Charney/My Turn: Nightly bird count

“Auk, albatross, anhinga ....” At night, she counts birds, reciting their names in an alphabetical order. She hopes that their syllables will lull her to sleep.

“Blue booted booby, bobolink, bunting.” Some of the birds she knows and has seen, an anhinga drying its wings in the crook of a Mangrove tree branch in a Florida estuary, and a bobolink gliding across a meadow closer to home. But she has never seen an auk or a booby, but likes the curious sounds of their names. The list is her way to ward off the anxieties of the day, to distract from the shadowy terrors that can slip in unnoticed and infect the dark.

“Falcon, finch, frigate.” Her granddaughter’s 20th birthday is in a few days. She has to find a personal gift, not cash, maybe a gas card or something for her baking projects. And then it occurs to her that it’s also her brother’s birthday — the 24th when he turns 68. Tomorrow.

“Hawk, hummingbird, heron.” She has to get him something he’ll like, too. Mostly, he never likes what she gets him. “Did you ever play the Mavis Staples CD, I sent?” she had asked him. “Never got it,” he lied. “What about the Chick Correa CD?” she asked, when he was in his jazz piano phase, and she had carefully researched the subject. “Yeah, thanks,” he said a bit belatedly. She had sent him books he hadn’t read and a signed collection of Phillip Levine poems, he claimed he did read. He “liked” poems about sweat and hard work. “You know what work is,” the poet wrote.

Her brother identified. She went out of her way to get the book signed ”To Bill,” but when she visited, the book wasn’t on his shelf. She had sent him a warm black sweater and a black jacket, good for Seattle weather.

It had to be black. He liked the cool musician look, a black T-shirt under a rumpled jacket that he wore even on more formal occasions.

Once, she had sent him a collection of stories she had written about their childhood, they were mostly about him. About how he always beat her in cards and had to checkmate himself when they played chess. And about how she tried to teach him to read, but then he’d get frustrated. How one time, he threw the book out the window, their heads poking out the fifth-story window to watch its descent. Then getting the idea to throw more books out, getting caught, getting yelled at, sent to retrieve the books, then getting their knuckles swatted by Grandma with her ruler. Maybe for the last time, her ruler’s sharp consequence. And how they had laughed at their bruises, felt triumphant in their naughty defiance, their conspiracy to toss the sacred word out the fifth-floor window. Watching them drop ... drop to the concrete below.

Her brother didn’t learn to read from her, not then, not for many years later. Dyslexia hadn’t entered the general vocabulary or consciousness.

Instead, there were the degrading labels, such as “retarded.” When tests proved her brother had an above-average intelligence, stubborn, lazy and even bad became the working diagnosis.

When mad, she had called him, “stupid.” He got madder and called her worse. They chased each other with fists raised until she didn’t stand a chance, until his muscles and speed out stripped her own even if she was three years older.

He liked the stories, shared them with his friends. She knew that. Maybe it was time to write more brother starring stories. The thought tugged her, urged her out of a half-dream to fully wake. But then she realizes that she’s off the hook.

No, present required. This May 24 she will not — no cannot — send a present. Her brother is dead. One year and five months. No black shirt, no CD’s and no stories, only sorrows and memories and missing him.

She goes back to counting birds. “Indigo bunting, vermillion flycatcher, yellow warbler ...” and hopes for sleep.

Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident.

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