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Birds of New York

She was a package delivery woman. She took her job seriously; almost every package was a birth. A birth of something new replacing something old, or a new idea, or the beginning of a determination, or a future. Unless it was food; food was just food, in different shapes, types of desirability, difficulties of cooking or blending or choosing. But all, it seemed, brought happiness, future, some sort of relief.

The city where she was delivering packages was a city which never sleeps. Everyone had exciting days, or very lonely days, or alternated between both. She had lived there once, within this city, and she knew this city could lock you out or lock you in. When she stopped to think about it, it had done both, for her, and now at least once each day, delivering, she wished she lived inside this city again; and then, within an hour or two, she didn’t wish that wish anymore. These opposites of feeling, toward the city, were what made each day interesting for her: would she wish more that she lived there again, nestled in apartment with vivid walls and bookshelves, plants of all shades of green, a kettle placed where it caught and reflected light? Or would she be glad again she lived where now was not as urgent, where every day felt like a leftover of many yesterdays, a haze of tomorrow?

For many years now she had been living far north of the city in a narrow apartment which stared out, with its many eyes (its many front windows), to water; water, where real estate was not buyable, where birds played forever in it and around it, for free.

Today, already, Elva had delivered a narrow brown rectangular package to an old man sure not to live forever—his struggle to come to the door was remarkably slow (she knew how slowly he walked to the door: his voice traveled slowly, as he argued with someone). The circles beneath his eyes had a strange beauty, like murky crescents of pond beneath both pained, murky, waveringly blue eyes—the deepest and most brooding eyes, she thought, she had ever seen.

There were also many packages sent to or ordered by companies and corporations, which she did not wonder as much about, and which felt like dropping one shovelful of sand upon an unbelievably long sandy beach. Office workers always looked as bored to her as people sitting or lying close to each other on towels and blankets on a beach: what made them want to sunbathe that way, or work in offices? Both seemed punitive to Elva, offices, all of them, sunbathing on beaches, all of them. Once she had lived in Ireland half a year. There was a regular crew, oceanside, there, bathing naked; they did not look beautiful, to her, as birds did.

She liked being a messenger, in the beach-like offices, having to stay only minutes or less than a minute. A messenger pure and crisp and alert, attending others. She was solo, special, gone very quickly after she appeared. She had a schedule; but she represented both commerce and dreams. She daily wore her hair tied back, never jewelry, as delivering packages was a truly athletic event. Speed was important and what formed it was precision with doors and floors of buildings, also the proper parking of the van which felt to her like a moving cave: dark grays and blues inside and outside, seats as dark as the floors, and windows tinted dark. The air conditioner in summer was like a waterfall of cold.

Her next package, today, was another flattish rectangle (like the previous one, delivered to the very old man talking to someone younger, a daughter), its short dull noises against the cardboard box said rigid edges, something very straight, a bit heavy. A bit of wobble, rattle, as if a looped and erratically curving wire was behind the object, bouncing slightly against the box. Fragile, the package said, in blue handwriting, in at least eight places. Insured, it said, in one spot. It must, she thought, contain something which might bring someone happiness, or closure.

Perhaps a dimly remembered family heirloom, delivered now after someone had died. A painting which had once hung over someone’s fireplace. A photograph of a man and his son by a stream, or of a Dutch harbor and windmills. She often wondered what was inside all packages, even office packages; it was part of the wonder and wander of the job. There might be goodness or surprise inside.

“Oh yes,” this next old man, but not as old as the other, said, when she handed it to him. “It’s here. I’ve really been waiting for that. This. I can hardly believe it’s mine. Or perhaps I believe it all too well. It’s an affirmation, and a crisis?” He was silver-haired but had his strange beauty, also. His apartment also was in a pleasant, luck-was-with-him area, not far from parks and many trees. Statues. Central Park. As Elva was about to go, he said suddenly: “Did you really have to bring this?”

“I’ve never been asked that before,” she said.

“Sorry, it just popped in my head. It’s a very long story with no real ending,” he said.

“There are packages like that,” she said. She said this because she had to say something; what else could you say, as a package delivery woman? She had to move on quickly; till four or five in the afternoon the back of the van would be almost full of boxes, envelopes, all wearing slightly different paper masks, colored camouflages. All mysteries. Or fateful. Or simply needed and due.

The old man’s eyes were becoming watery-looking.

“Oh, it’s not terrible,” she said. “It’s not. I rarely deliver terrible things. I just don’t.”

He handed her a twenty-dollar bill he’d apparently already had in the hand which hadn’t signed the receipt. She knew not to protest; they would protest till you took it with you. Payment for being a bringer, being a present and necessary witness to that delivery.

“It’s not,” he continued. “It’s unbelievable.” Referring to what was in the package again, something she would never understand.

“I’ll be thinking of you and I’m going to remember you,” she said. She smiled her sturdy young smile at him. “Don’t worry, it’s all right. Good in some way.”

“Yes,” he said. “It will all be.” He straightened but his face became sadder still.

She waved a small wave. He waved a bigger wave back but looking down. She went back to the street, wondering, with almost each step back to her parked van with its flashers flashing, what could possibly have been in the package she had brought to him. Of course, she would never ask. Putting the vehicle into forward gear she was remembering the dark eye circles, eye wallows, of the old, old man who had trouble making it to the door. Before the door opened, she had heard him talking to a someone, about “someone who for some reason cared a lot about me,” which brought laughter, a young woman’s laughter. “No, it really could have been quite serious,” that old, old man had been saying, in a brief, slightly sharp voice, as Elva was knocking on his door. “It must be the undertaker,” he had also at first said, in brighter voice, also bringing laughter, as he had begun walking toward the door. “Someone who for some reason cared a lot about me,” had been in a harsher, warning tone.

“I never knew about all that,” the young woman’s voice had persisted, even as door was opened, and Elva with her package stood before him. (Astonishing, it was, what Elva had heard even in her few years delivering packages; most customers assumed delivery-people had no ears.)

The conversation was not finished even as Elva stood in front of him, waiting for the conversation to finish. “You wouldn’t have wanted to know about that,” he was saying to the young woman. “I wanted to keep everything simple as it should be for you. Didn’t want to be like your mother. Needed to prove I did the right thing.” All the way to the door, the loud thudding of a cane. Old, but he did not need the daughter to answer his door. They had most likely been sitting at a table together. Perhaps his birthday, his daughter there to visit her father, and suddenly, accidentally, the package had arrived? Elva’s mind imagined a birthday basket with ribbon around it, little treats, chocolates with proclaiming brand names. A too-shiny mug, words of some idiotic sort printed on its glaze, perhaps the insult of congratulations—for having reached a certain age. Reminding Elva of a writer who’d said, in an interview, he’d been using the one coffee cup since 1974.

1974, Elva thought—the Philippe Petit year! Though she had not been born till two decades after. What, to that writer, was so special about that cup? Why never replaced with a new one? But loyal. She wanted to see the cup. The novelist proclaimed often he had adored his father; had his father given him the cup? But the interview did not tell more history about the cup. Elva loved seeing things; wanting to see things kept her tantalized, even, in her job as a delivery woman: what was in the boxes? But wanting to see things also got her into trouble; she had wanted to see just what artifacts were displayed in The 911 (just call this magic number for help!) Memorial Museum but cried for a day after seeing a rack of recovered bicycles still covered with September eleventh soot, looking like bicycles from Pompeii. People who’d ridden them and locked them to the stand on September eleventh either hadn’t wanted them back or had died in the fires. Abandoned: probably no one would know who the owners had been. Whether they lived on or were dead, that day.

“Maybe I should be getting the door for you,” the young woman’s voice had also said. In the old, old man’s apartment.

“Too late, already at the door,” he had called out. Elva had seen his eyes and their shadows, as if she was seeing boats at a boat dock and you didn’t know whether to look at the boats or the dazzling displays of shadows beneath the boats, shadows moving and mixing with the water, turning into a terrible and beautiful and endless design. (Was the way water looked the reason people loved to go out on the water in boats? To travel across all that silk and lightning and designs like the swirls in sliced-into-slices, polished, marble?)

The city which never slept held a conglomerate of memories for Elva; turning any corner, she could feel faint ghosts of deliveries past, even attempted deliveries (though they were forgotten much more rapidly), and memories of other, even in-childhood events, growing up in the city, like Philippe Petit walking on foot across a wire between the twin World Trade towers. Somehow real to her, though she had not been alive. He had, she had seen, from watching him on film, even laid down on the wire, looking as if he was resting! She’d been an egg in an ovary when her parents had heard it was happening, via news on radio or television, went out in the sparkling sun to watch from below. Why, her mother said she, Elva, had kept asking, why did he want to do that? They told her she had kept asking whether Petit must be rich at last because he had become so famous; they laughed, to show her she did not yet understand the value of bravery was greater than the value of money. And told her how Petit had even been yelled at by police—on the wire! Police had arrested him, but not till after he had seen, he said later, one large bird returning to swoop closer and closer to him, telling him he had too long invaded the bird’s sky-space. Only then, they said, did he give in to the police, return to the edge of one tower, along his wire, with his balancing pole. He had worn no safety harness.

Elva suddenly felt dizzy and happy. Was there greater hero than Petit? She turned on the radio, and it made her feel happier, imagining her parents tuning in to hear about Petit on the radio or the television, then going to the old mariners’ district in Manhattan, being brave enough to stand beneath him and see him up above. Elva turned her radio off; no modern news, in her life, could compare. She looked at the long delivery list on her clipboard, her safety fallback in case a computer system failed. She was now often realizing she could, at times, feel as exhausted as an emergency medical technician might feel, after too many repeating events.

Elva had never, till this day, not finished a day of deliveries. But today the two old men, the memories of Petit and the twin towers, were closing in on her. Was it something about that ongoing, sharp conversation she’d overheard through the door of the oldest man’s apartment? And then, following it, the woefulness of the old, but not nearly as old, man, in another apartment, twenty blocks away, both not far from Central Park? Two men who surely weren’t connected in any way, except geographically, age-wise, but now were, in her brain. Yet both had seemed different than normal, ordinary, people, as if they could have been, long ago, gods in Greece or Rome, instead of just men in New York apartments. Or did she think that because of the lucky neighborhoods they lived in, so different than where she lived? Or did she sense they’d both lived their lives with terrible restraint, like teachers always putting on a show of propriety, who must never be known to be doing anything suspicious or iffy or wrong? Admirable but pitiable? Perpetually running for class president, election upcoming: they mustn’t fall or fail. That writer who’d used the same coffee cup since 1974 was probably very like them too. But, also, the opposite. A writer’s goal was to upset false propriety. He had to look at the coffee cup he’d washed a thousand times; the coffee cup looked back at him. The cup asked: who should you be loyal to? You? Yes, you. That writer, in that interview, said he boiled his coffee grounds with water in a saucepan on the stove, an old Revere saucepan with a dingy copper bottom and knobby handle. In Turkey, he said, they did it much more beautifully: the little containers they boiled their coffee in were sometimes made from hammered copper; their long ladle-handle made them look like the Milky Way.

“I’m calling in sick,” Elva heard herself saying over the phone, the way you heard yourself when you were saying you were sick, and it didn’t sound as if you yourself was talking.

What had Thomas Mann written? Sickness was love? Was she sick because she loved the towers or her parents or the mystery of the older men in their apartments, one alone, one with his daughter? Each receiving something terribly sad, or important? Was it weak-kneed adoration for the bravery of Philippe Petit? Was it horror about the cowardice of her own by-standing life? She didn’t know. But Mann had said sickness was love. He made you feel proud of weakness. Sickness. His loyalty was to love. Even if it made you ill.

Waking the next morning, she went as she always did into her living room,  but without her usual cup of something hot. Elva looked out to the water, after passing her row of indifferent, un-special cups which only she had given herself, and without much care. Her excuse was she might drop and break them. The birds never showed great delight about the water. They were cool about it, as if it was a class they needed to daily attend, no need to take notes. But to Elva, non-bird, it was delight because she looked at no human domicile: it was all gnarly trees and water and birds and clouds. As a delivery woman almost all she saw were human domiciles, often decorated as if with cheering pretty toys for a happier bird cage, for living or for work.

Your living chambers you lived in till death swooped in like a wandering bird, offering you a chance to join them, be a ghost as unnamed and anonymous as they were, as observant and mute: a membership being offered you through death, a clean favor, a delivery which cost you nothing. A birth, almost. And a throwing away of the cardboard box—which you’d worn through life to protect you from that last unwrapping.

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