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  • 37. Marjorie and the Birds

    By Emma Straub

    Here is a suite of things difficult to capture—wistfulness and grief, hope and love and hesitation—all somehow swept into a single, simple, beautifully etched story by the multitalented Emma Straub, whose short book
    Fly Over State will be followed next year by a new collection,
    Other People We Married.
    We’ll be watching, Emma.

    After her husband died, Marjorie took up hobbies, lots of them, just to see what stuck. She went on a cruise for widows and widowers, which was awful for everyone except the people who hadn’t really loved their spouses to begin with. She took up knitting, which made her fingers hurt, and modern dance for seniors, which made the rest of her body hurt, too. Most of all, Marjorie enjoyed birding, which didn’t seem like a hobby at all, but like agreeing to be more observant. She’d always been good at paying attention.

    She signed up for an introductory course at the Museum of Natural History, sending her check in the mail with a slip of paper wrapped around it. It was the sort of thing that her children made fun of her for, but Marjorie had her ways. The class met twice a week at seven in the morning, always gathering on the Naturalist’s Bridge just past the entrance to the park at 77th Street. Marjorie liked that, the consistency. Even on days when she was late—all year, it had only happened twice, and she’d been mortified both times—Marjorie knew just where to find the group, as they always wound around the park on the same path, moving at a snail’s pace, a birder’s pace, their eyes up in the trees and their hands loosely holding onto the binoculars around their necks.

    Dr. Lawrence was in charge. He was a small man, smaller than Marjorie, who stood five foot seven in her walking shoes. His hair was thin but not gone, pale but not white. To Marjorie, he seemed a youthful spirit, though he must have been in his late fifties. Dr. Lawrence had another job at the museum, unrelated to birds. Marjorie could never remember exactly what it was. He arranged bones, or pinned butterfly wings, or dusted off the dinosaurs with a toothbrush. She was too embarrassed to keep asking. But the birds were his real love, that was clear. Marjorie loved listening to Dr. Lawrence describe what he saw in the trees. Warbling in the fir tree, behind the maple, eleven o’clock. Upper branches, just below the moon. Do you hear them calling to each other? Don’t you hear them? Sometimes Marjorie would close her eyes, even though she knew that wasn’t the point. But the park sounded so beautiful to her, like it and she had been asleep together and were only now waking up, were only now beginning to understand what was possible on a daily basis.


    Marjorie’s husband, Steve, had had a big personality and the kind of booming voice that often made people turn around in restaurants. In the end, it was his heart that stopped working, as they had long suspected it would be. There had been too many decades of three-hour dinners, too much butter, too much fun. Steve had resisted all the diets his doctors suggested on principle—if that was living, what was the point? He’d known that it would happen this way, that he would go down swinging, or swigging as the case may have been. Marjorie understood. It was the children who argued.

    Their daughter, Kate, was the eldest, and already had two children of her own. She would send articles over email, knowing that neither of her parents would read them. Lowering his salt, lowering his sugar, lowering his alcohol intake. Simple exercises that could be done while sitting in a chair—Kate had tried them, they were easy. Marjorie knew how to press delete.

    “It’s just that it’s so selfish,” Kate would say, before her father died. “Doesn’t he think about my children? Doesn’t he want to know them, to see them grow up?” She lived thirty minutes outside the city, and liked to repeat herself. She always had, even as a child. Kate had two children, a boy and a girl, and they went to the kind of public school one saw in television programs, lily-white and occasionally filled with song. The school was the reason they moved, Kate wasn’t shy about saying. “Sometimes parents have to make sacrifices,” she said to her mother, who she clearly believed had done no such thing. “Sometimes sacrifices are necessary.”

    Kate’s younger brother lived alone in a derelict apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue, only three blocks from the family homestead. The summer before Steve died, there was some kind of shootout in the apartment above Matthew’s, a whole family killed. He moved back in with his parents for a couple of weeks, and then went back. “What are the odds,” he’d said, when Marjorie expressed concern, “of something like that happening twice?” When the children had watched Peanuts, Matthew had liked Linus most of all. He had a quality that his teachers always called easygoing, “quiet” in private-school speak, but Marjorie thought he was depressed. He brought his own rainclouds wherever he went.

    Both kids came over on Sundays, a new tradition fabricated to lessen Marjorie’s loneliness. At first, the visits had been helpful, and she’d looked forward to them, especially when there were still papers to sort through and insurance claims to file and bags and bags of clothing to give away. It had been a year and a half, though, since Steve’s death, and now Marjorie wasn’t sure whom the visits were for.

    There was a new doorman, and sometimes he made Matthew call up for permission to enter the building, which made Marjorie feel violently sad, but only for a moment. The apartment was on the sixth floor of a six-floor building on the corner of Central Park West and 83rd Street, and overlooked the park from a series of large windows along the east side of the building. The location had been important to Steve: not the view of the park, which he cared little about, but the view of the lineup for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was unparalleled. Every year, they would have a large viewing party, and everyone would step out on the small wrought-iron balcony, or else press their face to a window. It was an easy way to be popular, and no one ever came only once. This year Marjorie had canceled the party, to the horror of the children, though Kate and her offspring had come anyway. Marjorie had stayed in the bedroom, listening to the radio.

    Matthew came up first, holding a plastic bag from a Mexican restaurant on the next block. They were all going to be having dinner, but Matthew often needed to be fed twice. In his youth, it had seemed charming, as though his appetite for life was too great to fit into standard mealtime portions, but since his thirtieth birthday a few years before, all the extra meals had started to gather around his middle. When Marjorie stepped aside to let him in, Matthew made a sheepish face.

    “I’m starving,” he said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

    “It’s okay,” Marjorie said. “Come sit in the kitchen, I’ll keep you company.”

    Matthew looked relieved, and started down the hallway. From behind, he looked like neither Steve nor Marjorie. His dark hair was cut short, so short it poked straight out from his head, a haircut for a simple man. But Matthew wasn’t simple, Marjorie thought, just slightly lost. There had been girlfriends now and again, but not for years. Was he in college, the last time there was a girl around? She couldn’t remember. He’d always been secretive, and then, after a number of years, there seemed to be nothing to hide. Marjorie knew her son spent a lot of his free time at the small public library a few blocks from his apartment, and that seemed all right. He had a job she didn’t understand, fixing computers for large companies. She hadn’t been to his apartment in years, since well before the shooting, but what she remembered of it was that it was both dark and clean. Matthew was fine, he was fine.

    They slid into their usual chairs at the kitchen table, Marjorie in back, by the window, and Matthew in front of her, looking out. He peeled back one tinfoil corner and took a bite, which sent a few stray black beans down his chin and onto the table. Marjorie got up and took a plate out of the cupboard, placing it under the burrito. Matthew looked up at her, apologetic.

    “Thanks, Mom.”

    “You’re welcome, honey.” She sat back down across from him and watched him eat. Marjorie herself was hardly ever hungry anymore—she would have said she ate like a bird, but now she knew that birds weren’t actually so delicate. They ripped worms right out of the ground, swallowing them whole. Birds would swoop down and snatch something from each other’s mouths. She wasn’t like that. Without Steve and his oversized appetite, Marjorie hardly ever went to restaurants. Most nights, she would pick at whatever was left in the refrigerator, occasionally summoning the energy to make a fresh batch of soup, or cooking half a chicken breast. It accentuated the loneliness, to cook for one. But it gave her pleasure to watch her son bury his face into something so gigantic. Specks of sour cream now clung to the corners of Matthew’s mouth. She thought about getting him a napkin, but didn’t. He would wipe the bits away himself, as he always did, with his fingers.


    Dr. Lawrence told Marjorie that she was a natural. The trick was to watch for motion with your naked eye, and then to slowly bring your binoculars up without losing sight of the bird. If you had to look down, you’d lose the bird, and just be searching the trees again, square one. Marjorie stayed close to Dr. Lawrence, a few steps behind, and always had her hands at the ready.

    “Look, it’s a Northern Flicker, do you see? Nine o’clock, just above that big knot. The oak, dead ahead.” Dr. Lawrence was capable of standing perfectly still, weight even in his legs. Marjorie thought about asking him if he’d ever done tai chi, but decided not to. He was focused, and she didn’t want him to think she was a ditz.

    There was a slight breeze in the park, which moved the dappled shade back and forth across the path. Central Park was a wondrous place, and it seemed to be getting bigger. When Marjorie thought about how the park must look from the sky, when the birds were so tired about flying across oceans and over mountains, just for this! To get to her park! She was seized with pride, as though she had planted every tree herself.

    “Do you see it, Marjorie?” Dr. Lawrence asked. He was speaking to her directly, but still staring at the bird through his glasses. The other people in the class were a few feet behind, probably trying to find their apartment buildings through the treetops.

    The bird had stripes on its back and polka dots on its belly, with a wide black bib around its neck. Marjorie watched as it hopped up and down a branch, investigating something invisible to her eye. “I see it,” she said, to Dr. Lawrence, but also to herself. “I see it, I see it.” They stood there in silence, motionless, until the bird flew away.

    “Whew,” Marjorie said. “That was a good one.”

    Dr. Lawrence turned to her and lowered his binoculars. He had small, frameless glasses, held together with wire so delicate it looked as though he could have made them himself. “I couldn’t agree more,” he said.

    There were other people in the class, of course, though as the weeks went on, Marjorie felt as though she and Dr. Lawrence were more and more alone. There were the young women, new mothers in the neighborhood who were looking for a reason to leave the house for an hour. There were the chatty ones in their forties who seemed to be memorizing everything, as if there was going to be a test. There were the women like Marjorie used to be, the ones who filled their days with volunteer jobs and tennis and dates with heir grandchildren. She was the oldest one there by five years, maybe even ten. Dr. Lawrence was very generous to put up with her, she thought. But sometimes Marjorie was sure, quite sure, that he enjoyed her company.


    Kate had a key, and used it. She came in without announcing herself via the doorman or the doorbell. “Mom?” she called from the doorway, “Mom?” Kate was tall, like Steve, with broad shoulders and a no-nonsense haircut that made her look older than she was, boxy around the ears. Matthew had always been the pretty one. Now Marjorie wasn’t sure who won that role—it certainly wasn’t her. Maybe it was Steve, always smiling so widely in the flattering photographs she’d chosen to keep out.

    “Yes, dear, in here,” Marjorie said from the living room, trying to make her voice as loud as possible. That was a drawback to living alone that she’d discovered early on. Unused, a voice went all froggy. She often sounded positively amphibian when telemarketers called at seven P.M., having not actually spoken to anyone all day.

    She was reading a book about what happened in the park after dark—all the creatures that came out of their hidey-holes, the owls and rats and furry-tailed raccoons. Maybe eventually Marjorie could work up the courage to walk through all by herself at night. Kate would be appalled. Matthew would be worried. She wondered if Dr. Lawrence ever thought about running a night class, a one-off. Maybe she would suggest the idea to him at their next meeting. There might be some insurance issues, she supposed, or some other logistical problem, but he could do it off the books. Scandal! Marjorie loved the thought of cloak-and-dagger. They would meet at the same corner, wearing trench coats. She smiled to herself at the thought of it.

    “What’s funny? What are you reading?” Kate sat down on the sofa and smoothed out the seat next to her. The sofa looked suddenly shabby, with Kate on it. It had always been just fine, for the last twenty years it had always looked just fine, but now it was all wrong.

    Marjorie shut the book, and shook her head. “Oh, nothing.” She took off her reading glasses and placed them, folded, in her lap.

    If Marjorie had raised the children right, Kate would have said, It’s not nothing, Mom, what are you reading? What just made you laugh? Come on, tell me! She would have moved closer together and they would have talked for hours about all the birds Marjorie had seen in the park, and how smart Dr. Lawrence was, and how incredible it was to hear a warbler before you saw it and know—not think, but know—exactly what it was. But instead, Kate did just what Marjorie was hoping she wouldn’t, and started talking about her day, and how another parent from the school was having an inappropriate relationship with the soccer coach, and she just didn’t think it was going to end well. Marjorie did her best to listen, and to be concerned, for of course she did love her daughter very much, even though it was sometimes difficult. There had been times that Marjorie thought she might ought to get a pet to serve that purpose, the good listener. When the children were small, Steve had lobbied for a dog, and so they’d had a dog, a great big slobbery one. It had been almost twenty years, though, and Marjorie wasn’t sure she was up to another one. She didn’t particularly like cats. Maybe she would get a bird, though it now seemed cruel to keep one inside, now that she knew what they could do.


    It wasn’t a crush, that was absurd. Marjorie had been married for fifty-three years. Matthew was the one who used the word first. He’d started coming over on Wednesdays, also. There was a television program he liked, and they sat and watched it together on the new sofa.

    “He sounds nice, Mom.” Matthew ate entire handfuls of microwaved popcorn at a time, not noticing or caring when kernels fell to the rug. If Marjorie had a bird, the bird would have eaten them. She liked that idea—the bird and her son having a symbiotic relationship.

    “Dr. Lawrence is better than nice, he’s smart,” Marjorie said. The program Matthew liked was about chefs competing for prize money. All the chefs worked very quickly and had tattoos. Marjorie supposed that’s what chefs were really like; she’d never known any. She liked the show, seeing behind the scenes. “I go twice a week.”

    “So, he’s like your therapist.”

    The chefs were making eggs, which Marjorie had never thought was very difficult. But then she saw what they made, the beautiful yolks spilling out onto the judges’ plates. The yellow was the exact same color as a canary, with its witchoo-witchoo-witchoo song. Out of nowhere, her eyes felt moist and teary.

    “Oh, no,” she said. “Don’t be silly. What do I need a therapist for? I have you.” Marjorie patted her son’s knee, and then went into the kitchen to make him more popcorn.


    One Friday morning, Dr. Lawrence brought a paper bag full of fresh bagels for the class. He held it against his chest, and the smell of warm dough filled the air, at least the air closest to Marjorie. She’d just bought a new pair of binoculars, and was looking forward to showing them to Dr. Lawrence. They’d been expensive, but she didn’t care. Steve had always shopped that way, with no regard to price tags, but Marjorie had been raised thrifty. The binoculars were her first major purchase since signing up for the class, and she was proud of them. She waited with her arms crossed for Dr. Lawrence to speak. Some of the younger women were still chatting when he cleared his tiny throat, and Marjorie looked sharply at them, on purpose.

    “I have some exciting news,” Dr. Lawrence said. It was warm, the very end of June. Peak migration was already over, but there were still birds in the trees. Marjorie had learned so much already, and her heartbeat quickened at the notion that there was a new piece of information that Dr. Lawrence was about to impart. “The museum is sending me to the Serengeti desert.” He paused, smiling, and looked straight at Marjorie.

    “What for?” Marjorie asked, not quite meaning to say it out loud, but not able to stop herself, either.

    “To see it!” Dr. Lawrence’s pale pink cheeks were brighter than usual—he was excited. Marjorie hadn’t seen him look so pleased since they say they saw two downy woodpeckers chomping away on the same tree. “For my backgrounds.”

    Marjorie remembered then: why was it so hard for her to remember? When Dr. Lawrence wasn’t looking at birds, he was painting the backgrounds of the dioramas. He painted the skies and the clouds and the mountains and the brush in the far-off distance.

    “Oh,” Marjorie said. “How wonderful.”

    Having received the response he wanted, Dr. Lawrence opened the bag of bagels and passed it around the crowd of people. One woman had brought her baby and had the poor thing strapped to her chest, where her binoculars should have been. Marjorie felt that Dr. Lawrence deserved more than a trip to the desert. He deserved to have someone go with him, someone to go and touch his elbow when she (this person, this other person) saw a bird suddenly streaking across the wide-open sky.


    © by Emma Straub. Used by permission of the author.

    There are many places to meet the lovely Emma. Here, for one. Here, virtually, for another. . .

    Have you ever wanteed to interview Emma? Or yourself, for that matter? Watch her show you how it’s done, here . . .

    And, hey, kids, there’s video!

    2 Trackbacks

    1. LONG « FictionDaily on October 4, 2010

      […] In Long on October 4, 2010 at 12:05 pm Maybe she would get a bird, though it now seemed cruel to keep one inside, now that she knew what they could do. ▶ No […]

    2. […] “Marjorie and the Birds,” Emma Straub […]

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