Flight

Baker’s Pick
Matthew Purdy


1.

The man with a birdcage for a chest wakes up. He flings off the quilt and the bird inside the cage begins to chirp. It is a sparrow, small and chubby and cautiously curious about its surroundings. Its chirping is tentative, though it grows in volume and confidence as the man pulls aside the curtains and stands surveying the parking lot six stories below.

“You want to leave today,” the man says to his reflection in the glass, “don’t you?”

The bird chirps.

 

2.

The man gets dressed and goes to work. By now, his co-workers don’t mind the periodic chirping from beneath his undershirt, dress shirt and sportcoat. The office is filled with light music, anyway. Between this and the layers of clothing that stand between the bird and the outside world, hardly anyone hears the bird at all. The bird doesn’t seem to mind.

 

3.

One day when he was thirteen, as he was walking home from the bus stop after school, the bird flew into the cage. He left his door flapping open a lot in those days. He keeps it shut all the time now, and it’s been there ever since.

 

4.

At lunch, the man sits outside on a bench, eating a sandwich. He loosens his tie and drops a few crumbs down his shirt. He hears the crumbs tap softly at the bottom of the cage, then hears the bird scamper after the crumbs. This is a daily pleasure for him, and, he imagines, for the bird too. But he knows the bird would leave if he let it.

“There’s nowhere you really want to go,” he’d told it just the night before, when the bird was chirping more forcefully than usual. Its voice was growing hoarse, and its chirp sounded like the rusted hinges of an unused gate. “Where would you even go?” the man persisted. “You don’t have any family. All you have is me.”

The man checks his watch. He adjusts his tie before returning inside.

 

5.

After work, the man goes out to a restaurant with some of his coworkers. They sit at a large round table in the corner. The music is loud and the air is filled with smoke, but it’s margarita night, so the man feels agreeably hazy. After the second round, Nate, the office joker, leans toward the man and says, “Can I touch your bird?”

All conversation stops, and a nervous, anticipatory lull descends on the table. Everyone looks at the man and then, when he doesn’t say anything, at Nate.

“Come on,” Nate says.

The man begins to unbutton his shirt. Lily, one of the receptionists, smacks Nate in the chest. “Don’t make him take his damn clothes off,” she says, and the tension lifts. Still, the man laughs uneasily, and he gestures to the waitress to bring another round.

 

6.

The night draws on, and the man grows quiet. Around him his coworkers twitter and chirp, but his attention flits around the room, finally lighting on the shoulder of a tall blonde woman. She doesn’t look like she’s enjoying herself either. And there’s something… He hears his bird begin to chirp.

The man excuses himself and makes his way to the bar. She tells the bartender she wants to tab out as he touches her forearm.

“Hi,” he says. Though he has never met her before, there is a look of recognition on her face.

 

7.

Hours later, they are sitting naked on her bed, holding hands, their birds cheeping with delight.

“I’m not alone,” she whispers. “I knew I couldn’t be. But it seemed like I was.”

“Me too.” This is the first time the man has found anyone else with his condition, too. His longest relationship was a month, a woman he met online last year. Incredibly, she said she didn’t mind the bird; she said it was cute. He knew she secretly did, though, and after a while he stopped answering her calls.

She reaches out and runs a finger along one of the brass strands of his cage. Then she whisks her hand across his cage, producing a harp-like sound that reverberates for several seconds. He laughs; he didn’t think he was capable of such music.

 

8.

It’s their fourth date when they decide to exchange birds. They sit in her living room, facing one another. They reach into their own cages, coaxing their birds onto their fingers. First he places his bird in her cage, then she in his. The ceremony of it all is very exciting.

When they’ve finished, they stare a moment at their now-displaced birds. He had never noticed the Zorro-like mask around his bird’s eyes, or the white speckles down its back. He smiles as it cocks its head to the side and chirps, regarding its new surroundings with optimistic confusion.

He leans forward and kisses the woman, and their cages clang like church bells.

 

9.

It’s not that her bird is annoying; it’s just unfamiliar. That’s what he tells himself, at least. But he does find her bird annoying. The rhythm of its chirping is completely different from his bird’s.

His bird’s average chirp goes like this: chirpchirp CHIRP chirp chirp.

Her bird’s average chirp goes like this: CHIRP CHIRP chirpchirp chirp CHIRP.

It gives him a strange, rootless unease. He hardly sleeps now. All day at work he stifles yawns.

After a week, he asks her if she wants to take both birds for a while. She seems a little hurt.

“I’m just thinking,” he says, taking her hand, “it might be better for them to get to know one another.”

“She’s not giving you trouble,” the woman says.

“I think they’ll get along great,” he says.

 

10.

That first night he relishes the quiet. It’s like a fire, and he curls toward its warmth.

But by morning, the unease he had felt with her bird has begun souring into outright dread. He stays inside and eats a yogurt for lunch. After work he goes right home and watches television until he falls asleep.

By the weekend he asks the woman if he can have his bird back. He tells her this on the phone, and he can hear her voice tremble as she says, “Can I see you?”

He spends a few minutes cleaning his apartment, then sits on his couch and waits for the buzzer. It’s mid-afternoon, when he would usually call to find out her plans for that night. But once he answers the door and sees her face he knows he’ll be spending tonight alone.

She reaches under her shirt and hands him his bird. He doesn’t thank her as he takes it from her. He just nods. She nods back. Then she leaves.

 

11.

He goes to bed early that night, lulled by the bird’s familiar songs. He dreams of deserts, stretching without interruption into a barren forever.

pencil

“My work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Iron Horse Literary Review, the Mid-American Review, One Story, and Best New American Voices 2005, guest edited by Francine Prose. I am the recipient of a 2003 AWP Intro Journals Award. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.” E-mail: matthewjpurdy[at]hotmail.com