J. Malcolm Garcia
Flo points out the window.
“There. What’s that?”
Hank’s in the kitchen, she’s in the living room. Hank leans back in his chair and looks through the doorway that connects the two rooms, past Flo and out the window. It’s one of those hazy Miami days when he feels like he’s looking at everything through a cloudy glass.
“Fuck if I know,” Hank tells Flo.
“Nice language, Hank.”
Language, shmanguage. Be offended. The point is Hank can’t tell what the hell she’s looking at. It moves a little. Maybe a squirrel. Or a mole in the grass. Not a mole. That would be too much like a mouse. Flo’d lose it. Hank doesn’t know what it is. Too far away to tell. Does he care what’s out there? Now that’s the question that needs to be asked. Why would he care?
Hank goes back to reading one last job posting on Craigslist
We are looking to expand our Brickell Avenue cleaning business. We are looking for a part time/full time worker who can drive. You will clean 2-4 homes per day. Hours are 8:30am-4pm, Monday through Friday and some Saturdays and possible evenings. We can give you 10-20 hours a week, minimum wage.
and shuts off the computer.
Flo has a daughter, Cathy. She’s fourteen. She wanders into the kitchen listening to her iPod and wanting a Coke. She’s wearing her soccer uniform. Blue jersey, white shorts, blue and white socks. Cathy’s on the Grapeland Park Community Center’s girls’ soccer team, The Tigers. She has a 7 o’clock game tonight. Every Wednesday for the next eight weeks. Hank’d rather not go. He doesn’t care about soccer boys or girls. But since he’s living with Flo in her house and Cathy’s her kid, he doesn’t have a choice, does he?
“I want to see what it is,” Flo says of the thing outside.
“What?” Cathy says.
Hank’s about to explain that her mom saw something in the yard but Cathy skips off to her room jamming to whatever music she’s listening to without waiting for an answer.
Flo walks out the front door and crosses the yard to the spot where the newspaper lands every morning just off the driveway. Neither of them really reads the paper. Hank doesn’t understand why they get it. He watches Flo, sees their neighbor Jeff parking his pickup across the street. He’s a Marine. He deploys to Iraq in the next week or two, his second time. He’s got on tan shorts and a green polo shirt that clings to him so tight he looks like he’ll bust out of it any second. He tosses a duffel bag from the pickup, unzips it and begins rifling through it. He takes out some rope and a harness. Hank doesn’t get it. Jeff’s going to Iraq and tonight he’s attending a girls’ soccer game. How’s that work?
About a month ago, a little more maybe, Hank was out drinking with his buddies, Dan and John. They sat at the bar of this place called the Comeback Club on Biscayne and Eighth. Rain was falling hard, real hard, like Noah was getting ready to do a test run of the ark. Hank could just hear it through the thick windows but he heard it. A bus stop stood empty across the street. Nothing moved except some he-shes turning tricks with Coral Gables suits getting their freak on. It had started getting dark early. Mid-afternoon became night in a matter of hours, but it wasn’t late. Hank knew he and his pals had more time than they thought.
That night was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Dan and John didn’t care one way or the other. Dan was in the Army in the first Gulf War. Said he still dreams of burning oil wells. But that was before 9/11. No one was calling him a hero.
“So what do you think,” Hank said. “Did 9/11 change your life?”
Dan and John didn’t say anything at first. Hank let them think about it. He listened to an old man playing a video game behind him. The brother was rocking. Hank heard the pling, pling, pling of his scores like something rushing up on him.
“Traffic was bad the night of 9/11 and some neighborhoods had gas lines,” Dan said.
“Yeah, but that was that night,” Hank said. “How has your life changed since then?”
“Look at airport security,” John said. “You hear on the radio that it’s a bitch to fly now.”
“Yeah,” Hank said,” but if you don’t fly, how’s your life changed?”
John shrugged, threw up his hands like what-do-you-want-from-me? He was coming off a weeks-long fantasy about a redhead and was in a shitty mood. He installs countertops. She was one of his customers in Indian Creek Village. John said she had an ass that wouldn’t quit. Said when she spoke his name, she had enough sugar in her voice to melt his gums. John did a lot of discount work for her but finally realized that beyond dreaming he never would come close to that ass.
“What about the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?” John said. “That’s all 9/11, dude.”
“You’re not getting it,” Hank said. “I’m not in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t know anyone there. Do you, Dan?”
“No, not really.”
“What about you?” John said to Hank. “How’s your life changed?”
“It hasn’t. That’s what I’m getting at,” Hank said.
“What’d you think would happen?” Dan said.
“I don’t know, man,” Hank said. “But it’s been ten frickin’ years.”
And then wouldn’t you know it, a week after they all got together Hank got laid off.
“It’s a baby bird,” Flo shouts at Hank.
She goes in the garage and comes out wearing a pair of gardening gloves. She scoops up the bird and holds it out in her hands for Hank to see. It looks like a speck of gray fluff. Hank gets up and opens the living room window and leans out. It’s a baby bird, all right, a fledgling. That’s what it’s actually called, fledgling. Hank knows. His mother called them that. Almost old enough to fly.
Flo bends down and lets the bird go on the lawn. Its head bobs and it opens its beak like it wants to scream. It leaps, flapping its small wings until it settles between two exposed roots of a tree. Hank glances up at the sky but doesn’t see any sign of its mother circling the way birds are supposed to do when a fledgling falls from the nest.
He looks back at Flo. She’s staring at Jeff. He’s taking a chain saw from the back of his truck. He’s handy that way. Cutting wood for his fire place, maintaining the yard, fixing shit. Flo has a drawer full of tools. Screwdrivers and hammers and pliers and what not. She patches holes in the walls, puts up wallpaper, paints. She even cuts the lawn. Not Hank. He has allergies. He sweeps and mops the house, runs the vacuum. That‘s what he does. His contribution, so to speak.
Flo smooths out her blouse and skirt. She’s a loan processor at Ocean Bank. She brushes her hair back from her face, shimmies a little to get rid of any remaining wrinkles in her clothes and calls to Jeff, asks him to come over for a second. He sets the saw down and walks toward her.
“It’s called a fledgling,” Hank says, watching Jeff approach. “Must have fallen out of its nest.”
Jeff moves like his chest is shoving away invisible objects, like Moses has nothing on him when it comes to parting waters. His legs eat up the street. Snap of a finger and like that he’s standing beside Flo. She smiles and takes a deep breath and her chest rises. She breathes Jeff in. She points at the bird.
“What should we do?” Flo asks him.
Jeff considers it for a moment staring at the ground.
“Leave it alone,” he says. “It’s wild. Its mother will find it or she won’t.”
“We can feed it,” Hank says.
“I wouldn’t bother,” Jeff says. “It’s too little for bird seed.”
Flo looks at him and nods and says, “I agree with Jeff.”
Hank’s thinking she’s thinking, Jeff knows about birds because he’s good around the yard. Because he knows how to use power tools. Because he’s going back to Iraq.
OK, but here’s the thing, when Hank was growing up, birds would slam into the living room window all the time. He doesn’t know if they did that at Jeff’s house when he was a kid but they sure did it at his. If they didn’t break their necks and drop dead, he and his mother would put a wire cage over them to protect them from stray cats until their brains stopped rattling and they could fly again. If they were little like this one, they’d soak bread in warm milk and dribble it into their mouths until a park ranger or someone who knew about wild animals would drive over and take the bird to a nature sanctuary. It’s not all about Jeff is what Hank’s thinking. He knows some things too.
“You‘ll have to tell Cathy not to touch it,” Hank tells Flo. “It‘s not a toy.”
“I think she’s old enough to know it’s not a toy,” she snaps.
Hank looks at Jeff, but Jeff doesn’t offer him any support. He stays out of it. Hank doesn’t have children, that’s part of the problem. The idea that Hank, a guy without kids, would criticize or imply criticism of Flo’s daughter, a daughter she has raised alone for five years since her divorce, is something Flo can’t tolerate. Jeff probably would get away with it because he has a kid. A boy. Flo says his ex-wife complains that he’s too tough on him. That even though the boy turned eighteen last month, Jeff still expects him home before midnight on the weekends. Hank’d go further. He’d say, You’re not only eighteen, you’re out of the frickin’ house. But he’s Jeff’s kid, not Hank’s. And Cathy is Flo’s kid, not Hank’s.
“She could be your stepdaughter if we married,” Flo used to say whenever Hank left himself open for her to take a shot. Then she stopped. She got the message.
Hank doesn’t want to marry Flo. He didn’t move in with her to get married. He just thought it was time to do more than work and sit at home alone. By the time they met, he had worn a trench in the road walking from his 23rd Street apartment to his job at Target and back again. Then one day two years ago on his way to work, he saw this woman standing at the bus stop at Twenty-Seventh and Corral Way. Some change had spilled from her purse and he helped her pick it up. When she bent over her jeans framed her ass just tight enough. Her white blouse was loose and Hank followed her cleavage down to where it mattered. She thanked him. He saw her there again the next day and the day after that. They went from, “Good morning” to “What’s your name?”
They shook hands and chit-chatted about the weather and work. They sized each other up. After a couple of weeks they exchanged phone numbers. Really, it was that simple. Hank thought, This‘ll be different.
“I got to get going,” Jeff says. “I have to take care of a dead tree in my yard and a whole bunch of other chores before I go.”
He doesn’t say where he’s going, doesn’t say, Before I deploy again to Iraq. He knows Hank and Flo and everyone else knows. Their street has gotten very patriotic. Small flags limp from the spray of water sprinklers line the edges of yards and it seems to Hank that everyone but him wears a yellow wrist band and thanks Jeff for his service. Jeff barely notices. He treats all the fuss as his due. He’s a fucking Marine. He considers people walking their dogs past his house like a military review.
Flo smiles, raises a hand and wiggles her fingers goodbye. Jeff nods, goes without another word back to his house with that walk of his. Flo watches him pick up the chain saw. Hank flinches at the blast of noise it makes. Jeff raises the saw above his head and begins taking off a thick branch from a leafless tree in his front yard. Hank watches the branch dip and break with a sharp crack and bounce off the ground. Jeff shuts off the saw, walks around the fallen branch in a kind of crouch as if he expects it to jump up and throw down on him. Then he starts the saw again. Hank turns back to the bird.
Here’s what he knows. Female birds regurgitate the food they eat into the mouths of their chicks so the chicks can digest the food. That’s how they eat. That’s how they grow. That’s why his mother softened the bread in milk. He doesn’t know where she learned that but that’s what she did. Jeff has a point, the bird’s mother will find it or it won‘t. Hank gets that. But he has a point too. The thing is, Hank knows people listen to Jeff. He is who he is and Hank is who he is.
“Maybe I should not have moved it,” Flo says of the bird.
“You didn‘t move it very much,” Hank tells her. “We can fix it.”
He puts a hand on her shoulder. He feels the thin material of her blouse and her skin and bone beneath it. He imagines the two of them resemble a sculpture you might see in a park by a fountain surrounded by trees. They’d be part of some well-tended really green landscape where nothing is out of place. Two people carved from marble with permanent smiles on their faces staring down at a tiny bird that is looking up at them waiting for Hank and Flo to put it back in its nest.
“How do you ‘fix’ a bird?” Flo says. “You don’t fix birds.”
“I meant save it.”
His hand slips from her shoulder. He goes into the garage and finds a hamster cage that had belonged to Cathy before she lost interest in hamsters. He takes out the bottom tray and walks back to the bird and sets the cage over it. It shifts its weight and lifts its wings but otherwise doesn‘t move.
“You’re scaring it,” Flo says.
“I’m protecting it,” Hank says.
Flo looks at her watch.
“Cathy‘s soccer game starts soon,” she says.
“I don’t know who would schedule games for Wednesday nights,” Hank says. “People are tired after work. They don’t want to watch a girls’ basketball game at eight o‘clock at night. They’ve had a long enough day already. They have to get up the next day and work.”
"What are you complaining about? You not even working," Flo says.
“Doesn’t mean I’m not looking,” Hank says. “Looking is a job in itself.”
“See if you can get it to pay as well.”
She’s got a point. Hank’s not looking that hard. He doesn’t have that get-up-and-go job-hunting spark. He first started working when he was in high school cleaning shit from dog kennels. People still used phones only to make calls then. He needs to take some sort of vocational classes at night is what he’s thinking.
Target gave Hank the boot after thirteen years. You’re in good company, he was told. We’re letting go of a lot of great people we hate to lose. That was supposed to make him feel better somehow, but what he’s feeling now is taking some getting used to. No more talking about the merchandise. “Merch” everyone called it. The shorthand conveyed their knowledge of the job. Merch. When will Hank ever say that again? To tell the truth, he doesn’t think he ever will. He wishes he knew how he feels about all this. He can’t bring himself to toss his Target name tag. Why not?
He doesn't know. He needs some time to himself is all.
Before Hank got laid off, he would sometimes call in sick so he could be alone in Flo’s house while she was at work and Cathy was in school. He’d pop open a beer and walk around the living room, study, dining room, two bedrooms. Run his hands over the smooth hardwood floors, the faded furniture, the pictures on the walls. He liked the lived-in feel of the house, the sense of place. The fullness of it. He walked up stairs to his and Flo’s bedroom, set his laptop on the toilet across from the shower and clicked on porn hub. He scrolled down to blonde blowjob, clicked twice and got in the shower. He left the shower curtain open. The bathroom steamed and he soaped up and watched this blonde deep throating this guy who had shaved his pubes. Hank stroked myself thinking of her going down on him with her tongue and that mouth and not saying a word until his shit was hard as a log and his legs were shaking and just when he thought he’d burst, he came like a stallion.
After he finished jerking off Hank stood under the shower and breathed deeply until his breathing slowed and he felt totally empty and desired nothing but to be left alone. The blonde understood. She was still polishing the guy’s knob when Hank shut off the water. She didn’t look up to ask if he felt better. She didn’t look at him at all but just concentrated on what she was doing. Up and down with her head, one, two, one two. Hank reached for a towel and turned off the computer. The computer made a zip sound and then went blank, and she was gone, bye-bye, just like that.
Hank stood there and didn’t move. The bathroom faucet dripped. He listened to the slow plunk. . . plunk. . .plunk of the water and realized he could live alone in Flo’s house but not feel alone because it felt so lived in. But then by late afternoon Flo and Cathy would come home and that was the end of that.
Hank leaves Flo outside and goes into the kitchen and takes a piece of white bread from the loaf on top of the refrigerator and puts it on the counter. Flo comes in behind him and runs upstairs to change.
“You ready?” she shouts to Cathy.
Hank warms a bowl of milk in the microwave and dribbles it on his wrist. Not too hot. He breaks the bread into small pieces and drops it in the milk. He squeezes the bread with his fingers, testing its softness. Spongy but not falling apart. Good.
Taking the bowl in both hands, Hank walks back outside through the garage. He stops to get the gloves Flo wore when she picked up the bird. He notices Jeff stacking logs he carved out of the severed tree branch in a pile outside his garage. Jeff wipes an arm against his face smearing dirt across his forehead. He starts the saw again and approaches the tree. Hank puts on the gloves.
What he’ll do is he’ll grip the bird in such a way that its head peeks out between his thumb and forefinger. He’ll hold bits of the bread a little ways above its beak with his other hand and squeeze the bread and let the milk drip out until the bird opens its beak. Then he’ll drop the bread in its mouth. He thinks fledglings eat every half hour. Something like that. He’ll stay up all night, if he has to, feeding it until its mother returns. If that means he misses Cathy’s game, he misses the game. He needs to see this thing through.
The fledgling is lying on its side. A thin gray film glazes its eyes. Staring down at it, Hank hears Jeff cutting into another branch. He kneels beside the hamster cage and puts the bowl of milk on the ground.
“Is that the bird? Mom told me she found a bird. What happened to it?”
Hank looks at Cathy standing above him. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she holds a soccer ball under her right arm.
“Cathy, let’s go!” Flo yells from the house. “We’ll be late.”
“I’m ready already!” Cathy screams. “I’m outside with Hank.”
She turns back to Hank.
“It died,” Hank says. “It was alive but it died while I was in the kitchen. I don‘t know why.”
“Oh. . .” Cathy says and her voice trails off.
“I was going to feed it,” Hank says. “Bread. I soaked it in warm milk.”
“How’d you know to do that?”
“I just did.”
“Huh,” Cathy says.
“Let’s go,” Flo says from the garage. She’s got on a faded green T-shirt that doesn’t fully cover her stomach, some shorts, and a worn Marlins baseball cap with her hair pulled out the back of it. Her stomach is a little flabby but she’s not fat. A few situps would do the trick. In this getup she looks younger than she is. Hank stands up. He thinks she must be desperate.
“The fledgling died,” he tells her.
“The baby bird.”
“I don’t know. Shock maybe.”
“Did you move it?”
“No. You did earlier.”
“Well, I didn’t kill it. It didn’t just die.”
“Yes, it did,” Hank says.
“I told you you were scaring it,” Flo says.
She shakes her head and gets in the car.
“Let’s get to your game,” Hank tells Cathy.
Cathy half walks, half skips into the garage and climbs in the back seat. Hank hears a loud snap and looks at Jeff standing in the tree with his saw as a huge branch beneath him falls to the ground. He’s rigged himself up with the ropes and a harness he took from his duffle bag. He stands in the tree without his shirt looking out over the street.
Flo honks the horn but Hank doesn’t move. He looks at the bird, at the black ants crawling over it. What went wrong? He knew what he was doing. What did he miss? There’ll be other fledglings, he’s sure. But he doesn’t think he should wait for the next one to fall.
Maybe he’ll leave with Jeff. Not to Iraq, but just leave. Ask Jeff for a ride when he goes to the airport. He could drop Hank off some place on Highway 1. It wouldn’t matter where.
Hank’d tell him what he knows about fledglings. Jeff would interrupt and start talking about Iraq and Hank would cut him off. Not now, he’d tell him, I’m talking.
Jeff would back off. He’d shut the fuck up. Then after a while Hank would say, You got any questions?
In a hesitant kind of sad voice like that of a little kid, Jeff would ask him why the fledgling died. Hank doesn’t know how he’d answer. But since Jeff isn’t leaving right away, Hank’s got time to think about it. If he’s lucky, he might figure it out.
J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer and author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul and What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and Forgotten. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Essays. His book, Without a Country: The Untold Story of America's Deported Veterans, will be published in September 2017.