Birds

By Benjamin Parzybok

I like secrets, don't you?

Better, I like secret pockets, secret boxes. Niches and coves and crannies. I like hideaways, which is why I built mine. Here, are you comfortable? I like hot things in cold places. I like small flashlights in inside jacket pockets, anything on a ledge.

I like you, how under your skin is your secret heart pumping, making you run. I like the glimmer in your dark eye. I like how, secretly, you like to be taken advantage of, if the circumstance permits it just so. I like you here, in my nest, my city perch, eye glass in your hand, spying out the passersby below.

It has rained for a week straight, the week in which you stumbled a refugee into my camp.

It's been a honeymoon. Behind the billboard advertising an island getaway, atop the odd little building owned by the bead seller, above the city. We sit and talk—even better, we sit and don't talk.

Here, let me show you this. I have a paperback, it's a book of magic tricks and here is my small flashlight, let's pull the tarp close. We'll learn a trick or two and tell secrets.


April 19th

I'd always wanted to take a closer look at the gargoyles on the edge of the old Stadtler building. Around back there was a metal-rung ladder built into the side of the building I could reach from the dumpster. I was completely unprepared for what I saw atop the building, a live gargoyle of a man, bearded with a dirty sleeping bag wrapped around his middle. On one shoulder a pigeon was perched and he had hair like a motorcycle collided with a porcupine. A small campfire burned on the roof—I don't want to know what kind of meat on a stick burned in the middle of it. "Welcome," he said, and "Come on in." As if it were some kind of restaurant, or some kind of "in" to go in-to.

The intelligent thing to do would have been to turn and climb back down. He asked if I'd seen the sunset from up there—it made a descent into the hole between two buildings, he said.

We got to discussing the weather. He pointed to a cloud and said something like: "When that touches down, we will become engulfed in its insides. It will digest us. When it leaves, we will not be the people we were, fluid for fluid from foreign lands. Part of you will go airborne, off to change the water chemistry of others." I haven't heard weather discussed like this before.


I know the city in a way you do not, and you know the city in a way I don't. How much steel is in that building? I'd never thought to ask that of myself. What's in the bowels of that tower there, it's great cement pillars rooting deep into the earth, you know this stuff, you stood on the ground underneath the ground where that was built, with your paper and rulers and love of sharpened pencils and straight lines.

But you seem most hungry for my knowledge. I know where the pigeons roost—I have held their chicks in my hand. Tomorrow I will take you to where there are strawberries like chickenpox under an overpass. They are the sweetest you will ever taste, seasoned with exhaust dust. Am I your guide now? Is it a Virgil you want?

You know how to live in a world other people created. Of course you do. For the last ten years I've stopped trying to figure this out. And those ten have been the happiest—no, the only happy ones of my life.

I live in a world that I create. In my world—you've noticed, don't say you haven't—a passing crow might stop and have a conversation about a change in schedule at the city trash pickup, or, for example, the pigeons. It's a world I want to live in, all the rules are mine. Don't argue yet.


May 7th

I can't stop thinking about him. It's idiotic and I'm not sure who to tell. Franny's got a deathwish, mom would say. I found a book on clouds and brought it by and stayed, and then every damn day I somehow end up there. It's hard to imagine how anyone could honestly live like that, how you could live on top of a building all Winter, burning fires on the roof. Doesn't anyone notice? In the studio I spent the day sketching portable shelters, makeshift inhabitances. Nests, really. But then I thought: Why accommodate a problem rather than try to fix it? No one should be living like that. And yet, that's where I'm going now.


I'm so glad you're here, can I touch your hair? You remind me of a brown mouse, or perhaps a frightened otter. It can get awfully lonely in a world you make by yourself. There are times I'm unsure. Yesterday a cockroach came and spent the night in my sleeping bag and told me about what had been put in the dumpster at the bakery. You cannot say I am not a good host. Here, take another donut. Take this loaf. It will make you remember me, a slice of me in your home. Be not afraid.

You've had some kind of trouble in your past—I see this in how you hold your hands—perhaps you thought this was a secret, but those are things that are easily apparent in my made-up world. Perhaps that's why you like it here with me—you feel in danger. Are you waiting for me to hurt you? Perhaps you're trying to re-create a situation that haunts you so that you may act how you've always wished you would have. That's alright. I'd like to show you how if you stand in the square at lunch time, just stand still and watch, the comings and goings of the people are like rain, each of them a tiny drop. And soon, if you prove an apt student I will take you to where the birds have been teaching me how to fly.


May 9th

Everyday I cycle a new set of books through the "perch", as I've taken to calling it. Things that I think he'll be interested in. I pick them up at the library: Migration Habits of Birds, Urban Structures, and one that I was particularly excited about: Bats in the Belfry: a Joyous Evocation of Architectural Eccentricity. I smoke and he talks. Sometimes I bring food, but he picks through it like I'm the one culling through dumpsters. I tell him I want to see what he looks like with his beard shaved and he tells me it's fake. That behind the fake beard there is no face, and behind that is only air.


You do not understand at first and we must have a long talk about why you are here, my forger, Hephaestus of skyscrapers, we talk about death and briefly, curled in my blankets you talk about how you'd like to save me, clean me, dress and formalize and re-create me into an actual citizen. It's fun to listen to you talk and I let you talk because I know it makes you feel tall and righteous, like an anthropologist among the savages. You are beginning to make up your own world. It takes practice.


May 19th

Every time I walk into my apartment I see it through his eyes. I look at the refrigerator and think of him reaching for the ketchup or the potato salad. Would he eat potato salad? If I were to cook him dinner, what would I cook? Something rich and heavy. Something that would ground him. The cat sits on my back and I'm reminded of how animals react differently to him. They fly down from the sky or scale up the building and linger there. I linger there. I escape to there. He's like another, more fascinating world I disappear to. One in which someone has peeled all the bullshit veneer up and left only a structure of wonder. And yet, he's repulsive. Climbing that ladder, you hit a wave of stench, of dried shit and death and rot, the sour smell of his clothes. Every time I crest that building I reconsider. There are spots on his teeth that consume me with anxiety. Each of them a little timer ticking away the remaining seconds until the tooth rots its way out of his mouth. What crossed wire has disabled his ability to see these things? Something in him is broken. Except.


Thank you for visiting today but I wish you'd go. From the moment you walked onto the roof I could see your doubt. I'd like to fold my wings in and turn to stone, like that gargoyle, there, on that building that one of your predecessors installed.

I've been drinking for—I'm not exactly sure how long. A few days. I have gotten up for nothing and the stench of it all is here. You wish to flee? Go.

Instead you stay and pretend you are here to rescue me; I find it irritating and I'm rude. I decide to end our relationship and that I will tell you nothing more. You cry and when you are gone I feel how something else has ended. Check, there's one more thing I've ticked off on the long list before I die. It is done.

If you really wanted to know, I would have told you. There was a family of cats on the rooftop there, making their home in the ventilation shaft. They don't understand the mechanisms of buildings, not like you or even I. When I found them they were as if made of rawhide and feathers. This is what happens to what I love, the life-juice sucked out; it was best you fled. I guess everyone wants to be a fucking hero. Everyone wants to save something. Even me.


May 22nd

Fuck. Him. I'm relieved, really. The experiment is over. I need to focus on work and see my friends and etc etc. He's an asshole and a drunkard and I had begun to think of him as someone he obviously is not. Franny's experiment in homeless men! I feel an autobiography being written. Perhaps for company I ought to seek out someone decent and interesting and not those who spend their day in sleeping bags on rooftops refusing to contribute to society.


May 25th

Yes. This is where I'm supposed to write what I'm working on. Or what I did over the weekend. Thoughts on design, a sketch or two, remember those? Or how annoying my mother is.

But every day I wonder if he's dead. I go out of my way to walk by the building, listening for sounds, smelling the air for rot. I can't bring myself to climb that ladder.

I feel partly at fault for our last meeting. He was sad and I didn't want to address it. I had a plan. I was practiced. It seemed so ridiculous to be where he was—by choice—and to be sad. That probably doesn't make any sense. He was such a wreck and had obviously been drunk for days.


You came back. Why? I'm not sure how much time has passed. You would know this. I suspect you've come to see if I, too, had turned to rawhide, my face open and drunk and inhaling rain. But I have not.

You dressed for me, or you think you did. I'd already decided that if you came I would show you my secret, so hello then.

I can tell by your eyes that you feel self destructive, that if you cannot defile yourself somehow with me, you'd consider hurdling the ledge as a substitute. Or perhaps that's what you're here for already, what you've always been here for—is this what drew you? To attempt flight? I have a secret for that.

But I decide I'm not interested in meeting your expectations. Your thighs grip when we hug and you're speaking some kind of new language of personal agenda. But I'm busy. I've got a plan and alcohol has wiped the lust from me. See these boards, this hammer that I've stolen that vibrates in my palm like Thor's own tool? I'm building a sky walk. I'm remodeling, expanding, I will span rooftops, be the lord over the city. The animals will travel with me above you all.

Despite your initial disappointment, I've distracted you into working with me and of course you're apt—this is how your mind is built. Together we could build a whole city atop this one. We could re-fabricate the rules into our own social tendencies. It would be a simple thing to lay to rest the world that lies below our feet, sixty feet under, RIP. We could love each other and be like king and queen.

But the more I talk the more I can see you are leaving. Your transformations amaze me—let me catalog them.

You came with suicide on your mind, then you wanted to fuck the dregs, that's me, reluctantly you were coaxed into my project, applied yourself with growing enthusiasm, grew bored and nervous with my chatter, felt you were on a charity mission, and finally relieved of your self-destructiveness and your charity you look for the first opportunity to flee. Well fucking go, then.


We ran into each other on the street. Down below, in my underworld, the lower level, dirty and scrounging about. I didn't know what to expect after our last argument went mean. I saw you coming from a block away but I was burdened by a pain in my leg, and the number of things I'd collected that morning. I tried my best to pretend I had not noticed you—you were with comrades, men, coming back from lunch. All of them with that greasy, well-fed healthiness, licking their lips, wiping their palms on their hips, each eager to out-best the other's speech with his own invective—and I felt nervous. I turned and lifted the lid of a garbage can.

Then when you were obviously going to approach me I considered making a scene—surely you couldn't want this interaction with me, here. In our lair I understand. But you walked up to me, put your hand on my back—I thought then that you were showing off, and I wanted to shout, stomp, bare my wings. But you waved your people on, leaned in close, whispered "Hi" in my ear. I was touched, even if I'd much preferred you had passed me by.

Afterward I wandered the streets for a long time with no thought to where I was going, only replaying the moment over and over.


May 30th

I'm going to bring him to my place. He's going to live with me. There's nobody I can tell, not for a few months. But in a few months we'll be different, we'll have stabilized. He'll clean up a little, and I'll clean down. We'll look not wholly different from each other. In a few months his lips won't crack, the blood and bruises and grime will be gone. It's fucking stupid! But I can't help it. I want him here. I want him off of the building where I can't imagine him living another week. It's gotten so I'm obsessed, I pass by there constantly. I don't know what he'll do here, I worry about that. But I am an architect. Humans were meant to be protected by the shell. This is something I can do for him. Just a little stability and warmth might . . . oh. I can't even say it. I don't want to even think it.


You are so earnest, telling me you love me like that's something that can just be said. You came to see what I've done to my grand plan, I've torn the boardwalk apart. Our grand plan, the plank we were going to walk together. The pieces of it everywhere as if a man three times my size had crushed it with his girth. Fuck this dream, it is meaningless now, I am learning to fly. And you want me to come to your house?

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do here. What can I touch? Is all this really yours? After the shower I feel like getting drunk and I grab a bottle of your wine and open it and then another and together we get drunk and spill wine on your floor and you break your coffee table. Were you showing off? Are you not well? I feel as if it were my fault and wonder where your wood glue is.

Your cat comes and talks to me and I get disoriented. He is dumb and barely cognizant, like the life he lives has lulled him to the state of some inanimate object. He is needy and redundant and it sickens me and I wonder if I should put him out of his misery and I wonder if this is how I will end up, if the fate you had in mind for me was of a rescued and hypnotized lump of comfort flesh.

At some point in the night watching you sleep next to me, smelling like you do, I realize how wrong this all is. I have my own world and I don't want you in it for the amount of falling you would have to do to get there. Look what you have—you can't live there. And yet, I despise your world, I hate your carpet and your refrigerator. I hate your car, I hate your cat and your Tupperware and cutlery and your Starry Night-rendered wastebasket and I hate your mantel with the remains of some holiday all over it like some god had eaten an oracle and puked it all up. I think about what I might do to myself with a knife from your kitchen just to feel a little.

I fill with rage and I want to destroy that wastebasket, I want to clap that plastic night sky over your head and the only way to properly end this debacle between us is to hurt you, hurt you so that you might have a story to tell office mates and your mother and whoever else is holding you to whatever it is you no longer wish you were. I'd let you fall with me and I suppose there's a part of me that wants you to fall and wants you to fall into me, but I cannot bear being that cushion at the bottom of the well, your impetus for the jump.

I realize I must stab you. How else am I going to cut the tendon binding our worlds together? But I can't find a knife I like to hold. I can't find anything I want to touch at all. I need to hurt you to stay away, like one must hurt a dog that wants to follow you home to let it know your real intentions, but I cannot, and so I clothe myself and leave.


You read about me in the paper and you cry. Or perhaps you'd been crying already and read the paper and saw what had become of me. I was late getting here, I soared down from above to your windowsill to have a look in. My feet teetered there, I'm new to this and am not so strong yet.

I watch your cat from my perch and he natters desultory remarks at me from his chair and I realize we could have gotten along. He is lazy and dull but not so dumb. He has learned his lines. He's playing his part. He's doing what I never could.

The body? Oh, what is a body but a rest stop for clouds. The papers talk about how I was drunk, how I'd found my way onto a building and had drunk myself over the ledge one rainy evening. They do not talk about how I rose up from that discarded body, shook my feathers and flew.

Now that I'm here on the outside, talons gripping at this cold wet stone, looking in at you circling about your kitchen, fork gripped in one hand and crumpled newspaper in the other, I realize with immense regret that I've forgotten to teach you how to fly.


Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the novel Couch. Many of his other projects may be found on his website, such as Project Hamad, a campaign to free a Guantanamo inmate; Gumball Poetry, a poetry journal published via gumball machines; or Levin's Bicycle, a short film about one man's love for his bicycle.