I have a big map of Canada, but I’m taking it off the wall now because I no longer have the money to do the Canadian road trip I wanted. Instead of rolling up the map, I lay it flat under the plastic crates holding up my mattress. Then I look at the wall awhile and trim my fingernails and toenails. Then I open the window and look at the tree where the magpie has built its nest. The magpie is not around now, but I’m sure it will be back soon to make noise. I close the window. Then there’s a knock at the door and it feels like all of the heavier particles in the air have fallen to the carpet and we’re floating.
At my door is a single flower in a pot that’s wrapped up in clear plastic. The hallway is otherwise empty. The main door to the building is sucking in and out of the jamb because people who don’t live here never shut it fully. I check outside but don’t see any delivery person or vehicle. I don’t see anyone at all. Back inside, I toss the plastic and set the pot on my small table.
There is a card that reads, “Thanks for everything, T. –P.” But I am not T. My name is Adam Banks and neither part of that has a T. I regret throwing the plastic away because whoever delivered the flower might have made a mistake: hasty me not thinking things through. I’m usually so organized.
In the hallway, I check the mailboxes, but no one else has a name that starts with T. There are four tenants on this side of the building and four on the other side. I check the other side and they also don’t have any names that fit.
I don’t know any of my neighbors’ names. The magpie returns. It chatters at nothing, as usual.
Then it’s night and everyone is getting home from work. I hear the footsteps in the apartment above mine and the door slamming across the hall. I wait 15 minutes before going to knock on their doors. The pot feels serious in my hands, its rough glass like some old building stuffed with history. They don’t look annoyed when I ask if they were expecting a plant, but they’re abrupt and firm that it’s not theirs. On the other side of the building, I continue asking, but still nobody knows who T is. Only one of the tenants engages me further about the flower. It’s the last person I’ve come to. She doesn’t seem to be looking directly at me. She wants to know what kind of flower it is.
“Well, I don’t know,” I say. “You don’t know?”
“Well, no,” she says, and we’re standing there, jockeying for position in that silence.
“I don’t know how to take care of it, even,” I say, when it’s too uncomfortable.
“Give me a second,” she says, and shuts the door. I wait about 30 seconds before she reopens the door and pauses, as though to see if I’ll do something. I don’t. She shuts the door and gestures for me to exit the building.
Outside, I am kind of spinning in circles, just waiting to see what she’s expecting of me. She is a little slow, but appears precise in her footsteps. She passes me and climbs the short staircase to my side of the building. When we’re both inside, I make sure the door is closed and say, “It’s down and to the left.” She leads the way.
When we’re inside, she says, “Where is it?”
“It’s in my hands,” I say.
“You had it all this time?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I say, and it seems all too serious, deathly serious. The magpie is going on and on, and then suddenly this person laughs. She laughs continuously, barrel after barrel of sound coming out of her. Her face turns red and mine must, as well. I start scratching the pot with my newly cut fingernails and the pot squeaks back at me. It must be one sound too many because that’s the point right there where my brain crunches. It crunches and it hits me that she’s blind and I don’t know what to do about that, so I just tell her what my name is and then listen when she says hers. It’s Michelle.
“I thought a flower that someone delivered would make more noise,” she says.
“I took the plastic off.”
“Do you want to smell the flower?”
I hold it out and she reaches out and smells it, then lightly touches the petals. “Color?” she says.
“Red, with some yellow.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Black.”
“It’s a tulip,” she says. “Keep it dry, breeze and sunshine. Don’t need to water it, really.”
“You know a lot about flowers?”
“I know some.”
“Why don’t you take it?”
“It was sent to you,” she says, and shrugs. I shrug, too. Michelle retraces her steps and leaves.
That night, I crack a window in the bedroom and leave the tulip there, for the breeze. I don’t water it and I don’t spritz it and I go to bed thinking, not one neighbor’s name. I had to check every single one of the mailboxes.
The next day, the tulip seems smaller. The one small leaf on its stem is droopy. I knock on Michelle’s door, but she doesn’t answer. I check the internet next, but apparently I’m asking the wrong questions because nothing I’m finding is useful or relevant. All I’m seeing are the many places tulips come from. Dry climate this and that. Mountains. Colors. The internet confirms my new flower has a problem, but can’t confirm what action, if any, I should take to help it recover.
I briefly spiral into yet another search for how to clear magpies from trees, and as always learn nothing. People say magpies are good luck. They say a magpie making noise means good things are coming to you. All I got was fired. Now I have this flower, which I couldn’t maintain for even a single night.
I go knock on Michelle’s door another time, but she still doesn’t answer. Some instinct drives me across the hall, where I almost knock on Michelle’s neighbor’s door. My hand is up and balled into a fist before I realize what I’m doing. I stop myself and breathe.
Then I’m outside looking at Michelle walk toward the building. She is carrying groceries.
“Michelle?” I say.
“Yes?” She looks in my direction, but not right at me. She is not carrying a cane.
“It’s me, Adam.”
“Um,” I say. “Did you buy fruit?”
“Sorry, I don’t know,” I say. “Can I talk to you?”
“Yes,” she says. “Here? Or do you want to come in?”
I think it over and decide I want to go in.
Her apartment looks a lot like mine, both its shape and how it’s organized. There isn’t much on the walls. Her furniture looks comfortable. She has a nice computer. There are globs of glue on the stove knobs and the dial on the microwave. It’s so much to take in.
“Excuse me,” she says, and goes to the bedroom. She returns wearing a different shirt.
“So?” she says.
“Why is there glue on the stove knobs? Sorry to ask. I’m interested in organization, I guess.”
“I measure the heat that way.”
“What does that mean, you’re interested in organization?”
“I think I just mean I’m organized.”
“How do you use your computer?”
“Is this what you wanted to talk about?” she asks. “How I live as a blind person?”
“No,” I say. “Sorry.”
“I think the tulip is dying.”
In my apartment, she fingers the petals and asks the details: when I found it like this and what I did to it and what I’ve done to it since it began to wilt. I explain all that I can and she says, “Is your apartment always this stuffy?”
“Is it stuffy?”
“Do you have mold?”
“Might just be too wet, Adam.”
“I can’t do anything about that.”
“You can get a dehumidifier.”
“I can’t, really.”
“You can just plant the flower outside.”
“I could,” I say, but I know immediately I don’t want to. I don’t know why I don’t want to.
There is an all-encompassing silence that lasts until Michelle smiles at me and leaves.
Life is weird, and I can’t get her out of my head all that day and night. I imagine the two of us doing things together, but the things we’re doing are fierce and angry. We have axes and are chopping down the tree with the magpie in it. We are tossing the magpie back and forth with big gloves. We are burning its nest. We are in a car, in Canada, crashing into a mountain. Then we’re just leaving the car where it was destroyed and walking onto the mountain. I think we have a cabin there and will just live a peaceful life.
When it’s morning, I feel inspired and crazy, and in the haze of this I go out and buy a dehumidifier. I feel like the man in that book who spends all of his money building an igloo for the stray penguins he found in his backyard. The flower is my penguin and I’m an idiot. I don’t mean that, but I am sweating while carrying this big, ridiculous box into my apartment.
A day passes, and throughout that day I empty the dehumidifier’s water bucket twice. The flower quickly regains its composure. The flower seems persuasive again, like itself.
I go to tell Michelle about it, but before I can explain why I’m at her door, she’s asking me to come in and read some mail for her.
“I don’t usually need help,” she says. “I set most things up with email.”
“Who reads the emails to you?”
“No one does,” she says.
“Oh,” I say.
“Screen reader.” I don’t know what that means, but I accept it. I want to ask why she doesn’t carry the white cane or have a special dog, but I don’t. I want to ask why she didn’t call one of her friends to come and read the mail for her, but I don’t.
She says, “If the envelope has a little plastic window, I know it’s trash. If it doesn’t, I imagine it could be something.”
“You don’t have to explain,” I say, but of course I want her to.
It’s intimate. I guess it’s also technically illegal since I am the one opening the envelope and removing the letter and reading what’s there. It’s handwritten. It’s brief, but gushing. It’s overflowing with emotion and heart and that makes my heart fill up, too.
It goes, “I don’t know what to say beyond ‘I’m sorry.’ Remember when we drove 10 hours to that cabin in Bedford and fished, but we didn’t catch anything? And you got lost out in the woods and I was wandering around, yelling your name and kicking pinecones? I am having dreams of that weekend. We had some good times and we can get back to where we were, just as long as you don’t give up. I am not giving up. I wrote you a letter every day for a month and you loved it and now I have so much time to do what you love. I promise, I’m not ever giving up.”
“That’s the end of it,” I say.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s the address on the envelope?”
“The apartment number?”
What force is living in my building to disrupt these gestures of love? What force is in me that’s pulling them from where they’re really headed? Why can’t the force do something useful, like push the magpie into some higher, farther tree?
“What do we do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Why don’t you use a cane?”
“I don’t need one,” she says. She takes the letter and adds, “Thanks, see you.” I’m home before I remember that I went to her with something specific to say.
The next week, the flower is wilting again, and Michelle says it’s because the pot is not big enough for the flower’s roots. A new pot, I think. How much is that going to run me? But it’s not that much money. I buy soil, too, only to realize after I’m back that there’s plenty of dirt around the neighborhood, behind the building or in the park down the street. I’m raising penguins to be handsome, healthy creatures, but it’s summer in Wyoming.
Michelle tells me what to do and stands by while I repot my tulip.
“You could just plant it out here.”
“No.” I’ve said no to this a few times. She keeps on suggesting it.
“Do you hear that bird?” she says.
“It’s a magpie,” I tell her.
“It sounds like it’s dying.”
“I heard this story about magpies,” I say. “Wait, no, I read it.” It feels like I heard it, though, because it was gushing. Some man hit and killed a magpie with his car. It was an accident, but still violent. He kicked the bloody thing off the highway into the tall grass. The next day, a whole bunch of magpies were waiting in the tree outside the man’s house. He fainted that day and ended up in the hospital for a week. The magpies were gone when he got back home.
“A group of magpies is called a murder,” I say.
“What’d the doctors say about why he fainted?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” Michelle says.
“Do you know what a magpie looks like?”
“You saw one?”
“I wasn’t always blind.”
It’s silent as I’m waiting for her to explain how she lost her sight. Instead of telling me, she finds the steps leading to the entrance of my side of the building and sits down and picks at her fingernails, which, somehow, are even.
The flower looks pretty good in the new pot, which is gray. Some bees come around to check out the flower. I wave them away, which makes them angry or frustrated. One of them lands on my arm and I forget to stay still. In the heat of everything, I’m stung near my elbow. Michelle hears me moaning and asks and I explain. She is smiling as she comes over to feel the bump.
“Stop that,” I say. “It hurts.”
At the same time, though, I know she’s just trying to remind me that everything is only what it is.
In fact, I’ve been thinking about that idea a lot since I met Michelle. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I got the flower. Maybe Michelle and the flower are the same thing, the same time and the same material and the same effect, like on me. I want to be persuasively me, but every day that passes is a few miles off of the road trip that I had entirely mapped out and paid for. I was going to do a large circle, a spectacular circle, through mountains, plains, and near lakes. That adventure was going to define me, but now my adventure is gone and I’m not finding another job or a cheaper apartment or anything. I’m just emptying out, like a balloon slowly descending from the ceiling at the mall in Cheyenne.
And yet here is Michelle, pressing a cold washcloth onto my elbow.
“I think it’s amazing how you live,” I say.
“Please don’t ever say stuff like that to me.”
“It’s all right. I’m just saying.”
“How did you learn about flowers?”
“Where does she live now?”
“She moved back to Virginia.”
“Oh,” I say. “My parents live in Illinois.”
“I hate Illinois,” she says. “And Virginia. It’s humid.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I hate it, too.”
She presses more firmly and it hurts, and then soon enough the pain stops.
One night, the magpie gets going late, while I’m sleeping, which doesn’t usually happen. It starts at sunrise and ends at sunset, in general. I can count on getting to sleep easily enough and resting comfortably for at least the early AM hours. Now, though, it’s the middle of the night and the magpie is squawking and I was dreaming of fishing with Michelle and not catching anything and it was the greatest dream I had all year. I punch the wall, and then the mattress, and then I roll out of bed and punch the floor. I am not someone who punches things, but on this night I throw as many punches as possible. Eventually, I go upstairs and knock on the neighbor’s door. I’m just pounding at it until she’s up and screaming, “Who is it?”
“I’m from downstairs,” I say. “Adam.”
She opens the door and says, “What?”
“Do you hear that bird?”
“Jesus Christ,” she says. “Come back tomorrow.”
I go downstairs and outside and punch the tree until it sounds like the magpie is laughing at me. I hear a window open and close, and then I go inside. At my door is the neighbor, who is saying, “Now I hear it. Why in the world would you point it out like that?”
“Sorry,” I say.
She just sighs and goes home.
In my apartment, I punch the carpet until my throat burns. It makes me feel a little better, but not totally. I mostly feel embarrassed and weak. I sleep in my sleeping bag in the corner farthest from where the magpie’s tree is.
I’m more embarrassed in the morning, but I tell Michelle about it, anyway, because she isn’t someone who reacts to things in ways I would expect.
“Why do you think it bothers you so much?” she says.
“I have to hear it.”
“Yeah, but it’s a bird.”
“It’s really loud. You heard it. You said it sounded like it was dying.”
“Yeah,” she says. “What do you want to do, then? Besides talk about it?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you ever been to Canada?”
“No, have you?”
“No, but I want to go.”
“I don’t know. Adventure.”
“That makes sense.”
“Meet new people, see new things.”
“That makes sense,” she says, but now that she’s said the phrase a second time, I think I’m not making sense at all. Michelle fills the silence with, “I have an idea for the magpie, if you actually want to try something,” and then we’re at the hardware store buying supplies. We use the supplies in her apartment. She’s very creative, very artful, yet spare. Our scarecrow is sleek, trim, like her hands, like my hands, like our apartments. She sticks herself with a needle at one point, and it stands out to me because it feels like a crack in her. It’s the first time I’ve seen her pause, pause and sigh, as though she regrets having to do something a certain way, a different way, a way different from how she would normally do it. How she normally did it. Was it disease that made her blind, or was it an accident? Did a bird peck out her retinas? She doesn’t even wear sunglasses, which is something I thought all blind people did.
“Am I bleeding?” she says.
“Why are you my friend?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
“Do you want to talk about that?”
“No, I guess not.”
“All right.” She thinks about it and adds, “Don’t ever kiss me, please.”
“If I change my mind about it, I’ll tell you.”
“Are you handsome?”
“I’m not bad looking.”
“You seem tall and lanky and with a big mouth. Is that true?”
“More or less.”
And she laughs.
We go outside to hang the scarecrow in the tree. It’s all cloth and sandbags, with a small pillow for a head. It’s heavy enough to stay put in the branches, but light enough to move in the wind: in the Wyoming wind, at least.
It’s got my old clothes on it, and for a second I imagine it’s me in that tree, like I was some gesture of love sent by God somewhere. I too didn’t get to where I was going. I just got stuck in the tree.
“How’s it look?” she says.
“Wait and see,” she says, so I do. All that day, the magpie doesn’t come around. The next day it doesn’t. Then the next day, too. Then the day after that, I go knock on my upstairs neighbor’s door to tell her about the scarecrow. She says she’s already seen it, and thanks me, but she thanks me in a way like she’s congratulating me on doing something that was obviously my job, anyway. It bothers me because this is a building, a community sharing the bird, but I let it go.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
Michelle knocks on my door a few hours later and it’s startling, first because someone is calling for me, then second because I’m always the one who has to go to Michelle.
“I know you don’t work,” she says. “Is it because you don’t need to?”
“No,” I say.
“If there was a job, you would do it?”
“I know about a job,” she tells me. “Do you want to hear about it?”
My first thought is yes and my second is about how she would ever hear about a job, which is upsetting to me. Have I imagined her as alone and lonely all this time? An isolated individual? No, not totally, I think.
“Someone I work with mentioned it.”
“You have a job?”
“How do you think I have money?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not on disability.”
“Don’t be sorry. Now you know that I’m not.”
The interview is at a grocery store, but the job isn’t really about working at the store. They need someone to help organize and manage shipments and truck routes. I knew I was perfect for it when Michelle described the job to me. I wanted to cry when I heard what it was, but not because it seemed like a good job. It’s because I have something distinctive enough to make Michelle think of me when she hears about certain kinds of jobs.
Now, as the manager asks me questions, I have perfect answers for everything. I can tell that I am impressing him. I want to cry, yes, but I don’t, and this impresses me, as well. Before leaving the store, I go to the floral department and buy a gift for Michelle.
“A cactus?” she says.
“I don’t know why.”
“I love it,” she says, and she laughs, so I kiss her, though not on her lips. I just kiss her on her cheek. She stands it until I’m finished and then asks if I remember what she told me.
“Yes, I remember.”
“Bye,” she says.
The next afternoon, the grocery store calls me. Just like that, I’m employed.
In the space between getting the job and starting the job, I decide to plant the tulip outside of my house, but part of why I decide to do it is that the flower is outgrowing its pot again. It’s an honestly magnificent flower. I don’t mind saying that it is, if only because I am not solely responsible for why it’s so magnificent.
I think about the park, but there are no other tulips there. I ask Michelle where there are other tulips and she says that she doesn’t know. She suggests planting in the park and I ask why and she says because there probably aren’t any other tulips there. I think, well, that is a good point.
The two of us go there on the Saturday before the Monday when I’ll start work. She’s carrying the flower and I’m carrying the soil that was left over from the last time I repotted it. There are kids at the park. They’re with their parents. They’re running around the swing set and laughing. We pass by them and head for the rock pile at the far end of the park. There are pines there and some spaces for flowers. The spaces look weedy, though, not beautiful, but that’s no reason to find somewhere else.
Michelle trips on a small rock and gets back up. The tulip is fine.
Then I trip and get soil all over myself.
“What?” Michelle says.
“I’m an idiot,” I say, and she laughs, and together we get on our hands and knees and plant my mostly red tulip in a sea of not-red flowers.
“Have you ever gotten lost?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“I read that letter for you about that person who got lost.”
“Sure, I got lost.”
“Were you blind when you were lost?”
“Yeah, it was after I went blind.”
“Where was it?”
“Just on the street,” she says. “It wasn’t anything special. I was surrounded by people.”
“How’d you get back?”
“I kept asking bus drivers where they were going.”
“Eventually, one was going somewhere close to where I needed to go.”
“How’d you find the bus stop?”
“I listened for it.”
“Buses stopping and doors opening and people waiting together. Shuffling. Newspapers.”
“It’s not an exciting story.”
“Do you want to go fishing sometime with me?”
“Yes,” she says. “I do.”
I hear magpies and look around the park to find them. I can’t figure out where they are. All of the trees are swaying like their branches are holding weight. Yet, no birds are flying. It’s just that sound, constant and firm. The birds are talking to themselves or to each other. There’s no way to know. Maybe the magpies are warning other non-magpie birds not to come near them, or maybe they’re calling out for new friends.
The only time I was truly lost was while I was driving around Denver trying to find the house of a guy who was selling a motorcycle. I didn’t even want to buy a motorcycle, not really, but apparently I wanted to see it enough to drive across state lines. I was scared awhile when I couldn’t find the right street. Then I found the street, but couldn’t find the house. The layout of the neighborhood became confusing and I wanted to stop, but didn’t. Time passed and I found the house, but then I didn’t pull over because I thought there wasn’t a point anymore. My story of getting lost is also not that exciting and I don’t tell it to anybody who isn’t directly asking about something like Denver or buying things off of “Craigslist” or other classified ads. There aren’t many people who ask about that.
Michelle and I walk home quietly. I’m half expecting to hear the magpie when I get back. Of course it’s not there. Still gone. Michelle walks to her side of the building and I walk to mine. Before going in, I check on the scarecrow, as is my routine now. It’s fine. The tree is tall and smells fresh.
Maybe I’ll buy another flower. Maybe another one will be sent to me. Maybe I’ll go to my job and love it, or maybe not, because the irony is not lost on me. I was going to hit the road, and now I’ll be sending others out on trips. For a living, I’ll do that.
My apartment is quiet, save for the hum of the dehumidifier. I empty the bucket on the lawn because why waste that water? I keep the windows open, for the breeze. I put the map back on the wall, but I don’t mark it up with pencil like I did before. I try to remain open to what the world is, because at this point I can’t see any other option but that one.
I choose some clothes for Monday, the first day, a big day. I sit down. There are many small things, and I think they are enough to build a life.
Tim Raymond has work forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Passages North, and others. He teaches high school in South Korea. He also manages Problem House, a new short story contest for emerging writers.