By Ira Sukrungruang
The longest thing I ever wrote was seven pages and it was a letter to my brother. As soon as I dropped it in the mailbox, I wanted it back. I stuck my hand in the box and groped around for my envelope.
After about ten minutes, an old woman jabbed her umbrella into my back. She was one of those ladies that take twenty minutes to cross the street and always wears rain gear no matter what the weather.
She said, “What you are doing is illegal.”
I told her I just wanted my letter back.
She jabbed me again and threatened to get the cops.
“I need that letter,” I said.
This seemed to calm the old woman. She even gave me an understanding smile. “What’s done is done,” she said.
The old woman reminded me of my grandmother, God bless her soul. I remember when my brother and I were boys—me eight, he eleven—and he got it in his head that the best thing to do was to let Mr. Feathers, Grandmother’s cockatiel, go.
Mr. Feathers had gray plumage and a yellow and orange head. I spent hours and hours just petting Mr. Feathers with my finger. He liked my touch, I could tell. He’d raise his head and make sharp but pleasant squawks. My brother, however, had a thing against the bird, and the bird had a thing against him. Mr. Feathers refused to get on my brother’s arm. This bothered him. I watched him glare at Mr. Feathers from across the room, glare and chew on his nails.
One day, while my grandmother was at the mini-mart, he said, “Mr. Feathers looks like he wants to go home.”
I told him Mr. Feathers was home. This was where he lived, the fifteenth floor of Addison Apartments.
My brother said Mr. Feathers’ family lived in Australia. “Don’t you want him to be with his family?”
I shrugged. I thought about being apart from mine. I was the biggest mama’s boy in the world—still am—and I couldn’t bear being apart from my mother for very long. I could barely bear it when she’d leave my brother and me at our grandmother’s to go on her dates. I began to wonder whether Mr. Feathers longed for his mother in Australia the way I longed for mine, and if he did, then there was no other choice but to let Mr. Feathers go.
“Does Mr. Feathers know where home is?”
My brother nodded and said it was animal instincts.
So I got Mr. Feathers. He climbed onto my finger. I patted his neck. I told him to have a nice trip, told him to come and visit us sometime. My brother opened the window and said, “See ya.” I released Mr. Feathers from the fifteenth story window. He flew from tree to tree to tree until he disappeared. When my grandmother got back, she noticed Mr. Feathers’ absence immediately. She asked where Mr. Feathers was. My brother said, “Teddy let him go. He’s out there.” He pointed out the window. He pointed at me. My grandmother jerked me onto her lap and spanked me viciously, speaking to Jesus each time her hand met my bottom. I cried. I cried and stared at my brother, whose eyes were at the places Mr. Feathers had flown off to.
The old woman with the umbrella asked if I wanted to join her in the park. She fed the pigeons every day. I shrugged, thinking about my brother, thinking about the letter. The old woman said the mailman came to collect the mail at precisely 2:07 pm Monday through Saturday, rain or shine or snow. “Maybe,” she said, “he’ll give you back that letter.”
I looked at the mailbox and then back at the woman.
“You never know,” she said. “People can surprise you.”
OK, I told her. I’ll wait for the mailman with her.
“Good,” she said, “I have a new friend.”
I took the old woman under the arm and guided her across the street and into the park. She used the umbrella as a walking stick. Every two steps, the tip of the umbrella came down on the concrete in a sharp click. She breathed heavily when she walked and I kept asking her if we were moving too fast. She shook her head and told me to shut up. When we got to the park bench, five pigeons swooped down from the light posts and wobbled over to us. She talked and clucked to them. They had names: Clarisse, Bumby, Derrick, Jo-jo, and Brown.
Brown was the most striking of the five. He was, indeed, brown, but had an emerald-colored ring around the neck. The old woman sprinkled breadcrumbs at her feet. Soon, a few more pigeons landed in front of us.
I never thought much about pigeons. I liked birds, ever since Mr. Feathers, but pigeons seemed to be the anti-bird. They seemed more rat than anything. But watching them, really watching them, I saw that they possessed a unique beauty that no other bird could claim.
The old woman didn’t say much to me. She pointed at a few pigeons and told me their names. I asked her if she came here a lot. “I come here every day,” she said. “How are they going to eat without me?”
I told her they were pigeons. They lived off the city’s trash and leftovers.
“Have you ever eaten trash?” she said. I shook my head. “I don’t imagine it being anything good,” she said.
“Depends on the trash,” I said. I went on about working at a fancy restaurant in downtown, and how the trash out of those dumpsters was a nice meal anywhere else.
“Do lots of pigeons go there?” she asked.
I told her I hadn’t seen many. The food might be a bit spicy for the birds. The old woman started laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world. It was crazy, but she made me smile.
“You seem like a good person,” the old woman said. She wanted to know why I had my entire right arm in a mailbox. I didn’t want to tell her about my brother. She was a stranger, who fed pigeons. She saw my hesitation and said, “Just trying to be friendly.” Then she said, “The mail system is the biggest advancement in human history. Did you know that?”
“Imagine how many letters are sent each day around the world. Imagine what those letters contain. Our lives are dictated by what we get in the mail. Bills, catalogues, cards. Do you know how mail was sent back in the day?”
I shrugged again.
“They used these.” She picked up Brown the pigeon. He didn’t freak, didn’t flap his wings in protest. She put him on her lap and patted his brown head. “Pigeons.”
I imagined having my letter sent that way. It would’ve taken three pigeons to deliver it, the weight of the paper making the birds fly unevenly. It was then I wondered what my brother was doing right now, if anything. I wondered what we’d be doing together. The thought made me ache. I hunched over a bit and let out a groan. I couldn’t help it. I was hurting.
The old woman stared at me. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t try to comfort me. She simply took a cracker out of her purse and handed it to me. “Here,” she said. “You look like you need this cracker more than these birds do.” The cracker was a Saltine, my favorite when I was a kid. I remember how my brother and I used crumble the crackers into our soup, crumble the crackers until they were dust. Sawdust Soup, we’d called it. I took the cracker and shoved it in my mouth.
“I need that letter back,” I said, my mouth full. And then I began to cry. It was a hard cry. A lot of noise. A lot of snot. I knew I should stop because I was crying in front of this old woman I’ve never met, but I couldn’t. Crying in front of her seemed the only way I could cry.
The woman patted my back, but it was more like slapping someone who was choking. She kept repeating, “You’re scaring the birds, you’re scaring the birds,” but it wasn’t a reprimand, more like a general comment like, look, there’s a water fountain or that woman has on a nice blouse or I like your teeth. I cried and cried until I was dry.
The old woman said, “You’re like a water factory.”
I told her I was sorry. I told her I haven’t cried like that in a while. She shrugged and said she’d been around crying people before, but I won top prize.
I started to laugh again. The old woman laughed, too, and we laughed until joggers and passersby started looking at us.
She took Brown off her lap and held him out to me. “Hold him,” she said. “Brown likes to be held.”
I made a face and asked whether pigeons had diseases.
She said, “Of course not,” and insisted I take him.
I took Brown. He was calm. I put him on my lap. I liked how warm he felt. I liked how I could feel his breath. He kinda purred and it vibrated through my hands and up my arms. His head jerked to the right and then left.
The old woman said, “Doesn’t that feel good?”
“He likes you,” she said.
“I like him too,” I said. I stroked the top of his head, down the back of his feathers. I circled the ring of green around his neck. Then I connected the black dots on his back. I was getting lost, looking at this bird, lost holding a pigeon of all things.
The old woman pointed to the mailbox. “There he is. You can get your letter back.” But I didn’t move.
“What’s done is done,” I said. All I wanted to do was hold Brown on my lap, hold him there just a little longer before I had to let go.
About Ira Sukrungruang
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. His newest book, Southside Buddhist, is forthcoming in summer 2014. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.sukrungruang.com.