I told her. Dozens of times. The Big House, as we called it, was a mountain of clutter — too much for a widow with vertigo. A few years ago Dad ended in a heap at the bottom of the staircase. Mom, serving lunch at the mission, didn’t find his body for hours.
Frank Vogel, the son of an Austrian immigrant, gave Mom the German word for bird as a last name. If his name had been Müller or Schmidt, my mother’s life might have been different. Mom collected birds. They married too quickly. She gave my father the classification Pinguignavus, her largest and laziest specimen to date. Just shy of seven feet tall, my father was a humorless, gangly giant brought up in a household where women cleaned what men dirtied.
Even after he was in the ground in his oversized coffin, Mom kept straightening and scrubbing The Big House as if he were still there, still hanging his underwear on the banister and leaving ketchup-smeared plates stacked around the living room. The house, with its four flights of stairs and enormous basement, was just unmanageable. I told her every time we spoke on the phone.
“Unmanageable . . . for who?” On speakerphone I heard Mom squirting squeeze-cheese on a mound of mashed potatoes, flatulent and loud. Thanksgiving was something I experienced only on the phone. “Dave, if I need help managing The Big House, Beth’s right across the street. Lord, I could throw a rock and hit her square between her beady little eyes.” That’s how my sweet little mother talked — as if she were plotting violence against us. Every comment came with a jab. I was too far away, too uninvolved; Beth was too close, too helpful. Neither one of us had ever been quite right.
Of course it was Beth who found Mom’s body at the bottom of the stairs in The Big House.
“Neck broke clean through, just like Daddy’s.” Beth was eating something crunchy like popcorn or chips into the phone. “And do you think anyone from the mission thought to go over there when she didn’t show up to dip slop on Tuesday?”
“I’ll be on the next plane.”
“Still hugging the towels she was carrying up to the bathroom on the fourth floor. The fourth floor, Dave. Nobody’s peed up there in years.”
“You can’t possibly know —”
“Green towels. If you’d come home more often, you’d know things like that.”
“Green towels, fourth floor. OK, I just forgot,” I lied. There was so much of my mother in Beth.
“You’re going to stay longer than you stayed when Daddy died. It’s different this time.”
“I’ll try but —”
“‘I’ll try but‘ my butt. You’re staying in Charlotte one week. One week, Dave. Somebody has to help me with the birds. Ed’s no help in the chair. And Tim hasn’t checked in since I don’t know when.”
In the corner under a postage-stamp window, the sword-shaped beak of a pelican glowed in relief.
Apparently Tim lived with friends, had a drug problem and the parole officer to go with it, and never called his mother. That’s all I knew because that’s all Beth told me. I’d moved to New York City when he was still ten and Timmy, so I’d never had much influence on his life — unless absence influences.
“I will not do this alone, Dave.”
“I don’t have five vacation days left.”
“Well, maybe you should’ve thought about your elderly, recently widowed mother before you jetted off to South America this spring.”
“Don’t leave me to deal with those stupid birds all by myself, Dave.”
Beth didn’t mince words when it came to Mom’s “stupid” birds. While the rest of us eagerly fed Mom’s collecting addiction, Beth never gave Mom a single bird and never tired of telling me how Mom didn’t really want the birds. But she did. She must have. Or maybe we thought she did because it made our lives easy. We never had to ask what Mom wanted for her birthday, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, or Grandparents’ Day — or, for that matter, any other day. Glass birds, ceramic birds, stone birds, wooden birds. Birds. And she accepted them all like magical, wondrous confirmations that God meant His world to be beautiful and full of color — at least that’s what I thought.
“I mean it, buster.” The line went dead.
I dropped my bag at the staircase where Beth had found Mom. I tried to feel grief, but the most I could muster was a clinical observation that elderly people with vertigo shouldn’t live in a house with so many steep stairs — everything about this house was steep. “I told her,” I said.
“You’re a talker, all right.” Beth was strobed in the red light refracted through a sentinel of red birds on the kitchen window sill.
Blue birds dotted the den because they matched the upholstery, exotic birds in the bathrooms, and on the mantelpiece a single large bird we called the Cuckoo.
Beth sat down at the bottom of the staircase. “Ten rooms, and all stuffed full to the brim with birds. And that’s just the tip-top of the icebird.”
“In the British Museum of Natural History,” I said, “only 1% of the artefacts are displayed at any given time; the remaining 99% collect dust far beneath the tourists’ feet.” I read it once in a magazine.
“Save that for Trivial Pursuit. I’ll get the key,” said Beth.
In the shadows at the bottom of the almost vertical basement steps, Beth and I panned the job before us: everywhere the beaky profiles of birds pricked the darkness — tiny canary bills, broad Toucan prows and the hooky arcs of parrots. In the corner under a postage-stamp window, the sword-shaped beak of a pelican glowed in relief. Everywhere, frozen in flight or in the stillness of folded wings — birds hung ready to swarm like a murder of crows the second I switched on the light.
“Our mother was a crazy bird lady.”
“She was crazy?” Beth flipped on the light. “Y’all bought ’em.”
“What were we thinking?” I picked up an iridescent green and red glass hummingbird. On its belly was a white sticker and the number 1103.
“That’s its number in the bird book,” said Beth. “Let me see it. Yep, Tim gave that one to her four or five years ago, so I reckon there’s around thirteen or fourteen hundred now. Y’all should have given her another kind of crap. Chocolate. Or wine. Something digestible. Flushable, if you know what I mean.”
“OK. What’s the plan?”
“Flea market. Ed’s gonna sit in his wheelchair and sell. Pity factor.”
“That’s awful. But smart.”
I spotted the hand-carved Quetzal I’d bought in Costa Rica. “It’s sad, don’t you think? You can’t just sell fifty years of a person’s life. This cost me a hundred and fifty dollars and was a major pain getting it through customs in Atlanta. It’s not just fifty years of Mom’s life; it’s fifty years of my life too.”
“Honey, you’re forty-seven, and not everything’s about you.”
Truth was, nothing was about me in this family. For a decade or more I’d opted to spend the holidays baking on a beach in Rio or Puerto Vallarta rather than listening to my father tell me how fucking pointless my life was. I wouldn’t have recognized my nephew if he passed me on the street. If Beth had given one of her pop quizzes now about him — favorite color, middle name, date of birth — I’d have failed. I think he was born in spring, but I’d be guessing. Not exactly winning the Best Uncle Award. It wasn’t like I was a black sheep, though. If there was anything we all shared in this family, it was our lazy-eyed lack of interest in one another. Beth hadn’t asked me one question about myself since I moved to New York. Was I happy? Did anyone love me? Who was I? As Beth said, it wasn’t about me. And there was something comfortable about that.
“We’ll sell the rest and give a little money to the mission.” Beth was slapping a big piece of carton into a box.
“Most of it.”
“Half of it.”
“Deal. Mom would have wanted that,” I said.
“Like you know what she would’ve wanted.”
“Speaking of selling things, who’s getting the house?”
“You don’t waste time, do you?”
“I don’t want the house, Beth.”
“Knowing her, she probably donated it to the mission just to piss me off.”
“There’s a will?”
“Haven’t found one yet, but it’s probably under all these birds.”
I kneaded the green and red hummingbird like one of those stress rocks till it was hot in my hand. “I wonder what she wrote about it.”
“Well, it’d be in the bird books, wouldn’t it?”
“And the bird books would be . . . ?”
“A ridiculous obsession?” Beth was already sorting birds into piles of red, blue and brown. “Dave, honey, the bird books have been on the bookshelf in the living room for the last twenty years. Here, start a box of blue.” She tossed a box at me; it bounced off my face.
By dinnertime we’d filled twenty-two boxes and made a fairly nice dent in the population. With a jabbing pain in my lower back, I climbed the basement steps and ordered Mexican. No matter how foul Beth’s mood got, she always brightened at the prospect of spicy food — the hotter the better.
“Well, there they are.” Beth waved a salsa-laden chip at the bookshelf. “The bird books!”
“Wow. Who knew?”
“Everyone but you?”
In my defense, this bookshelf could have been one of those wallpaper pictures of a bookshelf. My parents weren’t the type to accumulate books. I’d always thought the long black band in the middle was an encyclopedia, a relic from the pre-Wiki days.
I tucked into them, read some random entries. “Beth?” I licked tortilla-chip salt off my fingers. “Have you looked at these?”
“Well of course not.” She was standing at the door between the kitchen and the living room, holding up the plastic salsa container, licking furiously at a stubborn cilantro leaf. “Why would I?”
“These look like stories.”
“‘Species of bird?'” Beth grunted in Mom’s voice and laughed. It was a spot-on impersonation meant to show me how much better Beth knew Mom than I did. “I wish you’d ordered guacamole. I just love La Hacienda’s guac.”
“No, I mean it looks as if she wrote actual stories. Listen to this one:
Giver: Sparrow (Timmy Black)
Species of Bird: Big Bird from Sesame Street (Grandicrocavis viasesamensis)
Location of Purchase and price: Woolworth’s/$2.59 plus tax
When and How Giver came upon Bird: (Ed Black’s account) Timmy was bawling the whole time, wanting a plaything. We were at Woolworth’s about three months ago to buy underwear and a new skillet, but Timmy was grabbing at everything he saw. I stuck to my guns until we got to the check-out line. Someone had stuffed a plastic Big Bird between the candy and a row of 99-cent three-pack lighters. I reckon some smart mama put it back when her kid wasn’t looking. Timmy started screaming “Big Bud! Big Bud!” It was marked down, so I told him he could have it if he gave it to Meema when he got tired of it, which is now.
Remarks: Big Bird isn’t a real bird. It’s a puppet — or I guess what they call a Muppet. When I was a little girl, we didn’t have the money to play with plastic and then “get tired of it”. I cut condors and eagles out of magazines and glued them on my schoolbooks because Daddy always told me I’d fly high and do big things like go to college and study law or medicine, but all I wanted was a big, strong husband and as many children as I could make. Things don’t always turn out the way you think.”
I turned to Beth for a reaction. She had salsa on her nose and chin.
“Ed could still walk then,” she said. “He got the wrong skillet. I had to take it back.”
“What do you think she meant?”
“That things don’t turn out the way you think.”
“How should I know? I bet she had salsa in the pantry.”
I counted and recounted the books on the shelf, arranged them by year. If she had one for the present year, it wasn’t among them. “There’s one missing.” I took out the hummingbird I’d kept in my pocket and found the entry. “Beth, listen to this.”
“Lord. Someone’s found himself a toy.”
Giver: Sparrow (Tim Black)
Species of bird: Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Location of Purchase/price: unknown/unknown
When and How Giver came upon Bird: Sparrow was staying with a friend for a few days. The friend gave him the bird. He probably stole it.
Remarks: Ten years ago Frank bought me a hummingbird feeder. It looked like one of them tropical flowers that hangs upside down. It had four petal openings for the hummingbirds to stick their long beaks in and suck out the sugar water. It was fun for a while to watch the birds discover the treat. They were so pretty and full of energy from the sugar. I took down several species — the Calliope, the Green-breasted Mango, the Rufous — but the Ruby-throated hummingbird was by far the most common. And the hungriest. After just a few weeks, the Ruby-throaters had chased all the other birds away — and the squirrels too! — and were guarding that feeder like bulls.
In June, Beth made us go to Myrtle Beach with her and Ed. I thought I’d put enough sugar water in the feeder to keep my birds fixed up for a week, but when we got back home — wore out from the blasted sun — the feeder was on the ground, and the birds had left to find their next fix.
* * *
I miss my Sparrow. Seems like Tim is like a hummingbird these days, like he’ll do anything for his next fix. That scares me. Tim scares me.”
“Oh come off it,” said Beth. “Mama liked Myrtle Beach just fine. Sat in the shade the whole time and drank white zinfandel like it was water. And she never had a hummingbird feeder. She pulled that part out of the clear blue yonder.”
“How can you be sure? It was, like, twelve years ago.”
“Trust me, Dave. I live here.”
“Maybe she had it on the other side of —”
“OK, smartass. Let’s take a little pop quiz. Did you know she published an article in a birdwatchers magazine last year?” She didn’t wait for my answer. “Did you know she sponsored a little boy in India for six years? Named Venkat. Did you know I had to drive her to her yoga class for two weeks when she broke a toe nine years ago? What about the karaoke contest at the mission last year? She won first place singing ‘Blue Bayou’. Did you know that, Dave? Any of that?”
“I knew about the article in the magazine,” I lied, “and you have salsa on your nose.”
“You didn’t know any of it, and do you know why?” She scratched at the dried salsa and stuck it in her mouth.
“On the tip next to the right nostril.” I didn’t tell her about the chilies on her chin.
“Because it all happened in the summer — that’s why. And you only came home at Christmas — if you didn’t have something better to do — which was always.”
“You pegged me, Beth. I’m an awful person. Now go get me a bird.”
“A bird?” I flapped my arms. “I want to read the stories, and it’s more fun if we go get a random bird. Any bird from the basement.”
“I’m not getting you a random bird.”
“Well, then I’ll just take one of these.” I walked over to the mantelpiece and turned the Cuckoo on its head. Number 33. “It’s got to be in the first book.” I flipped through the pages, flipped through them again. There was no number 33. “It’s been ripped out.”
“Spooky!” Beth said with exaggerated, ironic excitement.
I wasn’t surprised either. We both had always sensed what the cuckoo on the mantelpiece meant. Maybe it was a ninth-grade biology lecture about birds that made me start thinking. The cuckoo was notorious for dropping its eggs into other birds’ nests. There was even something about illegitimate children being called Kuckuckseier in German. I’d heard my father mention that when some man on Jerry Springer was being duped into raising someone else’s kid.
Why had she wanted the birds if she was going to complain about them?
My mother had told us a hundred times that we weren’t Frank Vogel’s children. It started as a sadistic punishment but felt more and more like praise to me as I began to like the man less and less. When Mom was mean to us, we’d say something like “I’m going to tell Daddy!” and she’d say, “Why? You’re not even his kid.” Then she’d go back to whatever she was doing or drinking for ten minutes before she started laughing. “I’m just kidding! Silly. You have no sense of humor.” So we knew all along, or we thought we knew.
“It is spooky, though, that the page is ripped out.”
“Would it make a difference?” When Beth was serious her voice deepened.
“Let’s read another one,” I said. “Hey, this one’s from my trip to Australia in 2004. Remember this one?”
“That’s the ugliest, squattiest ostrich I ever saw.”
“That’s because it’s an emu.” I was on my toes, looking for the 2004 bird book — the year of my Australia trip. “Found it. OK. Let’s see what dear old Mom had to say about my crystal emu.
Giver: David Vogel
Species of Bird: Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
Location of Purchase/price: Alice Springs, Australia/$135 Australian dollars
When and How Giver came upon Bird: (David Vogel’s account) I was browsing in a gift shop in Alice Springs and thinking about all the emus, dusty and gray with dirt, that I’d seen on the side of the road the day before. I wanted to get you something unusual, a real collector’s item. Then I saw this crystal emu. I thought it was amazing how crystal can make an ugly bird pretty.
Remarks: I once met a young man at the mission who had the prettiest, big brown eyes I ever saw. When I told him so, he blushed and said he wished people would stop talking about his eyes so much. But I could tell they were his trophies.
Then he told me about the fight and the knifing that had left his intestine in two pieces and how the government wasn’t going to pay to have his intestine put back together. He opened his shirt and showed me his colostomy bag and then raised those big brown eyes to me and said, I seen a lot of ugliness, Mrs. Grace. I told him Don’t give up. Your eyes could melt a world of ugliness.
The next Tuesday, he gave me a bird he’d made from paperclips (541). What kind of bird is it? I asked him. He said he didn’t know, but then after a few seconds he said, It’s a thank-you bird, Mrs. Grace.
“Ouch.” Beth laughed. “I guess now you know what she thought of your expensive crystal ostrich.”
“Emu. I just wanted to buy her something nice.”
“I know,” Beth said. “But I’m the only one. Tim and Ed think you’re a real ass.”
“They don’t know me.”
Beth yawned. “Listen, I’m going home now where there’s a jumbo bag of tortilla chips with BETH written across the front.”
“Aren’t I coming with you?”
“It’s late, honey, and I don’t have any clean sheets on the bed in the guest room. Your suitcase is already here, and we’re getting our house ready for the funeral, and —”
“Wait. I have to sleep here? Alone? What about Tim’s old room?”
“We took the bed out a few months ago when we did the tough-love thing. And to be honest, the neighbors said they saw someone prowling around the back yard a couple nights ago. It’d be good to have someone in the house. You know, like a guard dog.”
“What’s wrong, Mr. Big Apple? You scared?”
“Leave some lights on. I’ll be back bright and early for part two of The Birds.”
With Beth gone, the house grew garrulous, agitated with yawns and snaps. You’re never alone in a house made of timber, Mom always said. And thanks to Beth’s Hitchcock allusion, it couldn’t have been creepier.
On the stairs to the first bedroom, I passed the family photographs: Beth and me in various stages of embarrassing development. Here: me in little league, squatting and snaggle-toothed. Here: Beth playing a clunky, pubescent Mary in a church musical. Then me with the biggest eighties haircut imaginable. Near the top of the stairs Mom and Dad’s wedding photo hung crooked. Mom beams like the smile’s being squeezed out of her. My father hunches like a boxer stuffed into a suit two sizes too small. He’s smiling for the camera like he’s thinking Take the picture goddammit. They’re seated because the photographer couldn’t get both their faces in the picture when they were standing.
“I always knew,” I said and moved on. I left the photograph crooked because I thought what difference does it make now?
The rafters creaked in the attic in response. Frank Vogel towered a foot above me and had a way of sounding like rafters creaking when he said my hair was too long or reading fiction was making me soft or how North Carolina was the only decent place to live in this country. He had a way of making even the most idiotic statement sound true. His German accent made him sound smart.
At the first landing, I turned on the light in a bedroom. This had been my room thirty years ago but had since gone through a few incarnations, the present one generic guestroom. The green walls had been five-year-old Timmy’s idea. He’d just figured out how to shoot people with his index finger and thumb, so he wanted everything army green at Papa and Meema’s. G.I. Joe still guarded the clock on the bedside table alongside an ugly bird with a long tail and black-and-white-striped belly. Another cuckoo. I didn’t turn it over to see its number in the bird book. I knew what it meant, or I thought I did. And I knew the page would be ripped out.
I was in such a hurry to leave The Big House when I was 18 that I moved to NYC with no job and no place to stay.
As I slid between the cold sheets, I noticed the seven framed pictures of birds on the opposite wall, all drawn by a child. I propped myself up on one arm. Timmy always drew his grandmother a picture for her birthday and Christmas. He continued to do this long after it became obvious he was just cheap. He claimed to have drawn them freehand, but we all knew he traced the birds from the encyclopedia and colored them in. Mom would gawk at them as if they were Picassos. Sparrow, as she called him then, was the artist in the family. “Con artist,” Beth would say and laugh to make it sound like a joke.
I was too curious to sleep. There’d be a white sticker on the back of each of those pictures, and I had to know what bitchy little story Mom had written about the pinchbeck gifts.
Why had she wanted the birds if she was going to complain about them? Maybe Beth was right: maybe Mom never wanted them. Maybe the question I should have been asking myself was why I kept giving them to her. And why she’d kept the bird books to complicate our too-simple gifts. “I wasn’t trying to show off, Mom.” My voice reverberated through the house much louder than I expected. Somewhere a joint yawned. Like a kid scared of ghosts, I ran from room to room turning all the second-floor lights on, grabbed one of the pictures from the guestroom wall and took it down to the living room.
Giver of Bird: Sparrow (Timmy Black)
Species of Bird: Pygmy Tit (Psaltria exilis)
Location of Purchase/price: N/A/N/A
When and How Giver came upon Bird: (Grace Vogel’s account) I found Sparrow just about to rip a page of bird pictures from the encyclopedia, so I told him, Sparrow, we don’t tear up books. And he said, Meema, I want to give you a bird like Uncle Davey. So I got him a piece of paper and his crayons and told him to draw me one. I let him trace this first one.
Remarks: The pygmy tit is a fat little gray bird that lives in Indonesia on the island of Java. Sparrow’s drawing makes the little bird look more like a canary than a tit, but that’s his way. He needs color, and that’s fine. So do I. Sparrow is more like me than anyone. He’s just five years old now, but he already knows he likes green more than any other color. When he draws, he puts his head right down to the paper like there’s a little world down there only he can see. Or maybe Ed and Beth should get his eyes checked. Lord knows they could take better care of the kid.
Ah, the jab. I remembered that Christmas well. Timmy’s Pygmy Tit caused quite a scene when Mom asked the name of the species. Timmy shouted “Pygmy Tit! Pygmy Tit!” My father and I choked on our punch. We shared a smile — that no one can take from me — because we both found humor in a kid yelling “Tit!”
“Aw, grow up, you two,” Mom said, but she was beaming. Her bully of a husband was finally sharing a joke with her too-soft son. That moment erased years of my father’s neglect — thanks to Timmy’s Pygmy Tit.
I closed the bird book, turned out the living-room lights and headed off to bed. I was on the first landing when I heard something from somewhere deep in the belly of the house. It was different from yawns, snaps and creaks; it was the unmistakable thud of a window slamming shut. Great, I thought. What I needed now was to come all the way from New York City with its impressive homicide rate only to be sliced up by a serial killer on a sleepy street in Charlotte. Scenes from In Cold Blood whipped through my mind as I looked for something hard enough to smash a burglar’s face.
The thud had come from the basement, which meant I could probably get out of the house before my murderer made it upstairs. I armed myself with a hardwood hawk from the table on the landing. The fifth step creaked loudly enough to give me away, so I took the rest of the stairs in two bounds, landing at the bottom flat on my face. Perfect. I’d be number three to die at the bottom of these stairs.
“Uncle Dave?” The man standing over me was much taller than I would have imagined. He had a long, trendy beard — scruffy but clean — and blocky glasses. His expression was void of humor, just like my father.
“Holy mother of God. Tim?”
“What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m trying to escape from a burglar. Help me up.”
“There’s a burglar?”
“Where have you been? Your mother is worried sick.”
“Staying with friends.”
“We both know that’s not true.”
He looked so thin. He was twenty-four, but he could have passed for forty. Maybe it was just the beard.
“It’s a little late.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re going to eat something.”
Mom had left the freezer full of soup in plastic containers. I ran hot water over one, slid the pink tomato block into a pot and took a seat across from the stranger at the kitchen table.
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Just needed a place to crash. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything.”
“How long have you been crashing?”
“Is that a joke? Because if that’s a joke, I don’t like it.”
“It wasn’t a joke.” I wasn’t even sure why it might have been.
“She was my best friend.” Tim started to cry — an on-cue sort of performance that I wasn’t ready for. As much as I considered reaching across the table, I couldn’t, didn’t even know how. I was not emotionally equipped to console. I was envious. Best friend? Really? This poser could gush like Old Faithful about his grandmother, but I felt nothing. I got up to check on the soup.
“We talked about everything,” he said. “Not like —”
“Do you want pepper in your soup?” There was still a pink iceberg floating in the melting soup, but I ladled some into a bowl anyway.
“Meema didn’t judge me, you know. She was the only person who didn’t.”
My mother only reached out to people ruined by problems too big for them; she ignored the rest of us. She liked the smelly and the broken. But she judged people, even you, Tim. I wondered if he knew she was afraid of him. Instead of pointing this out, I put too much pepper in his soup.
“What do you know about the bird books, Tim? There’s one missing. Wouldn’t know where it is, would you?”
Tim started crying again. “She had a great smile, you know. She always said, ‘Sparrow, if you keep smiling at ugliness, it can’t help but smile back.'” He looked up to see what effect that last line had had on me. I wanted to tell him this didn’t sound like the mother I knew at all, but that would only have invited one more person to tell me I had never really known her, that I was an awful son.
Instead I repeat my question. “This year’s book. Any idea where it is?”
“Cryptic, but OK. I’d bet you’ve been coming here not just to sleep but also to borrow a bird or two for drug money, right?” And you pushed her down the stairs when she confronted you.
“Does it make a difference?” The look on his face was too sure of itself to be innocent.
“But it’s true, right?”
“I loved Meema. I never —”
“You left her lying at the bottom of the stairs for two days and let your mother find her that way.”
“I’d have blown my cover.”
“And that was more important?”
“I’m done.” He put down his spoon gently and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I’m turning in. Thank you for the soup.”
“Where do you sleep?”
“The bedroom at the top. The windows are at the back of the house, so my mother can’t see if I turn on the light.”
“Ah. She was carrying towels up there when she fell.”
Tim started to say something but instead took a short, jerky breath and stared at the wall. When I forced myself to reach out to hug him, he grabbed me so hard he upset my glasses and clipped my chin. And when I tried to let go, he kept holding me. For a second, it was my father’s grip: too firm, oppressive, the scratch of his beard, the kind of touch that needs something so bad it doesn’t give a shit how it hurts you.
“I was getting better,” he said, releasing. A confession after all — one that scared me too much to take it further. He was, if Beth wasn’t exaggerating, an addict who’d do anything for a fix.
“You grazed me pretty good there. A burglar might have done less damage.”
“I’ll get some ice.”
“No, it’s not that bad, Tim. I’m joking.”
“Oh. OK.” He’d inherited my father’s sense of sobriety.
“I think I’ll sleep on the couch here tonight.”
“Yeah, that’s cool. I get that.” He smiled — that smile that could mean I love you, Uncle Dave to I’m going to kill you in your sleep, Uncle Dave or both — and disappeared up the stairs.
There was no way in Hell I was going to sleep. I waltzed in the night, as my father used to say. Statistics kept me awake, the kind that say you’re more likely to be killed by a family member in your own home than by a terrorist. But this wasn’t my home and probably would never be if my mother had a will. I was in such a hurry to leave The Big House when I was 18 that I moved to NYC with no job and no place to stay. This wasn’t my home, because I didn’t care about anything or anyone here, which is not a jolly topic for Thanksgiving or Christmas. This wasn’t my home, because Frank Vogel wasn’t my father. We didn’t even look alike.
Beth and I played a game when we were young. She’d name one thing I’d inherited from my father, and then I’d name one she’d inherited. It went like this: Your breath smells like shit just like his. Well, you snore just like him. You never laugh. Well, you’re just stupid. We’d go on like this, carefully avoiding physical traits, until my mother told us we were being silly, that Frank Vogel was of course our father. But he wasn’t, and the proof was in the bird books. I just knew it.
I walked from the kitchen to the den, from the den to the living room, looking for another cuckoo. I found it among the red birds on the window sill in the kitchen. It looked a bit like the others, but its tail feathers were longer and its crest was, well, rough. It had the number 121.
“Of course. Ripped out.” I sat on the couch with the second bird book open. The page between 120 and 122 had been carefully removed.
“Rise and shine!” Beth was plodding up the stairs outside, rattling keys. “And give God the glory! Dave? Dave?! Knock knock!” She was already coming through the door.
“It’s not even a quarter after six, Beth. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Did you sleep down here?”
I sat up. “Have you heard from Tim yet?”
“Of course not.” She handed me a cup of coffee. “Look, we got a truck, but we only have it till eleven. I told my friend at the flea market we’d have the collection there by eight. And that’s pushing it.”
“Then we need help.”
“If you know a faith healer, we can get Ed up and walking by about seven, I guess.”
“What about Tim?”
“Who knows where he is.”
“But you have his cell phone number, right?”
“Of course I do, but he’s supposed to call me.”
“He won’t answer.” Beth took out her phone and dialed the number.
I was hoping his phone would ring on the fourth floor above us, but it didn’t. He was too smart for that. He’d obviously slipped by me during the night with a few birds to pawn. Or he had his phone turned off.
“It’s his voicemail.”
“Here, give it to me.” I left a message: “Tim, it’s Uncle Dave. The second you get this message, we need you to come over to The Big House. We have a job with your name on it.”
“Oh, that’ll get him here quick as mud runs uphill.” Beth laughed. “A job.”
“Why don’t we start by boxing up the rest of the birds below ground?”
“I’m on it.” She disappeared down the basement steps.
When I turned the corner into the kitchen, Tim was leaning against the sink and sipping a cup of coffee. Rested and a little high probably, he looked less calculating, less like a killer. “Here to help,” he said and winked.
“Well finally.” Beth shouted from the basement. “You said you’d call. You got here fast.”
“I was on my way here to see Uncle Dave. Freaky, huh?” Tim shouted back, still looking and smiling at me.
“At seven?” Beth was in the kitchen now. Tim let the question hang in the air as he sipped his coffee.
By eight, we’d loaded sixty-two boxes onto the truck. We were already running behind, but Tim assured me he could drive “real fast.” Beth stayed behind claiming funeral-arrangement obligations. Ah yes, my mother had died. There’d be a funeral tomorrow, and I’d have to put on the expected sad face.
Tim wasn’t kidding about his capacity to break the law when it came to keeping appointments. “My parole officer doesn’t like me to be late.” He was pushing eighty.
“Does your parole officer like you to get speeding tickets?”
“Lesser of two evils, Dave.” The cars we were overtaking on the interstate looked as if they were standing still. A woman in a Saab gave us the finger.
“I think you’re scaring people. Are you high?”
“Can I come live with you?”
“Say that again.”
“I can’t stay at The Big House anymore. If people find out I was there when Meema fell, they’ll start asking the tough questions, and I’ll wind up in jail.” He slowed down for the exit ramp. “I’m homeless. Uncle Dave.”
“What about your roommates?”
“Oh, I’ve never really lived with them.”
“What do you want to do in New York?”
“I don’t know. You’re the smart one in the family. You tell me.”
“What do you do here?”
He rolled his eyes as if I should know the answer to the question. There was a little of Beth in him. “I cut hair.”
“Is that humor?”
“No. Yes. It’s just I can’t picture it.”
“My parole officer’s idea. I did some monkey-ass training for three months last summer. I don’t hate it.”
“Ah, in the summer,” I said. “Your mother refuses to keep me informed of things that happen during the summer.”
“She’s such a bitch. But, you know, I have a telephone too.”
“I deserved that. Look, we can talk about it,” I said. “Do you mind living with the worst uncle in the —”
“You make a lot of money in publishing, right?”
“Tim, the missing cuckoo pages — do you have them?”
“Why would I have them?”
“So you know about them.”
“I can’t say.”
“Did she talk about them?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Maybe . . .” I didn’t finish my thought, and Tim didn’t ask me to.
We unloaded the boxes at the stand where Ed was already planted in his wheelchair and looking more crippled than usual. Good old crippled Ed. He’d get a lot of money out of the customers. Tim and I stayed to help until Ed said our able-looking bodies were cramping his style.
By the time Tim and I arrived back at The Big House, he’d worked out a plan to move to New York. According to Tim, it was all his grandmother’s idea: “A new start will do Sparrow good, and Uncle Dave’s the only one who’ll understand that.” I’d go along with it, but I was also waiting for my chance to search that bedroom on the fourth floor for those lost cuckoo pages.
“I’m up here!” Beth shouted the second we came through the door. Her voice sounded odd — not like the Beth who barked sarcasm and expected everyone to jump, but more like a child needing her mother.
“Up here. At the top.”
Tim shook his head and said, “Oh shit.” She was in his room, sitting on his bed, some papers in her hand. “Why didn’t she tell me? Me of all people. Why didn’t she tell me, her own —?”
“Tell you what?”
“We’re not her children either,” Beth said and held up a fistful of papers. The will. “We’re adopted. Our mother’s some woman named Jean. Jean!”
“Well,” Tim said, “she always hoped you were reading the bird books. They were in the living room for years. It was all in there. She was trying to tell you the only way she knew how, but you just never cared. The cuckoo pages were ripped out by Papa when he caught on.”
“You don’t know that. How would you know that?”
“I’ve been talking to her on the phone a lot,” Tim said. “Since you fucking kicked me out.”
“We didn’t kick you out. We refused to enable your violent behavior. You attacked me with a knife. You almost pulled my arm off with my purse. I thought you were gonna kill me.”
“You attacked your mother?” I said. “With a knife?”
“We talked every day,” Tim said.
“Every day?” Beth’s voice was boiling. “About what?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
In confrontational scenes I was as useless as a chest-of-drawers. I could feel myself becoming furniture.
“Can I see that?” I said.
“Sure. Read it for yourself.” Beth handed me the six loose pages.
“About feeling helpless,” Tim went on, “and trapped and angry, so angry at everyone you can’t control yourself. Like a loaded gun. Like —”
“Oh come off it,” Beth said. “You watch too much TV.”
“Am I the only person in this family who feels what she felt?” Tim said. “God.”
“I can feel,” Beth said.
“I can’t.” I raised my hand, still reading a letter from my mother tucked among the papers. Neither of my parents was biologically related to me, and I still felt nothing. “Nope,” I said. “I’m a big frozen block of ice.”
“This isn’t about you,” said Beth. “Or me apparently. She left the house to the mission. Did you get that far yet? To my little cuckoos. Nice one. Did you read that part?”
“Does it make a difference, Beth?” I put the pages down. “Look. We have something to tell you. Tim’s moving to New York.” Maybe I thought my absence from his life had earned his dangerous presence. “He’s going to live with me.”
“He is not,” said Beth.
“And I’m going to let him do some copy-editing.”
“You are not,” said Beth.
“You are?” said Tim.
“Yeah, that idea just came to me. How about that? You can spell, can’t you?”
“I can learn.”
“Well then it’s all settled,” I said. The words came out too pat, too final, as if I’d meant the people we’d known as parents, this big house emptied of all its birds — who we were and who we weren’t. For the first time in her life, I’m sure, Beth couldn’t come back with a jab. It was settled, all of it, just like that. And it made no difference.