portion of the artwork for Gary Moshimer's short story

Bird in Tree
Gary Moshimer

I’m in the tree by my house, calling, “Bree … breeet!” Birds are dive-bombing me because they have nests here and I’m just a crazy fuck late on his medication. I look down at my own nest and its disrepair, which is because I’m separated and on disability and can’t afford a new roof or windows or gutters or paint. The weeds are two feet tall because my mower is broken. I wish for a different home, everything bright and new and shiny. “Breeet!” I try to have positive thoughts—like, I have my son for the weekend!

We’re going to a metal concert: Slipknot. My wife, Sheryl, is not happy about it.

“Slipknot, really?”

“My therapist, Bill, thinks my doing anything is a good idea.”

“One of their concerts was canceled in upstate New York because someone, or some church group, found out that these were some of the lyrics: ‘I’m gonna slit your throat and fuck the wound.’”

“Yes, remake of a Johnny Mathis tune.”

“Is Bill going with you?”

“Of course. He has to drive. I have to go now. Here’s comes Oz.” I hang up on her before she gives me the lecture on Oz’s delicate psyche. Because he doesn’t have one: he’s my hero. A man at 14 who tells me what’s real.

I move down a branch and it creaks under my weight. I’ve gained 80 pounds on this Zyprexa. I watch Oz through my little binoculars; he’s coming down the street from the school bus. “Bree … breeet!” he calls. The other kids hang behind him because this is weird. When their parents climb trees, they are killing them, cutting them down. But, here on this lawn, things are alive, man.

Oz’s name is Oswald, named after my wife’s father, who died in a car crash. I didn’t object since I knew he’d be called Oz. Ozzy. Even better. I loved Ozzy. My Oz is kind of a punk-dork. Last weekend I gave him a purple mohawk, but he has these chunky black glasses that are in now, I guess. He has bad eyes. He says that things are sometimes warped to him, and that worries me. That’s how I started, seeing the borders of things change until the whole shape is new. The toaster becomes a rock, for example. Or the rock becomes a toaster.

I’m on my way down, picking my steps carefully, when the big angry robin lands before me. He’s about two-by-two feet, with big black eyes and long talons. He tells me he wants to peck my eyes out, and then, “I’ll slit your throat and fuck the wound.”

“You’re not there,” I say, grunting my way down. Then he shits on my head, an evil goo, and I’m suffocating.

But Oz puts his arm around me, pulling me out just in time.

“Giant bird in tree,” I gasp.

“Nothing there. Man, look at you. All fucked up and ready for the show.”

Inside he puts me in front of a dusty mirror. I’m out there, all right, greasy hair standing up, arms and fingernails dirty. Who knows what I’ve been doing? I know I’ve been wearing this same shirt for a week; I can smell myself. So why is a guy like me, who sees giant birds and sings like one, not in a hospital? Because I’m not a danger to myself or others. How about that?

“Should I take a shower?”

“No, you’re good, man. All ready. Maybe put on your Ozzy shirt.”

The floor of my bedroom is covered with clothes, the clean mixed with dirty. We dig. My drawers are empty. Oz says he’ll help me clean it up tomorrow. Good kid. I hope this thing I have doesn’t get him. I think it skips a generation or something like that. So I’m afraid for his kids. This came on me later than usual; it gave me a chance to have a job and a wife and a kid, and then: Bam! On your knees, bastard!

“Dad? Did you take your pills?”

“One’s due.”

OK, overdue. But to tell the truth, sometimes I enjoy the things I see. Not so much the robin, but the bluebirds that trail banners of silk like in some lost movie; and the friendly bear that shows up at my door, trying to sell me life insurance. He always brings a cooler and offers me a brew. If I go too long, though, there are people in black that stand in my weeds, unmoving, waiting. They have no mouths, and I know they need to scream.

As Oz watches me take the pill, Bill toots in the driveway.

Bill is my peer-support person. He’s gray and withered, but wears bright Goodwill clothes, stripes and plaids together. He’s been through major bipolar and has emerged from a dark cocoon as a butterfly, flitting about from one lost soul to another, helping them out. I bought Bill a ticket, but he has opted to stay in the car. No Slipknot for him. He says it would give him nightmares, and I tell him that I’m counting on nightmares, waking ones to disperse my demons. He agrees it might be good therapy.

“You’re awesome, Bill,” says Oz, seeing Bill’s outfit. Bill’s pants are too short and he wears white socks and brown dress shoes.

We have a long drive, to downtown Philly, which means the turnpike and then the Schuylkill expressway, which we call the “Surekill.” But first, Dunkin’ Donuts. Bill’s driving, and Oz and I are in the back, putting on our Slipknot masks. Oz made them from cut-up jeans and some kind of plaster painted red and black. One has dreads and one has a long, long nose, and they both have scary eye and mouth holes. He’s talented but got in trouble for bringing one to school and scaring some girls. My wife had to go in for a meeting, and she was not too happy. That was the first time she warned me about Slipknot, and “that kind of music.” I just laughed and watched the tiny golden fairies with masks flit about my head. I never protected him from anything, and I’m not about to start. That’s why he’s such a smart person. He’s out there in the world, man, he knows the shit.

So we’re wearing our masks at the drive-thru, and we order our coffees in voices like people getting killed with hands over their mouths. Bill shakes his head. The Indian guy just says, “Poolup.” I see the word Poolup floating from his little window inside its own balloon.

It’s a lovely May day. Pterodactyls soar overhead. I can tell one has landed on the roof because Bill is having trouble keeping the wheels on the road. “Bill,” I say, “why don’t you let this pterodactyl carry us right there and set us down?”

He looks at Oz in the mirror, and Oz says, “Why not?”

“You two,” he says.

When we exit the turnpike, we can’t find the toll ticket. I had taken it from the console to feed this lizard, and now he’s gone. I tell Oz about the lizard, and he asks if I had indeed swallowed my medicine. I say, “Believe me, this is on medicine. This is good.” We finally find the ticket in my sock and we laugh. The ticket lady does not.

We hit the Surekill. It’s not really rush hour, but this is only a two-lane road so any mishap causes a one-lane back-up. Oz and I start making some music; screaming, rather. I don’t really know the words, but Oz seems to know them all, like he studies this more than schoolwork. I just like the guttural sounds, the driving guitar, the drums. Man, that drummer! Joey! I like the sounds of the tortured souls finding redemption, the screams of those that can’t or won’t take it anymore. I like my waking nightmare. Despite what the parents think, it’s when you don’t listen to this music that you grow violent. It gets all pent-up, man. When you leave your screaming shit at the show you go home and hug your loved ones; you are kind to little old ladies because you have left your blood there.

Bill puts in his ear-buds to listen to Mozart. He says it’s what calms him. To each his own.

We creep along, and finally I see the hold-up. There is a dead body on the road, a man with his head severed. The man is me! My own head rolls toward me with the eyes missing, the mouth forming a scream. I curl into a ball and Oz holds me until it passes. The bad things always pass. In a little while, the scene changes to one of elephants blocking a lane, marching in a line, trunks holding tails. This is much better. What I’m saying is, the good visions outnumber the bad.

At last we arrive, and Bill finds a spot in the huge lot. There are people of all ages heading in, even grannies wearing Slipknot shirts. When they frisk me at the door, they slip frogs into all my pockets, which makes me feel squishy.

Our seats are up high near the rafters. The first band sucks, all fast look-at-me guitar solos and flashing lights. Who fucking cares? No growling at all. Fuck off. My frogs grow uncomfortable and jump from me and it’s so not fair, man. Unfairly defrogged! Oz sees me squirming and puts a hand on me. I scream into his ear: “Unfairly defrogged! This fucking band!” No one can hear you scream in here.

Oz gets me calmed down and finally Slipknot comes on. I’m enjoying it, getting into the fucking hate, singing, “666!” I’m thinking I might get through this OK, but then in the middle of one of Joey’s drum solos they morph into the Beach Boys, man, white pants and pink-striped shirts and shiny faces from the ’60s. Fuuuucckkk!!

I’m getting ready to stand up and scream this when I see, out of the corner of my eye, something land on the empty seat to my right, a jacket maybe, thrown from behind and above. When I look it’s a kid—tiny, tiny but maybe Oz’s age because of some facial hair. His body looks fragile and broken, hanging limply over the seat with his face on the floor and his neck cocked at a weird angle. He’s unconscious. Broken neck. Dead. But no, gasping. Hope it’s not real.

Oz leans over me, shouting that it’s real, and suddenly I hate the fallen kid and love him at the same time. And because I was a medic before I got sick, I spring into action. “Get help!” I yell at Oz. The music’s so loud, the light up here so dim. Nobody knows what’s going on. I want silence, man! I reach down and thrust his jaw forward and can feel through my fingertips how his breathing is easier. It comes back to me, how useful a human being I used to be. He doesn’t wake up, and no one comes to check on him. Two guys come to gawk, and one of them has a tiny flashlight on his keychain, so I check the kid’s eyes and see that his pupils are huge even with the light, and I’m sucked in and can see some of the kid’s memories—I see him opening some Christmas presents as a child and I see his mother kissing his forehead goodnight. Then the kid turns into a dying Oz and I’m yelling, “Come back to me, Oz!”

Oz returns with a hand on my shoulder and medics with a backboard. The men are trying to figure how to move the kid without messing with his neck when the kid comes to, throwing punches. The music breaks and Corey of Slipknot growls, “Motherfuckers!”

“Oz,” I say, “I have to go home. This is too much reality.”

Bill is relieved to miss traffic. Oz tells the story over and over until I drift off. Listening to the hum of the tires, I see myself borne by 10,000 bees to their queen, which has Sheryl’s head. I tell her what I have done and she says, “Too bad nothing is real.”

At home Oz calls her and tells the story. I get on the phone and she tells me how proud she is and I say, “Are you sure about that, queen bee?”

Oz helps me clean up a little, and then he crashes on the fold-out. I touch his mohawk and watch him breathe. “Just let me see him,” I pray. “Don’t let him change into anything.”

I could use a cold one. There’s a tap at the door and I let him in. Mr. Bear, I call him. He always wears a suit and shoes like Bill’s. He opens the cooler and hands me one, so cold, so very real. We watch Oz dreaming fitfully, and I tell Mr. Bear that I’ll take the life insurance, that I want to take care of Oz always.

“We’re very proud of you,” he says, taking my hand in his great paw.

I nod and close my eyes. When I open them, he’s gone. The long bottle sweats in my hand. It makes me smile. I take a long pull, and the cold contracts me inside, but then a warmth expands and spreads throughout. I know we’ll be OK. For who knows what is real?

Gary Moshimer’s Comments

My son’s favorite concert, when I saved the kid who fell from the rafters, when he knew he could save me just by being there.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019