The same morning 2,000 blackbirds fell from the sky, my mother found one golden hair in my younger brother’s dark hair. The single hair bothered her immensely, whereas she let the rest of Beebe, Arkansas, worry about those birds. My father worried because everyone expected him to as the meteorologist at the local CBS affiliate. Was it lightning or hail? Fireworks since it was New Year’s Eve? The CATopsy could take weeks, he told his news colleagues. But we need a story today, they said back, after calling him to come in early. He was plotting his retirement; meanwhile, I was starting to collect things, not that anyone noticed.
My grandmother collected, too, baby cat skeletons found among other depressing things those last few years of her life. She and a friend started an animal rescue in their 70s but ended up having everything dumped on the street and the cats given away one morning by the state. The state also took away my mother and aunt briefly, several years before, but that truth was brought up once in our family and then exiled. I wasn’t that bad—yet—but with no one on my tail, I was on the wrong side of getting better.
“How can you have one lone hair that’s just completely different?” my mother was mumbling to Alex, fiddling with his hair, when I walked into the room. He sat on her lap and played with a stuffed Thomas the Tank Engine. Alex held up his hands, not yet understanding rhetorical questions.
“When’s Dad coming home?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He said he’d call soon to check in.”
“He’s never here.”
“This is a crazy day,” she said. “You should know. You were one of the first to find the poor things.”
She was right. I had woken up at 5 or 6 o’clock, unable to sleep, and looked outside the window. Birds were everywhere. Like the Hitchcock movie Alex and I watched last year, only there was no chase, no stunned human screaming, looking up in dismay. The birds were all dead.
“Why can’t he do something normal? Like other parents?”
“Because we have a mortgage and…what do you mean? He likes it, Jenna. Don’t you want him to do something all day he likes, just a little bit?”
“I know it’s not 9 to 5, but trust me, your father is a hell of a lot more interesting than your friends’ parents and all the other parents out there.”
About 30 minutes later, my father called.
“It’s gonna be a late night, rabbit,” he said. “Can you tell Mom?”
I nodded, as if he could see it.
“Oh, and turn on the 7 p.m. show.” I could swear I heard him smile, probably for the first time that day. “You guys will get a kick out of it.”
I passed the message along to my mother, then sat outside on the porch. I thought of Luke suddenly, the boy I had broken up with the week before who would no longer wrap strong arms around me. I crossed my arms and appreciated the extra layers I’d grabbed.
Luke was supposedly the best thing to happen to me, he would tell me, that I would never find anyone better. He was a Christian, and I was just a Simmons, apparently. Religion occasionally floated through our house like a draft but nothing lasted. We were commercial Christians; we liked the pretty decorations and lights at Christmas, the wrapping paper, the mall Santa balancing an even temperament and a squirming child on his knee.
“Your parents, they’re nice people, but they put a blindfold over you,” Luke said once. “You’re shallow,” he’d say. “I’m deeper than you.”
“You have a bad soul,” he said once, as if my insides were under a microscope, like those birds would be the next few days. I finally couldn’t take him criticizing my parents or my insides, so I gave him permission to find a new love and returned the necklace he’d given me for our six-month anniversary the week before.
“You need to change,” he’d said, stubbornly, holding the necklace. “You’re not willing to work.”
“I just want to be alone,” I said. With my things, I added in my head. That way, wasn’t I never really alone?
“Jenna!” my mother called.
“Walk to the grocery store, will you, and take Alex? I could use some time alone.”
There was a small grocery store a short walk away. I didn’t mind the walk, and actually looked forward to getting away, even temporarily. I had a driver’s permit but hadn’t gotten my license yet and was in no hurry. A childhood friend had died in a car crash the summer before, rattling our family for weeks.
Alex walked out of the house a few minutes later. I looked him over.
“Did you dress warm enough?”
“You sure? Last time you didn’t and complained the whole time.”
“Fine.” We walked down the street, and a few minutes later I realized Alex wasn’t behind me.
“First of all, don’t do that, and second, what in the world is up?”
He pointed at something in the snow. I turned. Dead blackbirds. Three in the same spot, slightly different sizes, like a family.
“I know, Alex, it’s craziness.” I put my hand on his shoulder.
Crazy town, my friend at school kept saying lately. Ms. Hilary the cafeteria lady screams so loudly she’s crazy. It’s like crazy town with her. College next year will be crazy. Crazy town, Jenna. Just wait.
In no time, we were at the store.
“Do you remember what Mom needs, Alex?”
I had the list she’d scrawled in my jeans pocket but was too lazy to take it out. “Beans. Milk. Chicken. Something else.”
A calmer state of mind? A remedy for youngest child syndrome? I was just taking shots in the dark here.
“Ice cream. Chocolate,” I said.
“She thinks something’s wrong with me.”
“What are you talking about?” I stared at him. “Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re 7.”
“My hair. She wants to take me to the doctor.”
“She wants to take everyone to the doctor. Just so you know. She wants to fix everything. Mothers want to fix everything immediately.”
“No, really. What if something’s wrong with me?”
“Trust me. You’re more normal than anyone I know. That’s not really saying much, but it’s true, and you should know. Promise me you’ll remember.”
“Yes, what?” Was he going through some phase where he said yes to everything? Or was he turning into some kind of lackey? What were they teaching him at school, or what were we teaching him at home?
“Yes, I’ll remember.”
After we walked back to the house, I put the groceries away, watching Alex run in to watch his favorite television show, and told Mom we were back to no response. (What, was she doing a manicure-pedicure upstairs? Imagining her life without children or fantasizing about some nonmeteorologist husband who didn’t work strange hours?) I headed back outside.
I stood on the porch, contemplating my next move, and then I saw him.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m not giving up,” Luke said.
This is not a term paper, I wanted to say. You don’t just say I worked really hard on this.
“I’ve said everything,” I said.
“You need to go to church. We need to go to church together.”
“I don’t need to do anything. You need to leave.” I thought quickly. “I’m not supposed to have anyone over right now.” This wasn’t even true—my parents were pretty laid-back about that sort of thing. And he knew them, which made the white lie even more ridiculous.
“I invited you to my cousin’s confirmation and you didn’t even go. I gave you those pearls because you were special to me, but turns out I wasn’t even…I was disposable.”
“I really need to go. We’re not right for each other—don’t you see? You’ll find someone, the right person.”
“Are you dating anyone?”
“No.” I softened my tone a bit. “This is sad and hard for me, too.” I did not cheat on you, my eyes said. The exact inference or accusation I didn’t want to dignify with a response.
“I know things about you, you know.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You had all that stuff. In your room. I’m not an idiot. You have problems.” He paused. “I could help you. We could work through our problems together.”
There was either a maturity to him or a striking inability to listen, or both. He was 19 to my 16, and occasionally I thought of him as Liesl’s boyfriend in The Sound of Music, which was my favorite movie as a child. Perhaps he knew things I didn’t, and just like Liesl in the movie I was basically saying I am 16 going on 17, innocent as a rose. Should I let him take care of me, even if it was 2011?
“You think you’re Mother Teresa?”
Then he would say something like that and I felt dumbfounded, unarmed, wounded in battle with the harsh words that were in his arsenal.
“When did I say anything about being Mother Teresa?”
He didn’t say anything, reddening.
“Listen, I need to go. We can talk about this later, but my dad’s on TV tonight. Kind of a big deal.”
That’s right, I reasoned. A person would have to live under a rock not to be aware. “Yes.”
“You’re not even going to invite me in?”
I didn’t say anything back. What was there to say? I shrugged.
“Figured,” he said and walked away.
Mom, Alex and I watched the opening of the local CBS show, with the two anchors fake-beaming just as they did every night. The female anchor with the bob and pretty smile teased Dad’s segment: “A story that’s really for the birds! What happened last night that caused thousands of birds in our region to literally fall from the sky?”
“Why are news teases so dumb?” I asked Mom.
She shrugged, halfheartedly agreeing. We sat through a commercial break and news about a double murder. Someone called and then hung up when I answered. Luke, I figured. My father appeared on the television.
“It’s a meteorological mystery!” he said, particularly enthusiastic. It was fake enthusiasm, though, I knew, not like when I managed a rare B-minus on a high school test, or when Alex was acing potty training years ago—sometimes it’s easier to go poops sitting down, I’d hear my father say.
“How can this many birds fall at once? Being an expert in reading radar signatures, I’ll tell you that these birds saw and heard things they weren’t accustomed to, or even hit something hard, and they were scared. Scared, I tell you.”
That’s all these meteorologists and newspapers could say this day, I realized. Birds Hit Something Hard. That “something hard” was a shock to their system and they were never the same after that. Didn’t we humans hit things hard many days, too? The past week had hit me hard.
His segment ended, and we sat in silence.
“Is it over?” Alex said.
“I know, right?” I said. “We didn’t get any answers.”
The phone rang. I answered it and, again, heard breathing before the person on the other end hung up.
“Who keeps calling?” Mom asked.
“Long story. I think I know.”
“Listen, guys. This bird thing just happened, and besides, sometimes we never get answers to things that happen—the why and the how, you know?” My mother attempted to sound encouraging, but I felt the opposite: let down.
I decided to call Luke, who seemed to need closure.
“Hello?” he said.
“You called me.”
“I didn’t…fine, how did you know?”
I bypassed his defensiveness and quick breathing. “Listen, let’s just talk for a minute. Do you remember that girl at the party last year?”
A pause. “Yes.”
I had gone to a party with my 20-year-old cousin last New Year’s Eve. Early in the evening, I met a young couple, newly engaged, who were showing off the ring, all smiles. Thirty minutes later, away from her fiancé and many friends, she told me out of nowhere: “I’ve had three abortions.” Then, without a beat: “Let me put makeup on you!”
She dragged me by the hand, drunk, to her car, where she proceeded to take out a trunk of eye makeup. She drew liner on my eyes, swiped mascara and several colors of eye shadow. “So pretty,” she said. “Shame you don’t wear any. All finished.”
“I wear a little, but…” I was going to say I don’t really feel like myself when I do, but I became distracted. She was staring at me and smiling. Like an older sister smiling at a younger sister, or, yes, a mother at a child, and I felt uncomfortable. Soon her smile faded and she looked as uncomfortable as I felt. She was noticeably sad, and I wondered if she had the same thought.
“Well, he’ll wonder where I am,” she said, and we walked back inside. Back at the party, reunited with her fiancé and the people she knew closely, she drifted from me, we lost ourselves in different rooms, and she distanced herself, like the boys I met who thought I’d rejected them, wounded. I was the stranger who knew her secrets, and she needed me to keep those secrets away. I couldn’t shake her from my mind for weeks.
“What about her? She sinned. She made that mistake. She told you about it, right?”
“It’s not like that, though. I remember the conversation you and I had afterward—you saw her as all bad and dark, like right now. You said, ‘She’ll go to hell. That’s where she belongs.’ I don’t see people like you do. That’s the difference between you and me. I see the gray and the spectrum. That’s why we can’t go out.”
“You’re seriously crazy, you know that? You’re telling me some girl you chatted with for 10 minutes is the reason we don’t belong together?”
Maybe because it was the easy answer, maybe because I was growing tired of our conversations, I answered simply. “Yes.”
When my father came home late, I stayed awake to greet him. He was the only man in my life I wanted to see. There wasn’t any judging with my father, or at least I didn’t feel it. I sat in my bedroom and could hear my mother and Alex both snoring from their rooms, which was charming, comforting and annoying all at the same time.
“You did a good job today,” I said, hurrying down the stairs.
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s late. You were the one up early today, too.”
I waved the idea away. “Can’t sleep.”
He asked about leftovers, then began putting food I’d identified as dinner in the microwave.
“Is that really what happened with the birds? For sure?”
“I honestly don’t know, Jenna. I love about my job that I can be wrong every day of my life and still have a job. My point is I can’t predict what will happen or 100 percent be right analyzing what did happen. We do our best, but meteorologists aren’t God.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. Do you?”
“I don’t know. We never really talk about it. At home or at school or anywhere. And then Luke…well, I don’t really want to talk about it.”
My mother walked into the kitchen then, kissing my father.
“We thought we’d never see you again,” she said. “Those pesky birds.”
“Yeah, long day. Jenna and I were just talking.” He turned back to me. “I’m sorry if you feel like people are ignoring the subject of religion—we’ll work on that. I’m sure you’re curious at your age.”
“Are you, honey?” Mom asked. “Curious about God? I know you’ve been invited to quite a few of those skiing retreats, all your friends in youth groups these days.”
We were all silent for a few minutes. Dad started to eat, and Mom and I sat down at the table and stared at him.
“I’m having some trouble,” I said.
“What do you mean? In school?”
“No.” I turned to my mother. “Why do you never talk about Grandma?”
“What do you mean?” Mom practiced defensiveness like an art form; she was good at it. “She was a great woman.”
I stared at her. She peered back, her eyes slits, sleepy.
She turned away. “There were some hard years. Why would I want to bring it up?”
“Because I’m like her, and you don’t even know.”
“Grandma was sick. She collected all those animals. Why in the world do you think you’re like her?”
I started to tell her about the boxes and boxes of items in my room, and she and my father looked at me like I’d told them another neighbor’s kid died, that there was another early death.
“Is there anything I could have done?” my mother asked. “Is there anything I can do?”
She wanted something easy, like pulling out a hair. But parenthood was like meteorology, I realized, you can be wrong every day of your life and still have a job. Still have a role in the sense you just get up in the morning and commit to do your best at it. Did my parents realize that?
“I broke up with Luke,” I said.
“Is that who keeps calling?” Mom said.
“I’m sorry, rabbit.”
“Are those birds going to have CATopsies?”
My father’s eyes widened, impressed that I knew the word. “Yeah, the next few weeks they will. Maybe we’ll know what happened.”
“Maybe we’ll never know what happened,” I said. “And is that the worst thing in the world?”
My parents looked at each other. “You can see someone if you want,” Dad said. “There are people to, you know, talk to. We have the money.”
“Why do we have to put everyone’s insides under a microscope? Why can’t we just let them be? Who said we had to set an expectation for normal?”
“No one said that,” my mother said as she touched my hair. I wondered how many abortions she’d had, if her ex-boyfriends told her she had a bad soul, what exactly within her and the rest of this family was hurting. I wanted to find the wound, all of ours.
“No one said anything,” she said.