Grandmother Is Gone but at Least She’s a Bird Now
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“What Is the Internet?” excerpt from Parakeet
by Marie Helene Bertino
One week before my wedding day, upon returning to my hotel room with a tube of borrowed toothpaste, I find a small bird waiting inside the area called the antechamber and know within moments it is my grandmother. I recognize the glittering, hematite eyes, the expression of cunning disapproval. The odor of a gym at close of day encircles her.
What is the Internet? the bird says, does not say.
Her head is the color of warning: sharp curve, yield-yellow. The eyes on either side of the Cro-Magnon crown are lined the way hers were in shoddy cornflower pencil as if to say, Really look, here. Her hair, that had throughout her life hurled silvery messages skyward, has been replaced by orderly, navy stripes that emanate down her pate like ripples in silk. Under the beak where her unpronounced chin would have been, four regal feathers pose, each marked by an ebony dot. She hovers inches above the sofa’s back, chastened and restless by her new form.
The toothpaste lands with a dull thud on the carpet. I’m silent when stunned. No getting me to talk.
What is the Internet? my grandmother the bird insists, speaking as if we are in the middle of a conversation, which, in a way, we are.
She had called to ask this question ten years before. At the time I considered explaining the technological phenomenon, but she was so old. What would be the point, I reasoned, of telling her about the show priming to begin after her exit? There have been many times in my life when, encountering an opportunity to do good, for reasons of shyness or shock, an unwillingness to leave a safe perch has made me balk. I told my grandmother the Internet was solely for engineers and that its effect on society would be nominal.
The following day she climbed a ladder poised against her house, meaning to hammer a warped shingle. Something like a phone call—we were never certain—summoned her. She misremembered the ladder, fell from the roof, and lay unconscious until a neighbor found her. For a month we attempted to will her out of a coma with the music of Lawrence Welk. She preferred to stay asleep.
After she was gone, every room was a nothing room.
I don’t regret letting others rush forward to care for strangers in need. I don’t regret calling my brother a shit on his wedding day. However, lying to my grandmother about the Internet placed a painful pebble at the bottom of my stomach that would not go away. Now, my second chance claws the rim of a water glass in present, Internet-rich day, as alive as the rest of us, trying to sip through her beak and failing.
“It turned out to be more influential than I led you to believe,” I say.
Tasked with explaining it, I realize how little I know about the Internet. “It began as numbers on a screen.” I make a blurping sound to signify dial up and explain that it grew from a device only a few people had, to Wi-Fi, which I think is in the air? I gesture to indicate: exploding. Network names showcase a defining feature of the user. Biscottiworshipper. Sadoboegirl. “People use it to promote themselves like brands.” This is deep and rich information. My cheeks heat, I’m proud of myself. I extrapolate: “Because everyone is famous, no one is.” I deepen, reverse: “Which is, like everything else, a good and bad thing.” I say, “Link, blog, router, spam.”
Even as a bird my grandmother’s dubiousness is unmistakable. The cocked avian focus, doubting me. When she was alive, she preferred staying in her slippers all day and the term “shove it up your ass” to anything, maybe even to my grandfather who over time became a scudding, booted shadow in the house’s secondary rooms. In the garage, winding a clock. In the spare bedroom, repairing an outlet. Shove the clock. Shove the outlet. If my grandmother ever regretted slicing into another’s feelings like fondant, she never admitted it. Any room containing her was merry. This was a big deal for me, since most of my childhood felt panicked and serious. She’d listen and move her eyebrows in a way that corrected my perspective. With a gaze, she could lift me older.
Offended on behalf of the product I’ve just begun to understand, I sell. “There’s almost no living being you can’t connect with.”
At “no living being” I think of her, legs tucked into her plumage, “sitting” above the cushions. How does it feel to be connected to every living thing?
“Sad,” I admit, and she says, Sad?
“When you can see anyone at any hour, it collapses perspective and time. Add to that the isolation and distance from which most people observe, and the Internet gives the impression that one person is simultaneously having a party, turning fifty, scuba diving, baking with a great aunt.”
Sounds like a giant panic attack.
“That’s not technology’s fault,” I say. “The Internet is indifferent. It’s the people who ruin it, posting only highlights, like every night is Saturday night. But most of life is Wednesday afternoon, and no one thinks that’s meaningful. They omit loneliness and tedium. The people who do post honestly are considered whiners.” The bird huffs, nods. No one should bother anyone else with their problems. This had been a phrase she used in life and one of the fueling philosophies of our family. What a waste of time.
“It is, but there are beautiful aspects to it.” I press a few buttons on my phone to conjure a picture.
Goodie, she says. A wall.
“The Great Wall of China,” I correct her. “Everyone can visit faraway places. Kind of. It’s a grand leveler in terms of class.”
If you can afford a phone, I guess.
I change the screen option and a grid of photographs appears. “People have their own page on their preferred platform.” I scroll so she can see:
A frosted cake. Dog on a forest path. Woman smiling over macaroni. Page of a book. Pulled taffy. Boy mussed from a nap. Lit pool. Selfie of a woman balancing a cat on either shoulder. A dog eats Cheez-Its off pink linoleum. A sign: DO NOT SHELVE ITEMS IN AISLE THREE WITHOUT ASKING JOANNA. Bunting in a desert town. Aproned gelato server hovering over delicate, pastel vats.
“A good way to connect with what are called ‘friends,’” I say. “Not regular friends, usually it’s like the guy who plays softball with your coworker.”
Who wants to be more connected? the bird says, does not say.
Everyone is friends now?
“I think people dislike other people at the ratio they did before you—”
We’re not going to get very far if you can’t say died.
“It’s called virtual.” I frown. “I’m not describing this correctly.”
You’re describing it fine.
“How would you know?” I say at the same time as she says,
But how would I know?
I’ve come a week early to this inn on the shaft of Long Island to prepare for the transition from woman to wife, to do what the groom calls “decompress” because “of late” I’ve become a bit of a “nightmare.” To break apart if necessary, but to do so properly, amid slatted pool chairs and conference coffee. I’m thirty-six, ethnically ambiguous, and hold an intense job I do not like, biographer of people with traumatic brain injury. I present their lives in court, using storyboards and dioramas. Everyone is thrilled I’m getting married. No one can believe I’ve found such a sweet man. Everyone adores the treats sold in this town that are hybrids of bagels and flatbread. Flagels.
The Inn’s website boasts a recent remodel, yet the old design has only been reinforced with fresh paint so it looks newly out of date. Above the mud-colored carpets, wallpaper vines strangle the walls, here and there resulting in a salmon-colored tulip. There are fleets of staircases and elevators and floors large enough to simultaneously host several cathartic events. In another banquet hall, another wedding will run alongside ours. The plural of catharsis is catharses. The turnover is quick. Already, a lobby poster welcomes attendees of the following week’s conference that seems to be about technology and clouds.
The Inn is buckled to a famous lake that features prominently on the town’s signage. None of my people are from this area so the lake is not famous to us. It is akin to pointing to an actor and saying, That’s so and so, from a show we’ve never watched. A gazebo sits in an exultation of cattails. A ruffle of trash by the edge of one of the lake’s many inlets. I prefer the ocean because it is ugly and secretive and moody and can growl. Mind you, I’m “awful” and “rarely satisfied.”
So far, my relaxation has manifested in inventing needs so I can have lingering conversations with the staff. I was finishing the place cards earlier when I thought, toothpaste, and wandered downstairs to inquire about the photograph taped to the concierge’s computer screen.
“I’m not sure if you’re aware what day you’ve landed on.” I speak to the bird in the grated voice you employ for a guest who’s arrived too early. “It’s Sunday. I’m getting married in six days.” I gesture to the migration of folded cards that cover the carpet in ecru Vs, anointed with all I can recall from high school calligraphy. “I have a work appointment tomorrow, a meeting with the florist, then I host our families for the groom’s dinner. Mom, stepfather, friends arrive later this week. Et cetera. Have you come to wish me well?” I say, but knowing her, my tone contains no hope.
Of course I know you’re getting married. The edges of her projection spit and haw. Do you think I’m here to ask about wires in a box? She goes transparent and her skeleton shows blinding bright, then whatever debatably divine force is conjuring her regains composure and she is opaque again. There’s something I want you to do.
A rap on the door startles me and the bird, who fwips from the glass to the table like traveling from one thought to the next.
Through the peephole, I see a bellboy standing above a rolling table holding a metal-covered plate. “Ma’am?”
“I didn’t order anything,” I say.
Several feet behind him, the elevator dings. He says, “It’s a surprise.”
My grandmother warbles.
“Surprise!” He is faux cheerful.
I open the door. He glides in, activates the brakes on each table leg, flips the plate’s cover to reveal a cake that says, Congratulations! bats a napkin he pulls from an unseen compartment against the air then folds it into a triangle. His expression grows concerned, echoing mine.
I have what people call an out-loud face, one that others mimic without realizing. It may be the generous, peat-colored eyebrows, or the phrase they make with my conversation-piece nose. Strangers ask, Are you confused? Or, comment: You’re having fun. What they mean is, I’m less good than others at hiding.
The bellboy follows my gaze to the grandmother now roosted on the pillow and shrieks, drops the napkin. “A bird!” He heads to the door. “I’ll get the manager.”
“No need to call anyone,” I say. “It’s handled.”
“I hate birds,” he says. “Like, really hate.”
My grandmother’s feathers shiver with laughter.
“She’s very small,” I bargain.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Small, big. Hate them and always have.”
My grandmother flies across the room and clings to the frame of a painting with one mirthful claw. This enjoyment of other people’s discomfort was true in life. She is at once wholly grandmother and wholly bird, as she produces a multigarble that sounds like bland women kvetching. Louder, then louder.
“Oh god,” he says. “What’s it doing?” His fear is so antic it must be a put-on. He cowers in a crescent shape against the wall.
Tack, tack, my grandmother threatens cheerfully.
“I’m calling the concierge,” he whispers.
“Stop,” I tell her. Then to him, “We don’t need the concierge. This is my bird. We were talking.”
“‘My’?” he says. “‘Talking’?”
“Birds talk,” I say.
My grandmother seems to chitchat with herself then produces a showy, wooden, Hello.
I imagine the room from his perspective. Bride talking to bird. He looks like a kid who muscles through situations in which women want him to leave with what he thinks is charm. But he’s probably never met women like us. Critical, exuding a very taken vibe, hawkish (on certain evenings literally). Even in bird form my grandmother is all of these things, you can tell by the way she’s needling him with gleeful, haughty eyes.
“Money.” I hand him a twenty. “Don’t tell the concierge I have a bird in here.”
He winces, consults the bill in his hand.
“Secret,” I say. And, in case it’s the kind of thing that matters to him: “I’m the bride.”
I guide him out. “Thank you for the surprise,” I say. “I do like sweets.”
“Raspberry.” His voice is sad.
I want to seal the transaction with a compliment. “This is one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed in Long Island.” Not technically a lie. I’ve never stayed anywhere else.
“On.” He snaps to attention. “Long Island. We say on.”
“On Long Island?” I test. “Does that make sense?”
He nods. “On.”
I close the door and return to the antechamber where the bird is sitting mid-cake. Give an old lady a break, she says, does not say. I can’t have any fun?
She tries for a raspberry but neither berry nor beak will allow her to eat. She exists in this world but can exert no physical influence, which is news to someone like her.
Her mother, my great-grandmother, was banished from the Basque Country for getting pregnant with a Romany’s child.
She missed the banishing ship she was supposed to take from France to America. I like to think it was because she lost track of time while doing her hair. You never know what worse luck your bad luck saved you from. It was 1912. The ship she was supposed to take was the Titanic. Fig, I missed my ship. Sound of ship hitting an iceberg. Sound of ship cracking in half. Sound of cello. The scuffle of drowning. Safely on another vessel two days behind the Titanic, my great-grandmother gazed across the icy churn, my grandmother growing in her like an amniotic orchid, an accidental immigrant. My grandmother was tormented in her white neighborhood for her dark skin, and carried that pain into adulthood, where it bloomed into benevolent disgust. She gave birth to an ice chip, my mother.
Years later on the pale disk of Lake Champlain, my mother missed a ferry. In the hour she spent waiting for the next one she drank a Seven and Seven and met my father, a dockworker from the mountains who was the first in his family to cross a state line. He died of heart failure when my brother and I were young, leaving us alone with her temper, a line of crystal in igneous rock. A secret to everyone except those who lived with her.
Missing boats is a family trait.
Fun with the bellboy abandoned, the bird turns to business.
Is he tall?
I know she means the groom. “No.”
Does he have all his hair?
“It is in fact his distinguishing characteristic.” I tell her he is an elementary school principal who coaches basketball, plays guitar, and sings to second graders about the solar system. Everyone loves the planet song.
Show me a picture.
I scroll down my personal web page, but there is only one picture of a tree at dusk. “I keep meaning to add more.” Searching my phone, I find a picture of him holding three basketballs, the straps of several duffels hoisted over his shoulder. Oh, she says. He’s white.
“We’re white,” I say.
She says, Kind of.
“We’re considered white now,” I say, insulted that she hasn’t mentioned his clear green eyes, or, like, his ability to carry several things at once. “. . . the world is run by computers, and you’re a bird. Not to beat a dead horse.”
She is frustrated with me but will say what she has come to say. More of an understanding with space than movement, she intuits from table edge to sofa back. She lifts her beak as to achieve a silent auditorium a composer raises his wand.
What I want you to do is find your brother.
Of course, I already know. Knew before she asked about the Internet, knew before rounding the corner to the antechamber and finding a judgmental budgie, perhaps even before, when I— balancing my room key, wallet, phone, and toothpaste—reached the door and realized I had no way of opening it and had to place each item on the ground, turn the knob, collect them again, all the while a turbulence spreading beneath my breastplate, which contained the maddening carbonation that could signal only one person. Tom. The thrilling dread that precedes his presence perhaps his only reliable quality. As kids, we slept pressed together like deer. The type of brother who will be your plus one to the play party or log roll, extol the virtues of heroin so lovingly you cry, clear dawn’s crust from your windshield, but will not have brunch with you, or meet your best friend, or join you on the errand, or even answer his phone. The image I summon when thinking of him is akin to a certain laughing trouble. Any conflict I’ve ever encountered—and any alchemy—the tendency the world has to upend: unexpected money, a pretty line of stray cats, a bird-shaped grandmother, holds him as an ingredient.
Even the bird’s timing is pure brother, right before a wedding, what most people would regard as a joyful event. This is typical for my family, who treat happiness with suspicion. That very morning, I congratulated myself on completing the transition into normalcy without their destruction.
The bird and I both know he has been the silent member of our conversation all along.
If it helps, she says, you won’t find him.
“I won’t find him,” I agree. “Because I’m not going to look.”
Do you know where he is?
“I assume in the city somewhere, hiding in a theater.”
How long has it been since you’ve seen him?
The last time I saw Tom was at his own wedding, where he lay bloody on a gurney, asking me to hold his hand. It’s just that I’m so deeply unhappy, he says, in memory. I remember the taste of vanilla and his anemic, furtive fiancée, Sara Something.
You’re not going to find him, but it’s important that you try, she says. You’ll do it.
Her narrow eyes narrow further, narrow more. Where are we?
What’s this murky room with only a couch? It’s like we’re in a stew.
“It’s called an antechamber. A room before a room.”
A room before a room, she says in that way she has, that cuts through our tense and familiar squalls. And what is your job? The non sequitur means to stall until she can figure out another way to get what she wants.
“I work with people who have traumatic brain injury. Normally they’ve been hurt in car accidents or on the job. I tell their life stories in court. Like my client Danny. He drove a big-rig dessert truck and was injured while filling it with gas.”
I guess somebody doesn’t like Sara Lee. The room’s grip releases. She performs inventory of what on her hurts. Pain is different now, she concludes. It’s more like sound in another part of the house. But I still hate my ass. Asses like ours never leave, even in the afterlife.
“You don’t have an ass,” I remind her. “You’re a bird.”
A bird today. Myself again tomorrow. We could disagree for eternity but there’s no one I’d rather sit with. I spread jam onto a scone and hold it out for her. Where does it come from—beat a dead horse?
“Probably from people who like horses.”
Or hate them. Her beak cannot find purchase on the pastry. The afterlife is truly cruel. Being a bird is exhausting. I’m obsessed with cleaning these. She runs her beak through her tail feathers.
I ask what she’s learned about humans by being dead and she says, They ask for signs a lot. They’re always looking for proof like, If you exist, rattle the mailboxes. But you never asked for a sign. She quiets. You never reached out. Why?
“I asked once and it didn’t happen.”
And you never asked again. It’s like a song.
“A song,” I say, and she says, A sad one.
“What is it like?” I say. “To age and die?”
A sigh flutters through her corduroy belly. Aging is easy, like falling down a hill. No choice involved. It’s reconciling yourself to loss that’s hard. I was eightyfive when I died. But I felt nineteen. I used to forget how old I was. I’d talk to you for long enough I’d think I was you. Then I’d look in the mirror and think, ack, who’s that old woman? A burst of shivering compels her from one cushion to another. Had I been anything other than a sheltered fool I wouldn’t have worried at all. I had the slut gene. I should have used it more. It’s in the family. You walk across the room, people pay attention. It’s not because we’re beautiful. We’re gnarled things who look like we’ve been pulled from the earth. Root vegetables: potatoes or turnips. Half of us miserable, the other half deluded. You’ve seen pictures of your cousins. However, we are possessed of the self. All arrows point toward us. A blessing and a curse. Not your mother, she was born complaining. Believe me, I was there. No fun at all. That will always be her fault because I made life nice for her. She married a man who couldn’t summon up enough juice to break a glass and lives her life doing crossstitch, the only thing she’s ever liked. She’s rich enough now that she can afford to be good at only one thing. You kids don’t like your mother and I can’t blame you. But it’s a mistake to assume she doesn’t feel pain.
The bird warbles, a mournful sound. As a girl, I liked to press her supple lavender cigarette case against my cheek. She was a real bummer, your mother.
“She still is,” I say.
How’d we get talking about her? Let’s get back to the main event. Me. And how I didn’t use my body enough. Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. More somes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive. I should have disrupted more. In 1975 the most stunning man I’d seen up close approached me at a convenience store and asked if I’d go to his hotel room to make love. I’m holding a soup can and a bag of oranges and am not a woman men cross streets for. I say no, because I was married. What a waste of a waistline. What a disappointment life is most of the time. Divinity opened itself up to me in aisle four and I said, nah, I’ll just be taking these oranges. If it came around again, boy, I’d meet it. And I’d smoke like a house on fire. Disrupt! Disrupt! What fucking else are we here for?
She is a rueful bird endowed with death’s clarity, but she is misremembering her life. It is my mother no one crosses streets for. My grandmother caused car accidents.
In short, the bird concludes. With regard to aging. Compared to the alternative, I recommend it. But you! Thin eyebrows. Pressed hair. You’ve been trimming yourself like a hedge. Do you realize you’re still alive? Would you recognize yourself if you met you on the street? She flits from cushion to cushion as in life she’d shift from foot to foot. So! You’re getting married! Et cetera! Blood-colored sparks flare from her tufted neck and fade. She burns and spits. You’re thinking there’s no harm to it. There’s no philosophical right or wrong about making bad decisions. You’re correct. Lie, be a shitty friend. No one’s keeping score. Be as much of a dick as you like. Shitheads get as far as the nice. You can wait for justice. She pauses as a hack of shivering overtakes her. It’s not coming. Where it lands is your ability to hear music. You can’t tame yourself over and over and expect your selfworth to keep its shape.
Her rebukes hammer a tender place only she can access. “Stop,” I say.
Morning sun emerges through the curtains. Outside, an Inn worker shakes a trash bag into a breeze. I can’t imagine searching for my tornado brother during a regular week, let alone the one in which I marry.
“I’ve made my choices, Granny. And I’m grateful you’re here,” I say. “Have you ever missed someone so much that the missing gains form, becomes an extra thing welded to you, like a cumbersome limb you must carry?”
She tacks. Dramatic.
“I can’t do what you’re asking.”
Do it, she says, and I say, “I’m sorry. Anything else.”
She rises from her perch into an eruption of flapping feathers. The commotion grows violent. A loud, clutching whistle. The outline of the beak and feathers wobbles and expands.
The bird disappears.
Replacing it is my grandmother-shaped grandmother, frowning with a human mouth, legs crossed at the ankles. Her skin is dewy and hair neat, as if instead of being interred for ten years she’s been at the salon having her hair reaffirmed metal gray. Death has not been a good diet. She is still barrel-shaped due to a lifetime of keeping a chocolate drawer in the refrigerator where others store cold cuts. However, her affectation is gentler, out of focus, as if whatever light is illuminating her is losing wattage. Like the bird, her eyes are lined in blue. Zaftig from sweets. Except for the sour smell, it’s her, undeniably.
I understand the reasoning of whatever force sent her as a flying thing because when I see the unmistakable thickness of her thighs, the ashiness of her November calves, her herness overwhelms the strand tethering me to calm. Now that she is present I miss her intensely. My throat constricts and issues a sorrowful coughing spasm.
Emotionless, she waits for me to settle.
There is no anything else, she says. If you can’t respect a dead woman’s wishes you’re a disgrace. Mark my words. If you defy me, shit’s going to get fucked up. After it gets fucked up, it’s gonna stay fucked up. And after you can no longer bear it, it’s gonna get more fucked up. The things you do to make it less fucked up are going to fuck it up even more.
She dims. I hold out my hand. She doesn’t accept but clucks (still bird) in disappointment. Affection, like crying, is a bother and a waste of time. I don’t want you to suffer. Find your brother. Her body vanishes, her neck fades. Dress short or long?
“Long,” I croak.
I would have gone short. You have my gams. I always got compliments.
Her hairline rewinds over her scalp. The painting behind her comes in and out of focus. A pastoral scene of a carriage in a field of corn.
“Don’t leave,” I say.
She’s gone. I experience her death a second time. The birdless room carries on with the climbing sun, Band-Aid-colored carpet, carriage and the corn, seeming so undisturbed even I wouldn’t believe there’s been a specter sitting in it. The woman brightening the world has left it again, without ceremony or sound. Not one feather remains. Even the stench is gone.
Rose doesn’t answer her phone. I consult my face in the mirror to see if it has registered any change but see only the flat cheeks of a woman late for an appointment. I dress. My suitcase is still packed because the honeymoon suite is currently being occupied by another bride and groom. The Inn overbooked and regrets the error in the form of a free bottle of champagne and occasional check-in phone calls that please no one.
In the main room, I find my wedding dress, strewn across the tablelette, covered in bird dirt. That troublemaker grandmother bird has disseminated her business evenly from its sweetheart neckline to its hem. The piles of gauze are thick with shit, the destruction so complete I marvel. When did she do it? I was with her every moment. No dry cleaner would be able to re- pair it in time.
I take the elevator but when I reach the lobby, the doors do not open. The lit panel near the ceiling confirms: lobby. I check the panel, the door again. Stuck. I call the front desk.
“This has been happening since the renovation,” the concierge says. “Still a few kinks. The new generator doesn’t have the same lid. A bird flew into it. James said it was fixed, but then.”
James, I think. I think, Joyce, Stewart, Baldwin. “A bird?”
“Like it had a death wish,” she says. “The weirdest thing.”
The elevator’s walls are composed of mirrors. I watch myself wait. The box makes a triumphant ding! The doors fly open as if the issue had been only mine.
In the lobby, the concierge notices my grief-stricken pallor and apologizes. “Getting stuck in an elevator can be so scary.”
“It’s not that,” I say. “My grandmother died.”
“I’m so sorry.” She is immediately sorrowful. “When?”
“Ten years ago.” I cling to the banister for support. The landing knob comes off in my grip. I hand it to her.
She slides it into her cardigan pocket. “We’re falling apart,” she says. There are still good people living on the Earth. She bears witness to my tears, rests her hand near mine on the banister I’m positive in a month will be garlanded in tinsel because it’s a perfect banister for that. I remember dancing with my brother to the Cars in our socks and one of my clients who was hit by a truck while walking and now doesn’t understand the idea of a face.
The concierge’s kindness emboldens me to confess. “And she shit on my wedding dress.”
“Yes.” She whispers, like it’s a password: “Family.”