The Birdbath by W.A. Smith

by W.A. Smith

“What bothers the hell out of me, like nothing else, is when I start singing a song’in the shower or something, or while I’m getting dressed’and you start singing it too.” The man paused and shifted the gun to his left hand so he could lift the coffee cup with his right. He used the tip of his tongue to gauge the temperature and then drank some. He put the cup back in its saucer. “Makes me crazy,” to the woman across the table looking back at him with no expression. “Why do you do that?” he asked her. “Why do you have to sing the same song’why do you always haveta sing along?”

The woman did not look at the gun. She didn’t give it any of her attention. “When you start singing I do too,” she said. “That’s all. Power of suggestion.” She picked up a pack of cigarettes from the table. “May I smoke?”

“No quick moves. Just don’t do anything fast.”

“You’re a supreme bastard.” She lit a cigarette and threw the matchbook at him.

He batted it away with the barrel of the gun, eyes widening like a cat’s. “I’m serious,” he said. “Just sit there and shut up unless I ask you something.” He took another sip of coffee, kept the gun pointed at her. “I’m thinking of killing it.”

“What’s it?”

He looked beyond her, out the kitchen window: still some dew on the grass. A blue jay swooped down and forced two sparrows away from the birdbath on the front lawn. “Us,” he said. ‘It’s been trying to finish me.” He looked at the gun resting in his hand, then back at her. “Why shouldn’t I just go ‘head and finish it first?”

“Ever heard of divorce?”

“Fuck it.”

“Philosophical,” she said.

He studied her cheekbones and the strands of hair that grazed them. He looked at her like he hadn’t seen her in a while. “Do you have any idea how much it bothers me when you sing the same damn song I’m singing?”

She shook her head disdainfully, watching him. She smiled, pointed her finger between his eyes. “Is all the power off in there?”

He slammed the gun down and cracked-in-two the plate with his scrambled eggs on it. His wife’s eyebrows pushed up, she edged her chair back a little.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m on the edge here. Don’t talk down to me.” He swept the broken plate off to the side with the back of his hand. His lips quivered, like he might cry or yawn. He moved the gun back to his right hand and leveled it between her eyes. “Serious business,” he said. “Sit there and be quiet as a mouse.”

She shook her head again, with less enthusiasm. Her hair fell across her eyes and she combed it back with her fingers. “Fine,” she said. She picked up a strip of bacon and took a bite. “Don’t you have to go to work?” she asked, chewing.

“That’s another thing. Talking when you’ve got something in your mouth. Makes me sick. Did you know that?”

“Married ten years,” she said, “and you never mentioned it.” She gave in to a little laugh. “Now you’re deciding whether or not you’re going to shoot me for it.”

“I’m working on that right now,” he said. “I’m trying to give it my undivided attention.”

“You’re sick, baby.” She finished off the strip of bacon, swallowing it completely before she talked, looking him in the eye. “I’m a little concerned. Have you called Eddie?”

The man turned to look at the birdbath in the yard, pointed to it with the gun. “You remember when we got that thing?”

She didn’t turn to look. “The car or the birdbath?” She picked up her fork and pushed her fried egg around on the plate.

“The birdbath, for Chrissake! Can’t you even look at the thing?”

“You won’t shoot me in the back of my head?”

“I’ll take your ears off if you don’t pay attention to me.”

“I remember everything we ever did,” she told him, “and what we said to each other. I remember when we got everything, where we got it, and if we paid how much.” She put out her cigarette and reached for another one.

“You smoke too much,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. You’ve been telling me about it ever since you quit.” She stared at him. “I don’t care so much what you think these days. Did you know that?”

“I know,” he said. “Hard not to. So where did we get the birdbath? It’s a test.”

“Out on River Road, the summer we were married. His name was Lucas Stiles. His wife had cancer and he was selling everything to pay for the operation.” She lit a cigarette. “We paid twenty-two dollars for it and his wife died in August. You went to the funeral.”

“Yeah,” said the man, remembering he had liked Mr. Stiles because the old guy had plenty of stories. Stiles wandered around his garage while everyone rummaged through his things. He’d run his hand across a toaster or a pair of boots or the handle of a lawnmower and a story would start. His memories were embedded in the objects he was selling off, and the stories were set in motion when he touched them.

“Your twenty-two bucks,” the man said.

“You didn’t have a job yet,” she said. “You were trying, baby.”

“Trying ain’t the final big point,” he said. “Tried to keep us happy too. So where are we now?”

“In our sunny little kitchen having a cold breakfast,” she said. “Everything’s pretty normal, ‘cept for the gun.” She regarded it for the first time, staring like it was a crossword puzzle. “You don’t hate me, and you’re no killer. So what’re you doing exactly?”

“Making a scene,” said the man. “I’m making a scene.”

“It’s a new scene,” she said, pleased in some way he didn’t understand. “I’ll give you that much.”

“As much as you’ve given me in six months,” he said.

The woman twisted in her chair to see out the window. Sunlight settled in the thick branches of the trees, the leaves about to burst into flame. She thought of her first five years with him, when they were still new together, wild lovers. She remembered the way he used to touch her face with the palm of his hand.

“It’s difficult when you sleep on the couch every night,” she said, turning to face him. “Know what I mean?”

He laughed and shook his head, exaggerating, side to side. “Difficult, yeah,” he said. He scratched his chin with the barrel of the gun. “Even more difficult when I touch you and you pull away like I’ve got something on my hands.”

The words hung between them like late fruit, bending the limb. They peered through the words across the table at each other. The conversation had taken a familiar turn.

The man cocked the gun and aimed it at the finch that had just landed in the birdbath. The finch seemed to look back at him. “Bang!” he said. Carefully he released the hammer on the gun and blew on the hole in the barrel.

“You never shot anything in your life,” she said. She buttered a piece of toast, glancing at his eyes and lips.

The man continued to watch the bird outside. “I’ve been working for Eddie almost a year now and he’s never said one damn word about my work.” He closed his eyes, but when he opened them the finch was still there. “I ought to shoot Eddie,” he said.

“There’s a solution,” she said.

“Shut up, baby. Just be quiet.” He looked at her and thought how beautiful she was.

“This car came in yesterday and I couldn’t fix it,” he said. “I mean I didn’t even understand what I was looking at. I looked and didn’t recognize it, like it’s another language. It was simple enough’damn fuel line,” shaking his head. “One of the other guys had to figure it out for me. Like I’d never seen an old Fairlane before.”

“It happens.” She reached over cautiously and touched his left hand. “It happens to everyone sometime.”

He tightened his eyes down on her like she was in the distance, turning a corner. “Yeah, what do you know about it?”

“Only what I’ve learned,” she said softly.

“I felt like an idiot,” he said. He was studying her hand, remembering it: slender fingers, smooth, even after all the dishes… her lovely fingernails. He set the gun down on the edge of the table, pointed toward the wall, and began to cry. The suddenness of it made him cover his face with his large hands. His shoulders trembled. He felt like something, something out of reach, was shaking him.

She tilted her head to one side, listening to him.

“What are we going to do?” he asked through his fingers.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But whatever it is, without bullets, right?” She wanted to see his eyes but his face was hidden. She nodded to herself and gently she said, “Sing…anytime. Solo if you want.”

He uncovered his face. It was red where he had rubbed his eyes. He was still thinking about her hands. “I can’t look at us and tell who we are,” he said. He spoke slowly, a jolting cadence. The words astonished him. His voice was mournful, from somewhere in his chest. “I look, but I swear I can’t tell.”

The birdbath was unoccupied. The shallow water shimmered, swept by a breeze he could almost feel against his face. “I can’t find the moving parts,” he said.

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