Jan 22 2020

          It got to me every time I passed someone on the street.  Seeing as I had neither a car nor the discipline to remember and plan around the local bus schedules, I’d been walking at least 4 or 5 miles a day ever since classes started, but I certainly wasn’t complaining.  People don’t take enough time to just amble, anymore, and it makes me worry we’ve forgotten what it’s like to set out on our way on only our own two feet.  There is no ritual more meaningful, no sacrifice greater than dropping whatever you think you should be doing and shoving out of the social scene you’re tangled in to try and find something beautiful pacing down that lonely, frozen roadside.  There’s nothing more meditative than losing your sense of time and place in the soft and steady rhythm of hoof to earth.  Sometimes, your head gets so distant, so far ahead of itself, you’d swear you saw it pass you on the street, tripping and skipping its way back home.

          Nobody could even be bothered to say “Hello” around there, and it killed me.  It was a knife in the chest every time I saw their eyes drop to the pavement as I was going by.  In all the time I spent out on those streets some days, I wouldn’t meet another soul who’d even look me straight in the face.  I didn’t quite know what to make of it, whether it was just shyness, or convention, or something wrong with me.  What got to me even worse was the way it all got to me so bad.

          Sometimes, five or six strangers down my way, I’d get to feeling desperate about it.  I’d try to think of anything I could do or say to get a person’s attention without scaring them off.  Whenever I saw someone walking down my way from a distance, I’d play out these over-elaborate scenarios in my head where I got a friendly conversation going with them, somehow, just kinda lingering together out on the street.  Then, a few kind words later, maybe I’d be feeling generous and offer to take them out to get a couple beers or chief up a bowl, and we’d commiserate about where the world’s headed these days, and how nobody ever even says “Hello,” to you on the street anymore.

          And when it came, I’d look ahead and work up a smile, trying to keep myself open to it, inviting it in.  Sometimes, I had to muster every last ounce of will just to keep from offering a hand to shake as they sped past almost every time, eyes to the ground.  I remember once, when I was walking home from Center Street, turning over some piece of minutiae in my head and barely even paying attention to where I was going, this old dude who was doing yard work for the church caught me by surprise with a “Good morning,” and shared a few neighborly seconds with me.  He was doing great, that day.  The weather was indeed beautiful, for a change.  I really truly hoped he had a good day, too.  About a minute after I left him, I started crying—I mean all-out bawling—without ever missing a step, chin up and out, my eyes beet red and wide open all the way back to the dorm.

          Sally was really gone.  I have to admit, I hadn’t believed her when she told me she was taking off.  Everybody talks like that when they’re angry and drunk, but it’s just talk.  You’re breaking the rules when you really go and do something so friggin’ idealistic like that.  It forces the rest of us to take a look at ourselves, to try to remember why we’re in no position to act on what we claim are our beliefs.  My parents know this is best for me; my friends are proud of me; everybody would think I was dumb, or crazy.  Even worse, that gets you wondering what must have been going through her head as she dragged all her crap out of that cramped, cold dorm room—my family is afraid of who I choose to be; I can’t let anyone follow me over this cliff; people will condemn and fear anything outside a narrow, asphyxiating range of behaviors they consider “normal.”  Worst of all, turning the situation over in my head, trying to damn her for all the pain she’s put herself and the people around her through, an ache of my own wells up from the dark, silent caves of my mind, a faint echo of what made her do it that kept bouncing around my head until it finally chanced to touch on something that vibrates in empathy.  And when that connection finally came, there was no rationalizing, no way to judge her, no space between me and her, just that echo beating up against the walls of my skull, getting louder and louder—“I am, I am, I am…” and in an instant of infinite love and pain, I realized that echo is of my own voice, not hers, and anything anyone could say or do to stir that soulful discontent to motion must be beautiful and true, even if it isn’t reasoned out perfectly or isn’t pretty to watch.  I had come a ways, and maybe I’m finally beginning to see what she was trying to show me.

          I can never figure quite where to start a story like this, and that’s probably why I never get more than a few thoughts into one before it’s meticulously filed away so I can always find it and never have to see it again.  It’s too big. Everything comes out sideways, and before I know it, I’ve said all there is to say without even having made it to the story, yet.  I used to think there’s no place to start telling something like this.  Now I’m thinking, maybe I should just start where I am.

          Like I kinda already said, we were both pretty polluted that night, but I shoulda known it didn’t make any difference.  We might have been giggling and swaying like retards, but we’re two of the most rational, romantic drunks you’ve ever had stumble into you at 2 a.m. on a Monday; I swear we always mean almost everything that comes out of our mouths.

         The party seemed to be waning at Nu Mu Eta, and there were just enough drunks racing the sunrise to feel alone in the crowd but still hear yourself drink.  It was now she’d picked of all times to break the news to me.  Later on, I realized I probably wouldn’t have chosen any differently in her position. This was the last chance she had to tell me while I was maybe numb enough not to feel it crash down on me all at once, or, at least, to put some kind of a buffer between the two of us.  The assumption I wouldn’t sign on with her, thinking back on it, was either the most motherly decision the girl had ever made or the stoniest personal criticism I’d ever received in my entire life, and I don’t know that I’ll ever know for certain one way or the other.  I didn’t care about any of those deeper social implications in the moment, though.  I just know that, whatever her intent was, what she did stung like a bitch.

          I let the words sink into my brain through the alcohol blanket for a minute, silently sipping on my beer and dragging on my Bugler for lack of a more appropriate reaction.  It started to penetrate. I pounded what was left in my cup.  It was going flat, anyway, probably, maybe.  I turned to say something to Sally, but my mouth snapped shut in belated recoil to the taste of that bitter, grainy piss all the frats tried to pass off as beer.

         I just kinda stood there staring, trying to take it—her—all in, dizzied by the bomb she’d dropped on me, leaving me fishtailing and scrambling for anything at all to say.  The best I could do was to signal to one of my brothers behind the bar for another beer.

         I had a fresh, full cup in under 15 seconds.  I had an empty, crushed one in just over another 5.  One of the pledges had it off the floor and into a trashcan less than a minute after the process had initiated.  We were all about efficiency like that, back in the day.

         It got loud in there, all of a sudden—really loud. Shouts from the beer pong table… Girls were shaking their rears to the crap music we always played when we wanted the party to get wild. Guys were hooting and cat-calling—loudest of all, my brothers. Some girl with a voice like a banshee called for her friend across the basement—


          The beer pong table fell over—it was that damn busted leg again. No, wait, it was my brothers fighting with some jerk-off who got too close to the girls.  The room started to move. I steadied myself on the bar. I felt ready to puke.  In my moment of greatest weakness and desperate need, my muse swooped in to save me.

          “You… bitch!”

          I said it low and slow, letting the slurred rhetoric seep thickly over the whole scene laid out in front of me.  I could feel a vague, far-off, stilted truth being touched on somewhere in the room.  I swear I saw those words echoing around the pit, reverberating off walls, and people, and bottles until they latched onto every bleach-blonde sorority ditz, every duck-bill haircut, every pair of pre-faded designer jeans and over-exposed tits in the house, blinking on and off like huge, ugly neon signs.  Sally seemed to stare through the wall as she leaned there sipping her beer, contemplative and quiet, as if she hadn’t even noticed I was talking to her. It could have been the end of the world. Neither of us would have noticed.

          I was lost in my head for a moment, there.

          She still hadn’t said anything.

          As ballsy and hurt as I’d felt not half a minute earlier, I’d lost my steam along the way, somehow.  All I really wanted to do right then was roll myself a fresh cigarette in some dark corner, be on my way back home, and forget those words, and being mad at Sally, and how I felt about this whole God-forsaken travesty.  I talk big, and I’ll throw my weight around from time to time, but gimme 30 seconds with no one to fight and I’m down for the count.  I’m probably the biggest pushover you’ve ever met, and that girl looking real morose leaning over the bar could kick my angst-ridden ass whenever she damn-well pleased.

          Just when I felt awkward enough to break out that sky-blue pouch of smoke again, it came.  She didn’t even look over to say it.

          “You remember Mr. Penheist?”

          I absently rolled the conical lump of tobacco back and forth along the sides of the paper for a second.  Penheist?  Yeah, I remember him.  Wait, Penheist? You’re damn skippy, I remember Penheist.  He’d lived in this brick three-story monster of a house with ten-foot high fences down the street from our family back when I was living with them.  My mom told me he was an artist, and valued his privacy deeply.  My dad told me to stay the fuck away from that nutjob and his house unless I felt like getting my balls shot off.  I certainly didn’t have a problem with that. I could empathize with the dude, for chrissake.

          He kept birds on his roof—pigeons, and robins, and doves, on up to some of the funniest looking birds you’ve never seen from countries whose names you could never even hope to pronounce.  Nobody really knew why he had them—although there were, of course, at least a dozen rumors involving satanic cults and ritual sacrifice that the other kids loved spewing at anyone they could get to sit still for the telling, always with these sick, stupid grins on their faces.  Nobody cared much about why he did, either, except for the stories they could concoct about old Penheist.  And except for Sally.

          We used to lie in the street in front of my house at night, just feeling the day’s sunshine heat rise up from the blacktop and letting the stars go by around us.  Only, Sally never watched the stars, no matter how much I’d moan.

          “Why da ya think he keeps them up there?” she’d ask, propping herself up on an elbow or sitting up Indian-legged to look to over at that sand colored, sun baked monolith three houses down.

          Why’d she always ask me about those goddamn birds?  I was a space geek. I dug up star charts and almanacs for this girl, books on nebulae, the planets and the moon, anything at all to try to aim her attention skyward.  Not once could she look out into the sky without thinking about those poor, pitiful birds.

          “Well, it’s just, it don’t make any sense to me.  It’s bad enough he keeps the poor things in those tiny little cages all on top of each other, but why couldn’t it have been in the basement or somethin’?  I mean, there they are, already 3 stories up in the air, just raring to soar, and he drives them nuts with those friggin’ metal bars always in their face.  Giving ’em just a little tasta the only thing they want and what they aren’t ever gonna have is just criminal–there’s gotta be a law against it.”

          I refused to take my eyes off that sky, no matter how compelling the appeal, tracing out the constellations to chill my frustration and bring my mind back to things bigger than me, and you, and those fucking birds.  I’d keep staring straight up and address the heavens:

          “Kid, I know life sucks for those birds, and maybe we could all do our souls a favor by taking notice of them, but it doesn’t do anyone any good at all to just dwell in that.  They’ve probably even come to like those cages and the regular food and water that come with them, some of them things.  They can’t know anything beyond those bars.  Meanwhile, there’s a whole cosmos of crap out there to put those things into perspective with; they’re just the tiniest specks of dust blowing ‘round this boundless blue.”

          She’d agree, of course, kind of.  Mostly, I think she just knew it was easier to ignore me than shove me off my soapbox. She always kept right on staring at those cages with this look like a worried mother plastered on her face.  For all the times I made it, I don’t know that a word of that speech ever hit home.

          “It’s just, I dunno that the birds understand all that, and it’s not like we can really explain it to ‘em.  But I know they’d get it if they could spread their wings, for once—take off like a shot for the horizon and see how big it all is, just once.”

          In retrospect, I guess I’ll admit I was a little too callous about those stupid birds.  I owed something of my heaven-centered perspective to them.  I remember, back in the seventh grade we took a trip to the Morristown museum, and there one of them was waiting for me, larger than life, just hanging out in one of the galleries.  That’s how Sally and I met, actually; my class had made it off the busses 5 minutes before hers, and everyone went rushing to see some painting on loan from the Louvre or something, but I never made it past the first gallery.

          I had spotted this dark, jarring, towering mosaic from the lobby and couldn’t figure for the life of me what it was supposed to be.  At first, I thought there was no form to the thing, nothing it was trying to be—all just warped and twisted shapes and colors that seemed to flux in and out as I looked closely, almost hurting my eyes.  Trying to watch it move for a minute, I started to feel drawn into the thing. It’s rolling, blurry lines and curves gave the sensation that every other person and piece of art in the room were in orbit around it, slowly falling in towards this chthonic looming chaos.  It’s form or message didn’t come any great deal clearer as I got close, but there was something so compelling about the way that entropic arrangement of tile and glass debris played on my mind.  It held me anchored right there in front of it, jaw hanging a bit, barely aware of anything outside its black slate border.  Up a little closer, I had even less of an idea what to make of the thing, but it mystified me all the same as I stood there staring, trying to take it all in at once.

          I read the tag at the lower left corner:

          “Flight.  Arthur Penheist, 1985.”

          So this was one of Penheist’s, huh?  Like I mentioned, I’d heard the guy called an artist, but I never would have associated that unseen, semi-mythical figure of urban legend with anything at all like this.  In all the years we’d lived on that street, I’d never seen another solid evidence of the man’s existence.  It expressed something to me in at least that one respect. A man can play irresistibly on the deepest hardwiring of people’s heads without ever much bothering with other people.

          I was still frozen in place, just trying to make heads or tails of the thing when Sally came through the turn-styles and spotted me 15 minutes later.

          “It’s pretty,” she offered, before I had even realized she was standing next to me.  “I really like it.”

          I remember mumbling something vaguely sarcastic that seemed to go right over her head.  Dear Lord, there I was, standing next to probably the cutest girl in my grade, little Sally Divine—all olive skin and long, flowing, fiery hair tied back from her face, with those powder blue eyes—and I couldn’t even shake my attention for long enough to look over and acknowledge her.  I mean, how fucking hard is it to ask a person their name?  I couldn’t even pay her enough attention to insult her properly.  I didn’t care much about women at the time—at least, not nearly as much as most of my sexually fixated classmates.  I guess my priorities have always been a bit fucked up, especially back then, although you could probably say the same of any kid in grade school.

          After a minute of looking thoughtful, she took off without another word to go, I dunno, somewhere, I suppose.  God knows I wasn’t paying attention to anything but that mosaic.

          I indexed mental lists of every religious icon, every historical figure, every literary archetype I’d ever interpreted (I was a precocious kid). I compared it to every abstract work I’d ever tried to understand.  I realigned apparent shapes, replaced the colors, turned sections of the thing upside down and around in my head, permuting it out to infinity, trying to eke out a revelation.  I could nearly feel the work trying to scream something at me, to turn me around to see some basic bit of truth that was staring me dead in the face, but I couldn’t have even begun to guess what that hidden moral was supposed to be.

          Apparently, I stood there riveted to that goddamn wall straight through lunch. I was told I’d barely moved a muscle the entire day by a number of concerned classmates, although my memory of that afternoon has always been kinda hazy.  Of course, it was Sally who finally came to check on me and make sure I didn’t miss our ride.

          I saw her walking over real slow and tight-lipped out of the corner of my eye, trying to seem worried about me, looking back and forth between me and the wall I was boring into like I was part of the exhibit.

          She looked back at the mosaic one last time. Nobody moved for a minute.

          Then she rested her chin on her hand.  I resisted the urge to put my entire fist in my mouth.


         Oh God. Here it comes. I could have exploded. C’mon, girl. Say it. Say it, already. Please, go ahead.

          “Ya know, I don’t think I’ve ever met another kid quite as interested in birds as you must be.”

          I ignored her.

          She twiddled her thumbs. “Yup…”

          My head whipped around as I formed the question. “What do ya mean, bi—?”

          I stopped short, taken aback by the dizzying, glowing smile she shot me, and the crick in my neck from all that standing and staring.  I was dazed for a moment. By the time I’d recomposed myself my head had swung back around to its trained position, once again facing the mosaic.

          As I tried to readjust, everything aligned for me.

          On every chunk of tile or glass comprising the piece, there was a tiny little painting of a different bird readying to take off. I got as close as I possibly could. There they were, on city streets, branches, bell towers, rooftops, beaches—virtually everywhere you could picture a perched bird.  I’d been so obsessed with deciphering the bigger picture, I’d completely missed the only thing that made any kind of sense of in the work.

          I’m convinced I was in shock for a short period. I could feel the room go cold and my lungs heave as Sally’s voice came to me from miles off, yelling something about the bus as she dragged me out to the lobby by both arms.  I had no idea where I was going, starting nervously, looking in every direction with animal incomprehension, until I happened to look back at the mosaic.

          Tripping my way out those glass revolving doors, I saw it clear as day:  it was the outline of a baby bird—couldn’t be more than ten minutes out of the shell it’d scattered all over—pathetically trying to raise its half-formed wings while laying there exhausted on the cusp of its nest, all rendered with the definition and ability of a 3-year-old’s art homework. 

          Having finally come to the realization I was looking for, I still didn’t get it.

          Sally snuck me onto her bus without anyone realizing, including me.  I sat there looking out the window she’d sat me down next to, pretending I could see through the world behind it, just letting the picture linger in my mind’s eye.  I nearly had a heart attack when she tapped on my shoulder and finally managed to make me exchange introductions.

          “You’re white as a ghost, Kid!”  She hadn’t stopped smiling like that since we’d left the museum.  To this day, I can’t decide whether the girl is just always that happy or always that oblivious to the world around her.

          She lowered her voice for a second.  “I mean, I guess that’s some folks and art for ya, but people are gonna start thinking you’re a little nuts if you keep on doing stuff like that.”

          Thing is, I was a little crazy. Batshit, actually.

          Sometimes, I look back on all the ridiculous rites of passage and quests for meaning I subjected myself to over the course of what was supposed to be my childhood and wonder where the hell I ever even got all those fucked-up ideas, anyway.  I felt as though everything I did of my own accord had to be something lasting and different, like I owed it to somebody to route-out and shake-up every senseless norm, every ignorant ideology, every desensitized and disillusioned belief in my reach.  I’d turned Taoist by age 12.  I’d been devastated to read a solid argument against determinism, which I’d been toying with for about half a year, and Lao Tzu kinda filled in all the holes in my head for me. John C. H. Wu was always my favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching:

                    “To experience without abstraction is to sense the world.

                     To experience with abstraction is to know the world.

                     These two experiences are indistinguishable;

                     Their construction differs but their effect is the same.” [1]

          I meditated and I mused.  I walked in silence and ran laughing and screaming through the twilight suburban labyrinth with my friends, trying to piece together an identity for myself.  I took book after book I could never hope to understand from the local library—religious catechisms, philosophical manifestos, collections of visual artistry and their critical interpretations—and buried myself in them for hours or days without coming up for air.  I’m fairly sure my heart was in the right place; God knows my primary goal in life at the time was to piss off as few persons as possible (people, on the other hand, could bite my ass).  It just never occurred to me I didn’t need to live that way.

          Whenever she saw me piling it on like that, Sally’d crack that smile and shake her head at me like I was a toddler playing in the mud.

          “You’re trying too damn hard, Kid.  Lighten up, for the gooda your soul.”

          She was one to talk.  Maybe she didn’t share my passion for pontification, but our consciences were attached at the hip.  For every book I ever cried over, there was a grave injustice that plucked slow and low on that girl’s heartstrings.  For every kind word I’d ever offered, she’d given a long, warm hug or a pat on the back.

          “Alright, you gotta put that fucking book down, already—how can you even see straight anymore? Kid?”

          I’ll admit I was being a little ridiculous. My zeal was half theatrics, half having absolutely nothing better to do.  There wasn’t anything worth staying motivated about back in grade school, besides developing my character.  At least I could feel truly passionate about the principles behind that. It felt so much more natural than complaining about homework, or getting way too excited over sports, or arguing over who gets to ask Missy Turner to the prom, or whatever the fuck it is kids my age were supposed to be doing.  Ever since I’d seen Penheist’s mosaic, something had been fucking with me, deeply, superlatively.  I couldn’t have told you anything specific about that “something” to save my soul, and yet, there it was every time I looked up, black and storming, growing geometrically, ominously suspended inches over my muddled head for every moment of the day between waking and exhaustion and probably while I slept.

          I’d been possessed since that day in the museum.  The book Sally was now literally trying to wrench from my hands was one in a series of massive, leather-bound, full-color art books I’d been flipping through virtually nonstop for the past week. It was coffee table-sized. I shouldn’t have brought it to school, but I didn’t care.  You shoulda seen the looks on some of my teachers’ faces when I opened my backpack, the canvas all stretched-out to fit the book’s corners, and tried to oh-so-discreetly heave that thing out on my desk in the middle of a lecture.

            Considering the continual tug-of-war I’d been in with those bastards at the school over this book all day, I didn’t think Sally stood a chance of taking it from me—especially not after what I’d just read.

          Given our town’s ethnocentric fascination with its own boring history, I’d felt certain I’d find some meaningful reference to Penheist hidden somewhere in the shelves of the local library.  Even if it wasn’t more than some frustrating bit of nothing worth knowing—what day he was born, where he grew up, how many works he sold in his career—at least it’d be something to go on, some tidbit of the man’s brain to turn over and dissect.

         It didn’t occur to me check out any art books, especially The New Jersey Highlands Avian Collection, until I’d damn near entirely exhausted all the relevant regional history books and my throbbing head.

          Deadlocked, she stood and I sat there by my desk, jerking a few inches back and forth at intervals, as I tried to wear her down.  Then, she tickled me.

          People assume that arguments ending in tickling can’t leave the loser with any hard feelings; after all, they’d walked away laughing.  She didn’t seem to notice the guttural snarl I emitted as she flipped the book around to see the section I’d clung so dearly to.

          On the right page was an entry entitled “Arthur Penheist”, complete with about 15 photographs of his various works.  There wasn’t anything in that paragraph of five sentences that wasn’t made blatantly obvious by those pictures. He used starkly contrasting lights and darks extensively.  His detail work was anal, but powerful.

          Never once had the lunatic painted anything besides a goddamn bird set to take flight.

          Sally looked worried over the pictures for a minute while I swung back around to my desk and started scribbling out plans.

          “Jesus, you and your birds…” she said, as if she got any less worked-up over the ones on the dude’s roof.

          Penheist would never talk to me about himself or his work.  I’d gone on a reconnaissance mission the other day, and that was about the only useful thing I had learned.  He kept a giant Masterlock on his fence that he only took off before the mail came in the afternoon. I snuck in before the delivery and rang the doorbell.


          I heard shuffling in the side room. Then a shout:

          “Go away!”

          Fat chance. “Mr. Penheist, I’m the kid from down the street,” I shouted back.

          “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” he said. “Get the fuck off my porch.”

          “But I’m a big fan of your work!”

          “I’m getting my gun!” he yelled.

          There’s no way he’s serious, I thought.

          A window opened. Out slid a double-barrel, and he pointed it at my face.

          I admit I was unnerved.  Worst part, I tripped on the curb and cracked my chin open running out of there, and I had to get it stitched. I also pissed my pants, which was significantly harder to explain to my mom. Missy Turner happened to be across the street and saw the whole thing, so of course the whole school heard about it. The other kids started calling me “Captain Trippy McPee-Pants,” until it was affectionately shortened to “M.C. Pee-Pee,” because people suck. None of that was gonna put me off my perpetual identity crisis, though.

          There was no way a man could paint one subject all his life. I was convinced that Penheist had some kinda personal collection that could give me some insight into why he acted like he did. I had to get into that house, somehow.

          I picked up a crude diagram off my desk to give it a quick once-over.  No matter how I rearranged the thing, I couldn’t make it hold water.  The logistics were all wrong. I didn’t think there was any way I’d be able to pull it off alone.

          “I think I’m gonna need your help with this, Sally.”

          “You gotta promise me something, though, Kid.”

          We went back to the house that night. We passed our gear through the fence one piece at a time and climbed over. I was dressed in all black. Sally would have been also, except she refused to wear the ski mask I had given her, and had instead opted to wear a red baseball cap, backwards. I wasn’t happy.

          “You’re gonna get us caught,” I snapped.

          Sally fixed her cap. “It’s a thousand degrees outside and that mask smells like shit.”

          “It’s better than getting caught, isn’t it?” I asked.

          Her expression was defecalating. “I’ll leave right now.”

          I groaned. “Look, I’m sorry.” The only way I could get Sally to agree to help was to tell her she could play with the birds on his roof, but after she got the idea in her head, she simply made up her mind that it was gonna happen and that I had absolutely nothing to do with it. After that, I actually had to bug her for an hour to get her to agree to let me come, somehow. The girl had elephant balls.  I didn’t know if she had a brain cell in her head, but balls she had.

          “Now, here’s the rope,” I said. “Penheist has two deadbolts on the door, so I’m gonna need to climb up to the cupola via that gutter pipe, then I’ll take the rope and…”

          Sally dropped the rope and walked up to the front door.


          She rang the doorbell.

          I nearly pissed myself again. “What are you trying to do?!”

          Sally didn’t even look back. “Get you in.”

          “You’re gonna get us killed!” I tried to yell in a whisper.

          I could already hear him screaming as he slammed his way down the stairs. “…fucking kill ya! What idiot comes and rings my bell in the middle of night, like they’re making a goddamn social call?! It’s that fucking kid again!”

          I could hear the bolts turn, top first, then bottom. Penheist’s screaming was getting louder.

           “I’m gonna twist your fucking balls until they pop off, ya fucking stalker lunatic, and then I’m gonna shove ‘em down your gullet and shoot ya in your pimple-puckered face!”

          I didn’t breathe. The door opened. I didn’t blink.

          Penheist blinked hard. So did his gun.

          “Who the fuck are you?!” he demanded.

          Sally didn’t flinch. “We’re big fans. Let us in or I’ll tell people you touched me inappropriately.”

          The old man recoiled. He thought for a moment.

          “Yeah, well, I guess you’re coming in,” he said.

          “Damn skippy,” Sally retorted.

          I opened my mouth. Sally turned back with a look that said “Are you actually gonna make me wait any longer to play with the birds, you loquacious jerk?”

          I closed my mouth. It was better than going in through the roof. I felt as though I had been walking through the desert for 40 years. Having gotten what I wanted, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how I somehow felt beaten as I followed her up the stairs and through the door.

          I was surprised by the state of the house. It was immaculate. It was filled with what appeared to be antiques, but not like my grandmother’s house, and not like that pottery barn crap. These were curios. There was a full-length mirror with a wrought-iron gothic border directly opposite the door, and a chair of similar style to the left, facing a grandfather clock with the phases of the moon and a star map of the northern hemisphere. The dark, venerable hardwood of the floor creaked as we entered. Wall lamps tinged with soot were constellated about the room, but they were unlit. Nothing cast a light but the moon, shining in through the windows.  I couldn’t see into the side rooms. The doors were closed, and Penheist hadn’t turned on a light. We were just standing there in the dark.

          Penheist came around slowly and faced Sally.

          “So, what exactly is it that you two want?” he asked.

         “I’m here for the birds,” she said. “He wants to see your paintings.”

         Penheist grunted. “I’ll bring you upstairs. We’re making this quick.”

         He got a candle from a box in the foyer and lit it. His hair was short and kempt, smooth, colored like salt with dashes of pepper. His beard was a little rough, but I could trace out a definition in it. I guess it was a goatee.  His eyes were green and clear, glinting a little in the light of the candle. His clothes looked well-worn, but soft and warm. I didn’t even think about it then, but I guess that was the first time I saw Arthur Penheist.

        We followed him up two flights of stairs. He showed me into his studio and lit a lamp for me, and then he left to take Sally to the roof. I could tell she was excited, and I guess I was, too. Already, I felt like I had a better handle on the man. There were plenty of paintings of birds in the room, but there were also faces and places I knew from around town: the school, the gazebo in the park, the lakeside, and our street as I’d guess it was seen from his cupola, all filled with people. Persons, I mean. Every person was painted in excruciating detail, like the birds in his mosaic. Every one of them was personal and identifiable.  Their expressions were living and kinetic. Penheist could capture a moment of action like no one I’d ever met.

          One of the pieces looked like it had been painted from live models in the foyer downstairs. In it was an attractive woman with a young smile, holding a baby. I asked him about it when he got back.

          “That’s my wife. Was my wife,” he told me. “I don’t like to talk about her.”

          “Did she divorce you?”

          “That’s incredibly rude,” he said.

          “Did she die?”

          Penheist seemed lost in the painting. I wasn’t sure that he’d heard me.

          Then he spoke: “She died. They both died.”

          I realized this was already getting touchy. I usually wouldn’t ask someone I’d just met a question like that, but Penheist didn’t feel like a stranger to me.

          “I’m sorry.  What happened?” I asked.

          Penheist was still looking at the painting. I thought I knew what he was feeling.

          He shook himself off. “I don’t talk about it,” he said.

          “Why do you paint so many birds, anyway?”

          Penheist scratched himself absently. “I don’t know.”

          “Well, when did you start keeping them?”

          “When I was a kid,” he said. “I had one bird, at least. I had him for years. He seemed to get lonely, so I got him a friend. I suppose that’s how it started. Do you want to see my paintings or not?”

          He showed me some of his favorites and told me the stories behind them. This one was from when the town’s library first opened. This one was at his favorite bar, which had closed a few years back. This one was from when he was overseas in the military. All of them full of peop—persons. Happy persons. He could name every person in all the paintings he showed me.

          I was a little confused. “Why don’t you sell any of them besides the ones of birds? Some of these are better than the stuff of yours that’s in museums.”

          He shook his head. “They’re too personal. Nobody would appreciate them like I do, and I’d miss having my friends around. Besides these paintings, it’s just me and the birds.”

          That struck even me as kinda tragic and unnecessary. “Why don’t you make other friends?”

          He stopped again. “I don’t know.”

          I was beginning to understand that Penheist’s mind worked in a funny way. I wonder if he had any idea what I was thinking, or if he even cared.

          I squirmed. “Well, I guess if you don’t wanna talk about that either—”

          He looked away. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I just don’t know. Nor do I care. Kid, I realized a long time ago that there’s just no point in some things, but they happen anyway. Like when you hurt yourself running out to the street the other day. What was the reason for that?”

          “Are you nuts?” I asked. “You pointed a gun at me!”

          He folded his arms. “And why did I point a gun at you?”

          I had to think about it for a second.

          “Because you value your privacy, and you felt that I intruded upon it.”

          “And that’s a good reason for me to point a gun at you?” he asked. “Do you go through life assuming that everything that happens to you is your own fault?”

          That was manipulative. I’d been trying to be nice. “Well, why did you point it at me, then?”

          He looked at me with his cold blue eyes. “I wanted you to go away.”

          “Well, that was the point, then, wasn’t it?”

          “Do you know why I wanted you to go away?”


          Penheist laughed, and sighed. “I don’t know either.”

          I think I raised my left eyebrow past my hairline. What was this man trying to say, or do? What was his problem?

          We sat in silence for a minute. Then, it occurred to me.

          “I think you were hoping I’d piss my pants, old man.”

          Penheist finally looked straight at me.

          “I think you wanted to piss your pants, boy.”

          I should have cringed. “Fuck you, old man.”

          “Fuck you too, Kid,” he replied.        

          I heard cooing coming from the roof. For a minute, I’d almost forgotten Sally was still up there.

          Penheist chuckled. It started to come clear for me. I measured my words as carefully as I could.

          “I don’t think you’re an intrinsically nasty person. I think you feel as though something or someone was taken from you, and so you try to deprive others of the better things you have to offer. You even make a game of it, but there’s no way to win. If you refuse to participate in the world, things will never get better, but if you accept the world as it is, it’s saying that it’s okay that God, or fate, or a coldly unaware universe took away what was most important to you.”

          The old man put his hand to his temple and groaned. “Kid, you stalk me, wake me up in the middle of the night, blackmail me with a false pedophilia charge, and then break down my character aloud to my face—as if my damage wasn’t perfectly obvious in the first place?”

          “It wasn’t obvious to me until about 30 seconds ago,” I said. “It took 4 weeks out of my life to figure that out. That’s my damage. The kids at school and our parents still figure you’re likely a pedophile anyway. Was this all obvious to you?”

          Penheist closed his eyes. “Big words, little man. Where did you learn to talk like that? I don’t believe you’re as young as you look.”

          “Yeah, well, I’m actually gonna take classes at the county college this summer. They just accepted me this week.” I hadn’t even told Sally that, yet.

          “It was my parents’ idea. Actually, the school is kind of to blame. There was a round of standardized tests, and anyone who passed got to take another standardized test. Yippee. And that other test happened to be the SAT. I passed both rounds, and my parents found out about this program at the county college, where you could be accepted without a high school degree if you had a certain SAT score.”

          “I’ll bet they thought it was a good opportunity for you,” he said.

          “I suppose. You’d probably figure that would make life easier for me in the long run, but I’m not sure. My priorities are a little different from the other kids’ already. Sometimes, I feel like an alien. I hate being put on a pedestal for being ‘smart.’ Truth is, I think these tests are utter bullshit, anyway. Every person has something they could teach me. The tests don’t value artistic ability, or crafts, or empathy. The problem is that none of the other kids really seem to get that, though. They get traumatized by stuff like this, unfairly. I’ve seen it happening since I started school. They learn to doubt their own ability and turn the insecurity around on people like you.”

          I looked down at my feet. “Sometimes I feel like I’m treated differently. Don’t get me wrong, though; people are generally nice to me. They just think I’m weird.”

          He uncrossed his arms. “How do your parents feel about you taking college classes?”

          “Honestly, they kind of act like it’s simply to be expected from me.”

          He looked me in the face. “And how does that make you feel?”

          Now, he sounded like the therapist they’d gotten for me. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

          Penheist chuckled. “I see. I’m sorry.”

          “Yeah, well, it beats summer camp,” I said.

          The old man’s face turned gentle. “I think you’d rather go to summer camp. Only, you don’t want to go with the kids you know from school. They’re in a different place right now. You’re on different wavelengths. You want to go with people who think and feel like you. You may think college students are those people, but they’re generally not—not any more so than your classmates, at least.”

        “How do you know?” I asked.

        “Most people want to be with others who are like them,” he said. “That’s probably why you came with that girl tonight.”

        “Her? She’s nothing like me,” I said.

        I could hear her laughing on the roof. Penheist and I both looked up at the ceiling. She was making a racket. She was always making a racket.

        He cleared his throat. “I don’t know either of you very well, but you’re easy to read. She’s a little harder. All I know, is you came together tonight, and most kids wouldn’t have tried something like that at your age.”

        He looked me straight in the face again. “So, why did you come here?”

        I folded my hands in my lap. “I don’t exactly know why. I saw your mosaic in the museum, and I felt like you could see things in a way that I can’t.”

        “So you wanted me to teach you how to see?”

        He smiled, slowly hoisting himself off his seat. “Look at me, Kid. I’m not special.” He stood up straight and offered himself for inspection with a wave of his hand. “If you’re looking for answers, you won’t get them from me. I’m sorry. But maybe I can show you something, so that the trip wasn’t wasted.”

        I got excited, but I didn’t wanna show it. I had a feeling that this was what I had come for.

        He took me to the end of the room, where there were some paints and brushes laid out with a few easels and canvasses covered with tarps.

        “I painted this when I was about your age.”

        He pulled the covering off one easel in a single fluid motion.

        It was the park by our school, on a cloudy, washed-out day. Depicted there was a flock of pigeons, some coming and going aimlessly, but most of them were fighting over pieces of bread being thrown by an older man in a trench coat and fedora. I looked closer. There was a nest in one of the trees, and in it, a mother feeding her babies.

        The old man in the picture wore a thin-lipped smile on his stubbly face. I couldn’t see his eyes under the rim of his hat. To his right was a brown paper bag, and in his open, outstretched left hand were little pieces of crusty bread.

        “This one is my most recent.”

        He lifted the tarp over gently from the left side.

        In the background of the painting was our neighborhood at sunrise as seen from his roof. I could see my house in the corner, and my favorite magnolia tree. In the foreground was a scarlet macaw, in colors that outshone the sun. The bird was standing on one foot on a wooden dowel for a perch, and in his other foot, he held a peanut, which he was cracking with his beak. 

        “That’s the Red Baron. He’s my favorite. He loves peanuts. I eat them with him on the roof, sometimes. Raw peanuts are a little nasty to my tastes, but he shouldn’t have the roasted ones, and I got used to his after a while.”

        The bird looked happy. So did Penheist. I felt strange, but kind of happy, too. I was glad I’d met the man.

         “Most of my bird paintings get sold, but these were just for me–or you, if you’d like either of them. You can have anything you see.”

        I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t quite gotten what I’d come looking for, but this might be better.  I didn’t understand the man. He was irascible. I couldn’t make sense of the front he put up. He didn’t seem genuinely bitter. Why, old man?

        Suddenly, there was a commotion on the roof. It sounded like someone was jumping up down, and the birds were loud enough to hear from down in the studio.

        Penheist and I both looked up, then back at each other.

        “How crazy is she, kid?”

        I winced. Without another word, we headed out of the studio and up to the cupola.

        Out on the roof, the cages were open, and birds were walking all over. Some bobbed their heads, others hopped around aimlessly, and a few flapped and preened. They had colors like the fruit section in the Asian market in the center of town. I could almost taste how colorful they were.  I remember being struck by the variation in plumage and manner. Each one was a little different; each one probably had its own story. It was a seething, cooing, squawking, pecking rainbow.

        Sally had her back turned to us, as she waved her arms and jumped, pleading with them in whispers.

        “C’mon—go. They’re gonna be back any second. Get moving. Now’s your chance,” she pleaded. “What’re ya waiting for? Pleeeasseee.”

        Slowly, she came around, motioning to the birds as she went. Then she noticed us.

        She froze. Her mouth spread gradually into the guiltiest of innocent smiles.

        “…Hi, guys.”

        I slapped my forehead. “What are you doing?”  She didn’t answer.

        Penheist looked grim. Gently, he pushed back the glass-paned door.

        All at once, the birds stopped.

        Nobody breathed. We stood in silence for a moment.  Penheist raised his left foot a millimeter at a time.

        There was an almost imperceptible wave of wings—a coo here, a peck there.

        He lowered it just outside the door.

        The flapping was so forceful that the roof shook. They lifted off like a churning, swirling, polychromatic puff of smoke from a fire. The rush of air over my face was the freshest thing I’d ever felt.  They shot out into the open sky like fireworks in a screeching chorus of avian song and beating wings, glittering like prismatic shards of glass shot through with the first light of sunrise, exploding upward into the indigo-blue of a cool morning. Our eyes turned up, following them as they rose.

        They cried frantically over one another, as Penheist and I stepped out of the cupola. A hierarchy began to coalesce, biggest and brightest in front, smaller birds trailing.  They started to circle us, first moving as a single cell, then spreading into an undulating, tie-dyed sheet of feathers and beaks that caught the light like a stained-glass window.

        They circled us once, and then they took off for… somewhere, I suppose. Where does a bird fly when it’s lived its life in a cage? Canada? Mexico? How far would they venture? I’d fly to the biggest library I could find. Penheist would probably wing it to the nearest bar. I wasn’t quite sure what Sally would do.

        “Keep flying ‘til your wings fall off!” she crowed. Penheist jumped.

        A minute later, they were specks in an endless expanse.

        I looked at the roof and surveyed the aftermath. There was bird shit everywhere, a few loose feathers, and those lonely cages, open and waiting for an avian.  On the end of the row of cages, there was one cage with a lingering occupant, despite the open door.

        Sally and I watched as Penheist shambled over to the cage at the end. He offered a hand, and the Red Baron alighted his wrist.

        The bird was even bigger and brighter in person, with titanium white cheeks, a red carpet across his back that would have made Hollywood jealous, and broad, spectral wings. Arthur took him to the edge of the roof, in the direction the others had went, and looked over.

        The bird ruffled. “Caw.”

        “Alright, buddy, I know what you’re thinking,” he said.

        The Baron looked at him straight in the eyes. “Caw.”

        “Just go.” He shook his arm.

        The bird bounced with it, gripping fast. “Caw!”

        “I’m not your friend,” he told him. “You shouldn’t be here. Go!”

        “Ca-cacaw!” replied the bird.

        “I don’t want you, anymore! Leave!”


        Without another word, Penheist grabbed him by the legs with his free hand and yanked. By the look of those feet, the parrot had let go gently. He threw the bird off the roof, launching him like a paper airplane.

        The Baron flapped hard and rose into the morning. He flew higher than any of the others, spiraling as he rose.

        He circled the roof once as we watched. As he came around, back to the sunrise, we saw him in silhouette, wings wider than my eyes could hold. I saw a glint in Arthur’s eyes as he looked down.

        The Baron flapped for a moment, suspended. Then, he landed on Penheist’s head.

        He ruffled his feathers. “I love you. Caw!”

        I looked at Sally. She covered her mouth to keep from laughing.

        Penheist folded his arms and shook his bird-ridden head.

        The Baron preened out his wings. “I love you. CA-CAW!”

        Arthur looked away from us. “I love you, too, you overgrown bag of pillow stuffing.”


        None of us could take it. We burst into flamboyant laughter. Penheist started to curse. Sally made funny faces. I cried for what felt like a year. I swear the bird laughed, too, squawking as he scratched at the old man’s hair.  It was full morning, though I couldn’t remember it ever having been that early, or late.

Nobody said anything for a while. Eventually, Penheist let the bird come down onto his arm. He smiled at us.

        “You can come again whenever you’d like to, but I may not be around for much longer, so come back soon.” He scratched himself.

        “CAW!” said the bird.

        “C’mon, it’s getting late. Let me show you out.”

        We walked back into the cupola and he got another candle from a box.

        Sally shook her head. “Why do you use candles, anyway?”

        Penheist scratched again. “Guy at the electric company ran off with my wife.”

        We looked at each other and fidgeted.

        Sally smirked. “When’d she leave ya?”

        The bird nuzzled him.

        “…When I stopped paying the electric bill,” he said.

        She rolled her eyes.

        The bird looked at me like he was expecting something. He waved his wing. I think he wanted me to speak, but I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say.

        “When did you stop paying the electric bill?” I asked.

        Arthur Penheist scratched the bird softly on his white cheeks. “…When our son died.”

        Sally winced. “Sorry.”

        Penheist didn’t seem upset. “Don’t be.”

        He didn’t say another word until we got to the door.

        “Thanks for coming.”

        I asked him why he said he wouldn’t be around. He told us he was moving to South America—somewhere where the bird would be comfortable. We said our goodbyes and snuck back to my house. Sally and I agreed that it was the best sleep-over ever. Our parents’ hadn’t been too cool with the idea of her staying the night, but Sally had gotten them to change their minds. Tiger balls, that girl.

        There was a stir in the basement.  The party went back to its steamroll through the night. I coughed. I’d zoned off again. I’d been zoning off a lot, lately.

        I looked over at Sally. She seemed totally loose and even, still waiting for me to answer.

        “Yeah, I remember Arthur. Why do you bring him up?”

        “What did you two talk about that night?”

        I pulled on my cigarette for punctuation. “I’m not sure why you’re asking now.”

        “You were fixated on learning everything you could about the man. And then you talked to him for a good long time while I played with his birds. What did you learn about him?”

        “We talked a little about his life, and mine. He showed me some paintings, and he offered me one of them.”

        “But what did you learn?”

        I filled the ellipsis with a puff of Bugler. “…I learned that Arthur Penheist was a man, just like me.” I looked over at her, waiting for a reaction.

        Sally didn’t move. Her breathing was regular. Her body was relaxed. Her eyes closed slowly.

        I looked back to my cigarette.

        My right eye felt like it exploded. I steadied myself on the bar again. The room spun. I dropped my cigarette.

        Her words were cool and even: “You’re nothing like him.”

        I felt my head hit concrete. The room danced. I couldn’t right myself in my head.

        I saw her walking in metered step towards the stairs. As I closed my eyes, I saw a flash of the painting I had gotten from Penheist. He’d given it to me when I came back with Sally a week or so later. It was hanging in my room back home, next to the window. As she walked through the door, Sally looked like his wife did–quiescent, awake.

        In the corner of the frame was a photo that had been sent with warm greetings from Venezuela. It was a snapshot of two birds caught in flight.

        I remembered, when the house went up for sale, the kids started circulating all sorts of rumors. Penheist was dead, of course, by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

        I fucking hate people.


[1] Attributed to Lao Tzu, translated by Wu, John C. H., from the Tao Te Ching. Boston: Shambala. 1989.

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