Chris gazes down with half-lidded eyes and a crinkled brow and crinkled lips at the icy, olive canary lying at the bottom of a cerulean beer case sized birdcage. He shoots a hissing snort at it, as he scrapes his scalp with his fore and middle finger, collecting two heaps of damp dandruff under his nails, then uses his thumbnail to flick them away.
“So…what did you in, Su? Illness? Age?” Chris squats on his bamboo legs, putting the cage at eyelevel. “Or murder?”
Sunny the canary lies belly down, the shadowy yellow feathers streaked with bits of faded green and dusty brown pressed flat against her body. Her eyelids covering her dull black eyes like wrinkled sheets.
Chris sighs. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Reaching out he puts a hand on the cage, hoists himself up, then hurls himself onto his disheveled bottom bunk bed. Shutting his eyes he inhales deeply, smelling his chicken noodle soup scent and the dry, tangy, newspaper odor of the birdcage. “Couldn’t afford to save ya,” he exhales.
Chris— a thin thing draped in a faded blue and green tie-dye shirt and denim shorts— trudges home in the grapefruit sunset down the cracked sidewalk, kicking sleepy plants and assaulting pebbles. Patches of ripe, fluffy grass, unlike his own sparse and brittle armpit hairs, and oak trees, which began to shelter bluebirds and shadows, cushioned the houses he passed. Chris smells sunflower oil frying chicken and pungent onions, and hears the hollow laughter of Full House and remnants of a baby’s scream, coming from the homes, and he lifts his feet more briskly, skipping a bit.
Rounding the corner, Chris’ eyes flicker wider as a fuzzy, burnt toast chick tip toes in front of him, pecking at the grains of dirt on the cement. Young chicken or turkey, he can’t tell. It eyes him intently as it hurriedly bobs away towards the street. It occurs to him then that the little bird is by itself and wonders where its family is. Chris crosses the street after it and calls out, “Here chicky chick, c’mere chicky.”
It continues on unfazed.
He stops in the middle of the road and wonders if he will even be allowed to keep it, or catch it. The chick makes it to the opposing sidewalk and into the bougainvillea bush adorned with lavender flowers. Chris begins to look around frantically at the dimming world, the pamplemousse being swabbed away by a soapy gray wash of clouds.
He doesn’t hear the hiss of car tires, but sees his shadow grow bolder in oncoming headlights. Just in time, he sprints out of the pink Cadillac’s way, but trips and scrapes his knees on the sidewalk. His knees burn and his ears ring from the roar of the car’s horn for days.
Chris— wrapped in a gray long-sleeved shirt and black cargo pants— continues to lie on his bottom bunk in his apartment bedroom he shares with his younger brother, Joshua. The apartment is coated with steel colored carpet and the walls are decorated with paintings here and there, abstract paintings that look bright with light blue sky, wispy clouds, and deep emerald ocean with multicolored fish scattered every which way, that Chris’ mother had painted long before she met his father who now lives apart from them.
A knock and a bellowing “Hello?”
It was his father, Bob, at the apartment door.
“Coming!” Chris replies throwing a towel over the birdcage. He walks to the door with tense, terse steps, his calf muscles simmering and heating his feet, causing him to leave dark indentations in the metallic rug.
Unlocking the door, he swings it open wide to reveal a potbellied man with dirty blonde hair, wearing jeans, a black-buttoned shirt, and black leather jacket. A navy blue JanSport backpack is slung over his shoulder.
“Hi,” Chris says.
“Hey kiddo! How are you?” Bob says hugging Chris, plastering his limp arms to his side.
“Dad!” Joshua says, getting up off the couch and running over to Bob, his dark bronze hair flopping about.
“Hey!” They embrace, “Whatcha up to? Playing video games?”
“Yea! I just beat my record for robbing the most stores in a row without getting killed!”
“Really now? What’s your new record?”
“Alright! Didn’t realize my son was a top-notch thief. How about you show me how to play and then we can play together?”
“We’d need two PlayStations to do that, Dad.”
“Aw, well, we can still have fun right?”
Chris interrupts, “Hey, I’m gonna take out the trash real quick. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” Bob says.
Bob plops onto the frayed, dusty couch next to Joshua who explains loud and quick, “Okay, to move around you just move the joystick, as usual…here.” He hands his dad the controller.
“Ahh, noo,” he laughs. “the left one, I meant. The right one moves the camera.”
“Ohhh. Got it. Okay, I think I’m ready to rob!”
Chris steps into his bedroom and unveils the birdcage. “Say your final goodbyes, I’m about to bury you.”
Holding the cage door open with one hand, he reaches in with the other. Going to lift the dead bird he feels a tug— its talons fastened to the barred floor of the cage with rigor mortis.
“Oh, so now you don’t wanna leave. You used to try and make your escape at every opportunity. And now that I’m practically offering a one-way ticket out, you don’t wanna leave.” He pauses to pet her chest with his thumb, feeling its 2-ply feathers. “Well sorry bud, you can’t stay.” Chris begins the intricate and tedious task of prying her toes off one by one.
“Get out the car, Chris! Hurry up!”
“Okay, dad!” Chris says. Still holding a Rubik’s cube in his hands, he hops out of the white Kia Rio onto the pothole-filled hospital parking lot. Chris stands there in neon green rubber boots and a moss green polyester jacket, twisting the Rubik’s cube around and around. Some of the cube’s highly saturated colorful square stickers are starting to peel off a bit, the corners curling slightly revealing the stone black plastic underneath. He presses his lips together so that they nearly disappear.
“Leave that behind,” his Dad tells him. “C’mon they’re waiting for us.”
“Okaaay.” Chris plops the cube onto the car seat and tramps to his Dad’s side.
Bob shuts the door then offers his hand to Chris and Chris holds it. Mottled zebra dove clouds— a myriad of grays— hang high above their heads and frame the seven story, bleached hospital building. The hospital windows reflect the clouds’ glare and the herd of cars below. Chris and Bob’s shoes crunch like Lay’s potato chips against the loose asphalt and stray, crispy maple syrup leaves.
Chris squeezes Bob’s salami thick hand. “Dad?”
“What’s he gonna be like?”
“Well, I imagine he’s going to cry a lot…but hopefully we get a quiet baby this time, ha ha.” He pauses and Chris gazes up at him.
His dad’s dirty blonde hair like an over ripening banana was combed smooth to form to the shape of his skull, the bangs swished to one side of his forehead.
His father continues, “He’s definitely going to poop a lot.”
“Ewwww!” he crumples his nose.
Bob laughs like thunder in the distance. “Don’t worry, you won’t be changing any diapers.” He looks down at Chris, who is watching his feet kick pebbles around. The cleft of his chin is shallow.
“Everything is gonna be fine, Chris. You have a little brother to play with now, and I have another son, and everything will be fine.”
Reaching the hospital entrance the automatic doors slide open and they are bathed in the frigid aroma of Clorox bleach, rubbing alcohol, and detergent— a tangy, bitter smell that makes Chris crumple his nose some more, a smell that tries too hard to compensate for the feces, pee, and vomit of the hospital. Bob drags Chris with him to a window that Chris is a smidge too short to see into up close. But he can smell a faint, sickeningly sweet, strawberry candy scent drizzling down on his head.
His Dad speaks to the window, “Hello, we’re here to see Juniper Rain … In the Maternity Ward,” he adds.
“Of course, go right ahead,” a melodic voice replies.
Chris is dragged off again, stumbling a bit before his feet work in sync with his Dad’s again.
On they travel down the milky glass hallways lined with golden brown doors and chairs. The fluorescent fixtures mark the seconds it takes to make their way to an elevator. Chris jiggles about like a quaker parrot, swinging on his father’s arm like a tetherball being smacked around its pole, hyperventilating and squeaking as he begs to press the button. Then up they go to the third floor. Turning a corner they reach Room 302. Bob knocks.
“Come in,” a hushed voice calls out.
His dad clicks the door open. Inside the hospital room in a key lime bed sits Chris’ mom, Juniper. Her hair is shimmering tight ringlets of copper cascading onto her shoulders. The baby’s dimples rise up like spoonfuls of cherry ice cream to meet her hazel eyes. The baby, a bundle of robin egg blue fleece, lies in the crook of her arm.
Leaving Chris at the door, Bob strides over to the bed and shuffles himself between the mattress and the huge window next to it.
“Hi, sweetie,” he says to her, leaning over and smooching her forehead.
“How’s the little guy?”
“Hey there, you,” he says to the baby. Gingerly he reaches out and strokes the baby’s peach fuzz covered cheek with the back of his pointer.
“Chris,” his mom calls out, “Come see your brother Joshua.”
Chris slowly walks to the side of the bed opposite his dad. His mom leans over a bit so he can get a better look.
Joshua’s face looks raw and pinched shut, as though he had squirmed through a blizzard to be born into this world. Chris sticks a forefinger into Joshua’s shaking, open hand. Joshua grips it firmly.
“Look at that, he likes you!” Bob says.
Chris looks up to see his Dad beaming and his mom giving a tight smile. And for the first time in a while he feels anchored down.
With a final pluck, the canary is free, her boulder-like weight reduced to that of peanut shells. Extracting her from the cage, Chris gingerly places her onto his bed.
“There. Your favorite spot to poop,” he says.
He goes over to his dresser and pulls out a pair of socks, bends down and picks up his sneakers. Slowly he sits down upon his bed and watches to see if she starts rolling away from the dip his weight makes in the mattress. When she remains where she is, he sighs with relief and dresses his feet at the slow pace of a child stalling to leave the lighthearted, sunshine soaked, laughter filled playground. Chris eases himself off the bed then drags out a gray hoodie from between the drool stained pillows and shimmies it on. He picks up the canary and tucks her into the kangaroo pouch on the front of his hoodie.
Chris struts his way into the kitchen. The kitchen sink is stuffed with dishes and mail dominates the white marble counter with overripe bananas at the top of the pile. Chris yanks out the half empty garbage bag from its plastic bin and ties it off. Bag in one hand, he rummages through the utensil drawer and picks out a large, metallic tablespoon, and stuffs it into his roomy cargo pants’ pocket. He glares into the living room at Bob leaning into the T.V., the sounds of pixelated gunfire ricocheting in his skull. Joshua lying on the carpet, his elbows digging into it to support his head with his hands, his legs bent up into the air, feet being swinging back and forth, as he watches his dad play.
“Be right back,” Chris mumbles as he scrambles to open and close the front door.
Outside a playful gust flies around punching loose leaves from their place among the rest of the glowing green mass, forcing them to dance and spin as they fall until they crash land onto the earth below to lie beside the woodlice and other harbingers of a leaf’s disintegration. The gust flies into Chris and flings the tassels of his hoodie onto his shoulders and tickles his nostrils with the bittersweet scent of freshly mowed lawns and overturned soil. And for a brief moment it lifts him up.
Down the apartment hall, Chris walks to the elevator, the setting sun printing the shadows of the railing onto the walkway, creating a never-ending pattern of dark bars that slip over his pants and sneakers as he walks by.
He reaches the elevator, presses the down button, whistling “Taps.” Clanking and clunking, the rickety lift hauls itself up to bring Chris closer to the ground. It arrives and invites him inside its isolated space— a three by four by eight foot crate with walls made of silver, smooth and reflective as a lake on a spring evening. The elevator clambers downward, and for a moment his stomach presses up against his lungs.
“I asked you to wash my clothes today,” Juniper says exasperated. She is still holding her briefcase and a stack of papers against her fully inflated basketball stomach that strained her carnation pink blouse.
“They’re being dried right now,” Bob replies staring at the six o’clock news.
“You had all day to do it.”
“Well, I tidied up, picked up Chris, and got distracted by the T.V. for a while. But I remembered.”
She trudges off down the hall past Chris’ bedroom. Behind his closed door, Chris plays with his golden yellow canary.
“Sunny, come here!” Chris says jumping up and down. He clutches his Rubik’s cube in one hand, a smooth, psychedelic shape stiff from lack of use, its stickers firmly attached.
Sunny was perched up on the curtain rod, twitching her pointy tail, and her chest like a puffy, ripe lemon thrust outward. Her plumage glistens and her smooth, sharp beak cuts a space in the room to pour her sugary song into. Sunny spreads her wings and flits down to land upon Chris’ head.
“Good bird!” he giggles. Clumsily Chris pushes his hand against the front of Sunny’s legs. Nimble Sunny hops onto his hand and is brought face to face with a semi-toothless Chris. “Sunny!” Chris tries to whistle at Sunny, managing only to spit on her, and in receiving such indignity Sunny flies back up onto the curtains. “Hey! Come back!” And the process begins again.
Juniper walks back down the hall into the dinning room, now dressed in a crimson nightgown, the stack of papers and a handful of ballpoint pens in her hands. With a huff she scrapes the dining room floor with the chair and falls down onto it, then casts the thin, dry pulp and inky reeds onto the table causing a series of rattles much like machine gun fire. Across from her in the living room, Bob sits on the La-Z-Boy leaning forward into the television, the radiation glancing on and off his prickly pear face, piercing his eyes.
She picks up the first essay and reads it aloud. “No Booze Allowed, Means More Booze Allowed. The 1920s was a dynamic and revolutionary time, where older ideals and attitudes were being challenged and transformed…”
Bob picks up the remote and pushes the volume a few ticks higher. Yesterday evening a pink Cadillac crashed into local pet store Francis’ Feathered Friends. Twenty-five birds are reported dead, including one scarlet macaw worth around $1800…
She speaks a little louder, “Such a time was indeed dynamic, so much so that the new ideals that sprouted from it often contradicted themselves…”
He thrusts the remote forward and mashes the volume button more. Police say the driver, Tracy Rodriguez, was under the influence of alcohol…
Juniper puts the essay down with a thud. “Could you turn that down?”
“I won’t be able to hear it if I turn it down.”
“Well, I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Well, I’m trying to watch the news. How about using the bedroom?”
“How about turning down the damn volume because I can use any room in this fucking house I want,” she says standing up.
“You know I need to watch the news! So, why the hell are you doing this?”
“Doing what. Watching you watch the news? Watching you buy crap for that damn bird. You insensitive ass.”
And as flaming words are flung around Chris sits in the middle of his bedroom holding that damn bird in his hands, his eyes open wide, the whole of his stomach pulsating with frigid air. Sunny squirms trying to escape.
The elevator reaches the bottom floor and Chris steps off and heads over to the trash room, a cemented area with several mahogany-colored dumpsters with peeling paint lining the walls. As he nears it, he spots his Mom coming from the parking garage, and stops to wait for her. Her copper curls are loose and limp, tied back in a ponytail in the middle of the back of her head. Crow’s feet dig into the corners of her eye sockets and burlap bags weigh down her eyelids.
“You’re home early,” he says.
“I feel so welcomed,” she smirks.
“Sorry, next time I’ll bring the confetti.”
Her mouth stiffens.
“How was work?”
“Quiet, it’s exam week. Of course I brought work home with me.”
“I got most of it done during school, thank goodness. See you upstairs.”
She watches the upper floor balcony as she goes, with deliberate steps.
Chris finds the trash room and flings the garbage bag into an open dumpster. Walking around the corner he arrives at a strip of earth between the artificial structures of his home. He fetches his canary out of his hoodie and holding her up to his face he asks, “Madam, we will have your room set up momentarily. We are preparing an extra special bed for you. We thank you for your patience.”
He produces the tablespoon from his cargo pants with his other hand, kneels down, and begins to stab the dirt to loosen it.
As he digs the cheap tablespoon’s handle bends from the firmness of the soil, but he manages to make a hole big enough to fit his canary. Slowly he lowers her into the hole, laying her on her belly.
“Well, Sunny, you were a good bird. A damn good one considering everything that’s happened.”
And with that he covers her with soil, spoonful by spoonful, and pats it flat. He snatches up nearby rocks and arranges them atop her grave to keep the cats from digging her out so easily. And for the final touch he places a dandelion flower. Chris stands up and stays for a moment, staring at the mound of rocks with a mini sun-like flower, then turns and walks to the elevator.
He rises up to his floor and hears from down the hallway, fragments of his parents arguing. “You…” “Fuck…” “I…!” The sun has nearly crept its way over the edge of the world, the colors all but faded and the railing bars blending into the white noise.
Chris begins a steady march across the railing-less walkway to the burning apartment; his head held steady, facing forward. At the door he unfurls a balled up fist, and steps inside with an air about him colder than the nebula outside.
Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 491: Senior Project