April 25, 2014
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
-Hamlet, Act V, sc.2
A sparrow flew into the basement. It was a beautiful spring day outside, so why it thought a cinderblock cave with fluorescent lighting was where it wanted to be is beyond me. I didn’t want to be in there, but I’d been putting chicken necks through a meat grinder, which should have been a warning to the sparrow. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I left it in there I knew it would die. I’d found other animals, mostly mice, that had died trapped in the basement. Mice shouldn’t have any trouble finding their way in and out of a basement, but maybe they got caught under the shovel when it fell. I’m not sure. I only know I’ve found their dried corpses. But I was afraid of the sparrow. When I was a kid a sparrow had built a nest in my parents’ garage. Once as I was coming down the stairs it hovered in the air, shrieking at me. My mother said it was protecting its nest and I was lucky I didn’t get my eyes pecked out, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in the basement until I was sure it and its family had flown the coop. Even though I could have closed the basement door and not gone back down there for a couple of days, until the sparrow starved or became dehydrated or, by some miracle, found its way out, I couldn’t do that. Maybe I would have done it anyway, but I was thinking of Fluffy.
For my sixth birthday I told my grandparents I wanted a parakeet. After checking with my parents they brought me one. My grandfather had named him "Bill", which I didn’t realize at the time was pretty funny. Bill’s cage was put in my room, and he was my pet parakeet for less than twenty-four hours. I was sitting at the kitchen table having lunch when my mother, who was by the stairs to my room, screamed and then started crying. And I started crying, even though I had no idea. The family Dachshund, Gretchen, had somehow gotten Bill, and brought him down in her mouth, like a feathered dog toy. Since I hadn’t opened Bill’s cage, and I don’t think anyone else did either, how he got out is a mystery. Maybe the door of his cage was just loose. We made a quick trip to the pet store, and I came home with Fluffy, who would be my pet parakeet for more than a year, surviving my next birthday and making it to the following spring.
My father had a modest collection of Playboy magazines. From what I’ve heard this isn’t unusual, although I seemed to be the only kid in the neighborhood whose father did. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t something I was supposed to know, and I don’t know why I opened the cabinet in the den and found them, but there they were. And they were interesting. Hey, what kid wouldn’t be interested in an interview with Norman Mailer? I would sneak an occasional peek if it was safe, but mostly left them alone. I preferred Sesame Street. My mistake was telling my best friend Trent about them. Looking back I realize Trent was my "best friend" for only two reasons: our houses were close together and we were the same age, except for a brief two-month period each year when I was older. After my friend Chuck, who also lived nearby, moved away Trent was the only kid I had to play with. We didn’t have much in common, but then it didn’t matter. We rode our Big Wheels together, and had Star Wars adventures. It says a lot about how different we were–or maybe just how different I was–that Trent always wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, and I really dug being C-3PO. Or we’d kick a ball around, or make up our own weird games on the fly. Most of the time things were fine.
When we were bored, though, Trent’s mind would inevitably turn to my father’s Playboy collection. I didn’t get it. We’d found a time or two to flip through each one, and once that was done I thought we could move on. There were times, though, when getting one and going through it page by page was all Trent could think about. He’d concoct elaborate schemes for getting one out of the house. Well, maybe "elaborate" is the wrong word.
"You could just bring one out."
"My mom’s in the kitchen."
"Sneak it by her."
"Put it in a paper bag."
"What if she asks what’s in it?"
At this point Trent’s scheme would break down. I’d suggest we hunt for bugs in the vacant lot or build a cabin out of sticks in the backyard. Trent would sigh and stare vacantly and say he was thinking of going home. And at times like that I didn’t mind. If he wasn’t interested in doing something fun and that wouldn’t get me in trouble–hey, I didn’t mind getting both of us in trouble, like the time I found a box of matches and shared with him the joy of burning leaves in the drainage ditch–I could play by myself for a while.
If everyone in my family was outside, though, Trent would inevitably ask why couldn’t we go inside and peruse a Playboy or two. I had counter-arguments, but they were weaker. The possibility of getting in trouble was lower. Usually I could stall until something like lunch or my parents finishing whatever they were doing outside took the pressure off, but Trent’s obsession was staggering in its power. His single-mindedness could wear down the pyramids if there was a possibility of seeing a naked woman inside. And on one beautiful spring day when my parents were digging flower beds in the front yard, I finally broke down. We went inside, into the den, with Trent’s little brother Terry tagging along. Terry always tagged along. I think Terry and I both hung out with Trent because there was nothing better for us to do.
I opened the cabinet, Trent selected an issue, placed it on the floor, and we started peeling back the pages. Where was Terry? I assumed he was in the den with us, although I know he was wandering around, not yet being mature enough to have much of an interest in the droll cartoons of Don Addis and Gahan Wilson. I wasn’t paying much attention to Terry. I won’t say I was reading the articles, but my mind wasn’t entirely on the garden of earthly delights spread out in front of me and Trent either. Maybe that’s why I noticed Gretchen barking while Trent wouldn’t have noticed an atomic bomb. I made Trent put the Playboy away, which he did, reluctantly, and I ran upstairs. Fluffy was out of his cage, beating his wings against my window. It’s amazing how high Dachshunds can leap, and Gretchen was on my bed jumping and snapping. I still don’t know why I didn’t grab Gretchen and drag her away. It would have been so easy to do that and close my door and then get my parents, but I was in a panic. I ran outside. I came back in with my parents just as Gretchen was coming down the stairs with Fluffy in her mouth.
My mother was suspicious. Why had we been in the den? What were we even doing in the house? Had we been watching Terry the whole time? Yes, we both said, we’d been watching Terry. He’d never left the den. We were sure of that. What were we doing? All I could say was "I don’t know."
Parents: when you ask one of your larvae a seemingly obvious question and they give an answer like "I don’t know" you may be surprised to learn that even though it sounds like a lie, and a stupid one, it may be a completely honest answer. I didn’t know what I was doing in the house. I really wanted to be outside. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single time that entire day that I wanted to be inside. From one perspective "I don’t know" was a lie of omission. From another it was the truth.
There would be no trip to the pet store that day, or any other day. I wouldn’t get another parakeet, which was fine. Yes, I’d learned that parakeets were pretty boring pets, but really I knew I didn’t deserve one. I was responsible for Fluffy’s death. It seems obvious that Terry had gone to my room and opened the cage, but he was four, and Trent and I should have been watching him. We shouldn’t have even been in the house. Gretchen did the actual killing, but dogs will do what they do. Trent convinced me to go in the house in the first place, but I could have said no. What was he going to do? His only weapon was "I won’t be your friend" and he’d used it so many times I knew it was an empty threat. It was a regular pattern of our relationship. We’d fall out over something, and an hour later, after some apologies, Luke and C-3PO would be saving the galaxy again.
So, edging my way carefully around the basement to the toolbox, I put on a pair of safety goggles, then put my body between the back wall and the sparrow. Moving forward I guided it to the door. It turned, saw the sunny day outside, and flew out and away. I don’t believe in fate or karma, although, as an honest skeptic, I have to admit that everything’s possible. Maybe there is a great cosmic tally sheet where our actions, whether they make the world worse or better, are treated as debits and credits. Even if Fluffy had lived happily and passed away of natural causes, or at least in his sleep, since being taken down by a predator is pretty natural too, I still would have done everything I could to save that sparrow. But I also hope this squares my account with the birds.