There's an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet in Charlestown, RI. It costs $70. It still might be worth it.
This week, we have "The Crow" by Kim Freeman. Kim has published in The Grub Street Free Press. In addition, she's published articles in American Literary Realism and a/b: Autobiography Studies. She has written a book of literary criticism called Love American Style: Divorce and the American Novel. She lives in Somerville, MA, with her husband Jon and three cats, and she teaches at Northeastern University. She and her husband also play music for anybody that cares to listen to them.
The crow wakes me every morning while it is still dark. A territorial, irrepressible crow. Caw! Caw! Caw! Over and over again. He flies in a sort of pentangle around our apartment building, pausing here and there to mark the perimeters of his boundaries. If I were a Druid, I would be very nervous. His call echoes, like surround sound, like phasers in seventies rock.
People pause in hallways and on porches to complain or share their wonder. As an enemy can do, he has brought us neighbors a little closer. None of us has ever heard a crow quite so vocal, so demanding, so angry. This is a crow, everyone agrees, who will not let you not notice him. Something has clicked on in his brain and will not click off. It is as though he is under constant attack. His terror alert is flaming red. I suspect he’s been watching one of those twenty-four-hour news channels through some un-curtained window.
The crow started not long after Sheila took up early-bird yoga classes. She rises in the dark, having packed her gear up the night before in a tidy bag she keeps on a hook by the front door. She creeps out, so light on her feet that I hear nothing. But I have become a sound sleeper. This was not always the case. I used to wake often. The cat jumping onto the end of the bed, the upstairs neighbor dropping a remote, Sheila’s soft snore when she gets a cold, the flashing light on my computer aggravatingly letting me know it was asleep—any of these tiny things would rouse me and I’d be up and off, making Ben Franklin-like to-do lists, mapping the next day down to the minute, then the next week, month, year. Five to five-fifteen: wake-up, have coffee. Five-fifteen to five thirty: sit-ups and push-ups. Five thirty to six-fifteen: shit, shower, and cereal, though not always in that order. Or I would paint grandiose visions of my future as the first lawyer to save the world. Speaking Spanish with ease, I’d defend the third world from the first. I’d be trusted by all, but somehow still able to make enough money to have a little summer place on the Cape or Marblehead Neck.
My plans changed after I failed the bar. Sheila passed. We met in law school.
At first, I slept less, planned even more, constructing bigger and even less feasible plans. Then I failed the bar again.
And now I sleep better. In fact, I sleep more. I go to bed early. Almost nothing wakes me, except the crow. Caw! Caw! Caw! My computer no longer pulses aglow. I rarely turn it on.
In addition to yoga, Sheila has made a few other life-style improvements. First, she gave up chocolate. That was easy enough. Always the gallant, or at least I used to be, I gave it up too. While I do not exactly have a sweet tooth, it felt good to give something up, a sacrifice. It looked like discipline, like putting something on a to-do list that you’ve already done, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. And then we gave up caffeine—a feat which has, in part, contributed, I think, to my new found ability to sleep so much. Then she gave up wine. That was a little rougher, but I’ve always preferred beer. Then she gave up beer. She says it feels great. I wouldn’t know.
Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Of course, that’s not the sound exactly. It’s the one from children’s books of yore. I’ve always liked the word “yore.” The call comes pummeling through my consciousness and I wake. I am the only one in bed. At some point lonely became simply alone, the bed a wide empty space I could fill. I welcome the call of my crow. I’m not sure what else could wake me. I want to make it clear that when I say “my” it is a term of endearment rather than proprietorship. The crow is only mine in the sense
that Sheila doesn’t know him, has not encountered him, or at least will not acknowledge him. I know this because I caught her crouching. Well not crouching exactly, more like floating. She was curled up like a bug, her knees on her elbows, her hands the only part of her in contact with the floor. She seems to be spending more and more time in positions like this, as if she is giving up the earth, seeing how little physical contact she can have with it. At first these poses excited me. I thought they would lead to better sex. I imagined Sheila twisting into new angles, allowing me all kinds of novel points of entry that would somehow be better than what we’d done in the past. But so far it has lead only to more sleep. Sheila started touting the benefits of a full eight hours.
I became fascinated by the names of these poses, trying to see how in the world they saw similarities between poses and the animals they were named after. Cow-face pose, for example. I’ve never been able to see how Sheila looked like a cow, its face or any other part. She said you were supposed to see it from above, and so I took this as an invitation to stand above her and look.
This is not what she meant however. And she unwound and stormed into the bathroom, mumbling something about a lack of fucking privacy. So I don’t ask how anymore, but sometimes I can’t resist, just to see whether I can guess it, I have to ask. I thought this one might be called hanging beetle, or maybe turtle, or maybe sleeping bat. If I were able to do a headstand and look at the world upside down, she would look as if she were hanging from the ceiling. So I asked. “Bakasana,” she said. “Crow pose. “ “Oh,” I said. “I can see that,” even though I couldn’t. She exhaled audibly. “Inspired by our boisterous neighbor I suppose,” I tried to joke. She fell forward on to her face as I said this, cursing herself and me. “Go away,” she said. And so the crow became mine and mine alone.
“Caw! Caw!” I decide to answer back this morning. “Caw!” The bed is, of course, empty. I start to wonder whether there is some connection between the crow and Sheila. I’m not quite crazy enough to think Sheila is the crow exactly, but I’ve seen enough superhero and monster movies to know that there is something suspicious when two entities never show up in the same space together. It’s the sort of logic that gave pause to Lois Lane and was key to solving many a Scooby Doo mystery. I am immediately embarrassed by this line of thinking. Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit too much like Shaggy.
“Caw!” The crow screams to me as I take out the trash. I drag the can instead of carrying it, making that scraping noise that Sheila hates. She is not home to hear it. It enters my mind that the crow might hate it too. “Crazy, that crow,” says Brian, my across-the-street neighbor.
“No shit.” He takes this as an invitation and walks over. We talk about the Red Sox and the weather. Soon others, also having dragged out their trashcans, join us. The crow circles.
“Every fucking morning. Every fucking night. I’m losing sleep. I tell you I’ve got a plan,” Mike says. Brian has brought us beer. We stand around our trash like it is a bon fire, ignoring the flies and acrid rotting rinds, chicken skin, and shrimp shells and not seeing an empty tampon box unabashedly staring up at us.
“Yeah. How would you do it?” The bird’s death is a forgone conclusion.
“Shoot it. I just need some practice. We could join a gun club or something, and when he pauses on top of that chimney. Blam!” He cocks his arm into a gun and pretends to fire.
“Good luck. It’s hardly ever still enough. But I suppose if you’re a good enough shot. No man, I’d poison it. Kill a squirrel and sprinkle it with cyanide and place it somewhere hard to resist. He’s got to want it. He thinks he owns this town.”
“How do you know if he’ll eat it? What else might you kill? I see a lot of pissed off women, their pet cats dead.”
“Who could prove anything? We’ve got a few too many of them around anyway.”
“Women or cats?” Brian asks and we all laugh, though I don’t think any of us really finds it funny.
“How about a rigged up electrical wire, like in Jaws. Something where he lands and kaboom! Just as he begins to caw.”
The plans grow more elaborate and violent: stones, traps, hanging, and plain old strangling. Hand to hand combat. I say nothing, just laugh nervously. Although I know it is absurd, ever since I made the connection between Sheila and the crow, I’ve started thinking, in my cartoonish way, that they were one and the same. Maybe Sheila has taken up magic. Perhaps this is some advanced form of yoga where you actually become the thing you’re trying to pose as. The biggest gap in my reasoning, other than the obvious fact that this is probably physically impossible, is the motivation. Why would Shelia come back to watch me? Lately she seems to want to stay as far away from me as possible. I think she thinks failure is contagious. She passed the bar on her first try and approaches her new job, entry-level though it is, like a samurai, hence all this yoga and health. She has vowed to make partner in record time. Maybe she is exploring every avenue that heads up. When the guys recount these various methods of slaughter, I see not only the crow but Sheila, see her murdered in these various ways. I can’t help myself, though it makes me a little uncomfortable. I love Sheila. I’ve never thought of myself as a violent guy. But in place of the crow exploding—blood, fleshy matter, and black feathers flying—I see Sheila explode, instead of feathers I see tufts of her long dark hair.
I don’t, of course, venture to offer my theory that the crow is some sort of animal manifestation of my fiancée. But I do suggest that perhaps it’s female. We have all been referring to it as he.
“You know,” I say, “all this noise is about protecting her young.” I’ve shifted the topic awkwardly and there is a moment of silence. I can see the guys all smelling the trash.
“Yeah, like on the Discovery channel. Or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” Brian says.
Mike smiles. “Dude. Sunday nights. Remember.” Brian has saved the moment.
“So, man, all we got to do is smash the eggs.”
“You climb on up the tree first” I kid. We all laugh, but we’re tired. The bonding is clearly over.
Sheila leaves a note on her pillow. She wants to take me to dinner, she says, her treat. Without booze, of course, dinner is much cheaper. I read the message twice more. The tone, complete with a noseless happy face, is dangerously bubbly. I know it’s there in the subtext, our disengagement. I know she will handle it fairly, sweetly. She’ll slip the ring back into my pocket without me even knowing it, not saying, though she thinks it, that I could use the money right now. I let myself see her perched in the tree, her body suddenly shudder, and drop at the crash of a gunshot. On the back of her note, I start to compile my list, the things that Sheila and the crow have in common:
• Dark “raven” hair
• Vague association with Native Americans and King Arthur—Sheila likes,
I think, Excalibur and Jack London
• Bird watching
• Territorial—I’m definitely too often in her space
• A preference for being on top
• The manner of eating like a bird
• A taste for the dead—Sheila likes to wander through grave yards
• A little foreboding
• She likes to “pose” like one
It’s a long list. I run out of space. I don’t bother with a list of differences. I lay there for quite some time before I realize what is wrong. At first I think it is just my impending lack of Sheila, but it’s more. It’s silent. It’s late. The sun is full and high in the sky. The light is what woke me. My crow is gone.
I jump up in a panic. I call Sheila at the office. She hasn’t come in yet. I leave a message, a jittery sort of confusing plea that she call me as soon as she gets in. The secretary has a note of condescension and tolerance in her voice as though she has heard all about me. She knows what Sheila is putting up with. There’s nothing to do but head down to meet her. Maybe her train is delayed and she is still waiting. For this, I realize, I’ll need a suit. I’ve not worn a suit in months. I put on Sheila’s favorite. It is a bit snug in the waist. I guess I have put on a few pounds. But it will have to do. I put on her favorite shirt and her favorite tie, too. At least I chose the ones I think she likes. I am never sure about these things. But the shoes, my worn Nike Air Max 100s, I choose for speed.
Brian shouts out to me as my door closes. I don’t stop. I’ve got no time. But he gestures, cocks his arm aiming at the empty, quiet tree and pulls. He smiles wide and mean, victorious. He shakes his head and laughs, as he drags his empty trash can around the side of his building. Ours has fallen out into the street. Its lid yards away, as though it has been horribly decapitated. I want to run. I imagine the train leaving the station. I can see Sheila waving goodbye. But a sliver of me knows I should pick the can up and put it away in the exact spot where it belongs. I know that what I want least is usually the best thing for me. I look both ways and step out into the street. I secure the lid to the can and carry, not drag, the whole mess around back.
There is a crow perched on the rail of our fire escape. I freeze. The crow is almost floating, and for a moment I can see what the yogis and Sheila must see. The crow is in the exact pose Sheila holds. She is so black, her eyes, her beak, her feathers. She is so solidly something, so solidly herself. I want her to be my crow. I want to believe she sees me and understands. I want her to speak, scream that horrible, grating caw that is so like shrill Cockney. I want her to make any noise, even something as silly as “Nevermore” will do. But the crow is silent, silent as the hole created by loss. Like Sheila, the crow is looking at something beyond me. I decide I can’t move until she does. The sweet and sour smells leftover from years of garbage rise from the empty can I am still holding. By now, I suspect that Sheila’s train has already left the station.