Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Fiction Gift For You

     [Two bits of news: First, my fiction colleague Margaret Ball has agreed to become a Liberty’s Torch Co-Contributor. Second, she’s penned an affecting, subtly beautiful short story, highly appropriate for our time, which appears below. It first appeared at The Mad Genius Club on April 16, 2020. — FWP]

And The Dove Came

     “One good thing,” Ben had said that morning as she dressed for her very first day at the office in a long, long time.
     “The lockdown being lifted?”
     “That’s so obvious, nobody with any sense would even mention it!” he snapped. “No, the rats. And the pigeons.”
     Sarah bit her lip. During the last weeks of confinement in their apartment, she’d learned not to snap back when Ben was harsh or impatient. She had a feeling he was doing the same for her. “What about rats and pigeons?” It seemed an unlikely pairing.
     “They’re gone!” Ben announced triumphantly. “It was on the news while I was shaving this morning. Well, think about it. No restaurants open, no restaurant garbage going into dumpsters, nothing for vermin to eat. Ergo, no rats – and no pigeon poop in Times Square! They’re gone, gone, gone! Except,” he finished with a scowl, “for Mrs. Kowalski’s pet pigeon.”
     “She calls it a dove,” Sarah said automatically. Their landlady had lectured her often enough on the topic. She got very upset if anybody implied her beloved Anyka with her soft blue plumage was nothing but a common street pigeon.
     “Same thing, no matter what she says. Anyway,” he said, lightening up a bit, “with no other pigeons around, it couldn’t breed even if it did get out of that silly cage.” The palatial wicker construction used up a sizeable chunk of Mrs. Kowalski’s first-floor apartment. But why should Ben care? It wasn’t as though the cage got in his way, or as if he had to waste time feeding and cleaning up after Anyka.
     Echoes of the conversation swirled through Sarah’s head as she made her way to the office. She’d been holding on for this day, when she would be free to get out of the apartment and talk to other people and see something besides the view of a brick wall from the livingroom window. Surely they wouldn’t continue to get on each others’ nerves now? Oh well, it wasn’t that different for Ben; as an ER nurse, he’d been among the few people with essential jobs who were allowed to keep going to work during the lockdown. Ergo, if there was any snappishness going around, it was probably coming from her. Sarah took a deep breath and prepared to enjoy the commute to work as if it were a theme park ride.
     Except… theme parks weren’t known for pushing, shoving, sotto voce insults and a general, simmering sense of violence just about to break out. The air of tension spoiled Sarah’s subway ride and even the two-block walk from the exit to her office building.
     Once in the office, she took another deep breath. Okay, restart. This was her first day outside the apartment in weeks and she wasn’t going to let an edgy morning or a tense commute ruin it for her. People were still suffering from the weeks of confinement, that was all. After a day – oh, maybe a couple of days – of fresh air and sunshine and getting to hang out with friends again, the city would be in the celebratory mood that their new freedom demanded.
     There was little enough evidence of that mood in the meeting that used up most of her day. Her colleagues seemed like a bunch of fractious five-year-olds, quarreling over supplies and quibbling over the wording of every suggestion. How to announce the reopening of the business, how to contact their clients and what to say - no statement was so anodyne that it escaped criticism. And Sarah wasn’t immune; she got disgracefully caught up in what would doubtless go down in office history as The Great Semicolon Struggle.
     By the end of the day she was as exhausted as though she’d actually been riding herd on a group of quarrelsome preschoolers. Armed preschoolers. And it was no better on the streets. The golden sunshine of late afternoon showed scowling faces, idiots pushing people out of their way and other idiots taking offense. The steps at the subway entrance were blocked by a brawl that seemed to be escalating all too quickly from shouts and curses to screams and blows; Sarah decided that an hour’s walk was preferable to being trapped underground with angry people.
     Ben’s hours of work changed almost daily, but today he had left at the same time as Sarah and was already home by the time she dragged herself in at the front door, had a brief and upsetting exchange with Mrs. Kowalski and finally made her way up the steep stairs to their second-floor apartment. He must have been home for some time; the apartment was full of smoke.
     It was probably not a good time to mention that he’d been doing so well at giving up smoking.
     “Short shift today,” he announced before she’d closed the door behind her. “Got sent home early. Have to go back in six hours. I’m going to try and get some sleep, for God’s sake don’t clump around the place dropping things and keeping me awake.”
     “What’s happening?” Sarah asked.
     Ben snorted. “What’s not happening! As soon as you let New Yorkers out of their apartments, it seems, they start trying to kill each other. We’ve treated everything from shiners and fat lips to knife wounds and broken bones, and it’s only getting worse. That’s why they’re switching me to the graveyard shift for tonight, it’s the worst understaffed.”
     Sarah sank down on the couch. Her legs ached from the long walk home. “I… thought things would be better when people could get out again.”
     “They should be better,” Ben agreed. “I don’t know. Maybe the change was too fast for people to process it. In a couple of days…”
     He sat down beside Sarah and took her hand.
     “Well, Mrs. Kowalski’s coffee group started up again with no problems,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how much gossip a bunch of sweet old ladies can generate during a lockdown. They seem to have adapted wonderfully. Instead of watching their neighbors go in and out and making up stories about what everybody’s up to, they’re poking into their children’s and grandchildren’s smart phones and finding plenty to be indignant about – and having a fine time sharing their discoveries! She wanted to tell me all the new scandals. I thought I’d never get away from her!” In fact she hadn’t escaped without paying a price that Ben wasn’t going to be happy about. Perhaps she’d soften him up first by telling him about Tony Serafino and Mrs. Kowalski’s granddaughter Kitty and their Zoom-bombed flirtation – it was really a funny example of twenty-first century problems…
     Or perhaps not. Ben volunteered to heat up the pasta arrabiata he’d brought home from Domenico’s, he had bought a bottle of red wine to go with it, and it seemed a shame to ruin a pleasant meal by bringing up something that he wasn’t going to like. It wouldn’t happen until the end of the week anyway, and by that time life would be back to normal and they would be through tiptoeing around each other.
     Except it was worse the next day, and the day after that. “It doesn’t feel like the same city any more,” Sarah mourned on the day when the boss had instructed her to hire a car to get to and from work because the streets and the subway were daily more dangerous. What was happening to them all? Had the weeks in lockdown made everybody forget the basic rules for living on a seriously overcrowded island? You didn’t make eye contact; you certainly didn’t greet strangers the way you would have done in her North Carolina home town; if somebody bumped into you on the street you didn’t take offense, but wrote it off as the price of navigating sidewalks filled with people in a hurry. Politely ignoring one another was the first rule of living in the crowded conditions of the city… a rule which seemed now to have been forgotten. The only people who seemed capable of being in the same room without quarreling were Mrs. Kowalski and her kaffeeklatsch buddies, who were meeting every day now as if feeling the need to make up for time lost to the lockdown.
     That night, when she absolutely had to confess her promise to Ben, he came home late, looking white and shaken. “We had thirty today,” he said.
     She didn’t need to ask, thirty what. It wasn’t his job to monitor the babies abandoned inside the two-way hatch at the ER, but as a foundling himself, Ben took every abandonment personally. The hospital had long had a policy of allowing any woman who was overwhelmed by maternity to give up her baby without shame or repercussions. “It was at most one or two a month, before,” he said. He didn’t need to say, before what. “Before” meant only one thing these days.
     Thirty babies abandoned in a single day. “It’s like rats,” Sarah said. “If you keep them in overcrowded conditions they don’t reproduce, or… or they eat their own young.” But why now? After deaths, illnesses, flight to the country, the city was less crowded than it had been in… than it had been, Before.
     And that had been absolutely the wrong thing to say, hadn’t it? Ben whirled and glared at her. His face was white; his eyes looked like burnt-out holes in a white sheet. “Eat their own young? And won’t that be just jolly to look forward to!”
     He could hardly be angrier, and maybe what she had to tell him would distract him from the tragedies he saw every day. “I’ve been meaning to tell you…” she started, shakily, and confessed what was about to happen to them.
     “You promised to do what?
     Well, it had certainly distracted him. “I don’t remember actually promising. But Mrs. Kowalski thinks I did, and our lease is up for renewal next month, and she really does need to go see her daughter Krystyna…”
     “What’s the daughter’s problem and why can’t Mrs. K. telephone her?”
     “Krystyna’s pregnant.”
     “That’s not exactly news!” More than a month Before, they’d heard – everyone in the building had heard, no, make that everyone on the block – Mrs. Kowalski’s jubilation that her youngest daughter, the one in New Jersey, was finally going to produce a new grandchild to be spoiled and adored. Krystyna had come into the city to make the announcement, and she’d been almost as happy as her mother.
     “And now she says she doesn’t want the baby, that there’s no room for babies here with everybody jammed together.”
     “Another one,” Ben said, his voice dull. “Another one. What’s happening to these women, Sarah?”
     Sarah shook her head. She had her own doubts about bringing a child into a world which had swung from an epidemic of disease into one of anger. But it hadn’t become an issue for her and Ben – and in any case, things always seemed brighter after she stopped by Mrs. Kowalski’s apartment, where she laughed over the ridiculous problems the grandchildren got into, stroked Anyka’s soft blue plumage, and usually ate a cookie that she really didn’t need.
     “So you see, I couldn’t turn her down. She needs to go to Krystyna. She needs somebody to look after Anyka while she’s gone. And…”
     “And we,” Ben finished with a tight-lipped mockery of a smile, “need to be on good terms with the landlady. But I don’t see why we have to clutter up our own living room with the Wicker Palace. Can’t you just stop by Mrs. K’s apartment every day to feed and water the blasted bird?”
     “She’s afraid Anyka will get lonely.”
     “Oh, for –” Ben bit off his explosive retort. With a visible effort he relaxed his clenched hands and said, “You’d better let me come down with you and collect the damn pigeon. You’ll never maneuver that cage past the bend in the stairs.”
     “No, I don’t think I could,” Sarah said. Ben was so sweet! Even after his horrible day, he was still keeping a lid on his temper and even offering to help her to do something he was going to hate.
     Neither of them was noticeably sweet-tempered by the time they got the Wicker Palace around the sharp turn of the staircase and installed it in their own living room. You could barely get around the oversized bird cage and into the dining cubby, and even to create that narrow path they’d had to stack two chairs on top of each other in front of the coat closet. Oh well, it was nearly summer; the bird and its cage would be back where it belonged long before anybody needed a winter coat.
     It hadn’t helped that Mrs. Kowalski had followed them up the stairs, anxiously jabbering instructions for the care of “dear little Anyka,” and forcing Ben to swallow his natural responses to a banged elbow, a scraped shin, and a huge flake of paint chipped off the doorpost. His lips had narrowed to a thin line and Sarah prayed that Mrs. Kowalski would leave soon; he really needed to let off tension by deploying a string of words that would upset the landlady.
     “She is frightened,” Mrs. Kowalski announced. “Never, never in life does she leave my living room before. And Sarah she knows, but not you, Ben. You must take her on your finger – the windows are closed, yes? Good – so, see, and stroke her neck.”
     Ben said nothing, but his face read, “Anything to get the old bird out of here,” and it wasn’t the softly cooing Anyka he meant. He obediently offered the bird a finger and, when she hopped on, stroked the iridescent blue plumage with his other forefinger. He was forced to move slowly and gently. Watching his face, Sarah saw his expression soften. “There, there, Annie-ka,” he crooned. “You’re okay now, aren’t you?”
     By the time Mrs. Kowalski made her last tearful farewell to the blue dove and left them in peace, Ben’s irritation seemed to have dissipated. “If we had to share living space with a bird,” he said, “at least this is a nice quiet one.”
     Anyka hopped from his finger to his elbow, then to his shoulder, and laid her head against his cheek. “Okay, okay, sweetie,” Ben said, and reluctantly returned the bird to her cage. He filled her seed dish, rinsed and replaced the water bottle, and didn’t even curse the first two times that the gilt scrollwork at the bottom of the cage caught in one of the external pockets of his scrubs.
     “Pigeons,” Sarah thought as she drifted into sleep much later.
     And, “Pigeons,” she breathed when she woke to a golden Saturday morning.
     “You never know, do you?” she said to Ben over their morning coffee.
     “Know what?”
     “How an ecosystem really works. I mean, there are so many moving pieces… we can’t begin to predict what will happen if some of them disappear, can we? Like people suddenly getting crazy in crowds, when they were okay with it Before?”
     “I suppose not… what brought this train of thought on?”
     “Pigeons,” Sarah said.
     The corner bodega had what she wanted, and plenty of it. “You want? You take it! New Yorkers plenty crazy, but not crazy enough to eat birdseed, not yet. And a cage too? What you gonna do, collect ‘em and make pigeon pie? Good luck with that! I heard they’re all gone now, and good riddance!”
     “Something like that.” Well, except for the killing, plucking, cooking and eating parts.
     Ben had the midday shift today; the apartment belonged to her and Anyka. Sarah made sure the wicker cage was closed before she opened the living room window and sprinkled bird seed on the sill.
     She waited.
     It was a silly idea. What bird would even notice the offering, spread out on one side of a narrow tube that barely gave a glimpse of the sky?
     She waited.
     And the dove came in to him in the evening.

     Copyright © 2020 Margaret Ball

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

I loved this when I first read it. I'm so pleased that you will be our co-blogger.