“That beak dips down onto my shirtsleeve, once, twice, three times. He’s drinking my shirt.”
Your hummingbirds are the Napoleons of the bird world. They weigh maybe a third of an ounce at most but they don’t seem to know this. My field guide calls them pugnacious. No other bird gets labeled like a prizefighter, not even crows or starlings, though some of the water birds are supposed to have “secretive habits.”
Just watch a couple of hummers for a while and you’ll be grateful they’re as small as they are. One will be hovering at the feeder, wings buzzing like an electric shaver, when a little gray smear will dive bomb at it from the side, and then the two of them’ll zigzag off into the woods like daggers, never even grazing a single tree trunk. How they manage to get a decent meal is anyone’s guess. They’re solitary birds that can’t leave each other alone.
It’s only right I’d like the hummingbirds best. At my biggest I was five-foot-five, maybe 150 pounds, but age has shrunk me down a couple of inches, and these days half a bowl of soup is enough to keep me going most of the day. Blessed to still be here, even now, flat on my back underneath my own kitchen window. Still, I can’t help but feel like a walking warning: die young before the big shrink into decrepitude. Die young or shut up.
But resilient is the exact word Gretchen used for me until she died. Most of the time she said it like it was a good thing. She’d have something to contribute now, seeing me laid out like this, wearing a leather mask like I was trying to break into my own house. Resilient and stupid. This must come from being a Depression baby, born right when everything crashed. For years my mother told me that was why I was smaller than my brothers and sisters, seven in all. Back when we could afford them, every kid worked the combine and the baler, even the girls. And they could take those slabs of ice with the straw sticking all over and heave them right into the icebox, once we could afford that. I was told we used to have an engine combine, a Gleaner, but by the time I came around we just had a mule and a sulkey plow, and I didn’t weigh enough to work that too well, either. I’d hold onto those handles, my heels dragging in the soil, so that the mule pulled the plow and me both. I knew early on I wasn’t going to be any farmer. It was all Gretchen could do to get me to put in a vegetable garden for her every summer until she finally stopped caring. I’m lying on what used to be her little kitchen garden, in fact. If only I’d kept it going, the ground would have made for a softer landing.
And what kind of old man uses a porch chair to change the birdfeeder anyway? An old man that’s too lazy to haul out the ladder, that’s what. You’d think a metal chair would hold up someone weighing less than 130. But it was more rickety than I’d realized that’s clear now. I’m afraid to turn my head, but out of the corner of my eye I can see the problem: that back leg just snapped in two, clean as a cracker. Metal fatigue, they call it, the kind of thing I try never to think about when I’m on the bus or (still!) driving the car. The leg split and the chair jumped back and it threw me like a horse.
When she still knew what day it was, Gretchen would say we should sell this place and buy one of those one-floor condos where you could get old while you watched a bunch of other people getting old, too. But we’d put too much into this house. Three rooms upstairs and I added a closet to every one of them. I moved the toilet and put in a shower back in the eighties, then carved a whole other two rooms out of the attic, and an extra bathroom on top of that. Did the insulating and drywall myself, and had my friend Henry help with the wiring and plumbing. After all that how could I stand to live in just three rooms with walls made out of wet cardboard and a poodle yapping on the other side of my bedroom? I never wanted my own farm, but that place out in Iowa ruined me for anything but country just the same.
Oh, things are broken here, that’s for sure. I don’t even need to try wiggling my fingers and toes to know that. Breathing feels like someone’s prying apart my ribs. I can still hear the crack when the back of my head slammed into the ground, which is hard-baked this time of year but at least covered with a little grass. There were stars the likes of which I have not seen since various moments of my younger days—falling out of the oak tree in back of the barn, slamming into the brand new lamppost when my bike skidded.
Sixty-four years, three-quarters of my life I’ve spent with Gretchen, more of it with than without, so it figures she’s still talking in my head. She’s usually right, too. Like now, about the ladder and the chair, not to mention the sad fact that we are the last small house in this neighborhood, which is full of new houses on account of everybody tearing down the old ones and going for something three times the size of what was there previous. Bigger deeds for the banks, too, which means that everybody has to work now, not just the men. We are zoned for rural, though, so houses are still far enough apart, even if it’s all green lawns like crew cuts and big decks with fancy chairs but nobody sitting in them to hear me holler when the chair gave out. “Hah” is all I can say, and none too loud. “Haaaaaaah.” My ribs won’t let me shout.
A warm, safe little apartment, Gretchen’s saying. With a fee so someone else can refill your birdfeeders for you. I can’t remember if she was still alive when I got this kind of feeder that sticks to the window, even though I’m a bird with a very long memory. I can tell you my sister Ida’s favorite dress (dotted Swiss, cherry clusters on a blue background) and the names of every dog we fed but didn’t let in the house (Blue, Son, Blackie, Whitey, Harlan, Benny, Dan, Shirley) and the one my mother did let in, finally, when she got old and worn down by the whining (Charlene). I can’t describe but could recognize in a heartbeat the exact smell of the chicken stew my mother used to make, and could tell you whether it was hers or my sister Eileen’s (Eileen’s was better because hers wasn’t so stingy, not because she survived the Great Depression but because she would not relive it). I can tell you how many whitewashed two-by-fours there were between the ridgepole and the floor of the attic bedroom I shared with my three brothers (eleven) and the baptismal names of those brothers (Philip Joseph, Peter Anthony, and Mark Lucas). I can tell you which brothers lost fingers in the thresher when we could afford one (Philip, Charley, and Mark; right pointer, left thumb and pointer, left pinky, in that order). I can tell you what my father said each time a boy lost a finger (Hellfire, Damnation, What the hell’s the matter with you damned boys anyway).
What I can’t tell you is my actual, mother-given name. I can’t even tell you the name of my actual mother, since I was one of the Orphan Train kids, the ones taken out of the big eastern cities and sent out to farms that had a bed or—more likely—work to spare. I was one of the lucky ones. I got a family who took in an extra mouth because one thing they had just enough of was food. They were all big and dark, black Irish to the core with not even a redhead among them, and there I was, scrawny and fair-haired as a Swedish milkmaid. You’d think I’d have reckoned my place out pretty sharp, but Eileen finally took pity on me and told me when I was eleven. “Don’t you dare tell Mother,” she finished up. “It’d break her heart for you not to think you wasn’t hers for real.”
Six babies should have been enough for any woman, but I guess she wanted more. Not that I minded, exactly, but it was something of a shock. I’d believed my size was just poor feeding, but when I thought about it, I never went hungry. Not even when I committed the usual sins, like aiming the old .22 at Charley and actually pulling the trigger; we were both pretty sure it was out of bullets and anyway, the mechanism always jammed. And once I was waving the grass whip around and nearly cut off the cat’s tail, but to be fair, I wasn’t trying to, and even the cat didn’t take it too seriously. Mother would appear at the attic door late at night with a cold plate of potatoes and greens when everybody else was asleep, hissing at me to eat quickly and be done with it before Dad found out.
She knew, though. She knew I wasn’t a bona fide orphan, and she knew who my real people were, but the only one she told was Ida. Ida had a mouth like a rusty old stove door. You could bribe Eileen with a daisy or a candy bar, but all Ida ever told me was Mother owed someone a favor, and that it was all too nasty to speak of. The most ordinary of things—my own name, my true mother’s face—are things I was denied, the big blanks at the bottom of my stretchy memory. At least it’s a good story somewhere, and probably not nasty, not really. Nasty for Ida just meant fooling around, which I’d have gathered anyway, since a baby was involved.
The Sullivans were a fruitful breed, God knows: not one of them but didn’t have at least five kids of their own, except for me and Gretchen. We got just the two children, and the boy came to be a flat-out disappointment. Gretchen would never say so aloud, not even in front of me, but now she admits it all the time. She has to, after what he pulled. Left the one child, the one his girlfriend then palmed off on me and Gretchen, and we were glad to have her. She had something wrong when she was just three months old; they had to put a shunt in her skull to drain off the fluid after somebody shook her so hard her head swelled up three times its natural size. They still don’t know who did it, but I have my suspicions that it’s not her mother, a dirty girl but with good intentions just the same. Not turning in Richard was about the worst thing I ever did. Son or no son, he had or still has a terrible temper, and we didn’t do him any favors by letting him get off so easy. Now that he’s disappeared for good, who can say he’s not suffering somewhere. I surely hope he is. We lost track of him more than fifteen years ago, with not even a letter or a phone call asking for money. Gretchen thought we should have tried harder to find him, but I was relieved to see him go. Heartsick, but he was starting to scare me. You can’t wallop a grown son.
And Lucille, that’s the little girl, she’s eleven now, living with her aunt Eileen, our good girl who raised her right with the other two, like her own daughter with no questions asked. She don’t know any different, is how my mother, that old deceiver, would put it.
We old farts are supposed to have no short term memories to speak of and long term memories that all we do is speak of, yammering on about how the butter looked in the old churn (grayish and lumpy and leaking some watery substance I was happy to put out of my mind as soon as I saw my first tub of Oleo). But I’ve got it all, recent events, too, filling up my head like the puddle of blood in the dust when Charley got his thumb and finger chewed up. What I can’t remember is what Lucille’s math teacher means when she says “Use ZAP ZAP CHANGE CHANGE” when subtracting larger numbers from smaller ones. Why she doesn’t just have the kids take the smaller number away from the larger and then slap a negative sign in front of the result is a mystery to me. Lucille tried to explain it to me and then to her mother and finally she shouted at both of us that she didn’t need to understand, she just needed to finish.
Still, it’s not like sass was invented in 1962. Seventy years ago folks were beating discipline and respect into their kids. Mother let Dad do all the heavy lifting in that department, so Gretchen and I followed the same rules, though I never had much heart for it—it was just tradition, and cleaner all round; the kids know who to watch out for, instead of having the one person they thought they could trust go and turn on them with a belt or a butter paddle. (My parents ran a modern family: we didn’t cut switches, but used something ready-made.)
Eileen, though, she and Will don’t ever raise their hand to the boys or Lucille, even though that Lucille sure has a mouth on her. Will tried to explain it to me, back when we were on better footing, about how you never want to hit a kid in anger, but only afterwards, when everyone’s more sober-headed. That’s the word he used, sober, as if teaching your own kid a lesson was something only a drunk would do. Like most of what Will has said to me over the years, the more I think about it, the worse it sounds. Who would sit down and make a strategy out of hitting a kid, plan it out like a serial killer or an army general? And even if I knocked Richard now and again, I always managed to simmer down quick enough. Eileen I can’t remember hitting more than once, and it was always a real light tap, though you wouldn’t know it from the way she carried on.
I must’ve been twenty-five years old and starting my own family before I knew why Dad spent so much time looking for that paddle. You could call him pugnacious, but he was more a buzzer than a swatter. Most of what he buzzed was what you’d call negative—it took a lot to get him to tell you that you had been competent. But if you had a fever or had chopped off a finger and were laid up fighting off the septic so you didn’t lose the whole arm, you could count on a bedtime visit from Dad. He’d shuffle around the room a little like a bear, uneasy there in your own private space that you still had to share with at least two people, ‘til he’d sit at the very edge on the very foot of the bed and lay his hands flat on his knees, rubbing the places where the dungarees were worn thinnest. Finally he’d speak. We checked with each other afterwards, and it was always the same thing: “Okay, chicken. You rest up, we’ll see you in the morning.” That was the only sweet thing he called any of us—chicken. Maybe with seven kids it was easier than trying to remember our names.
My brain hums inside my skull like a pot of water on the boil. I try moving my head, just a turn to the right, but that’s a mistake for certain. I hope I haven’t snapped some vertebrae clean out of my spine. At least I can see; the mask didn’t move and cover up my eyes when I hit the ground. Too bad it wasn’t on the back of my head to cushion the fall. I can’t tell if there’s any blood back there. It’s a hell of a thing, this mask. Lucille got it for me last Christmas, at some hippie crafts fair (if there are any hippies left, they must come to this one fair). The leather’s as stiff as wood, dyed blue and red and orange, and molded to my face like it was meant to be there. But the kicker is the beak. It sticks straight out at least five inches—a lethal weapon, says Lucille—a skinny little black tube. And there are these molded little cheek pouches that go right over my own drooping cheek pouches, and just over the eye holes there’s a nice turquoise sort of blue that gets lighter until it fades out at the top. It’s like a hummingbird wearing eye shadow. Beats the hell out of a tie or some ladies’ cologne like other grandfathers get.
Gretchen used to say Lucille was always the favorite. More than Eileen, even more than Richard. That’s the awful part—how much we loved that boy. Eileen was always trying so hard, worrying so much about failing school or coming in fourth in the 30-yard dash. I should have been fonder of her; I know it. I named her for my favorite sister, didn’t I? And I loved her and all. At the end of the day she’s still my child even if I can’t name the last day she brought the kids around to see me. I hope they start missing me so bad that she shows up soon. But Eileen, she was always too much for me. She was a fretful kind of girl, fluttering around so we had to keep looking at her. I wanted to hug her and call her sweet things all the time but she just needed so much.
“You begrudged her, that’s what you did,” Gretchen still says, and she’s right. The more she needed, the less I could give. Once in a blue moon, though, late at night when she was asleep and finally out of our hair, I missed her so bad I had to go up into her room and look at her from the doorway. That’s when I loved her best.
“Sleep tight, chicken,” I’d say. “I love you, chicken”—just when she couldn’t hear me.
The feeder must be a good two feet away from me on the ground, probably broken. What’s really funny about hummers is, ferocious as they are, one little yellow jacket will roust them right off the feeder. End of summer, you find it just crawling with them—not the friendly honey bees they say we’re losing more and more every year, but the mean ones. They’re like young street-gang yellow jackets. Their queens are done pumping out eggs, so they get kicked out of the nests, and without a nest they’re out of a job, not to mention a home. That’s what makes them so aggressive about your can of soda: that can is all they have. Even understanding this it’s hard to love them as another one of God’s creatures.
I’m afraid to move my arms. This is the end of my living here on my own, that’s for sure. Even if Eileen could come around to taking me in, that husband of hers wouldn’t stand for it. I don’t know if I could, either. But they have that basement all fixed up, with its own door and a bathroom and everything. I could pay a little rent.
Of course the feeder was chock-full, and I got the twenty-ounce size so I wouldn’t need to fill it all the time. Now there’s sugar water everywhere, soaking my shirt and arms, in my hair. I can feel it dripping into my left ear. I stick my tongue out and lick my lips. I can even reach my nose, or could if this mask wasn’t covering it. I may have been the smallest kid in the family but I got the longest tongue, and at least it still works. I’m trying not to get all upset about this.
Only Charley cried when he lost his fingers, and that was on account of being just seven, and besides, it was two fingers, not just the one like the other boys. I’m eighty-seven, and I still have all my fingers and toes, but it feels like there’s a spike in the middle of my spine. I’m afraid even to try to pick up my head; when this kind of thing happens on TV someone’s always screaming ‘Don’t move him!’ so I keep quiet.
Nobody in my family ever complained, not even when my sister Eileen died so hard from the cancer, and right when her three girls were old enough to know what was happening and young enough to need her so much. But there might be something in it.
Here I am, up on this chair, waving my arms around to get the damned yellow jackets away from the hummers, and wham! Those hummers really need the sugar, too. They have to get all the way down to the Florida Keys and then some, and they burn half those calories just hovering by the feeder, let alone zooming off to Panama. Some protector I turn out to be, and no good deed goes unpunished.
Right on cue, here they are, the yellow jackets. I was wondering where they’d got to. I can’t even jerk my arms around to scare them off, which actually scares me: I try to lift my arm but it’s no go. The pain’s died down, which is either a good thing, or the numbness of a snapped spine or a fractured God knows what. The yellow jackets, those lousy bums, are starting to gather on my shirt. They hover around my face, but I’m able to blow at them, or spit when I can get enough spit together. I don’t want to make them too mad, though. It’d be a pretty horrible way to go, covered with stinging insects.
Especially angry stinging insects that lost everything, their home, their queen, their reason for existence. If these yellow jackets had a choice, I bet they’d have ridden the rails during the Depression. They could band together on a freight train, buzzing around just past the yards where the bosses could see them, and then, before the trains caught up any real speed, they could all fly together into one of the open boxcars and hide in the corner, maybe where there was some straw, telling each other stories about how they nearly missed it this time, boy. They thought they was a goner then, hooey.
Well, I’m trying to love them, I am, but they don’t look anything like what a person could love, all yellow and spiky and covered with tiny hairs. What do I look like to them? What do they see when they look into my eyes? One keeps trying to land on my cheek—and then he does, and I’m a goner now myself for sure because I don’t feel anything. The numbness must be all the way up my neck now. I’m a four-way cripple, not even a two-way so I could push my own wheelchair. The little feelers are just beneath my eyes, and I don’t feel a tickle.
When I hear the next buzz, my heart sinks, or it would if anything in my body could move. The only good thing about being numb is I won’t feel myself getting stung.
Maybe I’ll get so many stings they can put me out of my misery. I’m not going to any nursing home, that’s for sure. At first I close my eyes but I might as well watch. This may well be the last thing I get to see.
Then there’s that crazy gray swoosh, like that Nike sneaker symbol, and a bigger buzz, and the yellow jacket’s gone. Three more gray swooshes, and the five or six stingers rise up in a cloud, swirling around like drunken fools, jerking back and forth.
The hummers and the yellow jackets go at it then, dive bombing each other. It’s a regular dogfight out there, World War II in my backyard. My soon to be ex-backyard. Nobody’s actually hitting anybody else, but there’s a lot of dodging and weaving. It’s more like an aerial boxing match with a bunch of guys who want to save their pretty faces.
The hummers are still bigger and too fast to get stung; the yellow jackets look a little dopey. Maybe they’re sugar-drunk. Maybe the hummers just keep themselves in better training—no booze, no women, no late nights. It’s a long way to Florida, you know. My last sporting event, and it’s live, not even on TV.
Suddenly, everyone’s gone, it’s a rout, just me and my broken back. That’s when I feel something—I feel something!—tickling my hand. Without thinking I look—I actually raise my head and look—and there’s a hummingbird, right on my knuckles.
Its claws are thinner than pen scratches, finer than Eileen’s hair when she was a baby and it’d curl around her fingers so you had to untangle it. I’m moving so slowly I don’t even register for this bird, his tiny feet on my tiny finger. That beak dips down onto my shirtsleeve, once, twice, three times. He’s drinking my shirt. My red shirt.
Three more come, and this time, nobody chases anybody away. It’s camaraderie among the victors. Maybe they haven’t either. I’m still not moving, and there are four, five, now six of them, lighting on my shirt and arms, dipping those needle beaks down, sip-sip-sipping for the long trip south. I can feel the tiny pinpricks of the beaks; you wouldn’t believe how delicate and gentle. Those things could draw blood.
Suddenly I know I’m hallucinating the whole thing: the birds, the pinpricks, my own head moving. Because there’s Lucille’s voice shrieking at me, the birds jerking upwards, hovering for a moment and then darting off into the woods as she flings herself next to me (“Don’t move me!” I croak) and then she carefully, carefully, puts her arm beneath my sticky old fuzzy-haired head and whispers “There, there” in my sugar-glazed ear, sweeter than any nectar. “There, there, chicken. You’re all right now, chicken.”
Photo by AnnCam.