Yellow Bird ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Lonnie awoke to the smell of cooking food. When he got out of bed and went into the kitchen, mother turned from the stove and smiled at him. She was wearing her red silk dress with the white buttons instead of the usual old chenille bathrobe.
“Sit down and have some bacon and eggs,” she said.
“Why are you so dressed up?” he asked.
“Eat your breakfast while it’s hot.”
While he ate, she sat across from him and drank coffee and smoked her cigarettes.
“What are you going to do today?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Read comics and watch some TV, I guess.”
“Don’t you think you should get outside and get some exercise and fresh air?”
“I might ride my bike to the park.”
“Don’t you have anybody to go with?” she said. “Isn’t it more fun with friends?”
“Sure. Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.”
“We need to have a little talk.”
“Do you remember my friend Tony? You met him once when we were having lunch downtown.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
She looked down at her hand holding the cigarette. “Well, he and I are going away together this morning. He’s coming by to pick me up.”
“Going away? What do you mean, going away? Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Will you be back in time for supper?”
“Does father know?”
“I wrote him a letter. He’ll read it when he gets home from work.”
He looked at her searchingly, as if her face might reveal something her voice wasn’t saying.
“So, when will you be back? Next week sometime?”
“I don’t think so, honey.”
“I think it’s time for father and me to go our separate ways. I’m going to file for divorce so I can marry Tony.”
“Can’t I go with you?”
“Father and I discussed it and we decided it would be better for you to go on living here. Father wants you to stay with him.”
“I’d rather be with you, though.”
“Don’t you want to keep going to the same school you’ve gone to since kindergarten?”
“I don’t care if I go to school or not.”
She laughed and flattened her cigarette out in the ashtray. “You don’t mean that,” she said.
“Yes, I do.”
“Now, I need you to be a good boy and not a difficult boy. This is hard enough as it is.”
“But why can’t I go with you, wherever you’re going?”
“See, that’s the thing. Tony and I are going to be unsettled for a while. I don’t know where I’ll be while I’m waiting for my divorce.”
“Can’t you stay here while you’re waiting for your divorce?”
“It doesn’t work that way, honey. One of us has to leave and it has to be me.”
“Is it something I did?”
“Of course not! I don’t ever want you to think that.”
“Is it something father did?”
“No, it isn’t anything father did, either. It’s grownup stuff. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to you if I could. When you’re older, you’ll understand better.”
“But why Tony?”
“Because I love him and I believe he loves me. He’s the man I should have married in the first place.”
“Then why did you marry father?”
“I was young and I didn’t know him very well.”
“So, is that what grownup people normally do?”
In a little while there was a honk out front. Mother went into the bedroom and came out carrying her suitcase and the jacket that went with the red dress.
“I want you to come out on the porch and see me off,” she said, taking Lonnie by the hand.
Tony had parked his shiny blue car at the curb. When he saw mother and Lonnie come out of the house, he got out of his car and smiled and waved. He was wearing a coat and tie like church. He stood beside the car smiling, looking like a picture in a movie magazine.
Mother let go of Lonnie’s hand on the porch and bent over so that her face was close to his. She didn’t have to bend very far because he was almost as tall as she was.
“Everything will be all right,” she said with what she thought was a reassuring smile. “I just need to get away.”
“But for how long?” he asked. He was about to cry but didn’t want to with Tony looking on.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“When will I see you again?”
“I don’t know that, either. I’ll call you just as soon as we get to where we’re going and we can talk on the phone. I’ll know more then.”
He nodded his head and looked away.
She opened her purse and took out some money and put it in his fist. “Here’s a little mad money,” she said. “Buy yourself something special. Something impractical.”
She laughed for no special reason then and gave Lonnie a kiss on the cheek and held him for a few seconds in a squeeze and when she let go of him she ran to Tony like a schoolgirl.
On any other day, Lonnie would love having the house to himself, but with mother leaving unexpectedly it felt lonely and empty. He tried watching TV but wasn’t used to watching during the daytime and wasn’t interested in any of the shows that were on, so he took mother’s advice and rode his bike to the park.
He saw some people he knew but didn’t speak to them; he didn’t want to have to talk to anybody. He went to the most secluded part of the park near the war memorial and sat under a tree. It was so quiet and breezy that he almost went to sleep and ants started crawling on him, so he got up and went back home.
He hoped mother would somehow be there, having changed her mind and forcing Tony to bring her back, but everything was just as he left it. He ate some leftover fried chicken for lunch and wondered how to spend the rest of the day.
When father came home from work at the usual time, he found the letter from mother on the kitchen table. He unfolded the letter and pulled out a chair and sat down and read it.
“Did she tell you about this?” father asked Lonnie.
“A little,” Lonnie said. He shrugged and opened the refrigerator door to see what they would have for supper.
“Did you see what’s-his-name?”
“You mean Tony? Yeah, I saw him.”
“I have grounds for divorce now,” father said. “She ran off with her lover.”
“She said she’d call.”
“I don’t know what to think about a mother who abandons her only child.”
“It’s all right with me,” Lonnie said, “if it’s what she wants.”
“When she calls, tell her I’m going to see a lawyer to start divorce proceedings.”
“I think that’s what she wants, anyway.”
“I hope she rots in hell.”
In August for his fourteenth birthday, Lonnie received a large bird cage with a yellow parakeet inside, delivered by a white truck that pulled up out in front of the house with a screech of brakes. It was a most unusual and unexpected gift. Mother wrote on the card: Thought you could use a pet. Much love, as always.
He didn’t know how to take care of a parakeet so he walked downtown and bought a book on the subject and a couple of different kinds of birdseed that the woman in the store said any bird would like. If he won’t eat none of it, the woman said, bring it back and we’ll try something else.
In the attic was an old birdcage stand with a hook. Lonnie had seen it before but never knew what it was for. He was surprised somebody hadn’t thrown it out long ago, but he was glad now they didn’t. Everything eventually has its purpose if you wait long enough.
He named the bird Toppy. It didn’t mean anything; it just seemed like a good name for a bird. Toppy hopped around inside his cage, sang little musical trills, drank water, ate birdseed and pooped aplenty. He seemed happy enough.
Lonnie hoped every day that mother would come home, but he knew it was an unrealistic hope. In the real world, mothers didn’t return home after running off with another man. It didn’t even happen in the movies.
Everybody thought father would get married again after the divorce, but he liked being single, he said. When marriage-minded ladies called to invite him over for a home-cooked Sunday dinner, he told Lonnie to tell them he was in Moscow or in the hospital for a lung operation.
He got an old woman, a Mrs. Farinelli, to come in two or three days a week and clean the bathroom and the kitchen, wash the clothes, shop, and usually cook a little food. She had a son on death row in prison and another son who was a priest. He paid her money in cash so she wouldn’t have to pay income tax on it. She was neat and quiet and never complained.
Mother called Lonnie a couple of different times when she knew father was still at work. When Lonnie asked where she was, she said they were still moving around, still unsettled. She sounded distant, preoccupied, not the mother he remembered. He believed at last that she didn’t care for him and was trying to phase him out of her life because she had a whole new life now.
Summer ended and Lonnie started ninth grade. He mostly didn’t like school—he never had from the very beginning—but he knew he had to make decent grades and get through to the end; there was no other choice anymore. Only dopes and losers quit high school.
A couple of times, on his way to and from school, he thought he saw mother in passing cars, but he knew later it couldn’t have been her. She would have at least waved to him.
On Christmas and birthdays, he always received cards from her with money in them. He couldn’t send a card to her in return because he didn’t have her address, but he knew that’s the way she wanted it.
As the months and years went by, he stopped thinking so much about her. He stopped thinking long ago that she would return and father would forgive her and everything would be just as it was.
Lonnie and father never had much to say to each other. They had occasional arguments and disagreements but for the most part they stayed out of each other’s way and got along as well as any father and son living alone in a house had a right to.
Toppy lived inside his cage and thrived and seemed happy. Lonnie sometimes felt sorry for him because he lived in such a small space and didn’t have the company of other birds. He thought about opening the window and letting him fly away, but he knew the world would be too much for Toppy and he wouldn’t survive on his own for very long.
Lonnie came to the end of high school and was glad for that that phase of his life to be over. Father dressed up in his one blue suit and came to the graduation ceremony by himself and sat toward the back of the auditorium surrounded by strangers. Lonnie thought several times about mother and wished she could be there to see him get his diploma.
He didn’t care to go on to college, at least not right away; he had had enough of school for a while. He thought vaguely that one day he would get married and have children of his own, but he was in no hurry and didn’t much care one way or another. He didn’t like the idea of having a marriage that would one day end in divorce.
A few weeks after graduation, he got a job in a hardware and paint store. He didn’t like it very much, but he got used to it and after a year or so he got a promotion and a raise in pay. He moved into sales and found it more to his liking than working at a counter and answering questions from customers.
As for mother, Lonnie didn’t hear from her again after the card he received on his nineteenth birthday. He didn’t know where she lived or if she was alive or dead. The best thing he could do, he told himself, was to stop thinking and wondering about her.
The years went by and Lonnie found himself at age twenty-one. He still lived with father in the house he grew up in. He went to work every day, as did father, and the two of them went their separate ways and lived their separate lives.
On a Friday morning in October father collapsed soon after arriving at work. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died two hours later. He had an enlarged heart and had smoked cigarettes, a lot of them, since he was thirteen. He was forty-seven.
The funeral was well-attended, despite a steady downpour. Relations of father’s that Lonnie had never seen before came from out of town, with stories of father when he was a child. The company father worked for sent an impressive arrangement of flowers. Father’s boss and a couple of his coworkers came and introduced themselves to Lonnie, slapped him on the shoulder, expressed their condolences, and told him what a great guy father was.
At the gravesite the rain kept up. Lonnie wore a raincoat and an old man’s hat he found in the closet and used a borrowed umbrella to keep himself dry. The minister droned a few words and the casket began its slow descent into the earth, indicating that the service was concluded it was time for everybody to go home.
As the crowd was dispersing and Lonnie was about to make his getaway, a woman emerged from the crowd and approached him. She was wearing a long coat, dark glasses, and a scarf wound around her head like a refugee. It wasn’t until she came toward him, stopped and smiled that he knew it was mother.
“You’re all grown up now,” she said.
He looked at her, feeling almost nothing. He brought the umbrella down in front of his face to keep her from looking at him, sidestepped, and sprinted for his car as fast as he could before she had a chance to come after him.
At home, he felt a tremendous sense of relief now that the funeral was over and all those people had gone away. He was truly alone now, for the first time in his life, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with himself. The house was his now and there would be some insurance money after the funeral expenses were paid. He was a family of one, a free agent. He might never return to his job at the paint and wallpaper store.
He went into his bedroom and closed the door and took Toppy out his cage and lay on his back on the bed, holding the bird on his chest. Toppy tried his wings a couple of times as if confused at being out of the cage and then settled down and nestled on Lonnie’s sternum contentedly. His little eyes blinked and he looked with what seemed like comprehension right into the eyes of the only human person he had ever known.
“Don’t ever leave me,” Lonnie said. “Please don’t ever leave me.”
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp