Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Singing Bird



Herman’s wife loathed Christmas, and, so, after twenty-five embattled years, Herman had come to dislike the holiday as well. On the day before Christmas, Herman sat at his desk in his law office studying an abstract that was unfurled before him. A bottle of Courvoisier that an old client had delivered to him the day before rested next to the abstract so that Herman could pour cognac over the ice in his coffee cup. When the bottle had arrived in his office, it was adorned with a red bow that now imparted a dash of glamor to the crumpled paper and discarded mail in the wastebasket under his credenza. Earlier, Herman had sorted through nuisance correspondence heaped on the corner of his desk – most of it pleas for year-end charitable donations – sweeping those envelopes together with the stacked and unread legal magazines and newsletters that he had accumulated over the past half-year into the trash. Then, he returned statute books that had lingered for many weeks on his desk to his law library, his peregrinations through the still and empty law office accompanied by the chirping of a mechanical bird. Herman carried a dozen yellow wood pencils to a pencil-sharpener and meticulously sculpted the points of each of them into a pyramidal lead spike. These tasks accomplished, Herman opened the cognac, packed his pipe with tobacco so that he could smoke, a pleasure forbidden to him when his secretary and staff were present, and, then, began to read the abstracts of title awaiting him at his desk.

In recent years, Herman’s wife took refuge from the season with her sister in Phoenix. Herman’s law-partner, Hyde, the silver-tongued advocate, was vacationing in the Barbados or Belize – Herman couldn’t remember which tropical paradise Hyde had flown to this December and, in any event, it didn’t matter to him since he had never been in either place. Herman had released his secretary and the receptionist at noon – Hyde’s secretary didn’t work when her boss was absent -- and so he was alone in the office. The phone had stopped ringing and the front door was locked and Herman felt a pleasant sense of solitude.

The cognac burned on his tongue, impossible to reconcile the harsh taste with the warm and serene sensation that suffused him. Smoke rolled from between his lips and the old abstracts with their first entries handwritten in an elegant script that no one could accomplish today were as companionable to Herman as an old and faithful hound, pages of numbered entries that led inexorably and without hiatus to the present moment. The logic of conveyancing and title to real estate abhorred a vacuum – to Herman it was the embodiment of reason, a subdivided grid imposed on the land wholly continuous both in space and time and he thought of the law pleasantly blanketing the town now receding into twilight, webs of title extending out past the farms and the snowy, fallow fields, beyond the crossroads where the darkness was already apparent and the tiny villages, each organized around a railroad siding and a grain elevator and, thence, by metes and bounds, to the horizon where groves of barren trees marked the silent, meandering courses of this world’s rivers. Reading a title and ascertaining ownership was like petting a dog to Herman – it was an occupation that calmed the mind and lowered blood pressure and, even, abetted digestion, no greater pleasure than doing something useful, tedious, and tranquil. Herman drank more cognac and his warmth increased. Everything was in its place – the succession of fee-title holders passed by him like a parade: first the patent from Abraham Lincoln on yellow parchment and, then, the Scotch-Irish, the Germans with names like barked commands, the unpronounceable Bohemians, names always short a vowel or two it seemed, the developments and subdivisions platted after the Great War with covenants against Jews and Catholics and Negroes, the grants of land for churches and schools, then, the Mexicans, the families from the Sudan, the Burmese, the immigrants from Laos, Bosnia and Croatia and Rwanda, a solemn procession that Herman imagined passing interminably, some of the landowners on horseback bearing the emblems of their lenders on banners, others on foot staggering forward under the heavy burden of debt that they carried in sacks on their shoulders the way that Saint Nicholas carried gifts, the contracts for deed and the warranty deeds and mortgages, the quit claim deeds and the property passing by bequest or pursuant to divorce decree: it was all orderly to Herman, an intelligible progress that led to him and his analysis of title and the legal opinions that he dictated after first penciling the succession of title onto his yellow pad of paper, pleasant to think of the all the tides and chaos in human affairs, the disorderly passions and the crimes and extravagant sacrifices, all reduced to the continuous transfer of fee title from generation to generation, a simple gesture repeated again and again.

Herman looked out the two windows in his office. One showed him a pile of snow, cleft and riven by the equipment that had shoved it into the alleyway beside his building. The other window opened onto the quiet street, a string of colored lights leaking down and away from the dark threshold of a business across the way that never seemed to be open. At intervals, cars passed, but the twilight was cooling and dimming and travelers were hurrying to their destinations. The crevasses in the snowbanks became deeper blue, almost indigo, and, looming over the walkway on an unlit sidestreet, Herman saw the apparition of a great fat man with a white beard, red-clad, bobbing a little like a balloon with another trickle of lights red, green, blue, and yellow cascading from the facade of silent house behind him.

A couple of times, Herman rose to go to the toilet. As he passed his souvenirs on the bookshelf by the door to his office, his mechanical bird took notice and chirped at him. The bird sat atop a Shriner’s fez, next to a small statue of an enthroned and impassive Abraham Lincoln, a commemorative plate showing a castle in Germany, sunglasses, and five or six postcards in black frames: snow-capped mountains, a ruined temple, Herman’s wife on the steps of the Vatican, lions and elephants glimpsed once on a safari in Tanzania. The little bird perched atop the red velvet fez was three-inches tall and made of red plastic in the shape of a cardinal and, when a person walked by the figurine, somehow, it sensed motion and made a sound: soo-eee soo-eee, chirp, chirp, tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet.

The little red bird was a gag gift acquired at a family gathering a week earlier. Herman’s aunt was confined to a nursing home and, each year, the weekend before Christmas, her surviving sisters with her children and grandchildren hosted a holiday party for her. Guests gathered in a party room at the nursing home, an alcove screened from the dining area by a sliding partition made from beige plastic. In the alcove, there were pictures of Jesus and the Grand Tetons, an old upright piano that no one ever touched except sometimes to stack casseroles on its straight black back, and a fireplace that was cold and exhaled its sooty wintry breath into the room. In other parts of the dining room, people sang carols and listened to recorded Christmas music, laughing or weeping as the spirit moved them: several holiday parties underway simultaneously. It was the only Christmas event tolerated by Herman’s wife, mostly because it was short and stilted because of its somewhat dire milieu: the old lady wheeled into the group of well-wishers groped for the hands of those greeting her, smiling with cheerful bemusement and no one could understand what she mumbled to them and, then, neatly wrapped gifts were exchanged as various nieces and nephews ate hot dish and fudge from red plastic plates. A rule had been imposed: no gift could exceed ten dollars in value and anything received was subject to confiscation in a game of "dirty" bingo that followed the exchange of the parcels and their unwrapping. Although the red plastic cardinal, affixed by feet to the sarcophagus of a cardboard box, had been unwrapped by another, Herman traded his Prairie Home Companion "pretty good" joke book for the bird. He was intrigued by the label on the box proclaiming that the cardinal was "motion-activated" so as to emit a mechanical song.

Herman brought the bird to his office and, carefully, removed the little plastic figure from its box. A tiny nylon tab extruded from beneath the cardinal’s tail. When Herman pulled out the tab, the bird immediately chirped at him. Nothing visible moved and the bird was inert as an empty plastic soda pop bottle, but it sang loudly, a single phrase: Soo-ee, Soo-ee, chirp, chirp, tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet. Then, the cardinal lapsed into sullen silence, its little black eyes in its red pyramidal head looking out at Herman with a belligerent challenge. If he waved his hand before the bird’s black beak, or turned it upside down, the mechanical cardinal chirped at him, always the same phrase. The final tweets sounded in machine-gun succession and, it occurred to Herman that, perhaps, the sound would not be identifiable as bird song if it were merely heard in the dark or, at a distance, without its source being known. But emitted by the small plastic figure, the chirping sound was persuasively avian – Herman wasn’t sure whether the sound was cheerful or menacing.

After toying with the bird for a few minutes, Herman put the cardinal on his souvenir shelf. The bird was unsteady on its feet and Herman had to balance it very carefully to persuade the little creature to perch atop the red velvet Shriner’s fez in the bookcase. At that location, the bird was chest-high and, whenever someone entered his room, the cardinal greeted that person, emitting its rote cry in piercing tones that could be heard all the way down the hall. Herman’s secretary, Sheila was very short and she learned to duck her head when she came into his office, slipping below the area sensed by the bird and so defeating its singing mechanism. "I don’t like that thing," she proclaimed. Hyde, the silver-tongued advocate, glared at the cardinal when it chirped at him. "What is this?" Hyde demanded. "A toy," Herman said. "It’s motion-activated. Now, you can’t sneak up on me." Hyde looked puzzled. He stood facing the bird as if it were evidence of Herman’s negligence or some other failure. When he moved to face, Herman, the bird reproached him with another iteration of its chirping. "Why would I want to sneak up on you?" Hyde, the silver-tongued advocate asked, a question that Herman could not answer.

So, now, Herman rose, setting aside his silver dictation device, and, rising unsteadily, ambled away from his desk and past the bookshelf at the threshold of his office. The bird saluted him with its cries. Herman nodded to the cardinal and went to the toilet, noticing that he was a little bit dizzy and short of breath. It was as if the walk to the men’s room down the dark hall past the empty offices clogged with old books had been accomplished at a very high altitude, among snow fields beneath a brooding black basalt cliff. Herman couldn’t quite catch his breath and he leaned forward at the urinal, cooling his head against the plaster wall. Finishing, he ran warm water over his hands and lurched back down the hallway to his office. The bird scolded him again as he passed by the bookcase standing sentinel by his open door. Herman dropped back into his seat at the desk and, when he rewound the dictation device to find the place where he had stopped speaking, he discovered that he must have left the machine in "record" mode – after rewinding, Herman heard his slight groan as he rose from the desk, the click of the dictaphone put down on the table, then, his labored breathing interrupted by the shrill cries of the bird. He reversed the dictation several time to listen to the bird’s song surprised at how clearly it had recorded, the little stutter of tweets and chirps resounding against the silence of the old law office.

Herman finished the cognac in his cup and, then, docked his dictaphone to transfer the dictation into his office’s computer system. He gazed with satisfaction at the stack of abstracts that he had read – it was good work, the same thing over and over again, but comforting in its way. As he left his office, his red cardinal bade him farewell. The stillness in the law office was mirrored by the strange silence outside – the cold air had been emptied of all sounds and, even, the freeway at the edge of town that always vibrated with truck sounds like a tuning fork, had gone mute. The ice on the streets glittered with malice although the dark drifts of snow around the sidewalks seemed pillow-soft. Herman fumbled with his keys, but found the one that fit in the cold lock. He started his car and let the engine idle for a moment, cuing windshield wipers to slap across the glass at the frost accumulated there. Then, he put the car in gear and cautiously edged onto the still street.

Herman drove six or seven blocks, then, a purplish fog overcame him and he felt the blood draining out of his eyes. He shouted a Christmas carol to keep himself upright: "Hark, the herald –" Then, he slumped sideways and his car rolled to a stop, a front tire nudging the curb and, then, gently overriding it.

Some lights hung in front of his eyes. The bright colored bulbs drooped downward in the darkness: red, green, yellow, blue. The pattern repeated. The way that the colors followed one another in a predictable order – red, green, yellow, blue – reminded him of the rote cries of the plastic cardinal. Icy sweat bathed Herman’s cheeks and forehead and he was trembling as if half-frozen. Was the car still in gear? Herman reached to touch the gearshift and it was cold as a glacier. He supposed that he was drunk, perhaps, very drunk and that it would not be prudent to remain in the car nestled up against the curb, the right side of the vehicle very noticeably elevated – what if the police were to come? And, yet, he was hypnotized by the colored lights hanging somewhere in space in front of him, the bright predictable succession of colors like a coded message.

He remembered a toboggan run down a steep hill that he wished would never end, then, the jolt against his knees as the toboggan hit bottom and skidded sideways across the frozen pond to embed itself among the snowy cattails. Then, he recalled his exhilaration at the end of his first and only jury trial, his savage joy and relief at the verdict and his resolution that he must never experience these feelings again, they were too potent and all-encompassing and, then, Herman looked down the long and dusty arcade of abstracts that he had read, an endless colonnade that led to this present moment with his car tilted cock-eyed and light, falling snow shimmering in his headlights. Herman remembered the birth of his baby son and, when he first held the child in the radiance of the hospital among glittering surfaces, incubators and stainless steel trays bearing stainless steel instruments, the child’s mouth forming a perfect pink arch as he began to cry in a thin, high-pitched voice that was more like a bird chirping than a human sound. Herman recalled all that disorderly flood of emotion – a fall that he had taken on his basement steps while his son and his friends were seated at a round table drinking beer and how no one had come to assist him, all the boys laughing, then, his first girl-friend, her face obscured by darkness, but her breasts and belly illumined by the dashboard light, lightning striking soundlessly beyond a black lake, a waterfall pouring suavely through crumpled, dark rocks, a campsite on a promontory in the mist, everything soaked by rain, one of his dogs playing in the snow, a cornfield sweltering in the humidity with a coil of road-killed fur and entrails cast onto the side of the road, meteors swarming down between the fixed stars, a foot-race that he had won and for which he was awarded a ribbon, something frightening in a closet and an African mask on the wall that he feared as well – fear, it seemed, had been his constant companion when he was little – and, then, his mother cutting his hair as he sat on the toilet, a Chinese restaurant in a great city clogged with snow during a blizzard with ice falling in lethal sheets from the skyscrapers and the tops of the skyscrapers hidden in the clouds from which the sleet and snow were falling and the great lake torrential and fierce against the jetties and everyone gathered around the dining room table, for once no one crying or sullen, everyone happy even the dog beneath their feet gnawing on a rawhide bone and the breeze trembling in the curtains as it passed through the screen windows – all of these memories not really remembered, but simply present to his mind, vivid and distinct as a column of numbers...yes, these thoughts were integers, numbers, except that they could not be tallied to a sum.

Herman shook the bright string of Christmas tree lights out of his mind. He blinked and thought that his present situation was more than a little perilous. He was probably legally intoxicated and, if the police came, he would be disgraced and, so, he unlatched his seat belt and set foot in the snow beside his car and, then, taking his keys and locking the vehicle behind him, set off along the snowy byways to his home four blocks away. The house was still and its familiar shadows calmed him a bit. He boiled a couple wieners and ate them on toast with catsup and mustard. Then, he went to bed. He expected that the police would sight his car, write down the license number, and, then, perhaps, pay him a visit in the middle of the night, but this did not happen. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and the police were functioning on a skeleton crew and the next morning, bright and clear and, even, a bit warm, Herman walked back to his car and, looking around nervously, got behind the wheel, rocked the vehicle off the curb, and, then, returned home.

At the office, the little red cardinal began to sing without ceasing. When Herman came to work a couple days later, his secretary had set the small scarlet bird next to the keyboard of his computer. On a sheet of yellow pad paper, she had written these words: "Help! Help me! I can’t stop singing." The bird repeated its song insistently, as if demanding something. Herman held the bird upside down but it continued to sing. He put the bird in his desk drawer hoping that darkness would silence the cardinal but the bird continued to cry out lustily. After a few minutes, Herman took the bird and put it in the men’s toilet, poised on the cold, white porcelain of the urinal. From that perch, the bird sang loudly all morning, its melody amplified by the tiles on the floor and wall. Hyde, the silver-tongued advocate, told Herman to throw the bird in the garbage outside. "I can’t do that," Herman replied. "But it is annoying," Hyde said. "It just does the same thing over and over again." He picked up the plastic cardinal as if it were a dead mouse and put it inside the medicine cabinet in the men’s room. Undeterred, the cardinal continued to sing to an old toothbrush, a bottle of expired baby aspirin, and a stick of deodorant.

After lunch, silver-tongued Hyde removed the plastic bird from the medicine cabinet. As if indignant, the bird continued to sing. Hyde carried the cardinal into the basement room where closed files were kept, marched along the shelves packed with numbered red-ropes and folders fat with paper, and came to an ancient filing cabinet at the end of the corridor. The filing cabinet looked as if it had come from some military installation – it was khaki-colored and heavy and its drawers squealed in protest as they were opened. Hyde, the silver-tongued advocate, put the cardinal in the empty top drawer. Then, he closed the drawer tightly and went to his office upstairs. Herman’s secretary, who had followed Hyde into the morgue of dead files, reported the whereabouts of the bird to her boss. At the end of the day, Herman went into the basement room and, brushing by the ranks of closed files, went to the khaki filing cabinet. Cocking his head, he could hear the bird still singing, but there was a note of desperation in its cries and the rat-a-tat-tat tweeting at the end of the cadence had slowed perceptibly. Herman pulled the top file drawer open and saw the bird lying on its side on the cold metal – there was something pathetic about the red cardinal imprisoned in that place. He took the cardinal from the file cabinet and cradled it in the palm of his hand. The bird responded with a half-dozen lusty iterations of its song and, then, the notes soured, lost shape, and the final four tweets decomposed into a sordid, metallic tapping. The bird was clearly dying. Herman didn’t have the heart to witness the cardinal’s demise. He gently set the bird on its side back in the metal file cabinet and went home.

A couple weeks later, Herman went alone to eat at the Chinese buffet. His wife’s sister had been diagnosed with a serious illness and, so, she had returned to Jacksonville to nurse the sick woman. After eating, Herman collapsed in the toilet. Purple fog filled his eyes and, as he fell to the floor, Herman thought that it was fortunate that he had paid in advance for his supper since, now, it would be difficult for him to manage the bill. Hyde came back for the funeral, suntanned from either the Barbados or Belize. Everyone agreed that his eulogy was beautiful although no one could remember what he had said a half-hour later in the church basement where ham sandwiches, potato salad, and jello dessert were served.

One day, Hyde, the silver-tongued barrister, needed a file that had been closed and sent to the basement. His secretary was ill and, so, he went downstairs to retrieve the file. As he was looking for those papers, Hyde heard a faint cry from the filing cabinet at the end of the aisle. He approached the cabinet and slid its top drawer open. The red cardinal rested on its side in the drawer. Someone had made a bed for the bird from crumpled pink and white tissue paper. The bird was silent. Hyde picked it up, shaking the cardinal like a rattle. It made no sounds of any kind. Then, Hyde, the silver-tongued attorney-at-law, carefully set the bird back on its kleenex catafalque and slid the file cabinet drawer shut.