When I was thirteen we rescued a seagull. I’m not sure how we got him. Seems as if he flew in one day with a broken wing. We set him up on the front porch. Mother borrowed a cage from a neighbor, so huge there was barely enough room for the porch swing. If we were sitting on it we’d have to rock slowly so as not to crash into the cage. We often sat on the swing when we fed him.
We named him Timothy Finnegan. Actually Jay named him. Jay was a colleague of Daddy’s at the university; he’d become a fast friend, taking tea every afternoon in our living room. Sometimes he’d record Daddy’s piano concerts — performing was one of Daddy’s many obligations as a music professor. He also built us a brick patio in the back yard and painted our kitchen cupboards. He did a lot for us. But what he did for me that summer was take an interest in the seagull, Timothy Finnegan.
I’m not sure how we set the wing. Jay might have applied a splint, or maybe — I don’t know, taped something around it. Whether we took it to a vet or not I can’t recall. We probably knew he’d never fly again, but convinced ourselves otherwise, providing him with daily flapping therapy in the yard. Jay would take him out of his cage, hand me his little legs and I would wave him up and down so he could flap his wings, and flap he did. One day he escaped and ran down the street, but we managed to catch him. I’m not sure what the neighbors thought. They weren’t like us, except for one family around the corner, the only ones we socialized with. The mother was a housewife poet and the father was a psychologist who made guitars on the side. The daughter, Meg, my age, would come over and ask if I wanted to go for a walk, but Jay thought she was silly, not nearly as intelligent as I was. Or at least that’s what he told me.
We fed him pizza, I’m not sure why. But that’s what I remember. The Appian Way Kit — popular back in the seventies, I doubt anyone’s heard of it now. It came with a little can of tomato sauce, flour, and a package of grated cheese. It was as simple as it sounds. You kneaded the dough, spread it out on a cookie sheet, put on the tomato sauce and cheese and baked it for twenty minutes. Everyone got a slice. Timothy could wolf his down in five seconds.
When we fed Timothy Finnegan pizza he was submissive, mouth open like an infant. He could never have flown away at that moment. Reminds me of the time Jay convinced Mother to eat a raw clam. He had invited our family to dinner at his apartment on the beach. I’m not sure where he found the clam. On the sand? In the water? I think he found only one. I was amazed to see Mother with her mouth open, waiting patiently for him to drop the clam down her throat — Mother, who hated seafood of any kind. Seemed like she just wanted to please him.
But at thirteen, it really didn’t matter to me if she wanted to please him; I couldn’t blame her, as long as she left Jay and me alone to talk. And she really loved Timothy Finnegan; she loved all animals. Remember, she was the one who got the cage. She’s where I’d gotten my passion from. For animals. Later in her life she acquired a big yard a few streets away, and left food out for the raccoons every night until she got too sick to do it.
You might like to see what an afternoon that summer looked like. I’ll set the stage. A modest white three-bedroom house with a balcony, screened in porch, and a cherry tree out front. We lived on Cherry Avenue near the Chesapeake Bay, so close you could walk to the water. A lot of streets had fruit names — pear, apple, peach, and one insect name, Locust Avenue. If an audience were in the yard watching us, the porch swing would be stage right, the cage center stage. Stage left was the door leading to our living room. There was also a door on the right side of our house by the driveway, and another on the left, which led to the basement, my bedroom. There was a little shed out back where Meg – remember Meg, the girl around the corner? Meg and I had a secret clubhouse but I got bored with that real fast. It was just so make believe and I didn’t want make believe, I wanted reality. I wanted someone to hit me in the nose. I don’t know why I was like that, I just was. A bit precocious, Mother was fond of saying.
Anyway, on a typical afternoon that summer, Jay and I would be sitting on the porch talking to Timothy about every conceivable thing — God, politics and the mysteries of life. A place where time stopped. Some days we’d write poems — Stars Shine Without Pretending — that was our one liner, then Jay added a title, Comment On The Vanity Of The World. I’d read the poems aloud and Timothy would go into a trance, his beautiful broken wing soothed temporarily into stillness. He loved to listen. I also happened to be a good reader. Jay thought I read very well. When I told him I wanted to be an actress, he didn’t shrug it off the way Mother did — she wanted me to study music like my father — no, Jay took me seriously. We talked about Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, all the greats. We wrote poetry just so I could read it aloud. “I am a maker of hats. Big hats. For little people who don’t want to be seen. And can’t hide.” At first I’d written, “…can hide.” But Jay changed it to …”can’t hide.” It made more sense that way.
Sometimes Mother came out with a plate of cookies, homemade chocolate chip, my favorite. Jay liked them with red raspberry jam. Timothy liked them too. Mother would have stayed the whole time if she didn’t have other things to do. She had to prepare supper and all that, but she liked to check up on us. Sometimes I’d be confiding a really deep secret to Jay and I’d have to stop mid-sentence. These were personal things, not fit for just anyone’s ears. How I dreaded returning to school for example, where everyone huddled in tight circles, or how upsetting it was when a boy I really liked told me he hated me. Things like that. Daddy was always busy teaching piano students, his “moonlighting job”, as he called it. After dinner he’d return to his studio to practice. He wasn’t the kind to ask if I did my homework. Neither was Mother. Of course during the summer there wasn’t any homework. I never had to attend summer school. I was too smart for that.
One summer afternoon piled upon another. If I were acting in a scene I’d be stroking Timothy’s feathers, the top of his head. Jay might be creating a logic problem. For me. I forgot to mention he was a math professor. He loved creating problems and I was always in them, a tiny adult in the palm of his hand, embedded in logic. A scene would go something like this:
We’re sitting on the porch swing, waiting for the pizza to bake. Timothy’s head is cocked towards the door, as though he can smell it.
Jay: It should be done in a few minutes.
Me: Yum yum, Timothy and I can hardly wait. (I open his cage to stroke his head. He shakes his feathers, waddles to the other side)
Me: Do you think we should give him his flapping therapy now? He seems a little restless.
Jay: No, let’s wait. We’ll feed him first and then take him outside. (We swing slowly, our knees touching.)
Me: I can’t believe the summer’s almost over. (It’s very hot, perhaps August; I’m wearing a sleeveless blouse and shorts)
Jay: Happens every year.
Me: I dread going back to school.
Jay: Why? I thought you liked to learn.
Me: Yes, but not when I have to take the school bus with a crowd of boys who hate me.
Jay: I doubt very seriously they hate you.
Me: Then why do they call me names? Why does the leader stand over me after I’ve chosen a seat as far away from him as possible?
Jay: They’re just being silly. You have to ignore them.
Me: That’s hard to do when there’s a whole group and they’re all laughing.
Jay: Keep your head up and your eyes on the ball; it will pass quickly.
Me: What ball is that?
Jay: Your studies. You’re very intelligent. You need to do well so you can go to a good college.
Me: I’m worried about the math.
Jay: You needn’t be, I’ll help you.
Me: (Eyes lighting up) Really? You’re serious? You really might be able to tutor me in algebra? That would be great! (Bouncing on the swing) We’ll have to convince Mother.
Jay: I shouldn’t think it would be a problem. (Laying a hand on my leg, perhaps to quiet me.) Don’t break the swing now.
Me: But this is just so exciting! I wish you could tutor me in all my subjects! I’d make straight A’s! (Squeezing his hand)
Jay: (Eyeing our hands touching) That’s probably not a good idea.
Me: Why? Why can’t you tutor me in everything? You’re here all the time anyway. (I begin stroking his beard.)
Jay: No no, don’t do that. (He turns away)
Me: I just want to touch it? Please?
Jay: Better not, you never know what you’ll find in there.
Me: (laughing) Oh come on Jay, don’t tell me you don’t wash it!
Jay: (smiling) Of course I wash it. That’s not what I mean.
Me: Well what do you mean then?
Jay: Never mind. (Removing his hand) Why don’t you bring me that pad over there? And a pencil. (We always kept paper and pencil handy, just in case)
Me: (Getting the pad) Why? What are we going to write?
Jay: A problem. (He begins writing) Algebra is just another form of logic.
Me: You’re making up an Algebra problem? I won’t be able to do it yet.
Jay: No, not a problem with numbers. Be quiet for a minute. (He continues writing as I go over to Timothy’s cage.)
Me: (Stroking Timothy’s head, his wings soft and white) Guess what Timothy? Jay’s going to tutor me in Algebra. Isn’t that great? (Timothy nods) He’s making up a problem for me as we speak.
Jay: Okay, it’s ready to be solved. (He hands me the pad)
Me: Let me see. (I read the problem Jay created for me. Did I mention that his eyes are blue, a stark piercing blue, like a can of paint that could spill all over a person, like the sun on its brightest day of the year?)
Me: (Reading) “You are intelligent. You are creative. You are the brightest star in the sky. All stars are beautiful. Therefore, you are…..”
Me: I’m supposed to fill in the blank, right?
Jay: That’s the idea.
Me: Give me the pencil. (I lean towards him to get the pencil, my chin brushing his dark beard, Irish cheeks, both of us Irish. Against his damp orange shirt, our lips touch. We pore over the pad together as I write in the answer.) Is this correct?
Jay: (Locking my fingers in his) Of course it’s correct. (Reads) “Therefore you are beautiful. “ That is the correct answer.
Mother comes out with her plate of cookies.
Mother: Oh! What’s going on out here? What are you up to? Jay, do you want a cookie?
Jay: No, not now.
Me: I’ll just check on the pizza. (I rush inside)
Mother: Don’t ruin your supper.
I get the pizza. Jay and I feed Timothy, give him his flapping therapy and then we talk about future plans like what we’re going to do on my 14th birthday, then it’s time for supper and I beg Jay to stay but he never does and I never understand why, then he leaves and I have to sit down and eat dinner with the family, then roll my hair in juice cans so I can remain beautiful and before bed, practice my violin down in my dreary basement. It’s damp and dark but I have to do it because Mother wants me to be a violinist. The only saving grace is the basement door that leads to the outside.
I’m not sure how I got on to the evening, I just meant to show a typical afternoon from that summer. I have trouble remembering the details, but I do know those afternoons were the start of something.
Mother had a voice like velvet. I remember that, hearing them talk. Mother and Jay. Once I was getting an ice cream and when I came back Jay wasn’t on the porch but his car was still in the driveway. As I approached the house, I heard voices. I snuck onto the porch and quieted Timothy so I could listen, I couldn’t help myself. I loved overhearing adult conversations. Remember, I was the tiny adult. Mother’s voice so soft I could barely hear her.
Mother: Please don’t do this to me, please.
Jay: Why, I haven’t done anything.
Mother: Yes but you’re about to.
Jay: What do you mean?
Mother: You know what I mean.
Jay: I’m just helping her with her math.
Mother: She’s not in summer school.
Jay: She has to prepare (his voice rising), she has to prepare for school, and I’m helping her! You’re getting in the way!
Mother: Jay, please (barely audible) please…
Jay: You know how I feel about you.
Jay: It’s only for a little while. I’ll tutor her through high school. Once she goes to college we can…
That’s all I heard. But it was easy enough to fill in the blanks. She still left us alone though, from time to time. Unable to intervene. On the rare occasions when he didn’t come over I’d hear her talking to him on the phone, you could always tell because her voice would be really soft. She’d hang up as soon as she saw me, although she needn’t have bothered.
Once Daddy threw a skillet on the kitchen floor. Well, it didn’t just happen. Daddy wasn’t a violent man, just a little frustrated. The reason I mention it is because I think it might have happened during that same summer we had the seagull. Not that Timothy did anything wrong, it wasn’t that.
Something about the refrigerator, I’m not sure what. There was a sign on it: ARE YOU PART OF THE PROBLEM? I knew it was Daddy’s sign, but never asked him about it. Nobody else did either, nor did they take it down. Mother was too distracted to notice much, my younger brother too angry to be ripping down signs — he was on to much bigger things — my older sister had what they call a “slight developmental disability”, giving her a sweetness incapable of violent acts. And me? I was the perfect child caught in the middle, expected to manage quite well on my own, the one who arranged all the food when we went camping. I wouldn’t have torn the sign down. It would have offended my sense of order.
I think they were trying to decide whether to buy a new refrigerator, and Mother had just explained to Daddy Jay’s recommendations; apparently Jay had been researching it all afternoon. He was just incredibly smart about these things. Poor Daddy wasn’t too swift when it came to household decisions.
I’m not sure if the sign had anything to do with the skillet incident. Well, I guess in the sense that it made abundantly clear how difficult it was for Daddy to ever admit he was wrong about anything. I remember him staring at the sign yelling, “I’m the head of this household! I’m the one who should be making the decisions!” Then he threw the skillet. He may have been making his Sunday night pancakes. Maybe that’s why he was holding it.
The start of my parents’ demise — that skillet incident.
Remember the yard I said Mother acquired later in life? A few streets down? Not on a street named after a fruit, but Harbor Drive, because they lived on a creek with a big yard in front. Mother and Jay. That’s when Mother started feeding the raccoons. After she divorced Daddy and married Jay. Once she even raised a baby squirrel. By then I was a grown-up and only saw Jay from a distance. Sometimes I’d call him from college to get his advice, but he didn’t like me or my siblings visiting. And he would never visit us. Mother had to visit on her own. Perhaps that’s why I remember him as some mystical force that blew into our family and never left. We couldn’t have flown away even if we’d wanted to.
All these years later I have a big yard to myself and feed the raccoons at dusk. Occasionally I see a flock of seagulls flapping their wings as though their lives depended on it. Because they do. Their lives depend on flying away from a dangerous world; even stars in the sky can’t always be trusted. Too bright. Too beautiful. Even so, I always study the sky when there are seagulls.
Sometimes I’ll look for Timothy Finnegan — nothing but a speck in the sky. I’ll look for that summer, the start of something that could never be. I’ll search for the time when there was but one seagull perched on our front porch, in a world where he had only to depend on Jay and me. He had only to listen to understand it was the only world that mattered.