Dead Bird on a Sidewalk

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the lights. The playful clash of the smoldering reds and citron yellows, all skipping across the soft December snow. I can remember standing on my porch just after dark, watching the lights sparkle along the skirt of my neighbor's roof. Something about the way the lights disappeared, only to rematerialize just below, dully animated on the frozen ground, always captured me. My mother's house tonight was littered with those lights.

They were strewn about with apparent disregard; a few hung on a bush here, a few dangled from one of the porch's columns there. I could see no rhyme or reason to their arrangement, no prudent forethought, just a random assortment of seven watt bulbs. I could tell a few of the strands were left over from all those years ago, that magic of my childhood; the paint coating, translucent and deadened from years of weathering, was flaking on some bulbs, fully chipped off on others. These were the holidays at my mother's house.

I glanced back at the car, parked on the street, just before knocking on the door. It was saddled up just next to the curb, parked so perfectly it nearly made me sick. I had blocked off the mailbox, but I did not intend to stay the night. The view made it seem almost as if the mailbox were telling the car a perfect, lonely secret. I turned around just as the door opened and two unidentifiable arms pulled me inside.

"Oh, honey, you're cold," my mother said in a horrible display of feigned enthusiasm. She took my coat and gloves and started off toward the backroom, shaking her head. "It must be ten below out there, sweetheart." I slid off my shoes, trickling melted snow gathered on the trek to the door, and stepped out of the entryway. She called out to me from somewhere unseen, nasally, faintly, "Why aren't you wearing that nice hat I got you last year for Christmas?"

I walked in to the dining room, a room I'd often been in but rarely used. It looked exactly the same as I remembered from all those years prior: stale, white. There was one painting on the far wall, the only to ever grace the room, at least since my birth. A flower, unidentifiable, a beginner's attempt at the hazy, absolute passion of the Romantics. I'd never been able to tolerate it. I remember my mother once told me that it was painted by a friend of the family, an old college friend, I think. I don't recall; the painting never took me, and I never pursued it.

I could hear talking in the living room. A harsh voice, loud, brusque – it must have been my father's. I couldn't hear who he was speaking to, and for a moment, I smiled to myself at the thought of my father carrying on a conversation with himself in an empty room. He bowed to the lampshade, in his mind a beautiful woman, and reached for the arm of the sofa, eager for a handshake. He was most certainly drunk by this point.

He kept talking as I entered the room. His joint raconteur was a woman who I didn't recognize. She was young, much younger than either of my parents, and I could come up with no legitimate reason why either should be acquainted with such a young woman. They were each holding wine glasses, both nearly empty, and gesturing with their hands. I couldn't tell what they were talking about and silently slid past them toward the sofa, unnoticed.

"Hey, brother; it's been awhile, eh?" Tom was sitting next to his wife, a woman I'd met only twice: once at their wedding and once here, exactly one year ago. Their hands were intertwined, and they were slightly angled toward each other, leaving me cast out at the edge of the couch. "What's new?"

"Oh, nothing really." I forced out a smile, met with equal pretension from the pair before me. "Just the same old thing."

"Yeah, I know how that goes." A conversation going nowhere, dialogue straight out of a poorly written book. The two squared their shoulders, leaving me even further outside.

"How'd you get rid of the kid tonight?" Tom had recently had a baby, a boy he named Timothy. Though I had been out of town during the birth, the humor of "Tim and Tom" had never escaped me, and I egged him on at every available opportunity.

Tom's wife frowned slightly. "Oh, Timothy, you mean?" She made a point to enunciate his name, dangling over each separate syllable, lengthening it to epic proportions.

"Oh, yes, I didn't mean to offend you."

"Of course not. I hadn't the slightest thought." Her frown vanished, but her brow, thick and descending, lingered. "We just hired a baby sitter. She came very highly recommended."

"Yeah, our friend, Lisa, that we know from the gym told us all about her. One time, she…" Tom's voice faded out. I watched his lips keep moving, but no sound seemed to register. The wife stared at him as he spoke, her eyes polished and gleaming and her hands lightly squeezing his. I watched as they clasped, pulsing to an unknown beat, slow and steady. My ears re-awakened in time to hear, "So, anyway, have you written anything lately?"

My family had never quite come to grips with my career as a writer. I had been in med-school – a year from graduation – when I walked away. They never recovered. The fact that I was approaching the two-year anniversary of my last published work didn't help. I expected to hear much more before the night was over.

"Can you come help me in the kitchen, sweetie?" There was a moment of silence. Tom and I exchanged looks. The air hung there, motionless. "Mark, come here." I got up, slowly, and started toward the kitchen.

"I need some help moving all this to the dining room," my mother said without turning around. I don't know how she even knew I was in the room at all. I picked up a wooden bowl, full of lettuce drenched in cheap French dressing, and walked out the open door without replying. The stench of the vinaigrette hit after the first couple steps, and I quickened my pace.

I set the bowl down in the center of the table and seated myself, one from the end on the side farthest from the door – the most inconspicuous spot. No one could have noticed me unless they were looking for me.

The rest of the table promptly filled up. My mother took the spot at the end of the table, the one she'd been sitting in for years. Tom and my father sat on either side. Some other guests must have arrived since my subtle arrival; they sat in random spots around the table, indiscriminate freckles scattered about. I didn't recognize most of them. The woman, the one who had been talking to my father earlier, sat down next to me. I could feel her gaze as I unfolded my napkin and looked down at my plate.

My mother's voice lifted up from the end of the table, quiet but sure. "I think one of us should say grace."

"Mom, you know we haven't said grace since Mark and I were kids." Tom, indignant. "We never do that. Besides, Sarah's Jewish." He reached down and grabbed his wife's hand, sitting on the table just past her soupspoon, and she looked up at him, her eyebrows turned up innocently.

My mother continued looking straight ahead, catatonic. "I just thought…"

My father interrupted her. "Tom, don't start tonight." His face bore the look of restrained impatience, and he let out a puff of air through his nostrils. "We have guests." He tried to smile, revealing his crooked bottom tooth.

"I just thought that since this is Christmas Eve and all…" My mother's voice trailed off. She looked down, her eyes beating the plate of bread before her, then immediately looked up again. "It just seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe start the year off right?" She grinned, and there remained something not altogether innocent in those perfect rows of perfect white teeth. Menacing, even. "Maybe it'll even get us in the holiday spirit." Her mouth widened, the smile almost taking full control of her face.

"Then let's just get it out of the way." Tom sunk his head, defeated. His wife didn't move.

"Heavenly father…" I lost my mother's voice and concentrated on the bowl of corn in front of me. I tried to memorize each piece in there, to distinguish each individual doomed kernel. One in particular caught my eye, rounded, more so than the others, sitting just on top like a crowning jewel. I imagined it being plunged into my brother's gaping mouth.

"Amen," everyone said at once, and I was roused from my silent reflection. Immediately plates, bowls, platters, trays began being sent around the table, and I was bombarded by an assortment of vegetable dishes I had never even seen before.

As I received a polished silver salver from my left, piled with pounds of turkey breasts, I noticed the woman beside me staring at me, silent and ghost-like. Her gaze hovered there, motionless. "Thank you," I said quietly and turned back to my plate.

The room was soon consumed in a symphony of chiming silverware and the dulled crunches of gnashing teeth. No one said a thing, everyone focused on their plates before them, chewing in time to a tempo of which I was not aware. It seemed no one noticed the break in conversation but me. I tried to concentrate on my own meal but found myself suddenly not hungry. I toyed with my knife, cutting the same piece of meat several times before someone finally spoke.

"Jim, I hear you guys had a scare at the store the other day." It was one of the men I had never seen, seated next to my father. He had a wide forehead that trailed down to a modest chin, buoyed only by a pocket of fat just underneath, giving the impression that his face was slowly melting into his neck. The words literally dripped down out of his hanging mouth, slithering down his jaw and into my father's eager ear.

"Oh, it really wasn't a big deal. Not as big a deal as they news stations are making it out to be, anyway." He snorted. "Just some bum off the street, came in and pulled a gun on us. Told my cashier – young guy, still in high school, his first month on the job – to empty the register." He took a bite of mashed potatoes and continued. "Police found out later that the gun didn't have any bullets." As he talked, the potatoes, a viscous fluid now, bounced around his mouth, tumbling over his thrashing tongue. "Last I heard, he's on trial, and with his past record, he's going to get a sentence of six years." The mouth closed, and he swallowed. "Serves him right, the bum."

"Now Jim…" My mother didn't continue, patting his forearm, still looking down at her fork, stabbing aimlessly. Her objection garnered no response, neither from my father nor the man who had brought up the attempted robbery. The table continued eating in relative silence.

"I know who you are." The voice reached my ear, a raspy whisper. I continued eating. "I know who you are," she repeated. The woman next to me, leaning in just enough that a wisp of air grazed my earlobe. She calmly scooted back her chair and left the table, casting a glance back over her shoulder just as she passed through the doorway.

I stayed at the table for another minute. By now, my slice of turkey was carved into an almost gelatinous mess, and my knife remained frozen with nothing to pick at. I stood up, almost embarrassingly slow, and pushed my chair back. It leapt back, resting on its rear legs, and quivered before toppling back on all four with a rap on the wood floor. Everyone at the table immediately looked at me, their stares at once paralyzed and paralyzing. "Sorry," I murmured and left the still petrified room.

The mystery woman was standing in the center of the living room, once again sporting an almost finished glass of wine. Her back was to me, and I assumed she was looking at the portrait on the far wall, each member of my family looking slightly to the right and smiling happily, myself included, aged eight. I hadn't noticed her dress before, a black strapless. Her shoulders slid gracefully down to its edges, and it all made her seem quite pretty. She turned around, and one end of her mouth turned up. "I know who you are."

I sat down on the couch in exactly the same place I had been earlier. "And who is that?"

She walked toward me, slowly, her hips swaying gently. She sat down next to me, resting her side against mine. I could feel her breathing, measured and deliberate. Her body was warm, a pleasant sort of warm. "You…" She leaned toward me. "…are a writer." She smiled, apparently pleased.

"Am I?"

Her eyes opened slightly, surprised but unwilling to show it. "Yes, you are." She smiled again, her composure regained. "Mark Gary. I've read all your books."

"I'm surprised anyone has." I looked away, back toward the portrait hanging on the wall, and sighed. "It's been a long time since I've talked to any fans."

She touched my face, lightly and with the back of her hand, and I looked back toward her. "Why's that?" Her voice was quiet, hushed. The very act of speech seemed forced, a breach of serene silence.

I could feel my brow furrowing. "Well, I haven't written anything in a while." I smiled, easing open my face once again. "And what I did write then wasn't that good."

"Oh, I disagree." Her hand, just now resting on my cheek, began softly sliding down my jaw line. "The Dream is one of my favorite books."

I seized her hand. "Maybe your taste isn't all that good."

"Or maybe you don't know what you've written." Her fingers wove through mine. "I'm Emily, by the way."

"A pleasure."

"Oh, the pleasure is all mine." She pressed against my hand. "I've been wanting to meet you for quite some time."

"I wish I could say the same." She started, then began to grin. She really did have a wonderful smile. When she smiled, her whole face smiled. Her cheekbones lifted up, the corners of her eyes widened, even her hair seemed to part a bit more, giving way to her perfectly smooth forehead. And her mouth opened just enough that you could see just the faintest hint of the tip of her tongue.

"If you don't mind me asking, why haven't you published anything in so long?" She was still smiling. Innocent. "What's it been, two years?" I didn't say anything, just looked at her. "If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine." Her smile disappeared, and she looked overcome, crushed. It was moving, and it was beautiful. "I just wondered why."

"Because I haven't written anything in two years." I shuffled my weight, turning a bit toward her, and leaned by head against the couch back.

"Well, then why haven't you written anything in two years?" Her voice was probing but innocent, harmless. I hadn't talked with someone so genuine in quite some time.

"It's hard to explain." I stopped myself, but I could tell she wanted more. "What do you do for a living?"

"Me?" She was thrown off. "I'm a reporter for the Globe."

"So you write, too, then."

She smiled a bit. "Yeah, I guess I do. And I try to actually write a little on the side, too."

"Right, fine." I paused, searching for words. "Are there ever times where you wake up in the morning and don't want to get out of bed?"

"Yes, sure."

"Times where everything you're doing seems pointless?"

"Yeah, of course." Her expression was entirely serious now.

"Times where you feel like no matter what you do, there is no way you can force yourself to put a pencil to paper again?"

"Yeah, everyone has feelings like that at some point. But…"

"Wait. You feel like even if you do write that story, crank out those next five hundred words, that it's not going to make any difference." I continued, barely pausing. "That everything is so utterly predetermined, so set, everything already figured out, that any sort of action is futile. That action ceases to be action."

"Yes…"

"It's a feeling of helplessness, but it's worse than that, it's bigger than all that. Before you even start, the world has won."

Her hand moved up to my shoulder, resting carefully in the valley of my collarbone. "Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?"

I exhaled, and a whole lungful of air that had been held up in my chest vanished. "I haven't gotten out of bed in two years."

At that moment, my mother entered the room, carrying a pot of coffee. "Kids, it's time for dessert."

We walked back to the dining room and seated ourselves at the same places as before. This time, I couldn't feel her looks as I fiddled with my Bundt cake and listened to my family's awkward conversation. I'm not sure if they were there or not. Emily excused herself after only a couple minutes. I remained and listened to my father talk about his recent returns on margin and two of the anonymous neighbors argue about last week's football game.

"Mark, dear." I looked up and found my mother's eyes locked with my own. "Would you go and get some more milk from the kitchen? We've run out over here, and you know I can't drink my coffee without milk." I got up and walked out mechanically.

I entered the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator door. There wasn't any milk. I checked behind the bowl of leftover pasta, behind the tub of margarine; there just wasn't any there. I began to walk back to the dining room to inform my mother when I spotted Emily, sitting alone on the couch in the living room, the next room. I walked in and sat next to her.

She was silent, and her hands remained in her lap. Her eyes looked straight ahead, transfixed. We sat voiceless, mute, for a moment; it must have been a minute or more. Finally, she spoke, passive and peaceful. "How could you do that?" She looked at me. "How could you just… remove yourself like that?" I didn't reply. "I just don't understand how."

"It wasn't a conscious decision." Her hand found mine again, even as she didn't remove her stare.

"That's bullshit. That's just an excuse." Her anger was sudden, violent. "What…" Her voice died away, and she paused a moment to collect herself. The face dissolved back into unstirring numbness. "What was it like?"

"You could well have asked what it is like." I had expected a reaction but got none. "I don't know. It's just terribly routine." And it was.

"What do you do for money?"

"Oh, that's not the problem, that's never the problem." She looked at me, and I shrugged. "You've met my parents. You've probably figured out they're fairly well off."

"That's kind of them, helping you out like that."

"Yes, yes, I suppose it is." I had never considered the origin of the checks I received in the mail the third Thursday of every month. As long as they were there, I just took them.

Her thumb stroked the edge of my palm. "I had always imagined you to be this hero of a man." She continued looking in my direction, but I could tell she didn't see me. Her eyes were shaded, glazed over. "But here you are, just…" She stopped herself, noticeably.

"Go ahead." She remained unaffected. "Go on. Say it."

"Pathetic." She spat the words out with disdain, but I could sense there was no enmity, no resentment toward me, just a general revulsion toward the word itself. It dangled there, as if wavering between existence and nothingness, suspended in the world of abstraction. Pathetic. I could feel it, echoing, washing back and forth over me. She shook her head, roused herself. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that." She looked so beautiful. "I didn't mean anything by it, I didn't want to hurt you." She was speaking quickly now, hurried and rushed. "I just meant… Well, I had you built up in my head, and here I see you're no different than I am." No different than her. The words scuttled round my head. "I see you like this, so exposed, so vulnerable, so… human." I was having a hard time following her. The words all hurried at me, jumped out at me. "I'm sorry, I really didn't want to cause all this."

"I'm sorry I'm not greater." I turned away, staring down at my shoe, old and worn. "I'm sorry I'm not more." I rotated the shoe, turning it in pigeon-toed. "I'm sorry I'm not what you wanted."

"No, it's not that." Her fingers grazed my chin and pulled my face up, away from the shoe and toward her constant face. "You actually look quite beautiful like this."

"Most people don't call men beautiful."

She didn't seem to hear me. "A distressed, depressing kind of beautiful."

I hesitated. "The beauty of a shooting star." Fleeting, passing beauty. The knowledge that this moment – with all its perfections and imperfections, its glories and disgraces – will be gone, giving way to the next beautiful moment. The beauty of failing. The beauty of a lack.

Her head landed on my shoulder. "There's a sense of desperation about you. I've felt it. It follows you all over this house."

"The beauty of a dead bird on the sidewalk." I didn't acknowledge her.

"Yeah." I could feel her looking at me even as I didn't see her. I was looking through her, past her. "How did you know?"

"It's the only kind of beauty there is."

"Come with me." She stood up, tugging on my fingers.

"Where are you taking me?" She began to walk toward the hallway, pulling me after her. I repeated myself.

"Just come with me." I followed her, willingly, trailing just behind her.

She pulled open a door at the end of the hallway, a bedroom door, the guest bedroom. She walked in and shut the door behind us. The room was dark, pitch-black. I could barely see her there, standing just inches before me. She pressed her lips against mine, delicately, tenderly, just barely there. They remained there a second, and then she kissed me again, just as faintly.

She pulled me in closer, our bodies touching, and she kissed me harder. Wet and long, we kissed. Her tongue slid in and out of my mouth, pulsing with the beat of my heart. Our lips met, and I felt her warm tongue, circling above mine, trying to press it down.

She pushed me on to the bed and slipped off her dress. It fell in a halo around her ankles, a dark ring around her pale white feet. Then she was on top of me, straddling me, her legs pushing down on my own, which hung over the end of the bed, stilled in the insatiable darkness. Our tongues met again, and individual strands of her hair glanced the edge of my face in a way I found attractive, a daring temptation, terribly alluring. Her hands ran up and down my sides, pacing the length of my torso, kneading the taut muscles of my back. She pulled back her head and smiled. I smiled too, and then she was kissing me again.

She pressed on my chest, driving me back against the bed. I recoiled immediately. This was the bed my mother had chosen as the home for the visitors' coats, and I had landed on my own, draped across an assortment of jackets and ladies' furs. It lied there, slightly balled, bloated, a shell of myself. I looked up to find Emily's head tossed back, laughing at my apparent horror. I sat up again, and she edged her way next to me.

I could barely make her out as she moved in to kiss me again. Her hair hung down, swathing her long neck and resting on her breasts, which undulated with her slow breathing. Her nostrils were flared, subtly, and her legs curled up against the mattress. The little light in the room reflected off her right eye, giving it an unnatural glimmer. Her lips reached out to me, and I collapsed into her lap, sobbing, my head pitching like a wave. I could feel her, her puzzlement, as hands fell to the top of my head, combing through my trembling hair.

I clutched at her waist and sobbed, moans escaping my pinched mouth, tears rushing down my face and on to her yielding thighs. They kept gushing out, and I could feel the edge of her panties, cool and wet with tears, rubbing against my face, a damp sensation on my temple. Her perfume floated down, faintly at first but building, flowing down, clogging my nostrils, choking me. I hiccoughed, I tried to expel it from my lungs, the stink – it was a poison, sickeningly sweet, heavy, syrupy. I couldn't hold it in any longer, and I coughed, crying, whimpering like a little kid again, howling like I don't know that I ever have. I released her, my hands dropping lifelessly to the mattress, crumpling on impact. It went on that way for a while, me crying and her rubbing my head robotically. I finally finished and got control of myself. I looked up, looked up at Emily's face. It looked back down; I'm not sure if she was seeing me or not. Her eyes were glassy, and I think she might have been crying, too.

I got out of bed and walked back to the living room. Emily re-appeared a few minutes later and immediately went out to her car. I didn't say anything the rest of the night.