Eventually the Birds Must Land by Erin Slaughter

     Eventually the Birds Must Land

     They hung from a string, one after the other like a ladder, each separated by two faded green beads. Wrapped in red and black and yellow cloth, different patterns adorning each, sequins sewn into the sides—they looked like something you would see hanging at a flea market stand, something that reminded you of India, or a bohemian loft in Brooklyn with a brightly beaded chandelier and a mattress on the floor.
     It might be hard to tell that they were birds from far away. They just as easily could have been croissants, or little boats. At the bottom of the string was a small metal cowbell, painted rustic gold. When the birds swayed, the bell rattled softly, like a wind chime.
     They were simple birds and I liked them. I must have liked them, to have picked them out from the bags of my father’s things on my grandmother’s dining room floor. I don’t remember thinking about it. I was moving into an apartment soon, I probably figured, and liked them for their aesthetic value. I probably thought about those kinds of things, even at that moment, with the black garbage bags emptied out over our laps and the carpet. My grandmother offered me the microwave and his vacuum cleaner, practical things, which I didn’t take. My mother took his socks and some of his t-shirts. My sister took his Harvard sweatshirt and a gold watch. I took some other things, and the birds. I didn’t think about them again for a long time.

     My father hated the birds. When the package arrived, my sister and I were staying at his house for winter break, so I was there to witness the confusion and slight revulsion that contorted his face as he walked into the living room holding the box.
     “Look at this,” he said, pulling them up out of the box to show us. “What kind of present is this supposed to be?” The package was addressed from his father, my grandpa Chuck who lived in a double-wide trailer outside of Las Vegas. There was no card, just a folded slip of paper that read: Happy Birthday! My dad’s birthday had been three months ago.
     “I think my dad is losing it,” he said, holding the string of birds like they were a dirty washrag.
     “What is that?” my sister asked.
     “Some hippie crap.” He said, “It says you’re supposed to hang them by your front door and the bell will ring to warn you of bad spirits coming into your house.”
     “That’s kind of cool, I guess,” I said.
     “I mean, what kind of gift is that?” he said, “I really think your Grandpa is losing it. Jesus.”
     That night he closed the box and stored it away in the coat closet, but the next summer when we came to visit, the birds were hanging by the front door.

     I don’t know much about my dad’s relationship with his own father, in part because I didn’t know my grandfather very well. When I was seven or eight we traveled to Las Vegas on vacation, and I have a memory of Grandpa Chuck on a dock, newly wheelchair-bound from the diabetes that took his foot, holding me over the water by the ankles while I attempted to catch a catfish with my bare hands. That night, we went to a barbeque restaurant and ate ribs. His roommate of fifteen years, Ray, (who everyone on my dad’s side of the family insists, even now, was only a roommate) joined us.
     I didn’t see Grandpa Chuck again, and when I was thirteen, he died. I didn’t go to the funeral. It was as if a stranger had died; I was entirely unaffected. I didn’t know, until then, that I was capable of that kind of inappropriate apathy.

     This is what I know about Grandpa Chuck: he grew up very poor in Chicago, and often walked through the snow to school without shoes—or so the stories went. While they were newly married, my grandma worked to pay his way through college, although she didn’t get to finish her own degree. They had two children: my dad, and his older sister, Deborah. When my dad was in his twenties, my grandparents amicably divorced.  
     This is what I know about Ray: A few years after my grandpa died, he found out he was HIV positive, and shot himself inside of that trailer in the desert. By the time his body was discovered, it had been sweltering in the heat for days. Because the trailer was in my grandpa’s name, my dad went to Nevada to empty it and sell it. They found VHS tapes of child pornography in Ray’s closet.
     My dad said he cried out there in the desert, not for his father who he resented for willing his life and everything in it over to Ray, not for Ray whom he loathed, but because everything smelled of death and waste and he wanted so badly to go home and forget.

     Though I don’t know how my dad felt about his own father, I can guess it may have been complicated, especially in those last years—the bird-giving, forgotten birthday years. Still, the birds inexplicably hung by the front door, and they remained there until he sold his house and moved in with Pam, where their home was already furnished with her things.
     When I hung the birds in the first place I lived on my own, a bedroom in a shared house with a gun-enthusiast and his pottery-making girlfriend, it was because I liked how they looked. I wasn’t hanging them for my dad. I already had a box of his things in the closet that I wasn’t sure how to feel about; my Awkward Daddy Shrine consisting of his baseball hat, watch, the CDs that were in his car when he died, and a picture of him smiling from a helicopter.
     It was so fresh then, not even a year after his death, and putting conscious effort into trying to memorialize him made me feel nauseous. The incident of his murder still tinged my daily life, like a parasite, in every conversation I had with my mother and sister, in the survivor’s social security check I paid my rent with each month. I was still telling people upon first meeting them, still mentioning it casually on first dates, with a laugh meant to convey that I was comfortable talking about it, a laugh that I can only imagine sounded desperate and manic. “It’s not like we were that close, anyway,” I told them, “we never got along very well.”

     I like the birds, despite their origin, despite the guilt and fear and confusion that came with inheriting them. Despite not truly knowing the man they came from. Despite not liking much of what I knew.
     The birds have been in every place I’ve ever lived; that first house that smelled of raspberries, a dorm room, apartments, the last place I lived in Texas, a cramped bedroom in a beautiful seaside town, and here.
     Even now, they’re still here.

 

Erin Slaughter holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. She is currently a student in the MFA program at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches undergraduate English classes and works as the graduate assistant for Steel Toe Books. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has been published in River Teeth, Off the Coast, Boxcar Poetry Review, GRAVEL, and 101 Words, among others.

Elijah Tubbs