Content warning: Brief mentions of animals being harmed.
Stone Scalari lived alone. It was certainly more peaceful than living with his wife and children had been. He was 62. A lifetime of sharing space with loved ones had left him nothing but debt, headaches, and agony.
Stone sat on the chaise lounge on his back patio one Saturday morning about a year after Carrie had left. He was holding a mug of coffee to his lips when he heard a dull thunk behind him. He ignored it, took a sip, cursed out loud. Too hot.
A bird started chirping weakly. That was probably what caused the thunking noise, Stone thought. He kept the glass sliding door to his patio immaculate and birds were always crashing into it. Dumb animals had the entire world under their wings and yet they were dying to get into his split-level ranch.
The chirping continued long after Stone had finished the coffee. He sighed. “All right, then. Jeez.” He stood up and saw the bird on the ground, a robin with a bent wing.
Stone stared at it for so long his vision went fuzzy. He saw gnarled hands wrapping themselves around a little feathered neck like this one, a yellow-toothed grin and beady, blank eyes locked onto the dying animal’s face.
Stone blinked. The robin was still on the ground, chirruping away, like it was scolding Stone for just standing there looking at it. Stone rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He went back inside, snapped on some rubber gloves. Wrapped the bird in an old towel and placed it on the kitchen table. The bird immediately wrestled its way out of the fabric and flapped its wings, but could only lift itself a couple inches. It flopped back onto the towel, looking exhausted.
Stone tilted his head. He figured he had a few options here: He could just kill the bird, get it over and done with. It was sure to have a diminished quality of life with a gimpy wing anyway. He could put the bird back outside, let its mother or a windstorm or a vulture carry it away, leaving it to some unknown destiny. It would almost certainly die that way, too, though, prolonged and painful and petrifying.
Or he could rehabilitate it, though he did not know the first thing about fixing a broken being.
* * * * *
Stone knew from experience that naming a son after himself wouldn’t necessarily forge a bond between them, wouldn’t guarantee his legacy was carried for another generation. So instead of Stone IV, his son was named Richard. An ordinary name. And Stone tried to treat him like an ordinary person and not a namesake.
But Richard was troubled. Maybe disturbed. All the swaddling and coddling in the world couldn’t shut that kid up. Then he got older and the tantrums morphed into stealing, vandalizing, scoring public parks with graffiti.
Eventually the rebellion turned inward, powder up his nose, pills hiding in plastic baggies. He went to sleep as other men his age returned home from their office jobs. Stone’s wife begged Richard to go to rehab, held interventions, made empty threats to kick him out of the house. Stone let him be.
Richard slouched out of the house for cigarettes one afternoon and never came back. Funny how it was always a deadbeat dad who did this, rarely a deadbeat son.
* * * * *
The robin looked at Stone, and he could swear he saw something like pleading in its eyes. “Christ,” Stone said. He scooped up his car keys.
Animals had eschewed Stone most of his life. His mother liked cats, but each one she brought home seemed to end up a by-product of his father’s alcohol-fueled antics. After five cats had come and gone she resorted to satiating herself by staring through the shelter’s windows but never again stepped inside. Stone’s father liked to tip over nests he found in branches, throw empty beer cans at dogs strolling by and wheeze with laughter and denial when their owners glared at him.
Stone learned to look away, because any reaction he had was met with a “man up, you pansy.” He learned to walk away, because anything his father felt comfortable inflicting on an animal he had no problem transferring to his son.
All Stone knew now was that there was a pet store in the strip mall tucked away on Bramble Street, so that was where he drove. He picked up the smallest bag of birdseed he could find. He gathered supplies to build a small carrier.
“I must be crazy,” he muttered to himself in the car, scanning the dollar amounts on his receipt. Then he opened his phone and Googled “how to help bird broken wing.”
* * * * *
Niobe was the opposite of her brother: an overachiever, a perfectionist, someone who threw tantrums not because she didn’t get her way but because someone else hadn’t gotten theirs. She wanted to become some bigshot journalist. She drowned in waves of college-campus activism and protesting. Stone told her none of it mattered. They’d all be in the same ground someday, right-wing and left-wing and war criminals and saints alike. Niobe called him a Republican.
“I’m apolitical,” Stone corrected her. “Hate ’em all. No point in voting, no point in caring about any of it.”
“That’s just as bad. Actually, it’s worse. The world is burning and your response is apathy,” Niobe said.
So their conversations often went until they dwindled to tepid phone calls at holidays, and then to nothing. Stone tried sometimes to think of his children as babies, those cooing, drooling blanket-wrapped bundles in his arms, but he couldn’t picture it. Could barely remember their faces. And in the end, maybe this meant nothing much at all. Genes and blood and birthright really held no hallowed significance.
* * * * *
Stone kept an eye on the bird throughout the week. It seemed in good spirits, picking at the birdseed, giving itself baths in the bowl of water Stone left out, kicking up the newspaper lining the entire kitchen. Stone thought about bringing it to a wildlife rehabilitator like the websites had mentioned, but he figured the bird was close to healing on its own. Tomorrow, Stone kept thinking. Tomorrow I’ll bring it in.
A couple of days in, he started calling the bird “Robbie.” It was a robin, after all, and Stone felt odd sharing his house with this living being and referring to it as “hey you” or “dumb bird.” There was something uneasy about their coexistence. Stone had spent most of his life in a state of avoidance. When his father drank, Stone drowned out the fighting by cranking the volume on his turntable until all he could hear was a furious drumbeat mirroring the thrashing pulse of his own heart. When his kids were upset, Stone left them alone, believing both that they should learn to fend for themselves the way he had been forced to and that his interference would only further aggravate them. It was just easier for all of them that way. To not let individual troubles become collective burdens.
Now when Stone felt eyes on his back as he spooned coffee grinds into the machine or read the paper, he looked around wondering if someone had broken into his home, only to flick his eyes over to the kitchen table and realize it was Robbie. Tilting his head, watching Stone’s every move as if his daily routine was of great interest.
It had been a long time since anyone else had breathed in this house and longer still since anyone had looked at Stone like that. Like his existence alone was enthralling, his morning regimen as riveting as a winter’s first snowfall.
* * * * *
Carrie, somehow she had stuck around the longest. One night, she approached him as he sat in his recliner in the living room, sipping a Scotch on the rocks as he watched the Indy 500 on TV. She asked if she could recite to him a poem she had recently read for her night class. He grunted. She perched on the couch armrest and began: “‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’”
Stone tuned her out. The race was nearing its final moments. The poem was short, thankfully.
“What do you think?” Carrie said when she’d finished it.
“What? I don’t know. Sounds like she should’ve kept better track of her things,” Stone said, swirling the ice in his glass.
“It doesn’t make you think of the kids? I talked to them the other day, you know. They didn’t ask to speak to you. And you never reach out to them. Don’t you find that odd?”
Stone shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“Stone.” Carrie sounded exasperated. “You all keep this up, you’re going to end up just like your father.”
He looked at her pointedly. “Who?”
It was quiet for a moment. A French guy won the race. Carrie said, “You aren’t going to ask me how they’re doing?”
“Well, all right, how are they doing, then?”
Carrie shook her head. She packed her bags the next day.
Stone thought sometimes of their first meeting. It was a blind date. Carrie’s sister and Stone’s cousin were an item, and they conspired to bring Carrie and Stone together one night at a drive-in movie.
“Your name is Stone?” That was the first thing Carrie said to him, her words peppered with affectionate laughter. She was quite pretty, black dreadlocks hanging just above her shoulders, green polka-dot dress.
“For you, my name can be anything you like,” Stone zapped back, winking.
She giggled, called him “Burt Reynolds” the rest of the night. They’d kissed by the time the end credits rolled.
But when he thought of that now, it was like thinking about something he had seen on TV. Someone else’s life, a pleasant scripted story he could watch or shut off when he pleased.
* * * * *
Stone couldn’t find Robbie one morning. Birdseed was scattered across the table as usual, but this time it formed a trail to the window, which Stone realized he had accidentally left open overnight.
So Robbie had recovered. Had finally flown away.
Stone thought of their time together, how Robbie had gone from a tiny broken thing to a confident and cheerful little guy. How he’d flap his fragile wings, as if he knew he wasn’t meant to stay here, in this kitchen, in this cage, in this life. Stone thought about how Robbie was out in the world now, discovering the magic of trees, of lady birds and nest building and eggs hatching. Robbie could perch on roofs to twitter to his pals and scour the mud for worms to feed his babies. And he could do that because of Stone. Maybe in an hour, a day, a year, he’d find his way back to this room. Pay Stone a visit. But maybe not. Perhaps he had already forgotten.
Stone then did something he had not done in a long time. A small chuckle turned into great guffaws, seizing his belly and contorting his face, and soon the tears were streaming down his cheeks. He couldn’t stop for a long time.
Then he gazed passively out the window. A neighbor shuffled down her driveway in bunny slippers to pick up the paper. A bumblebee crawled on the ledge. A teenage boy walked a golden retriever. Birds chattered and sang, but they sounded far away, sounded unfamiliar. Stone got up, stretched, ventured into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He took the mug to the back patio. He left the sliding door open.
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Wonderful story, Caroline! The writing soared off the page. Your prose, as usual, is so clear and so polished. I love how you're able to convey so much about your characters in single sentences. Ex: "Dumb animals had the entire world under their wings and yet they were dying to get into his split-level ranch." Look at all the information we get in one line alone: Stone's living situation, his outlook on animals, his pessimism. Fantastic characterization throughout. I think my favorite thing about this piece is how you structured it. I love ...
Thank you, I love how you interpreted the story! I'm also glad the structure was effective — I originally had all the family-member sections up front leading into the present-day story, but didn't really want all the background information dumped into one section, so I'm happy the final version works!