Joe comes to the door of our house, bearing a casserole. He’s courting our mother, finding ways to see her in between their weekly meditation group meetings, where interactions are limited to deep breathing and Sanskrit chants. The houses in our Cheektowaga neighborhood are close together (too close), no yards, the trees all stumpy crab apples, and everyone – skateboarding boys and porch-rocking grandparents – can see him standing there.
My sister and I are in the driveway, grinding a hopscotch course into the cement with white stones from our neighbor’s flower beds. We don’t like Joe. Don’t like his grin—too wide, too happy. Don’t like that he’s almost ten years younger than our mother, that he puts his hands on her shoulder when he’s just supposed to be listening. We don’t talk about it, but we’re both angry: We’ve watched her stumble through more men than we can count. Spiritual guys who are really controlling freaks. Free-spirited artists who drink away their emotions. Not as bad as our father, but we’re on guard. Still, we come along with them to Stiglemeier Park down the street.
Stiglemeier has few trees, lots of ducks, and marshy trails that slope down by a slow-moving creek. It doesn’t feel like nature at all, but like somebody’s artificial yard with grass laid down in purchased strips one night, to cover the mud. We ride our bikes – pink banana seats – ahead of them, to the grove of trees where you can still feed the chickadees, a lost bastion of wildness in suburbia. Here, my sister and I have built forts from twigs and sticks, searched for gnome doorways in the thin trunks of diseased trees, rode our imaginary horses around the picnic tables sticky with wadded gum. But the one truly special thing about Stiglemeier is that in this spot, the chickadees land right in your hand if you offer them unhusked black sunflower seeds.
We stand under the hunched trees, the ground crunchy with crab apples, seeds in our outstretched hands. If you make a quiet chit chit chit sound, the chickadees turn their twitchy heads and chit back at you. The first bird comes to me like I am the Forest Queen, the one who knows their language. The next comes to my sister. When one alights on Joe’s hand, he closes his fingers around it; the bird screeches, flails, flaps black and white wings, a tussle of feathers and delicate legs, and I still see it, the look on his face: Joe doesn’t let go, just keeps his hand outstretched, clamped over the bird’s feet like this is some feat or skill, like he’s a falconer taming a hawk. My sister screams “Let it go,” but there’s a long moment where he doesn’t. When he does release it, when he finally seems contrite, says he’s sorry, it’s my mother’s face I’m watching, my mother who said nothing but held her breath the whole time.