by Jeremy Greenfield
My wife and I are driving Beatrice to the pediatrician. Man comes on the radio, says, Earlier today 23 blackbirds fell from the sky in Long Island City. City health officials have not been able to determine the cause but believe that the incident does not pose any immediate health risks.
And then, just like that, the radio goes dead. I try fiddling with the knobs. I even give a nice smart slap to the dashboard. Nothing.
—Now that’s odd, I say.
—What? she says.
—The thing about the blackbirds and then the radio cutting off like that.
—What? You think these phenomena are connected.
—I’m just saying. Radio’s don’t just turn off on their own.
—Yeah they do. ‘Specially when they’re cheap-as-shit radios installed by a man who doesn’t know anything about electronics but yellow wire, red wire.
—You don’t have to be nasty.
—It’s a joke. What? We can’t joke with each other anymore. You know I appreciate you working on the car.
She then turns to the backseat.
—Isn’t that right, sweetie? Mommy loves Daddy and Mommy loves you! Aw, Bumble Bee, what are you doing back here? She did it again. Kicked off the orthotic. And where’s your splint? Sugar Bee, what are you doing? You trying to make your mommy crazy? You know we got to fix those little bonesies.
As Melinda fishes around for B’s gear I drive on, every few minutes lifting my eyes to the sky. It’s rush hour. The roads are slick with rain. A truck that seems right out of Basra is riding my bumper. Beatrice has begun knocking her head against her carseat and making the howler monkey noise that makes me think the esophageal atresia surgery didn’t work and that her trachea is going to close up—right here on the Hutchinson River Parkway. I offer up some falsetto-timbred words of love, more for my sake than hers. She’s punishing us for driving her through the Bronx in rush hour. Were I in her position I’d do the same, I suppose. But soon we’ll be out of the Bronx and into Scarsdale where the pediatrician has her office. I like Scarsdale. The trees and the river, the catbirds and the titmice, and perhaps most of all—that it is not the Bronx.
—This could be it, I say, Plague Number Eleven.
—Be quiet. This isn’t a B-movie. And we’re not in Egypt.
—Never know, I reply, Yahweh did his thing with the frogs and the boils and the locusts and what have you. Now it’s blackbird time, I add with a histrionic flourish.
I am kidding and she knows I am kidding. I am just trying to rile her up, but in a way I’m not kidding and she also knows this. With everything going on right now End Times doesn’t seem so farfetched. My mother died this past winter; Melinda’s in the fall. Seven American soldiers and forty-three Iraqis died yesterday in what the radio announcer described as urban warfare. And then there’s Beatrice. Beatrice, our fourteen-month daughter, was born with VACTERL Syndrome, a random or nonrandom (even the experts are not certain) association of birth defects. This is what the doctors tell us, that our daughter is in some way defective. She’s not of course. She’s perfect, warm, ebullient. But she is also dangerously underweight, cannot sit up and still throws up when nursing.
In the months leading to Beatrice’s birth Melinda spoke constantly of breastfeeding. She knew that this would bond her to her child and that an inchoate maternal instinct would manifest. Of this she was sure. (No matter that her mother, a nasty woman about whom I will say no more, had laughed off the possibility.) Melinda did not anticipate the vomiting, the stiletto-pain she felt when Beatrice bit down on her nipple, and certainly not the unmentionable resentment she felt toward her. Melinda longed to return to work and it was this longing, more than Beatrice’s problems, that changed her, that made her into a woman I find it difficult to be around. She wanted to want to be home, but pined instead for the predictability of Monday staff meetings, Friday check-ins and the hours of urgent and cerebral work that fell between. Angie, her friend at the Mayor’s Office, called occasionally to fill her in on the latest gossip and check in on her. Melinda loved Angie and appreciated her calls. Before Beatrice, Angie and her husband spent many an evening on our couch laughing and drinking with us. But now when Angie called, Melinda could not find the words to describe her experience. How could she possibly explain the anger and pity she felt, the self-loathing, the boredom? It was easier to recede. Melinda now spends her days doing what she can, and doing it well: exercising Beatrice’s fingers, feeding her, and patiently listening to her howl when she cannot be consoled. I love Melinda; she is a better parent than I will ever be, but also more wracked by guilt, and it is this guilt she tries to assuage with her swift, brutal parries.
We cross the border into Westchester and the rain picks up. The windshield wipers, which have never worked properly, smudge the windshield. It is difficult to see the road. Probably better that the radio is not on, distracting me. I am focused and because of me we will reach the pediatrician’s safely. My daughter cannot crawl, or talk, or hold a spoon. She is not reaching her benchmarks and renal failure is not unlikely. The doctors cannot tell us why. Sometimes, the sky opens, the winds shift and twenty three blackbirds, just like that, fall from the sky.
—Listen, Melinda says, you know the Monarch butterflies that migrate every year: Canada to Mexico. Well, a few years ago this Mexican tour guide brought a group to check out a colony of butterflies resting in some trees and what did he see? A blanket of dead butterflies. Every single one of them, thousands upon thousands of these things. Dead. Turns out it was habitat destruction and a cold winter. Explicable, you see? Same thing if all the polar bears die. It’s not some Voodoo shit, it’s that we melted the polar cap and they drowned.
—But that’s the thing. I don’t want that kind of stuff happening.
—Are you listening to yourself? Jesus Christ, Charlie, ‘I don’t want that kind of stuff happening.’
—Don’t call me Charlie.
—Fine, but it’s not going to change anything. Let’s say you’re right and what’s going on in Long Island City augurs something of Biblical proportion. We can’t do anything about it. Right now if 23 . . . fuck. . . 123 . . . a million-twenty-three blackbirds right now were to fall from the sky landing here and there, pounding the hood, guillotining themselves on those traffic signs there, dressing all these trees with bird guts like so much Christmas tinsel, what are you going to do? You can’t even fix a fucking radio.
The exit for Scarsdale is up ahead and I turn on my directional signal. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. I take the exit, and because the turn is a gentle one the signal does not turn off automatically. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. The regularity of the sound is pleasing, even reassuring in a way. It brings to mind an earlier, simpler time, the sound a horse might make walking slowly across cobblestone. I consider sharing this observation with Melinda but, knowing she will dismiss the idea as juvenile and sentimental, I keep it to myself.
Hours later, after speaking to the doctor (a third operation—a kidney transplant—is necessary), we are home. It is 9:00. Beatrice is asleep. The temperature outside has risen slightly. Through the kitchen window beads of water fall from the eaves. Melinda and I eat together in silence. It is the end of the day. In an hour’s time, before falling asleep, we will make love as we do most nights because we are unsure how else to end the day and because doing so brings to us a small measure of solace and order.
Jeremy Greenfield is a writer and teacher. He lives and works in the Bronx.