She called it Pickwick.
A fat, ugly yellow thing that was more of a squash than a bird, but she babied the hell out of it, I’ll tell you. She was always cooing at it, coddling it, shmoozing with it- you would have thought the bird was a goddamn prodigy with the praises she sung it. God did she love that bird. A canary. Funny thing was the sunavabitch couldn’t sing for his life. She always went about telling me (and anyone who made the mistake of listening really), “canaries are the most lovely of birds, with voices like angels”, but Pickwick couldn’t carry a goddamn tune, let alone a note. Frankly speaking, Pickwick was nothing but a grade A pain in the ass.
When she first got him, he came in a 3 foot iron cage with a cheap blue satin ribbon on the top. “Like a church bell on a steeple, isn’t it Michael?”, she said, her veiny hands pawing the bow. There wasn’t anything church like about it. I looked at him. He cocked his head, made his way to the end of the perch, fixed his beady eyes on mine, and shit on the bottom of the cage. A real cherub Grammie picked, I’ll assure you. She suggested I drive home, and I swear to you I skipped the rest of my way out of that pet store- normally she only let Johnathan drive the Caddie. We get to the car, I sit myself in the front, and she sticks him in the passenger seat. She sidles around to my side of the car and gets in the rear, folding her hands in her lap nice as could be. I laugh. Surely she’s joking, putting that lard in the front while she folds herself into the back. But no. That prince rode shotgun all the way home.
Why did she call him Pickwick? I couldn’t tell you for sure. Think it must’ve been after that book called The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dakkens or some other ancient. All I know is she walked in, set him down on the windowsill and triumphantly told me, “Michael, I’ve got a name for him”. And the sunavagun was christened Pickwick. Gram and I were always relatively close. Out of all of us, I visited the most. Jonathan was too busy groping girls in the backs of cars, Mom was working over time at the hospital, and Dad’s relationship with Gram went south when she boycotted his wedding on account of it not being held in a Catholic church. So there I was. I came every Sunday after 10 am mass. Dad would dump me in front of her ranch style at 10:26 on the dot and I walked the two miles home about noon or so. I have to tell you, she may have been old but that bat was as sharp as a tack. I’d come in, throw my sport coat over the lavender sofa, maybe finger a donut or two from the plate she’d left on the counter, and she’d start to talk. And boy did she talk. You name a topic and she’d go. Being a stewardess on a plane right out of university. Watching her mother put on lipstick in the mornings as a little girl. The first time she fell in love. The first time she fell out of love. The froth of the beers in Dublin. How to properly saddle a horse. The smell of my grandfather’s pipe. We talked about it all. Or I guess you could say she talked about it. I couldn’t have gotten in a word in even if I tried.
And throughout it all, every 94 minutes we sat together, Pickwick watched the pair of us. You would’ve thought he was God almighty, the way he sat upon his perch, real righteous. Gram said he had a “pious” way about him, whatever the hell that meant. He would ram his head against the bars incessantly, making a real healthy amount of noise. And if you ever tried to admonish the prince, or even motion to get up out of your goddamn chair, she’d lash out at you, tell you to “sit back and sit straight”, and that was the end of that. I swear the bird smiled each time. But yeah, I liked the visits to Gram’s. She let me eat whatever I wanted, didn’t give a rat’s ass if I cursed, and made me feel like I mattered. Then again, maybe that was in my head. Nine times out of ten, we would sit on her sofa, but once in a blue moon we would go out to the garden. She had a porch swing that was real easy to settle into, and we would rock with the slow breeze. I’m no girl, but I can tell you she had the most beautiful roses. Big red ones that looked like they’d burst if you poked them. In fact, I’m almost certain if you had touched them they’da stained your skin straight to the bone. Gram let me bring a bundle home to Mom one time. I put them square in the center of our dining room table and waited for her to say something. She never did. Anyway, no matter where we were, or what we talked about, Gram would have to attend to Pickwick halfway through our time together. Didn’t matter if she was right about to tell me the meaning of life, or what the first pull of a cigarette felt like, the damn bird would win every time. “Michael,” she’d say. “I’ve got to go see about Pickwick.” And up she would get to walk over to his throne on the sill. I never really paid much attention to her when she did leave. She had all these photographs about the room, and I stared at them every time I visited. She might’ve been to every continent for all I know-the pictures sure made it seem so. There she was at the Great Wall, Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal, but my favorite was this one she had propped up against the fireplace. It was a real tiny one, maybe about the size of a billfold, black and white. It was taken by a ranch hold when she spent a summer in Wyoming in college, she told me. In the picture she’s leaning against a wooden fence, her back to the camera. You can’t see any of her face, but you can tell she’s pretty. You just know. I can’t say why it’s my favorite, and she laughed at me when I told her as much, but after I stopped talking, she sort of looked at it and sighed, and I knew it was her favorite too.
The one time I didn’t find myself pouring over her photographs I watched her go over to Pickwick. She let her fingers graze the blue ribbon gently, and then she peered through the bars with such love and veneration I had to rub my eyes to make sure she was still looking at Pickwick and not Jesus incarnate. The adoration she had for that goddamn bird was truly religious. Which was why I should have known better than to ask her one Sunday afternoon to let him out of his cage. She turned on me with such wrath that I reckoned she’d knock the pictures clean off the walls. “Let him out of the cage? Risk that he may escape or be injured? You’re really plain reckless, Michael,” and I’ll tell you I never asked again, no sir. The goddamn prince would remain untouchable. And so he did for about a year of Sundays before it happened. I say “it” because I still don’t know what it was. Like that one time she was babbling away about her first ride on the train, and then she’d said, “Now Michael, aren’t you hungry?”, and I’d said, “I suppose Gram” and she whipped up something in a few minutes flat and we’d sat back down. So, I’d said. So what? She’d replied, hands smoothing her pant leg. She’d plain forget that she had been telling a story in the first place. Or that other time, we’d just sat down to talk, and she looked at her gold wrist watch and said something like, Oh Michael, I didn’t mean to keep you here so long. You ought to get back to your family- fifteen minutes had gone by. I didn’t think nothing of it at first. So maybe a couple of her screws were coming loose. She had to be 70 or so after all. These sorta things happen. Right? Until it started happening not occasionally, but every time. She didn’t want to talk about her trips anymore, or about the men who had fallen in love with her. We stopped going outside altogether; I remember the last visit I saw the roses alive. She couldn’t laugh about her old friends anymore because she had forgotten their names, and she didn’t tell me to sit straight anymore. She didn’t care. The second to last Sunday before it won we were sitting at the table eating breakfast. It was the first time she had prepared a proper meal for me in God knows when, and I almost thought things were normal. It was scrambled eggs and bacon, peppered. She sat across from me and smiled as I bit into my eggs. I smiled back, until I felt them splintering my gums. The eggs were full of shells. “Everything alright, Michael?” and I said yes but nothing was alright. I turned to look at the fireplace, looking for the picture of her leaning up against the fence. My favorite. The one where you couldn’t see her face. And all of a sudden I didn’t like it at all. Bile rose in my throat and I grabbed my sport coat from the table, stumbling like a drunk to the foyer. She called after me but it was no better than talking to the wind. I opened the door and ran and ran and ran and ran. Pickwick watched me from the sill.
I didn’t go back to Gram’s for two months of Sundays after that. The first Sunday I told Dad I didn’t want to go, he asked Why. Because she made me eggs with shells in them. Because she doesn’t remember what it’s like to be in love anymore. Because she wouldn’t understand about how I used to believe the roses would stain my hands. Because I want to know the face of the girl leaning against the fence but now I know I never will. I told Dad she was just getting boring. And that was that. I can’t tell you how many times I walked the two miles back to her house at nights. I would stand outside her door and look at the distorted reflection of the moon on the hood of the Cadillac. Listen for the groan of the porch swing. Pretend that I could still smell the roses. I came close to knocking some nights, truly. But then I thought of Pickwick, below the blue ribbon, and how the knocking might encourage the sunavabitch to bash his head against the cage, so I never did. Goddamn prince that bird was. I was moping around a hell of a lot, and I figured I ought to try finding a“silver lining”, or whatever optimistic bullshit it is that Mom fed her patients at the hospital. I found Jonathan out in the garage with a girl of his some Thursday night and decided to tell them about Gram and her stories. I thought Jonathan would get a kick out of Pickwick especially. I told them the best stories I could remember, and afterwards all he said was, “Cute Michael”, and he and the girl were gone. I couldn’t carry on like that anymore, like Gram was some kind of character in a cheap paperback you read that you like but you end up tossing under the bed anyway. So on the first Sunday of August after 10 am mass, I told Dad to take me to Gram’s. He didn’t question it. He was never a man to give much but at least he offered me that courtesy. I walked up the pathway, the fumes of the station wagon on my tongue. I knew things wouldn’t be the same, how could they be? But I needed the stories. I needed the routine. Maybe I needed her. I knocked and heard shuffling to the door. She greeted me wearing a bathrobe the color of a November sky. “Michael”, she said, and I went in. I don’t know what I was expecting. I don’t think she did either. She led me to the couch, and we sidled up next to one another like nothing had transpired, like the egg shells were never really there. She actually let me talk, and the more I started talking, the more I felt the evenness of her gaze, the better I felt. Things are okay again. I could even stomach looking at the picture. Until I noticed. Pickwick was gone. The cage sat empty on the sill, and the ribbon lay limply between the bars. But he was gone. No prince on the throne. “Gram,” I said, and my breath hitched in my throat and stupid hot tears were on my lips. “Where is he?” Where was Pickwick- the goddamn bird that sat shot gun. The bird that bashed its head against the bars. The bird that couldn’t sing, that never flew. The bird that was the one tie left to Gram.
“Where is he?”
“Where is who, Michael?”
Who is Pickwick, she said.