J. S. SIMMONS
There’s a bluebird in my heart. I noticed him two weeks ago as I jogged up Summit Hill Ave. I ran past a woman screaming at her kid in his stroller.
“Don’t you dare!” she screeched, “You want a smack in the face?”
That was the first time I felt his wings brush against my insides. It didn’t hurt and it wasn’t unpleasant, and then he started singing. That was pretty, three trills and a long peep, with variations. I stopped and looked to see if anybody else could hear him. I put a hand on my chest without meaning to, embarrassed, but there was no need. There were some others jogging but they weren’t watching me until I stopped, and then they passed me, raising eyebrows meant to show concern but really signifying their disapproval at my laziness or the crummy shape I was in, my flaccid little belly, my spindly legs. I stood there for a minute near the top of the hill, looking around, waiting for someone to ask about the birdsong in my chest. Nobody did, so I ran until I was done, down the other side, up another block, leaving the screaming woman and her uncomprehending baby behind.
I got to my apartment and dried my sweaty forehead with a paper towel. I let myself be still with the pleasant fatigue. I put a hand to my racing heartbeat, and the little fellow poked his head out. He didn’t peck me. He touched me with his open beak through a door in my sternum, and waited. I thought perhaps he was hungry so I got two slices of bread from the pantry and rolled pieces of them into balls and fed him. He liked that. I got myself a beer and sat at the kitchen table playing chess against myself. I was winning on both sides. The bluebird sang after I finished the first beer, and I thought he made suggestions about the black rook and the white queen. I wasn’t sure. It was only his sweet chirping and warbling and I’d never before understood birds’ language. I resented the intrusion but I hadn’t played against anyone in a long time so I let him be white and I was black and I beat him that first time. He sang more after I’d drunk the beer so I went and got scotch from my pantry. We had a party in my kitchen. Just we two, having a nice little time together. He was a good sport.
He got quiet after I drank two shots, and I wondered whether his was happy or sad silence. I worried about it but didn’t want to, so I put on pants and shoes and went down to the Tam for some noise. Maybe there’d be company, friendly strangers or people whose faces I knew or they’d know mine and maybe we’d get to talking.
. . .
It was Thursday and the bar was dead. I recognized an old man in a grimy ivy cap, another, bigger guy wearing a plaid wool jacket, and Sally the bartender. She was a flirty hag, in fair shape from the neck down, considering. Occasionally her thick makeup would fool a drunk into thinking she was ten or twenty years younger and better looking than her age, fifty I’d guess but who knew? These suckers waited until closing, helped her sweep and stack chairs, held her hand on the walk to her place. I’d closed the bar myself and seen this more than once. I wondered: by the time she had her clothes off and a guy got a look at her draped skin and the lines—crags—in her face, was he too ashamed to cut and run? I sat down on a barstool and Sally nodded at me, waiting for my order.
“Boilermaker,” I said.
. . .
Once, when I was eleven my father hit me in the face so hard that for a moment I saw only sunlit crimson. My eyes were open but I saw the color of the blood behind them and nothing else. I had said, “nigger.” My father was white and my mother was black. We were vacationing on a beach near Quebec, me, dad, and my brother Scott. I couldn’t recall the sensation of that pain; I lost it to passing time, but I never forgot that it hurt badly.
“Joshua,” my dad said, “Don’t you ever use that word again.” He gritted his teeth, giving the words a fuzzy sound.
It was strange looking back without retaining the most vivid part, the blow’s sensation, its warm residual pulse on my cheek and ear. I felt very lonely afterward, wanting more than anything to beat my father to death with my soft little hands.
. . .
Sally dropped the boilermaker in front of me with no coaster or napkin, sloshing whiskey onto the bills I’d put down. I didn’t care if she got her money wet but I would’ve liked to drink all the booze I paid for. She stood in front of me by the beer taps. The two old guys’ drinks were still topped up, so she stayed where she was, looking at me.
“What you say that drink’s on the house?” she said.
She was missing an upper incisor. When she spoke her open mouth looked mealy. Her peachy lip-gloss seeped into the tiny lines around her lips. A spray of unplucked stubble poked through the foundation on her chin.
“What, today’s my birthday?” I said.
“You look lonely tonight, honey,” she said.
Her voice was rough and motherly. Her sympathetic flirtation sounded terrible. When I spread my hands over my chest like I meant to say, ‘Who, me?’ the bluebird touched my palm with his beak. I yanked my jacket shut fast and Sally raised an eyebrow.
“Ah, maybe you just look crazy. That’s my mistake,” she said, sweeping the wet money off her counter.
The two old farts down the bar laughed at that and cut their eyes at me, but kept their heads bent to their drinks. I drew off half my whiskey and looked out the front window. The bird sang. He sang a song about sunny vacations and I understood it because he was inside me. I wondered how he breathed in the wet and dark. It felt good when he fluttered his wings and groomed his feathers. Birds had a certain way of moving. You’d assume irritating, jerky movements, some scratching, but it was nice against the walls and chamber doors of my heart.
I kept my back turned to those other drunks.
“Ah, go on,” I said. Maybe they heard me, maybe not. I didn’t care; my bluebird sang and I drank beer and scotch whiskey. We sat like that, enjoying each other’s company, away from the old drunks. He seemed to like me. The bird-words he sang meant I was his friend. I felt he was my friend too.
We sat at the bar for a long time, me looking out the window, pouring booze down my throat—onto him I guessed—as he sang. Sally and the two regulars never heard him. Around midnight I ordered one last shot and beer. She didn’t fetch my glass from under the bar until I looked at her. When she bent down I saw she’d unbuttoned her shirt to her rumpled navel. Her breasts were right there, like tan sport-socks, a palm full of sand in each. She pulled the shirt aside and I saw one leathery brown nipple before she straightened and winked at me. Down the bar the two geezers craned their necks to get a look at what she showed me. I was pretty drunk but there was no way in hell.
“Teddy,” said one of the other guys, “You see that? I saw nipple.”
“Always loved big, thick nipples,” said Teddy, wistful.
Sally held my drink in her steady hand. “Like what you see?” she said.
“One lucky guy,” said Teddy.
“Shit yes,” said his friend.
She looked me in the eye, blinked slowly and held my drink just out of reach. I looked back and said nothing. What could I say? She was a fair bartender, a decent person in her way but to me she was ugly, an old slut who fucked anyone she could, not because she wanted a boyfriend or liked screwing but because it was built into her frazzled wiring. I didn’t hold it against her but I didn’t get it either. She ran her dry tongue all around those thin lips. Would her mouth feel like sandpaper? Would she do tricks to bring me off, eat a mouthful of jelly or a pat of butter before mangling my penis in her papery yaw?
Teddy’s friend said, “Gotta be a fag to pass that up.” He was a loud son of a bitch.
I turned. I didn’t want to look or make eye contact but couldn’t help it. Those two old-timers were looking right at me, angry.
Teddy muttered, “The fuck is wrong with this guy?”
Maybe they tried to whisper, but I heard them. No music played. My bluebird wasn’t singing. I felt him quivering. Sally put the glass on the counter without a sound. For a second we were all quiet, nobody speaking, fidgeting, or moving, except me finally picking up my whisky, downing it, then putting the empty tumbler right on the wet “O” I’d taken it from. I couldn’t help myself; I glanced at the door.
Sally said, “You just stay right there, sweetie,” and went to the other two, buttoning her shirt as she walked.
She looked over her shoulder and wriggled her skinny hips at me. It was sickening to look at her flat, falling body in those snug jeans and that silky gossamer top showing no bra strap and five or six fat moles like cancerous spare nipples. I heard the three of them talking, watched the guys look her up and down in appreciation. They gestured at me and whispered. They wanted her and said so.
“C’mon, Sally,” Teddy’s friend whined. “Two for one?”
She shushed them and turned back, walked to my side of the bar.
“We’re gonna have a good time,” she said, “Aren’t we sugar?”
That voice! It was terrible. The little fellow flapped like crazy in my chest and sang a song that wasn’t pretty at all, but I understood. I felt the same way, panicked. But I felt ungrateful too. I was no Don Juan; I hadn’t been with a woman in months, and then I’d paid for the privilege. And she wasn’t pretty either; they rarely were.
My coat snagged on the barstool, and they all watched me struggling with it. Teddy and his friend stood and walked over. I pushed and pushed but couldn’t get my arm through the twisted right sleeve.
Teddy’s friend sneered, “You need some help with your coat, twinkle-toes?”
I faked a chuckle.
“He ain’t leaving,” said Teddy, “He’s just looking for something. Ain’t that right?”
I’d swung the jacket around too hard, flipped the zipper tag into the armhole. I looked down to figure out the mess and there was the bluebird’s head poking through my sternum and through my shirt and everything. He looked up at me with those tiny black eyes, cocking his head like a thing made of clock parts.
“Get back in!” I said, “What’re you trying to do?”
He warbled. Blinked.
“You’re gonna get me committed. They already think I’m nuts.”
Teddy stepped close. “Goddamn right,” he said, “You don’t turn down an offer like this, junior.”
He was angry. His friend stood behind him, arms folded. They were old. Even the big guy was scrawny, bent and raw-boned in his baggy trousers and oversized coat. Teddy took off his cap and worried it between his fingers. He laid a hand on my shoulder.
“What,” he said, leaning in and stage-whispering, “You queer?”
I brushed his hand off easily. They’d keep this bullying up until I made them stop.
Sally came around and stood behind me. She put both hands on my shoulders and massaged me, hard. She was stronger than she looked and it hurt my knotted little muscles. Teddy and his friend flanked me, blocking the exit.
“Okay,” Sally giggled. “Be nice boys.”
That was an awful sound too, raspy and full of phlegm, and mean in spite of her intention to comfort and calm us. She dropped one hand to my waist and cupped a love handle before I broke away. My shoulder caught Teddy’s friend in the face as I started for the door. I felt his weight giving way under my own meager force.
Teddy shouted, “Hey!”
There was the age and fear I should have heard in his voice from the start. I heard a rolling thump, his friend losing balance and falling because I had shoved him, an old man. I threw the door open and power-walked home. It was hard to get the key in the lock with my shaking hand. But my bluebird sang quietly about being tired and ready to rest. His singing sounded just like words to me now. I opened my jacket and he poked his head out again. He looked up at me, still a little scared. Why did you bring me there? he asked.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s not always like that.”
Yes it is, he said. It’s like that everywhere you go.
He blinked and swiveled his head and chirped at the door and looked back at me. I got the key in, using one hand to steady the other. He watched me as I walked through my rooms: the hall, where I dropped my keys in a basket on the phone stand and hung my jacket on a hook in the closet; the bathroom, where I peed and brushed my teeth; the living room, which I lapped twice and left; and the kitchen, where I poured a glass of water and sat by the table staring at the salt and pepper shakers. He poked through the opening in my chest, glaring.
“What?” I said.
I don’t want to go there again, he said.
“Okay, we won’t go there,” I told him, speaking softly.
He looked at me and blinked. I held my hands in front of my chest like a platform, and he hopped on. I held him in my hand and stroked the tiny top of his head. He rubbed against my thumb and sang a long song. And it was so beautiful I felt like crying. But I couldn’t. He must have been tired. He sang until he passed out. His door opened and I slipped him back into the room in my heart.
. . .
I dreamt we were driving down a long clean highway in a white fifties style convertible. We were both wearing sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts. He liked to hold his wings out and let the wind push him back into the seat, real leather, maroon. He laughed just the way I imagined a bird would, happy warbles and trills. I pulled into a drive-in diner where Sally worked as a roller skating waitress. She rolled over and attached a tray holding a basket of fried chicken to my door.
“I didn’t order this,” I said. I panicked, worried what the bluebird would think.
And I woke.
. . .
I wanted a big breakfast. Friday was one of my days off that week, but I hadn’t gone grocery shopping for a long time. I had eggs, half a loaf of bread and some sour milk in my refrigerator. I was afraid to break eggs in front of the bluebird. He’d be disgusted; maybe frightened. My friend Don did temp jobs and day labor and tried to work on his book. Mostly he drank and partied. He had a lot of days off, so I called him.
“Don, how’s it going?”
“Ey! Who’s this?”
“What, you’re breaking my balls?” I said.
“Where the fuck you been?”
“Listen, you want to get some breakfast?”
“Forty-five,” he said.
He was probably still in bed. I pulled pants, a tee shirt, and socks from my dresser and brought them to the bathroom. My towel smelled of mildew. Sometimes the water in my building ran rusty from the old pipes, but this time it was clear. The little fellow chirped a little when I held my wrist under the water to check temperature.
A hot shower was like a balm for my mind, soothing. I stood under the spray rubbing my head, wetting it down to my greasy scalp. The bluebird stepped out and perched on the shower curtain rod. He sang and darted in and out of the water.
“Yes, god, isn’t that nice?” I said.
He said it was a little hot for him, but nice to get clean after a bad night. Perching on the rod, he poked his beak under his wings. I wondered whether he was picking out bugs or just cleaning. Were there ticks and mites in my heart? It seemed unlikely, but he lived in there and I didn’t. I scrubbed my head, tried to wash the stubborn smell out of my armpits, and lathered up my pecker. I’d played with myself in the shower before but with him there it’d be awkward. I stared at spots on the ceiling and rinsed.
“Okay,” I said, “All done, time to go.”
I want to stay out today, he sang.
“I think that’s a bad idea,” I said.
I turned off the water and got my towel. He cocked his head and sang some more. The song bouncing off the tile walls and floor was nice. It was a sad song without verbal meaning. He glided down and into his little doorway, shaking beads of water off before closing himself in. I listened to the quiet. No running water, no birdsong. I knew he was upset but what could I do, let him go?
I brought my clothes into the bathroom when I showered in order to dress while the air was steamy, my skin tacky with tiny droplets. I didn’t want to leave the warm bathroom. People made so much of such small matters, and that was my problem. I didn’t understand. Sometimes I made too much of something small, like damp laundry when I’d run out of quarters for the dryer. Or I wouldn’t recognize someone else’s problem, like a chip in the paint on their car. But my inflated irritations stayed mine, where other people constantly exorcised their frustration by ruining someone else’s mood. I was thinking about this when he started to sing again, not too sadly.
On the landing my key slid right into the lock and I turned it without trouble. Hours earlier I’d come home from the bar so shaken and jittery I barely got the key in at all. The other drunks at The Tam were sleazy and ugly, but harmless. Maybe the one I knocked down had brittle bones, cracked his hip falling. They were nothing to me, but I imagined them destroying me, cackling and shouting over me until my brain and heart and lungs jammed and I died.
. . .
I lived close to Busy Bee, ten minutes on foot. My nerves rattled. I thought about the bluebird asking to stay out. If I let him he might leave and I didn’t want to think about that. So I went out to sit with coffee and wait for Don.
Busy Bee’s coffee was awful. I took it sweet and light. Somehow between counter and table the milk developed a slimy skin that could be peeled with gentle use of a fork. I fished it out and looked at it hanging from the bottom tine. And the coffee was no stronger than dishwater.
When Don came in I was done with the front page of The Globe. He came to my table without pausing to look around. As he sat I noticed his arms again, thick and geometric. He slid into the booth and put his sunglasses, half-frames with sky blue lenses, next to the napkin dispenser. It’d been a while since I’d seen him. I’d missed him without realizing it until he sat down—and we were good friends. Why didn’t I call my friends more often? I guessed I got busy and forgot. He cocked his head a little and grinned at me.
“How you been?” he said.
“Eh, you know, how’s the book?”
“Done. I think I got a nibble.”
I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. Don had written an entire book, hundreds of pages of sweat and bitten fingernails and cigarette butts, I guessed, and someone maybe wanted to buy it. This was the biggest news he could have, like a pregnant wife for some guys, or a winning scratch ticket. I was glad for him, but how would he want me to say so? What were the right words?
“That’s fucking great man,” I said. I raised my voice just a little, and thought about paying for breakfast. “Congratulations.”
“Ah, thanks man. Nothing to do now but wait.”
He ducked his head a bit and I saw the smile he tried to hide, maybe because he was modest and didn’t want to give the impression of gloating, or maybe because he was superstitious and didn’t want to court fate with pride. That’s what it would’ve been if I were the writer. Don’t ruin good luck with obvious happiness, dummy.
“What about you man,” he said. “What you been up to?”
“Not much. Went to The Tam last night.”
“Who’d you go with?”
The little fellow rustled in my chest. It felt like preening and I wondered if he thought I’d introduce him to Don. Don’t you know I’d have to be crazy to do that, I thought. But the bluebird couldn’t read my mind, so he groomed some more and started singing.
“No one, just me. I didn’t stay long; it was kind of fucked up. You know Sally?”
He grimaced. “Ugh, yeah. The last Sodomite.”
“Yeah well, my turn came around last night. There were these two hammered geezers, old-timers, grizzly types,” I said. I got a little excited as I told it. “She showed me her dugs. You believe that shit?”
I gestured at my shirt-buttons. Don cackled. He had a funny laugh, sinister you might think but not to me.
“You’re fucking kidding me. How was that?”
“The fuck do you think?” I said. “Disgusting. Then get this: the two farts down the bar got up and came over like they wanted to fight me. They wanted to do her and if I didn’t they were gonna be pissed, beat me up. Two scrawny old men.”
“Crazy.” Don laughed again.
He leaned back and held his stomach, couldn’t catch his breath. My bluebird shouted inside me.
That is a bad place, he peeped, yelling his tiny bird-yell, Those are bad people. I put a hand over my heart to muffle him and this time he pecked me, through my shirt.
“They stood around me. Called me a fag,” I said.
“She felt me up.” I held my side to show where Sally had groped my flab.
He wiped his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and laughed. My bluebird cried. I wasn’t getting the story across clearly.
“They must’ve been drunk as hell,” Don said.
He breathed easier. He looked at me and may have read discomfort on my face. His eyebrows tugged closer to one another, briefly. I wasn’t angry, but my bluebird was incensed.
Your life is bad, he sang. Your friend doesn’t understand how bad it is, and you don’t either, which is worse. You should see it in here, blood all over; everything about to break down, walls crumbling on each other; everything’s black and rotted, sickening. Soon, you’ll be just like them, the disgusting hag and her two old degenerates. You’ll rot through from their sickness. You won’t even let me leave. All by myself I have to clean up in here.
I was ashamed and shocked and angry too. Don watched me. I played with my napkin, straightened my placemat, centered my coffee cup. I couldn’t look him in the eye for a minute. Could not.
Busy Bee had two waitresses, a mother and daughter, both Greek, curvy, olive-skinned and smooth. The mother’s eyes were darker, more fatigued, and her hair held scattered strands of white, which I found sexy. She stood by our table holding her pad and bouncing on the ball of one foot as she looked at Don, waiting silently to take our order.
“Denver omelette, not too well done,” Don said. He spoke without looking at her.
I tried to make eye contact but she kept her eyes hard on her pad.
“You, honey?” she said.
“I’ll have French toast and a side of fries. Could I get some gravy on the side of those?”
“What kind gravy you want? Beef, turkey?”
She held the pad in one hand and poised the pen over it with the other. Her fingers were lean and long, her body deeply curved. One fingernail, under the pad, was chewed nearly to the quick, but the rest were shapely, maybe manicured. My god she was beautiful.
She walked to the other end of the diner, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She had thick strong calves leading up to soft round thighs, but her ankles were still slender and corded. If she was in her late forties I wanted a woman who’d turn out like that. But it was getting late for that thinking. I was almost forty myself.
. . .
Rifling through my desk at home I found a picture of myself at seven years old. It was a close up of my face, huge eyes, smooth skin, little teeth. It was so sharp I could pick out the down on my cheeks, full and, I imagined, soft as clouds. In the photograph I was smiling, both with my mouth and eyes. I knew it was me, but I’d be goddamned if I would’ve recognized that happy little boy if I ran into him on the street.
I’d kept that picture out on my desk for a while, looking at it often, marveling at how happy that boy looked. As I stared at it night after night I remembered just a bit of how it felt to be that age. I recalled that I was afraid of many things. When I was small I had terrible dreams that stayed with me into my waking day, replayed during school. I never told anyone, not my teachers, not the other children who occasionally played with me—I had no real friends—not even my mother. I was terrified of the men my mother dated. I was awkward around children my age, and felt that rather than trying to include me in their imaginative games they were trying to force me to be their permanent “It.” I was always the kid chasing, the kid with his mouth in the dirt when we wrestled like superheroes, the kid holding the last unbroken bottle when we got caught smashing glass, and I’d taken part only because others told me to.
But none of that was in the photograph. None of it was ever anywhere on the outside because if it was, they’d eat me alive, the people in the world. Maybe the boy in the photograph knew it already. He must have forgotten, at the instant of exposure. I put the picture away, tucked into the pages of a book I didn’t like and would never finish.
. . .
I sat in my living room on the old sofa, drinking a beer and listening to music, Brahms’ Hungarian dances. My bluebird sat next to me pecking at a plateful of water crackers and some fennel seeds I’d put out for him. I thought about Don and his novel and his maybe getting it published. That was a huge thing. Alone like that I could be honest, and I was happy for him. I’d given up writing stories, painting, photography, and throwing ceramic pots back in my mid-twenties. I saw it for what it was: I’d wanted to be special like everyone else, wanted to be untouchable by the terrible, with which I’d had no real experience at the time, but of which I was aware and afraid, like everyone else. I wanted to take the horrible things and turn them into something else, hold that up to itself and escape in that way from the devastating effects of living among other people. But I sat there on my fairly nice couch, drinking very good beer, listening to beautiful music. I looked at my hands, clean and soft. I watched the bluebird breaking up the crackers, tilting his head back to swallow the crumbs.
“You were wrong, you know,” I said. “Don’s a good guy. He knows a lot.”
He seemed to ignore me for a moment, turning his head this way and that, swallowing bits of cracker. But he hopped onto my knee and peered up at me and I saw he’d been thinking carefully about what I’d said. And he was angry, not like at Busy Bee, but quietly, sardonically. I saw in his eyes he was preparing to condescend.
Did I say he didn’t? he asked. No, I said he didn’t understand you. I said only that you’d be ruined because you let the awful world around you—which you choose to be in—press its dirt into you.
“What choice do you suppose I have?” I said.
I felt my own anger, my indignation rising and matching his tone, his suddenly bookish diction, as if he were my teacher, my boss, or my father.
“This is the world. These are the people in it,” I said.
I’m leaving, he said.
I rose, crossed to the open window, and closed it.
“I can’t let you do that.”
But we are friends, he chirped. This was the saddest sound I’d heard him make. We said so; you said so.
“We are best friends,” I said, holding my hand palm-up for him.
He hopped on and I brought him to my face, kissed the top of his head, rubbed my cheek against his soft feathers, felt the rustling of his wings against my stubble. No one could ever know of him. He could never leave me. But I fed him, held him sometimes at night, played the best music for him, and yes, I got him drunk when he wanted. We weren’t happy. Who was? But it was nice enough.
J. S. Simmons was born and raised in Boston, MA. He spent his 20s in Brooklyn and Queens doing basically nothing. At 30, he returned to Boston for a foolishly delayed state university education. Now he lives in a tiny white house in Oregon and writes stories. He is indebted to the late author Charles Bukowski, whose work is the inspiration for this story.