fiction | Steven Amsterdam

OVERLAND 192
spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


NOTHING SURPRISES


Ben spends half the afternoon and evening trying to get a sparrow out of the apartment. It’s more than hot enough for air conditioning, but he usually props a window up to keep the air fresh, which is how the bird gets in in the first place.

A moment before Janelle slips her key in the front door, the sparrow, as if sensing her nearness, decides that the available fun has already been sucked from the situation. In its haste to find a way out, the bird craps across the muslin curtains – lingerie-white, Ben’s choice (now regretted as it was bought with Janelle’s money; all of it is her money). The bird swoops out to freedom and waits for a moment on the fire escape for a last look at the misshapen and mystified man now sticking his head out of the window. There’s a tiny smile in the sparrow’s eyes and Ben thinks, It’s like he’s delighted.

Then Janelle is inside. It’s eight-thirty; she’s expecting dinner and a sleeping toddler. Instead, there’s no sign of food and the apartment looks ransacked. The chase has left its mark on every surface. A much-loved fruit bowl, a wedding present, is in five pieces on the kitchen floor. No fruit is visible, just the shards, making it clear that the shopping hasn’t been done. She looks at Ben’s track pants, the ones he lives in, and wonders if he even raised a sweat chasing the bird.

And Ivan is not sleeping, he’s shrieking – at top volume – in his room, but safe from the excitement, safe from the dismal conversation they are about to have. The fact of the sparrow carries no weight with Janelle at all. Why should the window even be open today? If she brings it up, Ben will say that this could have happened on any day in any other season when one opens a window. But it happened today, Janelle would say, and then hate herself for slapping him with adolescent logic. She can always keep her mouth shut and then no discussion would be needed at all. There, she feels relief already: they’ll skip that one and move on to figuring out what’s for dinner so they can at least put Ivan to bed.

But Ben’s the one who hangs onto it, desperately recounting the lame strategies he wasted hours on, trying to shoo the bird out with broom, with bucket, with album cover – each of which the bird seemed to comprehend with a superior intelligence and respond to with an even more superior attitude. It would wait him out in some hidden nook, then race across the room, studiously avoiding all the open windows, to find another as yet unwrecked corner of the small apartment. The point, which he is not trying to make at all but does, is the sparrow won.

Janelle retrieves and calms a red and sweaty Ivan, rocking him against her shoulder as he slowly wheezes towards quiet. She still holds her keys in one hand, as if retaining the right to simply leave and find a different home and husband for the night. Ivan needs a new nappy. Ben needs a new shirt. She scans the remains of their living room, a deep scratch on the glass dining room table, a piece of elbow pasta tangled in her son’s hair, the hapless expression on her husband. Then she thinks, and can’t help but say out loud, ‘It’s so ridiculously emblematic.’

*

The next morning is spent trying to get Janelle’s favourite and ruined Naugahyde cushion to a store in the West Village. On the phone, the man tells Ben that a patch is possible. Despite Ivan’s refusal to sit still in his stroller and his current penchant for train tantrums, the prospect of being able to present an affordable solution to Janelle remains paramount. Ivan struggles like a demon for the ride in front of an unimpressed mid-morning commuter audience.

The store specialises in fetish gear and the man in the leather policeman’s hat takes one look at the heirloom cushion and says, ‘Not that Naugahyde. I don’t have a needle.’ Ben puts the cushion in the stroller and ushers Ivan out to the street. He manages to apply a dab of sunblock to the boy’s little cheeks and then lets Ivan lead the way slowly uptown along the waterfront. Ivan stops every few steps to point out a passing oddity or pick up a cigarette butt. On the way, he somehow prises open the sippy cup he’s been carrying all morning and tosses grape juice onto the cushion’s wound. Ben wipes it off without losing his temper, even as the scratch turns a permanent purple. From now on, the cushion can simply be turned over.

Negotiating the boy through a steady current of barely-dressed runners and bikers, Ben feels more encumbered than he’s ever felt before. He idly pinches his stomach and realises he is more loaded down. He’s weighed by Ivan wandering in all directions, by the foolishness of wheeling a stained cushion around, and by his own flab. Would things be that much different if he had a job? In her mind, maybe.

For lunch, he gives up on getting Ivan to eat anything nutritious and sits on a bench, letting the boy feed him peeled baby carrots one by one from a plastic container. Then Ben lets him eat a completely unearned vanilla pudding.

They watch a hovering group of gulls dip and rise and dip just above the river, gently rocking like the water beneath them. Ben tries to teach Ivan, who can’t say much, the word for mobile. He describes it as different pieces of art on different branches, like a tree, but balancing each other and hanging from the ceiling, and staying still or spinning, depending on the breeze. Ivan repeats the word mobile back, but doesn’t understand. He hands the cushion to his father as he climbs into the stroller. He kicks his legs for them to go.

Ben pushes on to the park, commending himself for saving the cost of the train. He keeps their weekly budget low, which she gives him no credit for at all. He heads to a favourite bench in a musty corner, squared by a hill with low piles of climbable rocks on either side and a solitary tree overhead – all seemingly arranged for Ivan’s enjoyment.

But the boy is in the shade, sleeping happily now and not about to climb anything. He looks chunky too, from a steady diet of Cheerios and pasta and inaction. For their son’s fat Janelle can justly blame Ben’s genes. He may already be doomed to a lifetime of slept-through opportunities and unhealthy sloth. Ben considers waking him and forcing exercise so as to condition him against all this later disappointment, but a bird interrupts.

A large, brown, hawk-like creature walks sternly across the patchy grass and stakes out the highest rock, all the time keeping a curious gaze on the man and the boy. Ben has read about falcons taking up residence here and he studies the serious expression, the imposing beak. The bird opens out his wings slowly, purposefully, and with a push launches himself upward, leaping to a high branch on the tree above. The branch sways from the new weight, the bird pauses there for a moment, keeps its wings spread, and demonstrates the same move again. The falcon glances down at Ben before pushing up into the sky, as if to say, See? It’s possible.

Surely this makes up for the insolence of the sparrow.

Ben stands and climbs up to the falcon’s first spot on the rock. Panting from the ten steps up the slope, he holds his arms out to the sun. King of the city, top of the world – utterly ridiculous, but no-one is looking. He sways back and forth on his ankles and hops up a little. The jump feels higher than the push that caused it. He concentrates, hops again, with more force, and goes up, staying there for what feels like a long moment. It is so strangely high that he flexes his arms behind him to steer back down to the flat rock. Steer?

He jumps with all of his power now and his body meets the wind in a perfect embrace. He is wrapped in it and slides up in a graceful curve, almost as high as the first branch of the tree. His arms seem to know where to go. Now he lets himself come down slowly, next to the stroller. Ivan is still sleeping with a worried scowl. Poor kid. Ben relaxes his knees, raises his arms over his head like a conductor before a crescendo, and soars up.

He is instantly above the tree, trying to balance the wind so he can get his bearings. Holding still feels like drowning. He remembers the gulls they saw earlier and admires them for making it look effortless. There’s more control when he’s in motion so he swoops up and then down, circling his corner of the park in little jags, keeping watch on his son and slowly recognising the city.

There is at first a surprising dullness to the view. From above, people and trees are reduced to lumpy circles. Winding paths cross and combine and join into the lines of a clear plan. Cars, in all their costly variations, become rectangles. The roof of a cafe, just a drab square of tar paper from here, tells nothing of its grandeur. It’s like seeing a beautiful painting from the side.

But that’s only when he looks down. The buildings that stand along the edge of the park have all been carved, corniced and gargoyled for optimum tenth-floor viewing. He swoops up and suddenly the ragged skyline belongs entirely to him. If he pushes up a bit more, he can see rivers and more city sprawl beyond that. Birds fly by in the distance on the same plane as Ben, apparently not noticing the view and not noticing him. Light is a few shades brighter up here and, as a new inhabitant, he perceives a different dimension to it: there’s sky beneath him now, the sky is no longer limited to up.

Ivan stretches in the stroller, knocking his sippy cup to the ground. The sound climbs through the wind to Ben. Before his son can even start to cry, Ben dives back down towards the bench, inventing a flourish as he spirals once around the tree before landing. Ivan watches curiously as his father lowers into view. With a smile, Ben picks up the cup and tucks it back into his son’s sticky hands. The boy feels himself being whisked out of the park before he even has a chance to wonder why he hasn’t been taken out of the stroller to play.

*

Ben makes one of Janelle’s favourite dinners and she expresses thanks. He’s glad she’s in an appreciative mood. He’ll show her what he can do before dinner is over.

She watches him feed Ivan. A spoonful of peas drop down the boy’s bib, but Ben isn’t fast enough to catch them. ‘Watch -‘ she stops herself, but it’s already too late – the tone has made an appearance. His response is to ignore the peas for now. He’ll get them later. She stares at them under the highchair, waiting to be stepped on. She doesn’t understand him at all.

She shifts brightly, ‘And what else happened today?’

His mind goes blank. He pauses: where to begin? As far as she’s concerned, the pause is proof that he has no answer. It doesn’t matter anyway, she knows exactly what she wants to say.

‘It seems bizarre to me, not being able to account for a day. I know what I did today. I went to work. Have you sent out one letter this week?’ His dim connections to his abandoned career as a lab researcher – Janelle always politely pretended it held more promise than it did – have continued to wither as he’s sought increasingly peripheral jobs. These days a twenty-year-old secretarial student would be more reliable, affordable and attractive; one from just outside of Mumbai would be ideal. The letters he’d be sending out these days are for cleaning positions. They would, as Janelle never tired of pointing out, still be jobs, as if work were an end in itself. He keeps their expenses low by cooking, by taking care of Ivan, but somehow that doesn’t count. Miraculously, she’s kept herself from asking for nearly a month: ‘What happens to your time?’ The steady upward march of her voice indicate an argument before he’s even opened his mouth. ‘Could you pretend to try?’

Ivan takes this moment to toss a handful of peas at his mother, then looks around for approval. Ben laughs, if only for the small relief.

‘Please Ben. Don’t make me into this person.’

He says nothing.

Janelle exhales and stands to bring her dish to the kitchen, but he tells her, ‘Leave it.’

In bed, Ben dreams about the moon landing. He wakes up and it’s still dark, except for Janelle’s light. He doesn’t remember details – just the footage of the first slow step onto the surface.

Janelle is reading under the dome of her night light. She doesn’t look in his direction, but vaguely monitors him as he turns over. She’s reading a book about how to find perfect harmony in the every day. She’s making headway and remembers why she is next to him. Ben is still, for better or worse, her best friend; he can make her laugh; he’s the smartest person she knows; he reads the newspaper and has opinions; he’s patient with her; he’s a good father. She plays the list of his attributes in her head and that calms her.

Ben lies back and considers the ceiling. He imagines perfect harmony spinning over their bed, always out of reach. It’s not just them, it’s above every sleeping couple, every night. He looks past Janelle’s book to the open bedroom door that lets them share their air conditioning with Ivan across the hall. He worries that the boy will inhale their marriage as he sleeps.

When Janelle hears Ben snoring again, she looks at his dreaming face and wonders what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.

*

The next day Ben hires a sitter to look after Ivan.

He tries it again from a different rock and it still works. At first he worries some official entity will shoot him down, but he quickly figures out how to punctuate his meanderings with vertical swoops, so that his shape remains incomprehensible to anyone below. He also learns how to go faster – as if he were running from one spot to the next. But there’s no exhaustion up here. The world is quiet; gravity is less demanding; no-one wants his share of the footpath. He feels confident with his swoops and turns and approaches. He understands how air works.

By the afternoon, though, he’s bored with the tourist spots and checking on Ivan and the sitter. He starts to go farther, exploring private courtyards and hidden alleys where he can see what people do when they think they’re not being watched. Unsurprisingly, they cry to themselves, they have sex, they mug each other and shoot up – all of which he finds profoundly moving and wasted on the birds. This is the way the city was meant to be seen. He imagines he has as much love for the variety of it all as Whitman did. And, of course, he’ll report suffering to the proper authorities. He’ll make a documentary about the real workings of the streets. He’ll keep a blog.

What about Janelle? There’s got to be a way to make this profitable, without selling himself as a freak. With more control than a helicopter, he can become a traffic reporter. No. For now, he will keep wandering.

To test the uniqueness of his powers, he stops at a dock and offers to teach three stoned drag queens how they might really punch up their acts. He chooses them so that if he ends up in the water they’ll only have a good laugh and not treat him like a fool. If he teaches them his secret, they will become his first disciples, and three flying drag queens could only be a boon to the community: Imagine the tourism department’s glee!

It’s a slow day and they’re more than happy for the diversion that this deranged straight guy seems eager to provide. Afraid of showing too much at once, he starts with the basic jump manoeuvres, allowing himself only the slightest excess in his leap. In their heels they can barely get off the ground. He allows himself a little more height and a little more time off the ground. The men aren’t stunned – they think it’s neat. They try barefoot, but come up only as high as mortals. It must just be him. They apologise for their weakness, laugh, thank him for playing, and offer him a hit of what they’re smoking, which he declines. Then he walks the length of the dock, waiting till they’ve forgotten him before taking off above the waterfront.

Near the top end of the city, he notices two women in orange sunhats, one of them in a wheelchair, lingering in a garbage lane behind a housing project. Ben lands in a corner of the alley just beyond their view and walks over and finds them in a silent standoff with each other.

‘Do you need any help?’

They look especially fragile in the heat. They seem to have been waiting for his arrival for years. They’re sisters.

‘Yes, please,’ the one in the wheelchair says. ‘With our nurse. The woman who helps us lives up there,’ she explains, pointing to a fourth-floor window. ‘She’s not exactly youthful herself, she’s become forgetful -‘

The standing one interrupts, ‘Leave this poor man alone.’

Her sister continues, ‘- so we’ve made clear overtures that we would care for her. And this morning she was finally receptive. We told her we were coming, she said yes, but when we buzzed – nothing. So we’re here trying to think. I know it’s absurd, but if she looked down and only saw our faces …’

The standing one looks weary. ‘Our faces are not going to resolve any situation.’

‘May I?’ Ben reaches into the seat and scoops up the sitting woman in one arm. He moves with such confidence that neither woman protests. Light, and used to be being picked up, she clasps her arms around his neck and lets herself be held. With his other arm stretched out, he catches the little bit of wind and, with some struggle, manages to go slowly upwards. She looks at little drops of sweat by his hairline and stares at his face with an enthusiastic smile, ‘Imagine. A big fat guy like you.’

As they hover by the window, he sees the nurse, standing in the middle of her dishevelled living room, looking around as if she had just found herself there.

His passenger reaches forward and knocks on the window. ‘Darla, it’s me! Open up!’

Darla – her red sweater buttoned wrong, sparse white hair flat on her head – comes to the window and throws it open.

‘Hello, hello!’ Darla welcomes her friend as Ben passes his passenger over the sill and into the apartment. Darla’s lifted her a thousand times and eases the woman onto a folding chair by the radiator. The woman takes off her sunhat and massages her scalp.

‘We were downstairs, desperate about you, when this nice man came by and gave me a lift. What do we think about that?’

‘It’s gotten so strange here that nothing surprises. Nothing surprises at all.’

‘Yes, that’s the way the world becomes, I hear. Now, Darla, would you give me your keys?’

Without a question, Darla hands them over and the woman instantly tosses them to Ben, who has been lingering outside the window, watching.

‘Here, bring these to my sister so she can come up. We’re all fine now.’ She tips her head forward in thanks as he drops below the window.

When he lands in front of the sister, the only one who is awestruck by what’s happened, she tells him, ‘I’ve never seen anything like you.’ He puts the keys in her hand. She doesn’t know what else to do so she hugs him. ‘We’re all fine now,’ she tells him. Hearing the phrase repeated makes him wonder if the women might be twins. It also makes him wonder if the prediction includes Janelle and Ivan too, if somehow this meeting is a promise of some kind of turnaround for everyone everywhere. She tries to slip him a fifty for his troubles, but he refuses.

*

He continues to help wherever he can.

He brings the depressed in from ledges; he connects lost children to parents; he retrieves cats and Frisbees from high places. When he brings water to an old man changing a tyre by the side of the highway in the hottest part of the afternoon, Ben hears himself being called a hero for the first time in his life. Another day he hears the word ‘saviour’.

In the second week, he admits to being slightly disappointed that he has read no report of his adventures in the press. Publicity itself holds no appeal to him, but it might be a nice way to explain to Janelle what happens to his days.

He sets out to get noticed. The goal is small items, one-paragraph reports in the paper, preferably with a photograph. He buys GQ, gets a haircut and sculpts his sideburns so he’ll be described as stylish. He wears his most distinctive clothes, his old interview suit.

He gets more audacious in his excursions now, showing up to assist at fires and building collapses. Someone or something always needs to be retrieved. He chooses larger groups, scanning for people with cameras, sometimes even posing like an angel, with his arms spread open as he lands. The ones who see this inevitably flock to him, ask him questions. He answers with a tone that says I can’t bother with the details now, there’s work to be done. As ever they are amazed and appreciative, but to his bewilderment they tell no-one. Who would believe?

At home, Janelle appreciates his new personal fastidiousness, but wishes it would extend to the rest of the house. Ivan is happier, largely because the sitter lets him play all day in the sandbox while she sits on a bench breaking up and reuniting with an inconsiderate boyfriend over the phone. The most tangible change is that Ben has started to lose weight. One day Janelle comments on it. He immediately tells her he’s been doing a lot of walking.

As soon as he says it, he worries that he might be telling the truth.

*

Now he must make sure that he is not crazy.

He straps his son to his chest so the boy, wiggling as always, faces forward and they head to the park. To streamline his shape for the long journey, he finds a shady spot and stows his shoes and socks under a bush. He puts on his Ray-Ban goggles, rocks back and forth and takes off. Once they’re a few feet from the ground, the boy is hypnotised by what he sees and stops squirming. Ben slowly circles up around the thick trunk of a maple, keeping one unnecessary hand on his son until he has fully integrated the effect of the added load, then he puts both arms straight out and extends his back so he can take them up above the trees and over the streets to the river.

Above the water, Ben finds the gust he expected and turns into it. It feels like he’s swimming up a narrow, endless staircase until he reaches a landing that can support them but still be navigated.

He stretches his feet out behind him like a rudder, clasps his hands together, tucks his head between his arms and just goes.

Ivan holds his arms out too. He wants to clap at everything he sees but knows he must keep his arms up to help his father. When Ben’s body tilts or dips, the boy doesn’t fight: he moves with it. Ivan can’t understand why he’s never been taken here before. They brush against a cloud and Ivan shakes his head to get the moisture off his face. They pass a flock of geese and he wants to wave, but he must keep his body in line with his father’s. Ivan gulps for more of the air. He’s so excited he doesn’t even feel the cold. This is what he wants to do until bedtime. And then he wants to sleep up here. A steady strand of dribble slides from his amazed mouth. He tries to turn his head to look at his father but it’s a struggle just to keep his eyes open in the wind.

From above, Ben easily finds their destination. He follows the highway to the bridge to the roundabout turn-off. It forks left near the reservoir, and then comes down to smaller roads. There are no missed exits when you travel like this – no blind turns, no traffic. He hasn’t been out this way in three years, but he has no doubts as he goes. In fact, he sees the roof of the grand brick-red cupola sticking out of the hillside when he’s still a good twenty miles away. He pushes on through the wind with confidence. From above, the unity of all places is clear – this highway connects to that road, this forest tilts away from that forest in a slightly softer green. You can see exactly where you’ve been and where you’re going.

As he circles the old hotel, the broad porch seems to be the logical place to land, but guests are sitting on rockers, staring wistfully out at the lawn, and at least one navy-shirted staff member is visible. This is not the place for a dramatic entrance. Ben is frustrated. Birds can do what they want without anyone asking them questions.

The lawn around the hotel is similarly dotted with patrons. There’s a croquet game going on and people playing golf near a stream. Ben finds a gap in a nearby thicket and lands away from their view. He unharnesses Ivan and sets him down. The boy falls on the ground in a happy heap. Ivan throws his arms in the air – not to be picked up, but to remember the feeling. He looks up at Ben with drunken awe.

The concierge gives only the faintest nod when the barefoot man leads his son through the panelled lobby towards the stairs. Ivan runs ahead to the second floor balcony. When Ben catches up, the boy is excitedly telling an old man in a seersucker suit, ‘I bird Daddy.’

‘You bird your Daddy?’

Ivan puts his arms out in front of him. The man puts his arms out and flaps them. Ivan nods up at him intently.

Ben sweetly flaps his arms too, smiling at the old man as he leads his son back into the corridor.

‘I bird,’ Ivan shrieks at anyone walking by.

Ben can’t help but correct him: ‘Daddy bird.’

Ivan pouts. ‘I bird.’

‘No. Daddy bird.’

‘Daddy bird?’ Ivan considers it for the length of a hallway until he agrees, ‘Daddy bird.’

As they go around a corner, Ben looks out the window at the farmland on the opposite hill. He points to a door they’re passing and tells Ivan, ‘This is where you were made.’

Ivan looks at his father like he’s just being silly and goes back to chanting, ‘Daddy bird’ in a dozen different tones.

Ben stops in front of a supply closet as a slow-moving older couple meanders by. Once they turn the corner, Ben opens the door and takes what he came for: proof, a bar of soap.

*

That night in the kitchen, Janelle goes to the sink, as per Ben’s request, so he can wash her hands with the soap. Obediently, she keeps her eyes closed, so she won’t see its corn meal colour or read the carved logo. He towel dries each finger.

Ivan watches from her side, practically bursting, ‘Daddy bird!’

‘OK, sweet. Enough.’

He tells her to open her eyes, giving her a guilty smile as he covers the soap with the towel and lets go of her hands.

She holds her palm to her nose and inhales. They used to do games like this, one making the other close their eyes and name the flavours of some food or identify a fragrance. It was always something lovely, a precursor to a gift or a kiss. She sniffs. ‘Clove, a woody smell, sweet but musky.’ She knows she remembers it from somewhere.

He waits for a look of recognition. He gives her a clue: raised eyebrows and a glance at Ivan.

‘Got it now.’ She brightens, laughs. He hands her the soap and turns it over. A kiss on the cheek for Ben. ‘Thank you. It’s a romantic thought. I appreciate it.’

‘There’s more where that came from,’ he tells her, about to tell her everything else.

‘I should hope so. It would be silly for them to mail it out one little bar at a time. Let’s clean up.’

‘No.’ He has to stop her. ‘I got it myself. I went there.’

‘Upstate? When?’

‘This morning. Just wait one second. I think you’ll be happy. Our life is about to change.’

Ben slides a chair out of the way so he can get to the window.

‘Daddy bird!’

‘Why does he keep saying that? Did you teach him that?’

‘No.’

‘Daddy teached.’

He suddenly realises that he did and, even with the soap, wonders if it’s true. He doesn’t slow down, though, and collapses the safety bars.

‘Stop it. I don’t want Ivan seeing how to do that.’

Ben opens the window and sticks his face into a warm breeze.

Janelle suddenly sees the wild look in his eye and understands. She becomes frantic, holding onto his leg as he climbs out onto the fire escape. ‘Please! Ben!’

‘You have to let go of me.’

‘I won’t! Come back in here! You can’t leave Ivan and me like this!’

‘What are you talking about?’

His bewilderment stops her. She relaxes her grip for a moment and as soon as she does, he leaps up to the metal ledge and she screams.

‘Daddy bird!’

And Ben is airborne.

The sun has set and the focus is on the golden glow of the street lights. The world is humming and dripping with air conditioning. People hurry home with their take-away, not looking up as usual. At the height of the fifth floor, right in front of the fire escape, Ben hovers, his shoulders moving imperceptibly, keeping him perfectly in place.

He grins at his wife. ‘So? What do you think?’ He sways a little as the wind picks up.

Janelle is flushed, not blinking. She isn’t thinking anything. All she can say is, ‘Ben.’

She’s seen it now. It’s real. With an exaggerated shrug, he shoots himself higher, to the floor above. For a moment, only his feet are visible, but then he arches back, around and down, doing two flawless loops for his wife. He opens up in grand sweeps now, lifting higher and then dropping lower, from one end of the street to the other, so there can be no doubt. The wind, he thinks, is at my back.

Janelle hugs Ivan to her chest as the boy reaches up to the sky.

‘Daddy bird!’

Ben rides a breeze back to the fire escape with his arms spread wide, back to the only open window on the block, back to his family.

© Steven Amsterdam
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 26-33

 

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