Adelaide walked with her head down, leveled against the cold. The wet leaves piled up to her nose. She snuffled through them.
“Fuck him.” She thought. And to punctuate, swung her galosh out in a splash of limp leaves. The disturbance startled a sparrow, which ejected from the warm and dry spot where it had, a moment ago, been still.
This in turn startled Adelaide, and the surprise, and the sparrow, triggered nostalgia. The sparrows. He had some way, some trick. She remembered clearly the first time it happened. They were outside, in the park, where they had brought along wine and bread and a pair of peaches. It was warm, and it felt the way a picnic is imagined to feel, when planned in advance.
A small group of sparrows had discovered their afternoon tryst and were hopping about demurely, five or six feet from the wooden bench, feigning casual. Ollister threw some bread crusts in their direction, and their masks of disinterest were dropped as they rushed to peck them up, wallflower friends now joining them from the vibrating branches above.
He tossed the next offer nearer, and the next nearer still. There were two or three that didn’t seem to mind being a foot or so from them.
Then he did something she did not expect. Moving more slowly than she had ever seen anyone move, he slid off the bench and crouched towards the feeding birds. All the others flew off when he came too close, but a small speckled one stood stock-still. Moving even more slowly now, he bent down and gently closed his hand around this one.
She gasped, involuntarily, anachronistically, femininely, against inclination. It wasn’t out of delight either, she thought for a moment that he meant to crush it.
But he did not. He back-peddled and returned, just as slowly, to his place beside her on the bench. She stared at the hyperventilating sparrow encased in the long, bony fingers.
He gave her a sly smile, one of her favorites, and presently opened his hand. The bird stood on his palm for half a moment, as if it too could not really comprehend what had just happened. Then it alighted.
The thing that struck Adelaide now, was that this minor miracle was entirely repeatable. Indeed the next few times he repeated it, she was incredulous. She was sure it was a parlor trick, an illusion. He must be surreptitiously planting drugged sparrows in likely locations around the city. But, eventually, the repetition of evidence softened her objection to this particular absurdity. One time, bird in hand, he slid his open palm next to hers, and, as if for a circus crowd, the sparrow of that day performed the intended hop from his palm to hers. It was much lighter than she expected. And ticklish.
But today she could only think of the first time, the picnic. He was wearing that red sweater she loved. It was soft, and the only one he owned that was too big rather than too small. She remembered when he threw it away.
As she turned the corner onto the busier street she startled. A bum, his hand exploding upward and fluttering, not unlike the bird, cried ‘Hey!’ He was the usual bum on this corner, and, lost in reflection she had trudged past him, forgetting the usual quarter or two that had become their ritual.
“Sorry.” She mumbled, and fished the change from her coat pocket.
“Hey,” Calmer now. Serious. “Did you hear what happened downtown today?” The soberness of his tone held her against an inclination to keep walking.
“Some guy dropped a beer bottle out of window. It landed on a baby.”
“Yeah, from like three stories. Just some drunk guy.”
“But the baby was fine. The baby was perfectly OK.” When he followed this statement with a wide, toothless grin her mind raced. Was he absolving himself to her? Was he this ‘some drunk guy’?
“It was a light beer.” The grin again.
Oh. It was a joke. She looked at the ground again. She felt suddenly separated from herself. “You know, I give you change every day. Why do you have to act so prickish?”
“What did you call me?” The bum’s face turned red, and he pressed his hands to the ground, as if to stand up. Adelaide became frightened.
“Nothing, I mean, I didn’t mean ‘prick’ as an insult. I was just using it as, you know… as an adjective.”
“Oh.” The bum abandoned his attempt at the vertical but his eyes remained confused, suspicious slits. “God bless.” He grumbled.
This story appears in issue #3