We’ve been perched on the telephone wires all day, bearing gifts. There are many of us, more of us than you can count, each beak holding a special something. One of us holds a Simply Lemonade bottle-cap because that’s Girlfriend’s favorite drink. Another holds a discarded Wendy’s wrapper that he said came from an Asiago Chicken Sandwich, because Girlfriend can’t get enough of them, she swears they put crack in it. Many others are holding fortunes from those Chinese cookies, or assorted clips, pins, and other shiny things. I, myself, am holding a live salamander. It’s squirming and I feel sorry for it, especially because the other pigeons think I’m strange and stubborn, that the salamander suffers for no good reason, but I am their leader and that means respect, which means they don’t fight me on the things I consider important. This reptile will be the vessel for my feelings and that’s that, I told them this morning as we landed on the wires, Trust me, I know these things. And they do trust me; that’s something I appreciate. So we’ve remained perched all day in the August swelter, with our breasts thrust forward as if we were robins and not pigeons, silent and imperial. Girlfriend’s out, but she will be back soon. We watch and wait.
A red Mustang flies into the neighborhood, disregarding the stop sign, and brakes on a dime. We know who the car belongs to and we’re immediately compelled to crap on the windshield. I catch one of us hunching forward, prepping for flight. Wait, says my gesture, a single raised wing, Let’s just see what he does.
Boyfriend remains stopped in front of Girlfriend’s house, right in the middle of the street. He doesn’t even bother flashing the hazards, he just puts it in park, sits there daring the traffic with a mean expression, a face that says Do somethin’ nigga. Cars whip around him violently, grazing the front bumper of the Nissan heading the opposing traffic.
A black man wearing a do-rag hops out of the Nissan, angry, but exposed, and cars blow by him because now instead of an accident victim, he’s just someone else in the way. “Move nigga!” a driver yells, and leads several cars in speeding past the man, nearly clipping him. Drivers proceed carelessly as if the black man were nothing. Even the children playing basketball in narrow driveways or double-dutch on the cracked walk have to take pause and step further away from the curb. The black man hops back in his Nissan, slams the door, and drives off. The children resume play, business as usual.
In that moment the black Nissan driver was one of us. A bird caught in the whirl of a rough city; of drivers speeding up on us when seen in the road; of passersby flinging unfinished food at us, an amalgam of ketchup and mustard and saliva splaying our dark feathers.
Girlfriend leaves us alone. She slows when she sees us, Come on birds! she says, drumming the wheel, Ya’ll got wings, now go! But she’s patient in her own way, she sees us picking crumbs out of the road, going about our business of survival, and she doesn’t fault us for that. She just lurches forward in her Honda Accord, some part of her tempted to floor it, knowing we’ll take flight and scatter instantly. But I feel her protection, her bleeding heart that refuses to risk hurting us. At least she thinks about hitting the brake. She understands that life is fragile—even pigeon life, and grants us some kind of consideration despite how dirty and disease-ridden she knows we are. We make people sick and we know this, and it’s a shame we’re both so close in proximity yet cast to different worlds.
But still she slows her car for us, and we appreciate the gesture, we consider it a kindness.
Everyone is jamming angry palms into their horns, Boyfriend too, because even though he’s the source of the problem, the red Mustang in the middle of the road, he wants the hood to see how big his balls are, how taut with muscle his big manly warrior chest is, how fierce a scowl he can fire toward these motherfuckers who dare challenge him on his stomping grounds, in his hood, and right in front of his girl’s house too, his girl’s house. The disrespect. Complete disrespect. How dare these niggas not respect him. My God. Don’t these niggas know that Boyfriend has got to rep his hood? Apparently not. Engines behind him rev hard in rhythmic chorus. Move! Move! Move!
All we do in this world is move, that’s what life had given us, and even when Boyfriend’s not stopping up traffic, I feel very little movement from him anyway, I feel like he would make a bad bird, and I’m glad that there aren’t birds like him; I suppose we have wings for a reason.
We wait for someone to tell Boyfriend to move his car, but that’s not going to happen. I guess he looks angry enough to instill fear because Boyfriend’s big enough and black enough to scare more than just the occasional white passerby. Boyfriend is the-nigga-you-don’t-mess-with as the locals often say, the one that gives dark skin the agency to move about the night, as if all dark people suddenly grew powerful when cloaked within hard urban pitch.
Boyfriend steps out of the car, clenching his fists. He glares at the stopped cars and the air suddenly changes.
No more honking. Everything goes quiet.
Cars slowly make their way around Boyfriend as if in apology. I imagine the cars standing on their rear wheels, tip-toeing—tip-wheeling—around a really big black man. It occurs to me that maybe he thinks he’s moving in life, going somewhere as people say, and that he’s not moving in actuality because he doesn’t perceive a lack of movement. He has a moving problem because his muscle and skin makes things move around him, he’s getting what he wants without doing much of anything, at least in the immediate moment.
But for how long?
Girlfriend isn’t having any of it, and he knows that. That’s why he’s here even though she told him not to come back. Nigga you on Time Out, she had said, Time Out. I better not see you for three months, or ever.
Time Out isn’t over, it’s been two days, but Boyfriend is here anyway. With some planned brilliance I suppose.
Boyfriend closes his eyes and breathes deep, doing a couple ins-and-outs, something we’d never seen him do before. He reaches a hand into his right pocket, lets the hand linger there for a couple seconds, and takes it out. “Control,” I hear him say to himself, “Impulse control, like momma told me. I got this. Impulse. Control.” Like the impulse to not do the things we’re used to Boyfriend doing. The things that made all the cars apologize to him and his red Mustang, which is still parked in the middle of the road. The things that drew us to Girlfriend’s house in the first place—outside of Girlfriend herself—in case Boyfriend got out of line, or out of control, again.
He eyes Girlfriend’s door like a target, and steps onto the curb. He advances up the cement path toward her front step; his gait is measured and steady, his back straight and tall, and his face has softened from a scowl to something neutral, a calm expression. He’s not slouching or stomping or furrowing his brow like we’re used to. He’s not being a hoodlum for once; he’s promising peace and that makes us nervous. The quiet before the storm, people say, and that’s true. Our senses are keen and we’re gone long before the first drops hit, before the sky goes white with the storm to come.
We clutch our gifts hard, anxious for Boyfriend’s next move.
The salamander in my mouth wriggles wildly, it’s thrashing in pain, it screaming and screaming because I almost killed it, but he’s alive and that’s all that matters, that’s all I’m really concerned about. The thing’s got fight.
Boyfriend reaches the door and knocks.
Boyfriend speaks in a deep baritone that nearly rattles the windows. We’re waiting for Girlfriend to get home; he thinks she’s there. She left dressed in her best, for church and then family time. That’s what she does—especially when a nigga isn’t acting right. He knocks again.
“Baby? It’s me. I know I’m on Time Out and all that craziness but I just wanna tell you that I’m sorry, I apologize from the bottom of me because I know I hurt you tho…I didn’t mean to do all that…all that stuff that I did to make you raise up on me like that, I was just having a moment, a bad moment that’s all.”
Boyfriend starts to look worried. He breathes in, breathes out, and knocks again. Meanwhile Girlfriend’s Honda Accord pulls up behind his Mustang. She makes an angry face at the familiar car, but remains stopped, turns her hazard flashers on. She looks out at her doorstep at Boyfriend, speaking from the bottom of him and all. She doesn’t say anything, just joins us in our watching, and listens.
“Now, if ya cud just like, tell me what I did, then we’ll be straight. We’ll be cool and all that and we can get back to all the lovey stuff we be doin’ ‘cause girl, you really bring out the soft in me, you know, that huggy feely type nigga that don’t come out ‘cause momma say she can’t pay my ‘ridiculous’ car note and my daddy, well you know how it go…What I do tho?”
He reaches into his right pocket, leaves his hand there, rolls it around a bit, feeling.
“Seriously tho, how you gonna put a nigga on Time Out and not tell him what he did tho? How can I learn from what I did and what I’m sorry for if you don’t guide me into what’s right? I just need you there for me so I can be there for you, ya dig? I did things. And you did things, in response, but this response, I don’t know babe…it’s…it’s…it’s questionable. Not quite objectionable or anything, not there yet, but it be gettin’ there tho.”
He waits for a response. Nothing. Girlfriend is still where she’s at, listening, losing patience because she takes Time Out seriously. She’s flustered even though she’s always so tightly in control, and you can see her thinking hard, looking pained because reflection is tough business. As a bird all we have is the sky and our thoughts. We come down for scraps and then fly back up into high white meditation; everything down here is so complicated, it’s too much and the people down here do too much, torture themselves by how much they’re always doing, even Girlfriend.
Many people down here are actually moving, but often times participate in craziness, and in meditation I wonder: Is it hard to know how to treat each other? How to take care of one another? We do it, we’re hundreds strong, why can’t people? Why can’t two people do this thing right?—
He pulls his hand out of his pocket, and in his hand there is a condom in a black package with gold lettering: Magnum. He leaves it on her Welcome mat.
“Anyway,” he says with a deep smirk carved into his face, “I learned my lesson, and I’m sorry. So yeah, just hit me up babe, when you ready for the, you know, that Make-Up Sex. You know what it is, how we get down. Just call me, I’ma be waitin’ wherever I am, in Time Out, ya dig.”
He begins to leave and sees Girlfriend in the walkway, pounding toward him angrily.
I look across the telephone wires at my brethren and they’re looking back. They’re waiting for my signal. So I give it to them: I raise both wings and they go flying.
Girlfriend continues to pound toward him, she’s at the curb, she’s halfway up the cement path toward her door where Boyfriend waits, smiling widely. His arms are outstretched to receive her in a hug; Girlfriend cocks her fist.
One of our brothers drops his load, the Simply Lemonade bottle-cap he’s gifting Girlfriend. It lands between Girlfriend and Boyfriend, bouncing, rattling, and after a couple seconds finally stopping.
They both look up.
Our pigeon brethren are circling above, casting dark moving shadows over the house. Now they’re all dropping their special somethings for Girlfriend to have. The drop resembles snow. Pieces of Styrofoam that once contained her favorite Hawaiian Fried Rice, the Asiago Chicken Sandwich wrapper, fortunes she’s gleamed at but had thrown away from Chinese places she frequents—all of it floating down slowly, ceremonially, like small white blessings.
Boyfriend goes running because he feels attacked. He flies into his car and yells to Girlfriend, “Go inside! Call me later!” And then winking, “I know you will,” and speeds off.
The children playing in the streets, the neighbors walking by, the backed-up cars—all of them disappear, go away and into hiding and such.
Bottle-caps and clips and pins and hair-bows and other gifts we think suit Girlfriend also come flying down. They land around her and she’s scared, she’s terrified, she looks as if she’s about to cry—but that’s not something we can help so we keep going. Girlfriend is paralyzed in fear and she’s ready to go inside, to shut us out, to reject our goodwill, and as she steps toward her front door she sees the messages on the fortunes peppering the doorway:
It will be alright, allow life to be good to you.
Winning numbers: 7, 23, 5, 38, 10, 12
Happiness is out there, it’s closer than you think.
I descend toward Girlfriend, swiftly, with the salamander still thrashing in my mouth. I land before her, impeding her path to the doorway, and we lock eyes, her pupils shimmering with fear, with tears inside she refuses to let go. But she’s still here, waiting, giving us the chance that nobody else would.
My brethren continue to circle, dropping gifts.
I lower my beak, reverently setting the salamander down. It’s injured, its spine crushed by my grip, but he’s managing to crawl toward her, slowly, yet tenaciously. The salamander is crawling and getting closer and he’s yells something that I can’t understand because it sounds guttural and hurt. But he keeps going, he’s not stopping. The salamander is getting closer and closer, he’s almost there, he’s almost there, he’s almost to the tip of her shoe. He yells again and this time it is clear, in our animal tongue he’s cries out Girlfriend’s name, Jacq! Jacq!…and even though to her it must register as a low hiss, her eyes soften.
Girlfriend bends down and cups her hand toward the salamander because she knows.
About Olvard: Olvard Smith was born and raised in Hawthorne, California, and received his B.A. in English/Creative Writing at Cal State University Northridge. He’s drawn to writing that addresses one’s individual identity politics, and draws inspiration from life in urban areas such as Hawthorne, Inglewood, and the hipster haven of Northridge, California. In Fall, 2013, he’s beginning an MFA in fiction at Rutgers-Newark, in a city surely promising a plethora of urban adventures/misadventures. His work has previously appeared in The Zodiac Review and Red Fez.