By Heide Arbitter
They took the birds away. That was the last hint. They were unattractive birds, loud and sad looking, with feathers plucked bloody and wings hanging helplessly. But, these birds were his joy, the one thing that made him laugh, and to that end she would never say anything against them.
A few days after the birds were put into cages and carried away, she saw his photo perched on a shelf in the laundry room of the building, his stern, handsome face, encased within a frame of parrots. The notice next to his photo mentioned when he died and the many things he had done for the people of the building, although nothing in specific was listed. Donations in his name could be sent up to his bird refuge located on the roof.
The exodus of birds had not been the only hint that something was wrong. He had become kinder. Perhaps, too kind. His was a nature made even more sour by age, yet here he was, holding the elevator with a smile. She did not know him well anymore, but over the years, at each random encounter, be it in the lobby or the mail room, she noticed he was a little thinner, his cheeks gaunter, and his blue eyes lighter. They would nod at each other, but the exchange of pleasantries was left for other neighbors entering or leaving.
It was not always this way. She had been in the building a while when he moved in across the hall. He was a sullen, but intriguing addition to the fifth floor with a brash, expensive style of dressing. He worked in a pharmacy, he said, and the way he flashed his bold eyes at her got them talking. Soon, they were arguing about the virtues of taking anti-depressants versus putting in the time to find true happiness and this lead to something else. Their affair was brief and basically unsatisfying. Passion and possession stemmed from proximity and convenience, more than any genuine physical or mental attraction. One night, they just gave up, even though they still had plans for the next day.
Once, while they were still together, she visited him at the pharmacy in the back of one of those enormous we sell everything stores. There he was, standing behind the cash register, ringing up an order and she wondered how he could afford his apartment on a cashier’s salary. When the next customer stepped up and he snapped, “You should have looked it up online before you came down here,” she knew that dispensing prescriptions was not his true calling. She did not mention this as they left the pharmacy and headed up to their favorite place, the zoo.
Although, she did not know much about birds, she loved them anyway. On their first trip to the tropical center of the zoo, she felt like she entered a fairy world where ibis and spoon bills were the guardians of the gate and egrets and cranes the majestic escorts of all who wished a guided tour. But, when they walked, on this autumn day, among the arctic center of the igloos and the ice bergs, she was shocked when her casual observation about the penguins shook her tenuous connection to him. They caught the bus back to the city in silence.
And it was in silence that she watched through the peep hole of her front door, as woman after woman entered and left his apartment. She made a plan with herself to run into one of these anonymous beauties and tell them what he was really like, but on that particular night, as she walked down the hall from a yoga class, she stopped in shock. It was not one of his paid women waiting by his front door, but him, his body lying crumpled and still.
She ran to him, took out her cell and dialed 911. They took their time, but when the paramedics and police did arrive, they laid him on a cot, and took his vitals. “Can I go with him?” she asked, nervously. He weakly opened his eyes, “Call my wife” he whispered. “Family only” said the cop. The elevator doors slammed in her face.
The noise of those slamming doors haunted her for some time. He never did return to his fifth-floor apartment. She missed spying on him and plotting revenge on the women. One day, there was a racket. She stepped into the hall to investigate, and saw moving men carrying his furniture out. At first, with sadness, she thought he died in the hospital, but later, the doorman told her that his wife had bought the penthouse apartment and his stuff had been moved up there.
After that, they sometimes ran into each other in the building, but when they did, they kept their eyes to the floor. But, gradually, the routine of being in the same elevator and the safety that only living on top of the world brings brought him to a muttered “hello”. The doorman even told her that he had been acquiring special birds and that the enormous penthouse garden had been turned into a kind of roof aviary for the sick and maimed.
It was about this time that she noticed a dimming in his once bright eyes. She wanted to tell him that she really loved penguins, she was just making a joke, but somehow the words failed her. She had just been laid off from her long-time job as the hostess of an exclusive restaurant and they were giving her a hard time about unemployment. Her refrigerator broke and when she knocked on the super’s door to ask him to fix it, he snapped, “Fix it yourself”. She could not do that and took to eating all of her meals at a diner with a “C” rating. But on that morning when she entered the lobby, a new state-of-the-arts refrigerator was being delivered. “The super must like you” said the doorman, but she knew differently.
In the laundry room, she stared at the photo of her former lover, but did not take down the donation information. As she collected her laundry, she heard the squawks of birds. Through the service entrance, cage after cage of avian patients were being returned to the building by his wife and her servants. The cries of the birds were loud, like knives slicing beef into thin strips, or human flesh shredded translucent on mandolins. She could see how in his last moments, their piercing bird shrieks were too close to his human pain to be the odd, but loved cherished pets they were.
She was surprised by her feelings of hope as the injured birds were loaded onto the freight elevator. She followed, after his wife, a tall, thin woman with deep brown eyes, and squeezed herself in between the cages. The wife pressed the penthouse button. She pressed nothing and summoned all the friendliness she could. “I can help you take care of the birds,” she said. His wife looked startled, and as the elevator doors closed, smiled briefly. “Yes,” she nodded to her neighbor.
About the Author:
Heide Arbitter’s plays have been produced in New York City and regionally. Some of these productions include a one-act, HAND WASHED, LINE DRIED, which was produced at the Public Theatre; a full-length, FROGS FROM THE MOON at the American Theatre of Actors; and a one-act, TILL WE MEET, at Unboxed Voices. Smith & Kraus and Excalibur have published JILLY ROSE, SHARON and POPPY. Heide was recently interviewed on the radio, WFUV.