THE BIRD HOUSE
by Freddie Moore
I used to walk down Nevins Street every morning, past the Candle Crusader factory and its forklifts stacked with glass jars of saints. They came in a spectrum of red, blue, yellow, and violet. I saw them for sale sometimes at 99-cent stores. It was the smell of the factory that I loved—like crayons and patchouli—but I could never quite figure it out. The whole block smelled like that, all the way to the house at the corner.
Issue #113 soundtrack: Caravela "Grand Prix"
The reason for walking that way wasn’t the smell, or the candles—it was the house. Ian and I used to call it the Bird House. Our fascination with it was so steady that it felt like the place belonged to us. The front door and windows of the Bird House were caged from the outside with white iron bars, but it was the sound—the chirping, cawing and squawking—that earned the place its name. Anyone who paid attention passing by would have guessed there were at least a dozen birds calling out from inside.
The first time I met Ian was at a laundromat only a few blocks away from the Bird House. It was a Sunday in December and all of the machines were humming when I got there. Weekends at Super Suds were busy and I was late picking up my clothes. I had put everything on high heat in the second dryer to the left, but there were tan sheets spinning in it, sheets that weren’t mine, and I turned to find Ian folding my clothes on the metal counter.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, I’ve got it.” I insisted, realizing that most of the load had already been folded. I wanted, desperately, for him to stop touching my clothes. Ian’s face went pink as it became obvious to the two of us that the only things left were my assortment of plain, striped and flowered panties, which were scattered and untouched.
“I needed a dryer, so I just thought I’d pay it forward,” his voice was sincere, as if he was apologizing for the panties. He stepped away from the clothes and I thought of the countless times I left heaps of other people’s clothing out on the counter. I wondered if I had ever screwed him over with half-dry laundry.
“Thanks.” I carefully placed stack after stack of my clean clothes into a large green laundry bag.
Ian took a seat on one of the rounded plastic chairs nearby and started reading a Birds of New York field guide. The mustard colored book looked like it had been handed to him straight out of the 1970s. I couldn’t help myself. “You know the house down the block—the one that sounds like it’s full of birds?”
My small talk was always like that: tangents that cast the net too wide. Ian looked confused at first and then made the connection. Close friends were quick to recognize those leaps in logic and crack up. I was still learning to grow out of it.
“Oh god,” Ian’s eyes looked off as if he was staring at the house itself. “I actually know the one you’re talking about. The Bird House. You can hear them from outside—the place with the old-style red and white metal awning over the door, right?”
“I used to think all that noise came from the tree outside,” he admitted. His voice was smooth, almost as if it had been theatrically trained. Everything he said projected a clear and steady emotion. “I walk that way on my commute to work.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ian.” He reached out for a handshake as if we were anywhere but the laundromat and spoke to me like I was someone who mattered. “Wanna grab a drink while these clothes cook?”
We went to a bar nearby. I kept my laundry bag slouched at my feet and freed my hair from its ponytail. Ian was a midwestern guy with large brown eyes and sloping, sympathetic eyebrows. He told me he’d only been living in Brooklyn for a month and was still sleeping on an air mattress.
We chatted about the things that had come in our life before meeting at Super Suds. Ian grew up outside of Cleveland and had two sisters: one older, one younger. The younger was a half-sister, about half his age, who he used to babysit during high school while his older sister was busy with SATs and then off at college. He said it was nifty—yes, nifty—that I had spent my whole life in Brooklyn. He didn’t see himself at home here yet and didn’t know how long he’d be staying. I told him that my younger brother had already moved away for college in Vermont and that it was more fun growing up in Brooklyn than having to pay for it as an adult. It was a home that didn’t exactly welcome you back.
“So why do you have a bird field guide?” I asked when the what you do, where you’re from questions had run out.
“Oh that thing? I found it in a stack of free books on a stoop nearby and needed some reading material.”
“But you had to pick it over the other books set out for the taking. Why that book?”
“It was either that or a copy of Paradise Lost and I just wanted something with pictures.”
“Ah, so you're the kind who likes taking the easy way out,” I teased.
Ian smirked and then swallowed it back with a sip of his beer. “You could say that. But I don’t know.” He gathered his thoughts. “It’s comforting to know there are still birds in Brooklyn other than pigeons.”
With anyone else, the philosophical musings would have ticked me off, but not Ian. Everything with him felt like a game you were in on, so much that I wanted to know what it was like when he didn’t have to play it anymore.
I went to the laundromat around the same time the next week, and found Ian smiling as the entry bell hit the door behind me. We tossed our laundry in the wash at the same time and watched our clothes spin. Without meaning to, birds became an inside thing for us. It was almost all we talked about. Ian was full of stories, and when we weren’t talking about class pets or birds that had belonged to friends, he told me about a 38-year-old Bronx bus driver in the 1940s who drove his bus all the way down to Hollywood, Florida. Instead of being charged with hijacking the city’s bus, William Cimillo became a headline hero.
“When I heard that story,” Ian paused, “I realized you have to go with your gut—even when it’s telling you to do the dumbest thing. It just might make you.” I nodded. Whether or not I always agreed with Ian, his confidence in everything he believed had this way of singing to you.
“The guy even got his job back!” Ian said, getting back to the real story. “I mean, you can’t predict how the chances you take meet their consequences.” The story was an afterthought to why he moved to Brooklyn in the first place. We loaded our quarters in separate dryers and set out to grab drinks.
We went to a different place this time, a bar called Horseshoe that was slotted between a second-hand clothing store and an abandoned lot. It was a strange place decked with charms and vintage holiday decorations. Horseshoe tried too hard. There were rabbit’s feet key rings pinned to the wall and four leaf clovers accompanied by a blushing Santa portrait, wreaths and mistletoe. Ian loved the mismatch of the place, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a gimmick.
My full pint spilled a bit as we moved from the bar to sit at a table for our second round. “Do you think the Bird House belongs to a family of hoarders?”
“How do you know they’re a family?” Ian raised his brows and smirked, setting his beer down across the table.
“I’ve seen a dad hang out with his kids out on the stoop before. Out for some fresh air or something.”
“I don’t even want to imagine how bad that place smells.”
I made a face like I could taste it. “Someone should set those birds free.”
“Or call animal control.”
“Fine, fine. That’s probably a more sound way of doing things.”
Ian had drunk a shot in between beers and I could see his midwestern sensibilities fading. “How about if the door’s unlocked, we do it. We set the birds free.”
“Ha!” I downed the last sip of my lager. “Really? Wait, you’re for real?”
“For real.” The phrase fit uncomfortably in his mouth and set me off laughing.
“I’ll take you up on that dare.”
I was counting on the door being locked. If not that, I imagined finding all the lights on and the family home. Ian and I brought our dried clothes back to our respective apartments and arranged to meet outside of Candle Crusader before setting the birds free.
I got to the candle factory first and watched the cold catch my breath. I inhaled the mix of scents in the air, trying to identify as many as I could: cinnamon, sandalwood, patchouli, and some sort of fruit. Melon, maybe. I was thinking about leaving, about trying not to get locked in a holding cell, but of course, there was always the possibility that wouldn’t happen. We might not get caught. And more than that—I had my doubts we’d even go through with it.
This is what I did know: it had been warm and restless that winter and all I wanted was to let those birds out where they wouldn’t always be begging. I wanted silence for that house and to fill the world back up with those birds, for them to bring some noise back up into the sky. I saw Ian walking toward me with such a calm that I wanted to follow him. He threw a pair of plastic gloves and shouted: “catch.” And something, maybe a feeling that had always been there, told me yes.
When we got to the Bird House, the lights were out like the family was gone for dinner or out for an errand. Even the holiday lights outside were turned off. We waited for a woman carrying groceries to pass until she left the block empty. I walked up the three-stair stoop and, for the first time, realized there were candy canes crisscrossed on the door. The knob turned all the way. The front door was unlocked. “Fuck.” I laughed and Ian shushed me. We flung the door open, shut ourselves inside, and the birds sounded off like an alarm.
Ian was close to me and I could feel his breath and see the pores that freckled his nose. “I’ve never done anything like this,” he told me like this was a game we were winning.
The place stunk of bird shit just as Ian had predicted. There were cages everywhere: on the ground, up on countertops, by the window. There were blue and green parakeets, blush-faced lovebirds, and canaries. Newspaper wasn’t just in the cages—it was spread over the floor around them as if the birds were never quite contained.
“Ten minutes. That’s the longest this should take.” I told him.
“Do you think they let them fly around the house?” Ian asked.
“I doubt it,” I looked around the living room floor for signs of feathers. “They seem like they’d be hard to put back in their cages.”
Ian wandered into the next room to look for more birds. I stayed put in the living room and checked out the window to make sure we were safe. I glanced around the room. There wasn’t much—a plastic-covered couch and framed family photos that covered the wall. Half of them looked professionally done, with creamy backdrops and fake bookshelves. One showed a little boy and girl with dark, curly hair and big, crooked smiles. They were standing next to Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse with palm trees behind them. I wondered if they had always grown up in a house full of birds and felt bad that Ian and I would be leaving the place so quiet.
Ian rushed back to the room. “You have to see this.”
The risk, breaking into someone else’s home, made Ian balloon out with energy and possibility. He wasn’t worried like I was. I wanted to buckle and shrink into the smallest version of myself. I wanted to make my way out unseen, to undo things in whatever way possible. I never thought we’d actually do it.
“Ian, we have to do this quickly.” I said, not looking at him. “We can’t get caught here.”
“Okay,” I could see him gathering his plan. “Help me bring the cages to the backyard.”
“What about the thing you wanted to show me?”
“It’s on the way out.”
The cages were heavier than I thought they would be. Ian was quick to help carry them out with me. It was dark, but I could make out most of what was out in the backyard. There wasn’t much to see. It was paved completely in gray asphalt. Morning Glory twisted over the fence from the yard next door and poked out as weeds around the plastic table that sat alone outside.
“Now I can show you,” Ian told me.
He led me back into the house, toward one of the family bedrooms. I started thinking just how crazy our plan was: two strangers breaking into someone else’s home—and now Ian was walking me straight toward someone else's bed.
There was a single cage by the bed and Ian stuck his arm out to stop me before fully entering the room. “Don’t let it see you,” he whispered.
“Don’t let it see you!” The bird shouted.
“Is that a parrot?!” The large bird had a coat of green and blue and red feathers.
“I think it’s a macaw of some sort.”
I rolled my eyes. The parrot didn’t look like it belonged in the house, but it didn’t look like it belonged in Brooklyn either. It was the first of the birds I considered might get cold. “Are we setting this guy free as well?”
“No way.” Ian looked at me like I had proposed hijacking a bus down to Florida. “One bite from him and you’d end up in the hospital. Some things just aren’t worth it.”
I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes. It had been fifteen whole minutes in this house that wasn’t ours. “We need to get out of here, Ian.”
We turned off all the lights and went back to the backyard, down the stairs from the first floor. We started unlatching the cages and the birds thrashed their way out, missing the opening several times before disappearing up into the trees around us. It happened in an instant—a bunch of wings elbowing their way out in a desperate reach for the sky. It wasn’t as grand as I had imagined. Nothing slowed down for us. Maybe that was what was wrong with the whole thing—that it was only for us. Ian gazed up, smiling, like everything had been different in his eyes. A soft light even cast itself out into the dark of the trees.
“Oh, fuck.” Ian said, without any of the usual theatrics, just his own wide-eyed panic. It felt like seeing him for the first time. The light came from inside the first floor of the house and illuminated the backyard. “They’re home.”
Ian grabbed my hand and pulled hard toward the door to the basement, which was more of a rec room than anything else. There were no birds down there. Ian let the door close behind him and we could hear the house creak above us with footsteps. A woman called out to someone named Javier. The rest was in Spanish. It sounded like she had a hard time catching her breath. The only word I could recognize over and over was coño.
“Is there a way out down here?” I whispered.
“I had my eye on it when we entered.” Ian winked, putting his persona back on, but his hands were hot and clammy with nerves.
He let go of me to open the basement front door to the street and peeked out. “It’s clear.” I could still hear a family tromping around upstairs and now a little girl was crying and crying. The grief I expected, but not the fear. All I could hear was that girl’s fear. It cut straight through the floor. The birds were free, but I doubted it would make us heroes.
“Liv?” The urgency had brought out something genuine in Ian. His eyes asked me if I was all right. I nodded. “C’mon,” he whispered.
We closed the door behind us. Ian walked out first. I counted 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, like I was just trying to get on rhythm with him, and took a breath. I walked out and followed behind Ian at a pace that felt like quicksand against the frenzy of what we had gotten away with. We tried to walk like strangers, but by the corner, we were smirking so hard. We had gotten away with it. Ian grabbed my hand and I thought this is what it’s like to come together as two people completely outside of themselves. It was one of those infinite moments. I didn’t need my legs, or breath, or the blood pumping through me. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but it felt like love. And it would feel that way, even two weeks later, when I passed the house and heard it loud with birds again.
Freddie Moore is an ice skating instructor who grew up Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LitReactor and The Huffington Post. She left her heart at The Airship. Follow her on Twitter.
Madeline Manning paints toilet seats and other furniture in Brooklyn, NY. She secretly installs toilet seats in bars around town, though they keep getting stolen. She has seats and more for sale on Etsy and also does custom work. Follow her on Instagram.
Caravela is an indie rock band consisting of brothers Frank and Stephen Graniero from Yorktown Heights, New York. Engulfed in the canon of music that sings the body electric, the band released the full length album, Caravela Forever, in March 2015. Currently Caravela is touring in support of their newest release, Grand Prix. For more, visit caravelamusic.com, or follow the band on Facebook, SoundCloud, or Bandcamp.