Christine Utz is a Florida transplant presently living and writing in Brooklyn, New York. Though many do not consider Florida a part of The South, she is quick to correct this error. She happily teaches Composition at St. John’s University, Adelphi University, and Kingsborough Community College. Her fiction has appeared in the Cellar Door Anthology, BorderSenses, Curbside Quotidian, Dr. Hurley’s Snake Oil Cure, Gloom Cupboard, and Fiction Fix. She has lectured on the Occupy Wall Street movement and coauthored a book about the subject entitled Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. In March of 2013, Christine will be facilitating a panel discussion entitled “The Post MFA Hustle: Surviving (Literally and Creatively) in the Current Climate,” concerning the practical challenges faced by emerging writers at the annual Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Boston.
The Open Window
There were eighteen windows in that old house on Osceola Street, all of them in a new state of disrepair. Jeb wanted the windows open on account of all the steam that was building up in the corners of the house. They lived in what people liked to call a Victorian, erected before any of them were born, which seemed like a long while to Arlene. But if she were being honest, she wouldn’t call it a Victorian; it was more like pre-Columbian. Jeb liked the house because it was only a ten-minute drive to the bar he and Denny ran. Benji, he was three, and he liked the house because strange objects kept appearing, mementos left behind by the previous tenants—or the tenants before them. Last week he’d come to her with and old cigarette case, engraved and everything. Benji carried it around the house, sucking on the corners when she wasn’t looking. He put everything into that mouth with its tiny teeth. At least that part of him was normal.
When a hard rain came through the neighborhood, the streets and yards would flood. All that ground water lying beneath their feet, Jeb explained. Florida was a giant sponge, and a sponge can only hold so much. At breakfast, he demonstrated for Arlene in the kitchen, submerging the green pot scrubber in the sink and lifting it up again, water dripping down his arm.
“You see? This is what we’re living on.”
“Why don’t they suck it all up with those giant flood vacuums?” she asked, already unknotting her apron to hand to him; he was making a small puddle on the floor.
“Can’t do that,” he said, accepting the apron and rubbing it up and down his arm. “There’s a whole aquifer down there. Any water you take out just gets put back in next time it rains.”
“Well I asked for a basement.”
He frowned at her, sweat beading between his eyebrows. It was the middle of February and seventy degrees outside.
But there was something nice about having a makeshift lake in both your front and back yard. She and Benji put galoshes on and waded through the black water to get the mail. Sometimes Jeb found crawfish. They heard stories about the water moccasins. When he was a boy, Jeb told her, he’d watched the older neighborhood kids float out to the middle of the retention pond in a paddleboat, diving off the back of it into the muddy water. There were alligators, snapping turtles, spiny fish. Probably poisonous stuff from the run-off, too. But he’d always wanted to swim with them, just never had the guts to. She told him he was right not to jump in. Lakes down south weren’t meant to be swum in.
The garden needed tending, but that was the last thing Arlene wanted to do on such a nice day. She stepped onto the porch with half a grilled cheese and a mug full of coffee. It was her last thirty minutes before Benji woke up from his nap. She wanted each minute to last, drawn out like an incredible yawn. From the front steps, she saw the garbage cans turned over by the morning trash rounds like a couple of bowling pins.
Back inside, she could hear re-runs of old shows on the new TV. About the only thing new in the whole house. Except for Benji. She still thought of him as pretty recent. The windows on the front of the house were wide open. No one knew about central air when they built the thing. Jeb hadn’t picked up any window units yet, said he was waiting for them to go on sale at Ace Hardware. Arlene looked up and down Osceola Street and didn’t see a single soul. Not even that old lady who walked funny. Which was strange, because it really was a nice day. Hot, but bearable if there was shade and a tall glass of sweet tea made with real sugar. She inhaled slowly, realizing she’d started to like the smell of the Maxwell House factory.
They were digging up the road a few blocks over. Soon the guys would come back from their lunch break and start hammering away again. She guessed that when they started up, Benji would start his hollering too. Maybe if she timed it just so, she could shut up all the windows and turn down the TV, see if that kept Benji sleeping for another hour or so. But that wasn’t right of her. She couldn’t keep him from crying, and closing all those windows herself was more energy than it was worth.
Benji was fine, he was just fine. Another appointment, more poking and prodding. The doctor said he was behind in his developmental stages, whatever that meant. She’d asked what it meant and he explained that Benji should be talking more by now, building things, learning to walk steady, but he mostly just sat around and babbled to himself. Jeb said it was a load of crock. Doctors just make shit up, he said, to get more money out of you. Benji chewed on his fingers and kept looking to Arlene to get him out of the weird office with the not-so-white walls.
Arlene stood slowly, allowing her knees to pop. As she passed through the doorway, she remembered why they couldn’t close the windows. Once they’d opened them, the springs jammed up, and Jeb wouldn’t bother trying to fix them.
She sat Benji down in the living room. He played with his wooden blocks, banging one against another. She picked up a magazine from the coffee table about the kinds of toys toddlers should have. The thing was, they all seemed stupid to her. Dinosaur books that would teach him multiplication. Choo-choos that required knowledge of physics to assemble. What had happened to eating Playdough and making mud pies in the backyard? That’s what she’d done, and who could say she didn’t turn out all right.
The soggy afternoon dragged on, with the intervals banged out on Benji’s blocks. A whistling noise came from the front porch, and they both turned to see if it was the mailman. Benji pointed as a small brown bird darted in through the window and began whizzing around the room. Arlene stood, but didn’t know what to do next. Benji was on his feet too, trying to follow the bird’s chaotic path.
“Don’t touch it!” she said, but knew he wouldn’t listen. She hoped the bird wouldn’t settle anywhere close to Benji’s hands. There was bird flu to worry about. And God, if it pooped in the house. She started to wave her arms, “Shoo! Shoo!”
She told Benji to stay put while she went into the kitchen for the broom. When she returned, he was looking around the room, his head cocked to one side, listening.
“Where’d it go?” she asked him. But he shook his head. They were almost accomplices. If she forgot for a moment that he hadn’t a clue about all the subtle things in life, she might have believed he could trick the bird into flying right toward her.
“Birdie?” Benji said in his sticky baby voice.
“Help mommy find it,” Arlene said. She nudged the edge of the couch with her foot. Nothing moved. Benji continued calling for the bird.
The last thing she needed was a dead bird in the house. Everything was already dying in there. The mildew, the busted window, the creaking wood. She sat on the couch without bothering to push it back toward the wall. She smelled Benji’s baby sweat and wanted to take a nap.
It wasn’t the bird’s idea to get stuck in the house. She acknowledged that, and it eased her nerves a bit. The bird flew around the kitchen, banging into the stained glass above the rusted sink. Couldn’t he see that wasn’t a way out? She wanted to help him, wanted to open the front door and usher him out with the broom. Benji waddled around the house, talking more than she’d ever heard him talk. Part of her wasn’t ready to deal with the tantrum that would follow the release of the bird.
“Hello? Birdie?” Benji sang, his chubby knees pressed to the carpet, his head bent under the TV stand. She smelled his diaper, and then her own stink. She turned the box fan up to full power. The bird must’ve sensed the air change; he shot out from a corner and flew toward the hallway. She and Benji followed it into her bedroom and she caught Benji by the back of his shirt before he could run in.
“We need to let him be for a while,” Arlene said. It was so easy to lie to him. Jeb would be home soon, and he’d know what to do.
“Why?” Benji was full of questions, always questions. His head rolled back to stare up at her.
“Because he’s tired.”
The bird, some sort of sparrow, had settled on the top of her dresser. He watched her as she closed the door, his black eyes small as the head of a pin. And she understood. They were both after some kind of stillness.
Those birds never travel alone. She should have known that. Once it was secured in the bedroom, another sparrow appeared through the open front window. Benji was squealing with delight. She returned to the living room to watch the helpless thing flap around, looking for an exit. Its moss colored wings moved so quick, like a little torpedo.
“Look! Look!” Benji cried. He tried to imitate the bird’s flight path, but couldn’t stay balanced on his wobbly legs.
Two more birds flew in through the window.
“Get under the table,” Arlene said, taking Benji by the arm and pulling him beneath the kitchen table with her. They watched the three birds flutter around the room.
Soon there were not three, but five, ten, then more than she could count. She observed from beneath the table as the entire flock poured in through the windows and overtook the house.
“I have to call Jeb,” she said. But as soon as she stuck her head out, the flock all took to the air and darted into the kitchen. In the midst of her shouting and swatting, she saw Benji stumbling across the floor into the wall of sparrows. He was laughing, his big eyes forming an expression Arlene couldn’t read. As she watched him laughing, he became weightless, picked up from his hands and knees by the tangle of claws and beaks. Instead of rushing into the cloud, Arlene watched without moving as the birds buoyed her baby up to the top of their tightly woven flock and carried him out the window.
Only after did Arlene realize what was happening. She rushed to the lawn. Benji was sitting in the grass, a big baby grin on his face, covered in tiny scratches and bird shit. It was right of the birds to come looking for their own. She couldn’t hold that against them, but she cursed at them all the same.
When Jeb pulled into the driveway several hours later, Arlene and Benji were still sitting in the grass, Benji pulling on Arlene’s hair.
She turned to look at Jeb, her face red from the afternoon sun.
“What are you doing out here?” he said.
There’s a bird in the bedroom,” she said.
“You’re scared of a bird?”
“They attacked Benji.”
“Well, more of them came along.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
Arlene gathered Benji in her arms and went into the garage to retrieve the stroller.
“Take care of it. We’re going for a walk.”
“You’re acting weird,” Jeb said.
When Arlene finally climbed the steps, pushing Benji’s stroller inside even though she knew it would leave black tread marks on the floor, she felt the wheels hit something. She bent to retrieve it: a large brass key they’d found on a shelf in the guest bedroom. It didn’t fit in any of the keyholes, but Benji loved carting it around. She’d even resigned herself to him sneaking a taste when she wasn’t looking. Arlene lifted Benji by the armpits and plopped him in his playpen along with the key. He couldn’t swallow it, she was sure of that.
In the kitchen, Jeb was reading one of his comic books at the table. The kitchen was cozy, that’s how Jeb described it. To Arlene, it was a little nook off the living room that smelled like water damage and sank closer to the earth each day. She checked a pot of tomato soup on the stove, glancing at the Campbell’s cans left on the counter.
“Benji wants to know what happened to the bird.”
“Why’s he want to know?”
“I told him you set it free in the yard, but that just made him more upset.”
Jeb set down the comic book and sniffed the air.
“Now I smell the mildew,” he said.
“What should I tell Ben?”
“Don’t tell him anything. He’ll forget about it.” Jeb went back to reading the comic, only she didn’t think he was really reading it. His eyes weren’t moving.
“Can’t you tell me what you did with it?”
“You don’t have to worry. I took care of it,” he said, taking a joint from the pocket of his work shirt and rolling it between index finger and thumb.
“I just want to know where you put it. In case Ben goes looking.”
Jeb closed his mouth up tight and lit the joint. After he’d taken a few hits, he asked if the soup was ready, holding his arm out to offer her a smoke. Arlene reached for the plastic bowls in the cupboard, bringing down three even though she knew Benji would refuse to eat.
Arlene went to the trash cans in the middle of the night. Pushing aside the refuse of their days together, she searched for the bird. He wasn’t there. For a second, she thought of turning over the cans, like a raccoon, rooting through the bags without gloves. The bird wouldn’t be there—she somehow knew that. It had never been there to begin with.
She went back inside, slinking across the wet grass instead of taking the concrete path. The house was so much cooler at night. So much bigger, and quiet. Arlene went to the bedroom, pressing the door handle slowly, carefully. The click barely audible behind her, she looked at Jeb asleep on his back. The air moved through his lips like a grass whistle.
She stuck her fingers inside the hole in the wall where the bullet had landed. Imagined the bullet tearing through the sparrow’s feathers. He wasn’t in the trash can; he wasn’t buried out back, either. Feeling the ragged edges of plaster, she settled on the reality of the little bird’s ending. It had been a brilliant explosion of feather and bone and blood. At the moment of impact, the barrel of Jed’s shotgun still inches from the bird’s frame, its infiniteness would have been impossible to imagine. The sparrow was everything, she thought. All things. But it was also foolish. Its small body had absorbed the blow and combusted into nothing, defying the logic of physical matter. And the other birds, they had carried his pieces beneath the soft down of the underside of their wings, through the open window and into the starless sky.