Brendan Basham | Flight Delay
Vernon wakes up early, earlier than usual, to the gurgling coffee machine, radio tuned to pre-news classical. He forgot why he set the machines to go off so early. He won’t open the blinds, not yet, not until he sees a bit of light sneak in. The ache in his back is gone for the moment, but if he stays supine too long on his annoying mattress he’ll never walk again. Maybe he can lay on the floor. The floor’s been good for his back lately.
He was down there yesterday stretching his hips when he noticed a ball of lint nearly big as a tabby spooled around bottle caps and those little plastic seals you peel off the tops of milk bottles. Those always satisfied him when they came off in one pull, but it was a fifty-fifty chance—sixty-forty, whatever—it was rare for him not to use his Leatherman. He went for the broom to rifle under the cabinets. Bits of lint and hair collected on the straw bristles, and when he finally got a good angle, the whole mass came out stuck to the end of the broom.
Bits of wilted bell pepper and potato skin, coffee grounds, a bird feather. Smelled like piss. Where’d the feather come from? Vernon shook the broom, but the lint wouldn’t budge, so he stepped on the end of it with his bare foot and pulled on the broomstick. The mass slid off but there a was crunch under his toes like eggshell. He gagged, dropped the broom and hopped away on his other foot. He inspected his heel on the edge of the couch, but it was fine. A bit dusty. No blood. He opened a drawer in the kitchen for a pair of leftover chopsticks from take-out the other night and poked at the pile like it was yakisoba.
Within the mass of lint he found a small bird. Poor thing probably starved to death. How the hell did it get into his studio? If Vernon was a rodent or bird, trapped, confused, hungry, he too would have crawled under the cabinets or under the kitchen table or between the couch cushions. Plenty of crumbs there. He did not like to clean the nooks, mostly on account of his back.
This morning, though, Vernon, in bed, is still wondering how that bird got in, how long it had been there. The window in the bathroom is small and screened-in; the two large windows facing the street also have screens. He rarely opens any of them. Maybe he should. His apartment was getting a little ripe.
The sparrow (he’d guess sparrow, he was no birder) was small, gray, inconsolable, not dead long but what did he know? It had a smell. There was shape in its bones until he’d deflated it. No blood, not even on the beak—he assumed dead or dying things bled a little from the mouth. He’s watched so many terrible detective shows that he believed mouth-blood was part of the process of dying.
It’s funny, he thinks, this isn’t the first dead bird this week. In fact, he wrote a story about a dead bird he saw while crossing Jackson Avenue, pancaked on the hot flattop, little wrinkled claws curled up as if reaching for a helping hand. The story was yet another that refused to budge; enamored by the image, Vernon considers once again taking up photography.
The phone rings. It’s his friend Dennis.
“Come on man, it’s the best happy hour in town,” Dennis says.
Vernon is still in bed. He didn’t realize how late it was.
“I don’t really wanna go anywhere,” he says. He rolls over and peeks through the blinds at a world blooming: pedestrians cutting off honking cars, a man with a cat on a leash perched on his shoulder, tourists gaping at sky or naval. Everything looks like it smells like fumes, rotten oranges, old meat. New York in summer, he thinks, god it’s beautiful, but that smell.
“Anyway, I’m broke,” he mumbles into his phone.
“I’ve got your first round,” says Dennis. “Second too. I feel like celebrating.”
Dennis always feels like celebrating, but he never really had anything to celebrate.
“What is it this time?”
“Just put some pants on and come have a drink with me.”
After showering, Vernon again pokes at the bird with the chopsticks. He lifts a wing as if it’s smothered in Frank’s and bleu cheese. Yesterday, he placed it in a cereal bowl which he then vowed to never eat out of again but probably will anyway. How long had it been under the cabinet? He considers the bird an omen, like all the dead birds he has seen lately, but he doesn’t believe in omens, only dumb people do, like some people are scared of moths. Maybe the omen is merely premonition: if he doesn’t clean his apartment more often he will collapse in his own filth, hang-nailed hands curled to the sky.
On the sidewalk in front of the bar where he was meeting Dennis was another dead bird—a crow (definitely a crow, what other black birds did he know?), one of its wings splayed in the air as if hailing a cab. That’s three this week! A grown man wearing a grade school backpack is crouched over it, his head cocked as if trying to reanimate the bird with his mind. Pedestrians give them a wide berth. It makes Vernon angry, not so much the bird but the people whispering about the man. What a freak! Sociopath! There’s nothing wrong with mourning a dead bird in New York, is there? Vernon thinks he would’ve done the same thing. Imagine the two of us slumped over a crow on a weekday afternoon!
He shakes his head.
“Where’ve you been?” Dennis sets a couple beers on the table.
“Nowhere,” Vernon says. “Looking for work. Writing a little.”
“Some of us are worried.”
The mourner and I deserve each other, Vernon thinks, sipping at the cheap beer. Maybe he should go back, join him, but the Winnie-the-Pooh backpack was too much.
“The birds could’ve been playmates,” says Vernon.
“Keep seeing these dead birds. One outside makes it third in a row.”
“Birds die, man,” says Dennis. “Too many glass buildings.”
Vernon picks at the coaster, peels off the label. Gold dust rubs off on his fingers.
“My sister called the other day,” he says. “One of my cousins, Amy. She got cancer a while ago. They didn’t want to tell me. She’s losing her fingernails and toenails from the chemo and radiation. She’s been collecting a closetful of wigs like tribbles.”
“Tribbles. Like, space hamsters.”
Dennis used to work at this bar, that’s how they met. Vernon came in with a resumé and sat down to wait for the manager. The bartender, Dennis, kept pouring him beers, three in a row, because the manager was late and by the time the manager returned to apologize, Vernon was drunk. “It’s been busy,” the manager said, “and we’re understaffed and there was a bathroom incident.”
No worries, though. The manager was one of those subway zit-poppers, he could tell. Vernon couldn’t work under the inauspicious eye of a teenager.
“What do you think happened to that kid?” asks Vernon. Somehow Dennis already bought two more beers.
“I heard he works a diner up in Flushing or something. What’s up with your cousin?”
“Don’t know. My sister’s flying me out. I haven’t been back there in years. They think I need to remember who I am.”
“Who you is, brother. Good for you.”
“Could be good, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“It’s not uncommon these days,” Dennis says. “Anyway, make the best of it. Tell your sister Hi for me.”
“I will not.”
Vernon, dreading the flight, did not want to pack or board the petri dish of a plane with its whining babies and suffer through the inevitable constipation set on by too many complimentary bags of pretzels and his not-irrational fear of public bathrooms during layovers where an attempt to loosen his bowels ended only by swallowing whole a very expensive drippy burrito whose meat origins were unknown. But he must, for his cousin. Plus, he hasn’t left the city in a while and the desert could be rejuvenating. Like a hot shower. Or a defibrillator.
So he packs his gym bag and leaves the bird on the table and waters his cactus before he heads to the airport. Passes security without a hitch (he tends to get sweaty the way those TSA folk look at him) and after a couple cocktails he sleeps through most of the direct flight (more expensive, but he didn’t buy the ticket) and no babies! so he sleeps some more, boozy-breathed against his middle-seated neighbor.
In Tohono O’odham country, after a rough landing, Vernon steps off the plane onto the hot gangway umbilical and he feels all the moisture evaporate from his body. Expecting a nosebleed from the dryness, he holds his head high as he enters the terminal, an unexpected show of bluster, like a rooster among the throngs of overweight white people burnt red from excess everything—sun, tequila, children. The airport smells like tacos and urinal cakes. A woman in a chicken hat convinced the still-groggy Vernon that he’d landed in the wrong universe, one overrun by an empire of fowl; here is their leader and her husband, his spider-veined thighs constricted by four inches of khaki shorts about to burst like they’d been stuffed with ricotta and slow-roasted in the Arizona sun.
Vernon can’t weave his way around the crowd fast enough.
Joanna, his sister, meets him curbside.
“Jesus, I hate this place,” he says, slamming the door. “When’s it ever below a hundred-four?”
“Hey Bro,” she says, smacking her lips. “Nice to see you too. Funyun?”
The air conditioner blows her hair like she’s practicing for a headshot with oniony crumbs stuck to her cheek. Vernon thought Joanna would’ve been an actor had she ever left Arizona. When they were kids, she was a precocious toddler who could read the Times after a couple sit-downs with Dr. Seuss, and by twelve she was attempting Stravinsky on the violin but burned out in high school and became one of those stoners at a local coffeeshop smoking cloves and writing shitty sonnets all day. Their mother called it what it was—a phase—and Joanna eventually went back to school and graduated with a library science degree after several deferments.
“How’s Mom?” Vernon asks.
“Oh you know, preparing for the apocalypse as usual. Yesterday she bought three wind-up radios—three! Better question is: what are you doing? Why you still in New York?”
Vernon fiddles with the radio. Everything is a goddamn commercial.
“It’s… fine,” he says. “Everything’s fine.”
Joanna didn’t do so bad after college, becoming a librarian. Sexy librarian, she liked to tell Vernon’s friends. Those homeless guys who hang out in the reading room? They weren’t there just to brush up on Herodotus.
“Any new boyfriends I should know about?” Vernon asks as they merge onto the interstate.
“Aside from a few VFW flings, nada.”
“Same,” he says.
The drive to the Navajo Nation is a silence like the sky, so blue it is blinding. Joanna isn’t usually this reserved, and so Vernon tries to focus on the landscape to pass the time until she unloads on him. She swings her rusty station wagon up I-17 around deathly cliffs where armies of saguaro flip them off, then over the grasslands that roll on for miles where Vernon remembers seeing antelope leap weightlessly over open-mouthed canyons when they drove to Phoenix as kids (their family’s one-time voyage to Coasters and Castles).
Vernon hated those trips. Slow, boring, hot car rides. Sweaty mini-golf in hundred-degree heat. Expensive candy brands he’d never heard of and couldn’t afford. He remembers one of the obstacles being particularly maddening, when a wooden roadrunner snatched his golf ball right before it rolled through a hole in a plastic mountainside which, with its faded flaking paint, resembled an old man’s neck. He’d never really seen a roadrunner before. Hard to believe they were even real, much less a bird. He was surprised to see they weren’t gigantic like the cartoon Wile E. Coyote used to chase.
The thought reminds him of that dumb bird story he was writing, there was no getting over it.
Joanna’s car putters up the Mogollon rim now, the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Glowing red bluffs burn from the earth, the veld populates with juniper and piñon, then ponderosa. Vernon loves to roll down his window at this elevation. The air smells like vanilla and bark and smoky syrup. There are fires in the area, normal this time of year, matched by heavy monsoon rains in the afternoons.
He feels a pinch in his lower back again.
“Jo, can we stop somewhere?”
“We’re almost to Flag. Denny’s ok?”
A breakfast of undercooked pancakes and over-fried eggs and watery coffee. Vernon stretches his legs in the parking lot while Joanna makes a call.
“Three hours,” she says into the phone, “could be there by sunset.”
“Jo,” says Vernon, “I don’t want to go. It’s not the same. Not with Mom in the Home.”
Joanna pockets the phone.
“You know that’s bullshit,” she says. “That’s our real home out there, it always will be.”
“You sound like her.”
“The older we get the more I agree and believe everything Mom told us. Like how she met Elvis in Vegas and smudged him in the lobby.”
“Who were you talking to?” Vernon asks.
“Auntie. She said they’re taking Amy to Albuquerque for another treatment and that we should go to Auntie’s house and wait for them to get back.”
“I don’t have that kind of time, Jo.”
“What time do you need? Not like you’ve got a job to go back to. Other option is we drive to New Mexico.” Joanna lights the cigarette she pulled from her ear like a magic trick.
“Sounds like we’re not wanted at the hospital,” she says.
“Why would Amy not tell anyone she started chemo?”
“I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t want people to see me like that either. But at least I’d want to say goodbye to everyone before I lost all my hair and bellyfat.” Joanna pets her stomach lovingly.
They keep going, around Dook’oosłííd and through the forest before descending into the Painted Desert. Joanna insists on driving until her eyes roll back, says that won’t happen until Gallup. They listen to college radio until the signal is lost, then Vernon searches for the AM station their mother used to listen to, the one that plays only traditional music and bad country songs.
“I never understood,” Joanna says, breaking a seventy-mile stretch of silence, “how can our people stand listening to these racist assholes warble on about drinking too much and beating their wives?”
“I haven’t heard that song before,” Vernon says.
“It’s out there. Can barely understand their twang. We understand more Diné than that shit.”
“Change it then.”
“There’s fucking nothing else on out here!”
She’s right. Vernon stares out the window at a complacent windmill next to a cistern graffitied with SKODEN, and a trough where four bored cattle guzzle brown water. For a minute he wants to live out here. Maybe not this exact spot, but maybe near some woods, close to water where you can’t hear anything but the patchy waves of AM radio. Maybe he could plant corn, read The Classics. He’d have a hell of a lot more to write about than three birds in the city. Sparrow, crow, pigeon. Birds are birds are birds. Also, dinosaurs. Pigeons particularly monopolize urban worlds. Vernon couldn’t envision any birds less boring, or any other kind of bird for that matter, least of all in Queens.
“Turn here,” Vernon says.
“No,” says Joanna.
“Just go, please. Turn now!”
Joanna swerves in front of a semi and onto the off-ramp.
“Jesus, you’re scaring me,” Joanna says, “you need to pee that bad?”
“No, I wanna go there.” Vernon points with his lips.
They pull over to a food stand, which is just particle board nailed to twisted juniper branches and draped with a blue tarp. Inside, a girl and her grandmother flap balls of dough into rounds the size of hubcaps with their palms, then lay them gently into an iron skillet filled with bubbling-hot Crisco. A pot of mutton stew simmers on the stove, green chiles roast on the grill.
“Sorry,” Vernon says, “I need to eat some sheep. It’s been too long.”
He orders a mutton sandwich with a roasted green chile slapped on top. He sprinkles it with salt and folds the frybread in half. The first bite sears the top of his mouth, and the heat of the chile numbs his lips and tongue.
“Water!” he gasps.
“God, you’re an idiot.” Joanna hands him a bottle. He pours it on his lips and face. His eyes turn red. Tears trickle down his face.
“It’s not working,” he says, “I can’t see!”
Joanna asks the girl for a Fanta. Vernon leans forward, ass out, arms spread like a soaring hawk, sticks his lips out like a sore she’s to bandage. She pours the entire contents of the can over his mouth, his tongue lapping up the last drops. The young girl and her grandmother laugh and laugh.
Once Vernon scrapes some of the seeds out he’s able to eat the rest of the mutton sandwich without crying. Joanna eats her frybread plain, just a sprinkle of salt, dipped in mutton stew. Nobody else is at the stand. Seems there’s nobody for miles and miles.
They decide to continue down the road they’re on instead of the freeway. It’s a half hour longer, Joanna says, but it’s a prettier drive. Far away from the seven-train rumbling over his miniscule apartment every four minutes, rattling over the bridge railing and into his dreams all night. No impatient drivers honking for no reason. No smell of greasy diner or garbage trucks grinding and whining throughout the night.
Joanna points out the cows at dusk, their lazy silhouettes. Vernon laughs at the dogs herding a dirty flock of sheep down the middle of the road. The dogs, so serious, in heaven. Impatient and patient at once. Was there a word for that?
Crouching low, the dogs nip at hind legs, let out short squeaks of barks—not too loud for they might spook the flock.
Joanna honks the horn.
“No, don’t,” whispers Vernon.
He gets out of the still-moving car and follows the dogs and the flock for a minute before he meanders off the highway. There are no cars as far as he can see.
The sky turns dark blue, radiates orange and purple on the horizon. The air smells like dust and mud and sheep. Vernon missed this silence.
“Where are you going?” Joanna yells out the window. She pulls onto the shoulder, and she watches her brother for a moment before also hopping out to follow him. Behind them the mesa cliffs go dark, and they stand looking over the valley, watch as the shadow of earth swallows itself, engulfs willow trees and the three or four trailers cordoned off by fencing like seams on a million-year-old quilt.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” Joanna says.
Way up in the sky a slash of black circles around some distant carrion.
“If Amy doesn’t want us to visit then why are we out here?” Vernon says.
“I don’t think she knows we’re coming.”
“I thought you arranged this.”
“I didn’t tell them you were coming,” Joanna says. “They think it’s just me.”
“Why wouldn’t you tell them?”
Joanna sighs. She rubs her elbows. The temperature falls with the sun.
“At first I thought it would be a nice surprise. Then I thought, well, they barely want me to come so why would I tell them you’re here too? Amy would hate it.”
“I don’t care what Amy thinks,” Vernon says. “How can someone dying be so selfish?”
“Jesus, Amy’s not dying. Not yet.”
“We’re all dying.”
“Then you should ask yourself the same question.”
He does, every morning: I am dying, why must I be so selfish? He never got any answers. Just more dead pigeons falling from under bridges. Ducks in jet engines. A goose on a table.
“Honestly,” Joanna says, “I just wanted to see my little brother.”
Vernon turns to his sister and has trouble believing her. She’s never been one to offer sentimental gestures. He remembers a time when they came out here with their mom, stopping often for their tiny bladders. For as long as he could remember they visited that same frybread place, fed crows with the stale bits of dough at every pee stop.
“I thought those birds would follow us a hundred miles, ‘member that?” Vernon says. “You tied twine to the bread and let it sail out the window alongside us.”
“Never could catch one,” says Joanna.
“That’s what you wanted to do?”
“Sure. They’re so smart. I wanted to train them to take me places.”
Vernon smiles. He pictures Joanna with a murder of crows huddled in a hogan watching cooking shows and reading bad airport novels.
“Come on,” she says. “We don’t have to go to Auntie’s, but it’s getting cold and the sheep have cleared.”
Vernon wishes they could both live out here. Soon they’ll be the only survivors left.
“You know, you can come stay with me whenever,” he says.
“Yeah, maybe,” she says. “I mean, I know.”
In his studio apartment a few days later, Vernon is sitting in front of his computer contemplating what to do next with the stupid birds.
“Perhaps you can bring them back to life,” his sister had suggested.
“You just don’t get it,” he said.
“Obviously, neither do you.”
They had gone back to Phoenix after only a day on the Nation without seeing any family at all. They stayed in a hotel in Tségháhoodzání, had a greasy breakfast, then took the long way home over wild gravel roads. They laughed splashing through potholes, singing vibrato as they bounced over washboard. Their mother taught them both how to drive on those roads, told them the best way over the washboard roads was to go so fast you floated over every bump.
“Thanks for the road trip,” he told Joanna on their way to the airport. “We didn’t really do anything, but I think we get along better when we don’t have anywhere to go.”
Joanna pulled up in front of the terminal, flicked her cigarette out a crack in the window with a shrug.
“I mean,” she started, then shook her head. “Amy’s in bad shape but she’s not dying soon. Mom’s also not super well but I can handle it. But if something ever happens to you, Brother, my hands are tied.”
Vernon wondered what she was talking about. Maybe he should’ve reassured her he was doing great but he didn’t know how convincing he could be. He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over for a hug.
“All I’m saying,” Joanna said into his shoulder, “is that you need to do something. I know you don’t believe in omens, and neither do I, but maybe those dead birds are trying to tell you something about something.”
“But I am—”
“The story you’re working on, it’s not really about birds.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said.
Vernon shut the squeaky door and said goodbye. He watched his sister’s station wagon cough smoke down the lane before he checked in for the redeye home.
This story is not about birds.
He apologizes to the bird carcass in the bowl in front of him for typing too violently.
These birds do not a story make.
There’s nothing here, it’s trash! Joanna was right, it’s not about birds.
I do not like birds, as food or pet.
Vernon stands, does a few push-ups, sun salutations, upward-facing dog. He peeks under the couch, his desk, the kitchen table. He looks everywhere for a hint, a clue, but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.
He is happy, though not surprised, for Dennis to call and talk him into meeting him at the bar again.
“Maybe she thinks I’m marked, like she knows I’m gonna die next,” Vernon tells him over the first pint.
“I don’t think your sister has those powers,” says Dennis. “Be cool if she did, though.”
“And I don’t think you’re gonna die. Drink up, it’s one thing we got over birds. Sure, they can fly, but we have the beer.”
“It’s not so much the birds as it is her. I think she was trying to fuck with me. Now all I can think about is how I can move back to Arizona. I think she needs me.”
“Bullshit. She’s a tough lady, she don’t need nobody.”
“Yeah but maybe she needs a friend. I told you our mom’s losing her mind?”
“Runs in the family?”
“No, dummy,” Vernon sighs. “Nevermind.”
“Look,” says Dennis, “she doesn’t know what you’re doing here anymore. Neither do I.”
Vernon looks at his friend, and for the first time in years he sees him as sober as he’ll be tonight, genuinely concerned. He wishes his sister could be here. He didn’t want her to feel like she was the only one who cared for their family. And it wasn’t out of guilt. He believed she would like it here.
When he gets home from the bar Vernon cleans every inch of his apartment. He doesn’t find any more feathers or birds, no traces of mouse shit or nests of strange creatures. He ignores the back pain as he lifts the couch and moves the table and desk. It’s a small apartment, it never took long to clean but this time he spends hours, making sure to wipe the windowsills down, and the fan blades, and scrub the yellow stain behind the toilet bowl. He unscrews the drain cover in the coffin shower and runs a wire coat hanger down its throat to remove the excess hair. He even cleans under the kitchen sink where mysterious rusty puddles never overflow nor fully evaporate.
When the place is shining, Vernon picks up the phone.
“Hey Sis,” he says, “I have an idea, tell me if this is a bad idea.”
“I can already tell it is,” she says.
“Let’s trade places. I’ll go down and take care of mom, you should take some time off. Live in my place. I’m getting it all ready for you, and—”
“I’m okay here, Vernon, even if I do complain all the time.”
“What about mom? The family is going extinct, you said so yourself.”
“She won’t recognize you any more than she does me. And why do you keep saying things like that? We’re not dinosaurs.”
“But we are!” Vernon says. “I mean we’re not dinosaurs, but culturally, linguistically, aren’t we fading?”
“Our ancestors have been through one apocalypse before,” Joanna says. “We can survive another.”
“You don’t know that.”
What a waste, thinks Vernon, why’d he even call? or clean? Why is anyone anything anywhere anymore?
“Last night I had a gun to my ear,” he says.
“Oh my God, Vern, why the hell— Did you get robbed?”
“It was me.”
“You don’t own a gun.”
No, he doesn’t. He’s never held a gun in his life.
“I was… on the roof. I was about to jump, but I kept thinking about you and mom and how I can’t do that to you–”
“I appreciate the thought, but Brother, we’re fine over here. And it would be sad to see you go. Imagine all the good pizza you won’t get anymore.”
“My toes were dangling over the edge, swear to god. I spit on someone, and they screamed because it hurt because it fell from so high up.”
“Nice try. I do, weirdly, appreciate it, though,” says Joanna.
Vernon sucks in a breath and holds it for second before sighing into the phone.
“Your character with the bird,” Joanna says, “maybe he needs to fly. Not off the roof, not run away or something like that. He needs to fly instead of escape.”
Vernon stares out the window and picks at his fingernails.
“I love you, Bro,” she says. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Vernon removes the dead bird from the cereal bowl. He wraps it in a wad of paper towels and sticks a large spoon in his back pocket and walks down to the East River. At its banks he looks for a place to bury it, but he thinks of how toxic this soil must be, how he normally wouldn’t touch these waters if had a choice.
But he carefully unwraps the carcass and sets it on the water’s surface. He imagines the sparrow will go floating downstream under the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, out into the Hudson River, all the way past the Verrazano and sail into the Atlantic to ride this good feeling across the ocean, but the bird floats only for thirty seconds. Enough time for it to be swept by a current, and it dives, it sinks, down to the bottom of the frigid river.
Brendan Shay Basham (Diné) is a fiction writer, poet, educator, and former chef, born in Alaska and raised in northern Arizona. He received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His debut novel, Swim Home to the Vanished, is forthcoming from Harper Books (early 2023). He is a recipient of the inaugural James Welch Prize for Indigenous Writers, Writing By Writers Fellowships, the Truman Capote Trust Fellowship, as well as a nominee for a 2016 PEN / Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a 2018 Pushcart. He is also the recipient of Ucross Foundation’s first Native American Literary Award. He lives and teaches in Baltimore.