Birdland - James Michael Starr

Birdland

 

SHRIEKING IN DESPERATION, the panicked bird flapped its wings into a blurred flurry of yellow, flinging blood in dotted strings of crimson across the walls and ceiling.

The harder the teenage boy struggled to hold it down, the more the canary cried out, triggering a cacophony of screeching and squawking from every aisle of Gump’s Birdland.

“Stop!” Fred Gump yelled. He ran from the front of the store, bumping young Marie Schioppo out of the way to seize the boy by the shoulder. Spinning him around, he yelled in his face. “Stop it, Michael! What in the hell are you doing?”

The boy stood paralyzed in Gump’s grip–all but his hands, which, out of his control, swooped left and right, up and down until Gump wrested the frenzied creature away from him.

Grabbing a clean, white towel from the shelf above, the shop owner wrapped the bird, mummy-like, then released it long enough to gesture threateningly at the boy: holding out a fist, he sent his other hand swiping across the top, as if to mime his beheading. “You’re fired!” he yelled.

Michael looked back and forth between the two of them, one eyebrow cocked in apparent disbelief, then ran out the back door without a word.

Finally, the canary’s shrieks faded into frightened peeps, and Birdland grew quiet once more.

“Will she still be able to fly?” whispered Marie. Blood-spattered hands covered half her face so that only dark, tear-filled, almond eyes could be seen peeking out from below bangs of curly black hair.

Gump ignored her and slowly unwound the towel, peeling it back to reveal a dark stain creeping like a red glacier across the thick nap of white terry cloth.

He looked over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses and locked eyes with her. “Young lady, you didn’t see this,” he said.

She dropped her hands from her face. “But, Mr. Gump. I did,”

“I’m just saying you need to forget you did. That is, if you want your little personal aviary to stay in business. Anyway, what are you doing here now?”

“You were closed yesterday.”

“Yesterday was Labor Day, Marie. Everything was closed. What I mean is, I thought you left an hour ago, and I’m just about to lock up. Shouldn’t you be off bottle-feeding some emaciated chipmunk? Or tending to those hobbled rabbits of yours?”

She wiped her nose. “They’re fine.”

“Wait, wasn’t today the first day of school? Don’t you have homework?”

“School’s over for me, Mr. Gump. I got done last year.”

“Oh, alright. Only stay out of my way for once.”

Disheveled and balding, Gump was a little older than her father and bigger around the middle, with thickened fingers that belied a delicate touch. With one hand he gently splayed the canary flat against the table and with the other started first aid, pressing a clean, white cloth to the wound. Next, he gently dabbed at it with cotton balls wetted from a brown glass bottle and quickly fell into a pattern of constant, repetitive motion.

Marie winced at the smell of alcohol then recoiled when he picked up a pair of needle-nose pliers. “Don’t!” she shouted.

He glared at her. “Your sympathy is misplaced, Marie.” Grasping the damaged feather, he pulled it free of the wing in one quick motion, then turned and dropped it into a metal wastebasket at his feet. The hollow, pinkish quill landed with a plink. “At least now she won’t bleed to death. She’ll live.”

“Yeah,” Marie sneered. “But in a cage.” She moved closer and craned her neck to get a better view of his patient. “What did the boy do?”

“Who?”

“That boy that ran out of here.”

“Oh, Michael,” Gump growled. “Three days on the job and this happens. He was trimming her wings and cut the blood feather.”

“Trimming her wings?”

Gump examined both of them. “Yes, he seems to have done that right.”

“But, Mr. Gump. Doesn’t that mean she won’t be able to fly?”

He looked at her and sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, Marie, but forget it. Clipped wings or not, you can’t expect a little bird like this to survive out there on its own.”

He reached to the shelf overhead with his free hand and retrieved a glass jar. Unscrewing the lid, he sprinkled yellow powder on the bloody wingtip. The canary just laid there, opening and closing her mouth without a sound, as if gulping air.

Marie felt her chest tighten and she gasped. “Mr. Gump, Pinkie doesn’t look so good!”

“It’s just blood loss, Marie. The bird’s in shock.” He screwed the lid back on the jar and replaced it on the shelf. “But, Pinkie? Why in the world would you name a yellow bird Pinkie?”

“After Pinkie Wingate,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “You know, Judy Garland in Listen, Darling.”

“Oh, right. Judy Garland. I should have known,” he muttered. “But while we’re on the subject of naming my birds. Up there in the front window, why do you keep scotch-taping names on those cages?”

“Because you keep taking them off.”

He rolled his eyes. “And I see you’ve even named one after yourself. That oriole up there.”

“Yes, she reminds me of me.”

“Fine. You just need to understand there’s a depression on. Things are bad all over, and I’m afraid you’re going to hurt my sales. Taping names on them? Customers might think those birds are spoken for. And it doesn’t help that you’re always sitting there in the window, singing to them.”

“Somebody needs to sing to them, Mr. Gump. How would you like it if you were stuck there in a cage?”

“Actually, I think you’re the one that’s stuck. Out of school, almost an adult. Why don’t you get out of this town? With a voice like that, you could really go places.”

“I am going places, Mr. Gump. That’s why I’m sitting there in the window. That’s where I’ll be discovered.”

“Discovered?”

“Sure, like Lana Turner. You know, at the soda counter at Schwab’s? She’s my second favorite.”

She reached out to touch the canary, and he moved his own hands to let her.

“Good,” he said. “Keep her still.”

He examined the bird’s wound again and looked up at the girl.

“Yes, she’ll likely survive,” he said. “But it’s going to be weeks before she’s presentable. If she ever is. And if she isn’t, I won’t be able to get full price. So I need to warn you, I could end up having to euthanize her. It’s just business. Be prepared is all I’m saying.”

He busied himself with clean-up, tossing away bloody cotton swabs, and wiping off his hands and arms.

She leaned in and whispered to the canary. “Don’t you worry, Pinkie. We’ll get you outta here.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He rolled down his sleeves and handed her the alcohol-soaked cloth. “Now you clean up. It’s all over your face, too.”

She curled her lip at the smell and, holding her breath, wiped the blood spatter off her face and hands. From her pocket, she pulled an envelope and peeked inside. She held it out to him.

“What’s that?”

“Two dollars and seventy-eight cents. All I have saved up.”

“I’m sorry, Marie. That’s not even enough to cover the expenses on this bird. I’ll take my chances.”

“And I’ll take mine. Sell her to me.”

“It won’t work. Sure, she’ll fly around in a cage just fine. But you try your little Florence Nightingale routine? Nurse her back and set her free out of doors? She’ll kill herself.”

“I bet you.”

Gump looked taken aback. “What are insinuating, young lady? You don’t know me.”

“Gee, Mr. Gump, I didn’t mean anything! I’m just saying I’ll bet you I can get her to fly.”

“Okay, fine,” he said, sticking out a defiant chin. “I’m not a betting man, but you’re on. You put in your three bucks, and I’ll put in the bird. You say she’ll fly, I say she won’t.”

“Throw in some birdseed and a cage and you’ve got yourself a deal.” She emptied the contents of the envelope into his hand.

He placed a small cage on the table, spread a clean white cloth inside, and rested the canary in the center, then placed a brown paper bag of birdseed next to the cage.

She picked up the bag and read the slogan printed on the front.

FIND THE PERFECT PET AT
GUMP’S BIRDLAND

“See? You said it yourself.” She opened the cage door and placed the bag inside. “You just watch, Mr. Gump. We’ll fly out of this town. Both of us.”

She grasped the wire handle on the top of the cage and lifted it from the table, and he walked her to the door.

“Thank you for your patronage, Miss Schioppo,” he said. “Please don’t come again.”

He opened the door and the bell rang overhead.

She looked up at it, and humming to match the key, walked out of the shop.


Image:
By the Birdcage (detail)
Alfred Ronner (1851-1901)

 

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