Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records
Two in the Hand
by Melinda McCamant
The common house sparrow isn’t flashy but it is prolific and inquisitive. Like most birds they mate for life. Like people they flock to cities. I like the possibility of birds, that if I understood their song I could learn their secrets.
A couple of sparrows used to come to my open window every morning to snack on the seeds I scattered there—so small and delicate, like children. As I sipped my coffee I watched them snatch up sunflower seeds with their beaks and toss the shells into the tangle of flowers two stories below. Once I gained their trust they would come inside, hop onto my kitchen table and cock their heads in cautious greeting. They were my conscience and my companions, my Jiminy Crickets that probably ate crickets. It’s too bad I had to kill them.
I felt bad when I did it, like a knot had tightened in my chest making breath difficult. Their diminutive bodies were lighter in death than during the struggle. But such a small struggle, harder for my hands to squeeze than for their bones to break. No more bright eyes. No more conscience. No more song. But then the knot loosened. Without the birds it would be easier to do what I had to do.
Joe left my instructions in a crisp manila envelope crammed into the front basket of my three-speed. I desperately wanted to know what Joe looked like, to put a face to the caramel voice. I even locked my bicycle to a different light post hoping to get a better view from behind the counter. I mumbled greetings and omitted my usual fern leaves and faces from the tops of cappuccinos. But Joe must have been watching, waiting—like he always did— for the perfect moment. Sure enough, I got distracted and when I was finally done frothing the last of the non-fat foam for a gaggle of peroxide blonds there it was, shoved in my white daisy basket, one yellow corner poking up just enough to taunt me. I sloshed the last latte on to the counter and ran outside but I was too late. The sidewalk was empty. Down the street I saw a black Prius, its windows mirrors in the morning sun, making an illegal left turn onto Broadway. With sticky disappointed fingers I grabbed the envelope and went back to my crappy job.
There are three of us in our little group, four counting Joe— sort of a subversive Charlie’s Angels. We first met in an online forum opposed to Fluoridation but somehow ended up in a basement office discussing ‘action’.
The meeting room is musty, like there is a slow leak somewhere in the walls that has never been fixed. I don’t like it there, I feel itchy when I leave, but I keep coming back.
Mitzi, a vegan stripper with the usual Daddy issues, always arrives first. She sits cross-legged on her office chair looking surprisingly Bennington Zen for a girl who dances naked and has been arrested more than once for showering mink stoles and fox furs with red paint.
At our first meeting Lois, who is usually late, arrived in uniform. Mitzi and I were just past introductions, when this petite brunette strode in wearing police blues. I thought we had been busted before things even began and was about to knock Lois down and make a run for it.
That’s when Joe’s voice, paternal and persuasive, came through the speaker. “Good, you are all here.”
“Joe,” Lois said, flashing a dizzy smile like she was entering a trance. I knew that she belonged because I felt a little dizzy too.
It turned out that Lois works as a clerk at the police station—she files evidence and ignores innuendo from beefy cops with unintentionally ironic facial hair, smugly satisfied that her time off is spent sneaking into old growth forests and implanting armor into silent giants without means to defend themselves.
I knew from that first meeting that I was the anomaly. I wear leather shoes. I eat meat. I wish I had Mitzi and Lois’s passion to defend the innocent but now look at me— I strangle defenseless birds. My causes have always been too vague and too angry. As a teenager I scrawled a fat white anarchy sign on the back of my leather jacket just because chaos seemed cool. I like to fuck shit up, maybe that’s why I got the manila envelope and Mitzi and Lois didn’t.
Joe, the voice behind the curtain, knows that I didn’t occupy because I have a heart or courage or brains. I occupied so I could piss in a park and yell at beefy cops. I occupied because boohoo I’ve got Daddy issues too. I occupied so that I didn’t have to believe.
Looking back I see how clever Joe was, corralling our common conceptions in order to herd Mitzi, Lois, and myself to the same comment threads. From the broad boulevards of Fluoridation and freedom he led us to the narrow streets of the Occupy Movement, Animal Rights, and Protecting the Forests. Our causes varied but Joe showed us that we shared a willingness to break the law.
During our last meeting Mitzi and I got into a stupid fight. There we were, in that underground room, with the rickety furniture and garish lighting, that made us feel like radicals, when Joe brought up the water supply again. He said that if the city council was going to go ahead and poison us without our consent we should be willing to act. That’s all he said, ‘act’, but I ran with it.
“We could lace their coffee with LSD,” I said. “That would show ‘em.”
“Too far,” Mitzi said, fingering the hemp braid on her recycled water bottle purse.
I like Mitzi, sometimes on Mondays, which are slow, she comes down to the café where I work and keeps me company. Her father is almost as distant as mine. When she’s there, sipping her soy chai and telling me about some lap dance gone awry, it’s almost like we are friends.
“How is that too far? You almost blinded that old lady.”
“That was an accident and I feel terrible, you know that. She ducked. I was aiming for her fur not her face.”
“Accident or on purpose, what’s the difference? The result’s the same,” I said. I did know how bad Mitzi felt about that old lady. When she threw paint she always aimed low but that damn ritzy grandma had practically dropped and rolled.
“I wouldn’t beat you over the head with a hammer just to illustrate how your hamburger felt before it died.” Mitzi’s voice was high and frail, like she was about to break.
“You could try. I’m not a cow, I can fight back.” I got up from my chair, defending my territory.
Lois stood up too and it was two against one. Why was Joe just a voice on the phone? Why wasn’t he there to back me up?
“We all have our own boundaries.” Joe’s voice floated between us, settled on my skin like the ever-present smell of mold in the room. I sat back down and snorted. Mitzi was sniffling because of they way I said cow, Lois petting her head protectively.
“Sorry,” I said to the speaker-box. “I just want to teach them a lesson.” I hurt Mitzi but I apologized to Joe, that’s probably another reason he gave me the manila envelope.
When I got home that night there was an IM waiting for me on my computer. “Are you the one who will act?”
“I am,” I replied.
“Can I trust you to follow through?”
“Yes,” I typed, somehow knowing that Joe was asking for something big. “I’ll do anything.” I was glad I was alone; glad I didn’t have to say the words out loud because for some reason I was crying.
In the morning I got another message from Joe letting me know that he would leave specific instructions on how to ‘act’ in the basket of my bicycle while I was at work. We had never met but he knew where I worked, what I rode. What else did he know?
After I opened the envelope I understood. Joe knew I would do anything.
Joe believed in me but I was less sure. I had to prove I could follow through. That’s why I killed the birds. “Trust no one,” I whispered to the sparrows. Then I snapped their necks simultaneously, one in my left hand, its partner in my right. When I was done I swept the last scatterings of bird seed from the sill with their stiffening wings and laid their lifeless bodies on the kitchen table.
I pulled out my instructions and read them one last time before setting the typed page on fire and dropping it into my toilet. I hated burning the only thing I had that Joe had touched, but instructions are instructions. As I flushed I wondered if I was really going to do this for a man I’d never met? I thought about the birds. Yes, I was.
The day Joe chose was a beautiful one, warm for early autumn and not a cloud in the sky. Ever since 9/11 perfect weather mornings have seemed a little ominous to me. It was a sign. I loaded up my backpack and headed downtown.
Joe’s plan was simple, too simple to be believable, but I already told you, I don’t want to believe.
The streets were crowded with families. It seemed like every adult was holding the hand of an innocent child: little girls with too big eyes in bobbing, inquisitive heads; little boys, tugging and bouncing in anticipation of something unknowable, yet good, around the corner; parents holding tight, not letting go.
I kept my head down and weaved my way towards my destination.
I was almost there when I nearly collided with a father and daughter standing by a parking meter. The girl, not more than five, could barely reach the slot where she was inserting the quarters her father passed to her carefully so that she wouldn’t drop them to the ground. He looked at her like she was the first five-year old to land on the moon. It was parking and it was a game and it was joy. Standing on tippy toes she wobbled, looked right at me and smiled. Joy. I couldn’t smile back, not with what I was about to do, so I turned my head towards the storefronts pretending, at first, to be entranced by what I saw there.
Birds, not my sparrows now buried with the husks of sunflower seeds, but some other sort of decorative songbird made from old vinyl records. The records had been shattered—obsidian feathers and beaks, sharp and songless. My backpack was suddenly too heavy to carry. In those vinyl birds, tethered with wire to a dead branch in a store window, I saw Joe for what he was, I saw me for what I had become—broken records.
I slaughtered the sparrows to prove a point that didn’t exist and was about to do much worse for a man I had never seen—a voice on the phone, messages on a screen.
When I got home I put the backpack in the closet and opened the window. It was still a perfect day. I scattered more seed, determined to do better by the next birds, to feed them, listen to their song, and then let them fly away.
© 2012 Melinda McCamant