Jack’s father is a bluebird perched on the fence. We feed him unsalted almonds and sunflower seeds. His shrill voice is a fatherly squawk, but with an old-timey twist. It is like a short, box-shaped man with a crew-cut and pleated trousers yelling phrases like, “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” Or sometimes the squawk is lower and farther away like two people dancing cheek to cheek to an old Louis Armstrong song. Always, the squawk is wise and firm like a father’s tone ought to be.
Only, the bluebird on my fence is not really Jack’s father, not really. The bluebird is actually his grandfather. My husband’s real father is an ass that believes nothing is real. For instance, if you see a bluebird perched on a fence with his wiry feet clinging to the green vines climbing the wall, and the sun causes that bird’s white chest to take on the appearance of a white beard, and he turns his entire head to the side just to look at you looking at him — according to Jack’s ass-of-a-father, that bluebird ceases to exist the second you turn your head and can no longer see him. This, and the fact that he hasn’t called our house for the past three years, is only half of what makes him an ass.
Jack, on the other hand, believes the opposite of his father. He says if you can see it and you can feel it, then it is real. I like that much better. He even wrote an entire novel based on the premise, though publishers said it was burdened with problems like too much sex and too many “fucks.” Jack’s ass-of-a-father would agree with the publishers and probably critique the book a step further, if he ever read it. If Jack’s father ever gave the time, he’d say something like, “Son, there is no point in writing because nothing’s real. A story about conversations with dead people will not save the world.” At least, that is the way I imagine it would go from the stories Jack has told me.
Jack sits on the back deck and sees the bluebird on the fence and he knows it is his father. Not the ass-of-a-father, but his grandfather, the one who raised him and taught him fatherly things like boxing and picking-up chicks. He’d taught him to always open a lady’s door, to never act drunk, and to never talk about his feelings unless it was really, really important. The bluebird sits on the fence and Jack’s neck straightens with pride for his lineage. I am not sure how Jack knows the bluebird is his grandfather. I suppose it may have something to do with their same insatiability for apple pie frosted with peanut butter; that, and a mutual hatred for green vegetables.
I watch from the window as Jack cautiously inches closer to the bird. The bird squawks again, and Jack shows a smile that is present more internally than externally. Jack looks at the bird and without speaking, asks the bird for guidance. The bluebird flies away. To Jack, this means something, and so now, he seems more content. He wants to show me old pictures and artifacts of his grandfather during the Second World War, how his grandfather had a pet monkey named Parrot that copied whatever he did. He even considers pulling out the old stamp collections and the political cartoons his grandfather once drew.
Whenever Jack talks about his grandfather he seems to love me a little extra. He wants to touch more or lay his head in my lap. When his bluebird father visits, Jack acts a little less lonely, a little less trapped, like there is an entire world outside our understanding. He gets big ideas like flying across the country and forgetting this home and this life, like we’re gypsies or something. And though these ideas might seem impossible to me, I never let Jack know. I just let him continue, his love for his grandfather spilling over and into my lap.
It is Tuesday and after I arrive home from a long day at work, Jack’s father, the bluebird, stops in for dinner unannounced. Before Jack can say, “look the bluebird is on the fence,” I have an extra filet of salmon in the oven. I know what you are thinking, and yes, bluebirds do enjoy baked salmon, especially when it is drenched in a lemon caper sauce and served warm.
We eat on the back deck and Jack’s grandfather eats too. Jack explains the publishing trouble with his novel, and his grandfather buries his beak into the salmon without responding. Pieces of fish fall from his beak onto the deck, but he is not above pecking them up. Jack lowers his head and pokes at his now cold vegetables. His grandfather swallows a few more pieces of salmon, squawks twice, and flies away. Unsure what this means, I quickly reach for the untouched food on the plate and mumble, “another side of asparagus gone to waste.” Then I turn to look at my husband and his eyes soften. They soften in a way that reminds me of years before when we’d stay up all night discussing hypothetical nonsense like “what would you do if everybody’s tongue had a flavor and my tongue got stuck with the unlucky flavor of meatballs?” He’d stare at me with those gentle, glazed over dark eyes and tell me he’d love me all the same.
Later, while lying in bed, I trace the outline of a bluebird in the air. I say something about how supposedly aliens are responsible for iPods and Kindles, but before I can turn to look at Jack, he flies out the room with what I assume is a new idea for his novel. I stay in bed. I place Jack’s pillow beside me and cuddle as if he is there.
In springtime, Jack’s bluebird father comes more often, sometimes bringing the company of a wren-tit. Jack isn’t sure, but he thinks this could be his grandmother. He says it is hard to tell because so many women her age have that same graying chestnut color. I start to become jealous. I stare at the photograph of my grandmother framed on the wall between the bathroom and the yard. I think it isn’t fair.
In the front yard, beneath the oak tree and underneath an owl’s nest, I rest in the silence. I pull a harmonica from my jeans and bring it to my lips. I try to figure out the tune to an old blues song before noticing a hummingbird buzzing by. The next morning, I see the hummingbird again and decide it is my grandmother. I run to the back deck and tell Jack, “The hummingbird out front, it listens to my harmonica playing, I think it is my grandmother.”
Jack’s eyes widen and his face bunches up in that way faces bunch when a child says something like, “I think that maybe we are just tiny bugs and earthquakes and floods are just giants that are dancing and crying.”
I bring my harmonica back to my lips and tell him I’ll show him, “just follow me out front.”
But the way he lowers his face says it all — No, no, no, you’re grandmother isn’t a bird, it says. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Remember? We had wine and cheese at her grave — that’s the face.
It is true. My grandmother was poor and always thought people who dined on wine and cheese had class. After she died, Jack and I visited her grave with a bottle of Cabernet and a triangle of Brie. I wanted her to see how elegant I had become and if she couldn’t see, I at least wanted her to smell the floral bouquet of the wine. We poured some on the grass above where she lay. I hoped maybe it would seep down so she could taste the rustic flavors of horse manure and burned tires that were present in the wine. Jack shook his head in laughter, teasing that my wine descriptions were bad enough to steer a connoisseur from a 12-year old pinot noir. I know, I know, nobody wants his or her wine compared to horseshit. But I love that smell. It smells like life.
I pull the harmonica from my lips and drop it onto the kitchen table. Jack tucks me under his wing to tell me he loves me and that he is going to take care of me. “Just one more book,” I can almost hear him say. “I can feel it — something good is about to happen.” Then he looks out onto the fence, but the bluebird is not there.
Winter comes and Jack’s father doesn’t. Not his bluebird grandfather or his ass-of-a-father. Jack becomes very depressed during these months. He thinks the days are too short. He spends most of his time prepping the wood and waiting for spring again.
I go ahead and cook the blackened salmon, but this time I add sautéed sun-dried tomatoes into the warm lemon caper sauce. We sit on the back porch and I eagerly fork the food into my mouth, purposely allowing a few pieces to spill to the floor.
Jack picks at the edge of his fish.
“Honestly Jack, you eat like a bird,” I say, giggling at my ironic play on words.
He knows I am trying, but he can’t seem to force out a laugh. The sky remains quiet and his bluebird father still does not come. Jack eats the last unsalted almond left out for his grandfather. He stares out at the darkening sky, never once blinking. It is then I realize the bluebird isn’t coming. But Jack keeps waiting there on the deck, just staring at the fence. It is like he can’t even see me, like it is my fault that he is not with his grandfather.
I load Jack’s rifle and head out to the front yard. With the butt wedged in my armpit, I point the gun up at the oak tree and aim at the owl’s nest. The shot is loud, but the sky is still quiet. The nest doesn’t even come to pieces. In fact, nothing falls, except a few hot tears from my eyes. I see the hummingbird again, silently hovering over a cactus shrub. “What do you want?” I yell, but it just stays there, floating in midair. I point the gun at the tiny fluttering bird pretending to be my grandmother, but I can’t aim. My vision is too cloudy from the tears. Lowering the rifle, I wipe my eyes with my sleeve. Then I look at my finger curled about the trigger, the shiny red nail polish contrasting with the dusty black gun. Suddenly, the rifle looks so stupid and unthreatening in my dish soap-damaged hand, not at all the way it looked with Jack’s thick finger pressed upon it.
Time keeps moving.
Sometimes, I’ll wake in the night, thinking I’ve heard a squawk. Tripping over furniture, shuffling through the dark, I’ll rush to the window, but no one is ever there, not anymore. Eight weeks pass and there is still no sign of Jack’s father.
I bake pies just like my husband and his grandfather like them. I even splurge on extra crunchy peanut butter to spread on top. But the pies mostly just spoil, unless the squirrels eat them first. Not even Jack wants to touch them. He just sits on the back porch and I learn to let him. There is no point trying to get him inside. Besides, it’s not like he is going to leave me, or anything like that. I mean, he can’t, right? We’re married. There will be more bluebirds come spring, and maybe that wren-tit Jack calls Grandmother will start coming around more often too. I think it is perfectly normal and probably best that we take a month or two break from having company anyway. I would hate if my salmon recipes lost their luster, though I sometimes worry they already have. And this year, there will be no more green vegetables, unless they are drenched in a creamy Velveeta cheese. Jack will like that; they’ll taste like candy. Smothered in Velveeta is the way Jack’s grandmother would have made them.
I decide to buy a birdhouse. I think it will raise our spirits. It has an orange front archway and even a miniature flowerbed just below the front windows. I bring it home and show Jack and, feet tapping, he seems fairly amused. We decide to hang it beside the fence next to where Jack’s grandfather likes to perch.
I joke with Jack, “Now when your grandparents visit, we won’t have to give up our bed.”
Jack pecks my cheek and, even though we both know the house will probably not bring his grandfather back, for some reason it makes us feel better. With his bluebird father’s empty house out back, it all seems less permanent, like at any moment we’ll hear that fatherly squawk and he’ll arrive home from a long vacation. He’ll seem healthy and rested, and have a whole new repertoire of adventures to tell.
February finally comes to an end, the weather warms, and I dust the frost from the birdhouse; I even go the extra mile and plant a few tiny daisies in its miniature flowerbed. But when I come inside to scrub the dirt from beneath my nails, I realize the large amount of dishes that have accumulated in the sink. The living room is full of dust and the floor is scattered with dropped birdseed that sticks to the bottoms of my bare feet. It is like a storm of hungry swallows ravaged my refrigerator, ransacked my kitchen, and built and abandoned nests in my sink. I roll up my sleeves and decide to start with the dishes; I’ll most likely need them for tonight’s roasted corn and seared tuna salad.
I am scrubbing the hardened sauce caked to my sauté pan, when I hear a familiar voice from outside the window. I turn off the faucet and there it is again. It seems my grandfather-in-law is perched on the branch of a thawing plum tree just outside the window. I smile at him and admire the rich blue feathers strapped across his chest and the strong curved beak that only opens for an almond or a sharp word. I brush the hair back from my face and straighten my blouse. In all honesty, I had stopped expecting him and now, am a little ashamed of the spider webs encircling the window frame.
I call to Jack to tell him his father is here, but he doesn’t answer. The bluebird jumps to a closer branch. He squawks twice and turns his beak to the side. “Jack?” I yell again, only this time not as loud. The bluebird looks at me straight in the eye and I notice the white of his beard is actually a rusted color. The bluebird’s feathers puff and he squawks again in a different tone. It is warmer and less hollow, more musical and less firm. This squawk is the squawk of a poet, but a poet who knows how to shovel snow and wield an axe. It’s like a longhaired, six-foot author donning a rust-colored beard with dimples hidden underneath. And that’s when I laugh, realizing the bluebird with the rusted chest is not Jack’s grandfather. Of course it’s not. I fill my hand with several sunflower seeds and stretch it out the window. “Jack,” I say, “how’d you get out there.” I swear he seems more and more like his grandfather each day.
Teesha Noelle Murphy is a Los Angeles native — a true blue “valley girl,” but not in the way you’re thinking. Her fiction has been published by Scissors and Spackle, Forty Ounce Bachelors, Milk Sugar, and Matchbookstory.com. She holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from California State University Northridge and is the Co-Founder/ Senior Copywriter for The Easy Writers.