The robin nesting in the crux of the porch beam was on her own, now. Her partner had been missing for a week, and the way robins worked, Quincy was certain, it took two of them going full time to keep everyone safe and fed. But the chicks were hatched and peeping already, and Quincy didn't know if she would make it alone.
Earlier that week, a replacement suitor had appeared in the branches of the beech tree. Quincy had scrutinized that development with great hope. But the pair had interacted only briefly. She'd seemed unimpressed, and by day's end, he too was gone.
The intense drama of her daily existence had become a growing object of his focus in recent weeks. He'd mourned the loss of her partner, but there was little time for that. It was about the chicks now, and he'd become overwhelmed by her resolve, her dedication, her lack of self-pity. She'd become a sort of hero to Quincy. He lingered a moment in the doorway admiring her fragile, robust beauty before stepping out onto the porch and fishing from the front pouch of his red and black Baja hoodie the half a joint he'd left there the previous evening.
This was all after the first terrible spring of the pandemic, after the initial quarantine, the closing down, the mass unemployment, but before wild, blazing-blue banners erected in truck beds cruised the main streets of western towns, before the fires, before the suffocating smoke settled into the lungs and held there and didn't let go. This was the time of the protests, the riots, but before the counterprotests, before the counter-counterprotests, before the elections. The country's financial institutions appeared to be holding, but the flaws in the fabric of its being had been revealed, could no longer be ignored, yet were being ignored. It couldn't go on, yet it showed no signs of stopping. People were coming unglued.
Quincy was in a state of disrepair. His face and neck were unshaved, and the hair on the side of his head had grown shaggy, accentuating the baldness. He'd been drinking too much and gained weight, and the sharper edges of his consciousness had grown less so. The left temple of his glasses had broken months ago, and now they slipped whenever he looked down. Often they fell off completely, and he just cursed them and put them back on.
He dragged an Adirondack chair out from the corner into the sunlight and sat down and lit the joint. Three months ago this would have been odd morning behavior for Quincy, but he'd been laid off since March, and his wife and their two girls were gone till tomorrow, and the world outside had become a Dada art installment, and it maybe didn't matter anymore. He took a nice, long, slow drag and settled back against the wood.
An old black dog followed him out of the house and limped past him toward the yard. The dog was bent and blind and mostly deaf, and a large tumor bulged from his abdomen, but he was still happy, and he wagged his tail as he shuffled across the cracked and sunken patio.
It was almost a year now since the stroke that had nearly ended the dog, had left him paralyzed, incontinent, and miserable. For weeks following, Quincy's wife had babied the dog, slept on the floor with him; they'd carried him inside and out hoping to nurse him back. But weeks passed with no improvement, and they'd finally reached the sad conclusion — it was the end of the road for the old boy.
But then, the night before the vet was scheduled to put him down, something wonderful had happened. The entire family became violently, inexplicably ill. For a full day and night, they were all laid out, gutted, and they missed the appointment. The morning they all recovered Quincy woke to the sound of his wife's cry from the hallway. He and the two girls each emerged cautiously from their separate rooms, dazed and weakened, but alive! And they joined her in the hallway to see the old dog standing there on the rug, a slight wag in his tail, tongue out just so, ears perked in that certain way that said, hey there, glad to see you, happy to be here.
Quincy smiled now at the dog. Miracles do occur, he reminded himself. It was important to remind himself of that. It was hard to remember. He took a drag and held his breath and then released a great, meditative plume of smoke.
Yes, Quincy was unemployed and there was little hope of that changing. There were many others like him in the surrounding enclosed yards. Quincy could hear them milling around in their isolated outdoor spaces at a time they would normally be at work. Some tinkered uncertainly with power tools. All wondered nervously if their pandemic unemployment checks would keep coming or if they'd suddenly stop or if the state would accuse them of fraud and make them pay it all back. There'd be no way to know since you could no longer call and speak to someone. There were so many unemployed that the phones had stopped working.
One nice thing about unemployment was Quincy could focus full time on being a failed writer. Being a failed writer took almost everything he had. In the early days of the pandemic he wrote prolifically. But as the thing dragged on, as the distortion of the world outside became more and more grotesque, language became increasingly confounding. No longer able to find suitable language to add to things, Quincy found himself cutting unsuitable language from existing things. One story of 4,000 words, he'd managed to cut in half, then half again, and again, till a single paragraph remained. Then days later, drink in his left hand, he'd slowly deleted, letter by letter, the final remaining sentence. Annihilation was the only thing left that made sense. Quincy knew he wasn't alone. Failed artists everywhere were experiencing the same thing.
He took another drag, but the joint was dead. He looked down in disgust and re-lit the thing and took another lazy drag and closed his eyes. That was probably one too many marijuanas for this early in the morning, he thought, though only too late. The old dog, who'd joined him by his side, grunted and rolled over. Quincy closed his eyes.
His family had been gone for a week. They hadn't seen Gramma since February, and they couldn't wait any longer. "Damn the consequences," Gramma had said. Quincy stayed behind for a lot of reasons. Mostly they'd just needed a break from each other and felt lucky to get it.
Alone, he'd been thinking too much about things like the distance between the private mind and social construct. He'd gotten all the way down there and had it down to no private mind, even. There was no private mind, he determined.
Last night he'd woken promptly at three and seen clearly, profoundly that the garden of Eden was the present moment, that breath was prayer, was a gift given as such, and that God was waiting in the present for us, that the present was something much different and wonderful than anything he'd imagined. A tingling sensation had run up and down the length of his body. He'd turned to the open window in time to watch the crescent moon disappear behind the rooftops across the street. He'd felt he was breathing moonlight. When he awoke at noon the feeling was gone. He'd picked up his phone and reassimilated his ironic, cynical mind and scrolled the news and soon was consumed by dread.
The robin looked down at him having just alighted her nest, a giant insect protruding from her beak. "You are the best mama," Quincy cooed. "You bring the juiciest grubs." He looked at his phone. He was hopelessly drawn to it. It was answering a question, he thought. It must be. Otherwise, why the appeal? He rarely enjoyed his time in there. But what questions? Why would he be so drawn to something that caused him such strife? The robin, having finished feeding her young, flitted off into a dangerous world. Quincy closed his eyes and waited for an answer.
"What is it that's coming for me?" He blurted, looking around for the bird. She was present less now that the chicks were born. He wiggled his toes, turning the phrase in his head. "Who am I, and what is coming for me." He looked at his phone. "Are these the questions?" he muttered. His phone would answer these questions over and over. It would never stop answering these questions. The answers would be whatever he most feared they would be. Maybe the problem is that there is no God in these phones, he thought. God is elsewhere. It was no longer fashionable to think such things, but it didn't matter. "This is not the present moment," he whispered to his phone.
Quincy pulled the dog against his torso and the dog looked up at him and waved a paw in front of Quincy's face. "You've lived your whole life, and you'll die, and you'll have never spoken a word," he said. The dog looked back at him and patted his tail against the dirt.
Then Quincy sauntered inside and fixed a whiskey sidecar, then another, and he kept at it till he slept. This behavior could not continue, he told himself.
The next day his family returned from Gramma's, and Quincy tossed out the weed. The girls raced up the stairs and filled the house with cartwheels and joy and inane grievances and everything he'd missed. He helped them unload the car, and he told the kids about the baby robins. He told his wife she should go lie down, but of course she wouldn't. She was tireless.
Two days later the chicks burst from the nest. Quincy spotted them from the window and brought the girls outside to see. The chicks were walking and chirping and stumbling. And there with them was mama bird, peeping and beautiful. The girls exclaimed. The old dog danced a crippled, little dance.
Then Quincy noticed that across from her was the male robin watching one of the chicks in the yard. So, he hadn't been murdered. But where had he been? How could he just show up now? This was the last thing Quincy expected. It made no sense. He was furious. "This makes a terrible story," muttered Quincy. He watched Mama for signs of resentment, and he watched the male for signs of shame or remorse, but he saw none of it, and he searched both birds for answers, but of course he found none. "He just shows back up?" He said to the girls, who were doing a gymnastics routine. Quincy scoffed. "Who's going to believe that, huh?"
They watched all morning as the robins herded their chicks around the yard. They watched the chicks attempt flight over and over and fail and try again. Quincy asked himself the question, who are we, and what is coming for us? He asked it over and over again. He looked down at his girls. He thought about the long road back to sobriety that lay ahead. Then, one by one the chicks took meager flight to the low branches of the apple tree at the edge of the yard, and from there the parents gathered them and led them hopping tree by tree across the neighbor's yard and out of Quincy's life forever. ♦
Sam Foley holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and has fiction forthcoming in the South Dakota Review.