Thursday, November 12, 2009

Man, Bird

By Jim Parks

Mashing bullets into cartridge cases filled with just the
right amount of powder, checking the overall length of the
finished cartridge - precise work, repetitive, a comfort on
a rainy day. The solid reality of gleaming brass and dull
gray lead, the shussing sound of powder spilling out of the
measure and down the spout as it rushed into the cartridges.
The mechanical feel of the press easing the bullet into the
case as it overcame the friction and tight fit. It all
added up to something famliar, elemental, a skill of the
prairies, the ships, the back alleys and saloons. The
revolver, the rifle, they must be fed. Firing the infernal
machines was only a small part of the battle.

When the kids came home from school, he heard the
refrigerator door open and close several times before the
little boy came into the back room with its windows open on
the world to check on him. It was their ritual, something,
a moment - that they both cherished.

The man hugged the little boy, said, "Me love Billy. Yes,
me do." The kid had held himself close by his side,
expecting to be hugged. He was still a little boy, only
five, in his first year of school. You could still talk
baby talk to him without making him self conscious.

All this gave the man something to look forward to, a little
something to occupy his life of bullets, pistols, bad
dreams, trying to outscheme and outwit enemies both real and
imagined, to mitigate his life of hyperawareness and cool
his overactive imagination.

The boy and his sister were not his children. They were
another man's, but he loved their mother and he raised them
as his own.

There had been friction between he and boy the week before.
The kid was not learning to read as he should. The teacher
was concerned. She had complained to the mother because the
boy would get out of his chair and lay on the floor under
the table when it came time to read, his eyes closed.

The man bought an audiotape with the phonetic drills
recorded on it and a little book with illustrations that
showed how vowels and consonants sound as written. A
picture of a stick sufficed to show how s-t sounds. A
picture of a rooster showed how o-o sounds. Rooster,
cooler, goose, loose - but not good, wood or even should.

The kid didn't like it. He resisted every attempt to play
the game. He doubled his tiny fists and hit at the man as
he tried to hug him, saying "I hate this! I hate you!"

It was an extreme action for him to take. He loved the man
and the man loved him. They both loved to play little boy
games and tell each other tall tales. This was new, a
disturbing, painful development. There were neither one
happy with it. The boy was acting out his stress. He
needed help and he showed him because he trusted him to

What to do?

The people at the school recommended a transfer to the
"magnet" school - a polite term for a special needs class of
kids bussed to a town ten miles distant, a class for
retarded kids. Maybe even medication should be used to
correct certain problems in the kid's perceptions and

He recoiled in horror. The little fellow could do much,
much better. He just knew it.

He resisted the notion, told the mother not to accept that.
He had found out how - for a thousand dollars - he could
arrange for the kid to be trained to read at a rudimentary
level at a special literacy project sponsored by a
professional school at a nearby university, a place 35 miles
distant. He had found a decent car for the woman to drive,
arranged for the lessons, the price, the budget. It would
become their project five days a week.

All this had been the subject of several mornings working
the phone, looking up facts and figures on-line. How he
loved to function this way.

Now, the two of them regarded one another at eye level, the
boy standing by his side, he seated at his grandfather's old
mahogany desk with the leather top, his arm around the boy's

"Let's play a game," the man said. He made all his
decisions - the major ones - this way.

"Let's flip a coin."

"What means that." The boy was in the habit of asking
questions by making statements out of syntax. It was his
idea of how to ask a question.

He also liked to simulate telling a joke by telling him
certain things that didn't make much sense. Then saying,
"You know what?"


"You know what?"


"Nothin', that's what!" Then he would die laughing, doing a
zombie dance around the sides of the man's desk and chair.

"It means," the man continued, his voice taking on a
pedantic tone at which the boy waved his hand around, making
it appear to be quacking like a duck, "that I will make the
coin flip through the air -like this. You call it - heads
or tails - while it's still in the air. Then I will catch
it and we will see which it is.

"This is heads," he said, showing the kid George
Washington's bas relief profile.

"This is tails," he said, displaying the spread eagle with
olive branches in one claw, arrows in the other.

He drew out his pronouncements, broadening the vowels,
making the final sounds of the words trail away into fadeout
and dropping his head as he bit off the words as if they
were hanging suspended in the air before his face.

"Oh-kay," the little boy said, grinning at this strange
thing, this funny little proposal.


The coin flashed up, catching the pale afternoon light
streaming through the windows, and while it spun in the air,
the kid stayed silent. The man caught it and showed it to

"Man," said the kid. He was starting to grin broadly. He
was catching on, having fun now. Washington's portrait in
nickel plated copper shone up from the palm of his hand.

The man flipped the quarter again.

This time the spread eagle came up when he uncovered the
coin with his hand. The kid looked at it; he said, "Bird."

"Let's try it again," the man said, smiling easily at the
kid. He didn't always catch on to things the first time.
It took a lot of patience dealing with Billy.

"Except, Billy, you know, you guess if it's man or bird
while the coin is still spinning in the air, okay?"


He flipped the coin.

"Man," the kid said.

He snatched it out of the air, covered it with his hand. The
coin came up heads.

"One more time," he told him.


He grabbed the coin from in front of the kid's face, slapped
it down on the back of his other hand, peeked at it, then
showily displayed it under the kid's nose. The coin came up

"Guess what, Billy. You win."

The kid looked puzzled. He grinned at him as he handed him
the quarter. The kid put it in the pocket of his tiny
jeans, his dirty, tanned little hand disappearing in the
denim folds as he swiped his lengthening hair out of his
eyes with the other. Then he picked up his can of soda from
the desktop and took a deep drink, two-handing it and
throwing back his head.

He belched manfully.

He grinned slowly.

"What did I win?"

"You won the future. That's what you won."

The kid shrugged. He grinned again as he turned to go, the
afternoon sun shining in his eyes and in his hair. He
looked like a little elf standing there grinning at him.

"Tell your mommie I need to talk to her as soon as she gets
home from work, okay?"


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