My father is a birdman. By instinct the birds know him as a living man and not a statue and so they hover near his still, sitting frame, standing on their little bird legs, perching on his shoulders and knees, poking their heads into his pockets looking for seed.
My mother declared him petrified, useless. That was before she left him, she a bird herself flown from our little yellow kitchen of continuous spaghetti dinners and fried bologna sandwiches.
My father is quite an active man though as I grew I came to understand just not active in the direction desired by my mother. “Son,” he says to me, “Every bird in the city will be fed by sundown, he says, every bird will get their taste of my cones.” At night he coats pinecones with peanut butter and rolls them through birdseed.
He teaches me what to do so I can help him after school. Rather than show me how to play ball or take me fishing, my father teaches me the ways of his art.
“When you are with the birds their feathers become your wings,” he says, “their cooing the secret stirrings of your heart.”
His oddity never occurred to me though kids at school laugh at us saying my father shampoos himself in bird shit, my father would one day be taken up into space by a huge flock, my father was about to sprout wings and strut around like a pigeon, my father was CEO of birddom, my father was Bird Jesus and some birds were going to be saved from the birdpocalypse in which there would be a birdbath lake of fire and the 666 bird.
My father lost his job when he came back from the fighting. His eyes were torn away he said. His heart was in the gutter. At work he kept his jaws locked when he was supposed to speak and he kept getting lost and not able to find his way to meetings and conferences. That’s what he told me the first night we smeared the pinecones with peanut butter then rolled them through the seed spread out on the newspaper on the basement floor.
“A man is not meant to see another man’s bone, the skin torn from muscle, another man’s guts, his brains,” he says. “It is not meant for man to see man disassembled for at the sight, you lose yourself. Both you and the man so disassembled lose the dignity it is meant for a man to have. Without dignity many things are not possible.” As he says this, he slides one of mama’s silver knives over a pinecone. He doesn’t specify exactly what he means by this and I didn’t ask.
That first night we do a few practice pinecones for the backyard. We hang them from the trees with the yarn Mama left in her sewing basket. My father has me climb up among the branches and tie them around the limbs.
Then we sit on the porch and drink sun tea.
“When I got back,’ he says, ‘your Mama was the only one I wanted to see, well, besides you and your sister. I felt guilty because what have I done to earn her, Lord. That’s what I said to the Lord. Nothing, said the Lord. But she’s yours, love her.
“I did love her but I couldn’t love your Mama well enough. That’s a lot of pressure on a man, to love an angel. No matter, son, you have to try, when you have the chance, when God sees fit to bless.”
Nights we hang lanterns from the tree, lanterns we make ourselves with mason jars and candles. They were the jars Ma had collected over the years for canning and since she hadn’t come back to can strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, corn, okra, beans, by fall it seemed she was not coming back. On these nights we take our pinecone operation to the picnic table out back and work by the light of our homemade lanterns.
“We’re gonna roll these pinecones for peace right out there to those birds.”
I thought what use my classmates could make of such a line.
“Once I rolled grenades into enemy zones,” he said. “I saw what no man should see if he expects to stand come judgment. I am paying for grenades with eyes that don’t stay shut at night.”
“It’s ok, Dad. You are doing better now. You take care of things.”
“Don’t hurt another man, son. Let them lock you up before you take another life. Promise.”
“Ok, I promise,” I said and put my hand out to shake and he hugs me with what I recognized as a man’s dignity.
First published in Still Crazy: A Literary Magazine