Sleeping Birds Do Not SingBy Jeffrey Pillow
July 02, 2010
I came in early yesterday from work. My wife and I had an appointment with our real estate agent to view a handful of homes. Before we left, I checked my messages on Facebook. In my inbox was a message I never expected to read from a mutual friend who now lives in Florida.
“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.
Between the ages of 15-18, I never had a greater friend than Brian. From dawn till dusk, we four were inseparable. Then the house came crumbling down. Rick had a bad trip on acid and did a stint in a psychiatric ward in Petersburg. Ricky was in and out of jail for drug possession, and BBP had returned to New Jersey to be with his family.
After he left, Brian used to call me at all hours of the night. His mind had began deteriorating long before he left, and as it would be later confirmed, he suffered from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia.
He changed his phone number a half dozen times, his number never the same each time he called.
“They are listening,” he would tell me. He believed the government had tapped his phone.
“They are following me,” he said. They being government spies.
He would see friends from Virginia he believed were in New Jersey, visiting.
“I saw Jeremiah,” he would say. “I saw Kelly and Gary.”
But he never really did. They were never in New Jersey.
He saw ghosts of friendship.
He ditched his cell phone and started using calling cards. He would call me from various payphones in Trenton, New Jersey. Then one day he arrived at my doorstep in a beat-up pickup truck. He had no driver’s license and he was supposed to be in court that day in New Jersey for assaulting a police officer. But he was here, in Phenix, Virginia, to visit his friends — one last time.
He arrived around 4 AM and we visited his old home that he had boobytrapped before he left. He believed people were breaking into his house when he was not there.
“Stealing my dope,” he thought.
But they were not.
A string was tied from the front door knob on the backside to the trigger of a loaded shotgun. If someone entered that was not supposed to, it’d be “all she wrote,” he said. But no one ever had their head blown off because no one ever entered his home except him.
After he left Phenix that day years ago, he called me a couple of time using his calling cards. Then I never heard from him again. None of us did. And we had no way of contacting him though I tried numerous times to find a way to get in touch with his sister.
“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.
From what cause, I don’t know just yet. I imagine I will shortly. Maybe. If anyone knows.
It could have been a car wreck. A sickness of some sort like cancer. Drug related. Suicide.
Suicide wouldn’t surprise me, though it saddens me.
“The comfort I take in his death,” I said to my wife, “is that he will have found peace that he no longer could find while alive.”
And I am trying to find a way to reach his sister but will probably fail miserably like I have for the past ten years.
We four were inseparable at the height of our teenage existence.
“He died,” I said to Ricky over the phone. He choked up.
“He died,” I said to Rick.
And we feel so detached from the death of a friend so great. I think in that detachment is the comfort he has finally found peace, as cliche as it may sound. It’s true.
I searched for his obituary but have been unable to find it. His family did not celebrate birthdays and, for all I know, maybe they do not celebrate deaths either.
“An individual person is not important,” he had said of his father’s beliefs which he did not share.
Years ago, in my last seminar while at the University of Virginia, we were given a final project. The class was The Road in American Literature taught by Jennifer Wicke. We had the option of writing a story 10-15 pages in length.
I ended up writing an 80-page story on BBP’s return to Phenix those years ago. I fictionalized it by changing the names. But it was no fiction. Brian’s name was not Ezekiel. My name was not Jackson. Ricky was not Charley. Rick was not Chuck. This is part of what I wrote:
I was lying in bed, a book in hand, my thumb resting on the inside joint of the pages when an old ghost pecked at the window in my room. The floor creaked as I made my way across to investigate the sound. The ghost pecked again. Crunchy wasps and ladybug shells, their souls retreated, were scattered in chipped white paint on the window sill. I drew up the Venetian blinds. Dust fell freely and tickled my nose. The apparition below stood in four sections, divided, suspended on the cross of the pane, glaring up at me. His arms were spread. He let them drop, releasing a pebble from his palm.
The figure motioned with his hand and began to walk toward the front door. I paused from where I stood and glimpsed at the neon light of the alarm clock atop my nightstand: 4:30 a.m. Possessed with the motion of the apparition’s hand, my body responded and drifted wearily down the staircase toward the front door. I began to open it simultaneously reaching up to flick the porch light on from the interior, but the bulb only flickered and fizzled out, the sight outside the door becoming visible only momentarily as if a match’s flame snubbed out. I opened the door. Three invisible Mary’s stood by the ghost in disbelief. None had removed the stone from the tomb but the body had emerged and now stood before me—intact, breathing. He is no Christ figure, I thought, only the criminal who asked for redemption in the final hours.
“It’s been a while Jackson,” the phantom said but ghosts do not speak. I stared into the darkness. The darkness stared back. The figure lifted a cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The red cherry lit up his face. The face grinned.
Quite some time had passed since I had last seen Ezekiel. I never expected to see that sinister face again—the split front lip, the cigarette dangling from it, tobacco smoke pouring out of his nostrils; but now, standing before me, the face beamed. The abandoned orphan had come home in search of his natural family. Dried spittle gathered around his mouth like a rabid dog broken free of its chain. A beat up Ford pickup truck sat in the distance with New Jersey plates. As the two of us began to walk toward the truck in unison, matching one another step for step, the smell of gas fumes too early in the morning nauseated me to the core of my stomach. Ezekiel turned the key. The engine roared in the calm of the otherwise silent morning as sleeping birds nested high atop the limbs.
Painted strokes on a gray-black canvas kept in harmony as Ezekiel and I rode off into the hours before dawn. The crisp morning air drifting from the open windows of the truck wrestled with loose paper in the floorboard as we began to pick up speed.
I looked at Ezekiel.
His hair had grown out, an afro of sorts, jutting into the background like hungry snakes lying wait on the dewy grass of a cornfield in spring time. His mind was ready to bite, spit venom, and then retreat back to the path it slithered its way from prior to our meeting again. Thick glasses like Coca-Cola bottles framed his eyes. These were the same glasses given to him less than a month before his disappearance, now a little scratched on the lens but holding up nevertheless. Ezekiel looked as if a mad scientist or some sort of social deviant unfit to roam the streets freely at will.
Send him back, his father would say.
Send him back.
To the white padded walls of the asylum. Four pills at breakfast. Four pills at dinner. Mouthwash that tastes like toilet bowl water. There you just sit in a room without locks. An eye peeking through the keyhole. Peeking through the pane.
A toilet in the open.
A nurse watching you shit and piss and twiddle your thumbs and color in a coloring book like you are in elementary school.
She knows by now on average the amount of times it takes you to wipe your ass. She watches you like a hawk does prey through the glass pane and counts each wipe out of boredom more than anything. Six good wipes usually and before you wipe she knows you always lift your ass off the seat a little and look back into the bowl to see what you’ve expended.
“Cigarette,” Ezekiel asked tapping the bottom of the pack with his palm. His face lightens up.
“I’ll have one.”
“I thought maybe you had quit.”
Two cars were out at this time of morning: Ezekiel’s raggedy pickup the two of us secured in its seats and Kenneth Gold, the local newspaper deliveryman dropping off a fresh batch of the day’s Dispatch. Ezekiel flung his arm into the air, waving. Kenneth reared his head only to nod slightly and in a begrudging manner, and then returned to opening the orange box to place inside the newspapers. Ezekiel turned off the highway and up the dirt driveway to his former residence. The road was weathered and eroded, conduits made so by rain onto the silt and bits of orange clay, nay enough compacted dirt nor rock to keep the road whole and ingot; and as we traveled down it, the truck shook from side to side as the house came into view. He downshifted gears, slowing the engine to a halt. The porch light was on.
The hummingbird moth
Danced into the morning sun
But there was no sun.
Ezekiel took a drag from his cigarette and I heard the crackling of the paper as the cherry ate away toward the filter. He removed his glasses and wiped the corners of his eyes. The whites of his eyes had the appearance of jaundice and the vessels around the iris were burst. The stubby beard on his face looked of four or five days since last seeing a razor. The smell of sweat and an unwashed body seeped through the white shirt he wore, the neck of the shirt yellow and brown. He opened the door and placed his foot to the ground. Ice crystals had formed in clods of orange and brown soil. When Ezekiel’s feet met the earthen floor, a crunching sound was heard as the crystals collapsed into nothing. Standing outside of the vehicle, he crouched down and peered back in to where I still sat. He flicked the cigarette butt to the ground.
“You coming,” he said.
As we made our way on foot up the remainder of the driveway, the white light from the porch grew brighter. The house sat high atop the hill like a poor man’s plantation manor. The windows were non-existent and the panes stared back at us forming hollowed out eyes. Shards of glass had fallen from the metal crosses that were not completely concave as if melting ice-cycles in February stabbing into the ground. The roof was of rusted tin spotted with patched blocks of shiny silver. Black tar used as sealant oozed from the corner of the patches, its tin quilt in dire need of more patterns to sustain the rain whence it came, leaking from the ceiling.
Together the two of us sat down on the front stoop. Ezekiel pulled the pack of cigarettes from out his front pocket and tapped two cigarettes above the rest. He lit one and the other by its cherry, handing it to me. The smell of smoke was thick as we both looked out into the yard. Pipes were scattered about, as were bolts, a porcelain toilet, and kitchen sink. Primordial oak trees that witnessed every life that went inside, that died inside, and that left and never returned stood to the left and right of the tattered home now become of itself with no inhabitants yet another decrepit country house. The limbs reached out like his father’s hands beating the termite infested wood siding and moths flew into the porch light and fell like Icarus back to the wooden planks into a black sea of other dead and decomposed insects.
Ezekiel stood up from the stoop and peered into one of the broken windows at the front of the house. Inside were buckets to relieve the floor of rot. Trails of splotched black mold peppered the rotting floor. He pulled a flashlight out from inside his jacket pocket and shined it at the ceiling. The ceiling was warped and stained tawny and coffee colored, and there too splotches of black mold. A lone light flickered about inside, shorting from the water that had leaked from the roof over time and found its way into its circuits.
The sun rose, febrile and hot orange, birthing the start of a new day. Far off, the cockalorum of a rooster could be heard, the shrill of its lungs blowing mightily as was its everyday call. Sleeping birds arose and ruffled their feathers amongst the leaves of the oaks and people all across this sleepy town smacked at their alarm clocks and awoke with deep yawns expelled from their guts . . . .
What a tragedy. Sorry to hear about it. Hopefully this deeply moving piece helped you process a lot of the uncertainty- it seems like it did because you write with a sense of acceptance.
Hang in there.
In writing this, there was acceptance of Brian’s death. When my wife and I were writing up the invitations to our wedding last year, I made the comment that I didn’t know whether Brian was alive or dead as I had no way of getting in touch with him. He fell so quickly from grace and it really was painful to see his mind deteriorate so fast, and at such a young age.
Sorry to hear about him. He was always a chill dude.
Indeed he was.
Moving piece, Jeffrey. I’m so sorry that your friend had to experience so much inner turmoil, and so sorry for your loss as well. That one line of yours particularly haunted me: “He saw ghosts of friendship.” Wow. Just makes me feel blessed that I see all my own friendships so loud and clear and true. Peace.
And he himself was like a ghost of his former self the last time I saw him so long ago. Though it broke my heart to hear of his death, I also felt like it may have been the peace he needed and that to live to old age with this disease would have been torture. I have a relative like this and her schizophrenia is nowhere near the upper echelon as Brian’s, and I know how difficult her life is because of it. It’s strange for me to say his death may have been for the best but in my heart I know it was.
I’m sorry for your loss Jeffrey. That you memorialized him several years ago seems fitting.
Oh, Pillow, I am so sorry for the first loss of your friend to that dreaded disease and then the second loss to death. This is such a sad story which this disease repeats in other people’s loved ones ad nauseum.
This is a tribute to all of them.
Irene, thank you for reading. I believe schizophrenia, at least from my personal experience with friends and family afflicted by this, is a disease where sometimes death is the only peace. I lost a friend ten years ago because she was struck and killed while driving by a schizophrenic who was in search of her own death. She accomplished her death and also killed my friend in the process. When I used to think of Brian, I sometimes wondered if he would ever be capable of doing that to someone because when his paranoia took hold, there was no logic, there was no reasoning. His phone calls used to scare me to be honest. It was if talking to a wholly different person and not the great friend I had known in youth. I never wanted him to harm his own self but was scared he had the potential to harm someone else.
Thank you Dana. When I wrote Sleeping Birds years ago, it was already as if he was dead and I was saying goodbye. The story, ultimately, is about him returning home to say goodbye for the last time. Now he has.
“I was lying in bed, a book in hand, my thumb resting on the inside joint of the pages when an old ghost pecked at the window in my room. The floor creaked as I made my way across to investigate the sound. The ghost pecked again. Crunchy wasps and ladybug shells, their souls retreated, were scattered in chipped white paint on the window sill. I drew up the Venetian blinds. Dust fell freely and tickled my nose. The apparition below stood in four sections, divided, suspended on the cross of the pane, glaring up at me. His arms were spread. He let them drop, releasing a pebble from his palm.”
Brilliant writing. Sorry for your friends passing.
Thanks Sheree. This story, for various reasons, has always been one of my favorites. Whether I do anything with it one day or not, I do not know. For now, it will serve as a short tribute.
I’m sorry for your loss, Jeffro, but happy you were able to write such a generous and moving tribute to him. The prose here is wonderful. I just wish the story had a happier ending.
I wish it had a happier ending too. But I do believe there is something to smile about knowing he no longer has to battle such demons that existed inside him. They were the torment of his morning and night. I truly believe he finally found his peace.
A great piece, Jeffrey. You had me at every moment in this, an early startling philosophical one that Rich has quoted, too, especially striking for its wise “wrap” of the situation: “He saw ghosts of friendship.”
You’ve invested your story with awesome power, with its succinct first half, and its detail-rich second half. The ending, the last paragraph, spares your experience from despair. It builds and elevates energy and spirit. I especially liked the last line: “Sleeping birds arose and ruffled their feathers amongst the leaves of the oaks and people all across this sleepy town smacked at their alarm clocks and awoke with deep yawns expelled from their guts . . . .”
Thank you Judy. I chose to excerpt that last line from the story and move it up. The dawning of a new day. A morning baptism. A new start. I believe that is peace when yesterday becomes too difficult to bear.
Excellent choice, Jeffrey; the line’s extraordinarily vivid and fresh, filled with sense-impressions offered in so few words.
The topic posed many difficulties, but you met every challenge.
Your writings contain such compelling mini-worlds.
Jeffrey, your writing in this piece is so lovely but so sad.
He may have seen the ‘ghosts of friendship’ but with this piece you have seen off the spirits and made that friendship alive. It never dies.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Ah, man… I looked at this at first and thought Huh. That’s a longer piece for Pillow, and I don’t think you could have done it justice any other way.
I’ll raise a toast to your lost friend, and wish him peace.
And one for you, as well.