Sunny Side

sunny

I was so used to the silence of late summer afternoons, when I could roll my hoop through the empty, sunlit piazzas without meeting another shadow, that at first I mistook the footsteps for the beat of a metronome spilling through an open window. It was only when I stood still and heard the sound getting louder that I recognized the old-fashioned shoe taps of leather oxfords, announcing to the hushed city that their owner did not belong here, not in this heat, and particularly not now, during this total siesta.

I ran to the edge of the piazza, stopping just short of the shadow as straight and solid as the red brick building that cast it.

“Someone’s coming,” I said.

The sliver of shade was barely wide enough to cover the wagon, strong light turning its chipped yellow paint to burnished gold. I could see a few greasy curls escape out the back and down the wooden steps propped on the ground. The god-in-ruins was still asleep, lying among the rotting fruit he would try to sell to tourists after dark.

I rolled my hoop towards him and watched it dissolve in the darkness. I considered risking the same fate to tug on his sleeve, but the footsteps were already near enough to wake him. The mess of curls moved, dislodging a grape that fell off the edge of the wagon and started oozing on the cobblestones.

“What time is it?” he said and squinted up at the clock before realizing half of it had crumbled off during a recent earthquake.

“Early enough to buy a ticket for the next train,” I said, calculating five to three by the angle of shadow.

The stranger must have turned into the piazza from a narrow side street because his steps lost their echo and he slowed down to take in his surroundings. I could tell the he was not the type to walk with banging steps. He kept a measured, if hesitant pace, as if embarrassed that the usual hum of bicycle wheels and conversation didn’t offset the sound of his shoe taps.

“Stay on the sunny side,” the god called after me as I weaved in and out of the dark arches of the colonnade, passing through quickly like I had seen fingers flick through candle flames.

The footsteps stopped. I waited for the stranger to notice a slight disruption in the colonnade’s perfect geometry and come closer so I could slip into the long, rectangular shadow of his suitcase. I imagined the other cities we would visit; the other siestas we would ignore; the stray bicycle wheels I would find to play with. But he stood still in the middle of the piazza, watching Ariadne adjust the stiff folds of her robe and let the sun and glowing brick facades warm up her marble pallor. It was as if this was the first time he had ever seen a statue sunbathing.

A train churned in the distance.

“No,” I wanted to tell him. “Buy your ticket and don’t look back.”

I tried to run towards him before he put down the suitcase, but the sun had already moved behind the buildings, diffusing my edges and leaving me to waste away in the afterglow.

Decoy

decoy

No one saw him arrive at the half-moon garden just south of Delancey, no one saw him hang his cage from one of the drainage pipes, but by the time the rest of us got there, the bamboo frame was already covered with silky, golden cloth that reflected the early morning sun.

“Is that the new bird, Chief?” I asked and placed my own thrush on a stone slab in the middle of the garden.

Chief nodded, watching ribbons of steam unfold from his coffee cup.

“But it’s from Shanghai,” he said with a grimace. “The young, wild ones straight from Guandong are hard to find these days.”

Between sips of coffee and the loud sighs of passing delivery trucks, we traced our steps back through the Taishan foothills, lush valleys where as children we used to lure songbirds with sticky gum. After fifty years of keeping songbirds, Chief was the one we turned to when our birds had dull feathers or timid voices. For us old birdkeepers, it was about drinking coffee, reminiscing, and escaping our wives’ complaints that our hobbies were too loud. But when we would walk the cages around the block on a Sunday afternoon, we knew that Chief’s last bird, a fierce hua mei with thick white and violet eyebrows, would have been a prize-winner back home.

Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew.

The day was beginning to warm up and we uncovered the cages, feeding our birds sunlight one sliver at a time. A finch attacked the day with the pi-u pi-u pi-u of a violent video game hero, while a ringneck clamored for his owner to bring-bring-bring him a fresh batch of crickets, and a red-whiskered bulbul played a low whistle to one sparrow’s shrill will-will-will-ing.

Maybe it was because I used to isolating melodies, after so many years of playing in an orchestra, or maybe the other owners were too busy tending to their own birds, but I seemed to be the first to notice that Chief’s held a steady, unvarying melody at odds with the improvised riffs around it. As I listened closer, I heard that the bird wasn’t rounding off his notes, that he repeated the same sequence of sounds like a piano player practicing scales. But it was one of the loudest, and after the symphony waned into intermittent calls, other birdkeepers began to glance at Chief’s cage.

It was the one he always carried, with intricate carvings of wood and ivory, but inside was a species none of us had seen before. Red plastic eyes emitted a neon glow as the laquered body pitched forward and back on a set of tiny wheels, eventually coming to a full stop. Some of us averted our eyes as he walked up to the cage and wound it up again, and we all sat there like the lords of a long-lost China, wondering if our emperor had gone mad.

Souvenir

souvenir

Hours later, when I was on the phone trying to explain in broken Greek that I didn’t have the money to pay damages, I started to retrace my steps from that souvenir shop I reduced to dust. I got there late in the afternoon, after a day spent walking through labyrinthine ruins under the hot Cretan sun. Maybe it was the guide, a balding, middle aged man who emitted a powerful odor of overripe grapes, or the elderly ladies who kept staring up at me like some sort of beast, or the low ceilings that forced me to crouch, but I soon split from the tour group. I wandered up and down stone steps and raised platforms cut off by piles of stones before going underground to escape the heat. There, it seemed that the priest-king flaunted his triple-plumed diadem, the ladies whispered while twisting their maze-like curls, the bull-leapers taunted me with their acrobatic skills, and even the cup-bearers and slaves took pleasure in watching me struggle to find an end to those dark passageways.

By the time I got out, it was almost twilight and the air-conditioned mini bus that was supposed to drop me off at the hotel was already gone. I paced around the edge of the parking lot, nose in the fold-out map I picked up at the kiosk, until I heard something crash behind me.

I looked back to find that a rack of postcards had fallen over sideways and stacks of Mediterranean bays lay scattered along the sidewalk. I had hoped to escape unnoticed, but as I was trying to put them back without a crease, a head poked out among a row of fake marble philosophers.

“Can I help you find something, sir?”

“No, just browsing,” I said.

Under an awning that advertised authentic museum copies and disposable cameras, the souvenir shop was crammed with mugs, plaques, and miniature statues I was now obligated to admire. I tried to be delicate, I really did. But the gold-rimmed busts were lined up so closely together that I couldn’t help chip off a piece of Seneca as I picked him up. I continued to move through the tight isles, squeezing past a man watching his wife pick out a pair of sandals.

“Babe, let’s get out of here,” he said, smacking his gum so loud the sound reverberated across the vinegar bottles. I was leaving, too, now under the clerk’s watchful eye.

Maybe it was his stare that made me nervous, or the decorative plates that forced me to remember the bull-leapers and twisted curls that taunted me earlier, but before I reached the entrance I felt my elbow brush one of the countless urns. I looked at terra cotta fragments and dust particles illuminated by the twilight and knocked over another urn, then another. I kept going, running my fists through shelves, throwing a Minoan snake goddess against a tower of mugs, pulverizing Seneca’s face until his features became indistinguishable among the rubble. I didn’t stop until every last bottle bled and all the postcards were soaked in golden, oily fluid. Later, the clerk told me that the only thing I left intact was a bull’s head mounted on the wall.