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The Bir’s

One night in his Paris garden apartment, my best friend Juan was making me dinner (spaghetti with frankfurter rondelles, carrots, tomatoes, and onions, his specialty), and he told me that a bird had come to visit him the day before. He was puzzled that birds were always coming into his apartment from the garden. I explained to him that it was only to be expected: viewed from the garden, his place didn’t really seem to be inhabited by a human being at all. The back windows opened onto the garden at eye level — and by opened, I mean opened wide every morning, all year round, whatever the weather, because Juan believed in fresh air, and he never put the heat on.

One winter, Juan had my dog for the night. She gave him a fright in the morning when he had trouble waking her up from her curled up frozen torpor, and he was afraid to think what might have happened if he’d slept in. The apartment was very dark and very damp, the stone walls were raw, the ceiling beams were hung with spider webs, and there was practically no furniture. Clothing left in his closet for any length of time re-emerged covered in mold. The only reason Juan himself wasn’t continually covered in mildew was because for his birthday and for Christmas I always gave him a good supply of those little humidity-absorbing boxes that they sell in hardware stores.

The birds, starlings mostly, would peer into the gaping window from the garden tiles, cocking their little iridescent heads to the right and to the left, viewing it with each eye, intrigued, whistling in awe. Perhaps they mythologized it, telling tales to their hatchlings about the Forbidden Cavern at the foot of the garden.

Over the years, bolder birds had made tentative efforts to explore and colonize his place. There was one old starling who would hop over the windowsill and walk, like a tiny Groucho Marx in a dusty old tuxedo, the entire length of the bedroom, hop down the three wooden stairs into the front room, then walk the rest of the way to the foot of the desk where Juan would be sitting, sipping his maté and reading Heraclitus or Proust. There the bird would pause and look up at him. Probably thinking: “So, this is the Giant of the Forbidden Cavern.”

Sensing a presence, Juan would look up from his book and see nothing. The bird would look up expectantly, maybe open its beak to say something, and the small movement would attract Juan’s attention. Juan would look the bird in the eye and quietly say, “No,” raise a very long arm (because he was, in fact, a giant at 6’6″) to point like the Angel of the Annunciation in the direction of the garden and command, “Animals: outside!” And the bird would turn around and obediently walk away, hop up the stairs — boing, boing, boing — back through the bedroom, back to the window, and out to the garden again, no questions asked.

But he’d be back later.

One spring, after a severe windstorm, Juan found that bird dead in the garden and called me upstairs in my garret (we lived in the same building thanks to a friend who had space to rent) to break the bad news. I was upset, and spent a few days reproaching him for having put the bird in the garbage with no funeral or anything, Juan repeatedly informing me that I was acting “like a kid.” But he’d been more than just a bird for me. I knew that bird’s wife. She liked to give me quick visits on the windowpane of my vasistas (French for “flimsy skylight”), her delicate talons making scratchy noises on the glass as she perched on its edge, whistled, then took off again.

A few weeks later Juan announced that she’d found a new boyfriend. “He look essactly like the other one,” he assured me, “same color, same size: same bir’.” (That’s how Juan says bird: bir’. He also says gir’ instead of girl. Goo’ gir’, he’d say to my dog, Carmen, every now and then.)

But the bir’ of yesterday’s encounter was not at all the same. This one apparently just quite impolitely invited itself in, perched on his dusty sofa, and sat there, steady and indifferent.

“I was very confuse’,” Juan kept saying as he shredded carrots over the chopped frankfurters for his sauce, “he just sit there. And he was not a nice bir’.”

“What kind of bird was it?” I asked.

“A horrible bir’. Horrible.”

“Yes, but what did it look like?”

“Horrible. I’m telling you. He look more like a rat. He was the color of a rat, and he had a strange, yucky tail, as if somebody cut it with a scissor. Just a little, horrible, ugly bir’. And I didn’ want to touch him. I don’ like to touch bir’s. Yeccch! … YECCH! I don’ know what it is. I was very confuse’. He wouldn’ listen to me. I try to tell him to go out, but he just … don’ … move. He just sit there. I ask him to leave, but he don’ listen! He stay for more than one hour and a half. He stay there while I eat my breakfast, and while I take my shower. Then I finally come back to him, and start screaming at him. Maybe that’s what move him. He must be thinking, ‘Is no longer very agreeable to be here, with this big guy screaming at me.’ So he get up. But first, he poo on my sofa. Like he say, fine, I’m going, but first — pff!”

And Juan made a really cute movement, like a bird using his wings to pump out a dropping, to show me how insolent this bird had been.

“That bir’ really confuse’ me.”

Later that day, as I returned home from walking the dog, Juan opened the door of his place to say hello as I entered the vestibule. I told him I’d been writing about him and the bird today.

“Oh, that bir’,” he said, looking conflicted, “I feel so bad. He come inside maybe just because he want to say something to me.”

Then he hunched up his shoulders and held his arms to his sides like wings to imitate the old starling, and said in a crazy little bird’s voice, “I … I want to say … SOMEthing!”

“Poor bir’,” he continued, then seemed to reprimand himself, “But he cannot come inside!  Bir’s have to stay outside! I hear him again today from my desk. I say: ‘Bir’s, stay OUTside!’ If he want to talk to me, he have to find another way. He have to stay outside and wait for me.”

Then suddenly, he cried, “HEY!” as he looked into his apartment from the doorway. “Oh, no! Oh, no! … Carmen …”

It was my dog, standing on his table, helping herself to the huge wedge of cheddar cheese that had been sitting there beckoning to her as we spoke.

Juan really has a problem with animals not respecting his space.

A few days later I decided to go to Juan’s office to use his computer and do a “grants for women” search on the Internet. I’d done one before, on “jobs in NY.” I was preparing to return to New York after more than a decade in Paris. The idea was to find a way to finance it, ideally with someone else’s money. I’ve never been good at that kind of gambit, and it was, in my mind, a measure of my ability to be a bona fide, networked grown-up (a measure that I’d revise later, my inner opportunist be damned, because it became evident I’d pay my own way forever). But for this last try, I needed to use Juan’s work computer, because there were so many query results that it just about killed my whirring old Powerbook.

I’d gone downstairs to pick him up at 1:30 p.m. Juan had a great gig at an international bank, for which he arrived after lunch, and left pretty early, too. His job had something to do with getting information for people, and though it didn’t pay much (actually, considering how many times he spent his whole shift frantically recovering entire databases he’d accidentally deleted, it paid very well), it gave him a diplomatic visa and the leisure to pursue his thesis on Heraclitus the rest of the time. They loved him there, and would tenderly recount stories about how Juan would give someone an incomplete phone number, and when informed that a digit was missing, say, “Sorry, chef, that’s all I’ve got.”

When I got to his door, I found it unlocked so that I could come in and wait: a sign that he was running late. I could hear him in the shower. I make a point of listening to friends in the shower any chance I get because what people do (and say) in the shower is always very educative. I could hear he was at the nostril-clearing stage, therefore almost done. So I waited.

That’s when I noticed there was a strange smell in his place. A really unpleasant smell. A smell like a putrid Chinatown back alley. As I stood there sniffing and feeling disgusted, Juan came out wearing a red towel wrapped coquettishly around his waist, his hair in a ponytail, long leg hair still wet and plastered to his calves.

“You look like somebody’s ugly big sister,” I said, “and by the way, it smells weird in here.”

“Ah! Must be the garlic in the kitchen,” he said, raising a finger to put me on pause, then opened one of the front windows, closed the kitchen door, and went up the stairs to the bedroom to get dressed. I decided to go outside and get some fresh air and a banh mi sandwich. But when I came back with my sandwich to eat while he shaved, it smelled even worse.

“No. It really smells in here Juan. And it’s getting worse. Something’s wrong.”

We looked at each other in consternation. He sniffed the air, and made a face. Looked perplexed. We looked at the sofa at the same time.

“Do you think the bir’ … ?,” and he pulled the sofa back from the wall. “Oh no,”  he said ruefully, and then, as if he were Death itself pronouncing a sad “tada” at the end of the magic trick that was the bird’s life, “there he is …”

I ran to open the other window and the door while Juan gathered the remains. While he poured disinfectant on the tiles around the sofa, I came in and said,

“So, that’s what he wanted.”

“Poor bir’,” he said, “I … I just don’ know. Bir’s seem to think that this is a bir’ cemetery in my house! This is the thir’ one! I don’ know, I don’ know …”

He sighed.

“I guess God send him to me, because I’m a grow’-up, and I have to be a man, and I can take it. It’s like God say to me, ‘OK, you’re a man, so … face the music!’ Or like my garden say to me, ‘Okay, you can do something for me for once!’ And to think he was there while I was sleeping! We spen’ the nigh’ together! An’ he die! Eee … heeheehoohooooo … !”

And he made a sort of Vincent Price horror-movie face.

Then, “Ooooh! But you know, if somebody call me to say, Tonigh’ this bir’ is coming to you house to die next to you bed, and all you have to do is be quiet, I guess I woul’ say yes.”

Previously: My Gift of the Magi.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.


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