Songbirds of Suburbia

There was another time and another place, and from that place, Jana’s mother pulls forth stories of swamps and leeches, broken bones, neighborhood dogs turned rabid, cars without air conditioning, snakes in yards. Her mother calls this place Childhood.

Her mother tilts her head and Childhood comes through—on the evening patio in a circle around her, almost breathless, the neighbors picture her flat cotton fields rolling out before them. The thickness of locusts in the air. Snakes that fell into canoes and boys drowned in farm ponds. The neighbors leaned in, chins rested on their propped fists. Here is something wild in a land of sugar maples and door wreaths. Here is something more brilliant than the hydrangeas. 

There is the story of Hardship and the story of Journey and the story of Hope. In each of them, Jana a small thing, her mother’s precious object. Rescued by the Patient Mother. The Brave Mother. The Mother Who Decides to Make a Change. The stories cast out as a net from the east coast—cotton fields become corn, then wheat, shallow creeks to city concrete, highways that reach to the suffocating green of suburban lawns. After years of teaching pottery classes on the east coast, her mother had married well, landed well, and settled well. Here is the big house on the small square of land to prove it.

As her mother tells the stories, the neighbors turn to observe Jana, this object leaned against the house. The starling that fell from the nest.

Jana sometimes finds herself in the Boyfriend’s bed—Greg, or Gregory, depending on his circumstances. On this morning, windows open, Jana wakes with a pillow between them, facing the window that looks out across Gregory’s small square of a yard, planted and filling with the sweet sticky vines of tomato plants. She is allowed to sleep with him on the weekends. She is not allowed to stay during the week, when his morning routine is more pressing than hers.

Gregory, already awake, holds a stack of Paperwork rested on his knees, pen in hand. The pen etches against the text, rhythmic and deliberate, before Gregory flips to the next page. Jana rolls to her other side to watch him. His knees pulled up beneath the covers. 

“You’re awake,” he says. 

He does not look at her. Outside, birds of various color and tune sing to each other from the trees that flank Gregory’s fence. This is every Saturday: Paperwork from the bank where Gregory works, birds in the window. What will they be come winter. 

“The birds sound happy,” she says. 

It’s something her mother would say. As if birds had the capacity for emotion, or their songs were joy instead of necessity, instead of them calling out for companionship and the continuation of the species. She rephrases.

“Are you getting good work done?”

“Mm,” he says, and flips to the next page.

Jana pushes herself up and turns to sit on the side of the bed. He keeps a bird feeder outside of the window. The window is open to the warming air, and she listens to the small birds—the chickadees and house finches—chirping each to each.

“It’s Saturday,” she says. 

The pen stops and she can hear Gregory sigh behind her.  

“You know there are a million other things I would rather be doing right now, don’t you.” It isn’t a question.

“One thing you could do would be tell your boss that you’re only paid to work eight to five, Monday through Friday.”

“And that would be the end of me. No more working at the bank. It would pretty well be the end of going out for breakfast or dinner. Might well be the end of everything.”

“‘The end of everything’?”

“The end of everything,” he says.

“That means what?”

“It means I wouldn’t have a job if I didn’t do this. That’s what it means.”

“I meant, ‘the end of everything.’ What is that supposed to mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he says.  

“I’m looking for a job. You know that.”

“Yes,” he says, but the pen is at work again.

“I applied to four places last week, and none of them called me.”

“Yes,” he says.  

For now, there is the Dead End Job. The days looping end to end, one into the next, the dark nights to grey mornings fading into empty afternoons, the pull of desire for something else, something better, met with an endless series of the same weeks and days and hours repeating endless into years. And on the morning commutes, the lanes stacked with grey or brown or green sedans and SUVs, the hum of tires whispering over and over and over to her, this is it. This is it. This is it.

There is nothing else.

But there are glimmers of hope. A cardinal lands on the feeder outside the window.  

“The cardinal is back,” she says.

When she was younger, she would stay long mornings in the houses of her mother’s friends while her mother looked for work, all of them furnished with sunny rooms and wooden floors and white paned windows open to the mountain air. By mid-morning, the inevitable dogwood outside of the window would host an inevitable pair of cardinals. Different rooms, different dogwoods, but always the same melody, that same persistent, hopeful song. Somehow Gregory’s room is a return to those mornings—white trim on the windows, even-cut lawns, coffee cups stained at exactly the same point on the rim.

“There was a brown thrasher earlier this week,” he says. “You should hear their song. Like a man alone in a valley singing to himself for company.”

Gregory keeps a bird book on his nightstand. On drives into the city, he calls out the red tail hawks on the highways signs. He has explained the differences between the Krider’s variety and the Rufous. He has taught her how to distinguish the red tails from the Cooper’s hawks.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jana says. “Let’s go out for breakfast.”

This time, he looks up at her, his glasses on the bridge of his nose. In this light, there are the beginnings of wrinkles around his eyes. Probably so for her, too.

“You know I can’t do that,” he says.

“You could.”

“This work?” he taps the stack of papers. “This has to get done. It has to.”

She gets out of bed and makes a show of putting on running shoes, as if the act of preparing for a life outside of this room might jolt loose something inside of him. He turns the next page and etches at the paper.

The Dead End Job is a little more than part-time, hourly. She is tasked with cataloguing donated books, first organizing them by condition, then quality, and finally, the likelihood that anyone knows about the book. They had asked her when she applied if she understood this was minimum wage and she had said she did, she wanted this, she had always dreamed of working with books. What she meant was she needed something on her résumé to keep it current.

In the semi-lit corners of the warehouse’s cinderblock rooms, Jana uncovers a childrens’ encyclopedia. Inside is an A to Z accounting of the world as she knew it when she was a child. She finds the USSR. Anteaters. The Black Plague. Dandelions. The Santa Fe Trail. Although the illustrations are childish, Jana studies the crude watercolor faces of the pioneer women in their conestogas, the red prairie grass grown up about them and the ocean of emptiness ahead. And in those black eyes, a yearning for forward motion, for anything else.

At the end of her shift a girl wheels the sorting cart over to collect the day’s work. Jana hands her the dog-eared novels and self-help books, but the encyclopedia she keeps hidden in her desk drawer. 

Gregory’s house is enclosed by a network of wide walking trails, and despite his cautions that those verdant trails conceal rapists or would-be kidnappers, Jana shuffles along in her running clothes through the post-dawn fog. 

It is possible she loves him. Her reasoning is this: she had a cat once that she didn’t love. It was an impulse to get the cat, a good idea to have company, but there were so many problems. Cat hair, expensive food, the late-night romping. The cat had a habit of sitting on her refrigerator and jumping to the floor, so Jana wasn’t surprised by the lump that formed on its foreleg. Within weeks, however, she was spending a thousand dollars—almost a month of pay charged to a credit card—to cut out a tumor that would take the cat’s life anyway. And she, left with the cat’s still, white body on the table before her, could feel that. Loss, she guessed. Maybe love.

The trails are abutted by thin strips of forest on each side. Just beyond, backyards and swing sets peek through the narrow trees. Deer and foxes claim the land between. 

How had they met? Where did she feel it then? 

There is another illustration in the encyclopedia: a guillotine, a woman brought to her knees with terror as the blade hovers above a man’s neck. Revolution, it says. This is a picture of progress.

By mid-morning, Gregory has moved the stack of paperwork from the nightstand to his breakfast table. When Jana returns from the run, she finds him dressed in khaki pants and a green polo shirt. Jana recognizes this as the weekend office outfit.

“I have to go in,” he says.

She sips coffee and watches the birds on the feeder outside.

“I can take you home,” he says. “On my way in.”

At another time in the relationship, she had wondered when he would ask her to move in. That felt like years ago. What was it actually? A year? She says nothing, sets the coffee mug in his sink, and slides back into her running shoes.

On the way into the city, she counts the hawks on the street lights and highway signs, one for every mile. He calls them out: Krider’s, Harlan’s, Rufous. Each time she thinks, I don’t know anything about you.

Once they had found a nest of baby rabbits in his backyard. Eyes closed, white stars on their foreheads and long tufts of cotton hair between their toes. There were six of them in a catch of matted grass. This was in the height of lush May when the grass grew thick and tall under the Midwestern downpours. This was after Gregory had churned on his lawnmower. After he had ran over two other baby rabbits, the wanderers who had strayed from the nest.

Jana held the two mangled babies in her palm. She traced her finger along the tracks of the mower blade that left divides from their cottontails to their ears, criss-crossed their backs. The other six lay huddled and sleeping. But these two. One kicked. The other wailed, a call four times as large as its body, over and over and over until, almost at the same moment, both froze still in her palms.

She touched the star on each of their foreheads. Gregory wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve. 

Later, he brought out a shoebox and a shovel, and as the sun set in a red ribbon across the horizon, he buried them beneath an azalea bush.

Gregory arrives unannounced at her apartment the next morning. She opens the door in her pajamas, the concrete stoop still damp and the dew-wet grass clinging to his shoes. He’s the only person she knows who has them polished.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he says. “The paperwork and all.”

She crosses her arms across her chest and lets the morning robins fill the silence between them.

“Look, I want to take you somewhere,” he says. “I don’t know. Maybe it will make sense when we get there. Come with me.”

Ten minutes later, they are just south of downtown on a street lined with worn-down businesses, dusty glass windows and rusted signs fixed to the brick above their doors. In the spaces between, there are small ranch houses—holdovers from some pre-industrial era, their white trimming split open to rotted, grey wood. Their porches are consumed by six-foot pokeweeds and the flowerbeds filled with yarrow. Gregory pulls into the driveway of a mint-green house, tucked between a box manufacturing company and a gas station turned taco stand.

“This is it,” he says. “Let’s go inside.”  

Before she can question him, he is turning the corner around the back of the house. She hops out of the car to follow him—he can afford to replace the car, but she can’t help worrying about it alone and unlocked in this neighborhood.

Around back, the yard abuts a chainlink fence and behind it, an empty parking lot. Gregory has the backdoor open, standing with one foot on the crumbling steps and the other inside what seems to be the kitchen.

“I used to come up here for peanut butter sandwiches,” he says. “My mom would hand them to me from the steps.”

But this is the kind of man who would worry about dirt beneath his nails.

“You lived here?” she says.

“Until I went to middle school, yes.”

“I thought you said you grew up south in the suburbs.”

Jana thinks of the blooming rose bushes, the lush lawn. Each house selected from one of four formats and styles, each a tasteful color to set a tasteful backdrop for the little blonde children of the neighborhood playing summer games in the grass. That life couldn’t be more than 20 minutes away from this.

Gregory tightens his lips.

I don’t know anything about you, she thinks. But who is she addressing?

“That was my aunt’s house,” he says. “This was mine.” 

He ducks his head into the house and Jana follows. Inside, there is little left save for a chipped breakfast table and a vase of dried flowers on the cracked countertops. Someone has scrawled black spray paint across a wall in the living room, the words look up in script. There are as many empty beer cans as Jana would have expected.

“You didn’t tell me,” she says.

“Would it have mattered?”

Even here, between the occasional rumbling of the trains and the push of traffic on the little street, she can pick out a cardinal, a chickadee, the intermittent robin.

“The story about your parents,” Jana asks. “The trips to Aruba when you were little. What about those?” 

“That was my aunt’s vacation house. We were allowed to use it when we wanted. She felt sorry for my mother’s disability.”

“She’s disabled?”

“Something with her hands,” he says. 

How does she feel about this? She knows what she is supposed to feel—betrayal, anger.  She waits for those feelings to bubble up. 

“I don’t know anything about you,” she says.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say something,” he says.

Outside trucks haul trailers of cut wood and tangles of rusted appliances and Jana watches them through the picture window in the front room.

“I guess I’m pretty angry,” Jana says. “You really betrayed my trust.”

A week passes between them. She drives to the job. She fixes lunch in the evenings and heats it in the breakroom microwave. She drives home. She searches for new jobs, submits résumés. There are no trails in her neighborhood so she runs the narrow sidewalks, triggering porchlights in the early hours of morning. The robins and cardinals sing the same songs, but here, deer and foxes are replaced with feral housecats and thin opossums. 

There is something hollow in her and she knows it. She’s been reading the encyclopedia page on the Black Death and the information is out of date. Rats biting children, it says. The illustration rats are the size of terriers. They cling to the ankles of terrified women and crawl over babies in cradles. The red eyes are all wrong. She wants to tell someone these rats are victims, too.  

She isn’t numb, exactly, but she doesn’t miss him as much as she thinks she should. Still, a week without him creates a void.

By Wednesday, she holds her phone in her hand and nearly presses the call button. On Thursday, she names the songbirds outside during her lunch break—cardinal, sparrow, blue jay, house finch. There are too many robins to count.

On Friday she arrives at work to find the other sorting women huddled around the breakroom TV. Together they are electric. They are humming through their fingertips, which are placed over their mouths, their hearts, their bellies. The screen shows rough footage, shot with the hasty hands of a local, a body hidden in vines of Virginia creeper. Across the footer of the screen a message scrolls that this is Indian Creek Trail. Her running trail. 

What she has to go on is a pair of shoes. Brown loafers set beside the body’s legs. She is so sure this is Gregory that she is already running through which of her dresses is the most appropriate to wear to his funeral. The other women whisper into fingers. How does this happen, they say. Who could do such a thing. 

Jana returns to her sorting desk. Is she afraid or does she believe she is supposed to be afraid? She leaves work and drives south, this time toward her mother’s house, the encyclopedia on the seat beside her. 

She spends the evening hours cutting apples into slices, her mother wielding a second knife as she recites stories to the neighbors about the Man Who Taught Her How to Make Sangria. She imagines Gregory in the vines. The party retreats to the patio and she retreats upstairs, their laughter rolling through Jana’s bedroom window, settling into the corners of her room, caught in the dark corners her lamp can’t reach.

The encyclopedia is flipped open to Bleeding Kansas. Here is the Bowie knife and here is the Beecher’s Bible box. The box is supposed to hold scripture but it is lined with rifles. Men battle over the box. Bodies stacked on one another, their tongues lolling, their eyes simple Xs. Buildings ablaze, everywhere women calling from windows, hands to the sky, helpless in the flames.

At midnight the laughter boils. Everyone is drunk. Jana closes the encyclopedia and carries it to her car. On the way home, she opens her window and throws it into the median.

On Saturday, Gregory appears, his button-down blue shirt wrinkled, unshaven since, she guesses, Thursday. He stands in her doorway with the smallest stack of paperwork she has seen.

“Jana,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Upstairs she has already laid out the dress she will wear to his funeral. She has tried it on and stood before the mirror and waited for the grief to join her.

“Where have you been?” she says. 

“I’ve been so busy, but I can make it up,” he says. “I’ve done something for you.”

“There was a man on the news,” she says. “He had your shoes.”

“I know you’ve been saying you need something different,” he says. “What I did, it’s a bad thing.”

This was new. Her heart beats in her fingertips, against her ribs. She imagines explaining him to her coworkers, what sort of man he became when she wasn’t looking.

“How bad?” she says.

“I took them,” he says. He holds up his stack of paperwork. “These. I took these.”

“Why don’t you let me hold onto them for now?” she says. Then, “What are they?”

She reaches out for the papers and he hands them to her without a second thought. The papers are exciting—his fear, that’s exciting, too.

What she can see without his permission to look at them: he has brought her a stack of printed emails, each of them featuring his email address.

“If they find out, I’m finished,” he says. 

She wonders: when was the last time she could feel herself breathing like this? 

“But what I did, it was for you,” he says. “Look.”

Some words pop out—laid off, accounts, how to handle the transition. She flips through them. Here is a reference to Amanda Robinson. And another. Amanda Robinson under performs. Amanda Robinson has been warned. Amanda Robinson is disengaged. Amanda Robinson’s time has come.

“Who’s Amanda Robinson?” Jana says.

Gregory is almost gleeful. There are undercurrents of terror, but those seem to live in the details: teeth pressed together, his eyes too open.

“I let her go,” he says. “I fired her. I fired her for you.”

“Her time has come?”

“But now I got you a job,” he says. “I’m the hiring manager. I can hire anyone I want to replace her.”

“Why Amanda Robinson?” 

She waits as his face shifts and turns. His fingers grip his opposite hand. Outside, the birds call to one another. Blue jays, wrens, crows. His bird book is open on her table to a page of hawks. 

“All I hear from you, a year of it, is ‘I’m sorry I don’t have any money’ and ‘poor me, I can’t find a job,’” he says. “Here’s your job, Jana. Don’t you want it?”

“Don’t I want it?”

“Oh, I see. You’d rather live off my money. You’re happy taking money from me and from your mother, too.”

The birds aren’t calling, they’re laughing. Ha, ha, ha, what a joke, what a joke. Then smack—a blue jay flies headlong into the sliding glass door behind them. The bird’s body as loud as a rock on the window. Both of them turn to see it fall to the patio, twitching, blue primary feathers catching in the intermittent sunlight. The songbirds are silent.

Gregory trots to her sliding glass door and presses his face against it.

“I think it’s broken a wing,” he says.

“Gregory,” she says. Has she ever said his name to him before? He turns to her as if she hasn’t, she probably hasn’t. “You have to tell me why.”

“This bird is injured. Can’t we stop talking about you long enough to at least bring it inside?”

“Why Amanda Robinson?”

Overhead, a hawk appears. Jana watches the shadow of it slip across the parched earth that is her shared yard. The songbirds see it, too. They jump to life, each voice calling out a warning to the jay on the patio. 

“Come on, little guy,” Gregory says. He raps on the window. The bird struggles to its feet.

“I don’t even know what you do,” she says.

The hawk’s shadow crosses the jay and crosses back again. In a second, the hawk dives down and hooks the jay in its talons, the jay twisting but it says nothing—even as the other birds plead for something other than this, the hawk pumps its wings and floats over the neighbor’s tree line, flying south toward the walking trails and suburban parks of Gregory’s neighborhood.

The birds are silent. In the warm dawn, the crickets refuse to chirp.  

“We could have saved it,” Gregory says.

She wishes she hadn’t thrown out the encyclopedia, but at least she can recall the bird book: red tail hawks belong in open country. Not here, not this place of narrow alleys, cracked sidewalks.

“I can’t work for you,” she says.

“Not now. It wouldn’t work anymore,” he says. “Not after this.”

He watches the window, as if the hawk might return.

“You could bring back Amanda Robinson.”

“No way,” he says. “Her time has come.”

What she wants to say: what about us? She imagines his responses. Arms around her, arms crossed over his chest, maybe thrown above his head. She can bring this to an end.

“Once you’re gone, we can’t bring you back,” Gregory says.

“She’ll have to find something else.”

“Good luck to her,” he says. “In this economy.”

Instead she walks over to the window and puts her hand against his shoulder. 

“It could have been yours,” he says.

The hawk floats across the span of the glass door and disappears behind a redbud tree. The songbirds resume as if they had witnessed nothing. Finally, she takes her hand off his shoulder and leaves for another room.

About the author

Natalie Teal McAllister is a fiction writer by night, marketing director by day, based in Kansas City. Her short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, Pigeon Pages, Midwestern Gothic, Craft, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others, and her recent Cheap Pop micro is set to appear in the Best Microfiction 2020. Natalie spends her writing hours engulfed in several novels and assorted strange stories.

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