The Bird Watcher
“Oh my God!” Lindsey called out from the kitchen. She must be on the phone again, Ben thought. Lindsey's job necessitated numerous phone calls throughout the day, but the number of calls had increased now that she and her colleagues were working from home. Ben's colleagues preferred to communicate via the company's internal messaging service, but he happened to be a on a video conference during Lindsey's exclamation and so he apologized for his wife's volume and raised his voice to be heard over her despite the closed door between them.
When most offices temporarily closed their doors, Ben started working in the spare bedroom he and Lindsey had previously turned into a home office furnished with a desk and an office chair and a bookshelf and a loveseat. The office, once a creative space in which Ben wrote short stories and novels he never finished, had become a place of productivity after he set up his computer monitor and hooked up his laptop and keyboard and mouse. On the wall facing his monitor screen he had installed a dry erase board and scribbled a few work-related notes. He quickly stopped using the board, but its presence made him feel more professional all the same. Lindsey had made a work station out of the kitchen table. Every time Ben stepped out of his office to go to the bathroom or to get a snack or a drink, he felt obligated to acknowledge his wife in some way—to say hi or wave or wink at her—even though she was the only person he had seen for weeks, rolling into months, and these days he was seeing more of her than he had at any other point in their lives. Their situation was not ideal, but it was good enough to allow them to work and survive the stay-at-home orders issued during the pandemic.
Ben's conference call had wrapped up around lunch time, so he set work aside and walked into the kitchen. “Hey babe,” Lindsey said as she unplugged her laptop from the wall plug and then walked into the living room and set it on the couch. “Long time no see. How're things at the office?”
“Just great,” Ben sighed as he plopped into a chair at the kitchen table. “The new guy doesn't have his part of the project done yet, so the rest of us will have to step up to pick up his slack.”
Lindsey pouted and gave her sympathy and then told Ben that she was making sandwiches for lunch. As Lindsey was rummaging through the fridge, Ben walked over to the cabinet in the corner where they kept their alcohol and he pulled out the Scotch. “Boozing isn't going to fix your work problems,” Lindsey said as Ben was pouring himself a drink.
“No,” Ben said and then took a sip. “But it will make me care just a little less.”
By mid afternoon Ben was lost in a spreadsheet. The numbers didn't add up or tell the story he wanted to tell, no matter how long he stared at the computer and no matter what formulas he entered. He looked at his watch. “It's about that time,” he said as he slid his chair to the window in the corner and looked out. He pushed aside the curtain and closed his eyes and smiled as he basked in the sunlight of the afternoon sun. He imagined his veins and blood vessels and capillaries dilating and his circulation increasing as he soaked up the rays. Early in the pandemic, Ben and Lindsey went for regular walks until they heard the pleas to “Stay home! Just stay at home!” so much that they became a mantra, the only blueprint for absolute safety.
From the window in their office on the second floor, Ben had a good view of the alleyway behind their apartment. Before the pandemic, he had never appreciated the window for its people-watching opportunities, but that was also before he became so desperate for interaction with anyone other than his wife.
Ben perked up and smiled when he saw the homeless man straggling down the alley. “Jimmy crack corn!” the homeless man yelled before taking a sip from a can wrapped in a paper bag. “How the hell do he crack corn?” the man asked himself aloud. “And why the hell do I care?” The man gasped and held his belly as if to support himself while he laughed at his own joke. The man straggled and stumbled further down the alley until he came to a dumpster. The man looked one way down the alley and then the other and mumbled as he began fiddling with his pants. In a few seconds he had his pants unbuttoned and unzipped and pulled down and he squatted by the dumpster.
Ben observed from the safety of his office window as the man grunted and defecated. He knew that the sight was disgusting, but the possibility was something that he anticipated on a daily basis and he took a strange comfort in the thought that he wasn't the only one.
The homeless man appeared in the alley only for a few more days. Ben wondered as to the man's fate, but he had no way of knowing. The window in the office had now become little more than an opportunity for afternoon sunlight since no one else routinely ventured down the alley. Though Ben enjoyed basking in the sunlight in his office, his mood rarely lightened and his melancholy remained. He missed observing the homeless man and felt as if something had been taken from him. In the afternoons, he would constantly glance out his window, disappointed when the homeless man did not appear.
He kept his loss to himself and did not dare tell Lindsey. One day Lindsey walked into the office to find Ben sitting in his office chair, staring out toward the alley. He did not turn toward the door or acknowledge her entrance. He did not respond when she placed her hand on his shoulder. Lindsey stood behind Ben and looked out the window and toward the alley. “This will all be over soon,” she said. “This pandemic can't last forever.” Ben's head began to move, a weak nod. He wasn't sure he believed her, but it was nice to try.
One day Ben noticed an old lady in an apartment on the other side of the alley. She had opened her window and was spreading bird seed on the ledge outside her window. He thought nothing of it until the next day when he noticed a few pigeons resting on the ledge of the old lady's apartment window. They were picking and feasting on the seeds left for them. Ben felt something move inside him, as if his heart were warming and expanding. He never imagined that the sight of birds could stir something inside him.
Ben strolled his chair over to his desk and he woke up his computer and began searching for bird seed. He found a quality and a quantity that satisfied him and he ordered it. The bird seed would be delivered in five days, which Ben would spend observing with envy the window across the alleyway. From time to time he would slide his chair over to his desk and then he would research the birds he saw on the old lady's ledge. He identified cardinals and blue jays and mockingbirds and bluebirds and the list kept growing. As he observed, he imagined all those birds on his own window ledge and his smile expanded.
The bird seed Ben had ordered came in five days as expected. Ben ripped into the box as soon as he stepped into the apartment. He stood in the doorway holding the bag and observing it. “This must be something good,” Lindsey said as she entered the living room. “I've never seen you so excited about receiving a package.” Ben smiled as he read the copywriting promising that the bag in his hand contained only the highest quality seed that birds were guaranteed to enjoy. He imagined the birds on his ledge, picking at the seed and chirping thank yous to him and looking into the window to see their generous feeder. And though birds are incapable of facial expression, he imagined he would be able to see their smiles, like a dog's contented pant.
Lindsey asked Ben what he planned to do with the bird seed and he told her he wanted to put it on the window ledge and she smiled at him. “The pandemic has made you appreciate nature and the outdoors, huh?”
“The sun's starting to set. You might want to wait until tomorrow morning to put that out.” Ben frowned, but he knew she was right.
The next morning Ben sat in his office, drinking coffee and watching the sun creep into the sky. When the sun's rays had begun to warm the earth, he opened his window and sprinkled some of the bird seed on the window ledge. He shut the window and sat back in his chair and continued sipping from his mug while he waited. Early that morning he had no visitors. Word hasn't gotten out that there's food here, he told himself. He checked in from time to time once he started working.
Not too long before lunch, Ben heard some chirps outside his window. He slid in his chair and rocketed toward the window and scared away whatever birds were feeding on his ledge. He pouted as they fled but then smiled as he realized that laying the seed had worked.
At lunch, as he and Lindsey munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Ben told his wife how the birds had feasted on the bird seed. Lindsey reached across the table and placed her hand on his. “I'm glad you've found something to look forward to during this time,” she said as she smiled at him. “Me too,” Ben said and he smiled back.
After lunch, Ben opened the window in his office and put more bird seed on the ledge. Whenever he checked in for the rest of the day, he made sure not to make too much noise or bring attention to himself. “You don't even know the pandemic is going on,” he said as he observed some birds pecking at his latest offering. “You're living your lives as if nothing has changed.”
Once he was done with work for the day, Ben poured himself a glass of whisky and sat on the loveseat and observed the birds outside his window. Lindsey joined him with a glass of wine when she had wrapped up her own work.
“I never thought you would be a bird watcher,” Lindsey said and chuckled.
“I never thought we would be in a pandemic,” Ben answered.
After a few days the birds had gotten used to Ben's presence and no longer flew away whenever he approached the window. He thought back to the squirrels from his days at university, as he would startle whenever a squirrel had approached and he would see the animal just out of the corner of his eye. The animals' lack of boundaries had frustrated him back then, but now he didn't mind.
Sometimes Ben sat near the window, drinking his coffee and talking to the birds. Updating them with details about his day, asking them to reciprocate.
“Oh really?” Ben might say, “A cat almost got you yesterday, Mr. Pigeon. You have to be more careful.” Whenever the birds would twitch their heads he imagined that they were nodding in agreement or acknowledging him, whichever was appropriate for the situation.
When the second bag of bird seed was delivered, Lindsey joked that they would have to start budgeting for bird expenses. Ben nodded. “If we're tight on money,” Ben said, “you can stop buying makeup.”
Lindsey stared at him, saying nothing.
“It's not like we're going anywhere anytime soon. No one else is going to see you.”
Lindsey crossed her arms. “You could have said I don't need the makeup because I'm beautiful enough without it.”
Ben closed his eyes and scrunched up his face as he realized his blunder. “That's what I meant,” he said.
“Nuh uh. Too late.”
Ben retreated to his office with the bird seed.
A few days later Ben was sitting at his desk, absorbed in his work, when he heard something bang against the window in his office and his heart began racing. “What the hell was that?” Lindsey yelled out from the kitchen.
“A bird,” Ben said when Lindsey entered the office. “A bird must have flown into the window.”
“Do you think it died from the impact?”
“I don't know,” Ben answered. “I don't know.”
That night at dinner, Lindsey prefaced a conversation by saying she had talked to her mother earlier that day. Ben rolled his eyes and then put his face down, focusing on his food to minimize any showing of frustration as Lindsey continued talking.
“So anyway,” Lindsey said, “I was talking to Mom earlier today and I told her about the bird flying into the window. She told me she has noticed more birds flying into her windows lately.”
“She has noticed,” Ben airquoted noticed, “because she has been home more during the pandemic. Birds are probably flying into windows at the same rate as before. The only difference is that she is concerned now because she is aware that birds are flying into windows. Birds were probably flying into her windows before the pandemic, when she spent her days barhopping and daydrinking herself into oblivion.”
Lindsey's mouth fell open. “Why are you getting so defensive?”
“I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have said that.”
The next few days were largely the same as the few before, which were largely the same as the few before, a trend now months in the making. Ben was sitting on the loveseat in his office, reviewing a presentation for work, when another bird flew into the office window. He jolted and looked to the window, to the source of the disturbance. Though the thud that accompanied these bird suicides still made Ben's heart jump, he now quickly recovered from the frights.
A few seconds later the office door opened. Lindsey looked Ben square in the eye. “We have to do something about those birds.” Ben said nothing and only returned her stare. Lindsey shut the door and stomped her way back to her workstation in the kitchen.
At lunch Lindsey told Ben that she had talked to her sister earlier in the morning. Ben did not try to hide the rolling of his eyes this time, nor did he try to contain his sigh.
“She told me about this film we could put on the windows to prevent the birds from flying into the window.”
“This pandemic has gotten so bad,” Ben said, “that now you're taking advice from your sister?”
Lindsey's silverware clanked as it hit the table. “What the hell?”
“Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't she dating her therapist? I mean, that doesn't sound like someone whose advice I would trust.”
“Just because she's dating her therapist doesn't mean she doesn't know how to save the birds.”
“Oh,” Ben mocked. “I forgot it's all about the birds.”
Lindsey raised an eyebrow. “Of course it's about the birds. What else would it be about?”
Ben leaned back in his chair and scoffed. “Like you're not going to put a film on the window and then take a picture and put it on Instagram and say something stupid like hashtag save the birds.”
“Where is this all coming from?” Lindsey shrieked. “Why are you being such a jerk about this?”
Ben took a deep breath and collected himself. “Look,” he said, “we're in the middle of a pandemic. We don't go to our offices. We don't go to restaurants or bars or coffee shops anymore. We rarely go out at all. We're spending nearly every second of our lives inside this apartment.” He paused and took a sip of water. “That window,” he pointed toward the office, “is my one escape. My one little pleasure during all of this. And now you,” Ben now pointed at Lindsey, “and your mother and your sister want to take it from me.”
“That's not true, baby. We just want to save the birds.”
Ben rested his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands. “You want me to be miserable,” he said. “All three of you—you all want me to be miserable.”
“That's not true,” Lindsey repeated.
After dinner Lindsey told Ben that she was going to step out for a bit. Ben asked where she was going.
“Just for a walk,” Lindsey said. “I think we need some space.”
“You can stay home. I'll go out.”
“No, it's fine. Really. I want to get out. I could use the exercise.”
“Okay,” Ben said. “Be careful.”
Ben had fallen asleep by the time Lindsey came home and so he didn't hear her return. He got out of bed sometime after midnight and walked into the living room and saw Lindsey sleeping on the couch. He considered waking her up and asking her to come to bed and apologizing, but he wasn't ready to have that conversation just yet, so he returned to bed and, knowing that Lindsey was safe at home, he slept until sometime after the sun had risen. He tiptoed his way to the kitchen and made a full pot of coffee. He hoped that the aroma would awaken Lindsey, but she didn't stir and so he let her be. He poured a cup of coffee and grabbed a book and headed to the office.
Ben knew something was wrong as soon as he entered the doorway of the office. The office was dimmer than he expected. A second later he had identified the problem as he looked at the window and saw a film over it. “What the hell,” he whispered to himself.
Ben threw the book against a wall of the office and turned to face Lindsey, who had startled and was sitting upright on the couch.
“Where the hell did you get that?” Ben was pointing at the film on the window.
“I got it from my sister.”
“Oh so that's why you insisted on going for a walk, huh? So much for needing the exercise.”
“It's not like you would have let me go if I had told you the truth. You're going crazy over this bird business. I'm worried about you.”
“I don't understand why you care so much,” Ben closed his eyes briefly while he took a deep breath. “It's my space.”
“But the birds are flying into the window and dying.”
“What about me, Lindsay? I'm dying.”
Lindsey tilted her head to the side and glared at him. “You are not dying, Ben.”
“No, but you and your sister and your mother—you three witches—make me feel like it sometimes.”
Lindsey sprang from the couch and toward the front door. “I have to get out of here.”
“Go and conspire against me some more,” Ben yelled at her as she slammed the door shut.
Still breathing heavily from the confrontation, Ben walked into the office and sat on the loveseat. He scowled as he looked at the film-covered window.
After he finished his coffee, Ben walked over to the window and examined the damage. He found a corner of the film near the top of the window and was able to pull it up so as to have enough film to grab and begin removing it. Because the film had been applied so recently, the adhesive hadn't had a chance to bake onto the window, so he had little trouble removing the film. The removal did leave some adhesive on the window, so he found some rubbing alcohol and some paper towels and removed the bits left behind. Finally he applied some window cleaner and smiled at his squeaky clean window.
As the sun's rays once again filled the office, he thought This is how my morning was supposed to look.
With a mug of fresh coffee, Ben laid across the loveseat and opened the novel he had previously thrown against the wall in anger. After a few thousand words, his eyes got heavy and he soon found himself in a light sleep, the book lying open on his chest. He woke when he heard a bang against the window and his eyes shot open and he sprang up and looked out the window and saw a scatter of feathers briefly floating in the sky before they began sinking toward the ground. He smiled.