Fiction

Birds, Bongs, and Briefs by Veronique Darwin

Part One: Arrival

Birdy trailed a teabag through lukewarm water. Her granddaughter Missy, recently back from nursing school, held up a large cell phone: on it, a skeleton of a human, its joints lit up like jellyfish.

“Osteoarthritis,” Missy said solemnly. “Damage in the place where two bones come together.”

Birdy looked out the window at the bird feeder. “It’s them I worry about. The birds haven’t been fed for some time now. I used to make my own suet, and now—”

“Sweat?” asked Missy. They stared at each other, two distanced generations weighing the intelligence of the other. “You do need regular exercise.”

Birdy folded her hands in her lap. Missy with her purple hair and too-short shorts seemed to imagine Birdy was looking for something and not finding it; like a princess waiting for the second shoe, Birdy’s granddaughter walked around barefoot, unkempt, paint in her hair and always a different boyfriend. Birdy wanted to tell her that she knew what adventure was too, and she had gone and done it, hadn’t she? She’d married Noel, had their gaggle of children, and now the flight of grandchildren. She had taken watercolour courses and nurtured her plants to their full expression. What else did they want from her? What else could they expect?

“Who do you talk to?” asked Missy. Then, pointing at the tremors: “Grandma, you need someone here.”

Birdy turned abruptly to the window. All these things she was supposed to need! She had enough going on with the songbirds’ impending return, the water birds nesting in the sand by the river, the raid of geese that flew in alphabetic formation and the sentries of crows that stood watch on the power lines. She had always been a birder and after Noel’s death, she was content to live a life of observation from inside her home.

“You don’t eat. You can’t get out. You need someone here.” Missy smiled in the compassionate way she had been taught and poked at the screen of her phone. “I have a friend who’s a great cook and needs a place to live. You’ll like him, Grandma. He’s a good listener.”

#

The knock at the front door came on April 1st. The plants in the solarium shook with its force. Birdy assessed the route to the front door: the slope of the staircase seemed to have inclined over the years so that each step was now a precipice.

“Come in!” she called, voice ragged. When was the last time she’d had to shout? Had she always walked this way, elbows extended? Is that why they’d called her Birdy?

The young man was so tall he needed to bend his head to enter. He wore work boots and torn jeans hanging low beneath a bright green waistband—his briefs? His hair was long and a blonde beard covered his face so that his features seemed small and delicate. She outstretched her bony, shaking hand and he held it firmly in his, settling it.

“I won’t bother you,” Blake said quietly, “but I’d love a spot in the garden.”

“Take it all. My husband was the gardener.”

Blake nodded. “I’m sorry. My gran passed recently too.”

Not knowing what else to do, her empathy stretched thin as the skin on her cheeks, Birdy showed the young man around the kitchen—he might use this cupboard for his non-perishables, and this was where she kept the tea, crackers and dry bird feed.

“They should be showing up any day now.”

“Who?” he asked.

“The songbirds.”

Part Two: Settling

It was now late spring and the birds played a tactful game for her attention. Their drama took up so much space in her that she could no longer give time to the watercolours, to the plants. She was stiffened, wrapped up in something beyond her, a tension that played out between her rigid body and the hovering world. The eagles hung far off in the hills across the river. The songbirds were up early and stayed out late, and even though she grew weary of their incessant calls, she appreciated their energy, their forwardness, their enterprise.

Blake had reawakened the house, giving it new smells and sensibilities. He played records late into the night. They were styles of music she’d never heard before, beats she hadn’t known could fit together. He made exotically-spiced meals and labelled leftovers with dates on green tape. Once, she took a small bite of something in a yellow wrapper and the sour taste lingered for hours. Like Missy, he walked around without shoes. She tried this, pretending she’d forgotten slippers after the shower. The tile, the plush carpet, then the thin rug, and the bed sheets tickling her feet!

At the doctor’s office, a similar slide to the one Missy had shown her was silhouetted in the window. On the street corner Birdy leaned for a long time against the traffic post, listening to the chirping birds indicating the north-south crosswalk, then the caws of the east-west. Missy’s car pulled up and—in Birdy’s haste to escape the city, where experts told her what she could and could not do, where birds were trapped inside of traffic lights—she missed the curb’s step and fell to the concrete.

Missy came by more often after this. She and Blake moved around at high speeds, tidying, shifting, washing, giggling, kissing. Birdy was but a prop in their romance, and chose to stay put in the solarium, where she could close herself off from a world that had spilled into her own house. Through the window she watched Blake build the greenhouse up piece by piece. She wanted to know what he would grow, wanted him to tell her about the garden the way Noel used to, but since Missy took it all, he had nothing left to share with Birdy when they sat down for their silent meals. That is, until the day he entered her sunroom for the first time.

“Where would you like these?” He held the mail in his hand, a pile as thick as his beard.

At once the glass room felt too small, like a dream she’d been having. She caught him looking at the easel, the still rocking chair, and shooed him out, following behind.

“Have you seen my reading glasses?” she asked, though there were none; she hadn’t read for years.

They almost got to the kitchen before she needed to sit. He did too, in Noel’s armchair. No family member would have done this, but as she was about to tell him as much, he peeled open the first envelope and began to read. It was nothing important, the mail of an old woman—pension cheques, probing from various agencies to see whether she was still alive, scams she often felt like falling for just to have something to do—but he read each out loud like they might contain a golden ticket or an invitation to the ball.

“This one offers you a 75% discount on a pretty rad magazine,” he said brightly. “Have you ever heard of meal subscriptions? I could show you how to make a curry. Do you want me to phone the bank to activate your new card?”

For a moment he had become Noel.

“You know, we can visit sometime,” she interrupted. “But I expect you to bring me some of what you’re planting out there.”

A smile washed over Blake’s face. “I actually have some right here.” He pulled a bag from his pocket and brought a few leaves up to her nose. Manure-like, fruity. “You smoke it,” he said, “or you can use something like this.”

He pulled from his pocket a glass pipe swirling with greens and purples. It shone in the light like a kaleidoscope. Before she completely understood what was happening, she accepted the glass to her lips, not able to remember the last time she was offered anything but tea.

Slowly she became absorbed by the couch’s frayed patterns and textures, the absurdity of the wall-hangings they’d chosen thirty years ago, the tenderness of the grey hairs on her arms. Her body no longer trapped but coated her, quieting her nagging limbs and tendons. The shifting awareness of her body reminded her that she was still in this world.

In the days that followed, her joint pain began to dissipate. She became ravenous with hunger, and her body, like the house, filled with smoke, food and conversation.

“Gran used to make way too much and then eat none of it.”

“You young people are the same.”
“Missy doesn’t eat in public!” he cried out. “And that makes me wonder about living life together, you know? What if we want to have people over? What if I want to grow a garden?”

Birdy whispered it. “Maybe she’s not yours.”
When Blake travelled to see his family, Missy hung around the house, largely prone on the couch, her phone dangling over her face. It occurred to Birdy that Missy did not know the care, conversations or substance that she and Blake had been consuming. She felt sad then, for Missy, for Blake, for the lack that existed between them. She reflected at last on the unity that she and Noel had shared, and for the first time since his parting, she no longer saw herself as a remainder; instead, she was multiplying.

“They don’t see me,” Blake said upon his return from his family.

“Let them be,” she told him. “They’re circling you but they’ll never land.”

And rather than the birds, she watched time unfold in the movement of sunlight on his premature bald spot, a clearing in the woods of his long, stringy hair. He kissed her once, unexpectedly, on the cheek. She hadn’t forgotten the birds; she was at last ready to say goodbye to them.

Part Three: Adventure

Blake’s birthday was approaching, and though Birdy wanted to knit him something as his gran would have done, she knew her fingers could no longer move the way they used to. She phoned Missy.

“I was wondering,” said Birdy, “what Blake might like for his birthday?”

She watched him from the window as Missy explained the premise of various video games. His jeans were again riding below the strap of his flashy pink briefs. The songbirds worked and played in the tree next to him.

Birdy was surprised to find herself at the department store. She walked through it with the ease of her younger self, passing the counters where she used to vend scarves and perfume. How fashion had changed! Birdy realized she couldn’t tell if she was in a section for women or girls. She rode the elevator up to the men’s section and headed straight to the half models with buttocks made of two firm lumps. Furtively she glanced around, but people were only interested in their own shopping. She felt a rush as she chose a pair of purple briefs with a yellow elastic waistband. She fingered them, bringing them carefully up to her nose to smell: the perfume they were bathed in was masculine, both primitive and proper. As she descended the escalator, she glanced at a pair of shopkeepers. Their heads were in close, and the sound of their intimacy and laughter echoed off the low-tiled ceiling and down the marble aisles. She thought of Noel for the first time in days, then promptly, as the automatic doors opened, thought of something else. Life was moving forward.

#

“I can’t sit this afternoon,” he called out from the kitchen on his birthday. “I have to work. Not all of us get pension cheques!”

But Birdy saw Missy’s car waiting, watched him get in, witnessed the embrace. She paced around the house, able to move through every room with an ease that should have pleased her. Instead, she felt alone. The birds were busy with their own things, and she did not know where Blake kept the cannabis. She was faced with something she hadn’t encountered for a longtime: the possibility of herself.

Missy and Blake returned late in the evening. From her bedroom she listened to them work their way through the house. High-pitched notes, then lower tones of pleading, a threat in response, a long silence, then compromise. She knew the song well, but it had been a long time since she’d heard it inside her house. She closed her eyes and let it wash over her.

#

Birdy and Blake passed the bong back and forth. A sad record rotated softly. They had not seen Birdy’s granddaughter for weeks.

“Missy,” she said finally, “wasn’t a good fit for you.” Birdy took a puff from the pipe, feeling the smoke fill her mouth, her throat, and then released it, slowly, her eyes on him. “Life is too short to let others tell you how to live.”

He looked at her from under his beard, his eyes glistening. Then his face hardened and he stood up.

“You’re not my gran to give me advice.”

He left the room and then, with a bang, the house.

She set herself down shakily in her rocking chair. How many times in her life had she hesitated, not said the thing she’d meant to say? She wasn’t a mouse anymore, not a birdy—she was now someone who was listened to, whose mind spoken was heeded and could offend. She hadn’t meant to replace another’s gran; she had only been trying to be the care she’d thought he needed.

A loud caw came suddenly from outside, then a terrible crash into the window pane. Startled with the unusually loud sound, she leapt forward, catching her breath on her knees. Her head was dizzy from smoking and she took a moment to collect herself before standing with a sudden realization. It wasn’t the birds playing with her this time. That wasn’t a bird at all.

“You ever thought about flying?” Blake shouted from outside the window.

She looked at him curiously. Then all of a sudden, stretching out his arms, Blake let out a series of sharp, fricative cries. She watched him as he ran around the garden in the fading light, his elbows wings, calling to the other birds. Shocked at first, she then began to laugh, first an odd choking noise, then a clearer pitch of longing she couldn’t control. Blake stopped, cocked his head and looked in at her. Their laughter, against and through the glass panes of the sunroom, was birdsong.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR :
Véronique Darwin is a writer and teacher living in Rossland, BC. She was published in Geist and Existere magazines and made The Fiddlehead’s 2018 Short Fiction longlist. She recently wrote and directed a musical about her ski town.