“Bird Versus Glass” by Nicholas Otte, 2020 Fiction Winter Contest Winner

Hank died three years ago today, which feels strange to write, given the argument we had last week. 

It started as a simple chat but ended sour. That’s just the way it goes when you talk to Hank, especially since the thing with the roof. Three whole years—it just doesn’t seem true. I’d wanted to talk for a while, but it’s not as simple as sending a text or getting together for a beer. I used to try lighting candles and doing these little chants and dances, but as far as I can tell I have no knack for summoning. Mostly he pops in on me whenever he feels like it. Not that I’m complaining.

It was Tuesday afternoon and I was kneeling on my bedroom floor, laboring over the instructions for a new piece of furniture; boards and dowels splayed out on the rug like a massacre. I knew he was coming when the first bird hit my window. They are always the first to know. I guess they just can’t help themselves.

“Hey, Pat.”

As always: the immediate sense of unreality, a carol of dread softly humming in the spine. As always: the smell, like peaches caving in with rot. As always: the perfect terror of watching him take shape across the room.

“Hey, Hank.”

It was good to see him. Of course it was.

It had been about, what, two months since our last chat? Hank had plenty to say, which made me feel pretty crappy because I had squat. I’m terrible at that part. Playing catch up. I spend most days just waiting for things to happen so I can tell Hank about them later. Life things. I’ll see something funny or a little off – like that old man in the park holding his cap and weeping as he stroked a dog whose owners were busy necking in the grass – and I’ll take a mental note. There, I’ll think, that’s just the kind of thing I bet he’d like to know about. But when the time comes to tell him something, I can’t seem to think of any one moment. They get all tangled up, and my brain starts to feel clogged like a gutter full of soggy leaves, packed too tight so nothing at all comes loose. So Hank goes on and on, speaking from a mouth that is now more like a grayish hole that flaps imprecisely, out of time with his words, and I end up listening mostly. I guess not that much has changed.

He told me again how unlike life it is: this non-place he goes when he’s not with me. How it feels: all color without form, all singing without sound, all motion and stillness and neither at the same time. Oh, and no time too. How difficult to explain. Hank could go for hours explaining how difficult something is to explain, even when he was still kicking (as we say) or before his core-vitality was exhumed from its corporeal chalice (as Hank would put it). We’d put whole days away like that: him talking just to move the air around, and me listening, nodding in all the right places. I got pretty good at it. Took a kind of pride in my role. He’d throw. I’d catch. It worked. For a long time it worked.

I tinkered with my tools on the carpet, acting like I knew my way around a hex key. I managed to fit two pieces of a drawer together before giving up and sitting on the bed.

I leaned back and listened as he told me about this guy he’d met, some fancy Victorian type who had his hands lopped off for drawing lewd pictures of his mistress and distributing them among the servants in some castle or other. Now he hangs around the newsstands every Sunday, waiting for the funny pages. He told me about a chef who spends all day diving in and out of pies, trying them on like perfumes, and a woman who used to write time travel stories and insists there are some brainiacs in Sweden who are going to crack it soon and that if they had just worked through lunch more often she might have avoided the whole death thing altogether.

Another bird flew into the window. It left a little stain on the glass where it hit. Hank started to apologize, but I waved it away. It’s just one of those things.

“What would you do?” I asked.

“Hm?”

“If you could go back. I mean, knowing what you know now. Would you change things?”

I figured that’s why he’d brought it up, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in the question and moved across the room to peruse my dresser, lifting socks, bringing them close to the smooth space where his nose used to be. He’d let it fade. No need for smelling, I guess. The eyebrows went first. Then the toes, the nails, teeth, lips. He looked like himself, but he had simplified.

“What sorts of things were you thinking of? Specifically?”

“I don’t know. Like, say you knew about the roof and all that. Like enough so you could avoid it?” He didn’t like it when I mentioned this. But I couldn’t help it. Or I didn’t want to.

“Sure.”

“Would you change it?” I asked. “Do it different?”

“You mean assuming I could actually alter the outcome?”

“Yeah.”

Hank thought it over. If he were still alive he would have been stroking his beard. Now he just does this thing where he splits apart and rearranges himself, like a tower made of shifting bricks. It makes me queasy, watching him think.

“You know, I hadn’t even considered it.” He made a motion not unlike a shrug, then began to beam around the room: twisting high in a corner, slithering by the hamper, grumbling at some books that had recently made their way onto my shelves.

Hadn’t even considered it? Hadn’t crossed his mind? There we were, three years later, playing catch up like we were still in college just back from winter break. What else was possible? It seemed to me a thing worth wondering. 

“Never? You mean like, never?”

“Yes, Pat. Just like never.”

The radio switched on and the knob spun until it landed on something classical. He said he’d lately started to like that kind of stuff. Berlioz and Schumann were now his guys. Hank. The same Hank who had pre-teen dreams of painting his face and becoming the fifth member of KISS.

“I like this one,” I made myself say.

He gave me a look, surprised and a little suspicious. His face may be less like a face these days, but those things still seep through. 

I have this idea that when you die certain parts of you become enlarged, blown-up, like a photograph of a person’s face. You can see the parts that make them unique or beautiful: lines around the mouth that suggest easy laughter, that one charmingly crooked tooth on the bottom row. But you see other things too: an ingrown nose hair, a villainous scar along the jawline, that glimmer in one eye that looks at you and says: I know something you don’t know.

I think that when you die parts of you bloom. Just not all the parts you might hope.

“Who’s this?”

Hank was looming over my desk, examining a photo of the woman I’d been seeing. Frankie. In the picture we’re at a gas station somewhere between here and Westchester where her folks live. She asked a stranger to stop and take it. She said she wanted one where I showed my teeth, and told me a joke right before so I’d laugh. I like her. I guess enough to keep the photo. I guess enough to leave it out on my desk for him to find.

“A girl,” I said.

“I can see it’s a girl. That all there is to it?”

“Her name’s Frankie. She’s nice.”

“Nice? And named? Sounds like a winner!”

He laughed, a sound like bare feet slapping wet sand. I watched him wriggle and jive, his lithe, unadorned form sending out colorful ripples through the room; mute plum and moon silver. Then he started to rearrange himself, molding his clay-pale face into a familiar shape. A Frankie shape. I felt my face go hot. The radio dial spun and The Four Seasons started singing about how no woman’s worth crawling on the earth. He inched toward where I sat on the edge of the bed, swinging Frankie’s hips, pouting her lips.

I stood up, kicking the pieces of particleboard and scattering the screws. I snatched the picture off my desk, put it in a drawer and slammed it shut. The Frankie shape behind me softened back to an uncertain silhouette.

“Hey come on, I’m only kidding around here.”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway,” I said.

“Maybe what doesn’t matter?”

“If you could go back and change things. Maybe it wouldn’t make any difference.”

“How do you mean?”

I turned around to face him. Looking at him dead-on was like trying to balance on a prow of a foundering boat. I had to lean against the desk to keep from falling over.

“Why do you bother coming here?”

“Why?”

“That’s what I said.”

A chill ran up my left arm as he came and sat on the desk beside me. The stories got that part right. The dead are cold.

“Listen, Pat, I shouldn’t have poked fun. I know how you get. It was my mistake, all right?”

He lifted a vague appendage in an attempt to touch the side of my face.

“Why not visit your mother?” The music from the radio sputtered and stopped. “Why not visit your family? Your brother? Why don’t you bother them for a change? Go haunt someone else.”

Two more birds hit the window, one after the other. Pop. Pop. Quick skeletal hits on a hollow glass drum. 

“I didn’t realize you felt that way.”

I tried not to notice as the bottom half of Hank began to pool on the carpet like spilled molasses.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but you come around here and you just talk and talk about everything new, everything I can’t see, and, well, how am I supposed to feel?

“Maybe if you talked to me a bit more then I—”

“What about? You don’t seem to care all that much no matter what I say. You just want me to wait around for you to drop in. You want me to stay put, but you’re the one who left.”

He started to beam again, but I couldn’t see where he got to. Maybe he was out in the yard contemplating a rosebush, or in the bathroom wavering behind the shower curtain. But a cold, cavernous feeling made me wonder if he wasn’t sitting with me, in my exact spot, feeling around inside to see if I meant it. Then he was back, sitting by the window, emulsified against the afternoon sky.

“Harsh.”

I looked over the mess of wood on my floor and tried not to think of the way the roof of his parents’ house looked after the storm. The tree we used to climb, the one he would use to escape, broken and jutting from the room where he slept. Stubborn roots still jutting from the mud. I tried not to think of how long it took the fire department to dig his body out. I tried not to think of the church’s hard polished pews, our friends all dressed so smartly, Hank waiting for me in the parking lot, asking who was in that box in there, wondering when the joke would end.

“I’m sorry, Hank, but it’s frustrating. You know? Shouldn’t I—shouldn’t we both be sort of moving on? Isn’t that what people do?”

Hank traced the pinkish stains on the glass with a fingerless tendril. 

“People.”

His voice was like a rock knocked loose somewhere deep inside the earth. He was crooked, and fading. Huddled and small like the boy he had been when we first met; bent over and weary like the old man he’d never become. I thought he might disappear again, back to that other elsewhere. Then he did the strangest thing: he looked at me. Right at me. I wasn’t sure he’d ever done that before. I felt as if I was shrinking, or receding like point on a map. Watched by something without need for sight. I felt suddenly seen, utterly insignificant, and wholly known.

“Sure,” he said, and then, with that swift-sharp sound like an upswept zipper, he was gone.

The air in the room felt thin and my heart was beating in my ears. I sat and I waited. After a while I could barely tell it was there at all. 

I grabbed some rubber gloves and a garbage bag from under the sink and went outside to clean the dead birds out of the bushes and hose down the window, muttering to myself, going over all the things I wish I hadn’t said. Hating him. Wishing he would never come again. Needing him terribly.

 

 


 

Nicholas Otte is a writer and musician from New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA at The City College of New York, where he also teaches writing. His essays have appeared in Words Without Borders, and he writes about music for The Alternative, Post-Trash, and Bandsintown. He has self-published one novella, and is the editor of a D.I.Y. arts collective and zine, Not Entirely Unlike. He lives in Brooklyn.

 

 

Visit his site at www.nicholasotte.com or follow him Twitter @otte_nicholas.

 

Essay photo by Deacan White on Pexels

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