by Nathan Alling Long
Before the pigeon, I woke up with worry, a stone of dread that would skip from the leak in the roof to the water bill, from the pile of unwashed clothes to the peeling paint on the window sills. It would eventually settle in one spot in the pool of doubt and sink down deep—to a reoccurring tooth ache, the check engine light in the car, the credit card bill that depleted its limit like diminishing oxygen in a mine shaft.
Restless and tired, I’d get up to shake the weight from my mind. I’d walk through the cold house and run the sink water until it warmed, sopping up the leaky faucet so the vanity wouldn’t rot. Then I’d wash my face, taking in the freshness as I dripped dry, the air cooling my skin.
But that fresh sensation faded by the time I got to the kitchen, filled the kettle, washed a coffee cup, and sniffed out some passable milk. There was the cold tile floor, the search for matching socks, the sounds of sirens and traffic grunting outside.
Before the pigeon, each day loomed heavy and long, like a fallen oak tree, with its branches of withering green that ended in twigs, and the inevitable core of the trunk, drying out and slowly moving toward rot.
I’d bought this small house when I was just out of college, with a jolt of ambition that landed me a job processing accident claims for what seemed good pay. I had not calculated the drain of taxes, insurance, water, electricity, gas, internet, and phone—my salary already taken to half its size by a dozen indecipherable initials on my paystub. Then there was the new boiler, the sidewalk that needed replacing, the lawnmower, the rotting floorboards.
I became overwhelmed and less excited by work. One day I showed up late, having missed the early train, the next, for not having enough money for the bus. I began to bike or walk to work, though it took twice as long. And once there, I’d linger at my desk a full half hour before picking up a claim, draining the weak warm coffee available in the break room. I only kept the job, I think, because the company was preparing to go under and didn’t want to hire and train someone new to do work for the remaining months.
Every day at the office, deciding which claims we would accept and which we would challenge or reject, I was reminded in little ways, of the inevitable demise of the company: the water cooler stood permanently empty, a broken window off the lobby remained un-repaired, office supplies ran low. The cafeteria had already been closed. I felt the collective entropy as the parking lot and halls slowly emptied out.
My house was decaying, my paycheck small, and unemployment was lurking dangerously in the future. In a pie chart of my mind, these thoughts consumed 95% of my time—at least, before the pigeon.
But then the morning came when I woke to a loud thump. I sat up quickly, before old fears could skip across the stagnant pond of my mind, and felt alert in the cold air. My heart beat fast from the shock of the sound, as though a gun had gone off, and I looked around the room. There on the sill outside lay a dead pigeon, and above it I saw a new crack running diagonally across the upper window pane. The bird had flown into the glass and died.
The sunlight bent as it squeezed through the crack and a new knot of light quivered on my bedroom wall. I thought of that old Leonard Cohen song that I used to listen to my freshman year of college, when I reveled in the existential hollowness of life, sitting in the dark of my dorm room while my dorm mate was out dancing, Cohen’s cracked voice singing, “There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.”
Back then, I survived by brooding on lines like those, somehow content to hear from that ragged voice that everything was flawed, and that it was the flaw that would offer something akin to hope. Even then, I was wistful for a life that had not yet happened. I felt the future was over, though I was young and with a well-fed body and had relatively few worries beyond a calculus exam or a paper on Faulkner.
There in bed that morning, I felt it all over again, the drunken exuberance of letting oneself drown in the inexorable sorrow of living, of not believing in the future, or even the present. In the five years since college, I was not unlike a test rat placed in a tank of water, treading endlessly to see how long it would survive, with no hope of getting out or being rescued.
I stared at the light coming from the crack in the window, and it hypnotized me into a deep calm. The dead pigeon on the sill outside, its iridescent grey feathers quaking slightly in the breeze, seemed to rest in a similarly tranquilizing calm, its wings content to no longer have to keep its body endlessly afloat. As I looked at its worriless body, I felt I understood something that I’d been avoiding, how we would all return to being atoms and dust, and how comforting that fact was—not a fearsome thing as I had always suspected. There was no need to worry, about anything, because I would be one day like the pigeon, resting on a sill, perhaps in my own house. The result of our lives, in the end, was the same.
My back ached, but the pain felt particular and solid—crisp, like the air. And though the plaster of the wall behind me was cold and hard, I relaxed my shoulders and back against it fully, like a corpse on an examining table. My arms dropped softly to my sides. I felt then the warmth of the blankets, the pleasure of the heat and chill dividing my body. I looked at the dust that had gathered on all the things in my room, but rather than think of it as one more thing left undone, I took in the plushness of its surface; it seemed now like a light downy fuzz that softened all things. The crack in the glass appeared to me to be a thin portal that let a newness into a room that had been shut off from the world for years.
It became clear to me that there was a choice, a choice I had been avoiding, or rather never thought I had. I saw at that moment the beauty of surrender, of no longer treading water and pretending I was moving forward. I lay back down under the covers and sighed. Then I felt an irresistible grin overtake my face. I’m sure it was still stretched wide as I fell back asleep, ignoring the alarm that was attempting to wake me for work.
I woke up near eleven and decided to walk to work, though it would take an hour. No one had called me to see if I was alright, or to ask why I was late. I took in the chilly fall air as I walked, stealing an apple from a fruit stand on the way. When I showed up, my boss asked, “Where have you been?” and I said, “Over there,” pointing to our adjacent building, where we sometimes had to go to check on details of a claim. I poured myself coffee, tapped the screen of my computer, to see how difficult it would be to break the glass, and then settled in for a few hours work.
After the pigeon, I woke each morning with ease. I stretched beneath the covers extending all four limbs and giving a pleasurable twist to my torso. I sometimes twisted under the covers and would pop my head out the footboard side, then crawl right onto the floor on my hands and knees.
After the pigeon, the world—even my little cold house—was enticing and new. I would stare at the curves and colors of my furniture, examined the shape of the nail heads in the floor, and notice the different colors of the plates that surrounded the light switches and outlets. I discovered a flaw in the pattern of the tiles in the bathroom I had never noticed before—but this, in my new state of mind, only delighted me.
I began to use rooms in the house I had not used in months. I sat in chairs I had abandoned years ago and opened books that I had not been read since college and had grown dusty on the shelf.
I didn’t stop going to work, but I only went when I felt like it. Why had I worried about getting up each morning, when the job was certain to end either way? Sometimes, though, I got excited and woke early, deciding to walk to work a new way.
But I no longer paid attention to the days of the week, so sometimes I arrived at the office on a weekend, when the doors were locked and the lights were all shut off. Then I would walk around the grounds, looking for change or pencils, or autumn flowers.
I no longer worried about money or bills. I charged my card until it was rejected, and then I broke it in half and threw it away. If I had no money, I dug limp vegetables or expired cheese and bread out of dumpsters, or drank tea all day and read books about hunger.
I stopped worrying about repairs for the house. I understood now that it, like my employment, was a temporary thing. I no longer cared about its resale value. I would likely lose it to the bank regardless, so why did I need to keep it up? Why did I need to lose sleep over it or fill my mornings with dread?
In mid-October, when a leak sprung in a corner of a room, I simply let the water drip. I kept the table with all its papers and knickknacks in place as the water splattered on them, and began taking pictures each day to trace how the objects wrinkled and molded. The pigeon I left to decompose on the window sill until it was a hollow carcass, a monument to my new way of life. Sometimes I’d sit by the window and look at it for hours, watching the insects and worms work away at its carcass. I drew sketches of its stages of decay. In this way, the house became a biology lab, a physics experiment, an Exploratorium.
By late October, I had only a few hundred dollars in my bank account, but it seemed a wonder, an excess. Before the pigeon, that balance—simply seeing it printed at the bottom of the statement—sent painful adrenaline through my body. Now, I saw it as a chance to buy a coat or have an exquisite meal. There was no lack, no worry. And if a pebble of worry slipped into my mind, out of some old habit, I’d crush it like kids playing with insects, or I’d watch it travel across my mind but now with the fascination one has of watching a dancer pirouette across the stage.
The days were growing shorter and darker. One morning felt particularly lonely and grey, as if the stains on the kitchen counter and the pile of dishes felt like some array of sad animals inhabiting the room, but I didn’t get anxious or upset. I’d simply sat with them in silence. We’ll have a tea party, I’d say to the dirty dishes, or a pity party. Your choice.
After I lost the hot water heater and ran out of clean clothes, I decided one morning to stay in my bedroom all day and take in whatever was happening. I sat with sadness and worry and dread until I had embraced these feelings completely, until those feelings felt like a blanket or cloak, something so comfortable and comforting, I’d want to pull it in closer, as though it alone would keep me from the cold.
And once I decided it would keep me warm, it did.
One by one the utilities shut down. I only kept the gas going, and then only in the kitchen. I collected rainwater in buckets I left outdoors. I read by stove light in the kitchen at night, and closed off most of the house in winter and slept under the kitchen table. Without paying bills, I actually managed to build a little nest egg. I’d stopped shaving, stopped believing in washing clothes or looking kempt. My mane grew stringy and uncombed. Eating out, except at fast food joints, seemed ridiculous, and now, I’ll admit, a little embarrassing. At work, people avoided me. Perhaps it was my smell, or that they were now afraid of me. Some employees, management especially, looked at me as though I might be harboring weapons in my desk drawers, or worse—anthrax powder or radioactive material. It made me smile, to see the senseless worry on their faces, to recall how I once carried such fears. It was probably those fears that prevented them from firing me, a fear of some sadistic retribution. But I felt no hatred toward them, and no sense that they owed me anything.
By December, I no longer worried about how I did at work, and curiously, it became more interesting. I often arrived early and felt ready to plunge into the tasks at hand. I’d roll up the sleeves of my worn-out suit jacket and dive into whatever problem a file presented itself with. Since I no longer carried the burden of stress, no task was particularly adverse or frightening. I had no reason to avoid it. I’d finish off a recommendation or email a solution to a problem everyone seemed flummoxed by, and I’d get silence or blank stares. The wild wolf had solved the actuary’s problem, the rabid dog had corrected the tablature for determining the rate of reimbursement.
Sometimes on the walk home, I stuck my head forward and down, as though I were hunting prey. I had eyes for all things and several times I found money on the street—quarters, dimes, once a five dollar bill. I considered walking even closer to the ground, on all fours, but it proved too uncomfortable.
I began to notice the animals—the birds and rats and feral cats—more than I noticed humans. I had found a new community, a new tribe, a new species. In the city a whole other world was living outside of human existence, from the weeds growing up through the pavement and on rooftops and ledges, to the raccoons and opossums digging around at night, to the garden snakes and mice that crept amidst the plants and buildings.
I began to throw my scraps out into the back yard, to help feed them all. Critters often drank from the buckets of rainwater I left outside. At night, I would hear all the creatures rustling in the yard, sometimes even inside the house, as I read Homer or Blake by the blue flame of the stovetop. The creatures of night seemed to gather around me, congregate, as if to hear the words of the ancients and the moderns.
It was comforting to hear them, these beings I had lived so close to and ignored for so long. They were so populous, an owl often perched on my rooftop to hunt for dinner. I would sometimes hear a screech and a flutter of wings, and know that it had caught a field mouse or snake. But I did not feel badly for them; I did not judge the order of things. How noble to end one’s life beneath the wings of a great bird. Everything returned to that place, like the pigeon had. I knew that one day some creature—either organism or vermin—would take me as well, and I was satisfied.
Nathan Alling Long grew up in a log cabin in western Maryland, lived for several years on a queer commune in Central Tennessee, and now lives in Philadelphia. HIs work has appeared on NPR and in various journals, including Story Quarterly, Tin House, The Literary Review, and Crab Orchard Review; The Origin of Doubt, his collection of fifty flash fictions, was released by Press 53 in 2018.