I framed Grandma’s
she died. It was only a small photo, nestled cleanly in a wooden frame I found
lying in my parent’s house, back in Abry. It was an old photo; it was taken
back in the forties. She was youthful back then – smiling, in her twenties.
Grandma had seen everything – the Great Depression, World War II, the
Kennedy’s… Trump… COVID – all of it. She even contracted the virus – at 95
years old – and kicked it to the curb with only minimal symptoms. She was a
tough lady. She had a good sense of humor, probably because she knew most
people were totally crazy; she’d had too much first-hand experience with that
shit, throughout the course of her century.
I tightened my black Nike
running shoes and removed my wedding ring. I didn’t like going on a run wearing
it; I had this paranoid fear that it would get trapped on my swollen finger,
cutting off the circulation. My finger would turn blue and then rot away, or
something like that. I just hadn’t worn it enough, is all, hadn’t become
completely accustomed to it – I’d only been married for a couple months. Plus,
I had a crazed, anxious imagination – that was undeniable.
I heard the ghostly, hollow-gong
of the clanging wind-chimes outside the storm-door. They had been given to me
as a gift, after Grandma’s passing. There was no breeze coming in, but I wasn’t
superstitious. I was paranoid and imaginative, but somehow not superstitious in
the slightest. There was a light breeze, a breeze which blew the chimes. I was
sure of that – sure of it. Following their brief composition, they returned to
A Tufted-Titmouse landed
on the empty,
swinging birdfeeder. The birds were upset. I had been lazy about getting them
more food. It hopped curiously around the edges of the square-shaped
feeding-station, searching in disappointment for a bite to eat. It looked up,
glaring at me with its vanta-black, haunted eyes. Finally discovering a remnant
seed, it flew away, past the chimes, to a tree branch, where it began immediately
bashing the seed against the wood to open it up. As if recognizing their
friend, the chimes again rang out as the darting bird passed.
I opened the door. The wiggling
doorknob slid around, only partially screwed into its circular home. We decided
to change the locks after we had bought the house, but I never realized how
difficult screwing things into place can be when you have absolutely zero
visibility. I had given up on that lock, in frustration. It was good enough. It
The day was hot. It was
April, but it felt like summer – eighty-two degrees, and muggy. I galloped down
the cracked wooden stairs of the back deck, around the corner to the driveway,
and out into the street. Our quiet, Northern Kentucky road led out to busy
Dixie Highway. As I trotted down the street, trying to convince myself I
actually wanted to exercise, St. Henry’s towering, narrow Mediterranean-styled
bell tower crossed the sunny, blurred horizon into my field of vision, flanked
on either side by the capitalistic swamp of a formerly prosperous society – an instant
oil-change on one side, a Family-Dollar on the other. Both looked like shit.
Neither were new, or thriving. I picked up the pace.
The neighbor’s dog
ready – darted from the front porch and rumbled angrily toward me, its ageing, overweight-body
not quick enough to keep pace with even a modest jog. He snapped and growled,
his neck caught by the end of the length of rope perpetuating his enslavement.
I didn’t like that dog, but I felt bad for him. He was an asshole, though.
I made the turn onto Dixie,
through the parking lot of the Family Dollar. I always ran right past the
automatic doors, which – if they were open – would ding and slide ajar. They
remained closed. That Family Dollar had weird hours. Since the pandemic, they
had sort of opened and closed shop at their own leisure. That was why I ran
past every day – to check. I hated it when I would later walk down the street
for a carton of eggs, or a sixer of beer, only to find the place closed.
Finally accelerating to
than a lazy trot, I turned out of the Family Dollar parking lot, out onto Dixie
proper. The street was always busy – cars whizzing by, nearly crashing; people
rolling down their windows to instigate fights. People hated each other, on
that road. It made me nervous, from time to time, but I still continued my
daily runs. They kept me sane.
I passed Kim’s Korean
Arts, an old, two-car garage which had been converted into a Taekwondo gym. It
was closed down – out of business. The remnant, yellow sign depicted a smiling
child kicking high into the air.
African grocery was also closed. Little Caesar’s was still kicking. So was
Frisch’s Big Boy.
I made the
turn off Dixie, into the parking lot of an apartment complex: Erlanger Lakes. I
darted through the place, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, out to the lakes
themselves. They weren’t lakes – not really. They were ponds, and not even very
big ones. One of them featured a dock leading out to its middle, with a gazebo
sitting silently in its center. I liked to go there for a mid-run break, to put
my hands on my knees and breathe heavily – to recuperate before the jog back.
wooden planks of the dock wiggled and shook as I stormed across them toward the
gazebo. I was zoning out; I was tired – breathing heavy. I ran nearly every
day, but I still wasn’t in the best shape. I wasn’t trying to break any
records, or anything like that – I mostly just did it to relieve stress. The
music from my air-pods swarmed my sound-space. I was listening to Jigsaw Falling into
Place, by Radiohead:
The walls are bending shape;
They've got a Cheshire Cat grin;
All blurring into one;
This place is on a mission;
Before the night owl…
Before the animal noises…
Before I made it to the
I abruptly -- for seemingly no reason – looked up. There was an old man limping
toward me, wielding a twisted wooden cane in his left hand. He had a scraggly
white beard. He was smiling – his bulging, wide-eyed grin missing more than a
few teeth. He was wearing a black leather jacket and ripped, dirty jeans. He
was wearing flip-flops, his lengthy toenails dirty and untrimmed. Both of his
arms were exposed, but an unnatural bump revealed that there was something
inside his jacket. I became nervous.
I removed my
air-pods. A set of wind-chimes hung from the gazebo; they sang like a Peruvian
whistle. The man glared at me. He smiled again. I stopped completely, shaking
the wobbly dock unnaturally, back and forth into the gazebo, like a
son!” said the old man, “You look like you need something; look like you’re
searching for something! Am I right? Searching for answers! That’s what!”
The dock was
still shaking. I spread my arms slightly, as if to balance myself. Though I was
having trouble standing, the old man had no such problem – he waved back and
forth with the shifting old wood like a seasoned pirate.
said, gesturing to the gazebo, “You need to talk to my friend here!”
He turned and
walked back into the gazebo, making it to the bench at the back of the circular
structure before turning and sitting. Unnerved, I followed him, though I didn’t
sit down. I stood shifting back and forth uncomfortably, my dancing weight
causing the former chaotic swell of the pond to shift into more of a
metronomic, rhythmic, hypnotic current. The old man began unzipping his jacket.
For some reason, I shielded my eyes.
said, “You can look! This here is my friend! My bud! He’s an ancient being –
been living for over a thousand years! A prophet! A timeless sage!”
protective forearm, I unblocked my vision. The old man had opened his bulging
jacket. Inside sat an elderly, sober-looking turkey-vulture. It opened its
mouth soundlessly. It looked to the ground, as if embarrassed. It seemed
injured, or maybe sick. It was clearly unhappy.
creature here – this ancient, ancestral spirit – will tell everything you need
to know about your current situation! It will help you make the right decision!”
backing away. I needed to get the hell out of there.
the old man, “Just wait! Listen to the wisdom of my friend here!”
“What’s its name?”
by many names, over the centuries – I surely don’t know them all! I call him
Buzz. He seems to like that name; he responds to it well!”
looked at the pink, wrinkly face of the putrid bird.
at first looking to the ground, glanced up at the old man, in seemingly clear
the old man, “This is one smart bird! Hell, it’s not even a bird – not really!
This thing is a mythical creature – like a phoenix, or some shit! Now, like I
said, tell Buzz your troubles. Ask him your burning questions! I know you have
them! You look like an indecisive fellow – as if you have trouble following the
natural direction of your spine!”
I looked at
the bird. He didn’t look at me. He was still staring, stone-faced, at the old
the old man, “He wants a treat! He expects a treat whenever I say his name.”
The old man
stood and began reaching into the back-pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a
chicken wing and tossed it to the floor of the gazebo. Buzz, instantly excited,
hopped out from within the jacket and began devouring the rancid poultry.
said the old man, “Ask him your question!”
I looked down to the large
His beak clicked as he chewed around the bone – fried breading and grease
covered his already filthy face. I was afraid. I needed to get out of there, I
knew. I decided that the best way to leave without conflict was simply to
entertain the old man – to ask the bird a question. I looked at the buzzard:
purpose of everything?” I said, “Why are we here, and where do we go? Why does
anyone have to die?”
didn’t respond. He kept eating. There wasn’t any meat left on the bone, but he
kept poking and digging – scavenging for every last bit.
“Woah, woah!” said the old man, “That’s too
many! You can ask it one question only – don’t overload the old bastard! One at
I looked at
him in frustration:
said, “Why does anyone have to die?”
beak ceased its continuous clicking. He looked at me and paused for an
uncomfortable length of time. I could, somehow, feel the bird looking deep into
my being. His vanta-black eyes rolled back into his head. He spread his wings,
unleashing a shrieking squawk. He squawked again and again, flapping his petulant
appendages perpetually. The sky grew dark. The old man began laughing – at
first a giggle, it evolved rapidly into a booming, belly-cackle. His eyes
widened; his remnant teeth flashing with excitement.
gazebo began spinning in counter-clockwise fashion. It lifted from the surface
of the pond – or maybe not lifted; it detached itself. Reality – at least the
environmental reality of Dixie Highway – was somehow removed from its presence.
Blackness engulfed me. Spinning darkness – the only object visible the twirling
interior of the gazebo, the only entity the squawking, flapping vulture. This
rotating purgatory stank like stagnant garbage – the smell of death permeated
I fell to
the bench and looked beyond the gazebo, into the nothingness, for that’s what
it was – nothing. Stinking, decaying emptiness.
returned. A cosmos of innumerable galaxies. The old man reappeared. He was
still laughing. He spoke:
“I told you
this little fella was special! He’s an ancient creature! He’s not from this plane
know how to respond. Sanity had left me; logic no longer existed. The bird looked
at me, before flapping its wings one last time – as if to stretch – and climbed
back into the old man’s jacket. He quickly zipped it up.
bird’s keeper!” said the old man, “That’s my lot in life! Taking care of him!”
My head was
still spinning. I was back in the pond, near the highway. I was very nauseous.
I leaned over the railing of the gazebo and vomited into the pond. The pond was
clearly well-stocked. Bluegill and crappie swam up almost immediately and began
nibbling at my floating puke. Semi-liquid spittle dripping from my mouth, I
looked back to the old man:
answer my question,” I said.
the old man, “Of course he did! What did you ask, again?”
“I asked why
anyone had to die.”
of course he answered it! That’s an easy one! Maybe you didn’t catch the answer
– that could be the issue. It’s not easy to understand his language – not for
us, anyway. He doesn’t speak what you might call regular old English. Maybe
this will add some clarity to your query.”
The old man
gestured to the wind-chimes hanging from the gazebo. He grinned. They began
clanging chaotically. They shook and quivered, as if in the midst of an
earthquake. Then they stopped briefly before shifting into a more melodic,
familiar tune. It was You Can Close Your
Eyes, by James Taylor, a song my grandmother used to sing to me before putting
me to bed, when I was a child. I wept instantly – tears watering down the vomit
on my face.
go!” said the old man, “So now you get it! So now you understand. I’m glad we
could help you – my ancient friend and me!”
The old man
walked off, down the dock, back toward the road. I fell back into the bench of
the gazebo, exhausted. I looked to the sky; the sun was bright. It heated my
damp, sweating face. From behind, the Wind Chimes gave their song, this time
less intentionally musical, but the tune – if you listened closely – was still
there. I felt comfort.