The joint was a roadhouse really. In the town I grew up in, it was one of the only real bars, at least real as in populated by the people of the town and not the men who drifted through on their way down to the city or up towards the river. It was local. It was the sort of place continuously strung with Christmas lights where, more often than not, a line of Harley’s occupied the spaces nearest the door. In the summer they threw sand in the backyard so they could re-create some faux beach volleyball match played by overweight mothers way past their prime who believed, when fueled by enough alcohol that they could still fit in the high school jeans they secretly kept in back of the closet. It was the sort of place my siblings wouldn’t step foot in, and that my mother wrinkled her nose at. But it was where Tim picked. And we went where Tim picked.
I parked the car in the back and turned off the engine. I flipped open my phone and called the house. My husband answered the phone.
“What’s wrong?” This was his typical greeting. Not ‘hello’, not ‘how are you’, not ‘how’s it going’ just ‘what’s wrong.’
“Nothing. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Everything is fine. I’m watching the game with your father.”
“Is Mom there?”
My husband proceeded to yell at the television for a few more minutes before returning to the phone. I could hear my father in the background.
“I said is my mother there?”
“No she went shopping. Something about desert for tomorrow. Hey you there?”
“Yeah I’m here.”
“Alright well have fun. Be safe. Call me if you need a lift home.”
“I won’t need a lift home.”
“Okay but call me if you do.”
“Alright, love you.”
“Loveyoutoo.” He always said it like it was one word. Loveyoutoo. Like he was naming
some exotic tropical bird.
I made my way inside the joint. Since it was the holidays, I had expected it to be crowded, loud, and exhausting the way the joint could be. I had expected to sit there with my old friends, and catch up on a years worth of life like we had been doing for the past 8 years. I stopped in the snow, right by the door. 8 years. That long?
But it was quiet inside, strangely quiet. Solemn. The frivolity that usually punctuated the joint this time of year seemed to have been sucked out of it. Like it sat in a void somewhere, floating out in space, oblivious. There were a handful of bikers at the bar, a couple families in the back eating and that was it.
I stopped at the bar and ordered the pitcher of Guinness that I knew Tim would want to toast with when he got here.
“Quiet night, huh?”
The blonde bartender nodded and took the money out of my hand. “Mostly everyone is down at the memorial.”
“Yeah, Jake’s memorial is tonight.”
I nodded. I had no idea who Jake was. I thanked her for the beer and settled into the bar. Martin showed up next. He made the same stupid face he always made, a mixture of a sly smile and stupefaction that he should find me here, tonight, of all places, even though this night had been planned since last year when he made the same stupid face. He wrapped me in a typical bear hug. Within 30 seconds he was showing me updated pictures of his kids. They looked just like him. Which is really a shame considering his wife was surprisingly cute. He married way out of his league.
Larry was next, slightly balder then last year and still twitchy over his divorce. Tim was last. I noticed that we all sort of sat around, with feeble conversation until Tim showed up. It was always that way. We may have known each other since we were kids but we were just the arms and legs. Tim was the head and heart. He had always been our leader.
Tim sauntered into the bar, leaned over, kissed the blonde bartender quickly on the cheek, took her hand and murmured something in her ear. She thanked him and smiled sadly. Must have been about the dead guy Jake.
“My friends!” he said. Tim hugged us each in turn and suddenly what felt strange before now felt right. “Another year, my friends. Can it be possible? Here now,” he pulled the glasses towards him and filled each one in time, retelling us about the time he was selected to be a Guinness Draught Master, the youngest American in Ireland the year he stayed there to study Irish literature for his second masters. There were few countries that Tim had not stepped foot on at some point. Not that I hadn’t traveled, I had done alright myself, thank you very much.
“To my dearest friends, my oldest friends, my truest friends. Since we were little neighborhood kids, dogging cars up nearly Crumb Road and wreaking havoc on old lady McGlinn’s pea pod garden to now, as Wizened Old Gentlemen,” Tim always referred to us as gentlemen. I think when we first met at only 6, he failed to notice that I was in fact a girl and has yet to really consider the position, “as Adventurers, as Captains of our Destiny and Kings of our Making. Merry Christmas!”
Our glasses clinked together and within moments whatever unease had been previously felt melted away inside the joint. Numerous pitchers were ordered. I lost count. We didn’t bother much with the updating of our lives. What was the point? We delved rather quickly into the past. Back to when the fort was built. To campfires in the backyard. To hiking up to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. We told the stories that made us feel as if those days were not as far away as they really were. We avoided naming years. Instead we dated time by our ages or by something big that happened that year. Like when Peter, my friend Beth’s old sister, bought that used car and accidentally drove it right into the lake at the bottom of the hill. We dated time by memory. And memory is fickle. We bickered over whether or not we found the dead dog in the woods before Tim’s little brother was bit by the rattler snake or after. We dated time by experience which jumbled together, mixing up in the muddle of our own making, in the fickle bitter tonic that is recollection. Then the conversation turned. It happened while I was in the bathroom. But when I returned to the table I could feel something had shifted.
“It was too. I found him. I saw him hanging there. I was the first one there,” Larry was saying, running his fingers through this thinning hair. Martin hissed at him to be quiet. I felt the beer turn on me a bit, as if I had walked into a different room. The air had changed, and there was a metallic taste on my tongue that I did not like. I tried to sit down casually. But I had never been casual and I was terrible at pulling off casual.
“What?” I said. I felt myself make a stupid grin that I’m sure Martin would have found quite agreeable.
“Nothing, darling,” Tim said pouring another round. He changed the subject to his current art installation. But I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the past some more. I wanted to talk about whatever it was that they were talking about when I came in. And I knew what it was. I pretended not to. We all pretended at some point not to know anything about it but I knew. So, in true suave form, I blurted it out like a mentally ill patient.
“Remember the Birdman?”
Larry cleared his throat. Tim looked from Larry to me to Martin and let out a howl of laughter that was ill appreciated by the bikers at the bar.
“The Birdman?” he laughed. “Of course we remember the Birdman.” He shook his head like he hadn’t thought of it in years, but I knew that wasn’t true.
“It was your brother wasn’t it?” I said.
“Mine? Never. No I think it was Ray’s older brother. Remember the one that lived up the block?”
Larry shifted uncomfortably. I knew why but I didn’t care right then.
“No way. I know it was you, you and your brothers.”
“My dear,” Tim said placing a hand over his heart, “I solmely swear, that while, I spent my childhood, up to No Good, I am not responsible for the Legend of the Birdman.”
“Remember when we found his shack out in the woods?” Martin offered. Larry stared into his drink.
“That old stone thing? Oh my god, didn’t I dare you to enter it?” I laughed, too loudly I realized. My stomach got tight. For a second, I thought I was going to throw up.
“Yes! You were going to pay me your five dollar allowance if I went in the stone shack and stayed there for ten minutes.”
“Wow, five bucks for ten minutes. That is so not worth it.”
“Why do you think I didn’t do it?” Larry laughed.
“Remember the prints?” I kept pushing it. I wanted to even though it felt like my heart was in my throat. No one said anything. “Remember. They were like this,” I dug threw my bag. “Hang on,” I jumped up and borrowed a pen from the blonde bartender. “Like this, right?” I grabbed napkin out of the holder on the table and traced a Y shape.
Everyone stared at it.
“No,” Larry said. It was the first thing he said since I mentioned the Birdman. “It was more like this.” Larry redrew the Y shape but made the end longer. Exactly like a three toed bird. We all stared at the paper in front of us. No one said anything for awhile. “But they were big. At least 2 feet across.”
“And what did he do Larry?” I whispered. My voice didn’t sound like my own. There was a part of my brain that was screaming to shut up. And another part that wanted to have this conversation.
“He would take you. The Birdman. He would take you while you slept. And all that would be left…outside…in the mud or the snow…were these prints. He would take you to his shack and…and…”
“Alright enough,” Tim said. He turned to me. “What gotten into you?”
But I didn’t care. “And what Larry. What else?”
“He could make you do things. He could make you do things you didn’t want to do. That you would never do. And then he killed you. Some say that he would eat you. But he didn’t. He killed you. Bodies would be found. Bodies pulled from the lake. Buried under leaves. Hanging…from…” Larry never took his eyes off the drawing on the napkin.
“Enough, Larry. Come on, boys. It’s Christmas Eve! Haven’t we happier tales to tell? I’m getting another pitcher.” Tim reached down and crumpled up the drawing of the Birdman’s prints. It broke the spell. When he returned we were already talking about how upon a dare, Larry had mooned the entire audience at high school graduation. Larry laughed too hard and choked on his beer, coughing and spitting all over the table. Tim slapped him on the back.
We said goodbye at the cars. Martin left first. Larry left second. He walked to his car with hunched shoulders and for a second I felt horrible for what I had done. He felt so thin through his coat.
“He’s been through a lot,” Tim said to walking me to my car. “You need to give him a break.”
Indignant I snorted. “I didn’t do anything. We were just talking about the past. God Tim, we were all talking about it.”
Tim wrinkled his brow and then it was gone. Any judgment he held against me, was wiped clean like new snow. “Merry Christmas, old friend.” He squeezed me tight.
I managed to eek out a quick ‘Merry Christmas.’
“You going to your brothers tomorrow?”
“Next year then?”
“I’ll be in city in February. We should get a drink.”
“You okay to drive?”
“Of course,” I lied.
I should have called my husband like he had asked me to. I should have left the car and called him but I wasn’t prepared for my mother’s disapproving looks on Christmas. I would rather take my chances. I checked my phone. No calls.
As I turned up the street to my house, I stopped the car. I parked it at the top of the hill instead of the driveway and got out. The cold air burned my lungs. It was quiet as outer space up here. The snow blanketed everything and the starts swirled above me. For another moment, I thought I was going to throw up but I didn’t. I walked to the edge of my parent’s lawn and looked at my childhood house. There were prints in the lawn from deer. I could see my husband inside, on the couch, talking to my dad. I watched him laugh, the way the smile spread easy across his face. I thought about going down the block to the courts, where the entrance to the woods was. I thought about it and decided I would go. I hadn’t been down there in years. We used to spend so much time there. Tim, Martin, Larry and I. But instead I walked the other way, past my car I parked on the side of the road and made a left towards the new development.
It didn’t take me long to find that house. It was empty. The rotten For Sale sign still posted in the ground. The wood of it molded with rain and snow. My feet crunched on the gravel but I didn’t dare step on lawn. The snow there was clean of prints, as if even squirrels and deer didn’t venture this way. I stared up at the tree at the edge of the lawn. All the branches were covered in snow. The broken branch, the one they sawed to cut him down was still there like an amputee’s nub. There was no snow on it. They say his parents found him first. But I knew that wasn’t true. We all knew the truth. We remembered Larry’s face when he came back, shaking and white. The boy was new. Adopted we think. The only black kid in the neighborhood. And he hung from that tree, right in the front of the house all night long. Till his parents woke up the following morning to that view of him, limp, still in his pajamas, dangling in their front window.
I walked to the neighbor’s house, and selected a slender limb from the tree. I had wished it would have cracked off, shattering the Christmas Eve silence but it didn’t. I had to keep bending it back and forth like it was made of rubber. I finally tugged it free.
Keeping my feet firmly on the road, I reached over to the tree and slowly and carefully, I traced the Y shape into the snow. I traced a line of the famous footprints from the trees edge into the neighbor’s lawn and out towards the woods. I started it again.
I brought the Birdman home.