in which case it’s three.  You said our lives had followed ‘strange parallel paths.’”  The girl’s skin was an olive tone.  Her eyes were green.  Her brown-black hair was in braids.

“I might have said that,” the dead man said.  “But I don’t recognize you.  I met lots of people at readings.  I suppose I might have met you once.”

The girl closed her eyes.

“It’s funny,” she said, “because this book I’m reading by a medical doctor says that every single thing that happens, happens for an excellent reason.  Our bodies can do anything we want them to.  They can recover from anything, even from cancer.  Cancer is just… mold. In the body. It’s a sign that the body’s… tired of life, or something I guess. So if we want to live, we live, if we want to die, we die. Our bodies can bring us out of anything, even life.  They’ll manufacture whatever we want them to. Even things you’d never think could have good reasons behind them, the worst stuff, like,” she paused, “whatever happened to you. On the other hand,” she blunk, aware she was talking like a crazy person, “the author might be wrong.  He’s old, and I think ‘Oprah’ likes him…so…what does he know?”

“It’s not such a difference,” she added.  She looked down at the grass.  “Our situations, I mean.  Not any bigger difference than frog and turtle, for example.  You and I are probably closer right now than 90% of the people on earth who chat every day.  Maybe all the people you know, you’ll meet again.  I bet all the mistakes you made, you’ll make again.  Probably most of them.  You’re here, after all.”

She didn’t open her eyes.  Her nose was cast with freckles.  She wore a soft blue T-shirt and jeans.  Her legs were spread wide in the grass, and her jeans were frayed at the bottom where she’d stepped on them.  Her sneakers said “Nike.” 

“But I can’t move,” he said.

“Ha,” she said.  “Ha ha.”

A breeze blew through the cemetery.

“If you don’t mind,” the dead man said, “I think I’d like to sleep.”

The girl blunk.  She dusted off her knees and rose.  She took her book and dropped it in her bulging plastic bag.

She grabbed the bag of tools and walked away.  The tools clunked against her leg.  Her gait was awkward; she favored her left hip.  She walked through the oaks toward the red house with the piano.

“Wait,” the dead man called out.

She stopped, already in the shadow of the trees.  She looked back over her shoulder.  The plastic bag hung from her hand.  “What?” she said.

“Walk back here,” he said calmly.  “I didn’t mean for you to leave.  I just mean that if you’re going to wake me up out of a semi-decent nap,” he said, “—which is harder than you’d think to get when you’re in my state—you could tell me a story.  Tell me something that’s going on, like from The Wen Kroy Weekly.”

The girl hitched her jeans up so they didn’t sag around her hips.  She sat down in the patch of sun near the headstone.  In the distance, the old couple moved off toward the parkway.  “I don’t read The Wen Kroy Weekly,” she said.

“That’s okay,” the dead man said.  “It doesn’t have to be news-worthy.” 

The girl took a chapstick out of her pocket, removed the cap and studied the smashed, waxy end.

“My parents tried to kill my sister once, and I’m afraid they’ll do it again.  Also, I have to bury a bird.”  She held a flattened, bloody bird in her palm.  Gently, she touched its feathers.

“Sounds rough,” the dead man said.  “Is that it?”

“Of course not.”  The girl wiped her lips with the chapstick.  “That’s a little personal, don’t you think?  Plus, it’s not as if I think you’d be interested in hearing about my family.”  She capped the chapstick and stuck it in her pocket.  “I was just trying to explain that the story might not make sense.  I mean, coming from a girl my age.”

“Fine,” the dead man said.

“Okay,” she said.

“But I want a real story.  Not something with unicorns.”

“It’s a real story,” she said.

 

✖ 

 

2. BIG NIB

That afternoon, responsibility for the attack was claimed by a talking parrot, who made a speech on a VHS tape. The tape was broadcast on CNN, ABC, NBC, NPR, Twitter and YouTube. But the parrot, who was quickly flown out of the country, was never found, because he molted, then put on a false beak in Peru.

However, the video in which the parrot indicted Remakia—in his guttural avian voice—played in every household.

“You are pussies,” the parrot said.  “Who is a spoiled, lazy fatcat?  Fatcat?  Pussies!”

The parrot was handsome—tall, with high cheekbones and arresting black eyes—and its golden beak was curved.  Those who’d known the parrot in his youth said that he’d been a shy, hairy pecker who was content to help run his father’s business, a burlesque for tourists in which 12 mangy birds, 4 women, 1 griffin and 3 harpies danced at a theater.  Most of the “real” revenue, of course, came from the “side-business,” whereby the harpies plucked their feathers off for millionaires in the “Brains,” a half-dozen interconnected 8-by-8-by-8 rooms upstairs; but naturally, the “real real revenue” came from the “side-side-business,” which consisted of three schemes:

A super-good guided tour that led Remakians to the Ark of the Covenant, the Lost City of Atlantis, the Federal Exchange, and then to the Sphinx, where they were either richly rewarded, or eaten, for answering a pop-quiz question.

A construction company with bird’s-eye-oversight.

A talk show.

Amaso Nib Nedal—for that was the parrot’s name—presided over all three of these enterprises, and at 123 years old, was his father’s tenth-eldest progeny.  He’d penetrated 881 birds, 96 human women, and 9 donkeys and sired 5,003 pullets, 19 harpies, only a few of whom were dull.  He went by BIG NIB for short.  But he did not name himself so—or at all—on the terrifying tape. He simply remarked that he hated Remakia, had orchestrated the attacks, and that he and his thousands of militant followers would not rest until Remakia and its free ways, freeways, and buy-two-get-one-free-specials had been destroyed.

“You are pussies,” he said. “Pussies! You all deserve to die. I am everywhere.  I am in your bathtub right now.  I can fly.  I am about to bite you!”

At this point the tape went fuzzy.

“He used to be a mild bird,” those who’d known him at Yale told Dan Rather on T.V. “He liked to eat ‘Annie’s Cheese Rabbits,’ you know?  He watched movies all day.”

Similar comments were made by “The Nib Nadel Network,” a variegated flock of peaceful parrots who lived prosperously across the globe, and who maintained close relations with Remakian business moguls in general and with President Hubs particularly.

In the flatlands of White Plains, people wondered why they had never heard of BIG NIB before. How had this fearsome threat appeared so suddenly? they wondered. However, it was revealed by the hard-nosed journalists on CNN that the government had had warnings of BIG NIB’s plans—for one hundred years, roughly—and had just not heeded them.

“How naïve we were!” Mrs. Thompson remarked to her friends.

All day, after the eleven o’clock announcement which had been delayed until two o’clock, all T.V. channels re-played clips of BIG NIB’s speech.  After the clips were played, they were analyzed by experts. Dan Rather was solemn about the threat posed by BIG NIB.  Mrs. Thompson and her friends watched at Mrs. Thompson’s house.

“I wish the boy were here,” Mrs. R. said.

“Who?” Mrs. Thompson said.

“You know,” Mrs. R. said. “The one who hung himself in his garage.”

Mrs. Thompson nodded.  But she did not feel comforted.  To think that birds could attack and that their government could not protect them.  Birds could be anywhere.  In her own living room, even!  True, she would not cower; she would grab the old metal rotary phone and hit the bird with it; but still.  It was true—the boy David, with his annoying monologues about toxicity in the water, was gone.  Why?  Like many neurologically-challenged people, he’d had his helmet examined with SPECT and PET scan dozens of times by craniofacial surgeons and neurologists, and first of all, after that many scans, his brain was radiated, and secondly, it had been nearly decisively concluded that the boy David’s depression was the result of a rare genetic inflammatory reaction by his body against the metals in the cap.  Why he hadn’t had children.  Women didn’t like to think that a child of theirs, maybe.  You wanted them to get the helmet when the other children did.  And he told the women he dated, of course—he was honest.  And that nice fat woman had married him—the old widow.  But children were out of the question.  He understood that himself—hadn’t pressured her once.  She was fifty-two and still could but no one blamed her.  And of course, the boy had received as many, if not more, pills as anyone else in his condition had—and more, because he was one of the touted forty-seven California-State writers, he’d been given special pills—by the best doctors. No one blamed him for having an unfortunate rare genetic inflammatory reaction against the metals in his helmet—everyone treated him with kindness.  The point being, he’d been on enough pills to thrill a horse.  And anyone depressed enough to kill themselves despite those pills was meant to die for a beautiful reason.  She missed the boy.  But on the other hand, she did not feel sad.  On the contrary, she was happy!  She felt a surge of warmth in her helmet.  She had brought flowers to Darl—Carl?—David’s! grave that week, for no real reason, except that they had been on her table and had wilted so why not? and the grave, after all, was no graver than any other plot.  Afterwards, she’d gone to Kroger’s.  The price of toilet paper had gone up again, as had that of her sanitary supplies.  She’d picked up her new jeans at the tailors, and the tailor charged $35 to hem them, when he’d used to charge $4.  She’d considered arguing with the tailor about the price, but then realized that she had no right.  The tailor could charge what the tailor wanted.  This was Remakia.  But when she got home, the jeans were tight.  Either the tailor had hemmed them too much, and this somehow affected the ass-width, or her ass had become flat. Also, she’d wanted fashionable ‘dark’ jeans, and these jeans had seemed ‘dark’ in the dressing room, which was dimly lit, but now she saw that the jeans were ‘medium.’  Cornflower blue at best.  Unexpectedly, she felt glad again.  Perhaps a spirit, she thought, wanted her to have ‘medium’ jeans.  She watched Mrs. R. change the channel on T.V.  She wanted to say something to Mrs. R., but she didn’t remember what they’d been talking about.  She saw the mail on the table and remembered that her Macy’s card statement was ready, her Capital One statement was ready, and that her USAA Bill had arrived. Her Social Security deposit would come, and her retirement deposit would come, and they would cover it.  She hoped.  She’d gone on a spending spree that morning—buying all sorts of supplements she prayed would improve her mental clarity and focus.  She’d bought ginko biloba, kava kava, St. John’s Wort, bacopa, a hormone cream called ‘pregnenolone’ and Siberian ginseng, all of which, the boy had once claimed, provided cognitive benefit for her blood type, which… she couldn’t remember what it was.  A?  B?  C?  Now that the boy was gone, she had no one to scold her for buying supplements containing magnesium stearate. That was transfat. Just like ‘propylene glycol’ was gasoline. She didn’t know why she remembered these things and not the boy’s name. Now that he was gone, no one would suggest a walk along the polluted river, or call her up to tell her about the problems with fluoride, or warn her that eating Cheez Whiz would make her fat. Even Mr. Tremble, who’d once taken her on a date, didn’t call.  He was seeing Annie Din. Annie was sixty. Mr. Tremble liked Annie.  When Mr. Tremble took Mrs. Thompson to dinner, years ago, he didn’t touch her.  He didn’t ask her to come over for coffee after, either.  He touched her once, at the beginning of the date, when he put his hand on her back and kissed her cheek.  At the date’s end, he said, “Did you have a good time?” and when she said, “Yes,” he said, “Good!  Goodbye!” 

Apart from the cheek-kiss, Mrs. Thompson had not been touched by a man in twenty-one years.  But she understood why no one wanted to touch her, she thought.  It was because they wanted to watch T.V. T.V.! What was on?  Was it Dan Rather?  That thought—Dan Rather—reminded her that she should say something to Mrs. R., with whom she was having a conversation.  She had friends.  She felt a warmth in her head.  She had friends, Mrs. R. and Mrs. Voigtlander.  Suddenly, a thought hit her.

“Where is Mrs. Voigtlander?” she said. 

“Relax,”  Mrs. R. said.  “In the bathroom.”

“Oh.”

They watched T.V.

“But she’s been in there so long,” Mrs. Thompson said.

“She’s with Harrison.”

“Harrison?” Mrs. Thompson said.

Mrs. R frowned. She pressed her lips together, picked up the remote control, and changed the channel. Tom Brokaw appeared on T.V.  “Harrison Ford,” she said.

“Oh,” Mrs. Thompson said.

“Don’t you remember ordering Harrison?”

“No.”

“Really, Ginnie.”  Mrs. R. turned off the T.V. “Your memory’s not good.  I’m worried about you.  You may have borderline-disorder.  Don’t you think you should see the doctor?”

“No,” Mrs. Thompson said. 

She sat down in her chair.  She disliked Mrs. R., she realized.  She hoped a bird would fly into Mrs. R. and peck her nose.  She flipped back to CBS.

“Fat Remakia!” BIG NIB said.  “Fat!  I did the attack!  Do you want a cracker?  Fuck you!  You look fat to me!  Pretty Johnny.  Do you want cake?  You have fleas!  Shut up now.  I’m going to kill you all.  I’m coming!”