A Wake of Buzzards by Mike Dressel
On their third day of sharing the barn, the buzzard brought Kenny a present: a small mangled carcass.
Kenny had taken up residence in the hay loft of the decrepit structure after being kicked out of his girlfriend Trudy’s apartment. Which came on the morning of him losing his job. Which was the result of his driving the delivery van, at that particular moment containing the floral arrangements for a well-heeled customer’s silver anniversary party, while intoxicated. Though Kenny would argue he was only under the residual influence of the beers he'd been drinking the night before, neglecting to mention or possibly remember the tall boy he'd gulped in the parking lot before getting behind the wheel.
The deputy administering the breathalyzer found the argument unconvincing. Besides, Kenny's license was expired. That he was not escorted to jail immediately was only due to the officer's desire to avoid paperwork. Or perhaps it was that Kenny, noticing the man's wedding band, asked him how he had made out with the tall, swarthy gentlemen--a hustler--he'd seen him leaving arm-in-arm with from a local gay pick-up bar, a week or so prior.
The barn was not Kenny's first choice. But with losing his job he'd violated his third strike with Trudy – and so, after putting his clothes and toiletries into a couple of brown paper Kroger grocery sacks, he'd reached out to his ex, Lyle. Lyle was “working the steps” again, and didn't need, in his words, the unholy temptation of Kenny's presence in his condo. Plus his chihuahua, Bocephus, had been under the weather and any disturbances to the dog's daily routine would surely upset his delicate constitution.
Kenny hitched a ride across town to see Dawn, his ex-wife. The last time they'd spoken, it hadn't been pleasant. Kenny was drunk--“Only on Coors Light Dawn, get a hold of yourself”--at their daughter's Natalie’s eighteenth birthday party. Though calling it a party was in itself a stretch. Natalie left her own celebration after forty-five minutes, slinking into the passenger seat of her boyfriend's Honda. The deep bass of the speakers boomed and rattled, kicking up gravel onto the fluttery paper tablecloth covering the plastic table set up under the oak tree. Natalie's absence left Kenny and Dawn to bond over their perceived failure as parents. Kenny decorously lit Dawn's Winston Lights and nodded in agreement through her litany of parental woes, beginning with “I just don't know what's happened to that girl.” Then Kenny got too handsy and Dawn sent him packing.
Kenny rapped his knuckles on the splintered screen door then stepped back, running his fingers through his wild auburn hair in a gesture at making himself presentable. He waited. There was a quick flapping of the floral curtain that hung over the diamond pane of the window to the front door, the sound of locks turning, and then it opened with a swollen pop. A woman in stretch pants, a sweatshirt, and house slippers the color of daffodils held the screen door, which wheezed as it opened, ajar.
He knew his former mother-in-law would not appear with a loaded shotgun, she hated firearms, but she had deadly aim with a flung frying pan, a lesson he'd learned years earlier. Kenny was prepared to duck and cover if need be.
“Is Dawn here?” he asked, feeling not unlike a high school rebel asking to date the preacher's daughter.
“Depends,” Eunice said. She was nothing if not economical in the conversation department, Kenny thought.
“I was hoping to have a word.”
“Which one would that be?”
“Howdy, for starters” he said.
“She's out. I suppose you can come in and wait, but I hope you don't want coffee cause I've fresh out.”
Dawn refused, when she did finally return from her errands, to allow Kenny access to her bed, or the sofa in the living room, or any horizontal space where he might sleep. Kenny was shuffling back down the driveway towards the main road when he caught sight of the barn, which stood adjacent to the rubble of Eunice's family's old ancestral home. It was virtually uninhabitable, which meant it was free.
Kenny discovered the buzzard family had laid claim to the loft space first. They found each other there, in the twilight of that cool North Carolina spring day, and after a weary, watchful two nights accepted each others' continued presence as a given. The chicks especially were nonplussed.
Though sodden and feckless, Kenny was not completely without some sense of style. He scrounged up an antique mirror from underneath a tarp, and an enamel wash basin and pitcher. He selected a patch of floor next to the wobbly cane chair that would be his bedroom. An old oil lamp provided light, and for entertainment there was a boom box with one blown out speaker and Kate Bush cassette tape jammed in the door.
He managed to squat there for three days' time before he was found out. Eunice, searching for her kitten Butternut, saw a figure skulking on the property and gave chase. “Whoever the hell you are you better get off this land. I've already called the sheriff.”
She caught up to Kenny as he was halfway up the ladder to the loft. “What in the hell?” she said.
“Afternoon Eunice. Fine weather. I was hoping, since I was already here...” He flashed her a toothy grin.
Eunice glared at him, and then sighed. “Just for the time being,” she said. “But mind yourself. Trouble hangs off you like an ill-fitting shirt.”
He started to thank her but she just raised her hand to silence him. “Do me a favor while you're out here, keep an eye peeled for Butternut. Fool thing has gone missing and he's still so itty bitty.”
Kenneth promised he would, and flashed to the mound of freshly dug earth behind the barn where he'd stowed the Buzzard's putrefied offering. It had been hit by a car, he could tell, they hadn't killed it. But he didn't feel like addressing those particulars with Eunice.
Kenny was allowed to shower and use the toilet in the house, and an old sleeping bag that smelled faintly of cat pee was loaned to him. His morning routine, well, morning for him, was to pass his former mother-in-law, sitting at the Formica kitchen table flipping through the pages of the daily newspaper and muttering curses under her breath, and use the facilities before lighting the first of the day's cigarettes on the stove burner and stirring himself a cup of instant coffee. Unemployed, he ingratiated himself to Eunice by doing yard work, and sometimes he filled his afternoons with Dawn, who'd now warmed to his presence. They scoured the red clay of the property for lost flatware or odd bits of china and Depression glass which they could sell at the flea markets where she had a booth for her homemade earrings and necklaces. Dawn, it should be noted, was an excellent beader. She'd been on disability since she'd fallen at the craft store where she worked, injuring her lower back and leading to endless trips to doctors and a near-bottomless supply of muscle relaxers and painkillers. Which might have accounted for her increased tolerance to Kenny's presence. Dawn, puffy and pleasantly zonked on pills, could spend hours out-of-doors with her ex-husband and barely get worked up to a state of aggravation, at least for a few weeks.
They'd met in a club nineteen years ago. He'd offered her a sip from his flask, but she was a teetotaler. “You look like Stevie,” he said.
“I love Stevie. Isn't she just beyond?”
They danced. To him she was a crystal vision in her flowy skirt, blonde hair flailing and bracelets jangling. She wore a thin gold chain with a small half moon that nestled just above her décolletage. He told her he played keyboards, she said she was a singer. Sweat plastered his peroxide blonde hair to his forehead. He was twenty-one, she was nineteen. They were engaged within six months. That Kenny was gay was more a problem for Dawn's extended family than her, though she picked up on the signs of his drinking too late, being unacquainted with burden of alcoholism. Dawn paced the annex of the small Methodist church while her Uncle and her cousin, Kenny's appointed groomsmen, tried to sober him up in the bathroom, one splashing water on his face and trying to get coffee down his throat while the other wrestled the fifth of vodka from his hand. The couple stood, Kenny leaning on Dawn for support, in front of the paltry assemblage of friends and loved ones and pledged their eternal love to one another. Dawn was pregnant within the year. She separated from Kenny after three years, and officially filed for divorce after the fifth, but their boundaries never remained rigid. He'd helped nurse Eunice back to health after a bout of pneumonia, moving back in with Dawn and his daughter, who were living at Eunice's place. Initially it wasn't the even boyfriends he kept on the side, it was the drinking that led to the choice of boyfriends he kept on the side. Angry bikers or recent parolees, the roughest of trade, who would show up at all hours, spurned by Kenny's fickleness, or often seeking to recoup money loaned to him, hurling vile epithets through the window, and once a brick dislodged from the carport. It was not the environment in which Dawn wanted to raise her daughter. And so he was exiled again. Though often Dawn, during bouts of insomnia or depression, would call Kenny and keep him hostage on the line for hours, relaying the minutiae of her day in excruciating detail while he slowly drifted into unconsciousness.
The mama buzzard had flopped the lifeless tabby-furred body at Kenny's feet like a greeting from the carrion welcome wagon, her maternal instinct viewing him less as a threat more as a lost creature badly in need of nurturing. That, or she sensed he'd likely keel over dead soon and they could feast. The buzzard's shiny black button eyes watched him as he produced a handkerchief and gently scooped up the tiny corpse.
In return for that initial kindness, he began making gifts to the buzzards. He tore an old beach towel into strips to bolster the buzzard family's nest. He began sneaking scraps of raw hamburger out of the house on his daily bathroom trips, rolling it into a ball and sticking it in the pocket of his windbreaker to later feed the chicks by hand.
Whatever gene was missing in his ability to care for himself was manifest in help others. He worked for a time as a pet groomer. His longest employment was as a home health aide, gabbing with his elderly female clients and styled their wigs and helped them apply their lipstick, fasten the clasps of their necklaces, reading them snippets from the tabloids and gossip magazines. They adored him, as did his supervisors, until the one afternoon he was cajoled by old lady Morris to give her a nip-- “Just a teaspoon darlin'”--from her secret stash, and when the woman's harried daughter arrived, having been alerted by the neighbors of a ruckus, she found her mother and Kenny deep in their cups, chain-smoking and singing along to a Hank Williams LP.
When Dawn discovered the birds she flipped out. She'd managed, after a protracted effort, to scale the ladder to the loft. She'd run out of Winstons and was planning to borrow a few from Kenny when she came to face to face his cohabitants, letting out a startled cry and nearly falling out.
Kenny, who'd been around back, found a shaken Dawn pacing the barn floor.
“There's a family of buzzards roosting in the loft you gotta chase 'em out.”
“It's called a wake.”
“It's gonna be you're wake if you don't chase them off the property.”
“They're harmless,” Kenny said.
“They're filthy. They're all up in your stuff...and...are they sleeping on my old towel?”
Kenny flashed a beatific smile, but Dawn looked like she was about to wretch.
“What about bird flu Kenny?”
“That's not how you...seriously Dawn? All creatures. Great and small. All creatures great and small.”
“You are banned from the house, you hear me.”
“The entire community heard you. And that's fine. I prefer their company.” She turned on her heels and stomped away.
The birds were agitated when Kenny entered the loft. “Don't worry,” he cooed, “I'm not going anywhere. Neither are you.” Except for Kenneth Walker past was never not prologue.
He'd only meant to walk down to the nearby gas station to pick up some beer and a beef stick, but he ended up in the passenger seat of a cherry-red sports car and on a two day bender with Troy, a darkly handsome friend of a friend he'd met at a party once. It was near midnight when he finally returned to the property. The last thing he remembered was shrugging out of his jeans, which he could barely get past his knees, and flopping down on the sleeping bag. The flick of the Bic lighter illuminated the empty surroundings, then bounced as it hit the planks. Kenny lay down to contemplate the glowing tip of his cigarette.
Dawn smelled the smoke first and, struggling into her silk kimono, ran across the gravel and the small field that separated her house from the barn. She found Kenny standing, as if hypnotized by the flames, naked but for the sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders like a cape, his round white belly protruding. The dry wood popped as ash and cinders dotted the sky like fireworks. Flames reflected in Kenny's glassy eyes. “Well. The buzzards left.”
© Mike Dressel, 2012
Mike Dressel has lived in New York for the past twelve years. His writing has appeared in Chelsea Station #3, Promethean, Metazen (Pushcart Prize nominee), Monkeybicycle, Ducts.org, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, among others. He is the co-producer of the storytelling series No, YOU Tell It! and recently took part in their evening based on the theme of Firsts. He is an adjunct instructor at The City College of New York.
A Wake of Buzzards was read by Jere Williams on 5th September 2012