The Canary Bird
When I was sixteen she was colored. In each hand she carried a shopping bag. The bags were plastic and flowered. Her lips were full; her face pushed forward and her eyes were sunken. I shadowed her. Periodically she would stop, slowly lower her shopping bags to the ground, lean her body wearily against the side of an apartment building, and sigh. Later when I was older and colored became black and black became Afro-American and labels became pertinent and I became confused, in my dreams the Canary Bird would fly to me. I remember she moved slowly, yet determined. She never sang in the street. Her eyes always sought a courtyard as though this three-sided structure were her stage. Assured, she would set down her bags, clear her throat, remove a handkerchief from her brassiere, wipe her lips, then lean her head backward and sing.
She never knew I was there. Her hands extended upward from her body; her eyes raised toward the rooftop and as her mouth opened, from her innards came the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. My parents called it Negro music sounds of sinful want and lust. I listened. The notes she sang suspended in the air. Her repertoire for this courtyard started with "... Summertime and the livin' is easy ..." and then, as though she knew the content and character of her tenement audience, she ended with "Oh Danny boy." I had never heard a colored woman sing an Irish tune.
Her aria ended. There was no applause. Slats of venetian blinds opened. Instead of roses and bravos tossed her way, wads of tin foil and toilet paper were flung to her feet. She unraveled the paper and the foil, removed the coins, and placed them in her topcoat. She bowed and mouthed the words "Thank you" to the faceless windows. With effort she picked up her bags and moved to the next courtyard. I never saw faces in the windows above. Only hands. Some freckled, some trembling. It was as though the sorrows of those who secreted themselves behind the blinds far outweighed those of the Diva of the Courtyard. What strikes me now is the power and enunciation that passed through the soloist's lips. Regally she picked her bags from the ground as her imaginary curtain descended. She exited to Seaman Avenue and strolled up the hill toward her next performance. As she unknowingly passed by me, I took to the apartment stairs and bounded up the six flights to the rooftop running across the tar-paved housetop between rows of clothes-pinned laundry and leaped the ledge to the next building. I leaned over the eave and gazed into the courtyard below. The Canary Bird was ready to perform. I sat with my back to the wall and listened as the notes sought me out. "Scotch and soda, mud in your eye; Baby do I feel high . . . oh me, oh my ..."
Coins again cascaded to the cement, the hands quickly withdrew, and the Canary Bird picked up her cargo and flew. I jumped from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit and running out of rooftops I sprinted down the stairs and into the street. My eyes looked left then right, but momentarily the prima donna had vanished. I ran up and down the avenue ducking in and out of courtyards. She was gone. But the music found me and sucked me toward her. "All my trials Lord, soon be over ..."
The finale was without encores; the only suggestion of appreciation the coins at her feet. She seemed exhausted and strained as she moved up the avenue and when it appeared she could go no further she stopped and sat upon a park bench. Her eyes seemed to roll back and then close. She dozed her hands clutching her shopping bags tightly. Concealed behind a tree I stared until a voice behind startled me.
"What jas doin' Kilroy?"
"Jesus McCann! Quit sneaking up on me all the time!"
"Youse ain't such a hotshot, Kilroy. I know you thinking the same thing I'm thinking."
"And what am I thinking?"
"You thinking what's that nigger doing sitting in our park. You thinking of taking those bags just like I was thinking".
"Why would I want to do that?"
"Tell you what I'll do. I'll split it with you."
"McCann, there ain't nothing to split."
"She ain't got no fucking rights sitting in our park like this!"
She might have heard McCann screaming at me. I'm not sure, for she never looked our way. She rose with great dignity and continued down Seaman Avenue and out of sight. As she moved away I had the fleeting image of my mother walking in the opposite direction carrying two large plastic flowered shopping bags. I could see the strain and tiredness in her face. I could see the determination to survive deep within her eyes and I saw the similarity between the Canary Bird and my mother. McCann had grabbed my arm but I shook myself free and grabbed him by the front of his shirt.
"Stay the fuck away from me McCann!"
Our eyes locked and the fierceness and the hatred reflected deep within the pale aqua of our irises and for the first time in my life the color blue was no longer a shade of tranquility and peace but rather of devastation, pain and loathing. McCann's hand started to move toward his pocket as I shoved him against the tree and retreated up the avenue McCann screaming behind me.
"Nigger lover! You son of a bitch Kilroy! I'll get ya Kilroy! You hear me!"
I knew it wasn't over. I fell in stride behind the songstress, and from my periphery McCann stalked us both from the opposite side of the street. As we passed the entrance to the Inwood Hill Park the sun was lowering and was now perched upon the upper level of the Henry Hudson Bridge. I had to shield my eyes from the sunrays. Where was McCann? I saw him sitting upon the park wall first smiling, then, frowning. His eyes were riveted to the old woman's bags. He turned his attention toward me, put a finger to his temple and from across the street you could hear him yell, pow, as though he had pulled the trigger of a gun. He jumped off the wall and I turned my attention toward the Canary Bird but once again she was gone. I ran down the avenue and took a left on Isham Street and saw her passing the Church of the Good Shepherd. McCann followed, and by his actions I was now forced to be visible and I hated McCann for this. The Canary Bird is a skittery creature. She will sing for you, but when fearful she will soar away. Across from the church she found her last stage. McCann sat on the church steps as I leaned against a parked car as once again she sang. Her repertoire now included Billie Holiday and the sadness in her soul winged itself and flew within my spirit, and now I too flew and spread my wings as the Canary Bird took me to the depths of my heart's core, and I was not only visible but saddened for I knew my life to be as un-free as the Diva who sang to soothe us to solace. And though she could fly I could not, so I stood listening and shuffling my feet and from the corner of my eye I saw McCann begin to move. As well as being visible, I was forced to become vocal as well. Quickly I ran to the courtyard. "Lady! Hey Lady!" I yelled.
At first she ignored me and I am not sure whether it was because of the trance she was in, or perhaps she simply did not hear me, for on and on she sang and I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Lady! You got to get out of here! Listen to me Lady, he is crazy!" The courtyard suddenly was hushed as the Canary Bird turned and faced me and for the first time I heard her speak.
"What are you talking about boy?"
I pleaded with her. "Look lady, he wants your shopping bags ... just go!"
"Who wants my shopping bags? What are you talking about?"
"Him!" I yelled.
And as I turned to point out the hunter, the 5 o'clock Mass had let out and the street was full of parishioners newly forgiven, cleansed and chaste, and McCann in their midst. The old crooner picked up her coins and when I started to help she warned me away.
"You stay away from me boy; you hear me!"
It was now dusk. As I followed the woman toward the subway station I could feel her apprehension and tension toward my presence. She stopped and turned and glared at me with all the hatred one human being can transfer to another. I should have been more alert for when she fixed upon me with her burning eyes I turned my gaze away and that is when he charged and knocked the old woman to the ground and ran up the street a shopping bag in each hand. Momentarily I froze and then rushed to the fallen woman. Her head was bloodied from where it hit the pavement and when I tried to clean away the blood she smacked away my hand and swore that I was in on it with McCann. When I tried to tell her that, no, I was following her to help her; she grabbed me by the shirt and hissed: "You are all alike!"
I was going to protest when I heard the police sirens off in the distance.
"I got to go lady. You'll be okay. I can't stay, you understand. I got to live in this neighborhood. You understand ... we don't talk to the cops lady ... You understand!"
And then I ran and I ran and I ran and when I could run no more I fell to the ground and looked up at the stars. I knew I had run into the park but had no idea how long I had run nor how far. I knew never again would I hear the songbird. I rose from the ground and started toward home staying close to the woods in case the coppers came and I would have to run again. From deep in the woods I heard him laugh and scream at me: "You ain't such a big shot Kilroy! You'll get yours someday! You hear me Kilroy!"
I do not remember sounds emitting from my throat. Maybe it was my soul, which yelled for forgiveness. I wanted to see my canary bird rise from the ground, unbloodied, and take to the freedom of the skies.
"You want me you crazy bastard! Well come on you son of a bitch McCann! Come on!"
The crescendo of his laughter and his mockery rose and rose and then, silence.