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.

Good Old Days

cup 2

That night, when Nostalgia knocked on my door just before dawn, I had just enough time to catch her coat as she slipped it off and staggered into my apartment. I held the plush, furry thing at arm’s length, hesitating to hang it up and let its cheap, floral perfume seep into my closet. Before I could make up my mind, she had knocked over my pot of geraniums on her way to the couch.

They were dead anyway, the petals crisped and browned for lack of light.

“My lecture notes are under your —,” I said, trailing off as she nestled deeper into the cushions.

“Coffee, dear. Extra milk, extra sugar,” she said.

I only drink my coffee black, I said, and didn’t have any of her extras on hand. But she was snoring heavily and I figured she wouldn’t mind if I draped the coat on my shoulders and aired the thing out. I was beginning to suffocate.

When I returned, holding one of those blue and white paper cups that I thought had all but disappeared from street cart circulation, she met me at the door, her long and lacquered nails digging through the thick fabric.

“You haven’t been mugged? Pickpocketed?”

I told her I hadn’t, but she rummaged through the deep pockets, pulling out takeout menus, yellowed ticker tape, and colorful handfuls of museum badges.

“I almost paid for the coffee with one of those,” I said as she tossed aside a transit token.

“You’re probably too young to know what they are,” she said.

I was about to disagree, and insist that the pink rubber ball that was now bouncing across my floor was a favorite at my childhood block parties, but she was silently counting dried blades of grass.

“There’s junk, and then there’s -”

“Remnants of the original High Line,” she said.

As I watched her sort through bagel crumbs and Broadway ticket stubs, tucking them back into pockets that seemed to contain multitudes, a garbage truck started to screech and puff outside.

“Remember the good old days, when mornings pulsated to the rhythms of George Gershwin and the world moved in black and white?”

She looked at me with contempt.

“Now you’re talking about a city that never existed.”

After she left, I watched her cross the street, cocooned in faded furs, and poured the cold coffee on my geraniums, hoping the milky fluid would revive them.