There Was a Bird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
She sat on a bench at the edge of the park to rest before going on home. The bag of groceries she carried was heavy and her arm ached. She wasn’t as young as she used to be and she didn’t have the stamina she once had. Her heart seemed to be turning over in her chest.
A small boy went running past on the sidewalk, first one way and then the other. He couldn’t have been more than nine years old. On his third circuit around the bench, she smiled at him and he slowed down.
“In a hurry?” she asked.
“I’ve got to find my friends,” he said.
“Where are they?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re all out of breath. Why don’t you sit down and rest for a while?”
He sat beside her on the bench and when he leaned back his feet were a long way from the ground.
“They were here and they ran away,” he said.
“Friends do that sometimes.”
“I guess I should go on home, then.”
“Where do you live?”
“Over there.” He pointed over his shoulder up the street.
“Where’s your mother? Does she know you’re in the park by yourself?”
“She’s at work. She’s a waitress.”
“She’s goes off and leaves you by yourself?”
“I have a sister. She’s fourteen.”
“How old are you?”
“Nine is kind of young.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking down and fiddling with his shoelace.
“People snatch kids sometimes in the park,” she said. “And they’re never seen again.”
“What do you mean? Like kidnapping?”
“That’s right. You have to be careful.”
“I know all about it,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“Don’t you have a last name?”
“Your name is Bob White?”
“There used to be a bird by that name,” she said.
“Yeah. Of course, you don’t see them in the city, but I used to see and hear them all the time when I was growing up in the country.”
“They say their name.”
“Their bird call. It sounds like they’re saying Bob White. That’s how they get their name.”
“I haven’t ever heard of a bird that says its own name.”
“Well, you’re young yet. There’s still time. I’m Almeda Hawkins. Missus, but my husband is dead.”
“You have any kids?”
“I have a boy and a girl. My daughter died. My son lives in California.”
“What does he do out there?”
“Oh, he goes to work every day. He has three kids of his own. I’ve only seen pictures of them.”
“Why don’t you go live with them?”
She laughed. “Well, I haven’t been asked.”
They sat silently for a while and watched the cars go by. A bus roared by in a cloud of exhaust.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Three more blocks and I’m home,” she said.
“Do you live in a house?”
“No, I live in an apartment.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. Gets kind of lonely sometimes. I used to be friendly with the neighbors but they moved away. I don’t hardly ever see the new people.”
“We live in an apartment, too. On the third floor.”
“Would you like to come home with me?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”
“I’d better not,” he said. “I’d get in trouble.”
“Well, who’s to know?”
He shrugged. “Well, nobody, I guess.”
“I have some nice cottage cheese and some canned pears. There’s nothing better on a hot day.”
“I haven’t ever had cottage cheese but I know what it is and I don’t think I’d like it.”
“Well, I have some baloney and cheese and I just brought some fresh bread. I could fix you a sandwich and I have some root beer.”
“Do you have mayonnaise to put on the sandwich?”
They stood up and began walking. He offered to carry her bag of groceries for her but she thought he was too little to be carrying heavy packages, so she carried it herself.
Her half-basement apartment was in an old, thirteen-story apartment building that had seen better days. She opened the door with her key and stood aside while he entered first.
The front room was dark and cool. She opened the blinds and the room became cheerful and inviting.
“This is nice!” the boy said, bouncing on the couch. “Who are those people in the pictures?”
“It’s my husband and me when we were young and the other one is my mother and father and my two sisters and me. They’ll all dead now except me.”
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, people die, you know.”
“Do you have a bird?” he asked, spying a bird cage sitting in the corner.
“Well, I had a bird but he got old and died. I kept the cage because I thought I’d get myself another one sometime.”
“Do you have a dog or a cat?”
“No, not in an apartment,” she said.
She turned on the TV and went into the kitchen to put the groceries away. “Turn the TV to whatever channel you like to watch,” she said. “I won’t be a minute.”
When she came back into the room, he said, “I wouldn’t mind living here. It’s so peaceful.”
She laughed. “Is it noisy at your place?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” he said. “The walls are thin and you can hear people.”
“Yes, I like the quiet, too,” she said. “The people here are very quiet. I hardly know they’re there.”
“Do you ever go to the circus?” he asked.
“A long time ago when I was about eight years old. I remember the elephants because as we were going to our seats we passed really close to them and I had never seen one up close before.”
“Have you ever been to the opera?” he asked.
“A long time ago.”
“What was it like?”
“I don’t seem to remember much about it.”
“I saw on TV about people going to the opera. It’s a lot of singing.”
“Yes, you have to be in the mood for it,” she said.
“I should probably go now,” he said, looking at the door.
“Why? You just got here.”
“I know, but I’d get in trouble if my mother knew I was here.”
“Your mother doesn’t have to know you were here, does she?”
“I guess not.”
“You don’t have to tell her if you don’t want to.”
“I would never hurt you,” she said, “but you know you have to be careful with strangers. Not ever get into the car with them.”
“I know,” he said. “I hear that all the time.”
“You can’t trust just anybody these days.”
“You never know what people have it in their minds to do.”
“You’re not afraid with me, though, are you?”
He thought for a minute, leaning his head to the side. “No, I’m not,” he said.
“Well, how about that sandwich, then?”
She took Bob White into the kitchen and sat him down at her little white table with its red vinyl chairs.
“The chair feels good,” he said. “Cool.”
“You like baloney?”
She made the sandwich, putting it on a plate, and gave him a knife and the jar of mayonnaise so he might put as much on as he wanted. After he had taken a couple of bites, she got a root beer out of the refrigerator, opened it, and put a straw in.
He ate hungrily and in just a minute the sandwich was gone.
“Would you like another one?” she asked.
“No. I should be going home now, I guess.”
“Don’t be in such a fizz.”
“My sister will wonder where I am.”
“Let her wonder.”
He drank the root beer in its entirety and handed her the empty bottle. “Thank you,” he said. “It was very good.”
“Would you like some cookies?”
“No. I’m full.”
“Well, let’s go back into the front room and we’ll sit and visit for a while.”
He sat by himself on the couch and she sat in a chair by the window.
“My friends are probably wondering what happened to me,” he said.
“It seems they weren’t thinking of you at all if they ran off and left you.”
“Yeah. Maybe somebody kidnapped them.”
“You know, I don’t get many visitors,” she said. “I’m so glad I ran into you today in the park and you spoke to me. Most people just ignore me.”
“Yes. They just go on their busy way.”
“Is it all right if I lay down here?”
“Sure. Make yourself at home.”
“It’s so cool and quiet here, I’m getting sleepy,” he said.
He lay full length on the couch, his arms behind his head, careful not to put his shoes on the coverlet.
She turned on the little oscillating fan on the table beside the chair. It made a gentle whirring sound, lifting the still air and giving it wings.
When she knew he was all the way asleep, she propped up her feet and smiled. In repose, he was such a beautiful boy. The fine, light-brown hair that she wanted to touch but didn’t because she knew it would wake him. The long eyelashes that tilted upward in a way that any girl might envy. The sweet, uncorrupted breaths that made his chest rise and fall. She wondered if his mother knew what a treasure she had and was sure that she did not. She was probably a foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking slattern who never wanted children in the first place.
She imagined what it would be like to have a boy like him with her all the time. They would be happy and she would watch him grow into a man and she would help him and guide him every step of the way. He would come to call her his mother because that’s really what she would be to him and he would be her long-lost son, the son she never had but always wanted. The son in California with three children of his own was just a tale she told.
The sleeping powder she put in the root beer when he wasn’t looking was a mild one. He would sleep maybe four or five hours and while he slept she could sit and look at him without interference and pretend he belonged to her and would never go away.
The phone rang in the kitchen but she ignored it. Now, who could be calling her? She didn’t care. She had better things to do. She had a visitor to entertain. She expected the ringing phone to cause the boy to open his eyes, but he kept right on sleeping the sleep of the innocent, breathing the breath of purity.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp