Authors: William Wharton
To all my family
There are bird tracks
And nothing in the sky;
Something lived, left,
And left something.
– Aw, come on, Birdy! This is Al here, all the way from Dix. Stop it, huh!
I lean back and poke my head out into the corridor. The queer looking guard-orderly type in the white coat’s still at the other end.
I peer through the cage door. Birdy’s squatting in the middle of the floor, not even looking at me. He’s squatting the same way he used to squat in the loft when he was sewing feathers on that creepy pigeon suit of his. If this doctor-major-psychiatrist here ever finds out about that pigeon suit, he’ll sure as hell chain Birdy right to the floor.
Sometimes it’d scare the crap out of me. I’d climb up to the loft expecting only pigeons and Birdy’d be hunched in the back, in the dark, sewing feathers on those long johns. Birdy could come up with the weirdest ideas.
And now, here he is again, hunkering in the middle of this white room, ignoring me. I sneak another look along the corridor.
– Come on, Birdy. Cut it out! I know you’re not really a bird! This section eight crap doesn’t make sense. The stupid war’s over for Christ’s sake! Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, the whole shitload; kaput!
Nothing. Maybe he is a loon. I wonder if this psychiatrist knows
we call him Birdy? Birdy’s old lady wouldn’t tell; probably doesn’t even know.
Birdy turns his back on me. He just spins in his squat. He keeps his hands against his sides and twists around. He’s staring up at the sky through a small, high window on the other side of the room.
The doctor-major told me I’m supposed to talk about things Birdy and I did together. They shipped me out of the hospital at Dix to come down here. My face is still wrapped in bandages. I’m between operations. It hurts to eat or talk and I’ve been talking like crazy since nine o’clock in the morning. I can’t think of any more things to say.
– Hey Birdy! How about when we built the pigeon loft up in the tree down in the woods?
Maybe talking about that’ll get him. Birdy’s old lady made us rip down the first loft, the one in his yard. Birdy’s house is part of the Cosgrove estate; used to be the gate house. The Cosgrove house and barn burned down years ago. Birdy’s house is just over the left-center field fence of the baseball field. The baseball field is built on the old Cosgrove pasture; last open place left around there.
– Hey Birdy! What in hell did your old lady do with all those baseballs?
Birdy’s old lady’d keep any baseballs that went over the fence into their yard. Ball players didn’t even try anymore. Semi-pros, everybody, gave up. Hit a homer over that fence, into Birdy’s yard; good-bye, ball. Nothing to do but throw in a new one. It got to be expensive playing in that ball park if you were a long-ball-hitting right-hander.
What the hell could she’ve done with all those baseballs? Birdy and I used to look for those baseballs everywhere around his place. Maybe she buried them, or she could’ve sold them; big black market source for used baseballs.
– Hey Birdy! Remember those Greenwood bastards? They never did find our loft up in that tree. Shit, there sure were some creeps in our neighborhood!
Those Greenwood kids’d bust up anything they could get their hands on. They’d steal bikes, pigeons, everything not nailed down.
This loft was a great place for pigeons to home on and nobody’d have any idea it was up there. We kept a rope ladder in a hole under some bushes. We had a hook on it and used to throw it over a branch to climb up.
– Remember that rope ladder we used to climb up, Birdy? Jesus, we were screwballs when you think about it!
I keep talking, watching Birdy, trying to tell if he’s listening. He’s still staring out that high window on the back wall.
He’s certainly pitiful-looking squatting on the middle of the floor in thin, white hospital pajamas. He’s squatting flat on his feet with his knees together, his head thrust forward, his arms against his sides, his fingers hooked behind him. The way he squats, you’d think maybe he just might spring up, flap his arms a few times and fly out that window he’s got his eye on.
It was a terrific loft we built down there in the woods. It was smaller than our first place, the one in his yard. Our first flock in Birdy’s yard was big. There were ten pairs, and two extra cocks. We had all good stock, no junk birds, no cornys, all purebred. I figure if you’re going to spend money on feed, you might’s well have good birds. Birdy’s always trying to bring in some kind of shitty bird just because he likes it. We used to have big arguments about this.
We had three pairs of blue bars, four pairs of blue checks, a pair of red checks and two pairs of white kings. No fancy birds, no tumblers, no fantails; none of that crap.
Now I think. I know.
Know. Think. Nothing.
When we sold the old flock, Birdy’s mother made us scrape the pigeon shit from the front porch where the birds used to roost. She had the whole porch repainted with our pigeon money.
Birdy’s mother’s a first-class bitch.
Anyway, so we have no money to buy birds for the new loft in the tree. Birdy isn’t supposed to have pigeons at all, anywhere.
We get our first two birds down at Sixty-third Street under the el. There’s a big flock of street pigeons there, mostly pure junk. We’d go watch them after school. We’d take the free bus from the railroad terminal to Sears. We’re about thirteen, fourteen then.
We’d watch the pigeons strutting around, eating, fucking, the way pigeons do all day, not paying much attention to anything else. The el’d go by and they’d soar up in big arcs as if it hadn’t been happening every five minutes for about fifty years. Birdy shows me how they usually go back to the same place and do the same things they were doing. We’d watch and try to figure who the flock leaders are and where the nests are up in the girders of the el. We try to work out the pairs. Pigeons are like people; fuck practically all year long and mostly stay in the same pairs.
Usually we’d bring along a bag of feed. Birdy can get almost any pigeon to come sit on his hand in about two minutes. He’d tell me to pick one out of a flock and he’d concentrate on that one pigeon and start making pigeon noises. Sure as hell, that exact pigeon’d begin twisting over and hop right up into his hand. He tells me once he just calls them over. How’n hell can you call a particular pigeon out of a flock? Birdy’s a terrific liar.
– Ah, come on, Birdy. Get off it, huh? This is Al here. Let’s cut this shit!
Nothing. Anyhow, this one pair of blue bars adopts Birdy. They’re beautiful birds but not banded. Birdy gets them so they’ll sit on his head or shoulders and they’ll let him hold them around the wings. He’d stretch out one wing after the other and ruffle their flight feathers. These pigeons act as if this is the most natural thing in the world; seem to like it.
Birdy’d let them go, throw them up with the other pigeons and they’d come right back. Usually pigeons will always fly to the flock. One day Birdy and I walk home instead of taking the bus, and that pair stays right with Birdy all the way to our tree loft. Those crazy birds are homed on Birdy.
Must not listen.
To hear something, must not listen.
To see something, must not look.
To know something, must not think.
To tell something, must not listen.
We had to lock the loft to keep those blue bars from following Birdy home. His old lady’d poison them if she ever caught on.
– Hey, Birdy; remember the blue bar pair you had homed on you? Jesus, that was weird!
He’s still not paying any attention. I don’t care if he is a loon, he shouldn’t just ignore me.
– Birdy, can you hear me? If you hear me and don’t say anything, you really are a loon; nothing but a fucking loon.
Christ, I’m wasting my time. He acts like he’s deaf or something. Major-doctor says he can hear, hears every word I say. Those bastards don’t know everything either. Maybe Birdy’s just scared and doesn’t want to listen. What the hell could’ve happened to him?
When we had the old flock at his house, one thing Birdy and I liked to do was take a bird or two out for a ride on our bicycles. We built a special box to carry them. These were birds already homed to the loft. Birdy’d rigged a string on the pigeon gate with an old alarm clock so we’d know exactly when they got back. We’d go out to Springfield or someplace and let them fly home with a message to ourselves.
One time when I go to the shore with my family, I take two birds with me. I wade out in the surf and let them loose; less than two hours later they’re back at the loft. That’s over ninety miles. In the message I wrote the time and told Birdy I’m letting the birds fly loose over the Atlantic Ocean.
Birdy’d sit by the hour in our loft watching those pigeons. Christ, I like pigeons myself, but not all the holy day sitting in the dark watching. Then, there’s that pigeon suit he used to wear. He started making it while we still had the loft in his back yard. It began with an old pair of long johns he dyed dark blue. He gathered pigeon feathers from everywhere and kept them in a cigar box. He’d squat, like I said, in the back of our loft, sewing feathers onto those long johns. He began at the top and worked down, round and round, one feather overlapping the other, the way a bird is.
When he got it finished and put it on, he looked like some kind of scraggly giant blue check. He’d wear this crazy suit every time he went into the loft. It’s one thing that definitely bugged his mother.
When we built the tree loft, it got worse. He started wearing gloves covered with feathers and slipped reddish-yellow long socks over his shoes and up to his knees. This was all finished off by a hood with more feathers and a yellow cardboard beak. In the back of the loft, in dark shadows, squatting, sometimes he’d look like a real pigeon, only about the size of a big dog. Somebody accidentally looking up into that tree and seeing him walking around would probably go completely nuts.
– That’s what you need here, Birdy, need the old pigeon costume. Really freak out your fatass doctor.
Birdy didn’t have any feeling for quality birds. I never could figure just what it was he looked for in a pigeon. Take this next pigeon we get for the tree loft; it’s one of the ugliest things you can imagine. She’s so corny, I wouldn’t think even a corny’d have anything to do with her. Birdy thinks she’s beautiful.
It’s about a month after we got the blue bars, Birdy comes to
the loft with this pigeon one rainy day and says he found her down in the dump fighting a rat. Now, who’d believe a thing like that? Birdy’s lies are so way out nobody’d believe them. Another thing about Birdy is he’ll believe other people’s lies. Birdy’ll believe almost anything.
The earth turns and we are caught. The weight invades and we struggle in a cage of shifting tons.
This corny’s absolutely black, not shiny black but a dull smoky black. Except for her beak and the way she walks like a pigeon, you’d swear she’s a pint-size crow. She’s so small I think she’s a squab, this is after I’m convinced she’s a pigeon. I don’t want her in the loft. An extra hen in a loft is bad news, but Birdy insists. He keeps raving about how beautiful she is and how she can fly.
First thing she does is steal that blue bar cock away from the hen. He doesn’t know what hit him. He’s wearing himself out strutting around, chasing, fucking her; not even eating. Poor blue bar hen is moping on the nest.
I’m pissed; I want to throw the goddamned corny out. Pigeon witch’s what she is. Birdy says OK but he’s not happy. We throw her up and out the next day. I figure she’s a wanderer and we’ll never see her again.
When I get to the loft that afternoon, Birdy’s already there; so’s the witch. She’s with a great red check cock. They’re strutting all around the loft and the red check’s giving it to her while the blue bar’s trying to get his in but making zero. We watch all afternoon. Finally the blue bar goes back to his hen. I say, OK, the witch can stay now she has her own cock. She must’ve gotten homed to the loft in only two days.
No one knows more than they have to know. All of us locked in gravity graves.
Well, that witch is unbelievable. Next time she goes out, she comes back with a beautiful pair of purebred, banded ash. Birds
like that cost a fortune, eight, nine dollars a pair. These are really show birds. We can’t imagine where they come from. The ash cock goes for the witch and the hen follows them into the loft. They’re so beautiful they light up the whole place. So now the ash is fucking the witch and the red check’s out. It’s not natural.
Things go on like that. The witch goes out and comes back with a cock or sometimes a pair. Most times it’s quality birds. This witch has sex appeal for good pigeons. She always lets the cock she brings home have it till the next one comes along, then never lets him near her again. During the three months she’s in our loft she shows no sign of nesting. Birdy says maybe she’s a whore pigeon, but I’m sure she’s a witch.
I break inside my aloneness to knowledge, the end of knowing; a billowing of an air current; a movement toward necessity.
Shit, before we know it, we have more pigeons than we can keep in the loft. Nobody even knows we have pigeons, so nobody suspects us. With our witch, we’re the biggest pigeon-nappers west of Sixty-third Street.
We start taking extra pigeons out to Cheltenham or Media on the train and selling them. Not much chance of anybody recognizing them way out here. We’re making three, four dollars each weekend that way. Working a whole paper route every day you can’t make that.
And do we ever have great pigeons in the loft. Makes our old loft look like a pig sty. Birdy insists on keeping those first blue bars and, of course, we keep the ashes. Then, we have the sweetest pair of blue checks you ever saw. Checks as clear and unblurred as a checkerboard and they’re big but still slim, with high heads. They have feet red as persimmons and clean. Banded birds, both of them, beautiful. I could watch them all day. I really go for quality pigeons. We have two pairs of red bars almost as good, so good anybody’d trade three pairs of purebreds for either pair.