by Alexander Stein
It was all on account of a bird that Harry Jeter lost his job. When this bird was added to some government list that would have it protected, Harry and his fellow loggers of Sugar Home were forced to put up a fight, but in the end, their legal efforts were no match for an endangered species. The mill was shut, finally, and the gates locked, after a judge ruled that over a million acres of forest in which this bird was said to dwell were off-limits now to the metal teeth of the chainsaw. Critical Habitat was what the officials designated these piney hills, set aside to conserve a vanishing creature that none of the outraged locals had ever heard of before, let alone seen. So for most of the unemployed men with mouths to feed there was no choice but to leave, to pick up roots and ply their trade elsewhere or learn new trades or find any type of family-wage job. But Harry Jeter, with only his own ailing self to support, was firm on staying. Sugar Home was indeed home to him, always had been, and he considered this dying company town and its surroundings as much his rightful habitat as that of any other living thing, threatened or not.
At least he wasn’t alone in this. A handful of his former colleagues were also stubborn in their conviction to stay, which meant whiling many of their waking hours away in Tom’s Tavern, the once busy but now suffering establishment in the shadow of the empty mill. From the time the last pink slip was issued, there was never any talk of the bird in Tom’s, as if mere mention of it would bestow even more ruin upon everyone’s head. But as their bitter days and nights wore on, there was less and less talk about anything at all between the tavern’s four walls, and if no one had sunk their precious quarters into the jukebox you could almost hear the hearts of these defeated men beating in the barroom.
Then one evening it was Gus Bishop who decided to split the silence when he lifted his head from a table, knocked back his whiskey, and said, “Goddamn bird. If I ever get my hands on one I’ll wring its neck.”
After a weighty pause, Ray Nash unhooked his boot heels from his barstool and swiveled around to say, “That’d be a heavy fine, Gus. Ten grand, I think. Plus jail time.”
Gus narrowed his rheumy eyes. “I don’t care,” he growled. “I’ll roast it on a spit. Eat the fucking thing.”
“Well,” Ray chuckled, “don’t expect much of meal. Going by the pictures the feds posted, that bird’s a puny thing, could fit in the palm of your hand.”
“Can’t trust photographs,” said Cal Lynch, who was dealing cards to Charlie Grimes in a booth. “They can distort.”
Ray scratched his head under his cap. “Or be faked, I suppose.”
“Faked is right,” piped Charlie, gathering up his cards. “Know what I think? I think there never was any such bird. I think it never did exist. I think this whole thing was a hoax.”
Behind the bar, Tom Foley looked up from his crossword puzzle. “You mean like a conspiracy?” he said.
“Call it what you wish,” Charlie told him. “I’m just saying that we might’ve all been fooled.”
“A scheme!” cried Gus, banging his fist down. “Cooked up by the government to grab the land.”
“It was no hoax,” claimed a baritone that belonged to Lyle Cox. All eyes turned to Lyle, hunched as usual on a stool at the far end of the bar.
“How are you so sure?” Tom asked him.
“Because I saw one of them birds,” Lyle replied.
Tom slid his pencil behind his ear. “Hold on,” he said. “I thought nobody’d seen one. Jeez Lyle, all this time and you didn’t say nothing?”
“Tell me, Tom, what good it would’ve done.”
“None, I guess. But what’d it look like?”
“Big,” said Lyle. “Bigger than any bird I’d ever laid eyes on. And it was black. Blacker than death itself. With claws that could carry a small child away.”
“Talons, you mean,” Tom said.
“That’s right,” Lyle nodded. “Talons.”
“What kind of wingspan did this bird have?” asked Gus. “Did you see it spread its wings, Lyle?”
“Yes, sir, I did. And I can tell you that it had a tremendous wingspan. So wide in fact that when it flew over head it blotted out the sun.”
Ray laughed. “Are you on drugs, Lyle?” he said. “Or you just jerkin’ our chains. Sounds like science fiction. Did this bird breathe fire too? Did it shoot lasers from its eyes?”
yle drank down his beer and rose up off his stool. “I know what I saw,” he said on his way out. “And no one can tell me otherwise.”
Quiet returned to the barroom after Lyle pushed through the tavern door, and after the last gear change of Lyle’s truck had sounded in the distance, Tom twice counted the five twenty dollar bills that Lyle had left under his mug. “I wonder,” he said. “I just wonder.”
“Wonder what, Tom?” said Gus. “Lyle’s honest as they come. He wouldn’t lie about something like that. If that’s what he said he saw, then that’s what he saw.”
“Look, I’m not calling the man a liar, but remember when Lyle was sure he’d seen a Bigfoot?”
“Turned out to be a trapper in a beaver skin coat,” Ray said, unable to hide his grin.
“Eyes can play tricks,” said Charlie, arranging the cards in his hand. “I once thought I saw a flying saucer, a UFO. But it was… well, hell, I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was a UFO.”
Cal lowered his cards. “I believe Lyle,” he said. “Even if he’s prone to exaggerate.”
“Makes sense, though,” said Gus. “How could the one thing that’s put us all out of work fit in just the palm of my hand?”
his set everyone thinking, and for a stretch nobody uttered a word, until Tom, wiping down the bar with a rag, said, “What about you, Harry? You’ve been quiet on this. Have you ever seen the bird?”
Alone at a table, Harry Jeter was tilted back in his chair. All night he’d been nursing not just a single beer but also an ache behind his eyes that he was sure no amount of aspirin could cure. Pain of this magnitude had been plaguing him with such frequency that he’d grown used to it, could barely remember a time when it wasn’t there. Harry lowered his chair legs to the floor and looked around the dim barroom to focus on the five gloomy souls looking back at him before he drew a breath.
“Nope,” he said. “And I hope I never will.”
When Harry’s phone rang the next morning, it was Tom with the news that Lyle Cox was dead. In a shaky voice, Tom said, “Neighbor noticed the exhaust fuming from under the garage door last night. But by then it was too late.”
Harry slumped against his kitchen counter as if he’d been socked in the gut.
“It might’ve been an accident,” he heard Tom continue. “He wasn’t stone drunk, but he’d had a few. He might’ve just conked out after pulling into his garage and lowering the door. But why’d he leave me a hundred dollars last night on a fifteen dollar tab?”
Harry rubbed his brow. “Then it was no accident,” he said.
After returning the phone to its cradle, Harry stood there with arms folded, gazing down at his linoleum floor, wondering who would bury Lyle. Like him, Lyle had never married, had no relations to speak of. His beloved Betsy was the closest thing he’d probably ever had to family and she died after being tagged on the nose by a rattler. No dog that Lyle had ever owned was as good as Betsy, who’d saved his life by sacrificing her own when jumping between him and that snake. And a year later, having not had the heart to replace her, Lyle still grieved, his eyes welling just days ago when he recounted her heroic act to everyone at Tom’s. They’d all heard the story before, but no one wanted to stop Lyle from telling it again.
Harry put up some coffee and while it brewed, he paced his kitchen floor, massaging the back of his neck with hopes that he’d be spared the headaches today. Last week he’d woken on his cold bathroom tiles, a bruise above his eye and the taste of blood in his mouth. He’d passed out, bit his tongue, reasoned that he’d had a seizure. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him that something was seriously wrong, that his symptoms suggested a dark ill in his head. A cancer? A tumor growing like a walnut or orange? Well, thought Harry, so be it. God’s will, as they say. No doctors, he decided. No tests or exams. No surgeries or grueling treatments or hospital beds for him. Having already suffering the indignity of an elusive bird robbing him of his livelihood, he’d had enough, was ready for the worst, and if it came to it, he’d simply check out, follow in Lyle’s sorry footsteps. Who, Harry wondered now, would miss him anyway? Who would shed even a tear? Who would pause a moment to remember him? Just who? He stopped his pacing suddenly, dropped his hands from his neck and let them dangle at his sides for a second before he threw open his cupboards. From a shelf, he retrieved a sugar bowl and under its lid found the thick roll of cash that he’d stashed there in the event of a crisis. He shoved the roll in his pocket and the next minute was out the door.
“So,” Gwen said, “for what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Harry set his coffee mug on the table between them and leaned forward a bit. Rubbing his hands on the worn out knees of his jeans, he noticed the lines in her face, the streaks of gray in her once vibrantly red hair. “Gwen,” he said, “I’d first like to apologize.”
Gwen lit a cigarette, took a pull, and gusted smoke from her nostrils. “A little late for that, don’t you think? I’m glad at least you and me never tied the knot, never made it official, you know. And I did appreciate the checks you sent over time. I put the money in Violet’s college fund. Not that it matters now.”
Harry’s stomach clenched. “How do you mean?”
“Vi’s gone, Harry. You missed her. And I don’t mean like she’s run to the store for milk. I mean she’s gone. Haven’t seen her for the better part of two years.”
Harry sank back in the couch. “What happened?”
Gwen chuckled, picked a speck of tobacco off her tongue and said, “She grew up, Harry. When she started high school, we fought all the time. I didn’t like her friends, her clothes, her hours, her drinking. And Jesus, those tattoos of hers. Not to mention the piercings. Girl turned herself into a pincushion. We finally had it out, a real bruiser. Next morning her bed was empty and she’d pinched all the money in my purse and a carton of Camels. Punk didn’t even leave a note. Took after her dad, I suppose.”
Harry lowered his head, gazed at the olive green carpet. “You know where she is?” he asked. “I’d like to see her.”
“Why now, Harry? This have something to do with the layoffs?”
“In part,” Harry said, feeling a blister of pain begin to pulse in the back of his skull. “Well, if she’s not here, there’s nothing I can do about it.” He pushed off his knees and stood up from the couch, but teetered when his balance suddenly left his senses.
Quick to jump out of her chair, Gwen gripped his elbows, steadied him. “You okay?” she said. “Maybe you ought to sit back down.”
“I’m fine,” said Harry, straightening.
“You don’t look it.”
“Take my word.”
She hesitated before letting go, then eased back a step with both hands in front of her, as if he might collapse like a house of cards. “Just hold there a sec,” she instructed him and then turned to dash into the kitchen.
While Harry could hear her rummaging through a drawer, he rubbed his eyes, and when he opened his lids and focused, he was looking right at the china cabinet against the far wall. It was on the sharp corner of this cabinet that his young daughter had gashed her head, a memory that still haunted him. Stuck in the house on a wet afternoon, Violet had been acting up, was bored, restless, prancing around. Trying to paint a birdhouse that he’d set across newspaper on the dining room table, Harry warned her a few times to settle down, until finally he lost all patience and backhanded her, sent her spinning. So much blood, he would forever recall, for such a little girl. He’d lied to Gwen, told her that Violet had accidently spun her own manic self into the cabinet. As for Violet, she had no memory of the incident, but after the stitches were removed she was left with a small but undeniable scar in the shape of a horseshoe above her right eye, and this scar, despite its size, was unshakable proof in Harry’s conscience that he was not suited for family life. So he pulled on his coat one morning and walked out the door.
“Found it,” Gwen said, emerging from the kitchen with a crumpled envelope. “Her address is scribbled there in the corner. I tore up the nasty letter she wrote but kept this, thinking I might write her back some day. Never did, though.” She put the envelope in Harry’s hand. “If you look her up, Harry,” she said, “maybe you can ask her to come home. Tell her I won’t be sore.”
Harry folded the envelope, shoved it into his back pocket, and then noticed, sitting atop the china cabinet, the dusty birdhouse, half-painted.
When the city loomed into view, the glass towers glinting in the morning sun were a welcome vision to Harry after driving so many hours through the night. The directions he had in hand steered him around the cluster of tall buildings and shot him through an exit and into a run-down part of town with boarded-up storefronts, littered streets and laced-together sneakers slung over telephone wires. Pulling up to the address he was seeking, Harry felt his shoulders droop. The building looked ripe for the wrecking ball, a three-story eyesore of sagging brick and mortar. He climbed from his truck, bounded up the front stoop, and cupped his hands around his eyes to peer through the cracked window of the padlocked door.
“What’re you looking for?” he heard someone call.
“A girl,” he called back to the woman sweeping the next-door stoop. “She used to live here.”
“Squatters lived there,” said the woman, working her broom. “Cops tossed them out a few weeks ago.”
“Any idea where they might’ve gone?” Harry asked.
The woman gestured over her shoulder with her chin. “Try the park. Trash like them don’t scatter too far.”
Harry hurried down the stoop and then across the street and when he entered the scrappy park, pigeons took flight ahead of his long strides. Stopping by the dry, graffiti-sprayed fountain, Harry cast around, spied more than a few indigents sprawled on the grass; picking through garbage cans, sleeping on the park’s peeling benches. He fixed on a young woman with choppy red hair lying across one of these benches. Eyes shuts, she puffed on a cigarette. From his wallet, Harry pulled a wrinkled snapshot, the sole picture he owned of his daughter. In the photo, she was about five years old, with red pigtails and a freckled face, and he held it up to compare it to the grown-up girl on the park bench, but it was of no use. So Harry took a deep breath and walked over to the bench where he stood silently over the woman. Sensing herself in shadow, she opened her hooded eyes and said, “You’re in my sun.”
Harry paused, thinking he saw something familiar in her face. “Violet?” he said.
The girl took one last drag on her cigarette and flicked it away. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Harry,” he said. “Harry Jeter.” He held out the snapshot. “I come all the way from Sugar Home.”
The girl swiped the picture from him and sat up in the bench to scrutinize it. “Shit,” she said, with a crooked smile. “I was one ugly kid, wasn’t I?”
You believe this?” she said to the bartender. “You believe this is my dad? My dad, man. My fucking dad. I haven’t seen him in…” She looked to Harry on the stool next to hers for the answer.
“Quite a long time,” he said.
Squeezing Harry’s bicep, she said, “Dude, check him out. He’s the real thing. A lumberjack. My dad’s a fucking lumberjack.”
“Logger,” said Harry. “Used to be, anyway.”
She finished her Jack and Coke, rattled the ice for the bartender to see, and said, “Hit me, Rocco. Fill’r up.”
The bartender folded his arms and stood rigidly with a toothpick stuck in the corner of his mouth. “I remember you now,” he said. “You burned me a few weeks ago. Left me high and dry. If you want another, I have to see some cash.”
Batting her mascara-laden lashes, Violet said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never been in this dive before in my life.”
“Then tell me how you know my name.”
Harry produced his cash roll from his pocket, peeled off a hundred, and laid it on the bar. “You can draw from that,” he told the bartender. “And take out what you think the young lady owes you, though I’m sure you’re mistaking her for someone else.”
“Ha!” said Violet. “See? That’s what fathers are for.”
The bartender swiped the hundred from the bar, held it up to the light, then opened the register and returned with change. After refilling Violet’s glass, he said to Harry, “How ’bout you, Paul Bunyan? Another beer?”
Harry nodded and the bartender opened a fresh beer for him, but by the time Harry had even raised the bottle to his mouth, Violet was already draining her drink down her throat. She lowered her glass, erupted with a burp, and then fell into a daze at the edge of her stool, allowing Harry the opportunity to take a closer look at his own flesh and blood. She was a sinewy thing, with sharp features and doe-like eyes. On her neck was a tattoo of a spider, and above that silvery rings ran in numbers along her ears, dangled in hoops from her lobes, even pierced her bottom lip and left nostril. A tiny barbell was stuck through one eyebrow and in place below her lip was a shiny stud. The lapels of her beat-up leather jacket were studded too, with buttons and pins bearing human skulls, a theme she repeated on the gnarly rings that decorated her fingers. Harry’s eyes continued down, traveling past the hem of her dark skirt until they settled on her boots, which were of the military kind. Her exterior was tough, no doubt, but Harry wondered if under all her leather and ink and hardware there was still the fragile little girl with the pigtails and freckles that he’d known for only a few brief years.
“Hey,” she said, having shaken from her stupor to snap her fingers at the bartender. “Rocco. I’m ready for another.”
“Maybe, Vi, you’ve had enough?” Harry suggested.
“Enough?” she said. “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough. You don’t tell me.” She waved her hand over her glass, signaling the bartender to pour. Then she began rummaging through her shapeless handbag. “Shit, Harry, you think you can disappear for how many years and, wham, just reappear one day and tell me what to do? Uh-uh. No way, chum.” She turned her bag over to shake all of its contents – chewing gums, tampons, band-aids, lip balms, condoms, sugar, salt, and ketchup packets – out onto the bar. “You just don’t have the right, Harry. You gave it up a long time ago. Don’t you think?”
Harry took a swig of his beer, wiped his mouth with his hand. “I won’t argue with that,” he said. “It wasn’t my place. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” she said, plucking a cigarette from the crumpled pack she’d found in the pile on the bar. “Long as we’re square on that. ’Cause, you know, we have to lay some ground rules.”
Harry watched the bartender disappear through a doorway at the other end of the bar and he told his daughter that he didn’t think smoking was permitted.
Violet gave him a look. “Ground rules, Harry,” she said. “Ground rules. We’re the only ones in here anyway, so who we bothering?” Locating a book of matches among the heap from her bag, Violet struck a flame and lit a bent cigarette.
“Camels,” Harry observed. “Like your mother smokes.”
“How is dear old Mom?” she said, shaking out the match.
“She’s okay, I guess. She asked me to ask you to come home.”
Violet threw her head back and laughed. “Not a chance,” she said. “When I bailed that town, I left it for good. Why are you still there?”
Harry shrugged. “Probably because it’s the only place I’ve ever known.”
She took a sip of her drink, another drag on her cigarette. “That’s a lame-ass excuse,” she said. “I got news for you, Harry, there’s more to this dreary fucking world than Sugarville.”
“Sugar Home,” he said.
“Whatever,” she said.
The zoo was Violet’s idea, her curiosity having been piqued by all the fuss lately over its newest addition, a baby hippopotamus named Kiki, whose picture was hard to miss on the side of so many city buses and on billboards all over town and on posters papering the scrappy boards put up around construction sites. Neither she nor Harry had ever visited this or any zoo before, so both agreed that it might be a nice place to get reacquainted. Anyway, Violet had exchanged words with the bartender about her cigarette, which resulted in her flicking the lit butt at him, which bounced off his chest, which resulted in his telling her and Harry to get out before he called the cops, which was okay with Harry because a seedy bar wasn’t where he’d imagined spending an afternoon with his daughter after locating her anyway.
It was a Saturday and this meant mobs of people crowding through the zoo’s gates. But the masses didn’t lessen Harry’s thrill for the animal exhibits and attractions. He craned his neck at the giraffes, smiled at the sight of an elephant hosing itself down with its own trunk, and envied the lions lazing on their backs with their tawny bellies exposed. The gorillas, however, the great apes, were what Harry marveled at most of all; especially the male Silverback postured stoically on its knuckles while a young one clung to its arm.
Violet clung tightly to Harry’s arm herself as they strolled from one zoo enclosure to the next. She was woozy still from the bar drinks and after just ten minutes of waiting to see Kiki the baby hippo, she shoved her half-eaten bag of cotton candy into Harry’s hands and broke for the nearest trash receptacle to heave. Harry hesitated before giving up their place in the growing line to go rub her back while she purged. But he didn’t mind so much, having done the same for her one long ago Halloween when on someone’s lawn she threw up the Jolly Ranchers and Smarties and M&Ms that she’d been sneaking under her Wonder Woman mask all through the crisp October evening. Now, the grown-up Violet let out a groan and spit one last time into the can she was gripping between both hands.
“My fault,” Harry admitted. “I shouldn’t have bought you so many Jack and Cokes. Not to mention the cotton candy.”
Violet lifted her head and drew the sleeve of her leather jacket across her mouth. “Kiki,” she said. “What kind of stupid name is that for a big, fat hippopotamus anyway?”
“What would you call her then?” asked Harry.
Violet straightened up. “Edwina,” she said, with a weak smile. “That’s a good name for a hippo. Edwina.”
When they returned to the line for Kiki, it was stretching longer now than either of them was willing to stand and wait and bake in the afternoon sun. Harry proposed they take the zoo trolley to the polar bears but Violet had another idea and led him by the hand to the Reptile House, and it was in this dark pavilion that she was able to reboot. Moving from window to window, she was nose-pressed-to-the-glass enthralled with every one of these cold-blooded creatures. The alligators and crocodiles were her hands-down favorites, but then, past the lizards, she and Harry reached the vipers and constrictors and her eyes lit up like sparklers.
“Can anyone blame Eve for taking the apple?” she said.
“Technically,” said Harry, “I’m not so sure it was a snake. I seem to recall it being described in the Bible as a generic kind of serpent.”
“I don’t care,” Violet said. “Long as it has a forked tongue it’s cool with me.”
She stopped then in her tracks when they arrived at the Burmese Python coiled in its enclosure. This monster was more than eighteen feet in length and, according to the information panel below the glass, could unhinge its jaws to swallow a full-grown pig, hooves and all.
“If you like that one, I’ll buy it for you,” Harry joked.
“Thanks, Harry,” Violet answered, “but I already got one. See?” and she pushed the sleeve of her jacket up past her elbow to show him the tattoo of a snake that wound its inky way around her skinny forearm. “What’re those holes?” Harry asked, bending for a closer look at the punctures marking the veins in the bruised crook of her arm.
“Nothing,” she said, yanking her sleeve back down past her wrist.
Harry hesitated with Violet outside the World of Birds. Given that one particular species of bird had cost him and his friends their jobs, he naturally had some reservations about entering, but once he and Violet stepped inside, he relaxed some. It was hard, though, for him to drum up much enthusiasm for the many varieties of birds flitting about their aviaries. And Violet felt the same way, for it was obvious that feathers and beaks just couldn’t measure up to the scaly hides and retractable fangs of the reptiles. Even the show of some dazzling plumages drew little more than a yawn from her. But then Violet perked up a bit when she and Harry came upon the larger birds, the predators, or raptors, as they were known, in their netted enclosures. The eagles and hawks and falcons held Violet’s attention long enough, but it was the vultures that really did it for her, that put her in a trance. These bald-headed scavengers seemed to speak to her in a way that Harry was only beginning to understand. It was everything about them: the grimly hunched poses, the dark feathers, the naked necks bent like kitchen sink pipes, and the curved beaks with razor-sharp points built to strip carrion to the bone.
“You know what you call a bunch of vultures?” Violet said, looking at the information panel. “A venue. A venue of vultures. Also known as a wake. I like that better than venue, don’t you, Harry? A wake of vultures?”
Violet turned to see Harry moving on and she followed him through the door leading to the nocturnal birds, and when it shut behind them it was as if they’d been stricken blind, until a moment later their eyes adjusted to the dark and the dim exhibits began to dawn. There was a hush in these rooms, as if everyone wandering through them was stepping quietly through a still forest, mindful not to make any noise lest they disturb the nighttime creatures.
“Hey, Harry,” Violet whispered, tugging on his shirt. “If you could be any bird, what bird would you be? I’d be a vulture for sure. What about you?”
Pausing in front of an exhibit, Harry didn’t answer as he looked for any birds in the trunks of the pine trees behind the glass.
>Violet giggled through her hand and said, “Maybe you’d be that one.”
“Which one?” he said. “Where?”
“There,” she breathed, pointing.
He followed her finger to the shadowy hollow in one of the trees and at first saw nothing inside but then squinted to make out a small creature with large round eyes set on an owlish, heart-shaped face. Less a bird, Harry thought, and more a tiny stuffed toy.
“Funny little fella, ain’t he?” said Violet.
Harry looked down at the panel below the window. He read that this endangered species of bird inhabits just one small geographic corner of the United States, and this habitat, Harry could see highlighted on the map, happened to be his own. He fixed again on the bird with marbled feathers sitting motionless in the tree hollow and gazed into its dark, unblinking eyes and its eyes gazed back at him. Then something went off in Harry’s head, like a gunshot. He shut his lids and steadied himself while pressing his fingertips to his pounding temples.
“Harry?” he heard Violet say in the fog outside his ears. “Harry, you okay?”
“Help me to the exit,” he muttered.
When they emerged from the pavilion, the immediate glare of the outdoors intensified the agony in Harry’s skull, and he had to let his daughter guide him over to a bench where they sat down. When Harry bent with his head in his hands, Violet rubbed his back, just as he’d rubbed hers a little while ago, and she asked him if he needed a doctor.
“No,” he grunted. “No doctors.”
Violet continued to rub his back while they sat there quietly. Then she noticed the hordes of visitors making their way to the exits. “Zoo’s closing,” she said.
“It’s a shame we didn’t get to see Kiki,” Harry said under his breath.
“Well,” she sighed, “when you add it all up, I guess there’s a lot we didn’t see together.”
Harry opened his eyes, raised his chin. “Did you at least have a nice time today?”
“Yeah,” she smiled. “I did.”
“I’m glad then,” he said, blinking, trying to focus. His head was so dizzy that he worried he might pass out, even worse lapse into a seizure, which was the last thing he wanted his daughter to witness. “Maybe it’s best you go,” he told her. “You think you can find your way back without me?”
“Back?” said Violet. “Back where? You mean the park? It doesn’t really matter. I can flop anywhere. But I don’t think I should leave you. Not like this.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Just give me a hand.” Violet gripped his arm and helped him to his feet. “You think, Violet, that maybe I can see you again?”
“I don’t see why not,” she said.
“How do I get in touch?”
“Oh, I’m not so hard to find,” she said, then lifted her arms, threw them around his shoulders, and tilted her face to look up into his. “But Harry?” she said, batting her long, dark lashes. “Dad? Daddy? Until we see each other, you think I can have some money? Just a little something to hold me over?”
Harry set his hands on her waist. “Of course, Vi,” he said. “But can I ask you one thing?”
“Do you think you’ll ever forgive me?”
She shut her eyes and nodded her head like a genie granting a wish. “You are forgiven,” she said.
“Thank you, Violet,” Harry said, then paused when he realized that something was missing. The scar. The horseshoe shaped scar. Where was it? Studying her brow, he knew exactly where it should be. There, directly above her right eye. But it wasn’t. This girl’s pale forehead was without blemish, had never suffered a scratch. Harry let his hands fall from her waist.
“Something wrong?” she said, dropping her arms from his shoulders.
Harry hesitated, then reached into his pocket. Taking the girl’s hand, he pressed the roll of cash into her palm and curled her fingers around it and she gaped for a moment at the wad in her fist before she popped to the tips of her boots, pecked Harry on the cheek, and turned and walked away.
“Edwina!” Harry shouted.
The girl stopped, whirled around, and looked at him with a knowing smile. “Eddie,” she called to him while so many men and women and children flowed between them. “Please.”
“Your real father, Eddie,” Harry called back through the crowd. “Will you ever forgive him?”
“You kidding?” she laughed. “I never even knew the son of a bitch.” Then she spun around on her heels and disappeared in the throng.
All of them were there that evening, just as Harry had last left them. Working on a crossword behind the bar was Tom. Gus had his head down on a table. Hunched on a stool was Ray. And in their regular booth, Charlie and Cal were throwing down cards. Something was different, however. They weren’t in their usual flannels and jeans but dressed in rumpled suits and white shirts and loosened neckties, and their faces were clean-shaven and their heads neatly combed. Different as well was the empty stool at the end of the bar that had always been occupied by Lyle.
Tom glanced up from his puzzle to see Harry gazing at the space. “Harry,” he said. “Where’ve you been?”
“I had some business to tend to,” Harry replied.
“Business more important than Lyle’s funeral today?”
“A family matter,” he said. “It couldn’t wait.”
“Family?” said Tom. “Didn’t know you had any.”
Harry started for usual chair in the corner, but then stopped, changed course to fill Lyle’s stool. For a moment, he felt uncomfortable in it, but Tom put a beer down in front of him and it didn’t seem to matter. “It was a nice service,” said Tom. “Small, but nice.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t attend,” Harry said. “Who all was there?”
“Us,” said Ray.
Harry took a pull on his beer. “I’ll go pay my respects,” he said. “Where’s he resting?”
“He’s not,” said Tom. “Not yet, anyway. He’s going to be cremated. We figure on spreading his ashes just where he’d spread Betsy’s last year. He’d like that.”
“I believe he would,” Harry said, and in the mirror behind the liquor shelf, he saw Gus lift his head from his table and blow his nose into a handkerchief.
“Goddamn fucking bird,” Gus said, shoving his handkerchief into his pocket.
Harry set his bottle down. “I saw it,” he said.
“Saw what?” Tom said. “The bird?”
“That’s right,” Harry told him. “The bird.”
Tom laid his hands flat on the bar. “No kidding,” he said. “Was it all Lyle said it was? Was it like he described?”
Harry turned in his stool to look at the grieving faces of his friends waiting for his answer, at Gus leaning over his table and Ray on the edge of his stool and both Charlie and Cal, with cards still in hand, rapt in their booth. “It was,” he said. “Just like Lyle had described.”
Gus slapped his hand down hard. “I knew it!” he said. “Lyle was no liar. He knew what he saw. And he was telling the truth!”
Ray cocked his head. “Was it really all that big, Harry?” he said, skeptically.
“Bigger,” said Harry.
“And was it as black?” asked Cal. “Black as Lyle said it was?”
“Blacker,” said Harry.
“How about its claws?” Charlie said.
“Talons,” said Tom. “That could carry a child away, according to Lyle. Were they that large?”
“Larger,” said Harry. “Could probably carry two children away, one in each.”
“What about this bird’s wingspan?” asked Gus, wide-eyed. “Lyle said it was tremendous. Did you see it spread its wings? How big did they span, Harry? Come on, tell us.”
Harry guzzled down his beer, then rose up off his stool and paused on his feet to rub his palms together before he unfolded his arms, opened them, spread them, stretched them, fingertip-to-fingertip, as far and as wide as they could reach.