The bird in the summer house.
Not that it was the first time for such a mishap. In truth, it was almost a regular occurrence in years gone by.
Oh, the precautions we used to take!
The sprawling place there on the point overlooking the ocean in Rhode Island had only a single chimney, built from the golden, mica-sparkling rocks gathered at the foot of the cliff washed with waves. But that was always the problem, the culprit. There on the twin flues on top, where the faded-pink terra cotta tubes gave way to the ocean sky, bluer than blue, the glossy ivy had climbed high, almost blanketing the stone. Every summer my father had directed a handyman from the town to make sure the corroded copper wire screen covering the flues was secure; he called to the man working so high up there, explaining that in spring when nobody was in the house birds had a tendency to use the nook to start building a nest, and more than once we had returned to the place in June to find that one had sailed straight down a flue, had found itself in our living room. My father certainly didn't want that to happen again. Yet there really was no preventing it. The wind from the open Atlantic storms of winter was just too much, too sustained, and how easily it could catch under a corner of the mesh, to tug and tug and powerfully tug, to finally peel that screen away like a sheet of loose-leaf--there and then gone.
In time I myself got up on the clanking aluminum extension ladder to do the job. Of course, my father, both my parents, were deceased by then, and eventually, as said, with my sisters themselves grown and living in other parts of the country too, none of us had been to the house in years, which was surely now half in ruins.
Nevertheless, I woke that night in the faraway darkness to know it had happened again--another bird had gotten into our summer house.
No, the creature wasn't anything vaguely exotic.
It wasn't a black-and-yellow goldfinch of the variety, tiny, that used to nest in the scrub pine off to the side of the rolling lawn in back. And it wasn't the rare red cardinal that would show up some--not all--summers, along with its dowdy brownish mate, its song so pure and sweet and certainly utterly celebratory, as it tried to tell us without the clutter of useless words the happiness that July and August were truly all about. In fact, it was a simple blackbird, not all that large like a crow or grackle, let's say, but just a blackbird no bigger than a robin, a mutt of a bird, its beak orange, its black feathers vaguely iridescent, maybe. It was as if I, thousands of miles away, had watched the whole thing, had seen it all transpire, though there was really nothing I could do about it. I envisioned the house there in the cold of early springtime, and I watched how the bird made its mistake, got trapped the way it did.
Yes, the sheet of common window screen, cut with tin shears to a rectangle, had long before bulged and buckled and finally lifted free in that winter wind. The ivy had grown high, over the flues with its viny tendrils, and how easy it was for this bird to simply be perched there one of those April afternoons when the sunlight still doesn't have its full strength, rendering everything along that fine, cliffed coast in almost the softness of a water color--the grass gone tawny, the scrub growth of bayberry and blackberry and bare wildrose a uniformly brown tangle, the long, red-hulled freighter out there toward the horizon, coming past Beavertail Light at the tip of Jamestown Island proper. There must have been some of that sunlight showing up through the chimney too, from the room below, the glint of it enough to lure the little bird in its fluttering vertical descent.
Through the soot-darkened column, into the hearth itself with its ancient black andirons, and under the brass screen in front of the wide sea-stone arch--to find itself in the large living room, amid the rippled Winslow Homer prints on the walls and the rattan furniture with lumpy yellow cushions showing nautical prints, all anchors and shells and wave-bobbing buoys.
To find itself trapped. Utterly.
I somehow managed to function at work that next day. (I live here in what is commonly called the American Southwest, and whether it is glass-spired Houston or glass-spired Phoenix, even thoroughly glasss-pired Dallas, seems to make little difference--there are rattling palms, and there are modern masterpieces of ribboned, cloverleafed highways; there is warmth most of the time, and there is also little that has anything to do with what had been my first few dozen years of life before coming here for a job and, well, strangely ending up here.) I kept thinking about the bird trapped in the summer house. I thought of the place locked and near abandoned after all these years, after all that sheer fun we had growing up there: the way we conducted our own private festival of summer with my sisters back from boarding school--or, later, their ritzy colleges--always inviting friends to come stay for a while, and my mother, right up until she was eighty, taking her daily swim at the perfect white crescent of the beach with its somewhat famous beach club; my father himself stayed at our winter house most of the week in Providence for his work in the law firm, and with him gone my mother made a ritual out of something like taking all of us kids out to the big expanse of the back lawn after dinner, to not only make us appreciatively savor the beauty of every sunset, but to show us a trick of how the experience was even better, newer, if you jackknifed your body over and gazed at it upside-down, through the legs--she learned that from reading the famous writer Thoreau, we kids knew. In my office now, I managed to watch the clock on the wall. I shuffled through the clutter on my desk for a while and gave my secretary, Courtney, enough work to keep her busy, so I could keep the big black door closed.
I walked around the office.
"There's a bird in the summer house," I whispered aloud.
Or maybe I didn't whisper it, because no sooner had I said it than Courtney (where do parents get these names?) softly knocked.
She was still in her twenties, tall, with white skin and red lipstick and a maybe "retro" pageboy cut for her blond hair, complete with bangs; she wore a simple black skirt and a simple beige blouse. Standing in the door she said:
"I thought I heard something. Did you want me?"
I remembered her tattoo. It had been discovered when there had been a groping, then clothes-peeling, exchange between the two of us, a lot of smooching to the taste of a couple of glasses of white wine, there on her sofa after she invited me in to "relax a little" one night when I dropped her off after working late together. I prided myself then on having had the good sense (rare) of not letting it go too far, not making everything around the office thoroughly uncomfortable because of an outright affair. She stood there smiling now, so genuinely fair that even the pancake makeup couldn't camouflage the faint aqua veins in her forehead, cute.
I suddenly wanted to tell her about the bird, how I knew it was in danger there in the house in Rhode Island, but I caught myself on that. (The tattoo was at the bottom of the rope of her backbone, a single stemmed, red-and-blue little rose with two leaves on either side, and she had once told me the "great thing" about it was that she had been wise to have it so strategically placed while getting it on a dare from her roommate in college, because it being where it was she could even wear a thong bikini and nobody would ever see it--hearing that then, I pictured her in a thong bikini, and the very word, her half-lisped "th" of it, came back to me now, sensual and then some at the moment.) I shuffled around the papers on my desk again.
"No, I guess I was just mumbling, part of impending old age," I said.
She replied with a put-on frown, to dismiss any talk like that. Then she smiled again. She left, shutting the door behind her.
The bird--that plump thing with such an orange beak, the iridescent black feathering--swooped around the house.
At first its flight seemed casual, rather aimless, as it explored the place where, indeed, we had been so happy for so many years.
It swooped through that large living room with its several picture windows to take in wide vistas of the essential sea. (My father had always promised my mother he would someday give her a summer home, and though he bought up the land at a good price during the Depression, he had to wait until after the War to build the house. In the spirit of his hero Jefferson he designed it himself, making cardboard cutouts of each proposed plan to be left on the wing of the Chickering baby-grand piano in our house in Providence for the rest of the family to comment on. He wanted windows, lots of them, and one of my sisters told me his favorite word back then was "fenestration": "You might have been too young to remember, Willy, but that was always it, what he was always talking about, `fenestration.'") There was that rattan furniture and the framed Winslow Homer prints, the clamshells for ashtrays on the coffee and end tables, plus maybe a copy of Time magazine from when the covers of Time magazine weren't in color but showed just a red border around a black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe or Mao-tse Tung--who themselves were still simply newsworthy rather than icons.
It swooped into the big kitchen that adjoined the bigger sunroom/ dining room where there was the maple table and maple hoop-back chairs; there was linoleum supposed to look like slate-blue-and-rust-red flagstone, and there was a hi-fi console with frayed gold tweed over the speakers, the pile of albums underneath with anything from My Fair Lady to Odetta Sings/to-why not?--The Best of the Turtles. (It was there that you usually could find the boys who visited mooning around my sisters, guys who came to stay a few days driving English sport cars and wearing chinos and light-blue cord sport jackets over white polo shirts, constantly trying not to act too moony--my sisters were all beautiful in their different ways--as they, the boys, maybe examined a nine-iron for a nick they hadn't noticed before or managed to maintain some semblance of the casual by happily whistling "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.") The bird swooped down the long corridor to the bedrooms--past my parents' bedroom with the pink wallpaper and the mahogany furniture that had been in my mother's own summer house when a girl, past the bedrooms of my sisters and my father's study, and all the way to the far end and to my own bedroom. There the walls were sea green, the place still cluttered with not only the predictable junk like swim fins, sports biographies, and various artifacts from sailboats and then the outboard powerboats in which I had perpetrated various misadventures over the years (what probably caused the Coast Guard station at Point Judith to keep my name for ready reference on a Rolodex just because my worried mother was always worriedly phoning to ask if they knew anything about my whereabouts when I found myself again out on the veritable open seas in a harrowing thunderstorm that came up at the end of another beautiful day); there was the bulletin board above my desk with the bunch of photographs of me over the years in all those foreign places (sure, that's me on the O'Connell Street Bridge in the drizzle during that summer in Dublin while at Harvard and I was crazy about Yeats and thought I would someday be a real poet, and, sure, that's me in the scorching midday heat sitting on the terrasse of a stuccoed cafe on Goree Island off the coast of Dakar during those years I wandered around after college, mostly in Africa, because I was crazy about African novels--Camera Laye, Amos Tutuola, my surrealistic favorites--and I thought I would someday be a real novelist). The bird flew to every window, tried every room again.
And then it realized, without any doubt whatsoever--it was indeed trapped.
At my condo again and alone at night, I decided to phone long-distance each of my sisters. As said, I had three sisters, all lovely in their different ways, and they almost could be listed on the big white playbill of The Saga of Our Wonderful Family Life back then as the Poised Oldest Sister, the Extremely Beautiful Middle Sister, and the Very Bright Youngest Sister. I started dialing, in the dark.
This was the Poised Oldest Sister.
"A bird has gotten into the summer house," I said.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding," her tone was one of exasperation, bordering on disgust, "I mean, doesn't that take the cake. I haven't heard from you in what is it, six, no, seven years, and now you're going on about a bird."
To be honest it got a lot worse from there. There was something about my never having made much of an effort to visit her oldest son in the hospital before he died after the automobile accident, and I used my repeated excuse that I had been living clear across the country, which was the case; also, the sweet guy, her son, had died within a week after the crash up there on the icy roads near Dartmouth where he went to college, and there really hadn't been much time to get back to see him. Then she changed the subject, with something else concerning a missing second silver tea service that had been my mother's and that I really didn't know much about, and I told her to ask my other sisters, though by that time I don't think she wanted to hear any more of what I had to say.
I dialed again, on another dark night, this time to the Extremely Beautiful Middle Sister. She actually had enjoyed a short, yet valid, New York stage career, even if her one Hollywood film as an ingenue was only a ridiculous sci-fi thing, which for a while did have a cult following.
"You know," I told her, "just the way it used to happen. It must have come down the fireplace there on the ocean side. I'm sure of it."
I don't think she was listening. She was crying, perhaps a little tipsy because I knew she did drink a bit lately, and her voice was still raspily sexy, even to a brother; she only wanted to go on about the argument I once had with her latest husband--it happened the one time I did meet him when I was in Los Angeles on business, a couple of years earlier.
"You know how dear you always have been to me, Willy, and there was no reason to say to him what you did, to act the way you did that night at the restaurant, especially when we were with his friends. I mean, if you're in this business L.A. is a small town, and that's not just a cliche, and there was no reason to do it."
I wanted to tell her the guy was an idiot, supposedly a successful screenwriter but little more than a middle-aged, leather-jacketed thug as far as I was concerned. In fact, I had made some passing joke about him wearing the jacket there at the restaurant--overheard by others at the table in his business, I suppose--and that launched him into a full tirade about how he knew that I didn't think he was good enough for what he called my "classy" sister, and how it must be easy, entertaining even, for somebody who had enjoyed all the privilege of prep school and then Harvard, like me, to make fun of the jacket of somebody who had worked his way up from nothing, like him. Which had little to do with anything, I thought, certainly not what I was trying to say at all, and I was just goofing, though soon I got tired of his railing--I maybe did tell him he wasn't good enough for my "classy" sister. But none of that was important to me either right now, I tried to tell her on the phone, and the truth was that there was a bird in the summer house, flying from room to room, trapped.
"I miss you, Willy," she said, "but please don't call anymore. Berto really doesn't want me to have anything to do with you."
While I had her on the line, I suppose I should have asked her if she knew anything about that apparently missing second silver tea service.
For my third sister, the Very Bright Youngest Sister, I had to keep leaving messages as I phoned in the darkness. I finally wore her down, and she did reply, calling me from her office in Philadelphia; for her it was early in the morning, which translated into darkness where I was and still very much night. The phone on the night table beside my bed rang and rang, and finally I answered it. She admitted outright that she herself didn't remember anything about birds getting into the house. If my oldest sister was chiding and my beautiful, second sister was a bit boozed up, this the Very Bright Youngest Sister was extremely busy.
"I've got three trial cases coming up, one in Washington, and three kids and a husband to keep after, and, to be frank, I'm going to have to cut this rather short, Willy, and get started on another fourteen-hour day here at the firm."
"But the bird, there in the summer house."
"I know, I know, the two of them"--meaning the other sisters--"are after me to put together the papers so we can finally sell the place before it falls over completely. But what time is there to do something like that when I'm trying to juggle all of this the way I am juggling it? You tell me."
True, she missed my point too, and I wasn't suggesting any real estate transaction--I was trying to tell her about the bird.
It was no use.
However, my ten-year-old son would understand, no matter how many shadowy lies my ex-wife had stuffed him with, whispered cruelly to him about me.
Though when I started to punch out the numbers on the phone in my hand, I saw, again in the dark, that my hand was shaking. I almost got through the long series of digits, then I placed down the receiver, deciding that a drink first would help. The scotch was good, smokily aromatic, and a first led to a second, and a couple of more. At which point I decided that I wasn't in any shape to talk to my son. Plus, it was so late and, more painfully--I would have to go through my ex-wife to get to him; she was an attractive woman in early middle age, but at the moment I pictured her as one of those ancient line-drawing illustrations in my frayed blue Latin III book back at Choate, a murky depiction of the gates of Hades guarded by a big-fanged, bulldoggish monster, Cerberus, of course. (I won the Latin III medal in school, by the way, also the Latin II medal with all that Caesar and his maddened, egomaniacal conquest of verdant Gaul; such are facts that only seem relevant for purpose of stressing that for somebody with those two medals in hand--were they stashed away in a mildewed-green bureau drawer somewhere back at the summer house?--for somebody with those two medals to his credit ending up doing the kind of work I ended up doing--I refuse to name it, and even a minor executive role like mine in Giant Corporate America is an embarrassment--constituted a sadness in itself.) There followed more scotch, and eventually a call to my secretary, Courtney.
She didn't seem surprised that I suggested she come over for a nightcap.
"Sure," she chirped, more sing-songing than when at work, "I'll be by in a half-hour, how does that sound?"
"We can go to a bar."
"Oh no, no, no," she said, still chirpy, "I don't want you driving. You just wait there. You start making those nightcaps, all right, and before you know it, presto"--she hesitated--"that's a word isn't it, presto?"
"Presto, and I'll be there."
There was something about the way she said that--or just picturing her lips mouthing the p and then the elision into the tripping of a t, before the final explosion of the little o. For some reason I remembered how she once said the word thong to me as well--I remembered the tiny tattoo of a rose.
I straightened up around the condo some.
"Drug dealers?" I asked her.
"Oh, yeah," Courtney said, "they were drug dealers she fell in with, awful people. I mean, my parents didn't know what to do about it, and, what, with my father being retired military and all and my mother always having been the perfect military mom--he made it to colonel, no big deal and nothing important, but at least he ended up as a real officer--well, with them like that, they saw nothing else to do but to try to ignore it, forget it and it would go away. She was beautiful, my sister."
"What was her name?" I had to ask.
"Celeste, her name was Celeste."
No slacking off by the parents in that department.
"She was beautiful. I mean really beautiful, a blonde like me, I guess, but always so sure of herself, always knowing how to walk so right, how to talk so right, even if at home I as a little sister, a half-a-dozen years younger, only remembered her as a lot of fun. Anyway, being that beautiful there was no chance of her taking going to college seriously, and she started modeling for local department stores, then was in New York for a while, then had a rich and handsome boyfriend who was Mexican--which was all that we knew, and that she was living with him on his mother's yacht, I'm not kidding, off Acapulco."
"A big white yacht, or that's the way I always pictured it. It was old Mexican money, I guess, whatever that means. But before long the mother threw the two of them out, because she didn't approve of my sister, saw her as a gold-digger, probably. Rafael, that was her boyfriend, Rafael started dealing with dealers to support the two of them, using his contacts with fat cats and government big-wigs, I guess, from his family to help the dealers here and there, and I think--though I'm not sure of this--they even used my sister a few times to carry stuff on flights back to San Diego, or maybe it was Atlanta. My sister missed my parents so, missed me too, and sometimes she would call up in the middle of the night, crying. But my father, the ramrod-straight colonel with that kind of perfectly military short, gray lie-down haircut that was probably credential enough to make him a colonel in the first, place, now double-dipping on his pension with a job in the state registry of motor vehicles, my father refused to talk to her on any calls, and my mother agreed it was the best thing. Even though it hurt my mother, hurt me not to talk with her too."
"Well, to make the old long story short, the real terrible part was that somehow she and Rafael got in over their heads with the dealers. Or maybe it was just the treatment from his mother and then my parents that got through to them. They were living in a posh hotel in Acapulco and one night they just entered into a suicide pact, got a whole ton of Seconal which I guess isn't very tough to do in Mexico, just walk into the old farmacia, I guess, and they took it. She died and the body was shipped back here, buried. But he somehow lived. I had to know more, you see, I had to know more about my sister, so beautiful, so special, so, well, rare, and after my freshman year of college--she died during that year--I decided I had to go down there and find out for myself. I used Mexican buses, which would be OK, that primera clase and all, but they're these video buses with really terrible American movies blaring in dubbed Spanish, so you can't sleep, movies that you would never think of watching otherwise. Awful Whoopi Goldberg movies, because Whoppi Goldberg really is awful, for me, anyway, and awful Steven Segal movies, because I don't find him handsome at all, I find him pretty obnoxious too. It took me three days."
"I hear you on that Whoopi Goldberg business, the worst, Steven Segal, ditto. Or probably more so. I mean, Segal, the guy doesn't even have the guts to pronounce his own name right, tries to make it sound like something from a bad French novel. Anyway, don't stop now, and what happened?"
"I did get to talk to Rafael, but he was in a wheelchair, brain-damaged from the suicide attempt and being taken care of by his mother again. I tried to walk around Acapulco and think, get some idea of what my sister's life was like there, and I really wanted to try the hotel where she had been living with Rafael, where she died. The only thing I had gotten out of Rafael, handsome, all right, but in pretty bad shape, what Rafael said was that if there had been anything personal my sister had left it still might be at the hotel. It was a beautiful hotel, expensive and what you'd call classic colonial architecture, I guess, wedding-cake white with red tile roofs. The clerk smiled when I mentioned my sister's name, and he said indeed there was a box of her belongings that had been stored, though, to tell you the truth, already I didn't like the guy's smile, sort of creepy with big teeth under his mustache. He had a bellboy go get the box, and I was stupid enough, so excited, that I tugged it open right there in front of the two of them at the desk. And do you know what I found, what was in that brown cardboard box I had traveled maybe a thousand miles on all-night buses with movies blaring to find? Do you know what?"
"Some clothes, but mostly just serious S and M paraphemalia, I mean, really serious--a lot of black latex and chrome chains and who knows how many genuine whips, even a couple of things with sort of giant wing nuts on them"--she hesitated--"is that a word, wing nuts?"
"Yeah. I mean, I guess."
"The mustached guy and the weasly bellboy grinned just to see me going through it, got a sick macho kick out of just the look on my face. I pushed the box back to them on the counter. I left Acapulco that afternoon, haven't thought about my sister much since then."
We were sitting on the big leather sofa in my condo's living room, our glasses for the aforementioned nightcap on the coffee table.
Sure, I wanted to tell somebody about the bird in the summer house, but this Courtney certainly wasn't the one for it.
And, sure, we slept together that night, and it was awkward sex, needless to add. I knew that it would be more awkward around the office after that, that she herself would probably soon decide to look for another job; secretaries were in such demand lately.
What had she said, just hours before? "Presto?" Cheerily, happily, and now only more sadness.
It got really bad when I did get through to my son the next night. Of course, his mother had to tell me that I had some nerve after not having called for over a month to now phone like that, so late at night. (Was everybody in the world keeping a log of when I last called?) Though I do admit I hadn't figured in the time difference, and I felt bad about that already. And then when my son, Tommy, got on the phone, it seemed that his recently acquired stutter had gotten worse since the last time I had spoken to him. I could hear faint beeping somewhere in all those millions, or billions, of satellite miles between us, in the forever darkness of the more-than-enormous night sky.
"D-D-Dad, I had a dream a-a-a-b-b--"
"You had a dream, about?"
I didn't want to help him, and I knew that you were always supposed to allow somebody with a speech problem get it out.
"Y-yeah. I h-h-had a dream about y-you."
I think I followed most of it. I guess he always pictured that Great American Southwest where I live as bona fide Cowboyland, even if it is, in actuality, just strip malls and skyscrapers and front lawns in tract developments sometimes made out of crushed white stone--agave and prickly pear for landscaping--sometimes electric-green Astroturf. He said he saw me with a horse, and I was feeding the horse a carrot; the horse had a saddle studded with silver, and the horse, in the dream, he said, was named "Pete."
He said I was standing there in a desert night feeding him the big orange carrot, patting his head that had a white star on it; I was talking to the horse, gently, I was patting its head some more.
"Y-you were s-saying, "E-easy, boy, e-easy now, P-P-P-Pete."
It was all I could do but to start weeping aloud, and fortunately my wife interrupted on the upstairs line, grouched that it was getting later still, and maybe we should be wrapping up the call. We did.
I knew then that I had to face this on my own, and there would be no easy way out of it via an evening with a woman half my age or by talking to the one person in the universe who meant more than anything to me, my son very far away. And, besides, each of them had other things, their own problems, to come to terms with.
Which is to say, each of us--everybody on this big blue-and-green globe of ours--has his or her own bird in the summer house. No?
Which is also to say, I had no choice but to do what awaited me there, to do what I, well, surely had to do.
The bird swooped from room to room.
Back in the living room, it slammed itself against the glass picture window overlooking that wave-slapping perfect crescent of the beach and the old 1930s streamlined beach club, white with red railings, behind it. It swooped into the sunroom/dining room again, perched on the ancient black bakelite telephone (was the old four stuttering rings for our number on the party line gone? could long-vanished local boys who gawked at my sisters from afar when eleven still eaves-drop on their interminable chatty phone calls to girlfriends on rainy, foghorn-moaning, ultimately vanished afternoons?); it perched there unsteadily, its beady eyes like two drops of liquid iodine, jerkily bending its head to peck nervously at its glossy wing plumage, then bobbing the head up again to poke it around in more nervous juts, as if to be reminded that this was no time to be pecking at feathers, preening, when the situation was as catastrophic as it was--locked there in a house, half-starving and its light bones turning to brittle straw without even a saving drop of water from the pitted chrome spigots on the old porcelain kitchen sink. It adjusted its scaly red-yellow claws on its perch on the telephone, it jerked its head to look around some more, and then was off in a swoop, pecking madly, machine-gunning, at the crumbling organdy window curtains there in what had been the fine large bedroom of my parents, with my mother's treasured mahogany furniture, yes, from her own summer home when she had been a girl, the room with its pink wallpaper, with the mirror over the dresser as tarnished as silverware left in a closet for years. (Though there were mysteries in that room too, and why not admit it: My father in that room, like any other room in which he found himself in a bed, had to have everything adjusted in a certain way, because utterly rational man he was all his life, New Deal candidate for state attorney general and Presidential Elector all four times for Roosevelt, he could never sleep in a bed anywhere--in a hotel room in some distant city or this the room of his beloved summer home--from which he could see a mirror, or a mirror could see him sleeping; and my mother, despite all of her laughter, despite all of her marching us to the Narragansett Town Library once a week to each bring back a stack of books and all of her dramatically narrating to us, without books, wonderful tales from Thoreau and Dickens and even Poe, all of her swimming and her fun with us on the beach and at the house, despite all that, when the fog set in my mother would just go into her room, literally for days, saying nothing, staring mindlessly--at nothing.) The bird sailed down the corridor again, sailed back to that oversize living room where it could hear other birds chirping above the breeze-echoing chimney flues, out there in the spring sunshine where the grass was already greening, the narcissus were unfolding their white paper petals from slender, translucent stalks along the foundation, the lilac bushes already puffing the tiny rockets of their lavender buds, about to detonate. But there seemed to be no exit for the bird there, and from every angle for the trapped, weakened, exhausted creature, the big arch of the stone fireplace showed only the wall of its thick mesh screen;--that which had once offered an easy entry down the chimney and under the screen and into the living room now didn't seem to suggest any escape whatsoever.
The bird's flight turned erratic, so weakened it was, so utterly dizzy after having been there days, nights too (nights when the sailors, maybe, out on another one of those red-hulled freighters on the horizon dreamed to the propeller's slow chug-chugging with the stars above achingly bright, when the tautog and the striped bass, the flapping flounder and the long-billed swordfish, cruised the dark depths below, and the long glowing cone from the lighthouse at Beavertail Point repeatedly arced through the wave-whispering, buoy-clanging enormity, the beauty of it all), yes, many nights, and then more days still.
The bird was in the summer house.
Until I knew, to repeat, what I had to do.
Because granting I was thousands of miles away, I knew that I could get into that house. I could enter even if the corroded brass key in the shoulder-high crawl space of the dirt basement was gone (the key was always left there, hung on a rusted ten-penny nail above the doors, though it surely had been lost by some workman dispatched to check on things while nobody was living within, while the grass grew and deadened and grew again, season after season over the years, while the yews almost ravenously swallowed the place whole with their uncut, red-berried limbs), that key was long gone; yet I could easily jimmy open one of the screens, I could easily do it right there in my own sea-green bedroom with the documentation of all that travel and, in a larger sense, all those things in my life that didn't turn out right--to toss aside the bulging screen, push up the ancient, water-warped varnished window casing, and crawl inside burglarstyle. The bird was perched atop my old oaken desk still in that room.
"I'm here," I said.
But the bird said nothing, just bobbed its head around, just looked at me with such tiny eyes.
"I'm here," I repeated it, standing there, almost paralyzed--because to make a move would be to scare it, startle it. "It's me, the boy who once lived in this house."
Until thinking I had gotten this all wrong, thinking for a moment that of course I wasn't there, of course there wasn't any bird in the summer house, the bird seemed to speak. No cartoon effects but just a measured squawking that seemed to instantly translate itself in the dank air--half the smell of naphtha, half that mildew perfume--and become a deep voice.
"What are you afraid of?" the voice in it asked me.
Now I was the one who didn't answer. The bird shifted its claws there on the current perch of an old rusted stapler atop the small fold-open desk, the lid of it down.
"Think of it," the voice repeated, "what are you afraid of?"
I said nothing, then finally tried an answer:
"That things didn't turn out the way I thought they would?"
"I don't think that's it."
I thought some more, tried again:
"That there once was a place where I was happy, where we all were so happy, a place like this summer house?"
"No, I don't think that really is it either."
I took a breath, I knew where this was going.
I looked at the bird, the bird looked at me.
"Death?" I asked.
"What do you mean, possibly? I mean, what kind of a cop-out is that."
I was getting a little bolder, and if this bird could talk, then there was no reason why it should just put me on the defensive--I was developing a feel for how the mechanics of this exchange, the staging of it, worked.
"Look at me, a bird," the voice continued, "I'm trapped here, and in a day, maybe two days I'll be dead."
I liked this turn in the rhetoric, appreciating the opportunity for one-upsmanship, and what if I did get a little mean, decidedly cruel about it, in my response?
"True, and it will be like it was back then. We'll come down some weekend in June, arrive here before the season to get the place opened again. And first we'll see the white bird shit everywhere, the lime of it that we'll have to get Mrs. Hennigan, the cleaning lady from town, to scrub away at, then we'll see the pecked holes in the organdy window curtains, and we'll start looking, looking all over, to finally find the hardened, open-eyed pile of feathers behind a door or in a closet with the warped tennis rackets and the old bent cardboard boxes of board games, dead. My father himself will get a shovel from the garage, we kids will all watch him scoop you onto it. I, personally, might hold open the storm door by the Point for him as he goes out to deposit your meaningless remains with a toss, over by the forsythia bushes. End of story, and, you, my friend, will be dead, all right."
But that didn't seem to faze the bird.
"I used to think the same thing," the voice said. "But it really isn't death, it's something else."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"And it really isn't failed expectation, or a life not turning out the way one hoped. It would be easiest to say it's death, but it really isn't. What will it matter if I'm tossed to those bushes from a shovel, because everything else will still go on, and it has to happen sometime, maybe the sooner the better in my case. No, it's something else."
It rotated its head from side to side, its breast pulsating with what would soon be the gone puff of its last erratic breath.
I was more nervous, more anxious, than ever.
"So it isn't death, after all," I said to myself, exhausted but appreciative of what might be a new, but frightening, possibility. "If it isn't death, then ..."
But, no, I never went to the summer house. Needless to add, there never was any talk like that.
Still, there was a bird in the summer house, and I had to tell somebody! Believe me, I really did!
PETER LA SALLE's most recent book is a story collection, Hockey Sur Glace, and his fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He is Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.