Literary as hell.

“Garbage Day,” a short story by Eric Laugen

The starling paced back and forth on the windowsill making a low clucking sound, his bill catching here and there on the screen.  Mostly it rushed from one end of the sill to the other but sometimes it only made it midway before it stopped and pushed its head into the screen and darted back to the point at which it started.  Mark felt bad for the thing in its panic and wanted to lift the screen and let it out but he knew how John felt about the bird and didn’t know what to do.

Anyone who met Mark and John assumed they were father and son.  They were both 5’6” and lean with wide set blue eyes and had an affable stoop to their shoulders.  Both were amiable and soft spoken and both liked the Mets and the Jets. John was appropriately older than Mark to be his father, but they were not related at all.  Neither had had children and neither had been married, both for no other reason than it just never happened. And even though they conveniently wore the same size clothes and shoes, they never borrowed or shared.

They met when Mark was in his late thirties and John was in his late fifties working for a fence contractor, Daley Brothers Fencing.  They spent long work days setting posts, securing panels and prying rocks.  And they spent short evenings at the Shamrock Tavern drinking Utica Club in eight ounce glasses.  In 1973, they got a good deal to rent the second floor of a two-family house, and since neither was with a woman at the time, they moved in together and lived there for many years.

Those years were good as both men didn’t need anyone and if they ever did they had each other.  Neither had any family. Mark came from Pittsfield with a girl, leaving a shit brother and a crazy mother, but he was not so clear on John.  He knew that when John was younger he did a couple years in jail but never knew what it was for. The past for the two of them consisted of referencing old jobs and shitty bosses with some good ones that failed.  Days of work if they were on the same crew consisted hard work and if there was discussion it involved current events such as sports or headline disasters. They worked hard through the end of October or maybe even into November and then they’d get laid off by the company.  They’d live without issue on what they’d saved and on unemployment until the thaw of mid-March. They’d spend a lot of days at noon talking with some neighbors, disabled and retired, about hunting and fishing and sometimes would actually get out in the woods or on the ice. But both were solitary figures moving through life at a fixed distance, twin compasses as it were.  Many afternoons had the simple joys of smoking some weed with a friend and throwing darts in the living room.

The two were well-known fixtures for a while playing in the local dart league, but after some years John had less vigor than in the past and had to quit working at the fence company.  He was eligible for social security by then and Mark still had enough pay to keep them secure in rent. They still lived comfortably never wanting for food, beer, or weed, but a combination of age, anger and money had John give up on darts as well.  He went to the bar less and less frequently and eventually never went there again. The exponential spaces between his last visits were so precise it seemed as if they were planned and people had forgotten about him rather easily. Few remembered to inquire to Mark about John’s absence and when he would return again and Mark would give his habitually evasive answers and finish by saying wryly, “I don’t know.  He just moved out.”

Days that Mark went to work, John got in the habit of the noontime kibitzing with the neighbors Phil and Pete.  They would often go down to the park and sit by the river and Pete would brag about his Guard days in California and then run to his wife’s car when she pulled up.  If Phil didn’t drink too much he would talk about shooting turkeys. Pretty soon, John’s patience began to wane and he spent less and less time meeting them with the same precision as his disappearance from the bar and Mark soon had to answer he neighbors’ questions with the same wry, “I don’t know.  He just moved out.”

Their landlord owned three adjacent two-family houses and the garages behind.  There were no yards, but a large parking lot that spanned across the three lots.  In the back of the lot sat a blue dumpster that all the tenants used since there was a double driveway that accommodated easily a backing truck and it avoided the nuisance of dozen garbage cans.  During a hot evening in May, Mark was putting out the trash and he saw a small bird next to the dumpster. When it saw him it immediately fluttered its wings and began to call loudly. He threw his bag into the dumpster and looked at its wide open yellow beak.  It had wisps of down around its crown and continued to flutter its wings and call plaintively. “Poor little guy, no mother?” he said as he straightened himself and looked around. He shaded his eyes and squinted at a bird on the telephone wire but then it flew off.   He shrugged lightly to no one and headed back into the house and up the stairs to his apartment.

Mark walked through the kitchen into the living room and John was still in his chair watching the ball game.  “Anything yet?” he asked.

“Nah.  But it’s about time they got fuckin’ Darling in again.  Two fuckin’ losses. And a win.” John took a short sip of his beer with his eyes never leaving the television.

“We’ll get ‘em again tonight.”  Mark paused and started to take his shoes off.  “There was a bird out there…”

“The announcer mentioned all those assholes got killed playing soccer today.  You hear? What do you mean a bird?” John turned himself around in his chair and Mark paused with his shoe.

“A bird.  A young one I think.  It was making a racket at me out there.”

“Was it alone?  You left it there?”

“I don’t know…it looked alone.  What the fuck am I supposed to do?  Take it from its parents?”

John got up and shuffled to the window and looked at an angle towards the dumpster.  In the shadow of the corner of the dumpster, he saw a small object. In the sunlit driveway he saw a black and white cat fixated on that same spot, its shoulders moving fluidly as it crept toward the bird.  “Well, what the fuck, you gonna let Phil’s cat kill it?” he yelled wildly back at Mark. “Get out there and stop that thing!”

“Jesus fuck.”  Mark pressed his heel back down into his shoe and shuffled down the stairs and into the driveway.  The cat was about three yards away from the bird and as soon as Mark stepped into the driveway its pace towards the dumpster quickened.  “Hey, Sylvester,” he yelled taking a couple of quick strides towards the cat. Sylvester snapped out of a trance, looked wildly back at Mark and darted off behind his own house.  Relieved, Mark trotted over to the little bird and cupped him in both hands. As he turned to head inside, Phil weaving slightly called him from the doorway, “What’s a’matter Sylvester?”

“Nothing, Phil.  He’s just gonna kill this bird an’all,” he said gesturing with his cupped hands.

“Well…ain’t that what he’s supposed to do?”  Phil started to laugh with his belly and gave a little cough.   “Sides,” he waved his hand downward as he turned back into his house, “all they do is eat his food out here.  He had it coming.”

John sat more animated than Mark had seen him in a long time with the fluttering bird in his palm.  “Look at him,” he said of the fledgling. “Look at his head. He looks like an old man!” The bird stopped calling and shut his beak with a glowering countenance, a ring of wispy feathers around his head.  “Old man! He’s a little old man.”

The bird spoke up again.

“He’s hungry.  He needs food.”

“I’ll get him some worms.”

“How do you know he eats worms?”

“All birds eat worms.”

“Not all fucking birds eat worms.”

“Yes they do.”

“Fucking robins eat worms.  Other birds eat seeds.”

“So we’ll get him seeds.”

“What if he doesn’t eat seeds?”

“Jesus fuck.  Then I’ll get him worms.  Wait, Phil said they eat his cat food.”

“Fucking birds eating fucking cat food?”

“Yes, fucking birds eating fucking cat food.  I’ll go get some.”

“Get it from Phil.  He needs it now.”

“Jesus fuck, John.  I’m not gonna get cat food from Phil.  You haven’t talked to him in two years.  I’ll go in the morning before work. He’ll be fine ‘till then.”

“Who knows the last time he ate?  He’s starving now, the poor old man.”

The bird started up again.

“Just go ask him for some food.  His cat almost killed this bird.”

“Jesus fuck.”

Mark went back downstairs quietly entered the parking lot with an eye on Phil’s windows and grabbed a handful of cat food out of the bowl on the steps and went quickly back into his own house.  He handed John the kibble and John said, “Aren’t these too big for him? I don’t want him to choke.”

“Maybe you should chew them up and puke them into his mouth like his mom.”

John nodded sagely, bit a piece in half with his teeth and with his fingers fed the baby who eagerly swallowed it.  “Jesus fuck,” said Mark.

Over the next month, the Old Man lost his friar’s crown and grew into a nice steel gray.  He sat mostly on a towel on the arm of John’s chair and slept on an old hat rack that had been in Mark’s closet since they moved in.  They kept a towel underneath that as well. Mark would complain about the extra towels he had to wash every week when he did their laundry in the basement, but it was only two extra.  But he did mean it when he complained about the bird when it would fly onto his TV tray to grab a French fry or fly into the kitchen to lick ketchup or open the bag for potato chips.

“Goddamn John, can’t you keep Old Man in here? I don’t need his fucking bird shit in the kitchen,” he had yelled several times.  

The bird flew back to John where John chuckled, his hand and chin with a newly noticeable but slight palsy.  “You can’t tell an Old Man what to do.”

Over the next year the Old Man developed a purple sheen with green and blue and speckles and a profoundly yellow bill and an impressive perspicacity that even Mark began to appreciate.  And while the bird ate from his own bowl, it became harder and harder for John to get to his own. But he did. It was only sometimes it seemed to Mark that he needed to help him get to bed or the bathroom.  He took care of most of his own meals but forgot to clean up the kitchen, so most of the time Mark’s complaints about “fucking Old Man shitting” were complaints directed at a bird with an outlet for John to chuckle and say, “You can’t tell Old Man what to do.”

It happened to be another hot evening in late May that Mark returned from work and saw John sleeping in his chair.  If you asked Mark today, he wouldn’t be able to tell you if Keith Hernandez hit anything or even if the Mets were on the television at all.  He walked in as quietly as he was used to, trying to let both old men relax. He looked over and saw Old Man on John’s collarbone, his head twisted at an unusual angle, and the bird was pecking and licking at the fluid coming from his nose.  “Jesus fuck,” Mark said as he chased the bird off to his hat rack perch. Then he knew.

John’s eyes were half closed and did not seem pained.  He was simply there inanimate, his left hand slightly clenched, his feet flat on the floor.  Mark held his own face with his left hand and put his right on John’s shoulder. He sat there like that for some time.

It was dark and Mark had to make a decision.  The last thing John would ever want is an ambulance flashing lights in front of the house until three in the morning while the neighbors came out and gawked at him in a body bag, gossiping and fretting over someone they didn’t care about.  And he certainly didn’t care about them. Ambulance? Along with an ambulance, they’d drive a whole fucking fire truck down the narrow street with one half on the sidewalk, rocking back and forth during the dips for driveways, as if corpses may spontaneously explode.  Police, firemen, crooked EMTs tracking dirt through the house. The bird? The weed? He didn’t have a car to drive him to the hospital or the morgue. Who even knows where the morgue is? As he was pacing back and forth, Old Man flew over and perched on John’s chair. “And what the fuck am I going to do with you?” John asked and looked out the window to where he discovered the small bird.  “Tomorrow’s Thursday. Garbage day.”

John, wrapped in a sheet, fit fairly easily into an oversized contractor waste bag and Mark found it surprisingly easy to lug him down the stairs like a lean and overburdened Santa Claus.  John was Mark’s size and they were both notoriously lean, but John had lost weight over the past few years. It was past midnight and completely quiet and still behind the house. He waited for any sound at all, then with increasing strain from the burden waddled across the lot, turned his back to the open dumpster and heaved John’s body onto the rim and relieved himself of the weight.  After a breath he turned himself around and let the body fall in. He didn’t bother to cover it with other trash because he figured the truck would be there within five hours and it’d be best if the rest of the trash covered the body when dumped into the truck. Sweating profusely with heaving breaths, Mark stretched himself straight and looked around the lot. There were no lights and there was no sound.

He pulled a chair over to the window and sat the rest of the night watching the dumpster, thinking.  He smoked and drank and thought and chuckled about when he would have to respond, “I don’t know. He just moved out.”  Old man was sleeping on his hat rack. The house and the neighborhood were incredibly silent, an appropriate silence, the silence of death.  He was happy when he thought of how terrible that parade would have been, how angry John would be. How happy John would be about this, he would chuckle and say something shitty about Pete and his wife and that screaming foster mom down the road.  They got nothing from him at all. And as he sat there the rest of the night he considered logistics: send back unopened social security checks and if they ever inquired, “I don’t know. He just moved out.” If anyone ever asked about him again, “I don’t know.  He just moved out.” And he was nervous about a garbage discovery but it was worth it to think of John’s chuckle. He didn’t have anyone anyway, so if he got caught and went to jail, who would he have to worry about? Only that stupid Old Man.

When the sky began to show some light, the time when birds rouse and twitter, he heard in the distance the diesel and rumble of the garbage truck through the neighborhood.  He heard the compression brakes and the shift into reverse and its accompanying beeping. The truck backed into view as the driver deftly slid the forks into the brackets of the dumpster.  In one fluid motion the dumpster was raised and turned and all of its contents fell into the waiting container. At that point Old Man flew to the sill and began to try to get through the screen.

Mark sat for several minutes after the truck was gone, fascinated by this bird who had shunned open windows in the past.  He felt its distress but didn’t want to open the screen because he knew how John felt about the bird. “Here, buddy. Here, here.” He opened the screen and Old Man flew out.  The bird flew towards the empty dumpster but turned and landed on the peak of one of the garages. It preened itself in the growing sunshine as Mark watched through the open window.  When he sighed and stood and shut the screen, Old Man immediately flew back to the sill. Relieved, he opened the screen and the bird flew to his hat rack.


Eric Laugen lives in Schenectady, New York and thinks it’s an okay place.

1 Comment

  1. Elena

    Well done. Take those broken wings and learn to fly.

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