Hummingbirds


My wife and I are trimming bushes in our backyard when she complains that we don’t have a hummingbird feeder.

“I like hummingbirds,” I say.

Itzie keeps snipping at the bougainvillea, a type of ivy with dagger-sized thorns. “Keep it up, wise guy. See where it gets you.”

“I’m serious,” I say. “We used to have hummingbirds when I was growing up. Hummingbirds kick ass.”

Itzie eyes me. She doesn’t trust me anymore, thinks everything is a trick.

“Itzie,” I say, “if you want to get a hummingbird feeder, I’m all for it. Honestly.”

She snaps her shears again. Itzie hates bougainvillea, wants to poison the plant and move somewhere with a rock garden and a nice concrete path.

It’s been like this for three months.


~

When we moved in, our landlord reduced the rent in exchange for some gardening, which we’ve neglected to do. The landlord is an evangelical from Texas. Family man. It didn’t hurt that Itzie had worn a necklace with a cross between her swollen breasts. We told him our new family needed a miracle. When he left, we laughed at him.

He’s flying in from Dallas on Saturday and wants to stop by to say howdy and check out the backyard. Mentioned the sod specifically. Wondered if the dandelions had gotten into it.

On Tuesday I come home from work and there it is: a clear glass tube filled with red sugar-water, four plastic yellow flowers at the bottom.

“I got a hummingbird feeder,” Itzie says.

“You did it, you got a feeder.”

“I am a great huntress of hummingbird feeders,” she says.

We talk like this at home, like idiots. Neither of us want to talk about anything serious anymore. When I’ve tried, Itzie shuts me up quick.

“You are a great huntress,” I say. And then I make two tall vodka-crans so we can drink like hummingbirds while we work on the bushes.


~

Wednesday: a problem. We have been piling the bougainvillea clippings in the center of the dead lawn. The thorny branches have dried into a wicked sculpture and Itzie saw the neighbor kids in our yard, trying to tunnel into it.

“You have to stop them,” she says. “It’s dangerous. They could get hurt.”

I look around.

The kids are gone.

Problem solved.


~

We told the landlord that we had gardening experience. It was such a small lie that we didn’t count it as a lie. Who can afford to live in San Francisco without lying about something?

There is a plant we call the Fro hanging from the eave near the back door. When we moved in, the Fro had clusters of tiny blue flowers overflowing and hanging several feet from the basket. But we never watered it, and now the Fro is brown and brittle.

“The Fro has a spider web problem,” Itzie says. I myself am locked in an epic battle with a lawnmower that refuses to start. I walk to the Fro and find its tendrils covered in silver webs.

“Figure it out,” I say.

Minutes later, Itzie screams. She is spraying an aerosol hairspray at the Fro, and has lit the hairspray to make a flamethrower to dissolve the spider webs. The plant is on fire.

“Let go! Let go!” I say. Itzie drops her can of Aquanet and I wince as if it might explode when it hits the ground. Itzie flaps her arms at the fire, which climbs the plant and turns the eave black. I run to the garage, find the fire extinguisher, run back, and squat down to read the instructions on the canister: pull plastic ring, point at flames, pull trigger.

I put the fire out. The Fro and the eaves are dripping foam. I’m starving.

“I need to eat,” I say. “My blood sugar.” I tap my stomach to indicate food. When I need food, I get irritable and dizzy.

Itzie nods. She knows how to take care of me. She would have made a great mom. Would still make a great mom. In the kitchen she puts a hunk of cheese between two pieces of bread with ketchup and strips of bacon leftover from breakfast. We are neither of us what you might call gourmets.

I chew. “Good sandwich.”

“Wholegrain bread this time,” Itzie says. “Health food.”


~

We are too tired for more gardening after dinner. I go outside and hose down the Fro and the eave. It’s fun to shoot water at things. I put the hose between my legs and hold several feet of it in front of me like a giant wang. I sway my hips back and forth, soaking the deck. I sing a little song and shake it up and down. I try to write my name in the brown grass.

When Itzie steps onto the deck I shoot water at her, soaking her T-shirt. She looks terrific. I laugh, but today she has no sense of humor. Itzie locks the door and doesn’t let me back in until she has showered and changed into pajamas.


~

Our landlord calls. “Saturday morning?” he says. “10 a.m.?”


~

We moved here because the house had two bedrooms. We unloaded our stuff into one bedroom and left the nursery empty to make it easier to paint. “Blue?” we said. “Pink?”

On Thursday I screw up at work and have to stay an extra two hours to fix everything. Actually it was my coworker Warren who screwed up. Warren appreciates me covering for him and the boss appreciates that I’m willing to take responsibility for “my” mistakes. Everyone’s a winner. Except the garden. The garden loses.

When I get home I try to pick a fight with Itzie so we can have make-up sex, but she’s wise to my ways. Our sex life has been non-existent for three months, with the exception of some drunk birthday sex, after which she cried in the bathroom. I’m trying not to push.

“Movie night,” Itzie announces, popping a DVD into the player.


~

Friday I come home early and Itzie is already battling the rosebush tree, which is overgrown in every direction, especially straight up. Thorny branches shoot from the top of the tree like spires. Itzie has already cut off every green leaf and pink flower. Now she is jumping with the shears, trying to snip the spires at the top of her jump.

“Need help?”

She stops jumping, gestures helplessly at the ruins of our yard.

“If you finish this tree,” I say, “I’ll mow the bamboo. We can get rid of the pile of thorns tomorrow morning before he gets here.”

We work for almost an hour before I admit that shoots of bamboo coming through grass cannot be mowed. I tell Itzie to stop bagging branches. We stand on our deck.

“Maybe he won’t care,” she says.

I say, “We should start thinking about where to move.”

“We can always move back to a studio apartment,” she says. “Save some money.”

“Studios don’t have nurseries.”

Itzie gets up in the middle of a perfectly reasonable conversation and goes into the kitchen for a long time. When she comes back she hands me a jelly jar filled with Absolut.

“Drink up.”

“We could try again,” I say. “We know more now. Things might be different.”

Itzie goes inside, where she pretends to be interested in a show about dinosaurs and how their millions of years of lineage were destroyed by a giant meteor.


~

Our landlord told us he would be here at 10am, and here he is. We call him Tex when we are alone, but his real name is George.

“Mr. Dunlop,” I say. “Good to see you.”

He waves his big hand dismissively in a big Texan way. “George,” he says, “just George.”

Okay, sure, George.

“And your lovely wife? She must be almost due now?”

I don’t know what to tell him so I search for a lie that will be easier to say out loud.

“It was a miscarriage,” Itzie says, coming in from the kitchen. “We lost him in the second trimester.”

(Him! I think. Him!)

Itzie hands George and I each a cup of coffee.

“Do you take cream?” she says. “Sugar?”

George looks at me. Looks back at her. “I am so terribly sorry,” he says. “What a horrible, horrible thing.”

He looks like he wants to sit down, and then he does sit, feeling behind him with one hand like an old person with bad knees.

“Terrible,” he says.

I can tell that Itzie wants to take George to the yard and get it over with. But I sit next to him in the platform rocker which was supposed to be good for nursing.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” I say. George ignores me. Itzie doesn’t. She thinks we should have been more careful about soft cheeses and sandwich meat. Thinks I should have bought her the more expensive prenatal vitamins. Thinks I should have fixed the bad shocks on my truck. She thinks it was something we did.

George says, “We lost our first two.” He clamps a hand on my shoulder, but he’s looking at Itzie as he speaks. “Our kids Donnie and Susan are both at Texas Tech now. We had to try three times before Donnie came along, is what I’m saying. It was the hardest thing in my life. But you folks will be okay, you’ll see. Mysterious ways.”

He smiles apologetically and repeats himself, shaking his head. “Mysterious ways.”

“Would you like to see the backyard?” Itzie asks.


~

We stand on the deck and George looks slowly at the yard. He takes off his hat, scratches his bald head, puts his hat back on.

“Well,” he says.

“We’ve gotten a little behind on the gardening,” I say.

“That’s one way to put it,” George says.

“I’m going to buy a new sprinkler today, the kind with a timer. I think if I put it right there, the grass will grow again.”

George sighs through his nose. I want to tell him we’d do everything differently if we got a second chance. He stares up at the blackened eave, puts his hands on his hips. The burned Fro is gone, replaced by Itzie’s hummingbird feeder.

Itzie seems tiny, like the neighbor kids, ready to tunnel into something and disappear.

“Did you know hummingbirds can fly over thirty miles an hour?” George says. “And they’re the only birds that can fly backwards. Wonderful creatures. They eat ten times their own bodyweight every day.”

Itzie nods at her shoes and says, “I looked them up online.” She holds her thumb and index finger so close they are nearly touching. “Their hearts are this big.”

“Mysterious ways,” George says, and I feel my own heart clutch in that way that I’ll do anything to avoid.

“We’ll change the sugar water every day,” I say. “I’ll clean the plastic flowers with Q-Tips, and . . . ”

It occurs to me that I know jack shit about caring for hummingbirds. Itzie touches a branch of the ruined bougainvillea. “We could let this grow back for the birds.”

George says nothing. A breeze moves across our backyard and I try to identify the smell. Sometimes we get a burnt chocolate breeze from the bakery on the corner, but this isn’t that. It isn’t the neighbor’s cooking, either, and it certainly isn’t anything floral. This a blank smell, a clean smell, something coming from the ocean miles away.  

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