Younger and More Capable Men

I’m in my storage unit sitting on a blue plastic cooler, the big kind with the wheels and telescoping handle, listening to some pop bullshit they pass off as country. It’s me, the contents of this cooler, and a cheap little flashlight I bought at the five and dime fashioned to look like one of those old-timey lanterns, the kind Paul Revere galloped off with down dark streets, and that’s pretty much it.

I’ve been sitting long enough that my jeans are damp along the inner thigh where my bottle’s resting. A wallet-sized photo of Kevin, my only son, sits above my left knee. This one’s from second grade. He wore his brown hair in spikes and his face was a lot fuller then. He’s got a gap-toothed smile that Connie and I would later spend a fortune on. Just last year he got hitched, but there was an accident. Now his wife’s a widow. She’s moving back to Pittsburgh to live with her folks, get her feet back under her, etcetera. I’ve got to swing by her apartment next week and collect everything of his she’s not taking.

I take a drink then look around, trying to figure out how it all will fit. A knock rattles the overhead door. I’m not expecting company. The door’s cracked just enough I can make out the dingy steel-toed boots as Mike’s.

“Come on in,” I say, not that I have a choice in the matter. I slide the photo of Kevin inside my wallet.

Mike lifts the door and pulls it down behind him so that it’s about where I had it.

“I stopped by the house. Connie told me you’d likely be out here.” His eyes peruse the block walls and empty floor. “Some set up you got here. How big’s this thing?”

“Ten by ten.”

“Radio, A.C. This is alright.”

“Music could be better,” I tell him.

“Hey, at least it’s not that pimp my ride, slap-a-ho nonsense kids listen to these days.”

“I guess.” I take a sip of beer then raise my ass off the cooler. I lift the lid. The ice has all melted, but they’re still cold nonetheless. I grab a bottle and offer him one.

Mike twists the cap. It makes a small, tinny sound as it hits the cement. “You know I had quit drinking?”

“Bullshit.”

“I know, right? The things you do for love. I thought that would do it for Darla. I thought that would show her the kind of man I am, a man who could sacrifice the greatest of all things—just for her!”

“Once the ring’s on their finger their expectations grow quicker than their ass,” I remind him. This is the first I’ve seen of Mike in four or five months. We used to hang out regularly at the automotive garage he manages. Come five o’clock, people from all walks would assemble in this grimy shop before a grease-smeared fridge stocked with Bud. We’d stand around, exchanging stories from times when we were younger and more capable men. When the beer was kicked we’d amble into the waning sun, Mike closing the bay door and locking up behind us. But I stopped going to the garage after Kevin’s accident. Instead, I started hanging at this dive called Nick’s where it was easier to be around company I didn’t know. It was here that I’d last seen Mike. He’d come walking in out of the blue, spotting me at the bar. His marriage was going to seed and he was blubbering on about him and Darla and how they were trying to patch things up.

“Three goddamn months without a beer, a shot, a toke—nothing!” Mike takes a long drink.

“I told your ass you were in trouble when she joined that book club.”

“Book club was just the preamble,” Mike says. “What really did it was that poetry group.” He reads the expression on my face, says, “I didn’t tell you about that?”

I shake my head.

“Yeah, well she gets this bug up her butt about needing an outlet to express herself—her words, not mine. So she joins this group. Now this is around the same time the diner shuts down and she gets laid off. I’m thinking, bitch, you need to be out looking for a job, but you know me, being the high road kind of guy I am I don’t say nothing. So here we’ve got a woman, alone, with nothing but time on her hands to count all that life has misdealt her. And now she’s holding a pen and a notebook to keep a record of that shit. She’s got trouble ransacking her heart left and right like a raccoon in a garbage can.”

“She read you any of those poems?”

“Nah, but she’d just as soon read them to a roomful of strangers.” Mike finishes his beer. I’m still standing from when I had opened the cooler the first go around, so I reach down, pop the lid, and grab him another cold one. I grab myself one while I’m at it.

Mike accepts my beer, says, “And by this point, I’m living like a saint, trying to impress the shit out of her, trying to win back some of what we used to have, but none of it makes any difference. None of it even registers. It’s like I’m a ghost. It’s like I’m already in her past.” He pulls on the corner of his mustache and stares at the ground. “She’s stepping out all the time, never telling me where she’s headed. Of course I’m thinking there must be another man. So I get to carrying a baseball bat in the trunk of my car, figuring I’m going to knock the piss out of this cat when I see him. I wait up for her at night. She gets home, doesn’t say a word to me. I watch TV until she falls asleep, and when she does, I take to sniffing her, sniffing her all over, my nose working like a hound dog, but I don’t smell none of the sex and drug store cologne that I’m expecting. And that just sinks me even further. Because if it’s not another man, then what is it?”

He snorts, hocks a loogie, then realizes he doesn’t have anywhere to spit it so he washes it down with beer. “Turns out she’s been going to these open mic’s. She had left one of her emails open on the computer and that’s how I found out about it. So I crashed that bitch. I wanted to catch her in the act, to hear all those words too good for my own ears, but when I show up its some big black bastard on the mic with one of those tri-colored motherland beanies sitting atop his shaved head.”

“Was his poem any good?”

“Hell if I know. All sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook to me. Guess you could say he had the voice for it, though. Deep and bellowing.”

“So what happened next?”

“You want to know what happened next? She got a lawyer, that’s what happened next. And I’ve been dodging the paperwork ever since. But my dodging days are about over on account of her moving me out.” Mike drops his chin and cocks his head slightly to the side in a pensive, sage-like fashion, but there’s no wisdom to be found in any of this, so he brings the only salvation he has to his lips. I watch his Adam’s apple bob as he takes it in. Afterwards, he looks solemnly at his bottle.

“Go ahead,” I tell him. “If we’re going to drink, we might as well drink. Let’s not pussyfoot around with it.”

Mike drains the rest of his beer, and I do likewise. There are seven left in the cooler. I grab one for each of us and close the cooler. “Sit. Take a load off.”

“I’m good,” he says. And then he gets this shit-eating grin, which looks terrible on account of his fear of the dentist. “Wait til you see this,” he says, lifting the overhead door just enough to duck under, his boots squeaking against the floor. When he reaches the end of the short corridor he punches the steel bar that opens the exit.

A couple minutes go by and Mike’s not back. I nudge one of the bottle caps around with my shoe. I do that for a while before picking it up between my thumb and middle finger. My brother-in-law can do this thing where he snaps his fingers and the cap sails like a Frisbee. I take aim at a partially assembled cobweb in the upper corner, but when I snap, the thing craps out and falls by my feet. The exit door whams shut, and I presume it to be Mike except there are birds squawking, which doesn’t add up. But then Mike ducks under the opening holding two large cages housing birds the color of Skittles.

“What the—”

“These little fellas are Darla’s babies. She’s left like twelve voicemails since I’ve been gone. I was listening to them while I was in the car.” Mike laughs, which jostles the birds, causing them to start up again with the squawking. He sets the cages down. “Loves these goddamn birds more than she ever loved me.”

“What are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to sell them.”

“Sell them? To who?”

“Anybody. Macaws, man—people love these guys. You type in macaws on the internet and, POW! You get like twenty sites auctioning them off to the highest bidder. This blue and gold one, I’m likely to get about four hundred for. But this scarlet guy will fetch every bit of nine.” Mike crouches down and sticks his face close to the cage, says, “Won’t you, pretty bird?”

“You’re just going to sell her birds?”

“Hey, there’s no her, it’s we! We bought them. Together. Besides, you should’ve seen the way she just threw all my stuff out the front door, in a heap, like everything associated with me was just one big pile of garbage. If that’s the way she thinks of me, then damn right I’m going to sell them.” He drains his beer, then looks down at the bottle cap a few inches from his foot. He rears his leg back, but when he goes to kick it misses and has to put his hand on the overhead door to steady himself. The rattle upsets the birds and they shriek, but they calm down a few seconds later.

“Almost spilt my beer.” He chuckles, then takes a drink. He sets his empty by the cooler, reaches in and grabs another. Hunched over, he asks, “You want one?”

“Sure.” I grab it from him. Water runs down the bottle and drips onto my shoe. “What’s their names?”

“The blue and gold one’s Marty. The crimson one’s Glen.”

I look at Glen. Stupid name for a bird, but still, he’s pretty, even regal looking I guess you could say. I’m trying to recall what I’d heard on cable, something about birds being the descendants of dinosaurs, but I’m interrupted by the confession of Glen’s buddy.

“Marty’s horny! Marty’s horny!”

Mike reads the surprise on my face and sprays beer when he laughs. Luckily, it’s not on me. He composes himself, says, “Pretty cool, huh?”

Marty repeats his bit about sexual frustration, excitement—I can’t tell which one—and Glen starts whistling at the horny bird.

“Who taught him to say that?”

Mike shoots me an ornery look.

“What about this other guy?” I ask. “What’s he say?”

“Nothing. He just whistles at Marty when he’s horny.”

“Where you going to keep them—you know, until they’re sold?”

Mike looks off towards the corner, at the web, then turns his attention to the bottle in his hand, studying it as if he’ll have to identify it in a lineup later on.

“You can’t keep them here,” I say.

He looks up, says, “C’mon, just for a day or two. That’s all I need.”

“You can’t keep them here. They’ll die.”

“Hey, what kind of asshole do you take me for? I’m not going to let these birds die. I’ve already posted the birds on the net—shit, someone’s probably already bid on them. I’m probably halfway there already.”

“They’ll make too much noise.”

“They won’t. Trust me. When no one’s around they don’t make a peep.”

“What are they going to eat?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it covered.” Mike pulls up on the door.

“Where you going?”

“To get their food.”

A minute later Mike comes back carrying a ten-pound bag of seed. He unlatches Marty’s cage door and pours the seed into a clear plastic crock. I expect the bird to flap away, under the door and into the hall, but he doesn’t so much as glance at the opening. Mike closes the cage, then follows the same routine for Glen. They both have water bottles attached to their cages that are three-quarters full. Mike closes the zip-lock on the seed bag and sets it by the overhead door. I hold the key out in front of me, making a spectacle, as if I was presenting a key to the city.

“Before I hand you this, you’ve got to give me your word I won’t come back to find dead birds.”

“Scout’s honor,” Mike says, crossing his heart, then placing his hands together and doing a little bow.

“In that case,” I say, handing him the key.

“You need me to run and make a copy?”

“I’ve got a spare at home.” We finish the last of the beers. We place all the empties back in the cooler and I wheel it out. He helps me lift the cooler into the bed of my truck.

I’m instantly regretful of getting talked into this. “Should I’ve left that flashlight on for them?”

Mike says, “They’re birds, not toddlers. They don’t get scared of the dark.”

 

The house smells of lemon-scented furniture polish when I walk in. I check the clock above the kitchen sink, forgetting the battery is dead. I cross the outdated vinyl floor into the living room where I find Connie straightening a family portrait hanging against the wall. No matter how many times she fools with it, it’ll be leaning to the left again in no time. Maybe it’s the slight bend in the drywall; maybe it’s that my feet don’t know the first thing about treading softly. I don’t know what it is. All I know is it gives Connie something to do instead of turning around to greet me. She pretends to be indifferent, but her posture tells a different story. You can see it in her back, the way it goes stiffer than a chair leg when I’m around.

“You’ve been drinking,” she says, eyes glued to the still life in front of her: the three of us at the beach, white linen shirts, Mona Lisa smiles, trying our damndest not to look like we’re standing before a photographer, as if this whole thing wasn’t preordained before we set foot in the sand. Kevin’s sophomore year and already with a few inches on dad, towering high above mom. I weigh my options. Nothing I say will be good enough, so I deliver the same tired line.

“Just a few.” I drop my keys and wallet onto the coffee table next to the dust rag. I realize I didn’t take my shoes off at the door, that I’ve tracked dirt onto the carpet.

Connie takes a step back to assess the frame. I think it looks fine, but I can tell she’s not happy. She’s in yoga pants and a tee shirt, her figure still good despite the fact she doesn’t exercise. When we started dating, I used to wrap both hands around her waist and touch fingers. Thirty-one years later, could I still? Her hair was longer then, shiny and auburn, but she clipped it a few summers ago after a magazine taught her hair of a certain length wasn’t becoming on a woman her age. Brittle nails and belly fat, cellulose, and dandruff—just open a magazine and they’ve got answers for whatever ails you. Experts aren’t in short supply these days, that’s for sure. But I haven’t seen a headline yet to fix what we’ve got. What we’ve got is a bit more complicated than credit card debt, gluten sensitivity, and the whatnot.

She’s still looking at the frame. She lifts her hand but it hovers inches from it, unsure of what to do next. I take a step towards her, then another. The same uncertainty courses through me, but I surge past it, covering her hand with mine. We reach out, touching how we used to be, together.

DON FOSTER is a writer who spends much of his day masquerading as a flooring salesman. His fiction has appeared in Cooper Street, Arcadia, and 99 Pine Street. He spent much of his youth riding a four wheeler and catching poison ivy in a small farm town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. You can find him on twitter @donleefoster.