Aviary

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I killed The Teenager. That was a mistake. I’m a thief, not a killer. You rob a house, and a dead body is the last thing you want to leave behind. That’s why people I know refuse to carry a gun. It’s not like it’s against some robber’s code or anything – it just makes things easier. Why give the cops a reason to look harder. If everything goes smoothly, fine. The cops look around a few hours and let it go. But a gun? Cops get paranoid, thinking you’re out there waiting. If not that night, then some other night. Why make them worry? Skip it.

The Teenager’s house was a two-story brick mansion. I stepped through a bedroom window in the back. The bed was made. The closet doors and dresser drawers were closed. There weren’t any dirty clothes lying around. This wasn’t like my house or any other house I’d ever seen. I kept walking.

The interior spaces were wide and quiet and soft and filled with cool clean air and sunlight. There was leather and silk and mahogany and velvet and oak and all kinds of other solid, comforting things I didn’t know what to call. No one was home – perfect. Then I started wondering why anyone would ever leave such a place. Its perfection was hypnotizing. There were lights in the ceiling!

I remembered I had a job to do. I went through the motions of burglary and gathered artifacts for my return to the hot cramped world. I suppose a gun was there in the middle of everything, and I guess I picked it up.

Turning the corner I met the staircase.

As kids we didn’t have stairs. Not even to the front door. My father made a short step stool so my sister and I could reach the sink. It was white, with my name in blue on the bottom step and my sister’s in pink on the top. We started banging our shins on it one day, so it ended up under the sink. Don’t know where it is now.

The Teenager startled me. She appeared on the stairs in a long black shirt, and we stared at each other for a minute. The buttons on her shirt were made to look like the planets. Mercury at the top and Pluto all the way down there.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a great shirt.”

“Who are you?”

“The shirt guy.”

“You’ve got a gun.”

“Actually, I have your gun. I found it with the shirts.”

She stepped onto the floor and backed up toward the kitchen. “You have my father’s watch. All my mother’s jewelry.”

“Right. It’s for an insurance appraisal. Every couple of years the value of the household items needs to be updated in order to keep the policy updated and so prices of the insured items can by synchronized with the market value of the same items in case they were to be stolen. And since we insure the home, we also have a key, and your parents said it was okay to just let myself in.”

The Teenager looked at the front door and we could both see the chain still hooked from the inside.

“They wanted me to make sure I came in through the side door so as not to arouse suspicion from the neighbors. So I came to the bedroom straight through. I’m sure you heard me.”

“What’s in your backpack?”

“Credentials. Shirts. A business card. Sheets of paper…with business estimates…technical stuff.” I tried to act nonchalant by waving my hand in the air, exhaling, and looking off into the upper right corner of the room. When my eyes returned to The Teenager, she had her phone out.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling my parents.”

“They know I’m here.”

“Okay.”

“So don’t bother them.”

“They won’t mind.” She put the phone to her ear.

I grabbed her wrist and pulled the phone away from her head. “Don’t make trouble.”

She writhed and with her entire 120 pounds tried to pull away. But I held tighter and pulled her close and mouthed the words “drop the phone.” Instead of following instructions, however, she managed to bring her right foot straight up into my crotch before running into the kitchen.

Doubled over and gasping for air, I managed to stumble after her. I heard The Teenager behind the beveled pantry door, planning my incarceration.

I flung it open and pointed the gun at her. She yelped, turned, got lower to the ground and stuck her arms straight out in front of her, locking her elbows so hard it looked like they were about to pop out their socket. And she started screaming.

I told her to shut up.

She just closed her eyes tight and yelled louder about the police. One of her outstretched hands still held that phone, like it had superpowers that would stop a bullet. It didn’t.

She fell back under the shelves along the back wall, then stopped moving. A couple of cans rolled my way. I put them and the gun in my backpack and left through the side door. I walked slowly, changing streets a few times until I found a nice path that led into a thicket overlooking an embankment leading down to the boulevard. I stopped there and dumped my backpack. That’s what happens when you use a gun. You end up losing everything. I couldn’t keep the backpack or anything in it. I had to take off my shirt, too. All that stuff tied me to the crime. Now I had less than when I went into that damned house. I left it all right there in a thicket and then slid down the embankment and landed on the sidewalk beside four lanes of traffic.

All the way home I kept thinking about that pantry, and the way The Teenager sat hunched up in the back. As a kid, I would sit in the back of my grandmother’s pantry reading the dates on the preserves on the back shelves, wishing there were a trap door to the crawl space under the floor. I don’t know why I did that. A trap door sure would have helped The Teenager, though.

Years went by and I put The Teenager behind me. I try not to dwell on the past. Eventually I got a job unloading trucks at a freight company. Those long kinds of trucks you see going by you all the time on the highway. The ones with tires as big as your car. Sometimes they have a lot of lights on them at night, like the circus has come to town. Or is on the way out.

I had this foreman I called Hitler. Hitler came up to me with this box one afternoon and asked to see the bottom of my boot. He wanted to see if the tread on my boot matched the tread mark on the box. It did, of course, because everyone in the warehouse wore company-issue boots. I guess they were thinking ahead.

Hitler fired me in front of my co-workers. He did it this way: me powerful, you weak. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m trying to let it go. The job was hot and boring, and I was getting some backaches and shoulder pains that were starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t look for a new job straight off. That’s not really my style. I relaxed. I took a few days off and sat by the pool at the center of my apartment complex.

I met a girl there. I’m handsome. We hung out that afternoon then got drunk. That night we had a good time and after that I slept okay. Not great. Something made me uneasy. It was this girl I was next to. She slept like she was dead. She didn’t move all night. A couple of times I put a mirror in front of her nose to see if she was breathing.

To wake her up I had to pour a glass of water in her face, and she wasn’t even upset about it. Like it happened all the time. I don’t know how she gets up when she’s alone. Maybe she’s never alone. After that everything was fine. I guess that’s just the way she is. She walked out onto the balcony, took a deep breath and said, “the birthing of the new day heralded via the gigantic yellow star.” She actually said ‘via.’ She was really out there. And she wasn’t about to let me get any more sleep, either. She jumped right on it like nobody’s business.

Next stop, two coffees served on oversized bongos in front of a hip guitar store. Last night’s entertainment sprinkled in a fourth pack of sweet and low then banged the spoon against the cup like she was calling in the ranch hands for chow. Me? I’m a gentleman. After touching the coffee to my lips, I tucked my pinky back into my fist, tried not to think about Hitler, and asked Eva about her plans for the day.

Yep, you heard me right. Eva. The image of her and Hitler bursting into flames while lying next to each other on the cold concrete floor of a bunker somewhere over there flashed through my head. But then the bunker filled with smoke and the excitement was over. What was left? Eva. Leaning over her cup. Scooping chunks of curdled cream out of her coffee with the curved underside of one of those overlong nails of hers. I tried to make it sexy somehow. It didn’t work.

She told me her plans, but I was thinking of her smoldering remains, so she had to repeat them. Work. City aviary. I didn’t know what an aviary was, but she said it was near the ocean so I was all for it.

When we got out of the car, I found out what an aviary was all about. Bird prison. I told her I didn’t want anything to do with it and left in a hurry. She said something behind me but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t ever want to see her again. I wished she didn’t know where I lived, and, as I turned the corner of the building, I started thinking of ways to make that wish come true. Why had I taken her to my room? Now there’s an extra person who knows me. What can she find out? What am I going to let slip? I had to get rid of her.

But I was getting all worked up. I had been lucky once, so forget it. She was just a woman. I was going to forget about her, like she was going to forget about me. That was the way the normal world worked. I was well on the way to talking myself down, so I tried to notice the little things around me. Focus on the ‘be here now’ idea one of my hippie girlfriends used to talk about.

Weeds along the side of the aviary on my right. An electric meter. A crushed green water pistol. Short yellow poles on my left, strung through with cable to keep cars from hitting daydreamers.

The sidewalk continued past the aviary and emptied into a parking lot. Steel cables and dandelions poked through crumbling concrete tire barriers and buckled asphalt. The wind picked up and when the traffic died down, I could hear breaking surf and seagulls. Beyond the line of condominiums, restaurants, and gift shops there was undoubtedly an ocean, which is what made me want to come with Eva in the first place, though I couldn’t remember why anymore.

The only way to reach the beach was to go through one of the bars or restaurants separating me from the beach. I picked one called SandyBoys. SandyBoys was having an identity crisis, trying to be both a family restaurant and bar at the same time. There were a few arcade games in one corner, with some oversized booths for families of six nearby. A sports bar in the middle with eight TV screens, undersized beer mugs, and wicker baskets filled with peanuts every five feet. The bar was a long, glass-topped pine structure that stretched about forty feet before it made a sharp, ninety-degree turn into a darker, windowless section with its own restrooms, low music, and late-afternoon desperation.

I ordered a double bourbon and water from Nicholas. He wore a nametag. Over to my left, on the other side of the small array of arcades, was a glass door and a wall of windows, through which I could see a patio filled with customers and a wooden walkway – or boardwalk or pier, whatever the right word might be.

Nicholas placed another double bourbon in front of me. There was a woman sitting alone in the swanky section with her back against the wall moving her wine glass around in a circle with her fingertips. She wasn’t waiting for anyone, but she wanted to give that impression by looking at her phone once in a while. There was a father in the arcade having a lot of luck on the Le Mans game, his son tugging at his sleeve and the man shaking him off. The other dads gathered around the machine and stared into the screen, cheering driver dad on.

To make SandyBoys more interesting, there was a small section behind the bar dedicated to sailing. On a four foot square piece of blue velvet atop a small refrigerator rested a framed photo of a schooner, a brass lantern, and three brass contraptions I had never seen before.

“Nicholas.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Could I see one of those thingamajigs down there?” I pointed to the brass thingamajigs.

“No sir, I’m afraid that’s against company policy. Can I get you another bourbon?”

“Sure.”

Nicholas refilled my glass without having to move, or so it seemed. I inquired about the brass instruments, this time regarding their purpose.

“I’m not really sure, sir. I know they’re called sextants. I think they tell you where you are, or align the planets, or help you position yourself by spotting planets at night. But I’m not really sure.” Nicholas glided away to another patron.

I thought if I ever stole anything again it would be a sextant, even if I wasn’t sure how it worked. There was some kind of mystery about it that attracted me. It looked too sophisticated to be just a glorified compass. Could you use it on land somehow? Could it locate a portal?

A little girl began singing behind me. She sat in a booth with her family and she was singing a catchy little tune in the voice of a cat. I turned and listened. The only words were “meow.” When it was over the little girl said, “And that’s how a cat sings.”

I added, “In the shower!” I also clapped. I thought I was being nice. The girl smiled. The father wasn’t so appreciative.

“This is a private conversation, buddy.”

I moved closer to the door leading to the beach. I could still hear the little girl, talking about her new gymnastics mat and all the moves she could do, a lot more than Mary Ellen and how no one will believe her that Mary Ellen is a liar. I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking what fine talk that was for a bar.

I glanced over and the father was coming out of the booth and heading my way. I stepped out the back door and onto the deck. There was a patio with tables and umbrellas and customers and that long boardwalk stretching way out. I kept walking.

There were seagulls all over and they made that seagull sound. They don’t chirp or tweet like a normal bird. It’s more like the noise of a crow. Not as mean sounding, maybe. As I kept going, I noticed that the boards on the walk were laid end to end, instead of side to side. I thought that was unusual. It seemed to be at the time anyway. It’s the kind of pattern that would give the illusion of greater distance. I wondered why somebody would do that. I was going to look it up one day.

The gulls kept swinging around, sounding like monkeys now. Monkeys flying from branch to branch, in wide arcs and sharp dips, from one imaginary vine to another. Flying over the beach, in an aviary with sand. Monkey prison. When I reached the end of the boardwalk I grabbed the railing. The tide was out. Twenty feet below was wet sand the color of coffee the way I like it. The wind hit my face as I looked toward the horizon, where the gray of the sky matched the color of the water in a long wide flat line which my eyes followed and then my head tried to catch up with and then I don’t know what happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the bourbon.

I landed on my side in front of the rail with a good view up the boardwalk toward Sandyboy’s. The Meow Girl came out. The wooden door closed and she stood in front of it, calling the birds, arms stretched out in front of her as the birds whirled and screamed above.

I got up and walked toward Meow Girl. The door opened, hitting Meow Girl in the back. She stumbled and fell on the ground. My instinct was to run toward her, but I didn’t. Her mother picked her up and the two of them and the father walked back through the door. I watched it close behind them.

I stumbled through the backdoor of SandyBoys, past the kids in the arcade and landed on the nearest barstool. Nicholas remembered me and what I preferred. A few sips later I remembered all that brass. I moved a whole gulp down the bar, in front of the sextants. A child’s plaything, maybe? No. Maybe it was in Peter Pan. On his boat in the sky, where I saw one once. Sure. After Peter comes through the window and takes the children away from their toys.

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