Authors: Fenton Johnson
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Copyright © 2016 by Fenton Johnson
Published by The University Press of Kentucky
Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth,
serving Bellarmine University, Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University.
All rights reserved.
Editorial and Sales Offices:
The University Press of Kentucky
663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The man who loved birds : a novel / Fenton Johnson.
pages ; cm. — (Kentucky voices)
ISBN 978-0-8131-6659-9 (hardcover : acid-free paper) —
ISBN 978-0-8131-6661-2 (pdf) — ISBN 978-0-8131-6660-5 (epub)
1. City and town life—Kentucky—Fiction. 2. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. I. Title.
This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
Member of the Association of
For Dr. Darril Hudson
scholar, patron, friend
and for all teachers and learners
. . . this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was counted among the lawless.
Brother Flavian was not entirely certain what brought him, a Trappist monk soon to celebrate his seventeenth year in the monastery, to be standing in the Miracle Inn with a draft beer in one hand and a pool cue in the other. That afternoon he had set off to deliver the remnants of last year’s fruitcakes to the diocesan soup kitchen in the city, where they would be sliced and used in . . . well, he didn’t really know how they would be used and didn’t much care. The errand was an excuse to go
over the wall
, a term Flavian took some grim satisfaction in knowing was used by both monks and prison inmates to mean the same thing, except that at the end of the day the monks usually came back.
The day had been warm, fox spring, with the promise of summer in the bright sun but with many idyllic days to come before the big heat clamped down. For miles he drove along country lanes where nameless birds soared up from the fencerows and the sky was a great bowl of blue. Then he was negotiating crowded city streets with parallel parkers and confusing intersections and children darting from who knows where bent on self-destruction.
Flavian triumphed over these obstacles and performed his task dutifully and was heading back down the road in time to make Vespers at 5:30, when at the fork where he ought to have continued straight he turned left, toward the tavern in the town. He would stop in the tavern and order a beer. His pulse raced at
the thought—he was thirty-eight years old and had never paid for a beer at a bar, he’d been just shy of legal age when he’d entered the monastery. He fished in his pocket—a few dollars and change left over from the allotment he’d been given for lunch and gas. He promised himself he’d find a way to pay it back. No one need know he was a monk—he was wearing jeans and a plain white shirt, clothes any farmer might wear for a trip to town, and in any case he had made a lifetime practice of anonymity.
He was thin, slant-shouldered, with thin lips, sharp features, and a nose that drew into something startlingly like a beak. The effect was so remarkable that his eyes, a pale, watery blue magnified by thick eyeglasses, stood out as a kind of genetic conjuring trick. As he’d grown older his features softened—the saddlebag spread that transformed his fellow brothers into overstuffed feed sacks served to fill Flavian out, making him look a little less like a heron and a little more like a bespectacled owl. Even so, his was not a face that drew attention. He’d order a beer and stand in the corner and breathe in the smell of freedom and vice, cigarettes and stale beer, and then he’d leave. With any luck he’d be inside the enclosure wall in time for Compline.
The bar was long and slim and smoky and dark, lit only by the fluorescent wings of a duck flying eternally over a Miller Lite waterfall and a single bulb covered with a green glass conical shade hanging above the pool table. Flavian hung back in the shadowy corners, watching how the men propped their feet on the bar rail and ordered, and after he felt he had the routine down he closed his eyes and steeled his will and delivered himself an ultimatum:
You will cross the room and do this thing before that duck makes one more trip across that falling water
, and on the third try his feet moved and the rest of him followed, six long bony feet of elbows and knees. “I’d like a beer, please,” he said to the bartender, as thin and angular as Flavian but sporting a drooping handlebar mustache and a goatee of black flecked with silver.
“Draft or bottle?”
Even so simple a question caused Flavian’s heart to leap but going this far he figured he might as well choose the unknown over the safe. The bartender nodded and pulled a frosty glass from the freezer and a few moments later Flavian stood taking comfort in the sting of the ice-cold mug against his palms. He took a sip—how could something be both bitter and bland? He was on the verge of setting it down and leaving when he found himself face-to-face with a ruddy-cheeked ham of a man with a huge paw of a handshake. “Benny Joe,” the man said, “but most folks call me Little.”
“Uh, Tom,” Flavian said.
“You don’t look like no Tom I ever met. Who’s your daddy?”
And then there was another voice, this one from the shadows beyond the cone of light over the pool table. “He means what’s your last name.”
“Aquinas, Tom Aquinas,” Flavian said and then felt a little smug about how he’d pulled that rabbit so easily from the hat.
Little (Flavian secretly named him Ham) laughed. “No Aquin-
“It’s Italian,” Flavian said, even as he thought,
Lord, Lord, what lies we weave
“They play pool in Italy?”
The voice from the shadows spoke. “He’s looking to shoot a game.”
“Sorry,” Flavian said. “I’ve never played.”
“First time for everything,” this from the voice in the shadows. “Let this be a lesson,” and that was when the cue stick came sailing into the light, and only because he hadn’t seen it coming Flavian caught it with his free hand like this was the most natural thing a man could do when in fact before this particular moment he’d never caught a flying object in his life.
“Hope you can find a better teacher than that sorry-assed son of a bitch,” said Little.
“Watch your tongue,” said the voice from the shadows, “this one’s got manners.” A quarter flipped onto the baize.
Little put the quarter in the slot and the balls thunked from some secret place into some less secret place and each falling ball drove a nail into Flavian’s racing heart. Little gathered them up into the triangle and rearranged them, his hands moving in a complicated little dance (an education, to see such big hands perform such a delicate maneuver) and then he removed the rack gentle as squeezing a peach and there they were, a pristine triangle of colors with a spot of black at their heart. “Break?” Little asked.
“I think I will, if you don’t mind,” Flavian said, and went to the bathroom. Then he returned to palpable impatience and realized he had been given a request, that this had been a question of some sort and so he guessed the obvious and said, “No, you go first.”
And so they played. Little sank a stripe on the break and emitted a little grunt of pleasure. He clutched at his crotch and said, “I got the big balls,” and then proceeded to knock them down one by one while Flavian watched until he finally missed a shot—deliberately, or so it seemed to Flavian, leaving the cue ball lined up with a shot that any child could make. Flavian muffed it, striking the cue ball so hard it jumped off the table.
“Easy, easy,” and the voice from the shadows stepped partly into the light. “Let me show you a thing or two,” and he had his arms wrapped around Flavian and his hands on Flavian’s hands, and Flavian, who had never in memory been held by a living soul, was spoons with a stranger. The Voice (for that was how Flavian thought of him) guided his hands onto the cue stick. “Think about when you’re jerking off,” the Voice said. “Do you pump your pecker fast and hard or slow and easy?” To this question Brother Flavian could summon no response.
Little sucked on his cigarette and then rested it on the pool table’s edge so that the burning ember stuck out, then took a shot with his eyes closed. The ball did not drop into a pocket but Flavian got the message: Little was the cat and his job was to be the compliant mouse.
But now the cue stick rested more easily in his hands and on his next turn Flavian knocked a solid into a pocket—not the pocket he’d been aiming for but still he glowed as if it were Christmas, until he realized that Little was waiting and he guessed that he was being allowed a second turn. Once again his teacher draped his body around Flavian’s and nearing the bottom of his beer Flavian relaxed into it, let himself be guided by the Voice. “Check the angles. It’s all about angles, angles and English and power,” the Voice said as he lined up Flavian’s cue stick. “Take a breath, always a deep breath and let it out easy, easy, the power comes natural, it’s already there, it’s always been there, you don’t got to make it happen, what you got to do is to learn how to use it,” and then Flavian was free to take the shot. But once freed from the guiding hand of the Voice he was too rattled to stay focused and again hit the cue ball too hard. It caromed around the table, dangerously close to the black ball, which, even in his ignorance of the game, Flavian understood was a fate to be avoided.