Flightless Birds - James Michael Starr

Flightless Birds


I ‘M MOSTLY EXCITED  about going to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play the Cincinnati Reds at Forbes field. The part I’m not excited about is the part that started a half hour ago: Highway 30.

It cuts across one corner of West Virginia, rolling up and down through the Alleghenies, before winding and twisting its way the last 45 minutes or so into Pittsburgh.

The rolling, winding, and twisting is a problem for me. Or rather, the rolling, winding, and twisting combined with the fact that I get carsick. Or to be more clear, the rolling, winding, and twisting, combined with getting car-sick, combined with a driver like Red, who drives like a bat out of hell, and then for some reason, once we’ve crossed over into Pennsylvania, has to jerk to a stop about every ten minutes at some Italian restaurant or liquor store or auto repair shop and run in with one of his stupid purple bowling ball bags from the trunk.

Is this a Columbus Day thing or what?  Every Italian’s birthday? A gesture of good will? An apology for being Irish?

Okay, and then just one more. It’s really the rolling, winding, and twisting, combined with getting car-sick, combined with the fact that if I puke all over the immaculate interior of this convertible, I’ll never hear the end of it. That or I may end up in the trunk, tied up in a canvas bag with weights, to be thrown in the river.

Actually now that I think of it, the way I feel right now, tied up in a canvas bag with weights to be thrown in the river sounds pretty good.

“Mom,” Lee says. “Jamie doesn’t look so well.”

Mom twists around in her seat so she can see for herself exactly how green I am.

“Red, maybe you’d better slow down a little,” she says. “He gets carsick.”

I see Red’s eyes glaring at me in the rearview mirror.

“Fine,” he huffs. “You need me to stop, kid? Maybe you could get out and wait here til we come back for you after the game. That way you won’t spoil things for the rest of us.”

“Red!” she giggles. She actually thinks he’s joking.

“Anyhow, rowlf in my car and I’ll make you lick it all up,” he warns. “If you have to puke, do it in that cap.”

His remarks send me so close to the edge, I have to muster everything in me to keep things down. But no way am I throwing up in this Pirates cap. It’s beautiful, and so new I can still smell the yellow wool. I may puke my guts out. I may get dropped off here on the side of the road, or at some sleazy liquor store. The Pirates may go down in some god-forsaken atrocity of a ball game rout. Everything may go to hell today, but I’m going home with this cap.

“Do like Dad says,” Lee whispers to me from under her own cap. “Pick out something far away, like one of those hilltops. Just look at something that’s not moving.”

After a few minutes that starts to work.

Unfortunately, I also can’t help thinking of the first time Dad told me that. It was my first time on a ferris wheel. Up and down and around and around, and on top of that the gondola was swinging constantly forward and back. By the time he noticed there was anything wrong with me and told me to look at something that wasn’t moving, I was too far gone. Everything I looked at was moving. It was a carnival for crying out loud.

We were at the very top when I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I felt so sorry for the people in the gondolas below us.

So I guess it could be worse. As the humiliation of the ferris wheel incident comes back to me, I get control of myself real quick, and for the rest of the trip I’m okay.

A ways down the road, my mother turns back toward my sister sitting behind Red.

“Lee, honey, would you hand me that bag of snacks on the floorboard in front of you?” my mother asks.

“Sure!” Lee says in the cheeriest voice she’s used on my mother for weeks.

Then as I watch her pass the bag toward the front, I notice she’s holding her left hand in an odd way, with all her fingers except one, the middle finger, folded into her palm.

“Is your hand okay?” I say to her, knowing that, in the wind, our words won’t be heard in the front seat of the speeding convertible.

“Sure,” she replies.

Now it’s in her lap, still with that one finger extended, and her hand curled slightly upward, parallel to the back of Red’s seat in front of her.

“But it’s all–funny shaped. Contorted.” I say. “Did you cut it? Are you having a cramp?”

“I’m fine,” she smiles. “I like holding it this way. I’ve been holding it this way ever since we left East Liverpool. It makes me feel much better.”

Suddenly I realize she’s giving Red the finger. A long, protracted one-finger salute aimed at his back; the flightless bird, crossing mile after mile of US 30, winging its way across three states, bound for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at seventy miles an hour.

Every once in a while, out of the corner of my eye I see that hand rise in jerks toward the back of his neck–still not high enough to capture the attention of my mother, but apparently enough to make Lee feel as though she’s making her point–and when she does it, she wears a defiant sneer on her face.

“How is that helping anything?” I ask her, my voice hushed. “What if mom sees you?”

“Oh, it helps, my friend. It helps a lot. Besides, if Mom sees me, she’ll die of a heart attack and an exploded head at the same time. Quick and painless. So it really won’t matter, will it?”

Now who’s the idiot.

“Besides, you seem to have given up,” she goes on. “I guess you’re just a big chicken. What happened to all those plans you had to get Mom and Dad back together again?”

“It just wasn’t getting anywhere,” I say. “And the more I see Mom with Red, the more I think it’d be a mistake. She’s singing all the time walking around his house, and she’s treating us better than ever. Presents and stuff. I think maybe she’s really happy.”

“I’m not so sure.”

Actually, I’m not all that sure myself, but I don’t know where to come down on the subject quite yet. And the presents thing, that’s just plain weird.

The weekend before my birthday, Mom took me downtown to a toy store we never would have gone to before, maybe because of the overstimulation she knew it would have caused.

Once inside the store, she asked me to pick out what I wanted, as long as it wasn’t too expensive. I walked around for a while, then picked out one of those chest expanders, the exercise device with two red plastic handles connected by springs that you stretch apart. I’m not even sure why I thought I needed an expanded chest, but, well, that’s what I picked out.

The chest expander proved a little problematic, since in my condition I had to pull for all I was worth, throwing back my head, arching my back, and locking my elbows out in order to get those handles stretched apart. Then as I struggled slowly to bring the handles back together again, I would always get the skin on my chest caught in one of the springs, and it pinched like a son of a bitch.

But even if I’d known all that was coming, I have the feeling I would have been delighted to find a chest expander sitting wrapped up with a bow beside my birthday cake, or with all the other presents under the Christmas tree. But it was completely different to watch her pay for it at the cash register and then just hand it to me.

What is it about gifts? They have this power over us, so much so that they always seem to be ready to teach us some big Lesson in Life. I’ll never forget the lesson I learned one Christmas when I was about seven.

“Grandma called,” Dad said (meaning Grandma Rose). “She’ll be here this afternoon.”

“I wonder what she’s bringing me,” I replied.

The painful lesson I learned that time was never to say anything like that to my dad. Think it all you want, but you’d better not say it.

Funny, but I think it was that same Christmas, when my other grandma, Grandma Bea, was involved in teaching me yet another lesson, though she didn’t know it. In fact she was clueless in more ways than one.

“Merry Christmas,” Grandma Bea said, handing me a small square package. That’s what the best things in life come in, or so I’d heard.

But when I opened it up, inside was a top. Not a neato top, the wooden kind with the metal tip and a string that you pull and make spin across the floor. This was a big, tin one, painted with clowns. It had a wooden handle on a spindle that you push down several times to make it go around. A baby toy.

I looked up and found my father looking me straight in the eye. I just smiled and said thank you. I was thinking lots of things, but I didn’t say any of them.

But the most painful lesson of all happened during the weeks leading up to Christmas Day 1959. By that year Lee and I knew how Christmas worked. That year we knew there must be presents in the house. That year we were overcome by curiosity. And greed.

Even back then we were spending hours every day at home by ourselves. We had time on our hands, and as the hap-happiest day of the year approached, we began to speculate not only about what presents we might get, but about where those presents might be, at that particular moment, in the house. That led to impromptu tours of our parents’ bedroom, a random glance under their bed, or a brief craning of necks toward the upper shelves of their closet.

Over the days that followed, our tours continued, and eventually our glancing and craning progressed to the point that we located the shopping bags, got the bags down, opened the boxes and were getting in an hour or two each day of practice time with gifts we knew we’d soon find under the tree.

But we were like drug addicts, fully knowing the punishment that awaited us once our behavior was discovered, but unable to control ourselves. Unable to stop. Finally, Christmas morning came, and we found those presents wrapped and waiting under the tree. We put on a pretty good performance, looking surprised and excited, and when we realized we had pulled it off, that they had absolutely no idea what we’d done, we each breathed a sigh of relief.

It was only moments later, with the presents in front of us and wrapping paper scattered all about, that we were both overcome by bitter remorse and a choking guilt.

A little bit of that kind of guilt settles into the pit of my stomach right now, as I think about what I’m going to tell my dad when we get back, when he sees the caps that Red gave us, and I have to act like I don’t love it and want to marry it.

As we cross the Monongahela River and approach Mount Washington, my mother becomes visibly excited at the sight of Fort Pitt Tunnel, a black hole in the side of the hillside, with cars going in and out.

“Oh, here it comes again,” she says to Red. “I wonder how long this thing is.”

“Three thousand six hundred feet,” he answers.

“You’re pretty smart, aren’tcha?” she says, turning toward him and grinning.

“Smarter than any half-assed mill worker,” he mutters to her.

Lee whips around to face me, and she’s forming a big O shape with her mouth, appearing to be on the verge of making some remark that’s only going to make things harder for all of us. Without saying a word, I drag my finger across my throat to keep her from saying anything, but what would it matter. Red doesn’t appear to care whether we heard him or not. Worst of all, neither does my mom.

Lee gives in to my better judgment, and decides to be satisfied with a vigorous, thrusting assault of her middle finger toward the back of Red’s head.

And I join in.


Edward’s Dodo
Roelant Savery (1576–1639)
Natural History Museum, London





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