Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Paradise Island

Aside from the flamingos, the house looked the same. The front-yard oaks made the place look rusty. The steep thighs of the mountain, almost touching the brick one-story, were grey and unpopulated, the hot autumn leaves long faded. It was almost Thanksgiving. This was Ashland’s first homecoming since the start of freshman year, and nothing had changed. A rustle in the leaves exposed a deer poised at the edge of the trees, its coat winterized and fluffy like the foot mats in the family Prius. Ashland watched the deer: small antlers, nose twitching as if it smelled the airport on him, smelled the now distant California brine, smelled the night (last night, actually) that Ashland had lost his virginity. The girl had been nice—nice-looking, even—but Ashland had closed his eyes and pictured someone else entirely.

At the car, his dad struggled to get Ashland’s suitcase out of the trunk. The buck swiveled an ear. The mountain, the oak trees, the smoke bleeding from the chimney—it was all the same. For some reason, Ashland had worried that it wouldn’t be. The lawn flamingos were the only visible change.

The suitcase loosened and hit the pavement. It was big with schoolbooks and souvenirs from the Golden State. Ashland’s mom loved that kind of thing. His dad, before retirement, had once brought Ashland oranges and alligator pencil toppers from a rangers’ conference in the Everglades. He had bought Ashland’s mom a snow globe that showered gold onto a tropical scene and a bathing suit printed with open coconuts and palm trees. The bathing suit, in particular, had little use in West Virginia, but Ashland’s mother still cherished the things.

“What’s with the flamingos?” Ashland asked his dad.

“You’ll have to ask your mother.” His dad closed the trunk. “They’re new to me.”

There were four lawn flamingos along the walkway. It was late afternoon, and a bit of frost made their backs sparkle faintly. Ashland breathed in. He looked to the mountain one last time for the deer, but it had disappeared.

Ashland rolled his suitcase past the concrete eagles that guarded the driveway and down the front walk. The wheels caught on acorns and jammed occasionally. The stink of oak leaves was almost nauseating when mixed with the chlorine from across the street. The Sniders—their only immediate neighbors, who had three boys around Ashland’s age—had an aboveground pool with a freestanding deck. Not far from the pool, there were the two familiar cars in the driveway: a yellow, lifted truck and a white pickup with Bug off! written on the tailgate. A painted roach crawled across the driver’s side of the pickup. Tell pests to BUG OFF! shot at the roach in a cartoon cloud of smoke.

Ashland’s mother threw open the front door before he could knock and hugged him into the warm house, leaving his suitcase. “Oh, everything’s fine!” his mother cried, though Ashland hadn’t asked how she had been. “We’ve missed you so. Haven’t we missed him, Harris?”

“Sure have,” his dad said, taking the suitcase the rest of the distance. The brass knocker rattled as he closed the front door and locked it.

“Why couldn’t you have picked someplace closer? Where we could visit?” His mother pouted. “I feel like I’ve been split in two.”

“Molly, Berkeley is a reputable school. Morgantown couldn’t have given him—”

“Oh, I know, Harris. Ashland, come in; I was just cooking your favorite.”

Ashland’s mother showed him into the living room as if he were a guest. There was a fire in the fireplace. The same old, wood-paneled box television was on the Travel Channel, the image wiggling. Ashland sat on the couch facing the fire, and his mother brought in a plateful of cheese pups—hot dogs sliced lengthwise, stuffed with yellow cheese.

“Thanks, Ma,” Ashland said, taking one. It was too hot to hold, and he put it back on the plate.

“The place looks great. Just like I remember it.”

“Oh, you haven’t been gone that long, Ashland.” His mother showed the gap between her two front teeth. “Barely anything’s changed.”

“I like the flamingos.”

“Flamingos?” The gap was wider than Ashland had remembered it.

Ashland’s father sat in the easy chair facing the television. “That’s your mother,” he said, as if this explained something.

Ashland’s mom removed one of the arm covers from the easy chair. “I still don’t know what y’all are talking about.” She thwapped the cover with her hand and replaced it.

“Take a gander at the front lawn if you’re curious.” His dad winked at him.
Ashland picked up his hot dog again.

The television said, “Ten amazing places you’ve never been!” as his mother made her way to the front window and moved the curtains. The window was foggy.

“Oh!” She cried in fake discouragement. “I don’t even know what I’m looking for.” She went to the front door. She exaggerated unlocking the door and peering into the air. “Now what could it be  . . .”

Ashland could feel the cold from his chair. He took out his phone absently, thinking that his mother had gained weight. “Ma,” Ashland said, half looking at his text messages. “It’s cold out there.”

“Your mother has become . . . dramatic in your absence,” his father said.

“Oh, Ashland!” His mom slammed the door shut again. “I just love them. How did you know I needed a vacation?”

“Come on, Ma. I didn’t bring them.”

Ashland scrolled. There were no new texts from the girl he had slept with. The last one was him saying, “I’ll see ya then,” and that was two days ago. Perhaps she had not been impressed. Of course, Ashland could barely remember what she looked like, but he had enjoyed it, he guessed.

Ashland’s mom came back to the living room, feigning puzzlement. “Well, if you didn’t bring them, sweets, then who did?” She kissed Ashland on the head, as if thanking him. “And I thought you were afraid of flamingos.”

“Ma, I was eight. Besides, the plastic ones don’t bother me.”

“Poor Ashland. Do you remember the zoo, Harris?” She made a sad face. “Do you remember how scared . . . ?”

“Seriously.” Ashland cut in. “I think they look nice, Ma, even if they’re a little out of place.”

“A little slice of California.” His dad chuckled. “It’s a nice surprise, Molly.”

Ashland scanned some of the girl’s older texts, tuning his mother out for a minute. He thumbed through a few weeks of what now seemed like lame flirtation and closed the phone again.

“Molly, listen,” his dad was saying. “Ashland has been on a plane all day. And I don’t imagine there was any room for lawn ornaments in his suitcase.”

“Then how, Harris? I didn’t put those flamingos out there.” Ashland’s mother’s voice was rising slightly. She went to the window and rubbed the fog away with her sleeve.

“Well, if you didn’t”—Ashland’s dad bit a cheese pup, his boots rocking—“who did?”

“I don’t know.” The color in her face drained. “It really wasn’t either of you?”

“Nope,” they said.

Her face became oddly blank. “Then it must be some sort of prank.”

“We can just take them down if they bother you,” Ashland said.

“You’re sure you didn’t bring them, Ashland?”

“Pretty sure,” Ashland said.

“Get away from yourself!” the television shouted.

His mom wiped at the fog on the window. “Ashland had a bad experience with flamingos.”

“Ma, I’m fine. Really.”

“Maybe they knew.” His mom agitated the curtain. “Harris, maybe it’s vandalism.”

“Molly, you’re getting excited.” Ashland’s dad stood and turned off the television. “Son, let’s see if we can’t scare those birds away. They’re probably just migrating. Eh, Molly?”

“Migrating?” Ashland’s mom rubbed the glass again, furiously. “You don’t think we should call the police?”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Why don’t you go get dinner ready?”

She tapped her nails on the window glass. “Okay . . .”

Ashland got a trash bag from the kitchen, and he and his dad threw the four birds away. The flamingos’ legs perforated the plastic, so they held them at arm’s length on the way to the sixty-four gallon can. When the garbage lid closed, Ashland’s father clapped his mitted hands. That was that. They turned to go back. Ashland saw his mother in the living room window with one palm on the glass. He felt lonely seeing her like this—her round face framed by brick and the mountain’s wall of darkness. Overhead, the sky sagged. Ashland was unsure if the sun was still up, or already set. So this was home, he guessed, as if seeing it for the first time.


The next morning, Ashland ate cereal from a white, generic box. The house was quiet. He completed a maze on the back of the box, ending at a parrot perched on a treasure chest. Ashland did not feel satisfied completing it. He left the unwashed cereal bowl in the sink and looked out the back door at the mountain’s exposed stone faces and scribbled trees. Overhead, the early sun hit the top of the mountain. Growing up in the valley, Ashland was used to this cold shadow cast by colossal, imperturbable things.

The house was chilly, and Ashland saw that the storm door was not closed completely. He opened it and looked down the house. His dad was lugging birdseed to the feeders on the far edge of the yard, staring at his feet. Since retirement from the Park Service, bird watching had become his dad’s main hobby. He now spent a few good hours a day with his binoculars trained on cardinals and chickadees. Ashland put up the hood of his college sweatshirt and went after him. As he walked, he heard quick laughter past his hood’s rustling. He stopped. A pileated woodpecker swooped overhead, its fingered wings tucking and sucking into the trunk of a tree: invisible suddenly. At the other end of the yard, his dad also stood listening. As Ashland and his father saw each other—immobilized in that weird trill echoing against the walls of the valley—they also saw the flamingos, glimmering under a thin skin of ice. They were in the front yard again, and their ranks had more than doubled. There were about fifteen birds visible from here. The woodpecker carried on, but the noise was fading.

Ashland’s father said, finally, “Your mother won’t be happy.”

Across the street, smoke rose from the Sniders’ chimney. A figure, dim with morning mist, leaned over the above-ground pool, which appeared to be steaming. Ashland’s father finished the feeders, and they went back into the house through the kitchen, not even going through the front yard to survey the invasion.

“What are we going to do?” Ashland asked.

His father opened the refrigerator and looked in. He didn’t say anything. Ashland went back into his old room and sat on the edge of his bed. Even after only four months of absence, the room felt smaller. It also smelled different—musty and mothball-ish and a little bit like old people, which was now how his parents smelled to him.

Ashland faced his room’s small window, the pink shapes just visible through the blinds. He turned away from this. He found his phone. A part of him wanted to make a joke of it and send a picture of the flamingos to the girl he had slept with, but he didn’t know if she would think it was funny. Actually, Ashland didn’t know if he thought it was funny. Maybe his mom had been right to assume that the birds—even the plastic ones—would unsettle him.

To take his mind off of it, he looked at pictures of almost-naked girls on the Internet: bronzed asses and nipples showing through blouses and sand stuck to cleavage. He had image-searched: girl beach sex. There were a few mug shots included, which confused him, but overall the search warmed him a bit.

When Ashland came out of his room, he could hear his father speaking in the living room. He was trying to convince Ashland’s mother not to call the police. Ashland stood in the hallway for a moment, listening.

“Just put your feet up, Molly, and try not to think about it.”

“Harris, they’re mocking me.”

“I’m sure it’s just a big misunderstanding. Just relax, remember your breathing.”

“I’m sick of breathing. I’m sick of breathing and putting up my feet. I’m sick of seeing that girl in her what-d’you-call-it—G-string—across the street.”

“Bikini, Molly,” Ashland’s father said gently.

Ashland said, “Who?” involuntarily. He came out from the hallway.

“It’s forty degrees, for goodness’ sake,” she kept on from the easy chair, madly rocking. “It’s insulting. And you would think that the pool should be drained.”

“Molly. What would you like us to do?” Ashland’s father stood by the window. He wore his binoculars around his neck. “Is there anything that would help you?”

Ashland’s mother stared at a spot between her feet. Perhaps even she didn’t know what would help exactly.

“Ma?” Ashland asked delicately. “Who was the girl you were mentioning?”

“Yes.” His mother sat up. “Maybe she, maybe they know something about all this.”

Ashland’s dad fiddled with the binoculars. “Well, we could see what Hank has to say.”

“Don’t look at me,” Ashland said, preemptively. He looked out the living room window at the Snider’s house. A purple Celica had joined the two trucks. Just because Ashland had grown up with the Snider boys did not mean they were close.

“Let’s go, Ashland. Molly, we’ll be back before you know it.”

Ashland followed his father outside, sweating. Though the Snider boys had never beaten him, per se, every proposed activity had felt vaguely life-threatening. Once, when Ashland was ten, they took him behind the woodpile and made him take his clothes off in front of them. Ashland remembered that there had been frost on the wedge, lying in the woodchips, and on the sledgehammer’s head. He remembered that, after looking at him for a minute, the boys had run off into the yard, shouting, “Faggot!”

And now, eight years later, everything—the above-ground pool mumbling, the squirrel-bitten antlers nailed to the house’s plastic siding, the metal drum already smoking with Sunday’s burnings—everything but the purple Celica was unsettling. The Celica had a Hawaiian dancer stuck to the dashboard.

Ashland and his father climbed the porch, knocked, and waited. The house had two stories and few windows, which were blinded permanently. Four yellow hazmat suits were draped over the porch railing; pest control was a family business. Ashland tried not to look at the suits and watched the door. Inside, he remembered that the floorboards squished, as if something fundamental was rotting. Inside, he remembered glimpsing Mrs. Snider for the first and only time. She had been in bed—thin and sinewy—viewing her face in a handheld mirror.

Ashland turned away as his father knocked again. The pink flamingos were visible through the copse of leafless trees. A sharp wind—coming from the birds, maybe—made him cringe. He was wearing only his college sweatshirt: BERKELEY. In many ways, he regretted this.

The door swung open and rattled against its own frame. A girl stood in the doorway.

“Good morning,” Ashland’s father began. “My name is Harris, and this is my son. We live just across the road in number seven five one . . .”

Ashland looked at the girl from behind his dad. She wore a pair of men’s boxer shorts, slung low and revealing a flat midriff. Above this, her white T-shirt was almost translucent, the damp triangles of her bikini showing through. Her skin was tan, and along with the scent of the woodstove inside—plus the trash drum burning what smelled like treated wood—his mouth watered. Looking up her body, he thought of Hawaiian pizza, briefly. Then he saw her face.

“We’re sorry to bother you so early like this . . .” Ashland’s dad was saying.
The girl looked past his dad. “Hey, Ash.”

“Victoria.” Ashland touched the back of his head.

She was chewing gum, her lips glossy. “It’s Vikki now.” Vikki flashed a ring as if this explained the nickname.

“Congratulations,” Ashland said weakly.

“Yeah, well, thanks. We’re gonna have a baby. Mitch and me.”

Ashland didn’t know what to say to this. Mitch was the oldest. In high school, he had gotten hard packets of muscle from wrestling, which he had taken every opportunity to flex in Ashland’s face.

“Wow,” Ashland said.

“It’s like magic, right? Like those boxed cakes.” Vikki shrugged her shoulders, her breasts lifting. “So what’s up with you? College?” She gestured at his sweatshirt.

“Yeah,” Ashland said, grimacing.

“Ash was always smart,” Vikki said to Ashland’s dad. She pressed a bare foot to her inner ankle, leaning on the doorframe. “Anyway, we can’t really afford to have the baby. But there’s a contest I’m entering. It’s a make-your-own sodium bicarbonate on the Food Channel. They just announced it. It’s no cash prize, but you get a lifetime supply, which is something.”

“We wish you the best,” Ashland’s dad interrupted. “Is your . . . father-in-law home? Could we speak with him?”

“Who, Hank? Hank’s indisposed. All of them are, actually.”

“Well, we’ve got a bit of an emergency, really. If you would call him, I can explain everything. It looks like a case of trespassing and vandalism, I’m afraid.”

“Trespassing and vandalism. Huh.” Vikki looked past Ashland, through the trees. “You talking about those flamingos cropped up in your yard?”

“Well, yes, actually,” Ashland’s father responded.

“Hank said he thought it was an odd choice,” said Vikki.

“I assure you, it was no choice of ours. Would you mind calling him, please?”

“Suit yourself.” Vikki closed the door suddenly.

Ashland shrunk toward the porch steps.

“Friend of yours, Ashland?” his dad said.

Ashland opened his mouth, but the front door shuddered again, and Hank was there. Vikki leaned on her hip behind him, still chewing.

“Harris,” Hank said in greeting. His eyes were puckered almost shut.

“Good morning, Hank. I won’t take too much of your time. I was just explaining to Vikki that we’ve had a little vandalism on our property, and we wanted to see if you know . . . or have seen anything lately.”

Hank scratched his chin, but didn’t take his eyes off Ashland’s dad. “You think I know something about those birds?”

“It never hurts to ask.” Ashland’s dad smiled, nervous.

Hank took a heavy step over the threshold. He gave a hard look around the side of his house toward the flamingos, and then reeled his sights back to Ashland’s dad. Hank opened his mouth and sighed once. He closed his mouth and looked back at the birds. Then he opened his mouth again. “Nope.”

“I don’t even know where you’d buy so many of those things,” Vikki said behind him.

“They just seem to multiply,” Ashland’s dad said, a little desperate.

Hank’s eyes winked like foil.

“Surely . . .” Ashland’s dad gestured to the Bug off! pickup. “Surely, you’ve got some experience in pest control, Hank.”

Hank chewed the inside of his cheek, holding his doorframe with both hands. “You saying those yard flamingos are pests?”

“Well, they sure are bothering my wife, Molly. She takes the whole thing personally. You know how women are.”

“Not sure that I do,” Hank said, his voice overloud, glancing back at Vikki. He coiled his face as if to spit, but didn’t. “Looks to me like a bunch of plastic birds.”

“Yes, well. I suppose you’re right.” Ashland’s dad backed down the steps. “Thanks for your time, Hank. I’ll keep you updated on the . . . nice to meet you, Vikk . . . Vikki.”

Ashland followed his dad, who was walking fast. Behind him, Vikki came out and stood on the porch in Mitch’s boxer shorts. Ashland tried not to look back.

“You want to feel it?” she called to him.

Ashland halted, his father receding. Hank had gone inside already. He said, confusedly, “Me?”

“Yes, you. Do you want to feel the baby?” Vikki was coming down the steps toward him in bare feet. She stopped before him at the edge of the gravel, lifting her shirt to show her tan, flat belly. Her hipbones were prominent. Ashland couldn’t move or speak. She blew a bubble, and the bubble steamed. She took his hand and placed it on her skin. Her skin was hot, and her warmth filled him. Ashland glanced up at the house’s black windows, terrified and dizzy. He glanced down at Vikki’s outie belly button, at his thumb grazing the waistband of Mitch’s boxers. He smelled her lip gloss: apple and sour cherry. The same as always. He waited. Except for his own throbbing, he didn’t feel anything. He looked up at her helplessly.

“Actually, I can’t feel him either,” Vikki said, letting his hand stay.

Eventually, Ashland tore himself away. He practically ran home. His mom had built an enormous fire and was walking around the house in a floral blouse and lime green shorts. The television was turned to the Travel Channel again, but the volume was up so loud that it was hard to understand what the announcer was saying.

“Did you have a nice visit?” Ashland’s mother asked, her sweetness bordering on hostility.

“What? No, I didn’t. Dad . . .” Ashland found his dad in the kitchen, cleaning the lenses of his binoculars. “Dad, why didn’t you tell me she had moved in?”

“Ashland”—his dad tested the binoculars, lifting them to his eyes, and then kept rubbing—“I don’t even know who she is.”

“She was my girlfriend, Dad.”

“Oh . . . I thought she looked familiar. When was that, son? High school? Freshman year?”

Ashland bit the inside of his cheek. “We dated for four weeks.”

“Sure, sure. I remember. But surely you’ve had other interests by now, son. She was nice looking, but a little . . .” Ashland’s father considered his wife. “Unrealistic. Don’t you think?”

Ashland didn’t answer. He thought vaguely of the girl he had slept with. The room had been dark, and he had pretended that the girl was, in every way, Vikki.

“And did you get a sense of her involvement?” His mom’s eyes were narrowing.

“Ma, she’s not involved. Please. Why would she be?”

“Why do people do anything! People don’t have any sense today. It’s too cold for swimming!”

Ashland’s father stepped in. “I don’t believe she actually swims, Molly.”

“And how do you know that?” Ashland snapped.

“One takes notice of these things.” His father gestured with his binoculars innocently. “I imagine the girl is helping with the pool. Someone has to monitor levels. The heat and pH.”

“Yeah. Someone’s got to monitor the levels, Mom,” Ashland said. But whom was he defending? He pulled out his phone, perhaps to ignore them both. The girl beach sex images were still on the screen, and he shut it off quickly. He needed something to do, to take his mind off everything. He went to the window and closed the curtains violently. “Let’s forget about the flamingos. Okay? We’re a family. It’s almost Thanksgiving. Maybe if we show that they don’t bother us, they’ll just go away.”




“Horrible,” Ashland thought upon waking. He was soaked in sweat. He had dreamed of Vikki—enormous and bubblegum pink. He rolled onto his side, panting. The light from his window showed that he had overslept.

His dad was in the dining room, doing a crossword and watching the bird feeder. A swarm of sparrows dove at one another, chirping angrily. In the grass underneath, a dove was pelted with seeds. The house smelled like bacon. His mother was beating egg whites in a bowl. When she saw Ashland, she announced, “I’m making a soufflĂ©.”

“Oh.” Ashland rubbed his eyes. “Great.”

There was no fire in the hearth, but the furnace seemed to be on. It was actually hot. Ashland had slept in his sweatshirt, and now he took it off, throwing it on a chair before the window. The curtains were still drawn, but every light in the house was on.

“Your mother also made French-press coffee, which is really quite something.”

It was hard to hear his dad over the television. When Ashland was a kid, it was never on so frequently. The flank of a cruise ship took up the entire screen. It looked like a great wall, moving. Ashland fingered the curtain, feeling a slip of cold air escape from between the fabric and glass. He parted it. There were perhaps thirty plastic flamingos standing there.

Ashland let the curtain fall back into place. “Dad.”

“1984 Matt Dillon title role. Gosh. Molly, do you know that one?”

“Oh, golly,” his mom said from the kitchen, whipping.

“Dad,” Ashland repeated.

Ashland’s dad tapped his pencil. “Yes, son?”

“There are more flamingos out there.”

There was a pause. “We’re waiting them out, son. Remember?”

“If we don’t do something, they’re not going anywhere. They’re multiplying.” A glimmer of Ashland’s dream—desperation—appeared and faded. In the front hall, he put on thick gloves and his father’s coat. “Where are the keys? I’m going to load the car up.”

Ashland’s father followed him outside, wearing his robe, and unlocked the car from the porch. He watched Ashland gather armfuls of the birds while he cradled his coffee. “Son, this seems a little crazy.”

The Prius’s trunk had almost filled with flamingos. Ashland said, “Do you think there’s a sane solution to all of this?”

“Well—no.” His dad took a sip from his mug.

“You remember that groundhog we caught? We’re releasing the flamingos where we took him—that pond in Larsen Park.”

Releasing them, Ashland?”

Ashland, holding a bouquet of flamingos, looked at his dad.

“Okay, son. I’m coming.”

The flamingos filled up the trunk and the back seat of the car. Ashland’s dad got ready and then drove them the twenty minutes to Larsen Park. The pond was much smaller than Ashland remembered it. He had played soccer on the adjoining field when he was a kid, and he and his friends would come here after games to launch boats made of chewed orange peels. Apparently, this tradition had not faded. Browning rinds littered the bank like toenail clippings. A Capri Sun pouch winked the sky’s silver among the peels. In the cattails—kinked and stubby—Ashland saw a tiny, abandoned cleat. A part of Ashland believed that these were his forgotten things.

The car stopped. Surrounding the pond, where Ashland had remembered endless hills, was flat, yellow turf truncated by the parking lot for the soccer fields. His father parked here. A stand of ailanthus rimmed the far side of the pond, some of the trees still clutching fronds of sickly leaves.

Ashland’s father tapped the top of the steering wheel. “I think we released the groundhog over there,” he said, pointing.

“The groundhog,” Ashland repeated, unthinking.

He opened the car door and stood for a moment without closing it, an automated bell ringing. The pond was shallow and depressing. The surface was opaque, reflecting grey clouds in what looked like pure mercury. Ashland took a step toward it, and a glimmer of pink caught in his periphery. The flamingos were piled up to the windows in the trunk and the backseat. Riding in the car on the way over, they had emitted an unbearable cold as their skins of ice melted.

Ashland’s father dumped an armful of birds beside the pond. Ashland followed his lead, struggling to keep the bodies from falling. As he neared the pond, he felt it most natural to dump the bodies in the center of it. He did. The pond was only a foot or two deep, and the ones that didn’t float became lodged in sediment.

“It’s their natural habitat,” Ashland explained to his dad, who shook his head. He was at a loss. It was the second time in one day that Ashland had seen that expression on his face. It made Ashland more confident. He puffed, dumping the next armload into the pond. The flamingos looked radical and unnatural in it. Their eyes were black punctures—depthless. Ashland puffed again; he had to catch his breath. It wasn’t the physical stress that was taxing him. He had only taken two trips to and from the car, and the flamingos weighed almost nothing. He suddenly felt off. He sat in the grass, watching the pile of flamingos watch him blackly. Though he had been trying to avoid the memory for the past few days, he was back at the zoo too suddenly to help it. He was back at Paradise Island.




The flamingos on Paradise Island were surrounded by chain link. It was a popular exhibit—advertised on billboards throughout West Virginia as a trip to the Bahamas without leaving the state—so the fence was crowded with kids stuffing their feet in the fence or climbing the viewing deck in order to see. Ashland, who was eight, had to fight through legs and hands dangling soda cups and inflatable palm trees to get to a place where he could see what was happening. His mom followed closely. A man above him said, “Wow!” as if to underline everything that Ashland was missing.

The flamingos were taller than Ashland. Their legs plugged into the sand like stiff or snapped twigs. Their beaks were hooked and huge and blackened.

“The greater flamingo uses his beak upside-down,” Ashland’s mom read out loud from a pamphlet. Ashland wasn’t listening. She touched his hair, and he struggled away, climbing the chain link. On the island, a flamingo stretched its huge wings: a black bar—like war paint—under each. Its strange head and neck extended upward, distorted. Ashland watched it greedily. The bird’s legs bent, as if about to take off into the sky. But instead the wings tucked back in. The war paint became invisible again. The bird, like the other birds, was unmoving.

Ashland watched. Surely, if he kept watching, one would do something.

They didn’t.

Standing there, Ashland noticed that the flamingos were not exactly pink. Some were almost tan, as if dusty. He watched. He counted them. There were exactly ten on the island, which was about the size of his mom’s sedan. There were seven in the water, standing. And then there was one curled up right where the water and sand touched. It looked more like a pinkish hat than a bird, and Ashland hoped that it was, in fact, a hat. There was something not right about a bird balled up on the damp, grey sand. He looked away from it. Then there was one bird at the waterfall, as if decorating it. The water trickling down the rock looked like food coloring. Together, the bird and the rock reminded Ashland of the statues at mini golf—the giraffe hollow when you knocked it, the elephant fading.

Ashland rattled the fence with his weight, lunging his butt back, hanging. The flamingo that had stretched his wings earlier had not moved since. Something had caused it to die, Ashland sensed. Its neck had sunken into an S, transfixed. The black arrowhead under its wings had fallen into the too-blue water like a cheap gift-shop thing. The birds did nothing. Some stood on only one foot, as if trapped in some stage between life and death—not dead-to-heaven yet, but not moving either, their leg their only anchor to earth.

“Why don’t they fly away?” Ashland asked suddenly.

His mother was blowing up an inflatable palm tree. She said, “Their wings are clipped.”

A deep, raw part in Ashland—somewhere in his lungs, his guts—heard her. He did not, however, respond immediately. He was looking closely at one of their eyes, trying to catch some small motion there—a glance, a twitch. The eye was yellow and flat, pierced in the center by one black needle prick. It reflected nothing. It didn’t seem to see. But, eventually, it blinked.




Back at the pond, Ashland told his father that he felt sick and dizzy. They headed home. Ashland kept his face pressed to the cold window, drifting in and out of sleep, turning over and over the fact that, in ancient Rome, the flamingo’s tongue was a prized delicacy. Then Ashland’s father squeezed his knee, and they were home already. Ashland roused. His tongue felt heavy.

“Feeling better?”

Ashland sat up, unspeaking.

His dad got out of the car, gesturing at the lawn and the noxious oak trees. “Look at that. Flamingo-free.”

Ashland struggled out of his seatbelt and opened the passenger door. Another wave of nausea swept through him as he came to stand, remembering the tongues, remembering last night’s freight of strange dreams. He told his father that he was going to get some air before going in. He turned away from his house and saw, under a sail of woodstove smoke, Vikki. She was leaning over the above-ground pool in a bikini top and jean shorts. It didn’t take her long to see Ashland staring. She waved. Ashland’s throat yo-yoed. She put on a translucent shirt and walked over.

“Hey,” she said, crossing the road. She was chewing gum again. “I hoped I would see you.”

“Really?” Ashland said.

“Everybody’s at work.” Vikki stopped before him, reaching behind her ribcage and fiddling with the bikini strap. “It gets lonely.”

Ashland swallowed. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Nah. It’s therapeutic, they say. What with the baby and everything, I need to keep my figure in shape.” Vikki touched her flat belly.

“Therapeutic,” Ashland repeated, nodding.

“Oh, yeah. Haven’t you heard of cryo?” Vikki tossed her hair, revealing a black, dyed streak underneath. Beside this, he thought he saw a second one—pink. “It’s where you go into the deep freeze. It’s anti-aging, and it helps you lose weight.”

“Yes,” Ashland responded. Vikki’s bikini line was visible through her shirt. “I mean, no. I haven’t heard of it.”

“Oh, it’s everywhere!” Vikki stretched pink gum over her tongue. “Even West Virginia’s got a center. The tank’s minus two hundred forty degrees, though they say you’re supposed to stop treatment during pregnancy. So I guess I’ll take what I can get.” With this, Vikki removed her shirt. The bikini’s small triangles were inadequate. “It feels great out here, doesn’t it?”

“Sure,” Ashland said. It was lucky that he could get out this one word.

“You want to take a walk down the street?” Vikki asked, friendly.

“Okay.” Something enormous was blocking Ashland’s throat. He did his best to walk beside Vikki, slogging through the thick leaves, but she stopped short, turning to him suddenly.

“I’m really nervous,” she confessed. “About having the baby.”

Ashland cleared his throat. Something rattled in the woods, but he didn’t turn to see. He said, “You shouldn’t be.” They were still in plain sight. He wanted to seize her and take her inside and lock his bedroom door and never again see daylight.

“I’m just nervous that everything will change suddenly.” Vikki picked up an acorn, holding it delicately. “That I’ll be trapped and old and ugly.”

“You could never be ugly,” Ashland said.

Vikki put her hands on his shoulders. “That’s sweet.” She didn’t take them away. He caught a breath of wood smoke and coconut from her hair. He felt himself warming. They were standing in his side yard, the ground perforated from the lawn flamingos’ wire feet. Ashland held his breath and put his hands on her back, holding her awkwardly, feeling the strings of the bikini. She let him. She leaned in, and he glimpsed the pink and black streaks in her hair before she kissed him.

The whole world was like a calm sea. This was what Ashland needed. He tasted apple and sour cherry. He felt his feet sinking into the rushing breakers of a beach, sinking under her little, biting kisses—like fish nibbling. Her tongue introduced itself: bubblegum sweet. A delicacy. He felt the sun ram his body. She moved her tongue more. It was tiny. Ashland’s eyes fluttered open in the midst of the kiss.

There was her face: gargantuan and blushing. Her mouth glittered. He closed his eyes again. This was no dream. He grabbed just above her thighs and lifted slightly. Her body was incredibly light. When he touched her back down to the ground, he could feel one of her knees bend. Her hollow breasts pressed against his own hollow chest as the flamingos flashed in Ashland’s mind again: saturated pink and unmoving. It was beauty; it was bliss. A salty breeze tickled his body. Vikki crooned and flexed her wings. The pink and cream feathers unfolded, the black chevron revealed beneath. Ashland readied himself. He was about to dive into the sea.

She pulled away and looked at him—her eyes black pinpricks. Her wings brushed his chest and his cheek. Somehow, he wasn’t worried. She wouldn’t fly today, or the next day. She was his—or she would be, at least. He would take her out and put her wherever he pleased. People would see her. People would go dizzy. He would grow sunburned and careless in her heat. And only for him, her wings would keep opening.

Vikki left her shirt at Ashland’s feet and crossed the street, retying the straps of her bikini. Her legs snapped like little twigs. Her wings tucked in. In her wake, he heard the rumbling of a great, dark wave. Ashland looked. A truck rattled by with an open tailgate. A shot buck lay in the back, dripping, his antlers knocking the bed again and again.  

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