Puppets by Paul Klee
Memory

Misery on a Sunday Afternoon

I remember it was Sunday because of the rolls. My mother had sent my middle brother and me to the bakery to get a half-dozen poppy-seed rolls, and we only had those on Sunday. They went with the roast, which we would eat in the dining room. That, too, was something that happened only on Sunday.

Having a Sunday roast in the dining room was one of the rituals that my parents had acquired when we moved to the suburbs. Like seeding the lawn and tending the azaleas and hydrangeas in the back yard, it was still a novelty in this first year in our new house.

The dining room wasn’t much larger than the kitchen alcove where we ate the rest of our meals.  It was paneled in a knotty, reddish pine and sported a brass-and-wood chandelier, both of which were out of keeping with the rest of the house, as if to emphasize the special purpose of the room. The table was new, of course, and vaguely Scandinavian in design; a thin plank of polished wood with spindly cone-shaped legs that tapered to the floor at an angle, it was a rather unsteady construction that wobbled if we banged our chairs against it.

A hutch stood between a pair of windows on one wall. The glass display cabinets held a collection of crystal tableware, most of which, like nuns in a cloistered convent, were brought out only on the rarest occasions. It was less for fear of breakage, I think, than want of utility. We had no reason to use the footed candy dish and nut bowls and cordial glasses that were destined for tables more elegant than ours.

The tableware was a gift from my great-uncle Leonard, who had collected the pieces during his marriage and then stored them in a wooden barrel after his wife’s death. He had the entire cask shipped to our house when we moved in. Leonard knew that my mother was largely responsible for our moving out to the suburbs and thus out of the life we had shared with him and my grandparents in their brownstone in the city. He never forgave her for that. Nor did he make great effort to conceal his disdain for her arrivisme. It was only later that I realized the irony in his gift and the quiet scorn he must have felt when he saw my mother once fill  the crystal boat bowl with plastic fruit.

I didn’t think much about the crystal or the wobbly table or the pine. I loved the room and the meals we had in it. It was the sunniest room in the house, the only that didn’t lie in the shade of the oaks and elms, and I loved how the light would get caught in the grooves of the empty fruit bowl at the center of the table. The ritual of Sunday dinner appealed to me. My mother and father made an effort to be nice to each other, which sometimes worked and other times didn’t.  It was like being in a puppet play, though we hadn’t completely learned our lines or understood our characters fully. We were playing how to be a family on our own in a house in the suburbs, far from Leonard and my grandparents and the city I still missed.

-/-

We were on our way back from the bakery, about to come out from the highway underpass, when we saw the pigeon. It was sitting trembling at the edge of the sidewalk and to our surprise didn’t fly away when we approached.

“Look, it’s shivering,” I said.

“Maybe it’s laying eggs,” my brother said.

“There’s no nest.” I said. “And if there was, it would be in a tree. No, it’s suffering, can’t you see? Why else would a bird be on the ground shivering?”

“So what, it’s sick. Who cares?” my brother said.

“But we can’t leave it like this,” I said. “It’s cruel.”

I couldn’t stop looking at the bird. Now and then it would stop shaking, but only for a few seconds, and then it would begin twitching again. I remembered how the fish we caught would thrash on the floor of my uncle’s boat. And for some reason which to this day remains unclear to me I said, “We have to put it out of its misery.”

Where had I heard this from? Put it out of its misery? It must have been TV. A horse breaks its leg and the cowboy shoots him. It breaks his heart to do so, but he loves his horse and knows it will suffer otherwise and there’s nothing that can be done for it anyway. And so he puts him down. Takes him out of his misery. The charitable thing to do. The Christian thing to do, I told myself.

I had never seen a bird dying, of course, or any other living creature for that matter. The ants and flies and mosquitoes my brother and I swatted or stomped were too small and died too quickly for me to see anything. The lightning bugs we’d catch in summer died, too. We’d wake up the following morning to find them dead in the glass jar we had put them in, despite the “air holes” my grandfather had punched in the lid. But like the death of my great-aunt Lydia, this was an event that occurred somewhere else in the dark of night, unobserved.

Children have no discourse of pain (or of pleasure either); it is raw, unexamined feeling. Only later in our lives do we articulate our pain and pleasure and connect it with memory and meaning. My idea of misery, of endless suffering, was at the time as abstract as my concept of love or mercy. I had had a tonsillectomy years earlier and could remember the scratchiness of my throat and the nausea from the anesthesia, but that was all I could remember of physical suffering.

By necessity I borrowed words and imagery. They came from the paintings of hell I had been shown in art class, images of sinners shrieking in pain, their arms extended toward the sky in a hopeless act of supplication, their flesh nipped by tongues of fire. But even at eleven I found this depiction of suffering unconvincing: I knew that when something burned it would eventually be consumed, like logs in a fireplace.

My idea of misery and a creature’s desire to be put out of it was thus quite limited, and colored by the convulsions of the brook trout and striper on my uncle’s boat. Suffering meant seizures, and trembling was a prelude to death. And since the bird was plainly shuddering. I was certain that it was dying.

Before I could say anything, my brother picked up a stone, a small one that fit in the palm of his hand, and moved a couple of yards away from the pigeon and threw the rock. It struck the ground a foot from the bird, bounced and brushed its tail. The bird twitched but didn’t move.

I grabbed a rock and threw it from a greater distance and missed.

My brother picked up another stone and threw it from closer in. He hit the bird, but it didn’t die, as I had hoped it might.

Now it was too late to leave.  We had put the bird into even greater misery. We had become authors of its suffering and were now obliged to find a proper, just ending.

My brother, already bored with the stoning, started walking out of the underpass.

“No, we can’t leave now,” I shouted. “We’ve made it worse, don’t you see?”

I looked at the bird on the ground as it lay shivering amid stalks of pigweed and thistle and shards of broken glass. The underpass smelled like the toilets in the arcade on the boardwalk. I wanted to leave, too, but couldn’t.

I was crying as I picked up a rock, heavier than the one I first threw, and blurted out “I’m sorry,” as I turned my gaze away from the bird and hurled the stone. I missed.

Then we heard a man yell at us. “Hey, you! What are you doing?” He was out on the front lawn of the second house down from the bridge. “Shame on you! ” he shouted as started walking up to us. “Shame on you! You boys leave that poor bird alone.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. We were only trying… ” I cried. “We were only trying to put it out of its misery,” I felt dirty and defiled. Bad in a way that not even my parents would forgive.

We ran out of the underpass across the street and down the block. But then I remembered the bag of rolls I had left on the ground. I doubled back and grabbed the bag, but too far at the base. Three rolls spilled out of the top of the bag onto the ground. I gathered them quickly and stuffed them back into the bag, anxious to leave no mark of our presence here, and started running back home. Halfway down the block I stopped and turned around. The man had picked up the bird and was cradling it in his hands. He’ll take care of it, I thought, and nurse it back to health. Yes, that’s what he’ll do. He knows how. He knows.

An hour later my brother and I were sitting in the dining room to a dinner of roast pork—with all the trimmings, as my father liked to day, the mashed turnips and baked beans and sauerkraut he had grown up with. I didn’t eat much, though I forced myself to finish my roll.

I kept thinking about the old man. He knows about us now. What if he had recognized my brother and me, the new kids on the street, the family who moved into a house with a dining room that they were just learning how to use? What if he told? I would bring shame upon my family, a monster who showed everyone we didn’t belong here. Suddenly I longed to be back in the city, to the streets I knew and could walk on without stumbling on dying pigeons.

Within a few years we stopped eating in the dining room, much in the way that my father stopped pruning the hedges and my mother began neglecting the azaleas. We weren’t up to that much occasion, I suppose. My father eventually removed the table and turned the room into a den of sorts, outfitted with a television set and a pair of recliners. The hutch stayed, of course, with its collection of crystal that was never used and bottles of liqueurs that were never drunk, a reliquary of a faith long lapsed.

-/-

Image: Puppets by Paul Klee

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