During the summertime, my family room reeked with the decaying smell of purple tulips; they stood in the half-filled Mason jar, bending at an irregular angle, the withered petals crumbling and dropping gently on the polka-dot tablecloth. Next to the flowers was a worn picture of Mom. She wore a red embroidered dress and her hair was curly and black. She looked petite and her eyes were spaced out evenly above her high cheekbones. Spread over her face, charming and demure, her big grin shined like a gigantic marquee, the corners of her lips making it seem as if she had just listened to a humorous anecdote and couldn't help but show interest.
Her birthday fell on June 3rd, which was today, and she’d been dead for a year. I still couldn’t believe that we had her cremated; George, my stepdad, had wielded authority over that decision, a fucking mistake in my opinion, not that my opinion mattered in this house. A red brick house; paint chipping off the blue shutters and the curtains pocked with perforations, drawn over vacant windows. We used to live in another neighborhood, a nicer one, but when mom died from horrific injuries brought on by a car accident, George moved us to this house. The old one haunted him with my mom’s memory and he’d assumed, incorrectly, that it was affecting me as well. I wanted to fix up the place with a few pieces of wood, nails, and a hammer, but my short stature and my small hands prevented me from working on it and plus, I was only 13.
I sure missed Mom. And on a day such as this one, a deep and layered longing stretched in me like an accordion, aching inside of me, pinching into my gut until my eyes blurred with tears. She would have turned 37, or maybe 38; her age was always a mystery to me, she never revealed it, never revealed much to anyone except for me because I was her only child, only son.
Sitting adjacent to her picture was a large urn decorated with ocean waves, curling inward and white on the top of their crests. The urn was packed tightly with gray and black ashes. A week before she passed away, there was an evening in the hospital, when Mom dressed in a blue gown and adhesive bandages had told me that if she should happen to die, she hoped to have her body boxed into a coffin shaped as a canoe and pushed into the ocean, as candles burned brightly, until a vicious current swallowed her whole and dragged her underwater. It was a peculiar and upsetting request, and I’d frowned when she told me that, but before I could carry out her wishes, she choked on her remaining breath and her spirit meandered into the eternal abyss. “She loved the sea,” George had said, “That’s where we met.” Maybe I was being too hard on George. After all, if Mom had married him, he couldn’t be that bad of a guy.
Although the family room, its whole arrangement, seemed plastic and manufactured. Mom hated tulips; her favorite flowers were daffodils, but George had never listened to her back when she was alive, always consumed with work, saying that as Head of Accounts, he had important clients and other people that he had to take to care of; people who mattered, as if we were baggage weighing him down. He didn’t appear to understand that some details were nuanced and significant and needed to be thoroughly examined before carrying them out. So with his ignorance he decided to put purple tulips next to her picture and urn, a supposedly well-meaning gesture, but one that came out careless and stupid.
Dazed from reverie, I lay flat on the carpeted floor and rested my chin on my forearms, watching a cardinal scream out for its mother and fly into the sliding glass door, slamming its beak into the pane, over and over. I felt sorry for the bird and I wanted to help it, but for some reason I didn’t; it was like being in a fancy automobile and a homeless man charges up to your window and rattles the glass with his tin can, asking for help, but all you do is stare, because you’re lacking in funds and courage.
And then George started laughing at the bird and this made me feel sad and frustrated. He leaned forward on the couch and straightened the wrinkles out of his white collared shirt with an iron. “Can you water the tulips, Arthur?” he said, beckoning me with his cigarette, pointing it at me like a rifle. But I didn’t consider myself to be a target, though, more or less my status in this household was that of a prisoner.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give the tulips plenty of water,” I said, knowing that I was either going to give the flowers too little water, or too much; enough to bring on its departure from life.
The cardinal continued to rap its beak against the glass as if it were knocking on a sturdy door, desperately trying to get my attention. I walked to the sink and filled a plastic cup with cold water. Then I strolled into the family room and watered the tulips. Mom stared at me through the picture, a time-capsule of memory, a reminder that she was still buried beneath the earth. The cardinal shrieked. I took a good look at it. Black beady eyes, blunt beak, and a crown of red feathers gave it a fearsome appearance. But I sympathized with it—the bird looked as lonely as I was and I wanted to help it—so much that I opened up the sliding glass door.
As the sunlight and air crept in, the cardinal swooped into the house, wild-eyed, shrieking. I offered it a cup of water. George stood up in a hurry and the iron clattered on the floor, clunking. The cardinal darted left and right and flapped its wings, feathers dropping like tulip petals. George picked up the iron and lunged forward, swinging at the cardinal. The cardinal plunged, keeping its head down, and then spread its wings and weaving with grace, it flew through the kitchen and into the hallway. Sprinting out of the family room, George said, “I’m going to kill that bird.” Without thinking, I stuck out my foot and tripped him.
George staggering forward, reached out to the table for balance, missing it by an inch, and instead knocked into the Mason jar. Slivers of glass spread out on the floor and the tulips descended upon him. He smacked the floor face first and groaned with petulance. “What the hell did you do that for?” he asked, his voice growing hoarse.
“You said you were going to ‘kill the bird.’ I had to stop you,” I said, lifting George by his armpits, getting him up to his feet. Guilt washed over me momentarily. He rolled his shoulder back so fast that my hand slipped off. George thrust his arm forward and clenching his fingers around my earlobe, he squeezed tight. A ridiculous heat swelled up on the side of my head. I felt the veins in my temple bulging and my brow glistening with sweat. I wrenched his grip away from my ear. “I can’t stand you,” I said, lunging forward, wanting to push him hard in the chest.
George took a step back and threw his hands up, gesticulating like a politician and said, “Look I didn’t mean to hurt you, but you need to learn. And grow up a bit. What would your mom say if she saw you acting up like this?”
Disappointed; befuddled by my predisposition for trying to save a cardinal, probably—but perhaps, Mom would have been proud of me for giving shelter to the bird, and also for saving it, despite my clumsiness. “She’d say, “Arthur be more conscientious”,” I said, plucking the fallen tulips from the floor. “Something like that right?” I asked, standing up.
“Something like that,” George said, lighting up a cigarette.
I put the tulips on the coffee table and went back to the pile of glass shards and scooped up the pieces. My hands felt warm and tender. And after dumping the broken bits of the Mason jar into the trashcan, I sat down on the couch and sank into the cushions. George plopped down beside me and retracted the legs of the ironing board, smoke billowing out of his mouth. He draped his white collared shirt over a clothes hanger and hooked it round the brim of the lamp. The bright bulb tilted forward, and artificial light bathed my face.
George grounded the cigarette into the ashtray sitting on the coffee table and put his arm around my shoulder. “I’m doing my best Arthur, I really am. I know I’m no substitute for your mom, but I’m doing my best,” he said, patting my back, as if he were my best friend.
“As long as you’re trying,” I said, sticking my hand out, thinking that a handshake would quell some of the tension. He smiled and shook my hand with firmness. For a second, I felt better.
All of a sudden, George pointed up with a trembling finger and dropped his jaw like a character in Loony Tunes. I turned around. The cardinal, screeching at a high pitch, sailed back into the family room. George got off the couch and jumped up, battering the cardinal with the flat of his hand. Red feathers popped up. The cardinal crashed into the floor, beak first. George looked at me. I looked back at him. “I’m sorry Arthur, but that bird was a nuisance,” he said, seizing up the cardinal.
“That bird did nothing to harm you,” I said, raising my fist towards him.
He flinched and shook his head, “You shouldn’t have let come inside in the first place. What’d you think was going to happen?” He came into the kitchen, opened the trashcan and dumped the cardinal inside, as if it were a bad piece of fruit. “Again I’m sorry,” George said, walking down the hallway.
I heard the floorboards creak and a door slamming shut. When he was gone, I took the urn and the picture of mom and stuffed the items into a backpack. Leaving the family room, I went into the kitchen and dug my arm into the trashcan, feeling a week’s worth of moldy green-bean casserole chunks and wheat-bread crumbs. I wiped the debris off my fingers, the grease and oil seeping into my nails. Clutched in my bare hand, the cardinal lay still like stationary. I cleaned it in the sink, scrubbing it with a sponge and soap, knowing that what I was doing was hopeless. I wrapped the cardinal in a paper towel and put it in the front pocket of my backpack, as I left the kitchen. I missed mom and I decided to go back to my old neighborhood, so that I could pick out a bunch of bright yellow daffodils that grew in the garden behind my former home. It was going to be my birthday present for mom and I hoped wherever she was, that she would love it.
The front door swung back and smacked into the siding and I burst out, stomping down the porch steps. I snatched my red motorbike up that was lying on the driveway. The roar of the engine engulfed the quietness of the neighborhood, and I felt a deep sense of confidence settling in me as I sped off into the distance, the wheels kicking up dust.
It was so hot outside that heat waves spiraled up from the asphalt. Riding at a comfortable speed, I weaved through the white Chevy convertibles and blue BMW station wagons that congested the main road. Baby cardinals chirped in nests, high up on the telephone poles, their birdsong softening the ache that pounded in my heart. As I shifted gears, leaning into a turn, and accelerated down a steep hill, I wondered if the cardinal had chicks to take care of, a family to call its own. Twenty minutes flew by and soon I was in my old neighborhood. I bunny-hopped onto the sidewalk and wheeled along the grass to avoid the passersby; beautiful housewives pushing strollers full of babies. These ladies all looked the same; black sunglasses, yellow sundresses, and red lipstick, products of a Madison Avenue advertisement. They lived in flat-roofed, beige stucco houses, sat in rocking chairs on their verandas, drank fresh-squeezed lemonade and chain-smoked Lucky-Strikes. Vodka-drinking and magazine reading, these housewives sauntered around my old neighborhood without a care for anybody except for themselves and their offspring. Or maybe I was being presumptuous about their dispositions. I didn’t know why, but these women reminded me of mom, and how frivolous and elegant she was. The engine sputtered to a stop and I squeezed the brakes on my motorbike.
The California bungalow style house stood at the far end of the cul-de-sac. My old home looked shabby. It had green vinyl siding with indentations bloating from the long panels. The roof shingles were composed of cedar top pieces pushed in together. The original casement windows had ruptures along the solid frame and tears across the wired screens. Red and brown leaves blanketed the crooked rain gutters. And the door was mahogany with protuberances and sharp edges zigzagging down from top to bottom. Looking at the house, it made me feel nostalgic and yet so very sad to see it in such a dilapidated condition.
I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked across the stone path. I knocked on the door. A minute or two passed by and there was no answer. I knocked again, this time with more force. I heard footsteps thundering inside. The door opened wide and revealed a blonde-haired girl dressed in a tank top and jeans. She had an upturned nose, gumball-sized blue eyes and freckles dotting her cheeks. The girl seemed to be around my age and was maybe five-foot 2. When she smiled there was a gap between her front teeth, noticeable, but not terribly so. Gosh she was pretty.
“Sorry I was taking a nap. Not to sound rude, but who are you and what do you want?” the girl asked, putting her hand on her hip.
“Hi, my name’s Arthur Hendrick and I used to live in this house. Today’s my mom’s birthday. She passed away a year ago. Her favorite flowers were daffodils, and I was hoping that I could find some in the garden behind your house. Do you mind if I go in the backyard?” I asked, beaming a smile and extending out my hand.
She just stared at me.
I withdrew my hand awkwardly and nodded, realizing she probably thought I was utterly insane to go off spouting an anecdote that really had nothing to do with her. This embarrassed the hell out of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so nervous and so self-conscious. “Okay, that was weird. Sorry about that, I usually don’t word-vomit,” I said.
“Yeah that was weird. I’m Molly. Molly Stanton. And how do I know that I can trust that all you’ll want are daffodils? I don’t mean to be bad-mannered, but you’re a stranger. And there are a lot of crazies in this town. What if you’re crazy?” Molly said, crossing her arms.
I spat into my palm and held out my hand and said, “What if I’m not? Look, you’re going to have to trust me. All I want are the daffodils, nothing more.”
Molly uncrossed her arms and with hesitation, she spat into her palm, and shook my hand. “Okay but not for too long, my folks are going to be home soon. And I don’t want to get into any trouble.” she said, slipping into a pair of open-toed sandals. She closed her door and walked past me, brushing against my shoulder. I felt butterflies fluttering in my stomach, but then realized it was probably a bowel movement.
Molly went around the house and into the backyard and I followed behind her. There was a brown brick patio, a lawn table, and a couple of canvass deck chairs grouped in a circle around a fire-pit composed of stones. A white picket fence snaked around the whole yard, enclosing much of the weathered terrain. There was a yellow slide bolted to a wooden jungle gym and a metal swing set. Molly stood next to the brick partition that surrounded the garden. Red and green bell peppers jutted out from the soil, as did white magnolias and the bright yellow daffodils. I set my backpack down on the grass, unzipped the front pocket, and took out the cardinal. “Take a look at this,” I said, holding up the cardinal to Molly.
She scrunched up her nose and narrowed her eyes, clearly looking disgusted. “Wait, this is really gross and weird. Why are you showing me this dead bird?”
“Because I had a hand in the bird’s death and I feel guilty about it. I let the bird into my house without much thought, and my stepdad George killed it. When it was alive it was beautiful and majestic and I just wanted to share it with you,” I said.
Her face softened and she gave me a wry smile. “What are you going to do with it?” Molly asked me, lifting up the cardinal from my hand. She stroked its red belly and touched its orange beak. Careful and nimble, she raised up its broad wing and blood dripped out. Frowning, Molly passed back the cardinal to me.
“We should bury it,” I said. “Bury it under the daffodils.”
Molly gave me a disapproving look.
“Wait, hear me out,” I said, “The bird needs a swell resting place and maybe my Mom’s favorite flowers will give it good luck in the afterlife. I don’t know, it’s just an idea.”
Molly gave me a contemplative look, then her eyes widened with excitement and she nodded. “Actually, it’s a great idea, now that you’ve explained it,” she said, picking up a blue pail from the ground. She offered it to me. Inside of the pail, there was a blue spade, a red shovel, and a green hoe. I reached in and grabbed the blue spade.
We crawled over the brick partition and treaded across the fresh soil. Tugging and pulling, I yanked the yellow daffodils from the soft ground, clumps of dirt tumbling down my kneecaps. I handed the flowers to Molly. Then using the spade, I ploughed through the earth and scooped out the soil. I dug a small and wide hole. Slowly, I placed the cardinal into the ground.
“We should say something about the bird. That’s what my parents did at my grandpa’s funeral,” Molly said, holding the yellow daffodils up to her nose.
I stood up tall and put the blue spade back into the pail. Taking in a deep breath, I bowed my head in respect and folded my hands behind my back. “I didn’t know the cardinal,” I said. “Can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl, a father or a mother. But if it was a boy I feel sorry that it had to scream in the family room. Must be hard looking for its mom. And if that bird is a mother then I’m sorry that it was calling out to its son. Man or bird, no one should have to suffer the loss of a loved one. Good-bye.”
Molly said good-bye too and then she packed the hole with dirt and smoothed the ground over with her hand. She gave me the yellow daffodils. The flowers smelled fresh and sweet. I plucked one out of the bundle, offered it to Molly, and said, “Here, for all your help. You remind me of my mom.”
“Was she pretty?” Molly asked, swaying from one side to the other.
“Very pretty,” I said, smiling.
Molly leaned in close to me and planted a wet kiss on my cheek.
When she stepped back, I put my head down and smiled. “Wow, that was nice. You didn’t have to do that,” I said, feeling my face reddening.
Molly flipped back her golden hair and touched my wrist. “Yeah, but I wanted to” she said. And then suddenly, her face grew pale and her upper frame shuddered. She bent her head down and walked away briskly. “Molly wait,” I said, as I turned around and picked up my backpack, stashing the daffodils inside. I looked up and gulped like a motion picture character.
A blonde, buxom housewife, wearing a black cardigan over a sundress, marched over to me, wagging her finger. She said, “Who do you think you are taking over my garden?”
I smiled, shrugged and said, “I’m friends with your daughter, ma’am. My name is Arthur.”
“Get out of here before I call the police,” she said.
I put my backpack on and ran towards the front of the house. Molly was sitting cross-legged on the lawn with her head buried in her knees, a yellow daffodil in her hand. I combed her hair back and kissed her cheek. “Sorry if I got you in trouble. Do you want to come over to my house?” I said, touching her knee.
“I can’t. I have summer camp tomorrow,” Molly said, reaching over to hug me.
I wrapped my arms around her and closed my eyes, thinking that this girl was the cutest and sweetest girl to ever exist, dead or alive, and I hadn’t even met that many girls, let alone be steady with any. “I’ll write you letters,” I said.
“Promise?” Molly said, holding my hand.
“Promise,” I said.
“Molly Stacy Stanton, get away from that boy this instant,” said her mom, galloping up the front lawn.
“Bye,” I said, kissing her again, this time on the lips.
I picked up my motorbike, turned over the engine and drove away from my old house. I increased my speed, rocketing over the potholes and maneuvering around grandmas driving slowly in Japanese automobiles. The sun began to lower below a cluster of grey clouds. The wind stopped blowing and raindrops began falling down in large sheets. I reached behind my back and caressed the yellow petals of the daffodils. I released my grip on the throttle and arching forward, I felt my stomach shoot up and hit my throat going down the dark, winding hill.
The housewives exited into their castle-like houses to watch the evening news program on their black and white televisions. The baby cardinals, snug in their nests, ceased their chirping. They glided off the telephone poles, puffed out their breasts, started squawking, and flapped their wings back and forth, seemingly for my attention. Lightening clapped and crackled, bright blue bolts chopping through the muggy air. The neighborhood died in that moment, and its poignant image of the Great American Dream shriveled up and melted, blackening into ashes, like the ashes in my mom’s urn.
Rain soaked my hair and poured into my shoes, dampening the rubber soles—the coldness reminding me that Mom had passed away and unfortunately she was gone forever. I turned my motorbike, veered away from the main road and traveled down a dirt-trodden path, escaping into a dense lush forest filled with evergreens and elm trees. Termite-infested logs lay lopsided on the grassy sides of the path. Shadows in the shape of chipmunks emerged from behind the backs of dead stumps. The rain stopped, and suddenly sunlight chopped through the condensed foliage and heavy boughs of the colossal trees. I cut the engine off, leaned my motorbike against a tree, and walked down to the wooden fishing pier.
At the edge of the pier, the brackish water undulated and rose, smacking into the dock. I took my backpack off, fished out mom’s urn and unscrewed the top. I reached inside and gathered a handful of grey ashes, feeling the coarse and dry remnants on my skin. Little by little, I tossed the ashes into the lake and felt the emptiness inside of me evaporating. An incredible amount of warmth blossomed through my heart, tears coming down my face, as I said, “I love you mom. I’m sorry I couldn’t make you a coffin made out of a canoe, like you wanted. I miss you so much and guess what, I got you these daffodils for your birthday. I know you loved them…” I looked up at the sky and squinted my eyes, the sun beaming down on my face. “I know you’re up there somewhere. I hope you can hear me. Happy Birthday Mom.”
I put back the urn inside of my backpack, hopped on my motorbike and sped off towards my house.
When I got back to my neighborhood, I heard the faint sound of a bird crying coming from the back of the house. I propped my motorbike against the garage door and sprinted around to the backyard. The bird cries developed into a low and guttural yelp. The looming apple tree towered a few feet away from the back deck.
Up in the branches, a baby cardinal was crying in a nest. I found a bark hole in the tree trunk and raised my foot, and shifted my weight forward. I extended my arms up and took hold of a strong thick branch, pulling my body up. Climbing the tree, I scaled it with short and swift motions, moving from branch to branch, lifting up my legs from gnarl and knot in the bark. I ascended so high that I was above the rooftop of my house. The baby cardinal, scurried around in its nest, fanning out its wings.
I sat on a heavy leafy bough and reached in my backpack, taking out the bright yellow daffodils. Cautious and curious, I offered up the daffodils to the baby cardinal. The baby cardinal leaned over the nest and nibbled on the fresh petals of the daffodils. For a moment, the baby cardinal began cooing and hooting, and I felt like I’d done a good deed and I hoped that mom would be proud of me. I wondered if the cardinal that I had buried was in fact the mother of this baby cardinal. I sensed that the baby cardinal missed its mother, but I also knew eventually it would grow up and learn how to live on its own, just like me. Taking the rest of the daffodils I held them to my face and smelled them. A sweet and intoxicating scent oozed out of the yellow petals, nostalgia blooming the memory of my beloved mom.