Vanessa’s mother’s house is a disaster. There are newspapers—not even real papers, but Pennysavers—piled in the living room, some of them from years ago. “They’re for lining the birdcages,” her mother insists, but the birds are not in the cages, and Vanessa suspects they are never in the cages, which are piled one on top of another, lining an entire wall of the living room. The birds are flying free, squawking, leaving gloopy white messes everywhere. The noise is unbearable, the trills and screeches and chirps, and Vanessa wonders how her mother is able to think with this noise. How many birds are there? Thirty? Forty? Fifty? It feels as if there are a thousand, swooping overhead, landing violently on the mantle, bopping across the dining room table, a small gray one settling on Vanessa’s shoulder. The bird is impervious to Vanessa’s flicking, its tiny, disgusting feet digging deep into her leather jacket. Vanessa peers into the kitchen and sees decades worth of empty Cool Whip containers, which her mother says are for storing leftovers, but when was the last time her mother cooked anything in the filthy kitchen? “Do you have any wine?” Vanessa asks. There must be a glass somewhere in this mess that she can scrub clean before pouring wine into it.
“No, no wine, Nessie,” Constance says. “I maybe have a bottle of grape juice in the pantry. Want me to go look for it?” Her daughter shakes her head. Constance notes her daughter’s sourpuss face. She sees Nessie surveying her home. Always, even as a little girl, Nessie thought of herself as better than Constance and better than the twins, Jilly and Jules. Nessie and her father had an affinity for each other, but Stanley hasn’t been in the picture for twenty years. Constance has no idea whether Stanley and Nessie still stay in touch. Stanley lives in Vegas with his second wife, a woman who is supposedly a realtor, but based on the photographs on their yearly Christmas cards, she could be a very successful Dolly Parton impersonator. Nessie lives in New York City, has a fancy job as a television producer, and thinks she’s better than the rest of the family because they still live in Albany. Constance knows Nessie thinks they are living boring and provincial lives upstate. She knows Nessie looks down on her for her job as a cashier at Walgreens. She knows Nessie looks down on her sisters for never leaving their hometown, for going to college at a school ten minutes from their home and then finding jobs nearby. And now Nessie has returned, and Constance is suspicious of what she wants. She called yesterday, said she was coming for a visit, wanted to talk about something. Constance offered to clean out Nessie’s old bedroom, but Nessie said, “I’ve already booked a hotel.” Constance was relieved. It would take weeks to clean out Nessie’s old room, to shovel through the books and clothing and bags and bags of birdseed.
“Can we go somewhere?” Vanessa says. She wants to get out of this mess. It smells like sour milk and rotten fruit. “Let me buy you dinner.”
“We can’t leave. The twins are coming. They’re going to pick up something from Boston Market.”
Vanessa can’t eat surrounded by this squalor. She’d hoped to avoid her sisters, but of course her mother has summoned the troops. Jilly and Jules are adult women who are still hanging on to their childhood nicknames. Jillian and Julianne are perfectly fine names, but at thirty-eight, her sisters still refuse to shed the nicknames. She switched from Nessie to Vanessa when she left home for Barnard. She knew at eighteen that she didn’t want to share a nickname with a mythical Scottish lake creature. Her sisters will soon be clattering around the house, urging her to eat rotisserie chicken off plastic plates, and it will be harder for her to ask her mother to be the subject of an upcoming crossover episode of Quick Fix and Animal Collectors in their presence. “Collectors” is a kind word she and the other producers came up with to describe what the people they profile do. “Collections” summons images of china figurines or stamps, not the squalid houses the people with too many animals live in. Quick Fix is exactly what it sounds like: carpenters and electricians and plumbers and interior decorators march into a run-down house and fix it up in a week.
Vanessa proposed this crossover show at a meeting during which her boss told her forty percent of the producers at the network would be losing their jobs. Vanessa can’t lose her job; her job is the most important thing in her life. The crossover, Quick Fix Animal Collector, was the only idea to spring immediately into her mind: find someone with a crumbling house filled with animal filth, clean it out, and fix it up, all within two weeks. Quick Fix and Animal Collectors were the two most popular shows on the network, so maybe a crossover would bring in an unprecedented number of viewers. When her boss asked if she had subjects lined up for the show, Vanessa lied and said her mother agreed to be the subject of the first episode. She wished she had another idea, one that didn’t involve anyone from her family, but she had to hurry and get at least one episode filmed in order for the network to consider it for the fall lineup. There was no time to go out and search for subjects. She didn’t want anyone from work in her mother’s home, judging it. She didn’t want her mother’s filthy house broadcast on national television. She didn’t want anyone to know this was what she came from. But she’d said it, and greeted the idea with enthusiasm, said maybe the show could feature an interview with Vanessa talking about what it was like to be a hoarder’s daughter. Now she thinks if the show is what will save her job, then it will be worth spilling her family’s secrets on television.
The doorbell rings, and Constance is grateful her other daughters have arrived. Jilly and Jules can help her deal with whatever it is Nessie wants. Huey, the gray budgie on Nessie’s shoulder, takes flight, heads toward the door. Huey is a dumb one; he doesn’t know when people don’t like him, doesn’t know when he should make himself scarce. She should have never bought him in the first place. She likes brightly colored birds—they cheer up her house and make her feel good when she’s in a bad mood—but the day she went to the pet store after a particularly unpleasant interaction with a customer at Walgreens, Huey was the only small bird they had, and she was not about to leave without a new bird. Constance opens the door and it is not Jilly and Jules standing there, but of course it wouldn’t be. They don’t ring the doorbell. They come right in because they are comfortable here, not strangers like Vanessa has become. It is Zephyr Duncan, the daughter of the hippies next door. She is wearing her Girl Scouts uniform and carrying a clipboard. Huey swoops down from Nessie’s shoulder and lands on Zephyr’s clipboard.
“He won’t hurt you,” Constance says. And now there are two people in her home who want something from her. Zephyr has obviously come to hawk cookies, and Constance still doesn’t know what her daughter wants. “Let me get my wallet,” Constance says, and Zephyr asks if she wants to hear about this year’s new cookies, but Constance waves her hand, tells her she’ll get a few boxes of the chocolaty minty ones as she climbs the stairs. “Thin Mints,” says Zephyr, and Constance says yes, even though she’s pretty sure there are still a few boxes left in the pantry from last year.
Vanessa can hear her mother stomping around upstairs, sorting through whatever it is that’s up there, looking for her wallet. The girl stands on the front porch, and Vanessa is unsure whether to invite her in or not, so she doesn’t. Instead, she points to the gray bird that is still standing on the clipboard, and says, “I should thank you for getting that bird off my shoulder.”
The girl says, “Do you like birds?” and Vanessa says, “I’m more of a dog person.”
Zephyr nods. This woman looks a little like Jilly and Jules, but she is skinny and fashionable and nervous-looking, and Jilly and Jules are none of these things. This woman is wearing a black leather jacket and tight dark jeans and high heels and is holding a large leather bag that looks stuffed and heavy. Zephyr examines the mess in the living room and realizes there’s nowhere for this woman to set down the bag.
“Are you Jilly and Jules’s sister?” Zephyr asks. She lifts the clipboard and shakes it a bit, but the bird just adjusts itself, climbs higher up the clipboard and settles on the silver clip.
“I am. I’m Vanessa.” She extends a hand for a shake, but Zephyr cannot let go of the clipboard with the bird on it, so Vanessa just waves her inside. Zephyr has never been inside before. Her family talks to Constance on the sidewalk or in the driveway or they wave at each other in their backyards. The inside of the house has an old garbage smell.
“I’m Zephyr. I live next door.”
“Oh, the Griffin house. Or I guess not anymore. Unless you’re related to the Griffins?”
Zephyr shakes her head. “My last name is Duncan. My family moved here two years ago from Utica.”
Vanessa can still hear her mother clomping around upstairs. Is this what it’s like every time she goes out? Does she always need to budget extra time for finding her wallet? She makes a mental note to ask her friend Grant, the carpenter from Quick Fix, to build a little nook near the front door where her mother can keep her keys and wallet.
Vanessa says, “How much are the cookies?”
“Five dollars a box.”
Vanessa slips a hand into her bag, pulls out a wallet that looks like it’s made from the skin of a snake, and takes out a twenty-dollar bill. “Put my mom down for four boxes, okay?”
Zephyr nods and stares at the money Vanessa is holding out to her. She is not sure how to reach for the bill without letting go of the clipboard, and if she lets go of the clipboard, the bird will fall. But maybe it won’t; birds can fly.
“Oh, here,” says Vanessa, and she takes the clipboard from Zephyr, holds it straight out with one arm, gives Zephyr the twenty-dollar bill with her other hand. “Shoo,” Vanessa says, waving the clipboard up and down and finally the gray bird flies off the clipboard and right back onto Vanessa’s shoulder. “This bird,” says Vanessa, “this one is my least favorite of them all.”
Zephyr writes down the order for four boxes of Thin Mints. “I’ll deliver them when they come in,” she says and heads out the door. Vanessa is flicking the bird on her shoulder and seems to not have heard her. Constance still hasn’t returned, and Zephyr needs to go to the other houses on their street. But she knows no matter how hard she tries, she won’t sell as many cookies as the other girls because other people’s parents take the order forms to work and everyone at work buys cookies and her parents can’t do that because they both work from home. And so she will never win the good prizes, like a kayaking trip or a vacation to Disneyland, or even the okay prizes, like a sleeping bag or a camping lantern.
“Zephyr?” says Vanessa when the girl is halfway down the steps. “Can you hear the birds from your house?” Vanessa’s ears are ringing and her head is pounding. How can her mother do anything in peace—watch TV, talk on the phone, eat dinner—with all the bird noises?
Zephyr’s face blanches. “Why?” she asks.
“I was just curious.”
Zephyr can certainly hear the birds. They squawk all the time. Mostly they make ugly sounds, but sometimes they chirp, and once in a while there is a beautiful song that Zephyr can hear drifting into her bedroom window. But her parents won’t complain because a year ago Zephyr’s mother built a chicken coop and they have a dozen chickens and one rooster that crows every morning at 5 am and the other neighbors have complained, but Constance has not. The other neighbors wrote a letter to the police citing the Duncans for noise pollution, but Constance would not sign it because she claimed that never, not once, had she been woken up by the rooster, and the police said if the next-door neighbor couldn’t hear the rooster, then it couldn’t be that loud. And so Zephyr and her family pretend they cannot hear the birds and every Sunday Zephyr’s oldest brother, Sage, fills a basket with freshly laid eggs and leaves it on Constance’s stoop.
“I can’t really hear them. I guess they don’t chirp that loudly,” Zephyr says.
“Right,” says Vanessa, although it’s clear the girl is lying. “Well, good luck with the cookie sales.”
Once the girl is gone, Vanessa closes the door. “God dammit,” she says, “move.” She tries to pull the bird off her shoulder, but its body feels so light and delicate she’s afraid she’ll crush it if she pulls too hard, so she lets it stay. A moment later, her mother walks down the stairs, her hands filled with coins, her eyes focused on her cupped palms, concentrating on not letting any of the coins drop.
“I couldn’t find my wallet, but this has to be enough for one box and then if you put me down for a dozen boxes I’ll make sure to have a check waiting for you.”
“What do you need twelve boxes of cookies for?” Vanessa asks, and Constance looks up. She doesn’t like the sharpness of her daughter’s tone.
“What have you done with Zephyr?”
“I murdered her and buried her under the porch.”
“Don’t be fresh with me.”
“I gave her twenty dollars. She’ll bring you four boxes when they come in.”
“I wanted twelve boxes.”
“Were you going to eat all those cookies?”
“Of course not, but what if I have guests?”
“When was the last time you had guests?” Nessie’s eyes sweep around the living room, and Constance can tell she’s judging, judging, judging.
“I’m just saying that if I did have guests, I’d like to be able to offer them something.”
“Four boxes of cookies should suffice.” It’s time to ask; if she doesn’t do it now, her sisters will arrive and then she’ll have to ask them too since they’re so attached to the house. She’ll convince her mother that Quick Fix Animal Collector will be a dream come true. She’ll get her mother to say yes before Jules and Jilly show up, and she’ll make her mother sign the paperwork—which is in her bag—and then Jules and Jilly cannot tell their mother she can’t do it. But just as she’s about to ask, her sisters come crashing into the house, their voices loud, the swishing of the plastic Boston Market bags loud, their footsteps loud.
“Nessie!” they shout in unison. Vanessa is glad to note that at least today they are not dressed the same. The last time she came home for a holiday, Christmas in 2001, feeling vulnerable and in need of connection after watching the Twin Towers crumble from her apartment window a few months earlier, Jules and Jilly had been wearing matching sweaters featuring Mrs. Claus baking cookies. The sweaters seemed especially garish in light of the nation’s suffering. Today Jules is wearing a blue and yellow polka-dotted polyester shirt and baggy acid washed jeans. Jilly is, strangely, wearing a Yankees sweatshirt, even though Vanessa knows she has never cared for sports. It must be a hand-me-down from her seventeen-year-old son, Noah, who, according to the pictures Jilly posts on Facebook on an annoyingly regular basis, is about a foot taller than his mother.
It is good to see Nessie, it really is, thinks Jules, as she drops the Boston Market bags in the kitchen and envelops Nessie in her arms. She feels a leather jacket and bones. “You’re so skinny,” she says. “Mom, look how skinny she is. Do they not have food in Manhattan?” Nessie looks so different from who she’d been as a child, so angular and sharp now.
“I eat enough,” says Vanessa. She wishes she could fast forward through these uncomfortable greetings and skip to asking about filming the show. She is bracing herself for asking all three of them, for arguing with all three of them, for convincing all three of them.
Jilly asks, “How long are you home for?” She wants Nessie to stay, to be with them for a while. Nessie is always running off, running away. Jilly has always liked Nessie more than Jules has, but that’s because Jilly and Jules are different. Jules chose to stay in their hometown. Jilly’s situation is different. She hadn’t meant to get pregnant at twenty by a boy she’d known in high school, had meant to meet someone exciting, maybe foreign, right after college, to take her away, to sweep her off her feet and take her away from the place she’d been born in and lived in her entire life. She dreamed of a career as a singer, not a job as a middle school music teacher at the same middle school she attended. Jules and her husband, Leo, have no children, and they could leave, but Jules chooses to stay. And so Nessie’s life is fascinating to Jilly—she’s the one that got out—and Jilly wishes she wouldn’t be so secretive, wishes she’d talk more about her life. She wishes Nessie would post updates on Facebook about her real life and not just about the shows she produces. She wishes Nessie would invite her down to visit, to stay in her apartment in the city for a few days. She wants to meet Nessie’s friends, Nessie’s boyfriends, but she—all of them—have been shut out of Nessie’s life.
“I’m just here for a quick visit. I actually wanted to ask you something, Mom.”
Here it comes, thinks Constance. But what could Nessie possibly want? She knows there’s no money here, and she certainly doesn’t want the house. And Constance is not so old that she needs to be put into some assisted living situation. What if Nessie needs something? Constance feels a flash of panic; after all, Nessie is her first born, and it is hard not to think of her as her baby, her very first baby. Nowadays, she doesn’t particularly like Nessie, but she loves her. What if she’s so skinny because she’s sick? What if she needs a kidney? Bone marrow. No, Constance thinks, it can’t be that. She wouldn’t want a part of any of them floating around inside her body.
“There’s this new show I’m producing,” Nessie begins, and Constance lets out a huge sigh of relief. Nessie is not ill. Thank the
Vanessa tells her mother and sisters about the show, about how they’d fix the house, deal with the birds, redecorate. Her mother’s face, which for a fleeting moment had looked strangely beatific, crimps. Jules shakes her head. Only Jilly looks excited, nodding.
“Will Grant Carpenter be involved?” Jilly asks. Grant Carpenter is a serious hunk, and it’s funny that his last name is Carpenter and he’s actually a carpenter. It’s not a stage name; Jilly knows this from reading an interview with him in People Magazine. She is a little obsessed with him; she’s even the moderator of the Fans of Grant Carpenter Facebook page.
“He’ll probably be involved since he’s the carpenter that works on most of the shows I produce.” He’s also Vanessa’s favorite work friend. He’s teaching her how to make things with wood. So far she has made a step stool and a spice rack, even though she almost never cooks and owns no spices beyond salt and pepper, and salt doesn’t even count as a spice. But building things calms her nerves better than the prescription her doctor gave her that makes her feel dull and foggy. When Grant goes out of town, Vanessa watches his dog, a German shepherd named Hal. She knows Grant thinks she’s doing him a favor, but she loves Hal’s company, loves letting Hal sleep next to her, even though he snores loudly. Since she broke up with Yoshi two years ago and he took their French bulldog, Lulu, she’s missed the presence of an animal in her apartment.
“I can’t believe you know Grant Carpenter,” Jilly says. She knows her voice has spiraled into a squeal, but the idea of having someone so famous, so handsome, and so talented right here in their mother’s home is thrilling.
“You’re married,” Jules says. Jilly is such a nitwit, such a teenager. Jilly’s students love her, and Jules thinks this is because she relates to them on their level. It’s not like she needs to come down to their level, though; she’s already there. She likes the same TV shows they like, listens to the same music they do. Jilly has lectured Jules on singers named Drake, Taylor Swift, and Cardi B., but Jules has no interest in hearing any of their songs Jilly plays when they drive together to their mother’s house, a cord plugged into her phone and attached to her car’s stereo system.
“I don’t think Dwayne minds my having a little crush,” Jilly says. “It’s innocent.”
Innocence, or more likely cluelessness, Vanessa thinks, is why her sister has no idea that Grant is gay. He lives with his partner of seven years, Ian, in a loft in Chelsea. This information isn’t a secret, but it’s also not public knowledge. The CEO of the network insisted Grant keep his personal life quiet because there are plenty of female viewers who like to fantasize about strong, heterosexual carpenters. And now he’s kept this secret for so long that he says it would feel strange making some big magazine-cover revelation. Vanessa has always felt sad about Grant having to keep that part of himself hidden from his fans, but now she looks at her sister and wonders what she’d think if she knew Grant is gay. She wonders if her family knows any gay people. She thinks about Yoshi, about how her family never met him, and wonders if her family knows anyone Japanese. She wonders what they would have thought if they’d known she was dating a Japanese man. She had always worried that they’d have been small-minded, that they would have said offensive things.
“The show is a terrible idea,” Constance says. She knows what will happen. They’ll come in and touch her stuff. They’ll move everything, they’ll throw important things away. They’ll take her birds. She has sixty-seven birds. They all have names. Some of them are related to each other.
“I agree with Mom,” says Jules. What is Nessie thinking? How dare she march into their house and demand something like this?
“I think it could be fun,” says Jilly. She smiles at Vanessa, and Vanessa realizes Jilly can be an ally in this fight. Jilly’s lust for Grant Carpenter will be an asset. But, still, it’s two against two; it’s going to be a stalemate. So how can she convince Jules that this is a good idea? Responsible, bossy, penny-pinching Jules, who works as a financial manager at the bank and knows every way to stretch a dollar and has been investing her money since she was fourteen years old. Vanessa is sure Jules is going to be one of those people who dies with a secret multi-million dollar fortune, and everyone will say, “But she lived so frugally!” And then Vanessa has an idea.
“The renovations they do on Quick Fix usually range between one-hundred and two- hundred-thousand dollars,” Vanessa says. “And you wouldn’t have to pay a cent of it.” Vanessa is stretching the truth; they usually try to keep the renovation costs far below a hundred thousand, but she’s sure she can get plenty of sponsors to donate products that would add up to a hundred thousand—tubs, sinks, furniture, artwork—for free advertising. She’ll figure it out.
“What would you fix in the house?” Jules asks. She has been trying to get her mother to repair the house for years. There are safety hazards everywhere. Sometimes Jules bolts awake from a nightmare of her mother’s house burning, wiring gnawed by mice, sparks igniting the carpets, all the Pennysavers aflame, the house ablaze within minutes. The birds flying with flames sprouting from their wings. In the dreams, she always hears the crackle and popping of the birdseed burning. “Jules, Jules,” says her husband, Leo, shaking her in bed. “The dream again?” he asks, and she nods, and he goes and warms some milk with honey for her and she feels better drinking the hot, sweet milk and telling herself it’s not real. But the dream could be real; there is so much in the house that could ignite. Since the dreams started, she’s been wanting to clean the house, fix it, but how can she convince her bull-headed mother to allow her to do this? She knows it would be an expensive undertaking, and she’s been saving money for five years in a secret account for house repairs. She’s just never been sure how exactly to ask her mother to allow her to bring workers into the home.
“What do you think needs fixing?” Vanessa asks. She knows the best way to appeal to Jules is to ask her opinion, to act as if she’s the only one with answers.
Jules rattles off a long list: the stairs, the heating and cooling, pull up and replace the old carpeting with hardwood, check all the wiring, get the fireplace in working condition again . . .
“Hold on,” says Vanessa, rustling around her bag for a notebook, “let me take notes.” She doesn’t really care what Jules’s list is, but she knows taking notes on what Jules is saying will help convince her.
“This sounds like a wonderful idea,” Jilly says. She can’t believe they’ll be on television. Her students won’t believe it when she tells them on Monday. She knows quite a few watch Quick Fix. She’s a little worried about Animal Collectors, knows they might not portray her mother in the best way. They usually show the people on Animal Collectors not understanding why their animals are a problem, and Jilly knows her mother can be a crank, will argue with the therapist they bring in to talk to her about her hoarding. But maybe it will all turn out to be a good thing; maybe this will be what they need to finally get this place cleaned up and the bird situation sorted out.
Jules thinks of the money she will not have to personally spend on this. It’s always been her money that’s spent whenever their mother needs something; she’s always been the responsible one. There are ninety-thousand dollars in the account for house repairs. It’s money Jules already considered spent, so now this is like a ninety-thousand-dollar windfall. Maybe she will buy her dream car, a red Jaguar F-Type S-Coupe, and the girls at the bank will not believe it when they see her rolling up in it. Or maybe she’ll take a vacation. She and Leo will go to Europe. No, scratch that. Leo would hate Europe. She’ll take Leo to Cooperstown, be patient while he moves slowly through the Baseball Hall of Fame. And then she’ll take him on a tour of that brewery because he loves their beer, and then he’ll be happy to come home and plop down into his La-Z-Boy. Then she’ll go to Europe with Libby and Ellen, her friends from the bank. She’ll pay for them, and they’ll be stunned. They’ll start in Paris, will eat rich, buttery pastries and drink dark, luscious wine. They will climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. They will watch mimes perform in the street, and Jules will confess that she has always wanted to learn to mime, and her friends will find this revelation to be both surprising and delightful. They will go to the Louvre and look at the Mona Lisa. She knows these are clichéd things people do when they go to Paris, but she thinks if it’s your first time there, it’s what you need to do. “It might not be a terrible idea to have some work done on the house,” says Jules.
Constance looks at her daughters. How odd that all three of them are agreeing to this. How strange that they’re all on the same page. They are never on the same page. She feels, suddenly, ganged up on. “No one is taking my birds,” she says. “I love my birds.” Right now she loves her birds more than she loves her girls.
The goddamn birds, Vanessa thinks. If they are the chess piece that can’t be moved, then fine. They’ll work around the birds. Maybe Grant can make an elaborate set of birdcages that can be put outside. They’ll deal with the birds later. And maybe Gretchen, the psychologist who works with many of the animal collectors, can convince her mother that no one needs this many birds.
“If they don’t move your birds, will you sign the paperwork?” Vanessa says. “And maybe we can have the carpenter make some nice cages for the birds.”
Jilly nods. It’s a good idea for her mother to do this. And she’s certain Grant can construct beautiful cages for the birds. She’ll offer herself up to help. Maybe she can bring Noah, too. Her son could learn a thing or two. His only passion is playing video games. She would love it if her boy could make cabinets and chairs and tables. Maybe he’ll discover a love of carpentry. Maybe Grant Carpenter will take him on as an apprentice. Noah’s grades certainly aren’t going to get him into college, and she fears that if she doesn’t figure out a path for him, she’ll find him slumped on the couch in her living room for the rest of his life, the remote always warm from his touch.
Constance looks at her girls, all three of them together in the kitchen for the first time in who knows how long. They are all standing in a row, nodding at her like a bunch of bobble-heads. She hates the idea, and she knows deep in her gut that something will happen to her birds, but when was the last time all three girls wanted the same thing? And this will keep Nessie around for a bit, and Constance knows how Jilly has always wanted to spend more time with her big sister. She knows she will regret it, but after a few moments of staring at their hopeful faces, she says, “Okay, fine. If you must.”
Jilly cannot believe it has all come to be, only two weeks after her mother agreed to this. There are cameramen and men with large microphones they hold over their heads, and two men are setting up an extension cord with hanging lights so the living room is better illuminated. Nessie is ordering people around, and Jilly is impressed because it’s nice ordering, keeping things in control without being bossy. Nessie is wearing a checked red flannel shirt, but it looks classy; it fits well without gaping and it’s tucked in, and she looks professional and in charge. She is wearing glasses with thick brown frames. Jilly didn’t know Nessie wore glasses. “Go ask your aunt if she needs any help,” Jilly says to Noah.
“Mom, it’s not like she’s setting the table for dinner,” Noah says. “She’s working.”
Nessie turns to them, waves Noah over to her. “Can I borrow him?” she asks.
“We’re going to interview you about Grandma, okay?” Vanessa says.
“What should I say?” says Noah.
“Just answer the questions,” says Vanessa. “We’re going to ask about the birds and about whether you like coming over here.”
“I don’t want Grandma getting mad at me if I tell the truth.”
Vanessa bites her lip. Noah is a good kid, she knows that, but he’s like his father, tentative, hesitant. Maybe like his mother too, unadventurous, complacent.
“How about this?” Vanessa says. “We’ll film it and then later we’ll let you watch the footage we plan to use, and if you don’t like it, we won’t use it?”
Noah nods, and Vanessa feels a flash of guilt. If he says anything juicy, if he reveals how much he hates being in this filthy house, of course they’ll use it. The more conflict there is, the better the ratings will be. She’ll tell him they’ll cut it and then when it appears on TV, she’ll say she had no idea they were going to use that footage. It doesn’t matter if he’s mad at her; they hardly see each other, are nearly strangers to one another.
Vanessa walks Noah to a corner of the living room where a large, bright light has been set up by the gaffer, and Mary, another producer, clips a mic on Noah’s shirt and asks her first question. All of this is filmed. Vanessa knows that although Mary has a round face and deep dimples and looks like Shirley Temple, she’s really a shark. She always gets people to cry when she interviews them. At first, when Mary had been hired, Vanessa thought Mary was too manipulative, too intent on getting a good story, but now she sees this is what viewers want. They want tears, they want big confessions, they want drama.
Dustin, the sound mixer, comes up to Vanessa shaking his head. “These birds,” he says, “it’s all you can hear. All that squawking and wing flapping. I can barely hear what people are saying.”
“Can it be taken out in post-production?” Vanessa asks. The birds seem louder than ever; maybe they’re nervous with all these people in the house.
“I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee anything,” says Dustin. He points to three birds that are skidding across the living room table. “How does she live with this?”
“I don’t know,” Vanessa says. She remembers when she first moved to New York City for college her mother asked her how she could sleep at night with all the activity right outside her window, the cabs and ambulances whooshing down the street at all hours, the people wandering around shouting drunkenly, the music floating over from the bar across the street. Back then, her mother hadn’t started with the birds. Back then, her mother was still normal. Vanessa told her mother she hardly noticed the city noise, but that wasn’t true. For her entire first year in the city, she had trouble sleeping, missed the crickets she could hear from her bedroom in this house. But after that first year she’d adjusted, and now the night sounds of the city are soothing, make her feel as if she’s not alone, that she’s part of a busy and full world.
“How about you film most of the interviews outdoors?” Vanessa says. “It’ll be quieter.”
“There are no birds outside?” Dustin asks.
“If they go outside, they might fly away.”
Jilly stands in the center of the living room watching Vanessa talk to the sound guy. She feels both useless and on edge, doesn’t know what to do with herself. Jules took their mother to IHOP for breakfast. Nessie asked that one of them take their mother out while the house was prepared for filming. Jilly has not yet seen her mother today, but she’s certain she must be nervous and upset. Jilly moves to the couch so she can look out the window and see when her mother returns with Jules.
Vanessa gets a text from Grant, who is five minutes away. He drove upstate in a rental car. Vanessa looks at Jilly, who is kneeling on the couch and looking out the front window. She is wearing makeup, bright red lipstick, rouge, blue eye shadow. She is obviously anticipating Grant’s arrival, peering out the window like an excited puppy waiting for its owner to come home. She reminds Vanessa of Lulu, and the way she sat upright and at attention by the apartment door every night, eagerly awaiting Yoshi’s return from work.
Jilly cannot believe it: Grant Carpenter is emerging from a car in front of her mother’s house. He’s taller than he looks on TV, which is strange because she’s heard celebrities are usually much shorter than they appear to be on television. And movie stars are even worse. She’s heard Tom Cruise is puny, and he always wears lifts in his shoes. Jilly pops up from the couch and straightens her skirt.
Vanessa watches Grant stride up the walkway. Her heart is pounding. She should have requested another carpenter for this shoot. She doesn’t want Grant to know she has come from this. Even though she has opened up to him about a lot of things she hasn’t told anyone else about—the breakup with Yoshi; the brief, terrible period in her early twenties when she was a newscaster in Syracuse; how during college she was a contestant in one ill-advised beauty pageant, with the hope of earning tuition money—she doesn’t want to let him into this part of her life.
“Hello, hello, welcome,” says Jilly, and she sticks out a hand for Grant to shake. “I am such a HUGE fan.” No, she tells herself. Rein it in. Calm down.
“You must be Jillian,” Grant says, and for the first time ever Jilly thinks the name Jillian sounds beautiful and sophisticated. Instead of shaking her hand, Grant envelops her in a hug, and his arms feel strong and he smells good, like cedar. “So good to meet you,” he says, and Jilly’s heart thumps because he is real and he is standing in front of her and he is even more handsome than he looks on TV.
Vanessa is thankful Jilly is not panting with excitement, like Lulu always did when Yoshi reached for her leash. “We were thinking it might work to build a bunch of cages outdoors so my mother could keep a good number of her birds outside. Jilly, would you take Grant outside and show him the backyard?”
Jilly smiles and nods. Vanessa thinks the backyard is less embarrassing than the indoors. It is not well kept, but at least it’s not covered in bird shit and it doesn’t smell. She looks over at Noah in the corner being interviewed, and, predictably, he’s crying.
Next door, Zephyr watches the action from her bedroom window. There’s Jilly and she’s in the backyard with the carpenter she has seen on TV at her friend Tabby’s house. Zephyr’s family does not own a TV. Zephyr knows this means she has read more books than most of her classmates and that she can entertain herself by drawing or making something out of clay or trying to train one of the chickens to walk backward, but, still, she’d rather have a TV so she can know what everyone is talking about at school when they discuss the shows they watch. Lately, Zephyr has been annoyed with her family, and her mother calls her “angsty.” But right now her family is highly unsatisfactory. Her mother is a photographer and is working on a project documenting abandoned buildings in the Hudson Valley. She’s gone so often; her project involves photographing the same buildings in the sunlight and in the dark of night, so sometimes she takes her sleeping bag and camps out overnight in the abandoned buildings. This year, Zephyr thinks her mother has spent more nights in these abandoned buildings than she has at home. Zephyr worries about bears and foxes and coyotes finding her mother. She worries about bad people finding and harming her mother. Since her mother is gone all the time, Zephyr’s left with her father and three brothers, and she has had just about enough of Dash, Satchel, and Sage. She wishes she had sisters. Or even one sister. She’s jealous of Jilly and Jules and Vanessa. And with Constance that makes four females. When she complains to her brothers that she’s surrounded by too many boys, they tell her to go play with the chickens. “They’re all girls, except for Roy,” Sage tells her. Roy is their loud rooster. But of course chickens and sisters are not the same thing. Chickens are not actually very fun to have as pets; they cannot be trained like dogs can, although they do give you eggs. Eggs! She will bring over some eggs. This will be her excuse for joining the fun next door.
As Constance and Jules pull up the block toward her house, Constance sees three vans in her driveway. On the other side of the house are two large dumpsters. There are people bustling in and out of the house. A man is holding open the front door while another man carries in a box of electrical cords. “The birds!” she says, and Jules says, “Nessie said they won’t get rid of the birds. I’ll hold her to it.”
“If they leave the front door open, the birds will fly out,” says Constance.
“I’ll take care of it,” says Jules. She pulls up behind one of the large white vans in the driveway and turns off the engine. She charges out of the car, and Constance knows her daughter is glad to have a mission, to be able to tell others what to do. Jules is the youngest of all her daughters. She is twelve minutes younger than Jilly, yet Jules has always acted as if she’s the oldest of them all.
Inside, Constance sees some of the birds—the dumber ones, like little gray Huey—nosing around, bopping over the equipment, trying to make friends. Huey seems enamored with a large, fluffy microphone. The smart birds have hidden themselves away.
“Your sister had a great idea,” Grant says, as he enters the house through the back door.
“Jilly?” says Vanessa. “Where is she?”
“Out back,” says Grant. He points to the backyard with a thumb. “She’s got my measuring tape. She’s taking measurements. Her kid is out there too helping out.”
“Is he still crying?” Vanessa says.
“A little. Mary should lay off, especially with kids.”
“It makes for good TV, though,” Vanessa says, shrugging.
“Good TV isn’t always the most important thing.”
Vanessa doesn’t like his patronizing tone. “You know my sister is in love with you, right?”
“I got the sense that she’s a fan.”
“I think she likes you because you’re so different from her husband. He reminds me of a dumpling.”
“Like a potsticker?” Grant looks confused.
“There’s just something dumplingish about him. Pale. Soft. Smooshy.”
Vanessa wonders why she is being unkind. Maybe subconsciously she believes the meaner she is about her family, the more she can distance herself from them. It is time to change the subject. “What was Jilly’s idea?”
“We’re going to build cages outside that look like an apartment building. I was thinking New York City, but Jilly said Paris. I was picturing fire escapes, but Jilly suggested balconies. She said she’s always wanted to go to Paris.”
“Tiny little bird balconies. Do you have time for that?”
“We’ll figure it out. Her son can help. He says he might want to be a carpenter.”
All of it is news to her: Jilly’s interest in Paris, Noah’s interest in carpentry.
“Jilly and I can take one of the vans and go to the hardware store for supplies,” Grant says. “Noah will stay here and look up and print out photographs of Parisian apartment buildings we can use as a reference. Jilly said your mom has a computer and printer.”
“Okay,” says Vanessa. She is unsure if this plan to build delicate little Parisian birdhouses will work, but she’s already run her mouth too much. And after all, maybe it won’t happen; maybe Noah will spend all day looking for the computer and printer in the mess of the house and will give up his search in disgust before he can print out photos for Grant to use as references.
Jules leads Noah up to her mother’s bedroom. It is a disaster in there, the stained mattress with no sheets, the garbage can overflowing, empty plastic grocery bags everywhere. There are several bags of birdseed that have been pecked open, the seeds spilling onto the already soiled carpet. Jules thinks she sees the thin tail of a mouse disappear beneath a pile of shoes. The room is musty, airless. How does her mother sleep in here? How can she wake up to this mess every morning? Despite all the people in the house, despite the chaos today, she is grateful that this is happening. The house will be cleaned, and this will be good for her mother. Jules knows the hoarding was triggered by her father leaving her mother. Her mother hadn’t expected it, and even all these years later, she still isn’t over it. Her father was the love of her mother’s life. But he had tossed away their marriage for a woman he met in a hotel bar on a business trip to Vegas. The birds, Jules understands, fill some sort of void for her mother, keep her occupied and distracted. She bought her first bird the day after their father left.
“Whoa,” says Noah. “That computer is ancient.” They look at an old blue and white iMac from the nineties. “Are you sure it’s connected to the Internet?”
“Your grandma said there’s AOL on there. She still has a dial-up connection, though.”
Noah shakes his head. He takes his cell phone out of his pocket and takes a picture of the computer. “My friends are not going to believe this.”
“Don’t post that picture anywhere,” Jules says. She grabs the phone out of Noah’s hand and tries to figure out how to delete the photo. The boy looks hurt, his large green eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” says Jules, giving the phone back to her nephew. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just this room, well, we don’t want people to see it, do we?”
“But they’ll see it anyway on TV, won’t they? Aunt Jules, I should have said no when that lady wanted to interview me. Now I’m going to be on TV and everyone at school is going to laugh at me.”
“Why would they laugh at you?”
“Because I cried. And because they’ll see inside this house and they’ll have proof that she really is the crazy bird lady. Why do you think kids throw rotten eggs at her house every Halloween?”
“They throw rotten eggs?”
Noah nods, then covers his mouth with his hand. “Oh, I didn’t mean to tell you. It just slipped out.”
“Tell me what happens with the eggs,” says Jules.
“My mom said I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“Tell me. Please.”
Noah sighs. “Every year after midnight on Halloween, my mom and I come by and get the hose out and clean off the eggs as much as we can.”
“Does Grandma know?” Jules asks.
“I guess she can hear the kids screaming outside, calling her the crazy bird lady. And she can probably hear the water from the hose. But Mom and me, we’ve never talked to her about it.”
“Why haven’t you ever told me about this?” Why has Jilly kept this a secret all these years? She could have come over and helped. Leo would have helped too, would have brought a bucket and sponges and helped wipe down the siding and windows.
Noah says, “My mom says she knows you like giving out candy on Halloween. And this would ruin your Halloween.”
Jules thinks about all those years when she sat in her living room, wearing a pair of black cat ears, waiting for trick-or-treaters to come by so she can put king-sized candy bars into their bags. Halloween makes her feel good, makes her feel extravagant; those king-sized bars have always seemed like an appropriate way to spend her money. She has harbored thoughts that the children in her neighborhood say her house is the best house for trick-or-treating, and talk about her generosity. And all these years while she was waiting to give away candy, Jilly was gearing up to clean eggs off their mother’s house. She feels a swell of love for her twin. “She wanted to protect me,” Jules says.
“Yeah,” Noah says, “that’s what she says every year. We’ll protect your aunt from this unpleasantness.”
Jilly is in a van with Grant Carpenter. It is just the two of them and they are zipping down the street, and Jilly wants so badly to roll down the windows and shout, “Look who I’m with! Look who’s in our town! Look who’s going to fix my mother’s house!” But of course she says nothing, and Grant fiddles with the knob of the air conditioning.
“The AC is shot,” Grant says.
“Left here,” says Jilly. She is directing Grant to Lowe’s, where they will pick up all the supplies they need for the birdhouses. The Parisian birdhouses. She can hear Grant breathing, a slight whistle coming out of his nose, and this puts her at ease. He is on TV, but he is human. And he’s her sister’s friend. She wonders what he knows about her sister that she does not know. “Another left,” Jilly says.
“Vanessa told me you run my fan page on Facebook.”
Jilly’s face grows warm. She’s sure she seems silly to him, someone with not enough to do, practically a stalker. “It’s just something I do for fun,” she says. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” he says. “I’m grateful.”
“Oh, you don’t have to say that,” Jilly says. “I know it’s silly.”
“It’s not. I hate social media, all the pettiness of it, all the boasting. I quit Facebook years ago, so you’re doing me a favor.”
“Can I ask you something?” Jilly says. She wants to ask about Nessie’s life in the city, about how she spends her time. She wants to see what Grant will tell her.
“It’s true,” he says. “And it’s okay if anyone wants to say anything about it on the Facebook page. I’m tired of hiding.”
“What’s true?” says Jilly, but she suspects she knows what he’s getting at. But she wants him to say it just to make sure. She has spent time deleting comments on the Facebook page from people who want to dig into Grant’s personal life. It’s his business who he wants to date, and it’s his business what he wants people to know about his life.
“I have a partner. His name is Ian,” says Grant.
People are always telling Jilly their secrets. Students confide in her about secret crushes, and parents who put too much pressure on them, and cheating on tests, and friends who turn out to be bad influences. Jilly tries to listen closely to her students, to offer what advice she can, to not judge. The guidance counselors at the middle school joke with Jilly, tell her the students spill more to her than they do in the guidance office. “You’re the music teacher,” they always say. “They should be asking you about what instruments they should play!” But music is about passion and heart, the big things in life, and maybe that’s why the students feel comfortable opening up to her.
“Ian, that was the guy you were photographed with at the farmers’ market?” She saw the photo in US Weekly and thought of scanning it and posting it on the Facebook page, but she knew questions would arise about the relationship between the two of them.
“He’s very handsome,” says Jilly. Not as handsome as Grant, of course, but, still, a strong-jawed, tall, good-looking man. “And the dog?”
“That’s Hal. Our dog.”
They pull into the parking lot of Lowe’s, and they get out of the car. Jilly can feel people staring at them. She sees people raising their cell phones to take pictures.
“Does Nessie know? Vanessa, I mean.”
Grant nods. He pulls a shopping cart from a line of carts. “Vanessa’s one of our best friends. She dog sits for us. It’s been hard on her since Yoshi took Lulu away. Sometimes we lie and tell her we’re going out of town so she’ll take Hal for the weekend. She always seems happier after a few days with Hal.”
Who are Yoshi and Lulu? Jilly is silent. There is so much running through her mind: Grant has confirmed he is gay, there is a Yoshi, there is a Lulu.
“You still don’t know? About Yoshi?” Grant says.
Jilly shakes her head. Grant pushes the cart past the lighting aisle. “Vanessa and Yoshi were together for six years,” he says.
“Nessie’s not so forthcoming about her life. At least not with us,” Jilly says. “Is Lulu their daughter?” She might have a niece, a secret little niece in New York City. The thought delights her, even though knowing Vanessa has kept so much of her life a secret infuriates her.
Grant laughs. “No, no. Yoshi was her boyfriend. Lulu was their dog. I thought she would have at least told you she was with someone, even if she didn’t introduce him to you. Yoshi got the dog in the breakup.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Two years. Yoshi and I used to run in the park together after he got off work. He was a pharmacist. We were good friends. After the breakup, he moved to San Francisco, and I haven’t seen him since then.”
“Why’d they break up?”
They turn down the lumber aisle. Grant loads dowels and thin boards of wood into the cart. “He was upset that Vanessa never introduced him to her family, to you, your sister, your mom. He thought she was hiding him. He thought she was embarrassed that he was Japanese. He thought maybe your family was racist.”
“Oh,” says Jilly. “We’re not. We’re not racist at all.” She thinks about each year’s cultural immersion week at the middle school, how two years ago the school studied Japan, how she learned about Bunraku puppetry, and she worked with the art teacher to put together a puppet show. The students ate sushi brought in from Price Chopper, which Jilly knew was not good sushi, but they were able to get a bulk discount. They planted a cherry blossom tree in the garden behind the school. And maybe this all happened during the time Nessie was breaking up with Yoshi. “Also,” Jilly adds, “we’re not, um, homophobic.”
Grant nods. “I know,” he says.
“If she’d just introduced us to Yoshi, maybe things would be different,” Jilly says. She thinks of Nessie with Yoshi, with a dog. She tries to picture Nessie happy, smiling, throwing a Frisbee to a dog in a park. But she can’t.
“Families are difficult,” Grant says. They are now in the aisle with the paints and stains, and Grant loads a dozen cans of wood stain and several paintbrushes into the cart.
“Is your family difficult?”
“They’re in Missouri. I don’t talk to them much.”
They head to the registers, and Jilly feels heavy, defeated. She wants to hug Grant because she sees how sad he is about his difficult family and about losing his friendship with Yoshi, but she cannot just stop and hug him in the middle of Lowe’s. Her feet hurt; her toes are pinched in her dress shoes. She thinks of the whole life Nessie has had without letting them into it. She thinks of Nessie’s heart being broken, about Yoshi and Lulu in San Francisco. And she thinks of how little she knows her sister, how all those years of wishing to know her better, to be closer to her, have resulted in this: her sister has hidden so much. Her sister is a stranger.
Nessie is wearing a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves and is putting Constance’s Cool Whip containers into large black garbage bags. Constance feels a tug in her gut; she feels that what’s important is being taken away. All morning men have been hauling garbage bags out to the dumpster. “No, no,” Constance says, but the men don’t listen to her. “We have a job to do, ma’am,” says a man with a thick brown beard.
“Let’s go outside, Constance,” says Dr. Gretchen, the show’s psychiatrist. “Let’s go get some air.” What is this, kindergarten? Dr. Gretchen surely has a last name, Constance thinks. Dr. Gretchen leads Constance outside to the backyard, unfolds two plastic chairs, and Constance sits in one chair and Dr. Gretchen the other. “How do you feel, Constance?” A cameraman is recording everything.
“How the hell do you think I feel?” Constance snaps. She will not say her feelings out loud for this woman and for the world to see. They can clean her kitchen, but she will not be made to spill the contents of her mind.
“How does seeing your possessions go into the dumpster make you feel?” Dr. Gretchen says.
Constance glowers at Dr. Gretchen. She can keep asking questions. Constance will not answer. Her arms are itchy, and she scratches them, pulls up the sleeves of her sweatshirt. She has hives. They’re from stress. The year Stanley left her, she had hives nearly every day. She suspects Dr. Gretchen will think they’re from being dirty, from mouse feces and bird diseases getting on her skin, but that’s not the case. They are stress hives.
“Grandma?” says Noah, and Constance looks up at him. He’s holding a few pages of paper with images he’s printed from her computer. The ink is faded. She needs to refill the ink in the printer. She remembers buying a big package with four ink cartridges, but she can’t remember where she put it. “I’m printing out images of how the birdhouses will look. These are some apartment buildings in Paris. What do you think?”
Constance takes the pages from Noah. These buildings look complicated. Will they really be able to make birdcages that look like Parisian apartment buildings? Her birds don’t want to be in cages. They like to fly free around the house. And how would she feed the birds? Does she have to feed each bird in each cage individually? She likes to leave a large bowl of birdseed in the middle of the dining room table and the birds can eat whenever they’re hungry.
“Aunt Jules left to go pick up Uncle Leo,” Noah says. “He’s going to help us make the birdhouses. We’ll have to make a lot, so the more helpers the better.”
Constance’s hives itch again. She scratches her arms. And now her head is itchy, but she knows if she scratches her head it’ll be over. There will be talk of lice or fleas. She balls her hands into fists. She will not scratch her head. She will not.
“Hi, Constance!” It is the little girl from next door. She is holding a basket of eggs, tilting them toward Constance. There must be twenty eggs in there, brown and white and some green ones with darker green speckles. No, no, this is not how things work. She is never given eggs in the light of day. One of the Duncan boys, the tallest one, the one with the funny haircut that makes him look like a Gloucester Finch canary, comes early in the morning, before the rest of the block is awake, and deposits a basket of eggs on Constance’s doorstep. These eggs are a silent thank you because Constance will not complain about the Duncans’ rooster crowing. She likes the secretness of the exchange, likes how no one has ever said anything, but everyone understood what was going on. And now this girl, this dumb girl, is holding a basket of eggs out to Constance, and it feels like everything that had been secret and quiet has been spilled out, made public. And once the show airs, everything will be even worse. Constance knows what the neighborhood children say about her. And now they’ll have proof, on tape, of her uncleanliness, of her craziness.
“I brought you eggs!” the girl says, a smile stretched across her face.
Constance wants to say, Take them away, but instead her hands go to her head and she begins to scratch, hard, and she hears the psychiatrist, the goddamned Dr. Gretchen, say, “This behavior is to be expected,” and Constance thinks of how no one here understands anything about her, about how difficult her life has been, about how the birds are the biggest comfort to her, and then she begins to weep.
Vanessa sees her mother crying, and she understands what a profound mistake she’s made. Now she’s so deep into the shoot she can’t cancel, can’t backtrack without looking irresponsible and flighty, wasteful of the network’s money. She needs to see this through if she doesn’t want to lose her job. She sees her mother scratching and kneels by her, puts her hand on her mother’s thigh. “Do you have any Benadryl in the house?”
She nods, then shakes her head. “I don’t know where it is,” she whispers.
Vanessa looks up and sees a cameraman still filming. “Could you stop for a minute?” she says. “My mom is having an allergic reaction.”
“It’s likely stress-induced,” says Gretchen. “Does she have any prescriptions for anti-anxiety meds?”
“Could you go get her some Benadryl?” Vanessa says. “She needs an antihistamine.” No one moves. Everyone just stares at her and her mother. Vanessa is on her knees still, the moisture from the grass seeping into her jeans. Her mother keeps crying. “Someone!” she barks. “Someone go find my mother some Benadryl!”
“We might have some,” says Zephyr. “In our house.” It is a lie; her family does not use any medicine from the drug store, but they have a salve made of olive oil and chickweed that can be rubbed on itchy spots.
“Could you go get it?” says Vanessa. The girl nods and puts the basket of eggs by Constance’s feet. Constance looks at the eggs and starts crying harder. “Could you take these eggs away?” Vanessa says. She doesn’t know why the eggs are upsetting her mother, but they are.
“I’ll go,” says Mary. For the first time ever, Vanessa is grateful to Mary. Maybe she’s the producer that can make the most interviewees cry, but she’s also the only one who is making any moves to help.
“There’s a CVS right up the street,” says Constance, but she is crying so hard that it’s difficult for her to talk, and she wonders if the producer has even understood what she said.
“I’ll get you some tissues,” Vanessa says, and Constance nods. Vanessa will not ask her mother where the tissues are; she’ll find them somehow inside.
In the living room, Dustin waves Vanessa over to a computer set up on a table in the corner of the room. “Listen,” he says and presses play. Vanessa sees Noah on the screen, blinking back tears. He says, “I just wish people would understand my grandma isn’t a big weirdo. She just really loves the birds.” Vanessa knows immediately that this footage will be used. She knows that once it airs, the kids at school will make fun of Noah. She stares at her nephew’s pale, round face and thinks again of dumplingness, and this time she thinks of how being tender and dumpling-like isn’t a bad thing. Noah is sensitive and kind, like his father. Like Jilly too.
“I was able to get rid of the bird sounds,” Dustin says. “I seriously didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I tried out this new program.” He plays the snippet again, and Vanessa notices there are no bird sounds at all.
“We could always put some of the bird sounds back in, maybe kind of low in the background.” Dustin plays the clip again of Noah blinking back tears, insisting that his grandmother is not a weirdo. It is so strange to watch the video of Noah in her mother’s living room with the complete absence of bird sounds. And then Vanessa thinks maybe the birds have been for her mother what the city noises are to her, a soundtrack to her days and nights, noise to keep her distracted and fill the large, painful gaps in her life. When Vanessa was young, her father was the one who filled the house with noise. He told booming, unfunny jokes, but he was so invested in his jokes that all of them—the three girls and their mother—could not help but chuckle along with him. He played guitar, not well, but they sang folk songs, like “Scarborough Fair” and “If I Had a Hammer” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Her sisters are still loud, heavy-footed, but they no longer live here; they have their own busy lives outside this house. Dustin presses “play” again, and the silence on film, the complete lack of birdcalls, sounds devastating to Vanessa.
Zephyr picks up the basket of eggs, slowly walks into and through the house, looking at everything the film crew is doing. There are many vans in the driveway, plus the dumpsters are on the other side of the house, so it is easiest to walk through the house to get from the back yard to the front. She exits through the front door and stands on Constance’s lawn. She’s afraid she’ll miss something exciting if she goes home, but she’ll bring the eggs home and she’ll bring back the salve for Constance’s itchy arms. She wants to be helpful. She knows that by leaving twenty eggs on the counter, she’s going to inspire her father to make a giant frittata for dinner. Frittatas are one of the three dinners he knows how to make. She’s tired of frittatas; she wishes her mother would come home.
While she’s crossing the lawn on the way to her house, the woman comes back with a plastic bag containing Benadryl from the drug store up the street. Jules returns with her husband, and they park their blue car in front of the house. Jilly comes back with the carpenter, and they unload lumber from the back of a white van. There are so many people going into the house at once, the front door held open by one of the cameramen so Jilly and the carpenter can get all the wood into the front door and then out the back so they can build birdcages in the backyard. And while the door is open, the birds begin to fly out. At first it is one bird at a time, and no one besides Zephyr seems to notice with all the commotion—the carrying in of the lumber, the introductions of Jules’s husband, the shaking of the bottle of Benadryl tablets—and then when the adults turn their heads it is too late, the birds darting out in large groups.
“Oh no!” says Jules, pointing to the air.
The carpenter drops the lumber he’s carrying, and it clatters loudly. He tries to reach up to catch a bird, but of course that doesn’t work. The birds flap and fly, up, up, up.
It is beautiful, Zephyr thinks, a flash of colors rising. There is a rainbow of birds now lined up on the electrical wires above the house. There are other birds flying away, flapping until Zephyr can no longer see them in the distance.
“Come back!” screams Jilly, waving her arms. “No!”
Zephyr wishes her mother were here to take photographs of the escaped birds. She wants to run home for a camera, but she thinks that by the time she gets back, all the birds might be gone, so she just stands still, holding the basket of eggs. Then Vanessa and Constance appear at the front door. Following them are a cameraman and a soundman hoisting a large microphone.
“They’re gone,” wails Constance. “They’re all gone.”
“Some will come back,” says Vanessa. “This is their home.” She hopes this is true, but she doesn’t really believe they will return. A cameraman is outside filming the birds on the wire, and she is certain this shot—including her mother’s grief—will be shown on television, and she wants to wail, too, for the irreparable damage she has caused.
Constance shakes her head. She thought she’d given the birds a good life, a good home, but maybe all these years they were all longing to escape, to fly free. She knows how it goes: once they leave, they won’t return. Her chest feels tight, pained, and she lifts her hand to her heart. “They’re all gone,” she says again.
But this is not true. Zephyr can see that someone has not left. Behind Constance, the gray bird—the one who sat on Vanessa’s shoulder and then on Zephyr’s clipboard—sits on the fuzzy microphone. He stares at Constance, head tilted. He looks like he’s waiting for her to speak, waiting for her to explain everything that has happened, because what’s in front of him is puzzling and impossible to comprehend.
Photo courtesy of Aileen Realez; view more of her work on Flickr