FISH WITHOUT GILLS
As she flapped around her condo in her bedroom slippers, Margie felt the birds rattle her chest. She took two puffs from her inhaler and the birds fluttered, then sunk into her organs’ soft tissue. She grabbed the pack of cigarettes on her dresser and slipped it in her pocket. The screen door of the balcony was stuck. When Margie pried it open, the door slid out of her hands and banged a few times against the opposite wall. She grimaced. For a second, Marge forgot about the birds and pulled morning air through her teeth. Feathers grazed her organs.
If birds were inevitable, Marjorie would have at least preferred a choice among them. She imagined pointing to a menu, saying to the young waitress, I’ll take the flamingos unless you recommend the heron?
The waitress would nod, pen against paper. She’d assume all old ladies favored pastel. Today the flamingos are looking especially pink.
I bet she always says that, Marge would think. And the heron? she’d ask.
The heron, ma’am? Mmm, I haven’t had the chance—
Never mind, she’d interrupt. Marge would wave her hand in the air, as if wiping away the minutes that brought them here, I’ll take them.
The waitress would hold to her original convictions. One thing I know, ma’am, is the heron are a recent introduction. We’re still experimenting with their preparation.
Experimenting? Never mind, she’d say again, I’ll take them.
Margie flopped into the lawn chair and drew a cigarette from the pack. She breathed in the burning tobacco. The birds rose to her throat. She coughed and sputtered, unable to catch her breath. Still, though, she wasn’t ready to give up smoking. Marge rested her head back and tried to relax.
She was about to take one more drag when she heard the rapping at the door. Ah, fuck, Margie thought. She took the cigarette from her lips and snuffed it out in the ashtray Jonah had made her.
A ruffled-looking Peter was standing on the other side of the door. He was holding two to-go cups. In front of him stood Jonah, looking up at her, arm outstretched, dangling a wrinkled, paper bag.
“Hi Gramma,” he said.
“Come in,” she pressed out.
“Mom,” Peter said, “you’re getting worse.”
She wagged her finger at him as she, bent over and coughing, pulled open the living room drapes.
“I could have done that for you,” Peter said.
She looked up at the ceiling and rolled her eyes.
Harsh light flooded the room and furniture and photos and tchotchkes alike, seemed to cower in naked loneliness.
Marge tried to smooth her breath. She rested her hand on the back of the sofa.
“Here, have a sip of this,” Peter said. He handed her the to-go cup. The coffee was hot, strong and bitter.
Jonah set the paper bag on the coffee table and plopped into the “spinny” chair without taking his eyes off her.
“I’m alright,” she exhaled. “It’s just that the first words of the day are the toughest.”
Among all the birds, pigeons were Margie’s least favorite. She would have been fine with robins, swallows, finches, even seagulls. Or hummingbirds or geese, toucans, or pelicans. Pelicans—how they glided over the surf, how they dove for fish from so high up. But pigeons, so absolutely dull. And dirty.
“Why don’t you sit down, Mom?” Peter said. He nudged her to the sofa. To his son, he said, “Get some plates.”
Jonah spun off the chair and drifted towards the kitchen.
“And napkins!” Peter called.
Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek playwright and poet, thought the motions of pigeons in air resembled swimming. Their genus name, Columba recorded his idiocy. Kolumbus was Ancient Greek for “diver.” If they could breathe underwater, the pigeons might live a little longer, but Marge knew the birds trapped in her ribcage would never learn to swim, let alone transform into flamingos or herons.
Jonah came back to the living room carrying the plates. Peter sipped his coffee. The air was stiff.
“For you, Gramma, we bought a morning bun,” Jonah said. He held the pastry between his thumb and pointer so as to avoid, as much as possible, getting its caramelized sugar-coating on his hands.
“My favorite, Jonah,” Marge said with a clap. Inside her, the pigeons were cooing and stepping on her lungs with their tiny bird feet.
“Dad’s right, Gramma. You’re worse.”
Marge blew air through her teeth. She scratched her neck and turned towards her son. Peter’s lips were squeezed together, his eyebrows raised. He stared back at her.
In the beginning, Marge had measured the strength of the doctor’s words as time passed. When they flashed into memory, she held the diagnoses up to the light like a pH test stick, hoping that with a freshly made bed or after a soak in the tub, the conclusion would be reversed. Always the pain was just as piercing. All Marge could hope for were lapses in memory. Since she couldn’t smoke like before, she took up day drinking. She rarely changed out of her slippers. Margie used to believe talk shows dulled the senses. Now she watched them late into the night.
Peter tore at his croissant while Jonah kneeled on the carpet with his eyes closed, chewing slowly.
“I talked to the doctor,” Peter said.
Marge was mid-sip. She coughed. Coffee splashed from her lips.
Jonah flicked his eyes open.
“Why can’t you go to the hospital, Mom? The doctor said she could lessen the pain.”
Marge sucked at the air.
“Dammit, Peter,” she wheezed. “I don’t want tubes down my lungs. I don’t want the hospital. I want to die at home.”
Peter and Jonah stared at her. The pigeons squeezed against her heart. They would flutter away any minute, replaced by Peter’s insistence for truth. She’d be left only with pain. Pigeons weren’t heron or pelicans, but she’d miss them, her stupid flying fish without gills.