“The Glass Wall” was a Finalist in the 2012 Penelope Niven Nonfiction Contest at Salem College, a Finalist in The Southeast Review 2012 Nonfiction Contest, and an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Tiny Lights Nonfiction Contest. It was eventually published in Tiny Lights and The Southeast Review.
Other award-winning essays can be found on the web via the following links:
“The Empty Road” at: http://www.newmillenniumwritings.com/showdb.8.php?w=84
“Seeing the Inca Trail” at: http://www.literal-latte.com/2013/09/seeing-the-inca-trail/
“Hold Me Say You Will” at: http://solsticelitmag.org/content/second-runner-up-hold-me-say-you-will/
THE GLASS WALL
Another bird flies into the picture window on the west side of the house. By the tone and density of the thud against the glass, I can usually tell how serious the bird’s injuries might be. This one was loud.
It’s not surprising to see a mourning dove lying in the grass beneath the window. They have bad eyesight and are clumsy fliers. The doves’ arrival at the feeder—hanging in the lilac bush fifteen feet from the picture window—is always a tumultuous event. They thunder down from the sky like Harrier jump-jets, spraying up leaves and dust as their heavy bodies descend to the earth, scattering their brethren. The other birds are less frequent victims of the glass. Their flights into the window, especially the blue jays, are propelled more by impatience and arrogance than maladroitness. And the smallest birds—the chickadees and nuthatches and finches—dart about like starfighters, are keen of vision, and rarely hit the window.
Six years ago, in a driving January snowstorm and with all my possessions stuffed into the back of a twelve-year-old pick-up truck, I moved to my recently deceased grandmother’s house in the Catskill Mountains. I was homeless, broke, and moving north with nothing but a tenuous verbal promise to teach part-time in a prison. The job would mean an hour-and-a-half commute each way over treacherous mountain roads during winter. Nevertheless, after being in construction for fifteen years, the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives.
One of the first things I wanted to do that inaugural winter was fill the bird feeder. My grandmother loved the birds, almost as much as she loved her cat, a relationship of primal antagonism she never quite grasped. Feeding the birds would be a small way to honor her memory. But, because I had barely enough money to feed myself, and would continue to live on the fiscal edge until I could restore some life to a house that had been abandoned for two years, birdseed was put on the luxury side of the grocery list.
It’s quiet here, so the thuds against the glass always come as a surprise. They’re like random, muffled tollings during the day. Startled at first by the cottony spank upon the silence, the unique mnemonic of a bird hitting glass never fails to draw me to full attention, and I stop what I’m doing and go to the window. After locating the luckless flyer on the ground, I sit and wait and watch. Sometimes I make a cup of tea.
The bird bodies leave hoary imprints on the glass, and I like to contemplate them, much the way I like to watch paisley ice patterns form on a winter windowpane. Sometimes the shadowy silhouettes of the birds’ torsos and splayed wings look like perfect angels hanging in the pellucid air, about to rise.
One morning last winter I went to the window and saw only the tail feathers of a sparrow sticking out of the snow. I imagined I could hear the sparrow’s plaintive moan as a softball headache bloomed in his golf ball brain. I made tea. Gradually, his little body appeared above the snow crest as he struggled out of his frozen glove. By mid-morning he was sitting atop the snow, trying hard to blink his Jell-O vision back to a solid state. By noontime he had flown away.
This house was built by my father in the year I was born, so I’ve known it and its sylvan landscape my entire life. But visiting does not prepare one for the living, as so many of my neighbors have also found out. Mostly city folk who came up here to retire to summer homes, they’ve learned the hard way that the expansive, redemptive days of summer slowly, deceptively give way to the protracted isolation of winter. Though statistically incongruent for such a sparsely populated area, death by unnatural cause is disturbingly high around here. One neighbor went into his basement and blew his head off with a shotgun, another killed herself by wandering into the woods and intentionally inducing hypothermia, and another tried to commit suicide by drinking anti-freeze, all within a square mile of this house. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, the silence presses in…
When I look at the picture window from outside, I imagine I’m seeing what birds see all the time. From their perspective, the window’s double-glazing gives a fuzzy outline to everything reflected therein. The lilac bush, pine trees, and clouds look as if they’ve been momentarily frozen by a zoom lens ranging near to far, a blurred still-photo of wrinkled depth perception. Birds have more rods than cones in their eyes, which suggests that their sight is highly developed, and indeed it is. But bird vision is strictly monocular, commanding two separate visual fields on either side of the head. Double-glazing in flight, if you will. The window mirrors the optical physiology nature has given them—positive X meeting negative X—the abrupt sum being a rude zero framed by beak molding.
It is a beguiling world, the window, a strangely inviting one, like a candied hologram I’ve often wanted to fly into myself. The reflection is especially bright and clear, in its wrinkled way, when the sun moves into the western sky. The thudding at that time of day is almost symphonic.
Not being able to buy bird seed seemed to put in high relief a lifetime of childish dreams and bad decisions, despite the potential change in fortune offered by the move here. I never had a checking account or a credit card. Tax returns were unknown to me. I had changed jobs (quitting or getting fired) as often as I moved. Relationships… As the mirror of cold, northern silence was beginning to do its brutal job, it became apparent that the presumptuous bluster with which I had armored myself for so many years was flimsy at best, and certainly not warranted for a perpetually unemployed, unmarried, often drunk woolgatherer. And now, despite being both a homeowner and a white-collar worker for the first time in my life, I couldn’t even afford birdseed.
When friends visit and happen to witness one of the feather-bursting fly-ins to the window, they are horrified. They jump up and coo at the bird lying in the grass. They pine for its recovery. They celebrate its resurrection. Then they turn on me. Why don’t you put tape on the window? they ask. Why don’t you do something?
Yes, I should. I’ve often thought so myself. But I don’t.
Instead, I make excuses. I’m good to the birds, I say. I spend more money on birdseed than I do on dining out. I made a birdbath for them, which I diligently keep filled. And in winter, even when I don’t shovel my own drive, I’ll dig a route to the feeder so they can eat. I truly love the birds, I say. I even consider them, over the course of long, snow-bound days, my friends.
But I do nothing about the window. Except keep it immaculately clean.
Several months after moving here I unexpectedly got a check in the mail for $100. It was a gift from a friend in California whose own grandmother had recently died. I immediately went out and bought birdseed. It was a tremendous relief, a relief not necessarily commensurate with the insignificance of the act, nevertheless, a psychic weight off my shoulders. The beginning of my new life. Until I started finding birdseed in my shoes.
My shoes would be empty when I went to bed, then filled with a layer of millet and corn and sunflower seeds when I went to put them on in the morning. Not just a couple of grains, but a quarter cup or more. Sometimes the shoes in my closet, sometimes the shoes left out in the living room, sometimes both—I’d have to empty them in the morning as if I were still living in the Andes, where each morning I had to shake out the scorpions that would crawl into my boots overnight. After several weeks of seed-filled shoes, and unable to find the cause, I thought: I’m finally paying the price.
I’ve left my old world behind, I have a roof over my head, peace and quiet, and a job that doesn’t make my whole body ache at the end of the day. But now I’ve gone insane. In lieu of any other logical explanation, I convinced myself that I must be possessed of some kind of strange, perhaps guilt-ridden somnambulant quest, filling my own shoes with birdseed during the night, possessed of the same kind of dementia that my grandmother eventually succumbed to.
By tape or filth, I cannot bring myself to alter the window’s reality, no matter how virtuous that act might be. I justify it, twist the logic, claim species superiority, and lie to my friends. Then I go outside and clean the glass.
After her husband died very young of a heart attack, my grandmother never found anyone who could measure up. So she lived here, alone, for forty years. Her life was rich but difficult, including coming to this country, by herself and against her parents’ wishes, when she was 23; Nazis beating her father to death for singing patriotic Czech songs in a pub; and raising a fatherless daughter while working as a live-in maid, well past retirement age, for a doctor who treated her like the dirt she cleaned from his carpets.
Yet I never heard her complain. Instead, she seemed to have cultivated a humor predicated on forgetting, perhaps even forgiving, the cruelties visited upon her life. And with that humor a laugh—a joyous, raucous laugh that seemed to come directly out of the grainy photographs I’ve seen of her as a care-free teenager in her homeland. How could that happen? I often wondered during those early months, sitting at the window on quiet winter mornings as she would have done.
I do nothing about the window because I am that dove, sloe-eyed and clumsy, a Beetle Baily with wings. I am that intransigent blue jay, cursing with warrior screeches anything that gets in my way, barriers be damned. And on those rare occasions when perspicacity prevails and I miss the illusion altogether, it’s been nothing but dumb luck that has saved my neck.
I have flown into so many windows, believing their reflections real and knowing there are more to come, that I want to be reminded of that lesson. I want to be reminded of all the times I have slammed against the illusion of easy passage through this life. I have been an accomplice to polishing those barriers, even as I have blamed their construction on others. The feathery impressions floating on the window, so much like ghostly corpses, remind me of imperious flying aces bright with youth and dreams, forever frozen in a hologram of high-and-mighty ideals.
The mourning dove lies on its back in the grass. For a moment, I believe the twitching of its feet and wings to be a sign of resurrection. When the bird is still, however, I know that it is dead. Know as certainly as my friends knew long before I did—those I told about my shoes, the birdseed, and my sleepwalking affliction—that it was only mice. The house was filled with them. Know, too, when I finally get a cat, and start that primal conflict anew, that I am not so much honoring my grandmother’s life as beginning to reflect it, experiencing the solitude the way she did, stepping into her mirror. And perhaps, someday, as she did, stepping through the glass wall.
I go outside, scoop up the dove, and bury it, then get the window cleaner and paper towels and start to polish the glass.