Monday, May 21, 2007

Oscar

*[honorable mention, 2007 Mahan Writing Awards]

It’s another July in the Balkans, and it’s hot. Jeremy and I ditch our Bosniak rags and stop trying to pretend we’re not journalists. It was pointless in the first place. An American smile here looks like it belongs in a movie.

We’re hiding in the cellar of the cottage belonging to Emira’s brother, eating dried fruits out of dusty jars and peeking through knots in the wooden door to see what’s happening outside. Emira’s brother crouches facing the entrance. He’s holding an old Nazi rifle that quivers every time a Serbian column passes on the road into town. We know things are bad because Emira has stopped sneaking off to see the Dutch Battalion captain. Still, I feel oddly relaxed, since Jeremy and I are not the ones the Serbs are after, so I’m not sure what makes me feel worse: when a Serb trooper will rattle the cellar door, or a Bosniak refugee. Doesn’t matter who they are; they’ll try the lock, give a futile kick and move on after we stay quiet. Except there was one Bosniak who started to jar the door so much that Emira’s brother shouted from next to me that he would shoot the man if he broke the lock. The Bosniak stopped jiggling the door, and pleaded to be let in—the whimpers that followed felt like they lasted hours, not minutes—but eventually his voice faded away to the growling of a Serbian troop truck.

Still, Emira is smiling. Like always. She has the same smile when she’s happy, nervous, upset—we’d thought maybe she was on drugs when we first met her scuffling around outside the Dutch U.N. compound a few weeks ago. She’d seemed distracted when we interviewed her, always looking over her shoulder towards the Dutchbat housing, but that smile was the Mona Lisa’s of young Bosniak women and something about that was charming. Jeremy liked her English. We gave her work as a translator. She’d at least always look friendly. But sometimes it disturbed me to see her smiling while she was terrified.

At the moment, she’s running her fingers through her nephew’s coarse hair. His mother disappeared sometime during the night. That made her brother distraught, and Emira has been talking just to break up the silence.

“You can buy anything in New York City, correct?”

Of course, I say. I can’t help but smile. Jeremy fiddles with his camera and snaps a shot of her with the kid. It never gets old when people ask me about the States. I love to talk about New York City, and I can tell Emira where exactly to find the best pastrami sandwich in all of Brooklyn. While I tell her about that deli—the one that was a block away from the apartment I once shared with Jeremy—I notice a faded photo of Ronald Reagan nailed to the cellar’s wall, hanging above a half-complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica stacked on the floor.

“I would go for the grocery stores,” Emira says. “Freedom of speech? That can be taken away. But to go to a grocery store? You don’t know how good you have it. I’ve heard I could buy anything in an American grocery store.”

Jeremy sets down his camera. His expression tells me he’s finally out of film. I ran out of paper a few days ago. There was none in the cottage, though the thought crosses my mind to start tearing out sheets from the encyclopedias for later.

“I went to Paris once when I was young,” Emira says, tugging on a lock of her nephew’s hair. We hear more vehicles churning on the road outside. “It would be nice to be married,” she pauses, “and to have that sort of lifestyle.”

I’m not sure what ‘lifestyle’ she is referring to. If she’s talking about Paris, I want to tell her that being a Muslim in France is not all that it’s cracked up to be; if she’s talking about a future with the Dutchbat captain, I want to tell her to brace for heartbreak.

One of those passing rumblings doesn’t fade, and the growl of a diesel engine chokes to a halt.

Voices come from outside. Jeremy cradles his camera in the crook of his elbow.

I learned from a stint in Lebanon that international law mandates military full-metal-jacket 7.62mm rounds used in military-issue AK-47s be designed to limit tissue disruption: to wound, not kill. Jeremy told me that’s why the crazies who shoot up playgrounds with assault rifles never tally big body counts. But knowing that does not stop me from cementing my hands to my head when they kick in the door. The sunlight spills in around the silhouettes of Serbs swarming in. They seize us and take us outside, and to my embarrassment the words that shrill out of my mouth are ‘American! American! Are we safe?’

“Cut!”

Guillermo Rosado pulls off his headset and puts his hands on his hips. A cameraman sighs as the Spanish-born director starts pacing around the extras wearing Serb uniforms while glaring at the ground. I try to ignore the soundmen rolling their eyes at each other, bored twentysomethings in khaki shorts and sweat-stained state-university t-shirts who hoist up boom mics for a living and shift their weight to kill time.

Take eleven, I bet they’re thinking. We saw this coming.

“What the fuck was that?” Guillermo asks me. “You have one line in the whole movie! Don’t make me get an actor.”

I take a deep breath and again try to block out the fact that everyone on the set is watching me, Jeremy especially—he’s been so serious since we’ve started filming. But I also become worried that Guillermo will find a more muscular, better-looking version of myself to play the based-on-a-true-story cameo of “Journalist 1”—that’s me—and that Jeremy would be stumbling out of the mock cottage with someone else, someone who hadn’t been there. For someone who has been there, I sure as hell can’t act like it. With each defective take—of many—Guillermo becomes increasingly agitated, and even sweet-hearted Jenny Orr, who plays Emira, is starting to lose a little of that strapped-on Emira-smile. In between takes she tries to show me the focusing techniques she learned during her collegiate track days. “Focus on your goal,” she says.

In spite of all this altruistic energy I have from making a movie to enlighten people on what happened in Srebrenica, I focus on sleeping with her. It’s a nice thought. She’s attractive. But former-Olympians-turned-star-actresses don’t sleep with skinny journalists-turned-amateur-screenwriters.

Jeremy slugs me on the shoulder just a little too hard for it to be completely friendly. He’s been very serious about the movie. After I finally nail my line, he walks off slowly towards the extras’ canteen without saying a word.

On a knoll just past the set and beyond the director’s trailer, a crowd of Slovaks thrum around a cordon, locals who are just trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on. They had been surprised an American film crew would come to Slovakia. The filming site has become something of a local curiosity. Next to the locals is a smaller contingent, but a more rigid-looking bunch, Bosniaks whom Guillermo has invited to watch the filming. Beyond those groups is a special cordon for the tiny collective of Serbian expatriates who are protesting with chants that the massacre never happened.

I was disappointed to find out later that their stance had become increasingly popular in Europe. It was as if the people hadn’t followed the coverage of their own war.

The spectators had been stationed much closer to the set earlier on in the filming process, having remained quiet and well-mannered until day nineteen, when an old woman standing near the Bosniaks suddenly burst out in the middle of a take that the extras playing the Serb troopers were dressed like Croats. It took Guillermo’s staff three days—three days—to verify that the woman was wrong, and that the appropriate uniforms were being used.

So the cordons were moved back, and filming continued marching on.



We had just gotten back from Mauritania, from doing a puff piece on a Saharan ore train that had been made into an ad hoc mass transit system, when we got an invitation from Guillermo to come visit out in L.A. for a while. He took us into his home and told us that there was buzz about Oscar possibilities. We freaked out, obviously. After we had left, I kept telling Jeremy not to get excited, that we might not get nominated. I just had a nagging doubt, but Jeremy wasn’t going along with it.

“We should get some strippers,” he’d said.

But he fell asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel, and we settled for drinking when we got to our room. Tonight Guillermo had put us up at the same place that we’d spent a month writing the script in, and at the moment we were sitting out on the balcony drinking and watching the traffic on the boulevard below go streaming by.

From the balcony, you could see palm trees rising over the avenue that ran along the moon-dimmed coast, the waves of the Pacific throbbing against a beach that was just out of sight. In the room we’d written the screenplay in, it had been a clear view of the parking lot and the backs of a couple fast-food restaurants, and sometimes I had spent those early mornings before Jeremy woke watching the janitors take out trash to the dumpster below our window while a set of twin-brother busboys split a joint and kept an eye out for the management.

But now it was a pleasant L.A. night and we were bullshitting about award thank-you speeches. If people had a concept of what an Oscar-nominated screenwriting team looked like, it probably wouldn’t be anything resembling the two sloppy drunks who currently sat cross-legged facing the Pacific in some hour just before dawn. Not that I really felt like I could be an Oscar nominee. The screenplay had been reworked by the studio’s script doctors almost beyond recognition.

“I think we’ll win,” Jeremy said. “Did you see Venerable? Please. What a piece of shit movie.”

“Just tell me what you’d say,” I said.

“You know how they have best original screenplay before all the really huge awards, right? Best director, best actress, all that?” Jeremy said. “Well, it goes like this. They announce we win. One of us goes onstage to accept the award. Except when we give our thank-you-Mom speech, we instead say that we decline to accept the award. That the movie and the Oscar would not have been possible if tens of thousands of people hadn’t died. Then we say that we will leave the Oscar onstage to make a statement against genocide everywhere, Darfur, wherever. And then—here’s the kicker—we invite all of the other winners after us to leave their Oscars onstage next to ours if they want to say they’re against genocide. We set down the Oscar and make a big dramatic exit. And then who the hell wants to be the asshole who doesn’t set their award down next to ours and declare that they love themselves more than they hate genocide? They’d have to leave theirs onstage as well. And even if it’s just playing along, that is a huge message on the biggest of national stages, and—well, just imagine, we could be starting an entire movement.”

It was a hell of an idea and I would have been out of breath if I had tried to say all that, but Jeremy had always been a good talker. The first time I’d met him at an internship, he talked so much about the Mets and his ex-girlfriend that I hardly got a word in edgewise. It was only after we’d roomed together for a while that he’d cooled it a little. In those days, before we’d hooked back up with the same bureau, we’d be working ourselves to death just to get our foot in the door on a few lootings and minor crimes here and there. My favorite memories from back then were when we’d get home from work, exhausted, and sometimes we’d sit by the window and talk about all the good we were going to do by reporting the news—you know, that ‘truth-will-set-ye-free’ thing that most young journalists have. We weren’t unique in that respect. Jeremy would bring a joint, and we’d smoke and shoot the shit all night about saving the world from while watching peaceful life in Brooklyn go passing by from fifteen floors up. On nights like those it seemed like I could stay in New York forever.

And now we were thinking about how big names in liberal Hollywood would hate to have a genocide-sized dent in their reputations. I keep wondering how even stranger this is all going to seem when I get older. If Europe can have amnesia about a war, what stops my own history from sounding implausible? “The movie? Jeremy had come up to me one afternoon in Kuwait with a not-quite-plausible-at-the-time idea.” “We were going to change the world at the Oscars.” My life felt like hyperbole right now.

Jeremy rubbed his feet and ran his fingers up and down the neck of his beer bottle. My mind swirled with all sorts of complications with his Oscar plan: what if the conductor cut us off before we had a chance to finish our dramatic speech? What if they cleared the stage for some kind of absurd ballet performance and they had to remove our genocide Oscar? Worst, what if we stuttered a little too much in our acceptance, looked a little too insignificant, and we ended up like those kids in high school who planned the community service volunteer projects that no one went to?

But I didn’t say anything.

We sat there for a few minutes while the breeze drifted past us. Jeremy asked how I was doing, and ran a finger through his long blond hair, which he had grown out sometime before the filming of the movie. He said I’d been acting weird ever since we’d wrapped. I told him that we’d seen a lot of other people die in the course of our careers, and I didn’t know what Emira Arslanovic did to have her story deserve an Oscar.

He shrugged and stared out at the sea. His eyes were dulled over in the moonlight.

I’d been thinking about it a lot lately. Outside of her relationship with the Dutchbat captain, Emira hadn’t had much of a personality—the studio guys had filled one in for her on their re-write—and she hadn’t even been the first translator we’d lost. But one of the reasons she’d stuck out to me, outside of the smile—and now, outside of the movie—was that she’d never sat around talking about the ‘big question.’ Not the meaning-of-life ‘big question’—a lot of people around Bosnia still strutted around as if they already knew the answer to that one—but the other really big question, the one that was on everyone’s minds there:

Who had started the war?

What I had learned in Bosnia was that it felt like the sides had given up trying to compare atrocities to determine who was the most evil, and were instead endlessly debating whose fault the whole shit-storm was. And it was hard to convey that dialogue to the Western readership, because the discussion inevitably involved groups of people that the West hadn’t even known existed—Croats, Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks. It’d sometimes later keep me up at nights knowing that the closest the average American ever got to understanding the Balkan crisis was when President Clinton ordered airstrikes while being impeached: they just thought he was taking out his frustrations on some country that they’d heard of before. They only knew the word “Bosnia” because it was a drone-like hum in the background of their news, just insignificant enough to ignore, yet visible enough to recognize as being the name of a place they never wanted to fucking visit.

Just like everywhere else I worked.

This was my career.

A car driving on the boulevard below gave a long honk, and its pitch sagged as it passed. Jeremy shrugged again, and he said people were ready to hear the truth about what happened in Bosnia.

“The truth is Jenny Orr is four inches taller and thirty pounds lighter than Emira was,” I said. “It’s the Hollywood-izing of a tragedy.”

Jeremy smiled. “Goddamn athletes.”

He wanted to be the one who set the Oscar onstage. I just knew it. Maybe he deserved it. The whole project had been his idea anyway.

He said goodnight, and he went inside to bed to let the booze put him to sleep. I got a quick flash of those old days, though things obviously could never be the same. I sighed. At least I wasn’t abroad. Christ. I missed not knowing how fucked up everything was.

I looked back down upon the Hollywood boulevard below, watching the late-night traffic sweep by in anonymous little increments.



Anonymous little increments, like the Bosniaks who stream past the sides of our troop truck as we pass by. The Serb troopers are taking us to downtown Potočari, where thousands of Bosniak refugees clog the streets. For each block we pass our view is paced by masses of living bodies. Some not living. The stench is overwhelming. Most are moving but not sure where to go. Bosniaks wilt away from the Serbs with rifles who walk unfettered through the crowds. I have seen this sight before—soldiers with guns, unarmed crowds afraid. The uniforms are different, but it seems like the inevitable outcome is universal.

The truck stops near a white house and the Serb captain tells us to get out. He keeps Emira’s brother on the truck with a sharp grunt. A line of Bosniak men stare at the ground at Jeremy and I as we get out with Emira and her nephew. Just past a row of guards we see Serb troopers resting on the lawn. The Bosniak men are herded into the truck. Sweat rolls down their faces under the July sun. We lose sight of Emira’s brother behind the new tangle of arms and torsos in the back of the truck. The Bosniaks in the truck look at us. Their lives end soon.

The Serb driver turns on his radio as he rolls away. I hear Elvis.

We walk past the squat buildings downtown and become a part of the masses we had watched while driving by. As we pass we hear rumors of torture. One story says a Serb cut a boy’s throat in the middle of a crowd. Emira holds her nephew closer.

I notice Jeremy has been talking the entire time. I’m not sure when this started. But he’s not speaking to anyone, just himself. The pitch of his voice gets higher each passing minute, like Hail Marys of increasing desperation. But when I watch Emira’s face his words become like part of the scenery.

Her smile has tightened into a smirk. Her eyes dart across the crowd. Initially I think she is looking for friends and family. But she is looking for blue helmets, the Dutch UN peacekeepers. There are only a hundred or so in Potočari. Every now and then you can catch a flash of their uniforms among the people. The refugees swarm to them, plead for help. But the Dutch are not permitted to intervene. The UN has deemed it so.

We pass by a pair of peacekeepers and Emira does not turn her head. She’s looking for a specific one. The Dutchbat captain. Emira picks up her pace. She seems to know where she is going now, and she moves quickly. We struggle to keep up with her on the stretch of road pocked by months of Serb shelling. She practically drags her nephew behind her. The standing Bosniaks near us weep. Some sit, stone-faced, as if resigned to their fate.

Single gunshots slap somewhere in the distance.

We approach an old home near the Dutch compound. Serbs have already cleared the UN base and are loading Bosniak men into trucks. Trucks heading to warehouses and schools already stained with blood. A Serb trooper watches us pass and smiles. I turn my face away. When we approach the house I see the Dutchbat captain looking on from the yard. He is armed yet his hands are on his hips. He does not smile as he sees Emira approach with her nephew.

Emira is always smiling.

They meet. The Dutchbat touches Emira on the waist, touches her like there is something special about her. This makes me strangely jealous. The Dutchbat looks over his shoulder almost coyly, as if to say: Is love a crime? He then turns and leads Emira and her nephew into the old house. Another peacekeeper smokes on the porch. Watches them enter the house. The door closes.

Jeremy is still speaking. I try to listen to his words. He is still praying. Even though he stands next to me I feel like I am eavesdropping. But then suddenly without pause he changes gears. Describes sights and smells. Commentates with the tone of a field reporter. Runs a finger through his hair. Narrates his experience to himself. He is shaking. A rumbling sound comes from up the road. A column of old buses pass. The Dutch near us watch. The Serbs are separating the men from the women. The women will go on buses to Bosnian-held Kladanj, the men will stay and go on trucks later. Trucks headed for fields with holes. With bulldozers waiting to move earth over the holes.

I don’t belong here.

The porch door opens and Emira appears, alone. She pauses, then steps off the porch. No Dutchbat. No nephew. Alone.

She tells us she has to go now, saying it through a smile of gritted teeth. She begins walking up the street and we follow her. The masses of Bosniak bodies are in motion. Serbs direct the motion. Women go left. Men go right. Jeremy’s words speed up.

Someone shouts at Emira. A Bosniak?

No. The Serb captain from our truck. I don’t understand what he says, but Emira’s expression offers a translation: Where is the boy? Emira remains silent. The Serb captain approaches and repeats while Jeremy and I observe. Jeremy’s voice quiets to a whisper as Serb guards circle Emira. The Serbs have never been this brave in front of Western journalists. Like a kid, I feel like I should close my eyes, or else I’ll have the image of them tearing at her clothing buried somewhere in my memory forever.

Serbs grab, push, grope, punch, kiss, taunt, laugh, grope again. She falls on the ground. A guard pushes her face into a patch of mud. The Serb captain reaches for the fly of his pants while another tries to restrain her. I wish I had a gun, but that’s just wishful thinking. All I do is watch. Watching is my job.

Bosniaks stream by. The July sun pours down on everything.

Emira breaks free. She runs. The men follow. I already know how this story ends.

Except—

Something strange happens.

As she dashes away, I see her legs flash briefly and peer out from the tear in her skirt. And then, again, as they churn and wheel over the mud-caked road towards nowhere.
Something about Emira Arslanovic is not quite human.

It is the way she runs. Almost like a Greek goddess. Like she is immune to gravity. Like she has wings. I look, and I am not entirely sure I see her feet touching the ground. Your imagination can do funny things to you. She’s kicking up little clods of silt, so maybe she is not flying, but something is not right. She is getting away.

Something odd happens to me: the feeling of joy. It is a miracle.

Tears flow down Emira’s face, down past her grin, and she blows by us, defying all logic, each stride seeming twenty feet long compared to the slowing steps of the Serbs behind her. Her legs shine again, pale and strong, their muscles expanding and contracting—

And with the soldiers hopelessly falling behind, Jenny Orr runs out of the frame of the shot, and right out of reality.

Guillermo calls cut.

Jenny trails off and crouches down once her legs stop pumping. No one in the crew moves. The extras playing the Serbs stop running, and they put their hands on their knees and gasp for breath. The air on the set seems to radiate silence.

Except for the faint sound of protesters shouting in the distance. We did not start the war.
Jeremy turns to me and sees my face and asks in a whisper if an Oscar would mean everything was worth it. I don’t reply.

Jenny hasn’t stopped her actress’ tears yet. Behind the camera, Guillermo puts his hand on his face. A twenty-minute continuous take has just been completed. Four months of preparation for the panoptic second-to-last scene. Finished. The next, final scene is planned to be tragic in its simplicity.

We wait for Guillermo’s word. Success or failure. It’s almost like he can’t make up his mind.
But then after what feels like an eternity he stands up—abruptly. Voice hoarse, he calls for makeup and says to make plans for take two. The air is let out of the crew and all the actors in a collective fuck.

But not me. I still can’t accept that those nights watching over Brooklyn are lifetimes away now, and that those chants are my future.

Guillermo Rosado walks over and kneels by the side of Emira Arslanovic, and we all look on as he caresses her mud-streaked hair and whispers in her ear that she has to slow down so the guards can catch up.

There's No Crying In Baseball

Wrigley Field slumbers not too far away, but I won’t be seeing it tonight. We’re sitting on the roof of Sesame’s beat-up Buick Regal and she’s attacking her pack of cigarettes the way a nine-year-old would abuse a Pez dispenser. The windows are rolled down, it’s three in the morning on the North Side, and the stereo plays Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha, old soul pouring out of speakers, dissolving into the unseasonably warm spring night. I can’t really say how we got here or why we’re sitting on this particular street, but I know Sesame is chain-smoking because of her family, and I’m just another guy waiting for the right moment.

I’m not familiar with Chicago at all, but I think we’re safe. Two fragile-looking teens wrestle on a nearby stoop, laughing flatulently, and I can’t tell if they are flirting because they’re gay or high. I say this because Sesame and I had wound up at a gay-pride block party after hitting the bars, and we partied for a half hour before I figured out what was what. They were serving beer, what can I say? I like living on cruise control.

“Fucking Diego,” Sesame says in between drags on her fourth cigarette, the words flying out with the smoke of her breath like exhaust from the Buick’s tailpipe. “This is just like him, you know. I mean, you don’t know him, but this is just like him.”

“He seemed okay when I met him at the door,” I say. “Quiet, I mean.”

“No,” she says, taking another drag through those epic lips, “He’s an asshole.”

She’s right: I don’t know Diego. But the more she smokes and talks about her brother, the more I think he might actually be an asshole. I want her to shut up and listen to the radio and look up at the moon, I want to say that I’m sitting under the stars on the roof of a car belonging to a mystery Latina with great legs I’d met two days before the end of spring break, but the more I sit here, the more I realize that the sky isn’t as clear as in Iowa, that alien Chicago is just a backdrop for her daily routine. And she won’t stop blabbering about Diego.

But I won’t make a misogynist judgment on her character, because that was the sort of thing my brother would get after me for, and lately I’ve been trying to be better.

“You doing okay, right?” Sesame asks. She raps her fire-engine-red fingernails on my knee. “We could go party somewhere.”

“No,” I say. “This is fine.”

“So,” she sighs. She looks across the street towards the quiet apartment buildings with a few lit windows scattered across their fronts. “Tell me something I don’t know, Corbin.”

“Left-handed people live eight years fewer than right-handed people.”

“No, something about—wait, are you serious?”

“I don’t know,” I say. She offers a cigarette and I turn her down. I’m already past my limit. She lights another.

“Seriously though,” she says. “I like surprises. Surprise me. Anything.”

I’d like to humor her, but as usual can’t think of anything clever to say once put under the proverbial gun. There are a few interesting things, I suppose. Speaking of the gun, when I was twelve, I shot my younger brother Sam in the arm with a .22 (by accident). My first kiss was in the middle of a cornfield. My uncle won it big in the lottery and blew the winnings in six months. It’s Iowa stuff, and none of it surfaces—probably because I’m not surprising. Maybe I need to start keeping stock trivia about myself readily at hand.

“Yo, excuse me!”

One of the kids from up the street has gotten off of his stoop and called to us from a distance. He’s real skinny. His frame resembles that of my brother Sam’s from his picture on my mom’s mantle, immortalized at age twelve wearing a junior high baseball uniform and a shaggy haircut. The teen waves. When he comes under a streetlamp, I see he has Sam’s junior high haircut, too.

“Hey,” he says, stumbling a little as he nears. He looks high. “I was just wondering if I could bother one of you nice people for a light?”

I was going to lie and say I didn’t have one, but that seemed pointless with Smokestack next to me. I say nothing, deferring to her judgment: her city, her call. Sesame takes another drag and leans forward.

“Yeah, sure,” she says. “Come on over.”

The kid sidles up to the car and Sesame gives me her Bic lighter, which I hand to him. I see his eyes up close, big and brown and dilated. He can’t be older than eighteen or nineteen. God, he’s almost a dead-ringer for Sam—looks just like him.

“Thanks,” he says. He pulls out a joint with a shaky fist and fires it up. He puffs, and the smell slips into my nostrils, bittersweet. “Y’all live here?”

“Nah,” I say. “I’m from Iowa City. Just in town for the weekend.”

“’Y’all’?” Sesame pauses, furrowing her brow as if listening intently to the boy’s word as it rolls off her own lips.

I wait for her to say that she lives in Wrigleyville, but the admission doesn’t come. From the corner of my eye I see she’s staring down the street, at nothing. It hasn’t been like her to not be social, but then again I don’t know her well. If she hadn’t started talking to me first, last night at the bar, we wouldn’t have met at all.

“Iowa City, huh?” the kid says. “Home of the Cyclones!”

He laughs and spins around twice before losing his balance and going to a knee.

“Hawkeyes, actually.” I say. “I’m on spring break.”

“Nice,” he nods, lurching onto his feet. “I’ve been saving for junior college.”

When he drops his hand to his side, I see needle tracks, sores peppering his arms under the hard light of the streetlamp. Sesame sighs out of the blue, disinterested, saying nothing. We fall into an awkward silence. Looking at the kid’s black windbreaker, I space out for a moment, and worry about the end of the night. Sam used to ask me what base I’d gotten to, after I came home from dates. Even though he didn’t go on dates, sometimes he’d start laughing, and would say he could tell I hadn’t even been to first. That was a long time ago, so standards have changed, but let’s just say that mysterious existential sighs make my inner Sam question the likelihood of crossing home.

The junkie coughs and shields his joint away from the street as a police car creeps by, the officer driving giving us a sidelong glance.

“Your friend,” I say, pointing over to the stoop. “Is he okay?”

The guy in front of the brownstone apartment is sprawled diagonally on the steps, one hand grabbing the crotch of his jean shorts, the other pointing at the sky, wavering wildly. Gravity: a bitch to the inebriated.

“He’s having the time of his life,” the kid smiles, taking another hit.

“What is he doing?” I ask.

“Counting stars.”

“What about his other hand?” Sesame asks.

“Well,” he delivers a sheepish aw-shucks kick to the pavement, “Can’t be romance in everything.”

“Guess not.” She puts out her fifth cigarette but doesn’t go for another. “What’s your name?”

“Billy,” he says.

I ask Billy where he lives, and he points to the building above the stoop where his friend sits. He laughs—cackles, really—and for some reason, I want to ask him what shooting heroin is like. I don’t want to try it, just want to know. I’ve been having weird dreams recently, semi-historical fantasies of going to the ballpark with my brother, watching Hank Aaron sock homers that fly for miles, even though I’ve never seen Hank Aaron play. I want to ask Billy what can make that kind of high.

“Y’all wanna come up?” Billy asks. “Come party?”

“We’ll come up,” Sesame says, like it’s nothing. She slides down the front of the windshield. I watch her legs shudder along the glass, hypnotized. I’m distantly aware of being unsure what she’s leading me into. She squeals. By the time I’m off the car, Sesame is already halfway down the sidewalk with Billy. As I pull the keys out of her ignition, roll the windows up, and lock her doors, I think about the lonely train ride back to Iowa, starting tomorrow at noon, and regret that I couldn’t get my friends to come to Chicago with me.

I follow Sesame and Billy to the stoop, where we meet Billy’s friend. Billy introduces him as Evan and says he’s a mute, but Evan, on his back, grunts and shakes his head no as soon as Billy stops talking. Evan has long, stiff blond hair that covers his eyes, and just to shake my hand he has to brush it aside to see what he’s reaching for. In between swipes I see dilated pupils around electric-blue irises. Billy comes over and helps him to his feet, and I see that Evan must be even younger than Billy is, both looking to be in their late teens. Three summers ago I was washing cars outside of Des Moines for gas money. I hesitate to say ‘different strokes.’

Billy opens the door to the apartment building and leads us upstairs, Sesame close behind. The place is quiet, save for ancient stairs groaning under our steps. Evan is having trouble walking, so I lend him a shoulder. He smells strange and I can’t place the odor. Sesame’s hips sway in front of us, bouncing under her skirt as she sashays, giving a whiff of her scent—something like cherries—and Evan gives me the uh-huh look of approval. Sam would say that I’m going to get in even more trouble if I keep hanging out with questionable characters, and I had really been trying to be better about that.

We reach the fifth floor, and lurch our way to door 5D, adorned with a large smiley face sticker awkwardly placed over a fading Cubs pennant decal. While Billy fumbles with the keys, I realize that Evan hasn’t actually spoken yet. On a whim, I turn to him and say “hey,” and he just smiles back at me and nods happily. His breath smells terrible, like old tuna.

Billy laughs, apparently remembering that he doesn’t lock the door, and he turns the knob. A draft from inside slides across my face. As Billy and Sesame move out of the way and I see more of the apartment, the smell on Evan’s jacket makes sense.

Birds. A goddamn messload of birds.

A chorus of chirps and twitters comes in confusing stereo, as the voices of various cockatiels, canaries, finches, parakeets, parrots and cockatoos overwhelm the apartment almost as much as the powerful smell of bird shit. There are cages numbering in the dozens hanging from the ceiling and leaning up against the walls, shoved up against each other, stacked on top of each other on the hardwood floor; a few are covered with sheets, but most are exposed to the air, which I guess must make for few restful nights. Collectively the birds’ feathers make up almost the full range of the color spectrum, green yellow red white and so forth. The room’s only actual furniture was a rickety old dresser and two naked mattresses, hiding behind an island of cages on the far side.

“Sorry about the mess,” Billy says. “We’ve been trying to organize.”

Sesame shoots me a rather superfluous organize what look as Evan stumbles past her and sits gingerly on the girded home of a couple parakeets.

“This is ridiculous,” I say. “Doesn’t your landlord care? Don’t your neighbors complain?”

Billy shrugs. I presume there must have been some kind of miracle in order for him to get the lease. Evan gets up and starts walking towards the mattresses, giving Billy a hard smack on the ass as he walks by. I don’t know if that means they’re gay or not. Sam was gay and it was years before I found out.

I see a cockatoo flutter out of the corner of my eye, and I wonder if I’m going to see someone shoot heroin into their arm.

“You guys want to smoke a joint?” Billy asks.

“I don’t have any money,” Sesame says, poking her finger between the flimsy wires of a yellow canary’s cage. I wonder what she’s thinking about.

“No, it’s on the house,” Billy says.

He gestures for us to follow him towards the back of the room, where the glow of the streetlamps illuminates the ceiling through the windows. The cages are arranged so two paths run from the front door to the back, so tight in spots that Sesame and I have to shimmy through sideways between walls of chickenwire and aluminum. Empty bags of feed cover the floors, and I see that all of the cages are splattered with shit and seed. Sam used to keep a canary, and Dad had been all over him about keeping its cage clean. I had forgotten about it until now, but when Sam and I would listen to the Cubs play on the radio in our living room, the canary would get excited every time the stereo started cheering until one afternoon in September it got so excited it chirped itself to death on a home run call. The Cubs were winning, and after a reliever picked up the save we went and buried Sam’s bird in the backyard next to an old maple.

I look at a similar canary perched near Sesame, and try to remember the name of Sam’s bird.

The mattress Evan crouches on is ancient—the two of them placed side by side must be the apartment’s furniture as well—and I when I sit next to him, my ass hits the hardwood floor through the exhausted padding. Sesame comes to the head of the mattress next to me, and tests the padding with her hand. Maybe finding an errant spring, she swats my knee, and I straighten out my legs as she stoops to sit sideways on my lap. My blood warms as I feel her weight come down on my thighs. She’s not as heavy as would be expected. To help keep her balanced upright, I put my hand on her lower back, where her top has ridden up and exposed bare skin. My fingertips feel hard muscle, and I begin to think that I could easily take a vacation in the small of her back and not be heard from again.

“Here you go,” Billy says, using a Zippo lighter to ignite a joint he pulled from out of the beat-up dresser. He passes it to Sesame. She takes a long burn and holds it in, waiting, waiting, going so long that I think she could pass out, and then she slowly blows it all away, the stream churning in the air and drifting to the tall nearby cage of a molting green parrot. I expect the parrot to make an ironic remark, like it would if this were TV, but it just shifts its weight to scratch itself while getting bathed in smoke. Sesame stops a beat to admire her handiwork before passing the joint to me.

“You smoked before?” she asks.

“Once,” I say. “It’s been a few years.”

“It’s been a few minutes,” Evan says. “Give that shit to me if you’re not going to do anything.”

“Just hold on, man,” Billy says. “He’s cool, give him room.”

I put the joint to my lips and breathe it in. Sesame reaches for my hand on her back. I start to move it away, but she grabs it and squeezes, returning it to its place against her skin. A pair of cockatoos begin chattering loudly, and Billy smiles as he leans back against the dresser. It teeters behind his weight. I try to keep from exhaling, because—god—it’s all so much, and when Sesame squeezes my hand again I cough and the smoke comes out hastily, spilling out away from the green parrot’s coop and over the old bags of feed, splashing through cages and against the faded tan wall paint.

“Easy, cowboy,” Billy says, leaning over towards me. I hand the blunt to Evan, who takes it and does a leisurely drag. He adjusts his crotch as he smokes, and winks at me when he sees me watching.

“What?” he says.

“What are all these birds?” I ask.

“Give me a break, they aren’t really ours,” he says, as if offended. He rides the high and lays back on the mattress. “Well,” he stops, scratching his head with fingernails almost as long as Sesame’s. “Actually, they are.”

“But we didn’t get them,” Billy interrupts. “I mean, I still don’t really know what some of them are. Obviously this is a parrot. And those are parakeets over there. But seriously? I have no idea.”

I wish Billy would sit down. Sam was one of those standing types also, and while it’s cute that Billy resembles my dead brother, the similarities are becoming too uncomfortable.

“So how did you get them?” Sesame says. Evan hands the joint to her, and she takes another puff.

“I used to live here with my grandma,” Billy says. “I never knew my parents, so she raised me. She kept birds all my life, said she liked the way they talked, how they seemed to fill up the apartment. We never had this many. It was just a few, maybe four or five. But right before I graduated high school, she started buying more and more. I thought that maybe she was upset because she felt I was wasting so much by not going to college and she was buying all of these birds out of stress, but it turned out later that she had dementia and she didn’t really know what she was doing. She died a little while later.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sesame says.

“When was this?” I ask.

“She passed six months ago,” Billy says. “I had a little money saved. Landlord let me keep the apartment. Asshole never actually saw all this, by the way. I suppose he was just happy with getting a steady check. This guy moved in a bit later.” He gestures at Evan.

Sesame has been holding the joint, and she hands it to me. I take another pull, feeling much more relaxed this time—much more—and I wish the big green parrot next to us would say something.

“Couldn’t you have done something with the birds?” Sesame asks. “Like give them to animal control or something?”

“Fuck, I don’t know,” Billy gives another aw-shucks kick to the floor, “I didn’t want my little guys getting put down or anything.”

I didn’t know they put down birds. I don’t think they do. I’m not sure. I hand the joint back to Evan, who has remained silent. It occurs to me that Evan and Billy still don’t know our names. It seems a little late to bring that up, but I keep getting this gnawing urge to blurt it out.

“You guys want do some blow?” Evan asks.

“Yes.”

Sesame speaks before the little warning siren in my head can even go off, the one that tells me coke is out of my league. But then again, I’m not so sure—tonight I might be feeling like a try.

Billy lifts an aluminum TV lunch tray off of the top of the dresser, pulling out skinny wire legs that let it sit off of the floor by a few inches. He sets it down next to the mattress and I see it’s covered with a big montage of famous historical hitters in baseball, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and the like. Sesame gets off of my lap as Billy goes back to the dresser and opens a drawer—I wonder which one has the syringes, the heroin—and Billy pulls out a Ziploc bag filled with white powder. Evan has gotten up and is on his knees next to the baseball lunch tray.

The birds have quieted.

Billy crouches down and gets the coke into two lines while Evan rolls up a one dollar bill into a tube, and, with a lean down over the baseball TV tray, Evan does a line off of Ted Williams. He jerks a bit, and tries to shake it out. It’s kind of weird to see coke use in person. I’d only seen it happen in movies. Evan hands the single to Sesame. She goes straight down like she’s done this before, taking her hit off of George Brett and Willie Mays, but her feet spasm as she reacts, and I get the sense that she’s just jumping into this headfirst. Evan has leaned back against the mountain of parakeet cages and Billy looks at me like it’s my turn.

“Coke’s expensive,” I say. Billy nods. I come forward off of the mattress and crouch in front of the baseball TV tray. This kid isn’t saving up for junior college. I look at all of the empty bags of feed. Billy puts down another line across Hank Aaron, and Sesame hands me the rolled-up bill. I look at the powder. Sesame is sitting next to me, buzzing, and she’s leaning in so close I can feel the heat coming off her. The coke line forms tiny little ridges and bumps, so much like little cumulus clouds, and right now I just think to myself that I am never going to be able to think about baseball without getting an image of forty million cockatiels.

I pass.

I’m perfect where I’m at, because if Sesame gets much closer I feel like I am going to explode out of my skin. I hand the single to Billy, and he snorts the line without flinching. Evan just starts giggling, and he runs his hand down Sesame’s back. I reassess the possibility of Billy and Evan being gay—but then again, maybe it’s joy; Sam once said that out of all the drugs, even heroin, it was the coke high that made you feel like you were on top of the world.

Evan leans forward.

“All right, so check this out,” he says. His voice is gruff and deep for someone so young and skinny. I notice a little gold cross dangling from his chest as he turns to face me. “Billy. Recite Blake.”

Billy pops up to his feet, looking excited, with a wild look in his eye. He strikes a dramatic pose, hands up in a voodoo magic sort of position, and begins to recite.

“’Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Sesame claps. I remember hearing that poem somewhere else before, but I’m still stuck on trying to remember the name of Sam’s bird.

“Okay,” Evan says. “That was too easy. Do Thomas.”

Billy skips in place for a second, and then recites again—god, he looks so much like Sam, and I hate it.

“’I see the boys of summer in their ruin, lay the gold tithings barren, setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils; there in their heat the winter floods of frozen loves they fetch their girls, and drown the cargoed apples in their tides.’” He bows.

“How the hell do you know all this?” I say. “I couldn’t even memorize a stanza of Dr. Seuss.”

“Grandma used to make me memorize poetry,” Billy says. “Said it was a lost art. I guess we’re long-distant relatives of some famous nineteenth century poet.”

“I think it’s great,” Evan says. “So much bullshit goes on, in the world and such, and sometimes I feel like we’re the last living romantics.”

I can’t tell if he means “romantic” in the capital-R sense of the word or in the roses-in-the-middle-of-the-table way, but I’m not really sure how much that matters. I think I know how he feels. Maybe.

“Billy, the Kavanagh,” Evan commands. Billy doesn’t horse around this time, his expression slackening to be more serious. Sesame hasn’t said anything, but she’s getting jittery and she latches on to my arm. I look down for a moment, and think I’d feel a lot better if this mattress was a little cleaner.

“’To be a poet and not know the trade,’” Billy recites, “’To be a lover and repel all women—twin ironies by which great saints are made, the agonizing pincer-jaws of Heaven.’”

Sesame aaahs, orgasmically almost, and out of nowhere I suddenly want to know more about these kids, what makes them the way they are, and I begin to feel a sense of urgency since come noontime Chicago’s a memory. A strange feeling washes over me. It would be nice to make all of this stick before I go back to the sterility of home. I want to tell Billy my name is Corbin, that he looks like my dead brother Sam, and I want to know what happens to him when I leave. It could be like starting again.

“Enough of that pretty shit,” Billy says, his mood darkening. “Tonight is a special night.”

“Oh, what happens tonight?” Sesame says, unclasping and clasping her hand on my wrist.

“We set the birds free,” Billy says. “I don’t have the money to feed them anymore. And I’m not letting the City get them. I’m gonna let them go.”

“Seriously?” I say, feeling like that seems a touch dramatic.

“Will you help?” Evan asks.

I see they’re serious, but again, before I even really consider not doing it, Sesame has me on my feet. She twists and does a pirouette like Billy did earlier, and then Billy and Evan are on their feet, and then we’re going at the cages. I want to sit down, I am in a state of entropy, my body is trying to stop moving—but now the goddamn room feels like it’s spinning—and the birds, having settled since we’d arrived, begin to grow agitated with the activity.

I don’t want to free birds. I want to see Wrigley. Or maybe sit down.

And I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s the pot—but I am remembering a day about year or two before Sam died and before I left for college, a cool afternoon when we’d been sitting out on a bridge over the creek just outside city limits and drinking Dad’s beer since the folks were on vacation. The county sheriff drove by. Both of us jumped over the edge to the creek bed below as soon as he hit the brakes, ran like hell through the thicket that bordered the cattle farm, and when we came to a stop beneath a gnarled old oak near the tree line we stumbled across a familiar old rusted-out house safe lodged between the roots. It was a classic piece of discarded woods-treasure, a landmark for walks through that particular spot of the thicket. Years ago we had placed a baseball sticker next to the dial, and it had long since been washed away with the rain; all that remained was just a whisper of adhesive gum. So right there, standing by the safe, when we were still a little drunk and catching our breath, Sam came out to me: he was gay and always had been. I laughed and asked him if he’d gotten high when I wasn’t looking.

“Shut the fuck up,” he’d replied. I’d said the wrong thing.

It occurs to me that before tonight I haven’t thought about him in forever, and for a brief second it almost feels like I’m about to cry. But I hold it back easily.

My head hurts. I follow Billy down one of the cage-isles. Sesame and Evan have gone down the other. I’m a little tentative with the first couple of cages I open. I expect the birds to thrash, to fly out at me when I unlatch their little wire doors, but they don’t, as most of them cling to the backs of their cages, terrified that something is actually happening to them. I feel bad scaring them, but I get a little more confident as I go along, getting smoother, going at cage after cage while Billy is near me doing the same.

“I have this brother,” I say to him. “Sam.”

“That’s great,” Billy says, blankly, staring at a cockatoo who stares right back at him.

A few birds have gotten out and are starting to flutter around. Feathers will begin to collect on the floor in a minute. I feel something brush the back of my head. The chirping becomes deafening, but I still hear Sesame’s voice from across the room:

“…But my brother Diego doesn’t think I should go—“

Billy’s still expressionless, barely taking a second look at me when I call his name, like he’s focused on something a thousand yards away. He tries to coax a big reddish parrot off the top of a cage.

“—I told him, if I want to go to California, then I’m going,” Sesame continues.

Billy picks up a feed bag. All of the cage doors on our side are open, and the birds are beginning to perch on top of their cages and on the tops of the open doors. He begins waving the feed bags at the loiterers, trying to coax them towards the back of the apartment, towards the window. I pick up a bag and begin doing the same, not really thinking about the futility of herding a swarm of animals towards a two-by-four foot opening.

“I’ll do whatever’s best for me, because I’ll only live once.”

Sesame’s voice is dry and big, almost like Sam’s. I think about home, and right then I shout a “fuck” to try to keep the memories from reappearing in my head when I realize that they have started coming in swarms.

Sesame comes around the corner, by the door. Evan has disappeared to the other side of the room and the girl is talking to herself while a consortium of finches congregate on cages stacked against the wall next to the front door. Sesame stops speaking, walks into me forcefully, and she leans up to kiss me but is sloppy and misses my lips. I pause for a moment, like I’m watching myself, and I feel like the tinted sunglasses are off, like now I can see her for what she is: a tall pretty Latin girl dialed up on coke, not much older than the junkies. She kisses me again, on the lips this time, and I finally remember the name of Sam’s bird.

Casper. Named after the cartoon character—a dead kid, right?

“Do you have a hotel room?” Sesame reaches around me, and I feel her fingers clasp on my ass.

“Yeah,” I say. This is what I had wanted when I first saw her, isn’t it? “Why not your place?”

“Diego,” she says, and I see her eyes glaze over as she looks at me. “Hotel.”

I can’t even say goodbye to Billy and Evan; she has me out of the door before I can tell her that, suddenly, I want to stay. Even though it feels like time is speeding up, it takes us five minutes to make it down the five rickety flights. She’s all over me. Every time she plants a sloppy kiss I tell myself to stop the neurotic bullshit, that this is what’s fun when you’re young—right?—and I wonder what’s wrong with me that I’d be acting like I wasn’t interested in women. My inner Sam laughs at me. I shout “fuck” again, but this just puts Sesame into more of a frenzy.

I can’t help but wonder if this is how the junkie poets upstairs do romance. Then I realize I never figured out if they were actually straight or not.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

We’re outside, and I see birds everywhere. The silent green parrot rests on a postal box, and a crowd of small talkers chatter away up on the streetlamps. It feels like I’m rounding the bases to rounds of applause, a chorus of little feathered fans cheering me on as Sesame practically drags me to the car. I try to freeze Billy’s face in my memory, so I don’t already forget him by the next time I’m awake—but all I have is the image of my brother Sam, playing baseball at twelve years old.

I give up and let everything remind me of him.

Sesame starts the engine, scaring a little yellow canary off the hood ornament. A new music format, the dance music of the eighties, sings out of the car’s speakers and drowns out the street-side avian symphony. She turns the radio up and puts the Buick in gear.

Yet—after a moment, the car still hasn’t moved. I take a deep breath, and I smell her again, that perfume like cherries. Then I hear her cry a little.

If I would just turn my head, I’m sure I’d see tears starting to stream out of her eyes from some new-emerging trauma. But I don’t. I simply can’t twitch an eye her way. I’m staring at all the birds and aching for the days Sam and I had simply drifted along, aimless and fleeting navigators of a new world, the two of us almost like the ghosts that might pass through the shadows of Wrigley on some never-ending night like this.