Birds

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Twenty

 

A bird flaps by, trapped inside the building. The man from New Jersey looks up, sees it land on the blue pipe where the gas comes in. A crow, big and fat. He puts his wrenches down and walks away from his coworkers who are busy calling each other cocksucker. The bird flies off again, circling over the vats and drums. He walks through white powder. The crow lands on the electric conduit and turns its eyes on him. He steps over to the door to the outside world. A sign on it reads: Door Must Remain Closed Building Is Pressurized. He enters the code, steps outside, through the doorway, and holds the door open so the bird can’t see he’s there. A minute later it flies past, takes its place in the sky. The man from New Jersey walks back to his job. They say to him, “Where’d you go, cocksucker?” He says, “I let that bird go.” “What bird?” They would never notice a bird.

The man from New Jersey leaves work, happy nothing bad has happened. There is a chance everyday that something could explode. But he and his coworkers put it out of their minds.

Sometimes they even have fun. They take a chair into the machine shop and cut one of the legs ¾ of the way, so when someone sits on it in the cafeteria, they crash to the floor and are embarrassed, and there is always laughter; maybe not from the person on the floor. But if the person on the floor isn’t laughing ten minutes later, let’s face it, they won’t last long on the job anyway. Might as well get them their check now.

Cruel men, he thinks, but he can’t be sure because he’s worked so long with them he imagines he must be cruel now too—at least crueler.

The man from New Jersey survives the drive home, the second most dangerous part of his day. Tractor trailers, and high speed merges, white knuckle steering. His wife wants him to get a safer job, some kind of desk job, but he has no way of making that happen. It would be nice to get out of the wind and rain. He dreams of that, but feels he can’t achieve that dream. He takes the exit, leaves the highway, enters the lazier traffic jam streets of his soot gray city.

The traffic light ahead turns red. He settles in, checks his phone.

The light turns green. The people behind him beep. He looks up from his phone. The people beep while he looks in his rear view. He notices the cars in front of him are long gone. He drives forward an inch, the light turns red, he hits the brakes. The people almost rear end him. The people beep a really long time. The people. The people. The people are saints.

That night, his wife asks about his day. He tells her he was able to free a bird that was trapped inside the pelletizing building and she looks happy. The other point of news, which he leaves out, is that his helper, Sherman, has returned. Sherman lost three fingers on his right hand while working with him a while back. His pinky, ring finger, and middle finger. The incident was covered up so it didn’t affect the facility’s safety record. Sherman was rushed out of the plant in a pickup truck, taken directly to the hospital, the incident not reported to OSHA, and he was paid $300,000 of hush money—per finger—by the plant. Now he has a new boat and a beach bungalow, a perfectly fine left hand, and a pointer and a thumb on his right. Sherman isn’t all the way okay mentally to begin with, and he always thought it was his fault, anyway.

 

The next day, someone calls 911. A misunderstanding. Sherman and the man from New Jersey are attempting to repair ductwork on the roof of the office building—a fiberglass expansion joint blew out and birds are getting into the offices, flying into the duct, waddle walking into a different void, coming down through the drop ceiling after being heard flapping around up there, pecking and cooing. It is a problem, one of many.

Sherman and the man from New Jersey have to take the stairs because their badges do not give them security clearance to use the elevators. “Give me that, Sherman,” he says, taking the bucket of tools. Now he has two buckets. Sherman says, “Thanks. Ah, I know what we forgot.” Sherman leaves the stairwell and the man from New Jersey climbs up one flight, and then another.

The man from New Jersey stops along the way up and peeks through each diamond-shaped glass window and sees the offices of the engineers, and planners, and payroll department, and the safety people, and time keepers, and environmental watch dogs. He looks in at them at their desks, and some with their backs to the door at cubicles, all the women with pretty dresses on, hair up, and the men in dress shirts. The man from New Jersey goes up another flight. His buckets of tools are heavy, wrenches and sockets for the pneumatic gun. He stops again, at another door, looking in the peephole, huffing and puffing from the exertion. Someone making photocopies. To him it’s just like looking in at a zoo.

The door opens way down at the base of the stairwell and the man from New Jersey hears Sherman yell, “Hey kid! Where you at?” “Sixth floor,” he says, trying not to yell. People are working. Sherman yells as loud as he can, “I got a gun and I’m coming up the stairs!” “Okay.” “You hear me?” “I heard you.” He yells again, “I got a gun, I’m coming up the stairs!”

The man from New Jersey looks in the little glass window of the office zoo, and sees a man with a tie look up, startled, having heard what Sherman screamed in the stairwell.

Now all the office people are ducking from their desks and cubicles, dashing away from the stairwell. When Sherman finally gets up there, the man from New Jersey says what he saw in the office. Sherman doesn’t believe him, and the man from New Jersey and Sherman press their faces to the glass and their hearts are racing. They see a bearded man in a dress shirt turn his head as a woman in a khaki dress comes back from the elevator with a phone in her hand. She says, “Police,” and forces the man up from his desk to evacuate with the others. Sherman and the man from New Jersey run up two more flights and come out on the roof, wide eyed and out of breath. A few minutes later, they see the police hightailing it up to the security booth, lights flashing, the guard lifting the arm. Come in come in. The men decide it is best to call the police themselves and try to explain. At their feet, the pneumatic air gun shines in the sun.

“We are ripping apart an air conditioning duct and there’s a million bolts…it isn’t a bang bang gun; it’s like the ones NASCAR uses to change the tires at the pit stops.” The dispatcher doesn’t seem to buy what Sherman says, and with the way he talks, he really does sound totally loco. Down below, the police enter the building, stomping across a bed of flowers, bulletproof vests, guns drawn to shoulder height, gripped in two hands. “I think the dispatcher just hung up on me.”

Down below, someone shouts, “Active shooter!” The man from New Jersey takes out his phone and calls his wife, but she is at work and doesn’t answer. It goes to voicemail. “I’m at work, and I’m worried I’m going to be accidentally killed.” Sherman calls his wife too. It goes straight to voicemail. Call waiting comes in on his line, a local number. Sherman answers. The chief of police says, “Where are you? Do you have hostages? What are your demands?” Sherman says, “NASCAR,” again and the chief of police says he doesn’t watch that and doesn’t know.

The man from New Jersey hooks the pneumatic gun up to the air line and opens the valve. Then, he takes out his phone and records Sherman talking to the chief of police, zooms in on Sherman’s work uniform and his missing fingers, and then he reaches down, picks up the pneumatic gun and holds it up and pulls the trigger, so the gun goes zzziiiing ziiinnng zzzziiiiing. He texts the video to Sherman who then sends the video on to the chief of police.

Inside the building, they hear the cops stomping up the stairs, kicking open doors. Frightened, they climb into an open section of duct and cower in the shadows. Down the duct, they hear birds chirping. The door to the roof opens and the cops come out. There is chatter on the radio, “False alarm. No shooter.” The cops relax and one says, “Sonofabitch.” They lower their weapons and hang out on the roof edge, spitting, and looking over the plant. Another call comes over the radio, the police leave. Sherman calls the chief of police back and there’s a bunch of apologizing happening both ways. The chief says, “Wait a few minutes and come down the stairwell, slowly, with your hands up, but it’s going to be okay.”

 

Sherman and the man from New Jersey are downstairs getting interrogated. They all sip coffee and make light of what has happened, but they try not to be loud about their jokes in case one of the more sensitive office staff are within earshot—they had streamed out of the building ten minutes before, sent home early for what they’d endured.

The questioning complete, the cops shake the men’s hands, and that’s that. The man from New Jersey and Sherman walk their tools to the pickup truck parked uncharacteristically in the office staff lot.

A horn beeps and the man from New Jersey looks. Sherman keeps walking his rigid, jerky walk. It is the bearded man from the office, sitting in a Nissan. He waves over the man from New Jersey. The man from New Jersey reluctantly walks over to the Nissan. “It got pretty exciting back there for a minute. I was almost disappointed to learn the truth,” the bearded man says. The man from New Jersey thinks about an appropriate answer, settles on, “I’m sorry to have scared y’all.” “Scare me? That was fun. So hey, what do you guys do? What do you do at the plant?” “We fix whatever breaks.” “Free to roam, all over the place?” “In the plant. Free to roam the plant.” “But you work outside?” “Yeah.” “I’d kill to work outside.” “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” “I can’t work in the office anymore. I can’t do another day of it. Bad things will happen.” “Tomorrow it’s going to rain.” “Yeah, it is.” “Well, I’ve got to get going. Anytime you want to switch spots, pal, just let me know.” “I’ll do that. Sounds fun. You serious?” “Yeah. You can have my job. Take it.” “You can have mine.” The man from New Jersey notices the Nissan has Pennsylvania plates. “I’ll let you get going, you’ve got a drive ahead of you, into the sun.” “No rush,” he says, “I’ve got nowhere to be.” “Well, I do. See you later.” The man from New Jersey walks back to the truck and Sherman says, “Somebody bitching?” “No, no, he was a big fan of our work.”

 

At home that night, the man from New Jersey drinks beers with his wife, they sit on the couch and laugh and play Prince records. He tells her again about the police. It’s a funny story now that it’s over. He leaves out all the talk of real guns. The police just show up, they don’t stomp up the stairs and point their guns at anybody. There’s no crouching in fear in the ductwork. The only gun mentioned is the misunderstood gun. The NASCAR gun.

The next morning he walks the long walk through the contractor lot, toward the turnstiles, getting soaked in the rain. His socks are off—the thought being that when he gets to the change trailer he’ll at least have dry socks to put on for inside his steel toe boots. At the turnstile, he sees the bearded office worker from Pennsylvania standing under an umbrella, smoking a cigarette, waiting for something. It’s strange to see the bearded man over here, the office staff lot is all the way on the other side of the place.

The man from New Jersey waves and swipes in. The bearded man follows him in as if he belongs. “Everything all right, pal?” “Fine, fine, yes,” the bearded man says, “shitty day.” “What’s shitty about it?” “The weather, but you can see that.” “I’m used to it. I don’t know.” “Yesterday you said you’d trade spots with me in a heartbeat.” “I did, yeah. You mad?” “Not at all, I’m saying we should do that today.” The man from New Jersey calls his bluff and says, “You want to swap, sure, start off by giving me your umbrella.” The bearded man hands over the umbrella and then stands there getting soaked. They walk together into the contractor change trailer. “You can work in my cubicle, and I’ll do…what do you do?” “Whatever they tell me to. You want to do my job? It’s easy, just be quiet and if they ask you to do something you don’t want to do, say you’re hungover, or sick, otherwise just go with the flow.” “I can do that. And you just sit at my desk and look like you’re thinking, that’s all you have to do. Appear to be thinking.”

The beared office man takes off his clothes and the man from New Jersey puts them on. They’re tight. The office man puts on the work clothes he’s handed out of the locker: boots, flannel shirt, hard hat, fire retardant jumpsuit, H2s monitor, gloves, safety glasses, bandana for his head to go under the hard hat. They exchange ID badges and agree to meet up at quitting time, so as to return their professional identities back to each other when the work day is done. Both crack up the whole time. “This will be a nice change of pace.” “They’ll be here in ten minutes, my coworkers. Look for the guy with a bunch of missing fingers, he’s cool. Oh, also, hate to do this to you…but you’ll have to shave your beard off.” “I don’t care.” “For the respirators. They’ll send you home if you’re not clean-shaven. Send you home, send me home, same thing.” He hands the bearded man from Pennsylvania a razor and they walk to the bathroom. “What’s your name?” he asks. “New.” “Knew what?” “New Jersey.” “Alec Durak,” he says, shaking New’s hand. Five minutes later, Alec comes out clean shaven, bleeding and grinning. He hands New his wallet, “Give me yours, if you want.” “My social security number won’t get you a loan, will do you no good.” “Mine neither.” Alec hands over his car keys, New hands over his too. New looks at Alec’s driver’s license, sees he is an organ donor and lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. They agree to meet at the same turnstiles at 4 o’clock.

The man from New Jersey walks out through the contractor lot, carrying the umbrella. He wonders why he never thought to carry an umbrella before. Some of his coworkers walk toward him through the rain; they don’t notice it’s him in the office clothes. He feels like Cinderella. He gets in the Nissan. It starts right up (his own car doesn’t usually want to start in the rain, and the radio doesn’t work). He drives the Nissan through the dilapidated neighborhood, taking the highway one exit up, into the green park around the office staff lot. He notices a parking spot that says Alec Durak. He parks there. His own personal spot.

The man from New Jersey goes up the elevator, gets off at the fifth floor, sits down at Alec Durak’s cubicle. No one in the office building takes any notice of him. He wonders how long he can do this. Stay warm and dry. Any minute, he thinks, he is going to get a phone call from Sherman or from their boss, haha, hilarious joke. But the call never comes. After sitting in the cubicle for a while, without interruption, he stands up and looks out the large window and sees a crane being set up at the foot of the reactor. 160 ton crane. 250 feet of boom, with a lattice jib, being swung for added reach. He knows the job well, and thinks he can see Alec Durak among the men down there moving around like toys. Tools pulled out of a pickup truck. New pours a cup of coffee and keeps looking. “How do people work like that?” he says to another office worker also standing there looking out the window at the men at work. “I have no idea.”

All he knows is they are working hard and he is kicking back in the cubicle, having found a paperback book in the drawer. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. He begins to read. A book about the state of New Jersey, somewhat, and a miserable, middle-aged man, somewhat. He can and can’t relate. He reads 80 pages before he is interrupted by a red-headed woman leaning against the side of his cubicle.

The red-headed woman says they have a lunch date. So the man from New Jersey goes on it. He drives. It feels funny to be outside the plant for lunch. Contractors aren’t allowed to leave and usually eat food from a silver lunch truck, or bring their own meal. Now, here he is, a free man in a Nissan with the radio working, pulling up to a strip mall, about to dine at a Buffalo Wild Wings. She looks at him, “I know why you look different. You shaved your beard.”

Inside, in the booth, he realizes who she is. She once tried to fire him for not having a safety harness when he was high up in the sky. She looks different without all her personal protective equipment: safety glasses, hardhat, gloves, jumpsuit with name tag identifying her as safety lead of the entire site. Jackyln Something. She’d tried hard to have him fired. His boss had saved him his job. The safety people are always making a big deal about when you work at heights, they think everyone who goes more than thirty feet up in the air is going to hit the ground dead, have to be scraped off the pavement.

“You seem better now. Are you finally seeing the therapist?” He has to remember that she isn’t talking to him, she’s talking to Alec Durak. The man from New Jersey nods. Jackyln Something smiles. They order wings from the waitress. They eat, and drink lemonade. Beer would be nicer, he thinks. She pays. Out in the Nissan, before he can start the car, she says, “Wait,” and puts her hand on his thigh. “Want me to make you feel good?” Her hand reaches for his fly. He notices a wedding ring on the hand. He laughs (are they married?). “I’m not feeling like myself,” he says and she stops. “It’s okay.” They drive back to the plant. She asks if they are still on for the following night. “Yes, of course,” he says. She writes down the name of the motel and the room number. “I’ll be there,” he says. He doesn’t want to ruin things for Alec Durak.

He goes back to the cubicle, continues reading The Sportswriter. Out the window he can see the crane lifting pieces to the top of the reactor where men are up there receiving them. 250 feet up. He hopes Alec is doing all right. Near the end of the day, the man from New Jersey boots up the computer and sees the only thing on the desktop is Excel. Up above, he can hear the birds flapping around in the drop ceiling, trying to find a way back out, or farther in, or trying to make a nest.

At four o’clock, he meets Alec at the contractor turnstile and Alec looks dirty and tired. They exchange car keys and wallets and agree to switch spots again the next morning. “How was it? What’d you think of those guys?” “They were fine. They didn’t look me in the eye, so how could they have noticed I wasn’t who I was supposed to be…” The man from New Jersey says, “It’s only a myth that men like that look each other in the eye. If anything, they’ll be the last people to know who you are.”

When he gets home, the man from New Jersey puts on his wedding ring and thinks about how the next day will be the first work day where he won’t have to worry about his finger getting ripped off. He’ll be able to keep the ring on the whole time. There is almost no way his finger can be ripped off doing data entry, alone, in his cubicle.

His wife comes home and is surprised to find him in a buttoned shirt, slacks, dress shoes. “I got a new job. No more climbing ladders up to the moon. No more opening flanges and letting the devil out as poisonous gas. No more welding on literal million pound bombs.” “That is so so so great, let’s celebrate.” They go out. Have dinner at the French place at the end of the street, Ohlala! it’s called. Crepes and beet salad. They walk to the bar up the block and have cocktails and feed the jukebox. The world turns and the night birds fly through the dark, and the moon rises, and the sea thrashes against the unmovable rocks that hold the sea where the sea stays. The man from Pennsylvania takes off his work clothes (which stink like fuel) and stands naked in the bathroom, looking at his clean-shaven face in the mirror and not liking it. He showers and can’t get the grease and grime out from under his nails. He goes to bed physically exhausted. Muscles he didn’t know he had are sore. To the east, the man from New Jersey feels fine. He walks into his own bathroom, drunk and smiling at the mirror. He doesn’t have to shave for work in the morning. He crawls into bed with his wife. She says, “You don’t seem tired tonight.” “I’m not.” “Good” she says, “that’s a good sign.”

They meet again the next morning, exchange badges, wallets, car keys. They agree to keep it up until the end of the week, at least. Alec Durak has a 35 mm camera with him. He says he will be working so high up and he is excited to snap photos of the view of the Goethals Bridge and Staten Island and most of New York. The man from New Jersey says, “I know that view well. Pretty isn’t it? Be safe today. Don’t let any of those guys touch your camera, they’ll smash it, or take pictures of their balls when you let your guard down.”

Back at his cubicle, he settles back into the novel. He is the first person in the office by nearly an hour. A bird is in the office. It startles him. He nearly falls out of his chair. A gray pigeon flaps by. He stands up and tries to open a window but sees it is impossible. He would need a screwdriver. He opens the stairwell but the bird has no interest in the stairwell. Some of his coworkers walk in, are upset that the stairwell door is open. A man hyperventilates about it. The door is supposed to be locked at all times, in case a shooter comes up. At least with the elevator they would need security clearance to get in the office. The bird is left alone. It flaps around the office and is ignored. A woman in the next cubicle says, “The maintenance men are coming later, they’ll solve the problem. And if they don’t, we’ll just get an office cat.”

At ten o’clock, Jackyln comes by his cubicle, sees him reading the novel. “Did you get that report done? I have to bring it to…” She stops speaking because she has noticed his hand, the gold band on his ring finger. “You’re married?” “Yeah.” “When did this happen?” She looks hurt. “A while now,” he says. She leaves quickly. He puts the book down and stands up. He looks around the office. Another bird is the office. A seagull sitting on the water cooler, looking confused.

He looks out the window at the reactor and the crane, and he thinks he sees something fall from the top of the structure. He sucks in his breath. If they dropped something, there will be trouble. Everyone involved will be drug tested and dragged in and interrogated; the man from Pennsylvania doesn’t have enough experience to know what kinds of lies to tell to cover up what has happened, or at least who to blame for it. He and his old coworkers know exactly how to cover something up and who to blame.

The man from New Jersey rushes to the elevator but is blocked by a woman with a party hat on who yells “Surprise!” It is Alec Durak’s birthday. They pull the man from New Jersey into the conference room and sing him the “Happy Birthday” song. There is a cake on the conference table and he is forced to make a wish and blow out the candles. And then he is forced to eat cake.

By the time he gets to the reactor—driving the Nissan, speeding past the guard shack, chased by security—he finds the job site empty, except for a man from the plant washing the red ground with a steam hose. The red washes away into the process unit sewer, the ground gray again. He has no time to ask questions. He is dragged back to the guard shack and questioned. They like his answers, and escort him all the way back to his cubicle, tell him he must have seen wrong, whatever it is he thinks he saw.

His new coworkers leave. He has half an hour to kill. He opens the stairwell again, finds the toolbox stored up near the ductwork. Gets a screwdriver. Comes back. Opens all the windows. The birds in the office look at him. They have no interest in the outside world. He closes all the windows. Shuts off the lights. Says goodnight to the birds. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

He waits at the turnstiles for Alec Durak, but Alec Durak never shows. He waits and waits. He drives the Nissan home, playing with his phone the entire way.

 

 

[Read the second part of this story, “(and Durak),” right here.]

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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