I was on my second glass of wine when I heard Joe pull up. The dog did her usual tap-dance across the kitchen floor while I headed outside. We both noticed it at just about the same moment, small and squat in the middle of the warm driveway, right on the crack in the concrete where tiny weeds sprout. It was in the shade, at least. I expected it to take off when it saw Joe; I ran when I saw it was still unmoving as he approached.
“Is it hurt?” I asked.
I lowered myself to the bird’s level. Its head was round, its body equal in shape but larger. It was the same shade of gray everything turns when the sky goes dark; the only color was a bright yellow feather that stuck out sideways far beneath all the gray.
“I think its neck is broken,” Joe said.
The bird kept its small eyes closed, rolling its head from side to side like Ray Charles playing a beat. I stared, helpless, my hands limp between my knees. What do you do when there’s nothing to be done? Stomping it out of its misery was never an option. When you have nothing to offer, do you stick around for the suffering? Hiding inside until the rain stops is just as torturous.
I wanted to pick it up, to hold it even if it didn’t know what I was doing. “Use these,” Joe said, handing me a pair of work gloves. They smelled of old leather and were rough at the fingertips. I scooped the bird up, cupping him between both of my palms. He struggled a bit then stopped, calm in my hands. My eyes swelled.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Joe said. “I don’t have a BB gun to kill it.”
“We have to do something,” I said, frantic now. This creature, this lost thing in my driveway had somehow become my responsibility. Was it the wine or my heart that kept him in my hands even when we were hidden beside the garage, behind the fence, where the dog wouldn’t get to the poor thing as it slowly passed? My eyes burned. The wind started to pick up.
“What if it’s cold?”
Joe rolled his eyes.
“Can we put it on something? An old rag? Anything?” I grabbed at him.
Appeasing me he took off for the house and came back with a wrinkled piece of paper towel. I placed it in a wheelbarrow and lay our friend on top. He immediately hopped into the shallow rain water that had collected in one corner.
“Somewhere else,” I said, scooping him up again and placing him on a patch of earth cushioned with leaves and other things the trees had shed. I watched him, his eyes still shut, cozied up against old chain-link fence and concrete and forgotten piles of dirt. The burning got worse. My eyes, my throat, my lungs. Joe’s hand on my shoulder weighed like a stone.
When my grandfather died, I faltered. I didn’t see him, this man I’d known all my life. I worked, I lived, I busied myself with the future while he lay with none. One state over the world had stopped turning, but for me it had not.
I stayed crouched beside the shed for minutes that felt like years, in between the dirt and concrete, while inside dinner cooked and the wine sat uncorked. If I gave myself away for just a short time, would I gain or lose? Gain, I thought.
Eventually I was forced away, Joe holding my shoulders as I wiped my cheeks. “Nothing else you can do,” he said. I wasn’t sure I’d done anything at all, but as I escaped back inside my shoulders loosened.
The hours appeared and escaped, the drinks were poured and disappeared. My mind wandered elsewhere for the night, and when the sun showed up again I was somewhere else, until I stepped into the backyard and remembered. He’d checked, Joe told me, and the bird had moved a few feet, hidden elsewhere now among the hardened scenery. I forgot again.
A day later I put the dog inside and made my way to that back gate, to the space beside the shed, and searched. Among the leaves, the plastic, the wheelbarrow, I found nothing. Maybe he’d found his wings, maybe he’d went off to die alone; maybe his pride had been too strong to let him fade away in our backyard.
We all leave the same: alone, shallow, flesh and bone we can’t pack up and take with us. We can’t go together, but we can take the walk side by side, until the fog dissipates and you are still here, and they are there. What if they remember? It might help, it might not. Some final brush with life makes for a better escape than lonesome, unforgiving darkness.