It’s amazing I’m able to get up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to hearing the alarm at 3:30, I jump up and try to turn it off before it wakes Gina up. I think I’ve made it, but after I stumble out of the room and shut the door to get dressed in the kitchen, I hear the door open behind me. She starts looking in the cupboards.
“The hell are you doing?” I ask, not sure if she’s sleepwalking.
“Do we have any snacks?” She asks the cupboards. I go back to making coffee and feel relieved she’s so genial when woken up in the middle of the night. I don’t think I’d take it so well.
I’m not taking it too well as it is. The first day of 5 hours of sleep is usually fine, but by the second day, it’s hard to come up from sleep and even after being awake all morning, I find myself driving around, delivering bread feeling like I’m slightly less substantial than the rest of the world. I’m awake, but I feel like I’m dreaming certain details. Those distant bird calls, this shoe on the sidewalk, the appalling stillness of everything, all these details seem to radiate from my tired mind and not from the organic order of things. There’s no way it’s this windless so close to the coast.
While the coffee steeps, I go out to the living room and take out the letter I started three weeks ago. I’ve written the whole thing between 3:30 and 4:00 just to see what that looks like. I read it over and find it, somewhat, disappointingly common. I add another few sentences and then I run out of paper. It’s 4 am anyway, time to get ready to go.
In the early morning, the streets are wet and still. The streetlights, placed at long intervals, peer down into wet puddles of light. The houses are closed up and sleeping. The only sound is my own ragged breath in my ears and the creak of the straining bicycle chain.
The bakers are already at work with the lights blazing and the music going. The bakery, at this hour, is the only building in town with any activity, besides, maybe a party, winding down somewhere. I automatically begin my tasks, completing the floury work without thought but with muscle memory. I shake out the mats, move the racks, open the door and begin bagging the bread that will go out for delivery.
Every job brings a difficult coworker. Someone who is harsh in their opinions and doesn’t get along well with the other workers. This job is no different. A few minutes later she walks in barely saying ‘hello’ to me. We bag the bread in silence until Rodger joins us. The three of us work out of night, into the morning. I, usually the least awake of the three, saying little, pausing long enough between baguettes to add a comment. But, I usually find myself trying to talk over the bread slicer, as the irritable coworker always seems to be just about to turn it on when I start speaking. Coincidence, I tell myself and mumble the rest of my comment to myself, deciding for the third time that morning, that I just won’t say anything at all.
Out on the rounds, things are better. The sky is the color and texture of deep blue construction paper, pocked and opaque. As I drive, I watch the permanent colors fade into pastels and clouds like cotton balls that have been used for removing bright nailpolish, the washed out color smeared across them.
I see an older, gray-faced dog being taken for a walk. He’s looking back fawning at his walker, like he’s asking permission just to keep walking. “I have the heart of a dog,” I hear myself saying to the empty car. I’m not sure why I’m saying it, but it makes a lot of sense. I have the same blundering qualities dogs have. I speak without thinking and I’m always pulling sorry dog faces, asking permission to keep walking. I want, perhaps too badly, to be liked by everyone. I think of my negative coworker and try to think of the right thing to say, but, really, despite our overlapping schedules, I’d rather just avoid her.
The morning looks good for gamboling around and despite the clouds and their pressure, I drive from store to store with the grin and the inane blandishments of a deliveryman. I talk to other workers about business and weather, a mutual sniffing, I guess, but, like any good dog, I enter into the negotiation of noses and butts with tail wagging.
I finish my deliveries early and ride home with a loaf of foccacia under my arm. At home, I turn in a long lazy circle, considering reading and eating before finally just deciding to lie down. It’s dimmer in the bedroom, so I go in, hoping the lack of light will make sleep less illusive. My eyes are filmy, my skin feels hot, I long to sleep, but it’s something I’m not able to find my way into when the sun’s up, no matter how cloudy the day. I lie there reading and then I hear a wild fluttering coming from somewhere inside the house. At first I dismiss the sound as something happening close to a vent on the roof. A pigeon scuffle next to the oven flue or something, but when the sound repeats, a minute later, I hear the desperation in it and know in my craven dog’s heart, that something is trapped somewhere.
I throw off the blankets and walk through the still, afternoon house. I strain my ears toward the vents and the seam of the wall and the ceiling, but there’s nothing. I try to lie back down, but it’s futile, no sooner have I picked up my book when the sound flutters to life again with a heartbreaking insistence. I throw my shirt on and go outside. I walk around the house, scanning the eaves and the little pvc pipes poking through the shingles. I can’t see anything, but I know there’s something beneath all of it.
I call my landlord, who lives next door with a ladder, a bunch of tools and more knowledge of the structure of this place than I have.
His phone rings so loud, I can hear it from where I’m standing in the yard. When he answers it, I feel like a kid calling across the yard on a walkie-talkie. I tell him there’s something caught somewhere in the house. I can hear it fluttering in the walls, or in the ceiling. I can’t tell which. He comes out from his own Saturday afternoon, wearing sweats and looking like he’s been taking it easy. He’s a nice guy. We talk a little while we look up at the roof of the house, squinting against the harsh, gray cloud-light and speculating where something could’ve gotten in. An eave, with grass growing out of it, presents itself as a likely point of ingress. He opens the ladder and goes up to take a look. I stand below, shielding my eyes and straining to see what’s going on.
“Ah-ha,” the landlord exclaims from the roof and I look up in time to see a little egg come rolling down the shingles. “There’s yer nest,” he tells me. I look at the narrow gap and realize, if the bird’s in there, it’s in the wall and not coming out. As if in confirmation, the landlord announces he’s just going to seal the whole thing off so nothing else can get in. Of course, this way, nothing is going to be able to get out either. Other than knocking a hole in the wall, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. The landlord wedges a few pieces of wood into the open seam and when he folds up his ladder, I go out to skateboard, hoping the fluttering in the wall will be over by the time I get back. I don’t relish the opportunity to listen to the death throes of something perishing in a dark and lonely place.
The cloudy, mild day is ideal for skating. I go through the school, trying to warm up, but continually slapping those clunky ollies with my nose coming up too high, the tail, not enough. The skate across town is nice, and the music in my headphones gives it purpose. It’s nice to be out and moving around. At the skatepark, an expanse of gray concrete on a gray day, I meet a kid named Peps and we talk about the obscurity of nicknames until he skates away to study for finals. I leave soon after, skate through another school and head home again.
I enter the house carefully, straining my ears to listen. The walls are silent and I hope that the bird just somehow found it’s way out. It’s easier that way. I’m in the kitchen writing when the fluttering starts up again. It’s in the wall just behind the stove. I try to ignore it, but it’s a plea and it’s also sporadic and annoying. I get up and stand by the stove to listen. Damn, it sound like it’s right behind it. I pull out the drawer at the bottom of the stove and, here’s a bunch of feathers. At first, I think somehow I’ve gained entry to the inside of the wall, but then I realize, it’s just where the wall meets the back of the stove. I look up, I look around where the oven meets the counter. There nowhere the feathers could’ve come from. This bird is behind the oven! It’s shocking but joyous revelation. I grab the door of the oven and start to pull, getting a grip the only place I can, but rather than bringing the stove away from the wall, the damn door, flies off the hinges sending me reeling back through the kitchen. I’m left holding the oven door, which, I already know, down in my dog’s heart, I will not be able to put back on.
It looks simple enough, but the springs won’t engage and the door won’t line up. I try a number of ways to get the door to line up, but it’s hard to do alone, shifting the heavy and awkward oven door around, trying to get it to line up with pins I can’t even see. Meanwhile, the bird is flapping away behind the stove. I give up and call the landlord again. When he answers, I start trying to explain, but the situation is so bizarre and there are so many thing to address, I give up and ask him if he can just come over and see. He agrees and I step outside to meet him, apologizing for the catastrophe he’s about to walk into. The drawer is pulled out of the stove, the door is off, there’s crumbs all over and the panicked, fluttering continues. I show him the feathers.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I think it’s gotten behind the stove somehow.” I explain.
“Yeah, you know, maybe it came in when you had the door open and started nesting.” He agrees, but both of us are standing there scratching our heads, not really able to believe what we’re saying. What the hell would a bird be doing behind the stove and how long could it have been back there before eliciting notice? There’s no way we wouldn’t have heard it until today.
We set to work pulling the stove away from the wall. Both of us are waiting for the bird to explode out in a flurry of feathers and behind-the-stove grime and dust, but nothing happens. We peer cautiously back. The fluttering starts up again.
“It’s still trapped in something.” I say.
“Sounds like it’s in the stove. It sounded like it was hitting something metal.” The landlord adds, shaking his head in disbelief. We start examining the back of the oven for any niches the bird could be in. There’s a panel held on with about 50 screws. Both of us are leery about taking that off, but the more we pry around, the more it looks like it’s going to be the only way. While we think, I get the vacuum to clean up the pile of feathers behind the stove while it’s pulled away from the wall. I switch it on and, instantly, something that looks like a dirt bird whirrs up the vacuum hose. I shut it off. The landlord says, “there’s your bird.”
“It couldn’t be,” I respond, already taking the cover off the vacuum to get the bag out. “That pile of feathers has been sitting there immobile since we pulled the stove back. We both heard the bird flapping around. If it was in that pile of feathers, we would’ve seen it move. Right?” I pull the bag out of the vacuum and feel around in the clotted dirt and carpet threads. My fingers grasp something solid, I pull it out, a little bird bone. I feel around, there’s more. “It was a bird,” I say. “But one that’s been dead awhile. There’s no way the one we just heard has already been reduced to bones.” I kneel down to inspect the area where the pile of feathers was and it becomes clear to me. Behind the feathers, is the bottom of an outlet which the stove plugs into. With the feathers removed, I can see there’s a small gap between the bottom of the outlet panel and the wall. The bird really is in the wall, and she’s not the first, there have been others and they all tried to get out this way. I turn on the vacuum and put it up to the gap, sure enough, a steam of birdbones and feathers spins out, down into the roaring vacuum hose. “Yeah, she’s in the wall after all,” I say.
We step back, considering this new situation and, as if in response, a small bird peaks her head out from under the panel and tries to wriggle out. The scene is so affecting. It’s the first time either of us has seen the bird. We both spontaneously start to cheer for the little bird. Yelling encouragements like ‘c’mon little guy!’ and ‘you can do it.’ But the gap is just a little too small, even with the stove pulled away. The landlord gets a screwdriver and removes the face of the outlet, but it doesn’t do anything to widen the gap and there’s an immobile metal box inside that’s bolted into the wall. We watch the little bird make a few more attempts to pull herself out of the wall. My landlord starts to talk about having to try to get her with the vacuum. I can tell he doesn’t want to do it, but can think of nothing else.
“If only we could widen that gap a little,” I say. “She’s almost out. It wouldn’t take much.” The landlord steps out and returns in a moment with a crowbar. He bends the metal box a little, widening the gap and we both step back, expectantly. A minute goes by. Another. Our expectation is becomes breathless as the beak and the head emerge again. There’s a pause, as if the bird is considering this change and perhaps wonders at having not noticed earlier how easy it would be to get out of. She hops out and, in a moment, is standing dazed on the window ledge, after flying straight into the window. I go to collect her and she darts into the living room. Where she’s already hit another window. It’s under the couch that I finally get my hand around her. She’s so bewildered, she just lets me pick her up. Her tiny claws wrap around my finger, à la Snow White. I go outside and we regard each other, dustily, in the gray afternoon light. At first she moves very little. The landlord comes out to see. We watch her slowly comprehend that after a very long day between the walls of a house, she is outside again, under the open sky. Her head begins to tilt, her tailfeathers flicker, her claws tighten around my finger and, when the understanding comes rushing down upon her, she flies off. My dog’s heart leaps at the joy of this movement.
We go back in and it’s sweaty half hour of screwing with the oven door before it finally finds it’s niche again, a niche as small, distant and narrow at the gap in the wall, behind the stove, the bird had been seeking and so many others, less successfully, before her. Tomorrow, we’re going to caulk up the gap in the roof and the next day, I’ll get up at 3:30 again, reread my tired letter and crawl into work to watch the dogs and the birds and the whole extraordinary movement of life and gradually, I’ll begin to wake up.