The Law of Diminishing Returns

The time of year. Holiday lights, Christmas music from Thanksgiving to New Year. School almost done, the ships righted and the course set for calmer waters. Lunch today was provided by our PTA, and included talk of Heidegger to Italo Svevo, covering Trieste and Puglia on the journey. Strange how conversations tip one way then another. Talked in class yesterday about a student I used teach in San Diego and how dark and awful her life had become and how I made allowances so she could pass the class she was failing at that time. The message I wanted to share was about how much we care for our students and how on the surface we might assume things, yet when we scratch the surface and see below, we understand in a far different way. That’s why I was crying while I was telling the story, and because I thought of that student and all the crap she was going through, and how today she’s doing great. Law of diminishing returns.

And I am doing great, or so I tell myself. Stress, destress, count, mis-count. Debilitate. Stories come and go. Tonight a great horned owl flew across our path as we walked through town and it alit on the side of a tall palm tree, where it sat for a minute before flitting across to another larger tree where it appeared to have its nest. In search of mice, perhaps. All over the playground the small creatures scurried, cuteness factor high, in attempt to avoid the fate of claws. Metaphor for life. A hand in a wicker basket. An unseen adversary. The flash of talon. How the owl’s ears stood out in contrast to the closing of the day, the light faded, the rainclouds over the nearby foothills. Nature in synchronicity with urban life, the market going on a little way off, the pre-holiday shoppers bundled against the supposed cold of a Southern California winter’s day. The law of diminishing returns.

 

Five thousand miles away my mother avoids the world. Cocooned in an armchair, greeting visitors like some potentate of old. Giant room. Small woman. Blue light, white light, the Christmas tree in the common area downstairs, other citizens at their supper, celebrating the loss of hair and muscle and faculties. All I can do is close my eyes and think of our old house at Christmas; the tinsel and the colored paper chains, the holly boughs behind every mirror, the Carrara marble crib scene, the paper-chains crossing the rooms to meet in the center and attach to the light fittings. Had I a time machine to take me home, to return me to days of old for even a brief moment, to see her industry in the kitchen, producing magic out of ingredients. She sits in her chair and signs her names to the proffered Christmas cards. They’ll wing it to the four corners of the world. Law of diminishing returns.

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Thelastmonthoftheyearapproachesday’s Childe

Cups of tea: 2

Miles driven over break: 985

Stories written for FlashNano 2014: 30

Days to Christmas: 26

Finches in house: 3

Fish in house: 1

Visits to natural history museum: 3

Cash in pocket: $9

Fires in grate this break: 3

Gophers caught: 0

Submissions for month: 17

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Bird Genesis: Where a Character Comes From…

I’ve contributed twelve episodes to Pure Slush’s 2014—A Year in StoriesThese stories feature a character named the Bird Mahony, and examine his life in the aftermath of his parents’ unexpected deaths. From my memory I recall my mother and father discussing a customer who frequented my father’s pub, located in the Irish midlands, in the 1960s. This man was named “the Bird,” and little else comes back to me. His name was not Mahony, nor do I know any details of his life. Still, I’ve been intrigued by the man for years, always wanting to write something about his life. Back in 2013, The View from Here published a flash fiction piece about a character named “the Bird.” When Matt Potter invited me to participate in the Pure Slush project it seemed to me that my contributions would center around this man about whom I know so little. The penultimate episode is now available, and Stephen V. Ramey wrote this generous summation of that episode which can be read HERE. The original story about the Bird is below::

James thumbnail

Originally published in The View from Here:: 

open window

The day the Bird died, Máire was hanging wet laundry on the washing line in the far meadow.  A soft wind billowed the bed sheets, and grayed, lacy bloomers swayed romantically, having seen better days. Olivia, her neighbor from across the road, made her way down the narrow path, waving her hands in the air, making sure to avoid the nettles on either side.

“The Bird is dead, isn’t he,” Máire said.

“How did you know?” Olivia said, pulling the collar of her coat tight.

“Didn’t a crow fly into the upstairs bedroom last night at dusk.” She spoke through a mouthful of clothespins, the words splintered, her tightly curled hair not moving in the breeze.

 

flustered

He was the first man to touch her that way. His breath beery, his hands warm, the show-band playing a slow song, the bandleader combing his brilliantine hair with a plastic comb, lisping the words onto the dance-hall air. Later, in the back of the Bird’s ’38 Ford he slipped his two ferret hands up her skirt and took what he wanted. The next month she married the bugger who owned the bar and the Bird drank down the road at Hourican’s for a long while. When he finally returned to his familiar seat he could see the swell of her belly under the apron. A lucky man, the bar owner, the Bird thought, regretting his inaction at the wedding mass and how when the priest had asked if any man present…

 

bantam

Three colorful bantam hens pecked in the dirt in the narrow space behind the public house.  One had the bright, sharp eyes of a born killer. The Bird weighed the coins in his pocket, doing the math as to how much it would cost to purchase the creature.

“I’ll give you two sovereigns for the bantam with the bright eyes,” he said to the man behind the bar.

“I can’t sell you that bird. It’s the lad’s pet. His mother would have my guts if I sold the child’s pet for fighting.”

“Are you going to let a woman tell you what you can or cannot do in your own house?” the Bird said, his left eyebrow raised.

“It’s easy to see you’re a bachelor. If you had a wife of your own you’d be singing a different tune.”

The Bird grunted, tipped the glass and emptied the porter in one go. “You’re a foolish man to turn down two sovereigns,” he said, tipping his brim and heading for the door.

 

names

The doctor placed the tiny baby in its mother’s arms. Sure, it didn’t weigh more than a bag of flour, as fragile and ugly as a new-born bird.

When the bar owner saw the little mite in his wife’s arms, the sharp beak of a nose, the dark eyes, the curl of matted hair, he recognized a family likeness not of his own.

“He’s like a wee  bird,” he told her.

“Yes, but he’s our little bird,” the mother said, squeezing her husband’s hand.

He was not so sure. Not so sure at all.

 

nighttime

The bantams went wild when the creature slipped in the shed door. Feathers and shit flew everywhere, and the fox, if it were a fox, grabbed one by the neck and blooded it out. All that remained of the three birds was the pile of feathers on the ground, the blood splattered all over the floor. A desperate thing, the Bird agreed with the bar owner as he told him about the brazen fox that had savaged the child’s pets. The Bird fingered his winnings and thought about buying the man’s lad a rabbit instead.

 

sweet shop

In the line at the shop the lad held his mother’s hand and rubbed the back of his leg with the toe of his shoe. From behind, the Bird recognized the shape of the earlobes and his heart tightened.

“How’s the Bird?” Mrs. Flavin asked from the counter.

He reddened, coughed, muttered, “Game ball, game ball.”

The mother turned around and gave him a look that spoke volumes in its silence.

“How’s the lad, Mairé?” he asked.

She put the Woman’s Weekly and the boy’s lucky bag on the counter and banged down her coins.

 

 

Murder—My Legacy

Gloves of otter skin and a fur-lined anorak, dressed for the arrayal. The brittle leaves destroyed underfoot as the dead bird rattled in the cardboard box. Children’s hearts are empty when it comes to knowing deep grief, or at least they are up to a certain age. There had been no visible signs of struggle. The hen appeared quite normal when I collected the eggs that morning. Certainly, she was loud, her ire expressed with a piercing cry at seeing her treasure pilfered. The hole we dug was ample for the shoebox, the soil dark and moist like wet coffee grounds, a small pool of water in the bottom of the grave. Looking back, I thought the creature’s breast seemed swollen, abnormally so, perhaps some cardiac condition known only to poultry? Anyway, we dug the hole smack-dab in the middle of my mother’s manicured lawn. My parents were out of town on a weekend “getaway,” and I was the man of the house. Murder. That became my legacy. After the box was in the ground, we dumped the soil on top and patted it down tightly in case the bird came back to life and haunted us. When we finished, I thumped my best friend on the back and headed towards the house as the slanted sun poured its bloody light on the fresh mound.

What’s On My Desk at Home

  • Jar of Apricot Vanilla jam
  • Ladybug cascarones
  • Vocabulary quiz for tomorrow
  • Don’t Tread on Me paperweight
  • iPhone headset
  • Dentist’s bill
  • Wildwood by Colin Meloy
  • Father’s Day card from son
  • Sand dollars
  • Cup of tea
  • Straw hat on lamp
  • Telephone
  • Legal pad
  • Assorted papers
  • Powercord for iPhone
  • Ribboned box with six nails inside
  • Pens
  • Nepalese pen holder
  • Rosewood bracelet
  • Torn check

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