The Boiler

Nicholas Lepre

BIRD

It was summertime and you walked around Misquamicut and ate lobster rolls or fried scallops, your straightened hair blowing in your face as the sun embraced you, like it knew your name. You liked him—really you did. His patience and his strength. The coarse hair on his long arms. The way he smelled, like cedar and cinnamon. You had agreed to take it slow from the get-go, so slow that six weeks had passed, and things never got serious, so slow that you convinced yourself it wouldn’t hurt when you got scared and ran away. You always did.

It was about that time. August was running out of days, and though Jerry seemed sturdy and patient, you couldn’t let him in. You felt guilty, leaving him. You were his first new friend after his wife passed. His words. Some friend.

He walked you to where your car was parked. He talked about his basketball team, the young men he coached, because it was easier than silence. He was proud of them, he was saying. Honored to know them. So maybe he knew you wouldn’t be back. Maybe he had seen through you the entire time. You watched his feet kiss the pavement. He wore the same yogurt-white Nikes every week, the same sneakers he probably wore to practice.

You said goodbye and pretended you’d see him again, and for a second, you tried to think of what you’d tell your daughter when she asked what happened this time. You’d blame it on his sneakers, or you’d blame the distance between Kingston and New London. And then, out of nowhere a bright green spot zipped by and landed near your back tire—a canary.

“That doesn’t belong here,” Jerry said.

“Must be someone’s pet.”

It hopped around the asphalt, like it was searching for a contact lens, and then Jerry said it was going to die outside. He got on his knees to pick it up.

“What if it bites?” you asked.

“It’s so little.” He handed it to you, and you cupped your sticky palms the way you once did to receive Eucharist. It felt soft in your hands and weighed about as much as a car key. You had never held a bird before. He said you had to take it somewhere, animal control or a pet store.

Maybe they could help. Its wings fluttered, and you worried you would drop it. You gave it back to Jerry.

Animal control was closed, and your phone said the closest pet store was twenty minutes deeper into Rhode Island. You wanted to go home, because you thought the more time you spent with him, the worse it would feel to never see him again. He held the bird while you drove. If you were alone, you wouldn’t have picked it up or taken it with you. You were a coward—you would feel guilty when you thought of it later, but you would have left it to die. Because what if you took it home and it survived a day or two? What if you built your life once more around something temporary? Of course Jerry picked up the bird—he had courage and principles. That’s how you knew he’d never quit, even when things got hard. That he’d never abandon you.

The shopkeeper didn’t want the bird. It was male, he confirmed, and it was probably sick. He told you to get out before it infected his animals.

“Do you know anyone who could take him?” Jerry asked.

“You wish,” he said, with the impatience of a toddler. “You can take him to a clinic, but he’ll probably die before morning anyway.”

So Jerry asked you to take him to his place in Kingston.

“What about your car?”

“Aaron can give me a ride to Westerly tomorrow,” he said. He bought a plastic cage for $27 and you drove to his place, while he read a $16 book about caring for birds.

“We can put a sheet over his cage tonight when he goes to sleep.”

“I’m just gonna drop you off,” you said.

He read aloud from the book. Facts and information. He said that canaries like music.

“What kind of music?”

“Collaborative songwriting. The Eagles, The Yardbirds, stuff like that.”

“Collaborative songwriting,” you said and shook your head.

When you got to his house, he invited you in for a cup of coffee. You wondered if he knew he was making it harder for both of you, if part of him was so numb that he wanted to test what he could still feel. But that wasn’t him—he just wanted you to stay. One cup, you said, and you got out of the car.

You didn’t consider what it would feel like to walk into his home for the first time, because you never thought you would. It smelled like him, and was as immaculate as his sneakers. Every room was clean, every pillow in place. You asked if he had a housekeeper and he asked, what for? So you knew he did it all by himself now, without his wife. It didn’t feel lived in. It was an extension of her, maybe, and it felt like he was keeping it just how she’d left it, hoping she’d return. Part of you felt out of place, like you didn’t belong in her house, but you knew how badly he wanted you. How beautiful you were in his eyes. He said as much every time you met, he’d go on about a bracelet you were wearing or your dress or the color on your fingernails.

“What should we name him?” he asked.

“He’s gonna die. I don’t know if you should.”

“He needs a name,” he said, “he’s real and he’s here now.” His lips trembled, like a boy in a swimming pool.

“Greenie?” you suggested.

“That’s awful,” he said, gently mocking you, “How about Larry? Larry Bird.”

“Of course,” you said, and he wondered about the temperature. It must have been ninety degrees in the house, but he left the air conditioner off for Larry, even though the book said canaries are comfortable at any temperature above 55 degrees.

Jerry laid a quarter page of the ProJo along the bottom of the cage, and pondered how it would be, raising a bird. Caring for it every day.

He got you a coffee and you sat on the sofa and took quick sips that melted the skin inside your mouth. Jerry talked about what it must have felt like to be Larry, to be so small in such a huge world. Larry sat on the uppermost dowel in the cage, barely moving. Had he tasted things he didn’t know existed? Bits of dried bubblegum on asphalt, crumbs of scones and muffins? Had he perched on buildings taller than trees, looking down on everything from a height he’d never known before?

The date should have ended hours earlier—you should have left Jerry at the Haversham and driven back to New London and invented a reason why it never would have worked out anyway. But you didn’t because of the bird. Because of Larry.

“It would give me something to do,” Jerry said. It was the way he said it—as plain as the truth—that made you really look at him. He had a wide forehead and slicked-back salt and pepper hair that covered a tiny bald spot. A face that reminded you of one of the T-Birds, or an amalgamation of all of them. Kenickie at fifty. He cared about basketball, something you’d never given a second thought to. It was his whole life now. And he was so desperate for companionship that he was talking himself into an impossible future with a canary that you both knew would be dead by morning.

But who were you to judge? You were someone who spent two decades dwelling on what she could have done differently to make an awful man love her. Some people never even have a chance at love, you thought, and here was a chance right now, if you wanted it.

Wheeet-wheeet-wheeet. Wheet-wheet-wheet. Bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht-bht,” Larry sang.

Jerry played something on the stereo. Something old you’d never heard before with acoustic guitar and a whispery voice. He sat back down beside you on the sofa and you put your empty mug down on the end table. The coffee maker hissed in the kitchen as the living room windows made slanted rectangles of fading, orange sunlight on the hardwood floor. And you’ll never know why it happened then—why you decided to stay, why you grabbed his hand, why the space behind your ears tingled, why there was nothing left to fear. Love is all around, you thought, in the warm air, the soft sofa, and the coffee taste on the back of your tongue. Love is the house he’d kept together for no one but himself. Love is a bird using its final breath to sing.

                                                                              # # #


_______________________________________

Nicholas Lepre’s
stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny ReviewAlaska Quarterly ReviewThe Minnesota Review, and elsewhere. Nicholas was a finalist in the 2015 Blue Mesa Review Summer Writing Contest and The Florida Review‘s 2016 Fiction Contest. He recently completed his first book, Pretend You’re Really Here. He lives outside Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and newborn son.