MY DEAD friend is still in my freezer. I don’t know why I’m keeping him though. I don’t know why I want to know where he came from — I just do. Anyway with one thing or another the week went by and on Saturday at noon I woke up in a panic because I remembered I was due at my parents’ place at one to celebrate my niece’s fourth birthday. I had forgotten to buy a present — and had to dash to the dollar store around the corner.
My parents live in the downtown killing zone. Bodies pile up near doorways and along the sidewalks beneath those glass buildings. There are so many dead the local scavengers can’t deal with them all. Even at noon, some of the bodies still lie where they fell in the night. I saw one as soon as I got off the streetcar at King and Strachan. It was a brown-and-white dappled thing, larger than your average sparrow — a thrush maybe on its way to a little patch of woods. The dead bird looked peaceful, lying on its side beneath an overhang. Up close it was beautiful — with a finely spotted chest and russet wings and tail.
I scooped up the little fellow with a bit of discarded newspaper and placed him — still wrapped up — on the dirt beneath a boxed tree. I walked south toward my parents’ condo. I was running late for my niece’s birthday lunch — and my mother can’t stand people who are late — so I couldn’t perform the same service for the rest of the dead. But I counted them: three blue jays, four cardinals, two goldfinches, two miscellaneous brown birds and a bird that looked like another thrush, but with a long, enormous beak. Then I thought someone should come out with a field guide to dead birds — special condo edition — with close-up illustrations of how hollow bones bend and snap when they collide into windows. I laughed out loud at my joke and I could hear my echo bouncing off the walls. I laughed even louder — I laughed all the way down the street, clutching the plastic bag with the present in it, listening for my echo and counting the dead birds as I went.
I was buzzed into the building and took the elevator up. I didn’t knock on the door — it’s always open. As I went in, I heard my mother say to my sister in the kitchen: “Honestly Deborah, you’re exaggerating. If I had an argument with a deranged parrot, I’d be upset too…” She stopped talking when I banged the front door shut.
“Uncle Adam! Uncle Adam!” Deb’s daughter Skye, just turned four, came running toward me — all chubby legs and arms. And then Deb and Mom came out to greet me. Deb gave me a half hug, then studied my face looking — no doubt — for signs of growing weirdness, while shooing her daughter away from me.
“Not now, Skye. Uncle Adam will play with you later. No, we’re opening presents after lunch.” This just as I handed her the bag I was carrying. “And don’t eat any more chips!” Skye ran off to the living room — or the great room as my Dad likes to call it, aping the real estate lingo.
My mother brushed my hair out of my eyes. Her callused hand rested a moment on my cheek. “Come get yourself a beer in the fridge. The boys are watching the game.” I was led into the kitchen — my mother in front of me — my sister behind. They had been in the midst of chopping stuff for lunch. It’s a small condo kitchen and I squeezed past my mother to open the fridge. They resumed their chopping around me.
Deb started clearing her throat. My mother was silent. I was trying to extricate a beer without upsetting the three-million half-empty jars of condiments in the fridge. Deb coughed louder.
“Are you dry? Is it dry in here? Have some water,” my Mom said, still bent to her task.
“I’m fine,” Deb replied. She stopped chopping the cooked chicken breast and pointed her knife in my direction. “So…how are you Adam?”
Damn my father for his big mouth. I glanced up at my sister. “Fine.”
“Really? Because I heard about the pet shop…”
“Are you sure you’re not dry, Deborah? You look a little dehydrated. Adam, get your sister a bottle of water out of the fridge.”
“No, thanks. And if I want water, I’ll just take it from the tap.”
“But it’s colder in the fridge.”
“Tap water is perfectly fine. I’m fine,” Deborah said.
Mom huffed softly.
Deb ignored her. “Mom and I have something we’d like to discuss with you, Adam, Don’t we, Mom?” she said, still pointing her knife at me.
“No we don’t.”
“Mother!” It was Deb’s turn to huff.
“You really do look a little peaked dear, have some water.”
“Mother! For God’s sakes! You’re not helping Adam get better by ignoring…”
“Deborah, dear, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Adam is perfectly…normal.”
They stared at each other. I took advantage of their distraction and got the hell out of the kitchen, squeezing past their sharp knives and heading in the direction of the blaring TV.
I walked into the great room — it’s stuffed with crap brought over from the house when they moved — crap that my Dad won’t throw out — crap that my Mom, when Dad’s not looking, gets rid of bit by bit. My Dad, his face buried in his Blackberry, and Deb’s live-in Bernie had nestled into the couch to watch the Jays game. Skye had already opened the present I got her — leaving a trail of torn paper and plastic wrap behind her. She flitted about, climbing onto all our laps in turn, circling the chip bowl on the coffee table like a turkey vulture, jamming fistfuls of Pringles into her mouth.
The volume on the TV was up loud to compensate for the noise of the fans — three tabletop ones in various corners of the room — all on high speed. They’ve got central air — it came with the condo, but my Dad’s always putting on the fans. Bernie nodded at me as I sat down on the couch. “Who are you texting?” I asked Dad.
“I’m tweeting, not texting,” he said — giggling. “JayFan8 says Bautista’s past his prime. Can’t let that one go.”
We sat in silence.
“So Bernie, how’s it going?” I tried.
“Good. Good. You?”
“Sure. Good. How’s the cottage?”
“Good. Put in a new deck.”
I brought Skye out on the balcony soon after that and sat down with my beer. She made a beeline to mom’s azalea bush and the potted impatiens. I let her go, knowing the railing was too high for her to get over and mom had put chicken wire along the bottom. Besides I couldn’t sit too close or I’d hear the aphids chewing — the aphids chew too loudly.
Skye was jumping up and down. “Uncle Adam, do you see the fairy, the orange and black fairy?
“There.” She pointed a chubby finger at a monarch loping by. “Oh, it’s leaving. It’s leaving. Come back, come back!”
I called to the butterfly to come and it did, making a wide loping turn. It came and landed on the azalea. Skye smiled with her whole face, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for butterflies to come when you call them. She cooed to the insect, and bent slightly to look it in its tiny black eyes. “Uncle Adam, you know, if you look really close, you can see the fairy dust they sprinkle.”
“Yeah? What’s in the dust?”
“Candy! You catch it on your tongue.”
We laughed. Then I asked the butterfly to land on Skye’s outstretched hand.
She erupted in giggles and I called a couple of starlings over to join the party. I had one land on Skye’s head. She squealed — delight shimmying through her body. And then I turned to look in through the windows and there was my mother, staring at us from the great room. She had her back to the men — she was trying not to be obvious — but I knew that look on her face — denial and just behind the eyes, fear.
The meal was long.