Seamus flings the front door open and drops his backpack. The two pigeons roosting on top of the grandfather clock take flight – around the foyer and living room – unsettling the other twenty-six pigeons lounging around the main floor of the house.
“What the fuck?” Seamus says, ducking and waving his arms. “Mom?”
He surveys the living room: the couch is covered in plastic and on the back of the sofa four pigeons sit preening. The bookcases serve as roosts. A red chequer perches atop a lamp, two on the fireplace mantle, and one on the stairs. The rest scuttle around the hardwood floor pecking at bits of food and grit.
On the coffee table, the expensive one that Liz insisted Charlie buy for her last Christmas, the one from Restoration Hardware made of teak, the one she doesn’t let anyone even put a glass of water on, sit three large bowls: one of bird seed, one full of grit and another with water, the water having been turned a piss yellow from the addition of liquid vitamins.
The table is covered with a sheet of newspaper, but the pigeons have moved it so it half the wood is exposed. Seamus looks at the surface and sees several hardening shits.
Mom’s not going to take this well.
He sneezes and then suddenly the smell of the room is inescapable. It’s no longer the vanilla scented candles from the dollar shop around the corner, it’s a stench of shit and bird dander that Seamus has never encountered in such force before. There have been days when the heat and humidity of the Toronto summer have caused the pigeon loft out back to emit wafts of stink, but nothing like this.
He plugs his nose and opens the two windows in the room. From underneath the side table, he hears a familiar cooing, and a pigeon scuttles out, chased by another – obviously male. His tail is fanned out and he circles her, cooing enticements. Eventually she relents and bends down; he jumps on her back.
Seriously? Seamus thinks. I come home to pigeons fucking in the living room. Child Services wouldn’t even know where to start.
In the kitchen, his sister Beth sits at the table, eating a large bag of chips.
“She’s not home, retard,” she says.
“Beth is a fat girl’s name,” Seamus retorts.
“At least I can lose weight, you, however, will always be a retard.”
“What’s with the indoor flock?” he says reaching for the bag of chips.
Beth clutches the bag to her chest. “Dad demolished the pigeon loft.”
“Seriously?” Seamus asks, peering out into the backyard. For the past ten years a large shed-like structure dominated the yard, but now there is only a pile of splintered wood. “Huh. The living room is pretty fucking disgusting. Did he get Mom’s okay?”
Beth picks a crumb off the table. “What do you think?”
“I think this could be grounds for divorce.”
“We can only hope.”
“Beth!” Charlie shouts from upstairs.
She opens the back door. “You deal with it. I’ve been on pigeon duty all day.”
“Pigeon duty?” Seamus asks.
“Tell them I’m at Chad’s, studying.”
“Studying,” Seamus says sarcastically. “Sure.”
“And if today is the day Mom decides to leave the nut house, suggest the Four Seasons.”
“I hear it’s very nice. We could pretend to be rich Russians in town buying extravagantly priced art,” Seamus suggests.
“I was thinking more of a ’white trash who just won the lottery’ scenario, but I won’t quibble. As long as we leave the fucking birds here.”
“Beth!” Charlie shouts, as the back door slams shut.
He comes running down the stairs, tweed jacket unbuttoned and flapping. He cradles a white pigeon.
“Where’s your sister?”
“Guess what happened today?” Seamus says, holding the letter up.
Charlie swats the sheet away. “Come upstairs.” When he doesn’t hear Seamus following, he shouts, “Now!”
Seamus considers ignoring his father. He pictures himself sitting at the kitchen table, idly flipping through the newspaper as Charlie comes down again to shout at him. He imagines himself saying, “Sorry, but there’s no time for that. I have to focus on writing my film.”
“Seamus! I’m not kidding!”
Reluctantly, he gives up on any further ideas of defiance and trudges upstairs. The door to the bathroom is open, steam pouring out.
Seamus steps inside and immediately Charlie directs him to shut the door to prevent steam from leaking out. He looks at his father and wonders how it’s possible he has half this man’s DNA. Charlie perches on the toilet seat, and with amazing dexterity, holds the pigeon on her back with one hand, and dabs olive oil on her bum.
“What...” Seamus says.
“Egg bound,” Charlie says without looking up. “Her wings have been drooping all day.”
He sets the pigeon down on the counter and she preens, trying to get rid of the oil. She makes a half-hearted effort before fluffing out her feathers and tucking her beak under her wing.
“You see? She’s not well.”
So? Seamus thinks.
“I’m going to give her five more minutes, then I’m calling the vet. She needs calcium.”
“Don’t you have that?” Seamus asks, picturing the pharmacy in his father’s basement office.
Charlie shakes his head. “Seamus, this is not the first bird I’ve taken care of. Obviously she needs an injection.”
Obviously, Seamus thinks. “So anyway,” he says taking the letter from his pocket, “Me and Lloyd—”
Charlie interrupts, “Seamus, one day you’ll learn that the sun does not rise and set on your singular existence.”
Grinding his teeth, Seamus leaves the bathroom.
“Where do you think you’re going?” his father hollers. “I’m going to need some help with this.”
Seamus walks downstairs and before he reaches the living room, Charlie’s standing at the top of the stairs. “Call the vet.”
“Why can’t you?” Seamus replies.
“Young man,” Charlie says walking toward him until he’s towering over the boy. “I am your father. When I ask you to do something, you’re going to do it. Is that clear? I have asked you to call the vet, so what are you now going to do?”
“Call the vet,” Seamus mutters.
On the kitchen wall next to the phone is a list of emergency numbers: the vet, the Parkdale Pigeon Fanciers Liberation Line, the lost pigeon hotline, the emergency room where his mother works, and finally, in very small writing, his own list of specialists and pediatric doctors.
Covering the mouthpiece, he shouts, “Charlie! What’s wrong with the bird?” Seamus prides himself on not adding stupid before bird.
“There is something seriously awry with you. You have the memory of a gnat,” Charlie shouts. “She’s egg-bound. Juliet is egg-bound.” He pauses. “Have you got that?”
“Egg-bound,” Seamus says into the phone.
“Okay,” the raspy voice on the end of the line says. “I’m on my way.”
Seamus goes upstairs and pauses. The bathroom door is open and there’s an unfamiliar sound; he can’t work out if it’s coming from the pigeon or Charlie. He steps to one side so he can’t be seen, and peers inside. His father cuddles the pigeon, strokes her head and pulls his jacket over her to keep her warm. Seamus notices his father’s earlobes are red, a sure sign he’s been crying.
Over a pigeon? Seamus thinks. You have to be kidding me.
He reaches his arm out, retracting it quickly when he hears singing.
“You make me happy, when skies are grey...”
Seamus bites the inside of his cheeks to keep from laughing. It’s tragic, he thinks. Then he checks out the angles. If I could get his reflection in the shot, it’d be perfect.“Seamus?” Charlie asks crossly, pushing the door open. “Don’t just stand there. Close the door behind you. She’s getting a chill.”
Seamus does as he’s told.
“When will he be here?”
“He’s on his way.”
“On his way from where? His office? Another patient?”
“The absolute basics of life are completely lost on you, aren’t they? You’d think, with your mother being a nurse and all, that you’d have at least a vague comprehension of the way things should be conducted in an emergency situation.”
Seamus wonders how long he’ll have to wait – if the pigeon dies – before he can direct his father to the film school acceptance letter, and the pressing need for funds. A day? A week?
“Go downstairs and call him back!” He kisses Juliet’s head. “And wait out front for him!”
On the porch, Seamus leans back and the sun warms his face.
That’s right, Oprah, I got my first big break when I was 13. Me and Lloyd made a ground-breaking documentary about mental illness during a summer course at the Canadian Centre for Film and Television.
Uh-huh, that’s right. We won the prize for Most Amazing Documentary Ever and that got us into HotDocs and the Toronto International Film Festival. And that was all possible because James Cameron believed in us.
Yeah, that James Cameron.
No, I don’t think he’s changed since the success of Titanic. Of course, I didn’t know him before, so it would be hard to say.
Two pigeons land on the dusty front lawn, jolting Seamus from his reverie.
“It’s your lucky day,” he says to the pigeons, eyeing the newspaper just out of reach.
“That wouldn’t have come close,” the pigeon replies.
Seamus scans the yard.
“Lloyd?” he asks. “Dude, you’re not funny.”
“Dude,” the other pigeon says. “You’re not funny.”
Seamus kicks dust at them. “You talking to me?”
“What’s that? Your best version of Bobby DeNiro?” the first bird says.
Sighing, Seamus rubs his face. “I’m having a psychic break. Maybe this is what happened to Charlie.” The weight of that possibility sinks in. “Oh God, no. Anything but that.”
“Stop being such a drama queen,” the second pigeon says. “We can talk, it’s just that normally we wouldn’t waste our time.”
“We prefer quality over quantity.”
Seamus puts the back of his hand to his forehead the way he’s seen his mother do many times.
“Fever, no, meningitis. That’s gone around my school twice this year. I’ll be dead by morning.” He lies down, draping his arm over his eyes.
The first pigeon jumps onto his chest and pecks him.
“Owww!” Seamus says in an accusatory whine.
“Quit your bellyaching. Most people would be impressed that we were speaking to them,” the pigeon says walking slowly up the boy’s chest. “How often do you get to talk to a pigeon?”
“Is that you? That smell?” Seamus says sitting up. “Get off me. You have lice.”
The pigeon flaps his wings and lands softly on the ground. “I bathed as recently as last week. I smell like roses in the springtime, like the baby’s breath in a virgin bride’s bouquet.” Looking at the other pigeon he asks, “Duke, in all honesty, how do I smell?”
“There you go.” The pigeon fluffs out his feathers. “That’s your problem: lack of perception.”
“I’m talking to a pair of pigeons while my father rubs olive oil on the ass of another pigeon. I’m pretty sure I have bigger problems.”
“Your feather fancying father has a heart of gold!”
“He’s got a heart of something,” Seamus mutters.
“You’re wretched aren’t you? He’d treat you the same way if you were suffering from a life-threatening illness.”
“Actually, when I get sick he couldn’t care less.”
“Lies! Fabrications! Half-truths!” The pigeon flaps his wings.
“I threw up stuff that looked like coffee grounds once, and Charlie wouldn’t take me to the hospital. He said he had to wait for his birds to be clocked-in so he could win some big race.”
“It’s disrespectful calling your dad by his first name.”
“We’re not on close enough terms for me to feel comfortable calling him Dad,” Seamus says.
One pigeon fluffs out his feathers and turns to the other. “You know I hate to admit this, Duke, but you’re right. This boy is of no use to us.”
The other pigeon nods his head. “It’s true, Squeaks.”
Seamus picks at a scab on his ankle.
“Oh go on, you’re desperate to know,” Squeaks trills. “Ask us.”
“I don’t care what you’re talking about. You’re both some kind of aural hallucination. Must be a side effect of my new drugs. Once this fever breaks, you’ll just be a weird dream I had.”
“Oh, an aural hallucination. That sounds quite sexy.”
“Squeaks?” the pigeon says firmly.
“It’s time to go.”
The pigeons fly up above the maple tree and circle twice before passing over Seamus. As he looks up, a hot, liquid shit lands on his neck.
“Sick!” he shouts as he rushes inside to wash it off.
“Is that the vet?” Charlie shouts.
Outside, a car horn beeps twice. Seamus holds the door open as he dries his neck.
The vet strides in and tosses his brown leather bag at Seamus. “Where’s the patient?”
Seamus can’t believe someone wearing cut-off jean shorts and a t-shirt from The Spice Girls tour is capable of healing much.
“Winston!” Charlie shouts. “Is that you? Upstairs.”
The vet rushes toward Charlie’s voice, motioning for Seamus to follow. In the bathroom, Winston drapes clean towels over the sink and counter.
“She’s been good to me through the years.”
“She’s an old bird?”
Charlie nods. “Five years now. Eight successful clutches. All of them champions.”
“It’s hard when the good ones struggle,” Wintson remarks. “But we all get tired. Could be the old girl’s just worn out.”
“She’s been on an excellent diet.”
“Even still,” Winston says putting his hand on Charlie’s shoulder.
Seamus watches the way Charlie hangs on every word the vet says and the way he clutches the pigeon.
Winston takes the bird and feels her crop, working his way down to her vent.
“Yup, there’s the egg bump.”
“I knew it. Shot of calcium?”
Winston nods. “I have to warn you, calcium doesn’t always work. If she’s been getting a good diet like you say, it might be something else. There’s always the possibility of complications.”
Upper lip trembling, Charlie nods. “Do whatever it takes, spare no expense. Juliet’s family.”
You have to be kidding me, Seamus thinks. It’s a fucking pigeon. You’ve got plenty more.
Winston hands the bird to Charlie and she lies limply in his hands.
“She’s exhausted,” Charlie says. “Hang in there, sweetie.” He kisses her head. “Hang in there.”
Winston whispers, “I’m going to need your help.”
Seamus shakes his head.
“Look at your father. He’s trembling. I need a steady hand holding this bird. If I hit her heart because he’s shaking, then it’s game over.”
Seamus looks at Charlie and back to the vet. “Can’t you just lay her on the counter?”
Charlie looks at his son with an expression of utter helplessness and seething anger. “Do as you’re told,” he says thrusting the bird toward Seamus.
The boy takes the pigeon and Charlie readjusts his hands. “We’ve been through this before. Can’t you remember anything? You hold her legs like this with one hand,” he says moving Seamus’ hand so that the bird’s legs are restrained. “And then with your left hand, you support her front. Don’t squeeze her neck.”
God, Seamus thinks, I can’t believe how stupid I am to have forgotten that bit of valuable information. How many times have I said to Lloyd, I wish I could remember how to hold a pigeon correctly, that’ll get us out of this mess.
The vet produces a large syringe from his bag.
Seamus’ eyes widen. “That’s really big.”
“She’s not a finch,” Charlie retorts.
The colour drains from Seamus’ face. “I don’t think I can do this,” he says offering the bird to his father.
The vet grabs hold of his shoulder. “Your father is in no state,” he hisses. “Look at him.”
Charlie’s hands shake as tears run down his cheeks. Unable to look at Juliet, he stares at the floor, looking at either his brown brogues or the tiles or possibly the grout in between the tiles, Seamus can’t tell. Charlie rubs the back of his neck, and Seamus can see his ears turning red. His father’s lips move and Seamus is certain he’s praying.
“If he holds her, there’s a chance I’ll miss my mark.”
Seamus sweats. “Yeah, but, I have this thing with needles,” he says as the vet aims the syringe at Juliet’s chest. Seamus feels queasy and he reaches for the counter. He misses and as his knees buckle, his forehead hits the corner of the counter. Seconds later when he comes too all he hears is Charlie screaming.
He rubs his head; his hand feels wet and there’s blood. Checking again, he reasons it must be a lot, due to all the shouting. He rolls onto his side and feels something underneath him. When his fingers touch feathers, he understands the shouting is not for his benefit.
Charlie hauls him off the bird. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He holds the bird to his chest, cradling her broken neck. “You killed her!“
“Charlie, I didn’t mean to, it’s just, it’s the needle. I pass out when I see needles.”
“Get out of here,” he growls.
“It was an accident,” Seamus pleads with the vet. “I said, before, I said—”
Winston nods. “Probably best if you give your dad a moment.”
“Get out of my sight!” Charlie shouts through tears. “She did nothing to you. And you killed her.”
The vet pushes Seamus out of the room. As he stands in the hallway he hears Charlie saying that his son is a killer. Seamus looks at his t-shirt and sees feathers stuck to blood. It’s not a large mark, but it makes him queasy and angry and disgusted. He rips the t-shirt off and throws it on the floor.
Published in Gutter - The magazine of new Scottish writing, Winter 2009.