Evelyn knew that her son, Jerry, always liked birds. They were his first fixation; every parent remembers each of their children’s first fixation—so, at a young age, he would prattle on, almost mechanically, about the capacity of a crow to remember a human face, how ravens could mimic human speech, how owls ate their prey whole. He hadn’t used such sophisticated language, of course. The precise way he expressed his love for the creatures was lost to time.
When he turned eleven, she bought him a parakeet—or a budgie, as Jerry insisted they were properly called in their native Australia; how smart he was, so said the teenage girl behind the counter. Of course, they had to then buy a parakeet for Andrea, their nine-year-old daughter, because fair is fair, and pledge to get one for Kyle, then six, when he got old enough to take care of it (an offer he never redeemed).
Was Jerry happy with the blue and green “budgie” that his parents, after some resistance, allowed him to name Bruno? Hard to tell. Maybe, for a bit. He admired Bruno, enjoyed taking him out to fly around the bathroom, giving him food sticks, and watching the bird peck. When Andrea was going to have her bird fly around the bathroom, that’s when Jerry needed to let Bruno out too, and he liked to play Bruno’s bodyguard, saying, “hey hey hey!” and separating Bruno and Andrea’s bird, a bright yellow thing she named Oskar, with an oven mitt if they nipped at each other. Jerry seemed most engaged when the opportunity came to intervene.
But Bruno would peck at Jerry sometimes, and Jerry reciprocated with inanition, letting the bird go too long without food or water or cage-cleaning to the point that he became the “family bird” until Jerry promised his mother he’d be more responsible. Jerry, from then on, fulfilled his obligations dutifully, by all appearances, although the frequency with which he’d take the bird out lessened each year. How to account for why Jerry remained so abstractly interested in birds and less-so with the real article? It’s as if he’d been found out in something, and therefore expressed his interest in birds less and less—although, the same could be said about all topics as he got older.
So, imagine Bruno broke free from his cage and flew around the household right now, if the poor wheezy bird could still fly for so long. What would he see, as he went from room to room? Evelyn bawling, screaming and gnashing, her husband Patrick holding her, so frustratingly stoic. Bruno would see Andrea, now fourteen, and Kyle too, now eleven, and what would he feel of their unguarded moments? Relief, indifference?
The bird would notice, perhaps with some pleasure, that Jerry was nowhere to be seen. If so, would it feel a satisfaction at the calamity, at the grief—payback for his lonely nights shivering in Jerry’s room, or payback for his inapposite name? Is it worth discussing the other members of the family, their passions, their pursuits, the trajectory their lives were taking up to this point? No, not now. Bruno would fly out, leave this family to their grieving, much as we will now, else this would be too grueling.
Because Jerry, at the age of seventeen, on the cusp of graduating high school, is dead. He killed himself, without even whatever quantum of closure might be provided by a suicide note.
Let’s check back—it’s been a month. As if that really mattered, though. As if that made a difference in any appreciable way. As if, during that month, Evelyn thought about anything other than when she’d found his corpse.
When she’d found him, Evelyn had made sure to knock several times. You always had to knock several times because Jerry relished privacy, and he expected that preference to be honored. Patrick would give one or two solid knocks that doubled as commands. Andrea’s were rapid-fire, impatient knocks in quick succession—the knocks of someone never eager to approach. Kyle’s were respectful, if unnatural knocks, timid with deferential pauses. Evelyn would give languorous, patient knocks—enough time for Jerry to stop whatever he was doing and assemble himself.
But this time, Evelyn had knocked enough. Opening the door and finding him hanging there was the equivalent of watching him kill himself; it all came in a rush—she could see it in the afterimages. The plummet, the tensile arc of his swing, his tongue squirting, an almost comical grimace—so strange to see that enigmatic face of his, once so definite, now so unchanging. In some versions of the imagining, there was an exaggerated crunch-crash of his neck snapping, instant death, better than some alternatives she saw: his desperate, futile kicks to right himself back on the stepladder. To deepen the wound, she thought despite herself that, to witness such kicks would have been perhaps the first and only time she’d ever seen him zealously try to do anything. And what a Jerry outcome, wasn’t it? Hopeless failure.
Who would have thought you could tie bedsheets to the motor housing of a ceiling fan? Jerry was a skinny boy but certainly, he weighed too much for the fan to withstand. Grimly enough, you can’t argue with results. She had never imagined him capable of displaying such physical ingenuity to tie such a stable knot, execute such a plan. He was never a Boy Scout; he had worn Velcro sneakers until he was ten.
This is too much. We’ll need to come back after scabs have formed over these wounds.
“My problem is, if I had to sum it up in one issue, is I know I have problems, but I don’t value myself enough to do anything about them, I guess. So, I continue to suffer but won’t do anything about it to lessen my suffering because I always feel like, what’s the point?” Jerry had said, months before his eventual suicide, as he leaned on his elbows, as he sat atop a wooden table in the park, staring into the dreary, cloudy middle distance that lay beyond his outstretched feet.
Graham nodded solemnly. “That makes sense and isn’t uncommon, unfortunately. This sounds terribly clichéd—and I know how you hate clichés—but some clichés are clichés because truth bears so much repeating. No one hates us as much as we hate ourselves.” Jerry blinked and then, realizing he was being looked at, nodded. “But some people truly deserve to feel the way they feel. Maybe the suffering, the self-hatred I feel…Maybe, I deserve it.”
Graham looked thoughtful, a slight bob to his head, as if he had to let the speaker know that every sentence uttered in his direction was independently analyzed and computed. “If someone was truly disliked by many, many people—essentially a type of pariah in their community—it would behoove them to better understand why that was. There is great wisdom in a crowd, especially when it comes to why a community of people reject someone which, to a healthy-minded person, should indicate that there very well may be something about themselves they need to change. We know all about the wisdom of a community, after all.”
Jerry signaled his agreement.
“But for you, Jerry, the hatred is internal. Your trouble is a self-imposed isolation and loneliness, of pushing people away—not of being actively rejected. You know that. We’ve talked about that. The reason you do that is because you think you are better than other people, smarter than them. You value intelligence. You recognize your own intelligence and so find the mass of others lacking, and that causes you to devalue them.”
Jerry bobbed his head again in agreement, the movement helping to conceal his involuntary eyeroll. He’d heard all this before, although he recognized its truth. But there was something to be said about novelty.
“Let me ask you Jerry, why are you sitting on top of the picnic table instead of standing here with me?”