She had always been a dog person. And there had always been dog people in the world. She was sure of it. The people who wouldn’t cry at a funeral, but wailed like colic-ridden babies at the end of Old Yeller. She was one of those people.
The first toy she ever got was a teddy bear. She wouldn’t play with it though. After investigating it once, she had let it alone. Instead she would wander, crawling through the house, searching.
Then one day Mother found little her sitting by the front door. Door open, only the screen was shut. Little baby was staring out. Mother picked her up, glad little her hadn’t tried to open the screen. It wasn’t until later, warming some milk on the stove that Mother thought about how strange the baby’s sitting and staring had been – baby was a mover – and went to look out the peep hole of the front door. She would have to be more careful, she thought, as she saw what her daughter had been transfixed by: in the yard across the street was an enormous Great Dane tied to a tree, running around, hyper, savage, maybe violent. That was one of the last days her mother ever spent with her, but only the beginning of her communion with dogs.
From the time she was school age up, she always had dogs. She read books about dogs the way some children read books about dinosaurs. If there were puppies anywhere in a few mile radius of their house, she sniffed them out and would go introduce herself. Inevitably she would come home singing their praises, full of arguments on why they needed to adopt one. They was herself and her dad. The rule though was three dogs at a time. Dad was generous, but there had to be a limit. When she was old enough to decide for herself, she had as many dogs as she could afford. Anyway, she had always been a dog person.
Now there she was on television and not a dog in sight. She didn’t think she had ever been on tv before.
It was true: she didn’t have any dogs anymore. They had finally left her, or she had left them. It was hard to say. She didn’t think about it much. Most of the time, she still felt like they were in the house. She usually felt like he, Papa, was still around too. But it was just her now. When someone was climbing the stairs and running their hand along the dusty rail, it was always her.
‘Hey Papa, here’s your porridge.’ That had been one of her favorite things to say. She didn’t do it at every meal, at dinners and then every once in a while at a special breakfast or brunch – say before a Father’s Day omelet – but she enjoyed saying it and enjoyed the sound of it. It had such a ring of mystery. In reality she had never served her father porridge. She didn’t know exactly what porridge was in fact, some fairy tale oatmeal. It was a joke they had. When she was growing up, she had heard her dad often say that there were many days when porridge was all he and his brothers had to eat, and he had enjoyed it every time. So one night she had said here’s your porridge my papa, and he had laughed. She liked bringing him his food. She liked the smile it brought to his face when she told him his porridge was ready. She smiled too. It was a smile they had been able to count on. She liked smiling. Dogs smile a lot. You can tell when they smile. You can tell easily. It’s usually in their tails, but not always, sometimes the eyes or the mouth. Dead birds don’t smile exactly. They don’t really do anything. Presently she had a dead bird.
It was after her father died.
The funeral had been small. The headstone had also been small. Papa had been a small man. It might have been a few days or a few weeks after his passing on that she found the bird. She couldn’t remember.
She was on her way to the store, counting the cracks in the sidewalk, breathing secretly when something red and vivid came into her view. She stopped. She crouched down to look at it, glad she did not yet have the heavy grocery bags in her hands. The bottom of her large leather purse touched the ground. She felt the touch and lifted her arm a couple of inches so the purse wouldn’t get dirty.
It was a bird.
The red thing on the ground was a dead bird. It was red and bright and looked as healthy as healthy, except that instead of standing on its two spindly little legs and pecking about it was motionless and laying on its side. She knew birds didn’t sleep like that. The bird was dead. She crouched there, still, wondering at it. There might have been as many breeds of them as there were of dogs for all she knew. This one might have been a cardinal. She didn’t know. She looked up from her crouching position and saw that they, she and the dead bird, were directly under a telephone line. She had thought so. She knew this walk well. It wasn’t a sick bird, or an old bird. It was a young, recently healthy bird. It had been on the line when a really long distance call came through, sending a cruel amount of voltage through its phrenetically beating little bird heart. A little tragedy, she thought.
She didn’t know what else to do, so she picked the bird up and put it in her purse. Then she stood up and continued her journey.
In the store there was one awkward moment when she reached for her wallet and her hand brushed the wrong way against a couple feathers. Her skin had shivered. Then she had smiled at the cashier and completed her transaction and walked home. Once home she hung her purse on the coat rack just like she had been doing everyday for years. Then she had to feed the dogs and play with them and put the house in order so she could go to bed. Nothing unusual happened. The bird didn’t make any noise after all; it was dead. She slept with her door shut and all nine dogs in the room, exactly as she had every night since Papa had gone.
Life continued undisturbed, undisturbing for another week or so after she found the bird. Things were going okay considering. Then one night the unthinkable happened.
She had terrible, dark dreams that night, the kind of dreams usually reserved for children. They were so fantastic and vivid, so full of images of breathtaking horror that when she woke, she wasn’t surprised to find everything already upset.
The door was open. Only one dog was still in the room with her. She followed the noise of the others to the entryway. They were pawing at her purse. They were asking to leave. Her heart didn’t break immediately, but the reality of it stunned her for a moment.
The next day she rounded the dogs up, the big brown mutt, Laurel, who had stayed on her bed, included, and began finding them all good homes. It took a few days. She was efficient, but conscientious. She found it strange listening to the amount of breath in the house diminish. Still she kept her purse hidden until the last one, a little terrier named Mars, was gone.
After the dogs left, a week went by without moment. She worked more than usual, spent more time away from the house than usual, took long, solitary walks, and ate out more, but nothing was that different. Then she got another jolt one day at a restaurant.
It was at the Italian place just around the corner. She had brought food home for her father from this restaurant many times. She liked their menu. She had been sitting, looking at the red and white checkers on the tablecloth at her corner table, when her waiter approached. Excuse me, ma’am, he said. Yes. We’ve had a complaint. She had been quiet, she thought. She had been nothing to complain about. Yes, she questioned. There seems to be a smell originating from this area, he said, leaned back on his heels. I’m sorry, but the smell is quite strong. Oh. She got up and walked out, the waiter watching her. She hadn’t known what else to do.
A smell? What was the world coming to when she was kicked out because of a smell? Had she really been kicked out? She didn’t know. No, she had been saved that humiliation. She had left by her own decision. Then she remembered the dead bird in her purse. The possibility occurred to her that the smell was not her at all, that the smell was the bird. She had been with it constantly, had even begun to sleep with her purse on the nightstand next to her bed. So maybe she was used to it, she realized, but to everyone else it stunk. That had to be it, but this was a bigger problem. She couldn’t give the bird a shower.
She was hungry and walking the street, directionless and alone. She tried to think, but couldn’t. There had to be something she could do, but what? She turned her steps homeward without an answer. Later, lying in bed, one arm stretching up so she could keep a hand on the straps of her purse, it dawned on her. She had to find a taxidermist.
She woke up early the next day, anxious. She tried to wait. She didn’t want to be fretful. Nowhere opened before eight anyway. She opened up the phone book at 7:30 to look for a taxidermist’s number. She found two: the James Brothers Taxidermy and Fly-Fishing Shop, and All the Stuffing Taxidermy (Artful preservation at a reasonable cost, the little advertisement said). She decided on the latter. She had never fished in her life, and every penny counted. She called at 8 o’ clock and got an answering machine that gave out the hours. Didn’t open ‘til 10. She looked at the address in the phone book. She knew the street. She must have passed the place before. That made her feel a little better about it. She waited until a few minutes before 10 and then was off. There was no reason to delay on this kind of errand she reasoned: the sooner the better.
Inside the shop were various animals arrayed in different poses. None of them would ever move, she thought, trying not to look at the large black bear or cute little rabbit too closely. Is this really what she wanted for the nameless little bird? But there was no other option besides the garbage bin, and that was no option at all.
At the counter was a small woman with grey and brown hair whose nametag read Mary. Hello, Mary said, relaxed, in charge. She had taken the bird out of her purse already and now quickly put it on the counter. Oh, we’re not busy you know. I could have this looking real good for you in just a couple days. How does that sound? Great, Mary said, answering her own question. She started drawing up a redemption ticket. Mary did not wait for answers from customers. She knew them all by heart. Mary waved at her when she turned to look back as she left. When people come into a taxidermist’s shop, they must very rarely leave without services rendered, she thought.
She found herself back in the shop two days later. She said thank you when Mary handed her the bird. It looked immaculate. Will it really always look like that, she asked. Oh sure, Mary said, handing over her change, I’m good at what I do. She was tempted to stay a moment. Mary was so nice. It was the name of the mother of God after all. Of course, the only Mary she had known well before was her sister, and her sister had not been nice. That Mary never came out to see them the last five years of their father’s life. That Mary had often been mean, even cruel, but this Mary was nice as well as good at what she did. When Mary realized the customer wasn’t leaving, she decided to try to talk. What kind of bird is that, Mary the taxidermist asked her, it’s a nice specimen. Oh, I don’t know, she said. Where’d you get it? Is it foreign or domestic? I found it on the sidewalk. Mary had smiled at her then. It was as though she had expected that answer just as much as the ones she never bothered to wait for. Mary smiled at her a long time not saying a word. Then she thanked her for her business, and went into the back of the shop. Work to do, Mary said, as she disappeared, come back any time. After that the bird was set. It would never have to leave her purse again.
One night a good while later, she dreamt about the bird being alive. In the dream, she knew it was the dead bird and no other, because it took flight from her purse.
She was walking along a big bridge, it might have been a bridge over an ocean, when she started to feel the bird struggling in her purse. She knew what was happening instinctively. She waited a second, wanting the bird to know struggle in its new life. Then she unzipped her purse, and out burst the bird. It was blue, blue as the sky. She thought, just for a second, about grabbing its foot before it flew too high. Whether it was to catch it and put it back in her purse or to be carried into flight with it, she didn’t know. She did neither however. She watched it fly away until it went deep into the sky and she couldn’t see it anymore. Then it was just her standing alone on a bridge.
When the camera crew caught her escapade in the park, she had been on her fourth trip to the store in the last seven days. She always went to get more milk. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and that day, Sunday, was to be the fourth. Wednesday it’s true she had only bought a half gallon, thinking she would drink less milk and more water, but that had ended up meaning an extra excursion.
Once, about a month before, the man at the store had asked her if she was a cat lady. What, she had responded. If anything ever was weird, it was this question. She had never had a cat in her life. You used to buy all that dog food, he said. She nodded, unsure of what he was getting at, feeling strange in the knowledge that this man had these thoughts. And now you buy all this milk. You went from dogs to cats, huh? I don’t blame you, he said, dogs can be a pain. I never had one in my life, too needy. All she said was no, I don’t have any cats.
The truth was she had grown accustomed to milk. She had recently decided she hated to eat. She didn’t like the simple actions involved, spooning or forking into the cave that was her mouth and feeling the piercing solids sliding down her gullet and into her stomach that preferred to be left alone. Milk was okay though. That white liquid, whiter than the hospital walls, that was okay. She did still eat things though. She had to, because for some reason the idea of going a day without eating at all frightened her.
So she had again been headed to the store for more milk. She hadn’t felt like leaving the house, but she needed it. She longed for the days of a milkman who delivered every morning directly to the doorstep. She was tired, the week had been long, but she had set out anyway.
On her way to the store, she got sidetracked. She had been looking up at the sky, and she had turned. Usually she walked looking out for the cracks. Ever since her walks had become dog-less, she had developed a fear of tripping, which grew especially strong when she was carrying the heavy milk. To this Sunday, however, there was an unidentifiable lightness. So she was looking up as she walked, and looking up she saw a clear sky. She tried, but could remember nothing quite like this. It was so bright. There were no noises. The day seemed concentrated in the light, clear vacuum of that sky. Then she looked in front of her and she saw the green.
She never watched the news, so she wouldn’t have seen it if it hadn’t been for Mabel. She was surprised Mabel still had her number. She hadn’t seen Mabel in maybe three years.
At the time it happened, she hadn’t known she was being taped. The park was big, and they must have filmed her from afar. She would have been nervous if they had tried to interview her. Who would ever have thought it: her on the nightly news – and with a bird? But there it was. God, she was even smiling. She felt like she hadn’t seen a smile like that in her picture since the times when little her would dress up and ride about on dog-back.
One thing that she knew was different was that it should have been raining hard. There should have been thunder. June was always wet, or at least overcast, usually gloomier than winter. It had indeed been raining the whole week until then.
The woman in this clip has been identified since earlier. If you were with us during the seven o’ clock hour, then you’ve already seen this, but I believe it’s worth a second look. Me too, I really love this footage. Now, you know we’re having some very unusual weather, and it’s great to see how the residents around town have been taking advantage of the sunshine. It sure is. We had a crew out in the park to get footage of some of the blooming flowers. During a cigarette break, our cameraman happened upon and captured this scene:
She is a cloud. She is a misty splotch of darkness. She moves, a contrast to the green of the grass and the brown bark on the trees and the blue on the horizon. She exposes radiance. She floats. No mosquito, no camera, no crying child exists.
Then she does it. Miraculously she reaches into her purse, and slowly (did she really do it that slowly or are they using slo-mo, she wondered) she draws a bird out of her purse. She drops the purse on the ground. Then she holds the bird out in front of her, and they dance. She twirls in her dark, ashy garments, which have now taken on a richly black hue, the bird in its eternal bright red plumage. She is large on the scene, the only living creature. The bird is apparently tiny and fragile, but in reality unbreakable. She steps this way and that in rhythm to the green and the sky and the quiet. Who is leading, she or the bird? They dance. And she smiles and the bird stays still in her hands.
The camera shot fades slowly back to the newsroom.
The woman has been identified as Jane Ozkart, a lifelong local who gives back to the community through her work as a volunteer nurse at the free clinic. Isn’t that wonderful? She left the park before our crew got a chance to talk to her, but thankfully a good friend of hers got in touch with us. I hope she doesn’t mind us playing this clip. I’m sure she doesn’t. No, it’s just too nice. Well, on that note I hope each and every one of you found a little joy on this sunny day and as always thank you for tuning in to your local, late-breaking ten o’ clock news.
Jane leaned forward a little in her chair as she stopped the tape. It is strange, she thought, I’ve always been a dog person and here I am my first time on tv without a dog. Mabel was so thoughtful to let me know. I should do something for her, she thought. Then Jane turned to the bird, which was seated next to her on the couch and petted its head.
Anthony Bromberg currently writes, teaches, and lives in Austin, TX with his wife and their three cats. He studied creative writing at UCLA. His short fiction can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, Danse Macabre, and The Battered Suitcase.