RECOMMENDED: The best new fiction in NYC
This never happened: A cargo ship unloading in New York Harbor drops a crate that cracks in two and explodes into thousands of pink and yellow parakeets. Some of them nest in Green-Wood mausoleums that have views of the Statue of Liberty. Some of them fly above the F to Coney Island, the A to the Cloisters, the 7 to Woodside. Two of them settle in a tree in my mother’s Queens neighborhood. They are snooty and condescending. They eschew other birds, preferring to circle around one another in flight like a pink-and-yellow tornado. They side-eye me when I visit. Preen their feathers and judge.
Someone says, “Let’s have a beach day. Let’s bring blankets and cold salads and swim in the water. Let’s comment on how the boats look in the distance and ask one another for advice. Will you go? I’ll bring what I’m good at, you bring what you’re good at. Get that girl to come, who’s good at everything. I’ll drive unless you want to. You don’t know where it is. I do so. I wish we were already there. Let’s never die. Let’s never not have
A woman lives on a ship docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On the ship, she has painted the words i am dying. On the other side: and you are too. She doesn’t leave the ship, and she loathes visitors. If someone wants to visit, she yells, “Put it in writing!” Letters can be placed in a bucket that hangs from the bowsprit. I am going there tonight with a handwritten letter and a heart as wild as the blood-black sea.
I read somewhere that a hummingbird’s heart beats 1,400 times a minute, but I think that’s probably bullshit.
After surgery restores his vision, six-year-old James will wear a blindfold for weeks. His neurons must learn to rewire and make new connections. The sightless do not have the graphs and borders that order light and color like the black lines in a coloring book. Encountering a tree for the first time, James will only see what’s reflecting off the leaves and trunk. His doctors term the experience as seeing a “tree with lights.” James will only be able to see the positive of everything until his eyes adjust to the new friends the neurons have made, and he sees the world like the rest
The printer is acting up. Girl meets Boy when they are sent to look into it from their respective departments. They introduce themselves, then turn to the errand at hand. Without consult, they begin to speak in the voice of the printer. “God forbid I make anything easier for you,” Girl says. “You can fix me, but I’ll just wait until the next meeting to crap out again,” Boy says. Girl and boy agree: The printer is a grumpy sort, with the hint of a Bronx accent. On their last go-round, the girl pantomimes a cigar. She’s uncertain why she and the boy are acting this way or at what point they should stop. Who are we? she thinks. What the fuck is going on?
I rescue a dragonfly from a spider’s web using my car key. It is out of the fire as it were, but the web has shrink-wrapped its left wing. It bats itself against the concrete, spiraling pointlessly. I bear witness. Is life very fragile or very resilient? This dragonfly’s struggle scores one for both.
I visit the woman who lives on the ship that reads i am dying. The sea has wrecked her eyes. The salt air has cracked her lips. “Come down,” I yell, hair whipping in my face. “Come up,” she says. “But there’s no ladder,” I say. She says, “Maybe not one that you can see.”
A photographer saunters over to where I’m drying a mug and says, “How’s the waitressing business?” “Fine,” I say, “if it’s okay with you to get things like this for a tip.” I hold out a napkin where some meringue has written: a hummingbird’s heart beats 1,400 times a minute. “How is that even possible?” I say. “I think it’s bullshit.” The photographer says, “Someday, when you feel as pretty as you are, I’m going to take your picture.” A camera dangles around his neck, and he walks with a cane. His name is F.D. Reese Jr. I make him write it down.
My brother teaches me to make a fist. The first lesson is: Thumb goes outside, not inside the hand. “That’s a good way to break your thumb,” he says. I am a half-an-out girl. When I come to the plate, they yell, “Half an out!”So when I inevitably strike three, it won’t cost anyone anything much. “Hit me as hard as you can,” my brother says. After preparing my fist, I do. My punch goes wobbly against his bicep. “Harder,” he says. I make another fist, a better one, I hope. I want to cause him pain so he thinks I’m strong. “Harder!” A parakeet that had been watching surprises into the air. We cross the yard, pushed forward with every attack and reset. How violent. How full of love.
I return to the woman in the ship that reads and you are too. I knock on the smooth, wide hull. I peer into a porthole. I ask the seagulls. I ask the angled, solemn moon. There is no answer. She is sleeping. So on the concrete dock, I sleep too.
On three, Girl and Boy reveal the secrets of their deepest hearts, then make fun of each other’s ruthlessly. They debut scars on their bellies and legs. He says, “I can control dogs with my mind.” She says, “I’m double-jointed, like, everywhere.” She bends her thumb back to touch her arm, and he focuses on a Pomeranian in a nearby booth. She says she was born being able to do it, and he says, “Me too, with the dog thing.” Instead of a tip, they write the waitress a note on a napkin. It says: a hummingbird’s heart beats 1,400 times a minute.
Six-year-old James gives me directions to Saturn: Make a left at Brooklyn, 95 South, fly over this cloud, then that cloud, out through the atmosphere, right then a left, you’re there. “I’ll go while you’re in surgery,” I say. “And tell you how it is.” “Just be safe,” he says. “There’s a lot of there out there.”
It’s noon at the coffeeshop. We’re almost out of turkey. A writer is drunk at a table. He is telling people who aren’t listening what he thinks about this writing stuff. “Writers today need to learn to build houses! Nabokov built houses for his readers! Each chapter a room. The problem with most novels is that too much happens. A novel should be as eventful as an instruction manual on how to read an instruction manual. Once upon a time is a dumb way to start a story. It’s obvious and redundant and a lie. Much better to start a story with: This never happened.
A small bird lands on a tree outside the window by his head. “Look,” I say. “A parakeet.” “A parakeet?” he says. “A fucking parakeet?”
If you place a virus into a petri dish of water, the water will develop antibodies to combat it. After it is removed, the water retains memory of the virus. Last night, I sat under the stars holding your ratty sweater against my cheek.
Sarah Rice had cerebral palsy, a condition that will one day render her spineless, pinned to a wheelchair. I assumed because she had a disease she was a nice person, in the way we are all, when confronted by the headlights of death, prioritized. I introduced her to my friends, cooked her a meal from a centuries-old recipe. Sarah Rice belittled my interests, hooked up with my boyfriend, tore off my front bumper with her sick, bare hands. I asked her why she did it. She said she wanted to see if she could. Sarah, I don’t know where you are these days. You said that to me years ago, but I just now heard you.
The boy’s penis had been ripped off in war and replaced with two orchids that needed different kinds of sunlight. The girl tells him she doesn’t want a sexual relationship. She wants him to return home from running, mealy and raw, and accept a forkful of sausage she holds out to him without looking. But how can she say, “I want you to chew over my shoulder and ask what I’m reading?” No one believes you when you’re honest. So she says, “I don’t want a sexual relationship,” and leaves it unexplained, and he senses a withholding and assumes she’s lying, and she feels misunderstood in advance, and eventually they get into separate cars and have different driving experiences getting home. Except, at a stoplight, the boy is observed by a deer that pauses in the tree line before plunging into the forest. It runs, crunching through the underbrush. It reaches a highway and leaps into the path of a car, driven by the girl. She swerves to avoid collision and ditches on the shoulder, heart beating at an accelerated rate. The deer leaps back into the forest. It gallops through clearings and comes upon a seemingly empty glade. Where we see a bed of vegetation the deer sees deep cover. This is its home. It knows exactly where it is. The deer burrows in, tucks its nose beneath its hind legs and dozes off against its sleeping mother.
“I got you a present,” says the woman who lives in the ship. She hurls a ladder over the main deck. It seems so simple. “So I climb this up to where you are,” I say, not believing. She nods. We each know what could be about to happen. I hold the first rung in my hands. It is ornery and strong, the way I’d guess a ladder leading up to her would be. I want to live in a ship and marry the sea. I climb the first rung, then the second. I climb that ladder all night.
“How was Saturn?” James says. Even wearing a blindfold, his earnest desire to know reads plainly. “It was great,” I say. “It was?” He sounds suspicious. “So great.” “You’re lying,” he says, trembling. “You didn’t go.” Tears course down from underneath his blindfold. “I did,” I insist. His wailing tapers off into a plaintive, sniffling disgust. “I know you didn’t,” he says, suddenly still. “I gave you the wrong directions.”
The owner of this coffeeshop informs me he does not pay me to shoot the shit with other waitresses. It is hot. We are out of turkey, a fact I was conveying to the other waitress when he rapped me on the shoulder to remind me what he doesn’t pay me for. The lunch rush hits. Hungry people shuffle in. I tell him I have to feed my meter. He glares but nods. I doff my apron and walk outside. I get in my car. I drive to my mother’s house. Hundreds of parakeets sitting on the electric wires roll their eyes as I walk by. “Just in time,” my mother says, pulling a box of cookies from the cupboard. She holds a gingersnap over one eye. “They’re making them smaller,” she says. “Much smaller than when I was a girl.” “I left my job,” I say. “I got in my car and drove away.” “Well,” she says. “We knew you weren’t a waitress.” We are silent. Outside, the parakeets are shushed in listening. “Why is it impossible to hold the feeling of happiness inside me?” Through her gingersnap monocle, my mother regards me. “They’re making gingersnaps smaller,” she says. “The whole world’s gone wrong.”Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick this fall, is available now. She lives in Windsor Terrace. mariehelenebertino.com