David Desjardins

Graciela missed her regular bus that evening, having left the house later than usual on account of her son screaming bloody murder about the damned eyedrops. She ran three blocks to the stop, and stood there on her toes, all out of breath and frantic, to look down East Avenue for the black-and-yellow façade of the bus she took to her job in Providence’s jewelry district. The night-shift foreman there had all the Cape Verdean girls on a short leash, filho da puta.

That was when it happened, the thing with the birds. Later she learned it occurred at that exact time every evening; she was only hearing it now because she was so late. It was a roar, a crazy torrent of whistling and warbling, and it grew steadily like the sound of a train. When she looked up, the tree above her shimmered with movement, what must be a thousand wings rippling, that made the leafy mass look like a big pond you’d just thrown a rock into.

Que diabos, Graciela thought, it’s like I’m stoned, like that time when Rosa bought those mushrooms and the two of them skipped school to spend the day at Slater Park Zoo, pressing handfuls of popcorn into the ticklish snouts of animals and running barefoot through the pine needles down by the duck pond.

But she wasn’t stoned, hadn’t been since way before Sammy was born.

And then the voice.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” The words sounded with an electric clarity, and she somehow knew they were meant for her. But there was no one there, no one anywhere around her, just a small white bungalow set back ten feet or so from the bus stop’s cast-iron bench.

It was weird, powerful, the combined effect of the birds’ turbulence and the disembodied voice, as if it were a message, as if she were being shown something.

When she looked up, the tree above her shimmered with movement, what must be a thousand wings rippling, that made the leafy mass look like a big pond you’d just thrown a rock into.

Behind her she heard the wheeze of the bus’s brakes and its doors rattling open. Taking her seat, she looked around at the passengers’ faces and marveled at their nonchalance. Which was silly, of course; how could they possibly share her dizzying sense of dislocation? She felt the whole world was throbbing with chaos except for inside this 80-foot-long roving bubble.

The next evening, Graciela got her parents to give Sammy his drops, and so she made it to the bus stop at her usual time. By then she’d forgotten about the birds and the voice. Her head was full of her son’s complaints: “I don’t want to wear that bandage – all the kids at school tease me about it” and “Why can’t I go to Papa’s house anymore?” It was one thing after another, and you just got worn down, so that it was almost a relief to head to work at night.

Then, standing there on the sidewalk, again she heard that voice.

“I’m sorry if I spooked you yesterday. I guess that was pretty strange, right?” Without the birds’ ruckus, she could tell now that the voice came from the house. She studied the seedy, squat structure closely, but could see no one. “What… who are you?”

“It was the starlings. I could tell you were blown away by them. You know, they call the flocks ‘murmurations.’ Perfect, isn’t it? And just wait till you see them fly together.”

She couldn’t figure out the trick. She felt like Dorothy in that movie when she first steps into the Wizard’s palace. But it turned out there was no trick, just a bedridden man monitoring a camera and speaker system from his room on the bungalow’s second floor, some guy who liked to watch the birds that visited the well-provisioned feeder in the front yard.

“Go on, check it out,'' the voice urged. “Up the steps, that’s right. That lens, it's a Leica, top of the line. I can make it zoom in, go wide-angle, you name it. And the microphone picks up everything – too much, to tell you the truth. It’s handy for when people come to the door and my housemate’s not home to answer.”

Graciela took a few hesitant steps onto the porch. The nameplate above the doorbell read “F. Ptacek.” She wasn't familiar with that surname but it sure wasn’t Cape Verdean, that much she knew. Despite his invitation, she felt like an intruder, knew that any white neighbors who might be spying through their windows would be wary of her.

On the floor of the porch stood a large plastic bin with bags of birdseed inside and a gritty scoop on top.

“I get a lot of cardinals, finches, once in a while even an oriole. Lots of sparrows, of course. There’s a suet cage hanging behind you that the woodpecker likes – when the squirrels don’t get there first, anyway.”

She thought it must be poor entertainment, watching a few birds answer the dinner bell, but who could figure out some people? When the bus came, she said a confused goodbye and bounded off the porch to catch it.

At breakfast the next morning – a Saturday – Graciela told her parents and Sammy what happened. Her father gave her his usual sour look and ducked his head back behind the sports page: “Time you used a different bus stop’s my advice.” As for Sammy, he didn’t look up from his corn flakes, but later that day while picking up in his bedroom Graciela found a crayoned drawing of a house with heavily lashed second-story eyes, framed by a swirl of what looked like blue jays.

The following Monday evening, she ignored her father’s advice, and in fact made sure to arrive at the bus stop earlier than usual. She stood facing the bungalow’s front door, hands on her hips, and said “Hey.”

There was no answer at first, and then the sound of something being dropped. Finally he responded.

“Hey yourself. Did you have a good weekend?”

Foda-se! First thing: Are you some weirdo peeper freak or what?”

“Uh… nope. No weirder than most. What’s the second thing?”

“Just this: Do you hit on every woman who waits for a bus here?”

“No again. Only you. And I’m not hitting on you. If you could see me, you’d understand that in a second. You just looked different.”

“Different how?”

“Well… quiet, I guess. Most people waiting there, they pull out their cellphones, they’re checking this and that, videos, e-mail. They can’t handle just standing still, being alone with their thoughts. You’re different. It’s like a Zen thing you’ve got going. I like that.”

She knew it was flattery, but still Graciela was appeased, even felt a bit guilty for speaking so rudely to him. Over the next few days she sat on the man’s front steps and chatted with him while waiting for her bus.

His name was Freddy, and he was a former forest ranger. About five years ago he’d learned he had multiple sclerosis, and gradually the disease closed down his world. First, he started needing a cane, then crutches, then a wheelchair. It was his legs, mostly: They’d simply stopped doing what he told them. The doctors said he had the progressive form of the disease, meaning it would only get worse.

Until the previous summer, he’d still been able to get outside by sliding downstairs on his butt, and later back up by dragging his limp legs behind him, step by step. In his wheelchair he invariably sought out what for him now passed for wilderness: Swan Point Cemetery, five blocks away. The heavily wooded graveyard sloped down to the river and crawled with wildlife: fox, rabbits, wild turkeys, warblers, and near the water, herons and river otters. He’d sit for hours like a hunter in a blind, binoculars on his lap, spying on the natural world.

As for Sammy, he didn’t look up from his corn flakes, but later that day while picking up in his bedroom Graciela found a crayoned drawing of a house with heavily lashed second-story eyes, framed by a swirl of what looked like blue jays.

But those excursions were just a memory. The only traveling Freddy did these days was to the lavatory adjoining his bedroom, specially fit out with an extra-wide doorway and grab bars on every wall. Now he had only the birds at the front yard feeder, as captured on a 55-inch flat-screen monitor perched on his bureau. He rented out the first floor of his house to a guy who worked days down at the shipyard and who in the evenings helped himself to Freddy’s stash of medical marijuana.

He said he came by his love for nature the same way most kids did growing up in Rhode Island in the 1960s: Cub Scout trips, summers at Camp Yawgoog deep in the South County woods, chasing merit badges in First Aid and Citizenship and Emergency Preparedness. After graduating college, he got lucky: a job as a ranger in national parks out West whose names dazzled Graciela with their strangeness: Joshua Tree and Petrified Forest and Gates of the Arctic.

Audible yet invisible, Freddy was like a character in a book to Graciela: You know what they think because the author tells you, but you have to imagine almost everything else about them. She gathered that Freddy was white and old – older even than her own father, she guessed. But was he fat, tall, freckled, blond, acne-scarred, green-eyed, ugly? She never asked, feeling that doing so might somehow lower her in his estimation.

But his hidden, cloaked nature spurred in Graciela a desire to confide in Freddy, in the same way you might feel free, in the darkness of the confessional over at St. Raymond’s, to tell Father Dennis things about your life that you somehow never told anyone else. She told Freddy how as a child she found a small cardboard box in her father’s drawer, filled with tiny teeth that she knew must be her own, harvested over the years from underneath her pillow. She told him about the time her young cousin Alcindo, having carelessly zipped up after peeing, ran crying into a parlor full of aunties with his caralho all lacerated by the unforgiving metal teeth. She told him about Moreno: his dark dreamy eyes, his boasting and promises, and his repeated abandonment of herself and Sammy over the past few years.

Being housebound made Freddy a good listener, Graciela thought, unlike other people, who always seemed to have someplace more important to be. Whenever people said, “Well, I’ll let you go now,’’ Graciela knew it was really just themselves they wanted to liberate. Freddy had nowhere else to go, never cut short their conversations.

And so Graciela eventually took to showing up on his doorstep, not just on those evenings she waited for her bus, but at odd times of the day. Sometimes she simply wanted to hear Freddy talk about the wild places he’d been: his ranger’s cabin up in Alaska where you could watch a mama grizzly bear and her cubs traverse a hillside while you sipped your morning coffee, or the eerie blue snowfield in Wyoming where, even on a 90-degree day in July, you could flop on your back and make a snow angel. Other times Graciela’s agitation was such that she needed to vent about her unending campaign to make Moreno pay child support, or about the fights Sammy would get into after school with the white kids over at Varieur Elementary.

And Freddy, for his part, seemed to like her company. He took a particular interest in Sammy, asking about the boy’s chronic eye problems, his pathetic justifications of his deadbeat dad, or the types of dinosaurs he loved to read about. One afternoon Freddy directed Graciela toward the far corner of the porch, where he’d instructed his housemate to place a gift-wrapped “Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’’ for Sammy.

“There’s a life list in the back: What you do is check off the birds you’ve seen,’’ he said. “Tell Sammy that if he likes dinosaurs, he should get into birds, because they are the modern-day versions of all those fantastic creatures in his books.’’

But his hidden, cloaked nature spurred in Graciela a desire to confide in Freddy, in the same way you might feel free, in the darkness of the confessional over at St. Raymond’s, to tell Father Dennis things about your life that you somehow never told anyone else.

The next week, Graciela had her worst day ever at Matisse Jewelry. The foreman made a point of standing directly over her on the assembly line and bitching about her work: the way she welded the pin on one brooch, her gluing of the rhinestones on another – on and on, all through her shift, till she wanted to tell him to shove the frigging things up his bunda. She couldn’t do that, of course; she needed the job. Later, when she climbed out of the late-night bus opposite Freddy’s house, she was still so upset about it that she stood on his steps and spoke to the darkened house: “Freddy? Are you there?”

After a minute, she heard: “Always.”

And so she let loose on the bastard, for something like thirty minutes or so, with Freddy chirping in sympathetically now and then. Later, she slowed down enough to wonder: “Don’t you sleep at night?” He said he did, in short catnaps, but often the pain from the MS kept him awake. The marijuana helped, but it worked more to distract him from the pain than to ease it.

She felt a pang upon hearing this, reminded of the gross disparity between her troubles and his. Here she had come, in the middle of the night, laying her crap before him, and the guy not only can’t walk, can’t drive, can’t care for himself – he can’t even sleep.

She resolved to do something nice for Freddy, something special. The next day, her mother showed Graciela how to make her special cachupa rica, and the kitchen swam with the smells of the stew’s salt pork, garlic, and chorico sausage.

Graciela had hoped to bring it to Freddy the next morning, but she had forgotten her promise to drive the family up to Worcester to celebrate a young cousin’s First Communion. So it wasn’t until Monday, after she packed Sammy off to school, that she brought the stew over to Freddy’s. She put on the nice dress that she’d worn to church the day before. She wanted to see Freddy, she told herself. She wanted even more for him to see her, the real Graciela, not a grainy video. He deserved a real visitor, she thought, not some stupid girl loitering on his front porch.

She stood on his steps holding the cachupa rica before her, yelling “Surprise, Freddy!” like a waitress presenting a birthday cake. But he did not answer. Deflated, and feeling somewhat ridiculous, she came back later, and even rang the doorbell repeatedly, but again there was no response. She decided to try once more in the evening, minus the stew, arriving 10 minutes before she needed to catch the bus to work.

The car in the driveway suggested to her that Freddy’s housemate was home from work, and after a minute’s worth of knocking, the door cracked open.

“Hi. I’m trying to see Freddy…’’ – she paused, having no idea how to pronounce his last name – “um, the man who lives upstairs.”

The young man at the door examined her from head to toe. He had blond curls and a thick dark moustache. His eyes were bloodshot and he gave off a vaguely industrial smell.

“Oh yeah.” He wandered back into the living room. “Come on in.”

Some kind of an action movie was on the TV. Things were blowing up on the screen but the sound was muted. The man sat on the couch and lit a cigarette.

“You’re that chick who hangs out on the porch.” He kept his eyes on the TV. Graciela felt her face burn. “That’s me. I was hoping –’’

“Yeah, well, that ain’t going to happen. They took him away a couple days ago. Miriam Hospital, I think they said.”

Graciela felt her stomach seize up with a kind of dread. “Is he all right?”

The man snorted at such a ridiculous question. “No.” His voice was mocking and he sculpted his cigarette on a heavy glass ashtray. “You have no clue, do you?”

All at once, his odor filled Graciela’s throat. It reminded her of the smells that seeped from the electroplating room at her work, and she edged back toward the door. “I… I’m sorry to bother you…. I should go.”

She felt a pang upon hearing this, reminded of the gross disparity between her troubles and his. Here she had come, in the middle of the night, laying her crap before him, and the guy not only can’t walk, can’t drive, can’t care for himself – he can’t even sleep.

She was halfway out the door when he stopped her.

“Hold on, sister. I just remembered something.” He shuffled toward the adjoining room and riffled through some papers before extracting a small manila envelope and holding it out to her.

“He said to give this to you…” – he squinted at the handwriting on the paper – “Graz… whatever.” He handed her the envelope and closed the door behind her.

The bus was pulling up even as Graciela stepped back out onto the porch, and she joined the short line of people who were boarding. She tucked the envelope into her purse and rode to work in a daze.

At work she labored distractedly, her mind swirling with pictures of Freddy – whom she imagined, ridiculously, swaddled head to toe in bandages like the Mummy in those cheesy horror movies – being trundled down stairs on a stretcher or strapped to a hospital bed surrounded by ominous blinking, beeping machines. Later, her sleep was fitful, riddled with the same scenarios.

In the morning, she took Sammy’s drawing of Freddy’s house and walked the 10 blocks to Miriam Hospital. At the front desk she asked to see Freddy, mangling his last name, no doubt.

The receptionist tapped her computer keyboard a couple of times, then took a deep breath before speaking.

“Are you family, ma’am?”

“Yes,” Graciela lied. “I’m his niece.”

She was surprised that the woman didn’t laugh in her face; instead, she asked Graciela to take a seat in the reception area and lifted her handset from its cradle.

After a few minutes, a tall black woman emerged from the elevator and walked directly to the front desk, where the receptionist pointed out Graciela to her.

The woman walked over to Graciela and stared at her in silence. Graciela guessed the woman to be her own mother’s age. She was beautiful, her eyes dark like Moreno's – although she appeared to be as tired as Graciela herself felt.

Finally the woman spoke. “This is a joke, right?”

Graciela’s words tumbled out: “No, no… I mean, I’m not Freddy’s niece …”

“Yeah, I figured that part out.” She examined Graciela carefully. “So.... Kuze bu kre, sister?”

The Creole phrase threw Graciela temporarily. “It’s just… I’m his friend… Can you tell me how he is?”

The woman sighed, then picked up Sammy’s drawing from the seat next to Graciela and frowned at it.

“I need a cigarette.” She lay the drawing down and walked off toward the main hospital entrance, stopped, and turned back to Graciela.

“I’m not waiting.”

Graciela caught up to her at a bench along a circular driveway where smoking was evidently allowed.

The woman took a deep drag from her cigarette and eyed Graciela thoughtfully. “So, Freddy's Friend.... I’m right that your folks are from the islands?”

Graciela nodded, and the woman reached over to touch the conta di odjo beads in Graciela’s necklace. She shook her head as if at some private joke.

“Anyway, my parents are too. Came here in ’69. Same year as the moon landing, which for them was what moving here was like, I guess. But not me – no, I was going to be an American, and what better way to prove it than marrying the white man. What Freddy was trying to prove, well, damned if I know…. Maybe that he was a decent person.”

She snorted. “Funny, right?”

“But he is a decent person,” Graciela burst out.

“Yeah, well, not anymore.” She looked away from Graciela and took another deep drag. “Sorry to break it to you, kid, but those chickens have come home to roost.” She glanced at her watch. “About three hours ago.”

Graciela couldn’t say what caused her tears to come or her muscles to slacken – surely she had to know Freddy was gone last night, standing there in his living room, didn’t she? But now she felt her whole being buckle. Her body sagged and her shoulders heaved, and the woman, seeing this, breathed out “Oh for Chrissake” and dropped her cigarette to the ground. She pulled Graciela to her and stroked her hair gently.

The two of them sat there, rocking slowly, for five minutes. Finally the woman let Graciela go.

Graciela couldn’t say what caused her tears to come or her muscles to slacken – surely she had to know Freddy was gone last night, standing there in his living room, didn’t she? But now she felt her whole being buckle.

“I guess we knew two different men,’’ she said. “Yours, maybe he wasn’t so bad. But mine was a son of a bitch. Sorry, that’s the way it is. He ran off to live his life, and the hell with us: his son, his daughter, me. It was the wilderness he should have married, that’s what he really loved. As for real life, not so much – he never had the stomach for that.”

The woman stood up. “I gotta go. They want me to sign some papers.” But she hesitated, and Graciela felt the woman’s hand on her shoulder.

“Look, you seem like a good kid. A bit like my Blanca, I guess I’d have to say. So… I’m sorry for your loss. I don’t get it – like I say, what goes around comes around – but… anyway, I’m sorry. ”

Without looking up, Graciela whispered, “Obrigadu,” but thankful for what, she couldn't say. She heard the woman’s footsteps recede. After a minute she walked off downhill, aimlessly, she figured. But 10 minutes later, when she found herself on Blackstone Boulevard, with the graveyard right there, she thought: Of course.

She walked past the huge boulder at the entrance, the copper-green letters that spelled out “Swan Point Cemetery” stuck to the stone like refrigerator magnets. She walked past a chapel and into a webwork of tree-lined lanes, past mausoleums and huge grave markers, some the size of small trees themselves. She imagined Freddy wheeling himself around here, alert for birds and other wild things. The most recent gravestones seemed to be at least a hundred years old. There were granite angels pushing aside stones everywhere but Graciela was the only living visitor. People lose interest in the dead quickly, she thought.

As for Freddy, she wondered, who would mourn him? Certainly not his family, judging from the woman back at the hospital. Nor his housemate, Graciela sensed. It might be that Graciela herself was the only living person to hold a good thought in her head for Freddy, which was laughable when she considered she’d never laid eyes on him.

And how could he be so neglectful of his own children and yet so kind to her? Was he a bastard, or a good man? Or was he just a good liar? Perhaps he was all three, she thought.

Graciela followed the lanes downhill toward the Seekonk River, as if she were a small stream herself. Eventually the grass tumbled toward a green bowl, beyond which a small rustic gazebo stood. A small sign told her this was something called Stranger’s Rest. She found a seat inside, just as a few drops of rain began to fall.

Rolling up Sammy’s drawing to tuck into her handbag, she saw the small manila envelope she had been given at Freddy’s the night before. She pinched the metal tabs together and opened it. Inside was a small plastic sandwich bag that held two neatly rolled joints and a book of matches.

She looked at her wristwatch. She had five hours and thirty-nine minutes before she needed to get Sammy from school. Sure, why not, she thought.

The third toke hit her like a freight train. She pressed the lit end of the joint against the sole of her shoe, and stood in the gazebo doorway, just clear of the raindrops. The damp made the whole world smell different, she thought.

This time she thought it: Obrigadu.

The wind was picking up, and the bushes farther downhill shook as if startled. Something moved there, she could swear it, but what it was she couldn’t say.

Author’s Commentary: This story was inspired by time spent with a dear friend who hiked with me for many years before, like the off-camera character in "A Murmuration," becoming ill and homebound, leading him to spend many hours watching a video feed of the wildlife that visited his backyard.

David Desjardins Pic.jpeg

David Desjardins is a journalist with roots in Rhode Island, having worked at The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and other newspapers. His short stories have been published in Red Savina Review, Gravel, and in the anthology Further Fenway Fiction (Rounder Books, 2007). He lives near Boston with his wife.