12
Feb
2012

THE PROBLEM WITH THE BIRDS, by Ryan Mattern

Mattern, of San Bernardino, Calif. (where he lives with his dog, Wrigley, and still calls Chicago home),  has been published in Burning Word, Criminal Class Review, The Toucan, This Paper City and Pacific Review. He is an active member in POETRIE, a reading series dedicated to showcasing the literary voices of California’s Inland Empire.

 

This is where we come, you and I, neighbors and friends as we are known by your husband and everyone else. On top of the hill that hangs over our quiet desert town, we sit like how we are told Indians sit on a giant boulder that has been painted to look like a skull. We come here at night and wait for all the porch lights below to flicker out. It is then, in the safety of night and assurances of townspeople’s dreams, that we tell each other our secrets.

You tell me when you were a little girl you stole a candy bar from a convenient store. You tell me in your shy, secretive voice that you were too scared to eat it and that you hid it in your neighbor’s mailbox.

I close my eyes and imagine you as a child, in a bright yellow raincoat, sprinting from the store with the candy bar in your hand like a baton, your little hummingbird lungs firing fast as you turn down your cul-de-sac.

The thought of you scared makes me brave, so I tell you the things we could do if you had not married the wrong man. You sigh and rest your head on my shoulder. Our lips are inches away and they want to be closer, we know this. But the air is thick between them, polluted with microscopic spirits whispering, If only. We sit here on the edge, not talking, until it is time to leave.

***
Our town has many problems. But mainly our town’s problem is this: Lately, birds have been falling from the sky without reason. Their wings just give out. Their hollow bones lose heft and they fall like feathery meteors. Scientists have made our town a destination. They flock here to collect data on air pollution, to take blood samples from rodents, to find some hidden chemical in our soil with hopes of explaining the mystery to the community.

We are watching them from the hill. A research team in white lab coats, all holding up binoculars to the sky and lowering them as a brownish-red hawk in a tailspin smashes into a parked car with a thudding puff of blood and feathers. Some rush to the scene. The others mark the time and trajectory of the fall in their tiny notepads. You look away as they lift the broken bird by its talons and slip it into a plastic evidence bag.

***
My secret is one I do not tell. When we sit up on the skull boulder and you remind me that it is my turn to tell you something personal by playfully elbowing me in the side, I do not tell you what I do most nights when I am alone. Instead, I tell you that when I was seven I wanted to marry my cousin and that we even kissed once up in the crooked arm of a Joshua tree behind my Aunt’s house. You are not sickened by this, and it makes me think I love you. But I do not tell you this, or even what I wish I could. I do not tell you that after we leave the hill every night, I sit with my back to the wooden fence that separates our houses and listen until I am too tired or too cold to try. I do not tell you that I listen to every sound loud enough to leave your house. I do not tell you that I know exactly how you sound in the arms of another man.

***
The problem with the birds has gotten worse, so our Mayor has begun recruiting citizens for the cleanup effort. At a town hall meeting, held in a cramped portable classroom at the high school, you and I sit and listen in the back row of desks. The Mayor, a feeble man with tan liver spots on his head and large glasses that make him look like a turtle, stands at the front of the room with some of the scientists at his sides. He is drawing names out of a shoebox. While he unfolds each slip of paper, the townspeople quietly hold their breath and exhale with relief when their name is not called.

You look beautiful this afternoon. I write these same words on a scrap of paper and pass it over to you like a student would. You smile as you read it. You look back at me and blink twice and I think this might be a secret message to me saying thank you, that I am handsome, that tonight on the hill you might finally tell me a secret I’ve been waiting to hear. I quickly scribble another note that says this:

Do you like me?
[  ] YES
[  ] NO
[  ] MAYBE

You prop open a faceless child’s clam-shell desk and rifle for a pen. Thinking for a moment, you look up at the particleboard ceiling and tap the pen against your lips. You pass the paper back to me with the MAYBE box checked with red ink. I gently fold up the note and place it in my shirt pocket. In my head I am thinking of places in my house to tack it up.

The Mayor opens the final slip of paper and reads my name aloud. Maybe the classroom is getting to you because you scrunch your face and point at me like a schoolgirl, as if saying, Ha ha you have clean up the bi-irds. Suddenly I feel stupid for feeling proud to be selected for the task force. I try not to think about it. Instead, I focus on your black hair and how you don’t realize a strand of it is stuck to your lips. I think about what it might mean for me to reach over and tuck it behind your ear.

***
The first time we kiss is less than magical. There are no bursts of color or throngs of music, as I’d had fantasized while lying in bed at night. It is dark and secretive like the rest of our nights on the hill. It happens like this:

I ask you if you are ever going to leave your husband. You tell me that your relationship with Tom is not easy to explain. You use his name, Tom, hard and fast like how I imagine he makes love to you and it makes my heart grow cold. You take my hand.

“It’s complicated,” you say, like a math problem or an inoperable tumor.

Upset about the birds or Tom and desperate to show you that love is not complicated, I grab you by the shoulders and kiss you like a man who has something to prove. But you push me away. You look at me with terrified eyes and blink twice and I wonder what the message is this time.

“I can’t,” you tell me. But you do. You fall into me and kiss me so hard I think we might slip off the boulder and go tumbling down the hill. It is not a romantic kiss but a ravenous one. It is meat and we are starving. “I can’t be that woman,” you mumble onto my lips. But we don’t stop, even though I know you are crying. I can feel warm tears dribble down our cheeks and into our mouths. I can taste the salt and bitter of running mascara as we push black streams back and forth between our tongues. I try to pull away but you just yank me in closer. I try to speak, but my words get lost in your whimpering.

***
This morning there are two dead sparrows like balled-up paper napkins in my driveway. While I stand there and stare at them, your husband comes out of your house and stands behind me. I think for sure you have told him about our secrets, about our kiss. He is a short, overweight man, so I think I can outrun him if I need to.

“I don’t think it’ll ever quit,” he tells me. I look over my shoulder at him and then up to the sky. “Shoot, just yesterday a crow fell right into my damned windshield while I was driving. Cracked it up good.” He comes up next to me and looks down at the two birds. “Poor bastards.”

We stand there silently for a few moments, both staring at the mess on my driveway.

“Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Just that, I don’t know, maybe things were never meant to fly. Like, you can’t cheat gravity, you know?” With that he turns and makes towards your front door.

“Hey Tom,” I call.

“Yeah?”

I think about telling him everything. About how I cheated him. How we cheated him. But I don’t.

“Nothing. Never mind.” He nods and disappears into your house. I go around to the side of my house to get a shovel. With your husband’s words swimming in my head, I scrape up the remains and flip them into the trashcan. I grab the hose and wash away the tiny heart the adjoining pools of blood have formed, feeling terrible as the brown water rushes to the gutter.

***
We look like convicts on the side of the highway in our orange vests and hardhats. There are two jobs: picking and sorting. The pickers are given black garbage bags and trash claws to pick up the birds. When they fill their bags, they bring them to the sorters. The sorters, assisted by a team of scientists, separate the carcasses by species and place them accordingly into plastic bins.

I am a picker. I have spent all afternoon hefting dead birds, crows with stale wings and hawks with broken legs and crooked beaks, from off the asphalt and into bags. There are eight pickers out here on this four-mile stretch of road, but it is nowhere near enough. One of the pickers, a young guy with a head too small for a hardhat and a midsection too bony for a vest says it best:

“It’s like the bird holocaust.”

A local news team is covering the cleanup effort. The guy smiles with pride when the reporter refers to the incident as “The Bird Holocaust,” giving the phrase he coined a place in history.

It has been three days since we kissed and I have yet to hear from you. For the past three nights the skull boulder has been empty and your house has been silent. I am usually too cautious to call you on the phone but there is something about the sour stench of rotting birds that gives a man guts.

On my break, I sit on a red ice chest and dial your number. It is then, as the sound of your phone ringing vibrates in my ear, that a stray pigeon comes careening down from the sky and smashes right into my face. The blow knocks me off the cooler and onto my back. It sends my hardhat rolling off into the desert and my phone spinning, splayed open in the middle of the road. I lay there holding my face with both hands, feeling the hot rush of blood flow through them and down my arms as the crew panics and forms a circle around me. They offer me towels and water, all pulling at my arms to assess the damage. The news reporter breaks through the chain of pickers and sorters and shoves a microphone into my face, hoping to get a statement from the first potential casualty of the “Holocaust.” The crew’s voices and the reporter’s questions all blur into a low hum, almost silent. Through it all I can hear you crying. With my vision blurry and equilibrium nonexistent, I stand and push my way through the crowd. I follow your voice, staggering. Your cries are louder now as I crawl around on the cracked blacktop. By the time I reach the phone, your sobs are desperate and guttural. I stand up and say your name into the phone, but you do not respond. Holding it to my ear, I realize the sound is coming from somewhere else.

On the ground near my feet lies the pigeon who let me have it. Despite a broken neck, it has hopped to the center of the highway. It looks up at me, its head right-side-up but body upside down. It is blinking slowly and cooing like a sad woman. I sit down beside it and wait for it to go completely silent, then carefully carry it back to the scientists.

***
My face is a rotten plum. My left eye is purple and completely closed. My nose has a dent in the bridge and my upper lip is swollen. If headaches were tornadoes, mine would turn the earth into a cloud of dust. Though none of this hurts as much as your car being gone for five straight days. After getting hit by the pigeon and the news story that followed, the Mayor relieves me of duty. So I have had plenty of time to steep in your absence.

But today, after a week passes, you call.

“Hi,” you say.

“Hello,” I say.

“I saw your face in the paper. Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, where are you?” I ask.

“At my Mom’s.”

“Oh,” I say. “Are you coming back?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Ever?”

“No,” you say.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Does Tom know?” I ask. “I mean, that you’re not coming back.”

“Yeah.”

“And what about us?”

“I’m sorry,” you say.

“I don’t understand.” I can hear someone in the background with you, perhaps your Mom. You begin to whisper.

“I said I can’t be that woman. Not to Tom. Not to you either. I’m sorry,” you say again.

***
Tonight I hike up the hill to be alone. Next to the boulder, there is a small bird skeleton that has been picked clean by scavengers. I pick up its tiny skull and roll it between my fingertips.

After a few moments of waiting for the town to get dark, I hear footsteps crunching sand behind me. I know it’s you and my heart begins to flutter. I hop off the rock to greet you only to find Tom, looking broken and empty.

“What are you doing up here?” he asks.

I can’t tell him the truth, so I say, “I come here to think sometimes.”

“Ah. You know I’ve been looking up at this skull for years and not once have I ever come to see it up close.” I sit back down on the boulder and he follows. “Quite a shiner you got,” he says, pointing at my eye.

“Yeah,” I say, showing him the bird skull and then tossing it off the side of the hill.

“Yeah I read about it. You won’t have to worry about that again, though.”

“Why?”

“You didn’t hear?”

I shake my head.

“The birds have quit falling. Scientists said it was some freak thing like the Bermuda Triangle or something.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding. Then, he says, “She’s gone, you know. She left me.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him.

He just nods.

Neither of us say anything for a while. I just stare out at the remaining porch lights and Tom looks down at his folded hands. Sitting here with Tom has made me realize what you mean by being that woman. The type of woman who leaves two grown men sulking and wondering where they went wrong. I understand how much harder this is for you. “I’m sorry,” I say again —  not to Tom, but to you.

I wait for the last light in town to burn out before I ask Tom if I can tell him a secret.

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