Crazy Jimmy kept birds and walked around with bags under busy eyes that kept watch for the boy. A bony, vascular man with black, receding hair, his clothes hung on him like a scarecrow that had the stuffing beaten out of it.
His wife, Margie, had dry mouth and drank water all night, peed a lot and read the Holy Bible during bouts of insomnia. Jimmy was a light sleeper, but when he slept, he dreamed of flying with his birds. Flying not like a bird, or a superhero, but treading his feet as if through water. In his imaginings, he would jump and kick hard and glide slowly behind his pigeons, rock doves he called them, but always struggled to keep up. When he fell behind, he’d use his arms to propel himself faster. If he stopped kicking, even for a moment, he would sink and be startled awake before he touched the ground. He wished to have that dream every night. He wished to be lighter than air. He wished to catch those pigeons and show them the way home.
Jimmy bobbed and jabbed the air, ducked, then raised his hands and did a little dance around the imaginary ring, even though there was no ring, just a makeshift shed with an uneven floor made from old pallets, scraps of plywood, and a rusted tin roof that covered a dozen pigeons who watched Jimmy and cooed from their cage. He punched the air and thought about the money he could make in the Summer Classic pigeon race.
The rock doves were a mix of colors: a mix of white, brown, gray and black. They cooed and jostled in their six-foot cage while Jimmy shadow boxed and spoke to them with beads of sweat rolling into his eyes and burning. He called each one by name: Horse, Lulu, Mr. President, Sugar Ray, Roberto Durán and Johnny.
Johnny was a stout brown bird that reminded him of the fireplug Sicilian with the cabinet shop in Tampa. The bird was industrious, always busy, and always came in dead last. Jimmy built cabinets out of his garage but had learned the trade working for Johnny and still worked for him now and again. Jimmy went into business for himself when he and Margie bought the five acres of land in Dade City, off Highway 54. It was a place they would never leave, could never leave.
The birds knew this to be home. No matter where Jimmy drove to set them free, they found their way back here. Every so often, a bird would go missing while the others returned. Sometimes the missing bird would show up weeks or months after the others, and other times, the bird never came back. The reason remained a mystery. Sometimes birds lose their way or have an accident. Sometimes they become victims of predators.
“That’s right, Horse,” Jimmy said to his breadwinner, jabbing the air, moving, ducking and then a quick jab, cross, uppercut. “You gonna be my workhorse? How ’bout you Lulu? Oye Roberto, you gonna fly and win me some cold-motherfucking-cash or you gonna fight Sugar Ray again?” The two birds didn’t get along. They once went at each other pecking and clawing, leaving a wreckage of feathers and smears of blood in the cage.
“She would be mad at you for using bad words,” the boy said, watching Jimmy.
Jimmy spun around, startled. “I didn’t know you were there.”
The skinny boy had pin straight, black hair, hazel eyes and olive skin. He wore a red cotton T-shirt, blue jeans and dingy, white Converse All Stars.
“Let’s not tell her,” Jimmy said, wiping the glisten of sweat from his forehead and rubbing his wet palms on his jeans. Jimmy had come out at sunrise to attend his birds and to be there for the boy. He wanted to be everything a real father should be. Though still early, the sun was well above the horizon and through the walls of the loosely constructed bird coop a luminous shaft illuminated the boy in heavenly light.
“Were you a good boxer?” the boy said.
“What do you think?” Jimmy said, bobbing his head like a fighter and throwing more jabs.
The boy smiled and hooked his thumbs into his bulging front pockets. Whatever was hidden away in them was lumpy, like they were full of beans. Jimmy looked at the boy’s pockets. The boy had secrets and Jimmy had become accustomed to that. But the longer he looked at those pockets, the clearer the secret became, until at once, it was no longer a secret but a profound memory.
Jimmy grabbed a measuring cup that hung on a rusty nail and scooped birdfeed from a forty-pound bag while the boy watched. He opened the cage and poured food into a communal trough, caressing each bird and talking sweetly to them. Seeing the food, the birds cooed and flapped their wings and pecked and scratched, making a racket as they vied for position and ate with gusto.
The boy focused on the jagged, vertical scars that ran along the inside of Jimmy’s wrists. Jimmy tugged at the sleeves of his denim shirt.
“Do they know their names?” the boy said.
Jimmy addressed the gray rock dove that had its head held high as if it were better than the others. “¿Qué es su nombre?” he asked and then responded, “El Presidente,” in a falsetto voice.
The boy laughed and Jimmy smiled, rubbed his eyes and fought back a yawn. Margie had been up a better part of the night while Jimmy lay in bed with his hands on his chest like a corpse, listening to her pray quietly in the living room and thinking about the date on the calendar and what it meant. Margie prayed the rosary, repeating the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and Glory Be until it became white noise. She recited bible passages, and one in particular stood out, one Jimmy knew to be her favorite. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
“You don’t pray like she does,” the boy said.
“I don’t need to pray like her,” Jimmy said. “She’s missing something.”
“What’s she missing?”
Jimmy stared at the boy. He walked past the boy, who stood just inside the shed, and he peered toward the house. Margie often sat on the front porch in the mornings sipping coffee and staring at the winding shell driveway that led from the main road.
“She’s in the flower garden,” the boy said. “She does that this time of year. They’re for today.”
Jimmy understood the significance of the day, but he had other plans and somehow the boy knew this.
“You’re not going with her,” the boy said.
Jimmy shook his head.
“She’ll be mad about that.”
Jimmy’s father never married his mother. When he was twelve, Jimmy had a chance encounter with the man at a Golden Gloves competition. The man was there with a boy who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy. Having been told by his mother who the man was, Jimmy approached him. The man took him aside, poked a finger in his chest, called him a bastard liar and said his mother was a whore. Jimmy fought his half-brother that day and was disqualified after splitting the boy’s nose open and beating him down to the canvas well after the bell. Jimmy bloodied the boy’s face until it no longer resembled his own.
Jimmy became the Ybor City welterweight, Golden Gloves runner up at seventeen. To psyche himself up for matches he would punch himself in the face and curse at his opponents in Spanish, which earned him the nickname Crazy Jimmy. Before his championship match, Jimmy punched himself so hard that he broke his own nose, which bled so badly the match was forfeited.
There was purity and punishment to fighting and a release valve for Jimmy at the end of his fists. But when Margie asked Jimmy to stop for her, for their future, he did, though he continued to visit the gym and hit the bag when he needed to.
Twenty-five years on, Jimmy had no illusions that he could still fight, at least not another person. Scabs on the knuckles of his hands were evidence of that, and of the battle with a wall that would not give.
Jimmy stood at the kitchen counter staring at the brewing coffee pot as if he could will it to happen faster. His eyes rose slowly toward a framed drawing that held a prominent place on the wall. The drawing was the face of a bright yellow sunflower, with the hint of a green stalk jutting up from the bottom of the frame. The flower was drawn with crayon on a white sheet of paper. In neat block letters, Mateo, was written in brown on the top left side. Jimmy made the pine frame himself and stained it the same brown color as the center of the sunflower, knowing the boy would appreciate it. The boy had a great eye for detail. The boy. Jimmy couldn’t bring himself to say his name. He thought that if he did, he would shatter into a million pieces like a fighter made of glass.
Margie walked in from outside as Jimmy made their coffees. His black, and Margie’s with cream and one teaspoon of sugar. She put a hand to Jimmy’s cheek, and he studied her once beautiful face, tired now and losing the battle to gravity. Her wavy brown hair, up in a ponytail, flecked with gray. Hazel eyes framed by crow’s feet from reading the small type in her worn bible.
Jimmy thought about the way it used to be. The way Margie used to be. Funny, horny, and they were good together. Music, any music, would start her ass shaking. And she could move. That was the Cuban in her. When they married, there wasn’t even a bible in the house.
“I heard you talking to your birds this morning,” she said.
Jimmy nodded. “You were watering?”
“They’re beautiful this year. Twelve feet tall. Mateo would be so proud.” She held her coffee cup with both hands and looked at the scabs on Jimmy’s knuckles. “You’re coming with me today,” she said in a manner that was more asking than telling.
“Margie, it’s been ten years,” Jimmy said, thinking of the boy, who never aged.
“I don’t care how long it’s been,” she raised her voice.
“There’s no one there, Margie. He’s not there. He’s not there.”
Composing herself, she whispered, “I need a place to go. I need a place to be. It’s his birthday.”
Margie prayed and went to church and tended her flowers, the boy’s flowers, and stared at that damned driveway. And Jimmy punched walls and released his pigeons and each time longed for their safe return.
“I’m going to release my birds in Ocala,” he said. “It’s the Summer Classic.”
Margie’s face turned red as pressure built inside her.
“He loves them,” Jimmy said, then caught himself. “The birds. He loved to watch them fly. Come with me.” Jimmy reached for her hand. Margie put her coffee on the counter and stepped close to Jimmy to feel his warmth.
“Come outside with me and sit,” she said, looking at the sunflower drawing.
They walked to the backyard with their coffees, toward lawn furniture that faced a concentrated grove of sunflowers, twenty maybe thirty in all, packed tightly together. Bright faces of yellow and brown smiling toward the sky and held to the earth by thick green stalks.
“Mateo would walk around with sunflower seeds bulging in his front pockets, so he could secretly plant them,” Margie said, watching the flowers, crinkling her eyes and smiling. “He loved his sunflowers.”
“The seeds,” Jimmy said as the memory blossomed. “I used to tell him he could grow his own little grove of sunflowers right out of his pockets.” Jimmy looked deep into the sunflowers and saw the boy staring blankly at him. Then he looked to his wife and wondered how she summoned such strength.
Jimmy groaned a bit when his sore back hit the chair, and he thought about Roberto, Johnny’s kid. A chicken had walked into the cabinet shop in Ybor City and Roberto goaded everyone into putting up a dollar to see who could catch it. Jimmy won when he slipped on sawdust that covered the slick concrete floor and he crushed the bird. Jimmy got a queasy stomach and was embarrassed at having to walk outside and bend over like a hinge with his hands on his knees and the boy watching him. Jimmy often looked at Roberto and wondered what his boy would have been like at twenty years old. The boys were the same age.
Jimmy had thought of that day a thousand times, but some mysteries weren’t meant to be understood. Margie said she could see the school bus drive by in the distance and other cars as well. She waited for Mateo to turn the corner and run up the driveway as he always did, and she listened to Jimmy’s table saw screaming from the garage, but the boy never came. Jimmy should have been there to meet him. He knew someone should have been there to meet him. That’s what any good father would have done.
The bus had come and gone and Mateo was two feet from the edge of his driveway when something caught his eye. He was a curious boy with a quick and crooked smile. Mateo turned away from the faint sound of his father’s table saw and moved toward a sunflower just beyond the bus stop. One of his sunflowers. One that he had planted and nourished with water from his lunchbox. Mateo ran to the flower and dropped to his knees. He cleared away grass and weeds to ensure that the flower would thrive. He was so excited and focused on his accomplishment that he didn’t hear the car pull over on the side of the road. He didn’t hear the footsteps in the grass. He didn’t notice the shadow that fell over him before the light was snatched away.
“Come with me to Ocala,” Jimmy said. “I’m supposed to release the birds at ten o’clock this morning, if we leave now we can just make it and then I’ll go with you this afternoon. We’ll go together. I promise.” Jimmy had only been to the cemetery once and decided on that day, he would not go back. The ground was empty, the boy was not there, and if the boy was not there, he was somewhere else.
Jimmy loaded the portable bird cage into the back of the station wagon and carried the birds one by one from the shed to the car. Out of the driveway, he turned onto Highway 54 and headed toward I-75, which would take them north to Ocala. Warm air blew through the open windows easing the gamey bird smell and carrying with it a stray tail feather which flittered through the car like a little white ghost. They drove in silence at first, both looking up at a deep blue sky with a few puffy white clouds. As they drove toward the interstate, Margie and Jimmy turned, almost in unison, toward the large property being cleared by bulldozers and tractors. The pines and oaks that once lined the highway were gone, sacrificed for progress.
“That was a beautiful piece of land,” Jimmy said.
Margie nodded as if she agreed but also as if she didn’t care one way or the other.
“I heard the guy who sold it had it for thirty years,” Jimmy said. “Sold it for millions. It’s going to be a shopping mall.”
Before they reached the end of the property, just two miles down from their own, something else caught their attention and Jimmy tapped the brake. Margie and Jimmy exchanged looks, and Jimmy pulled the car over to the side of the road, his stomach turning in knots. The bulldozers had stopped moving and the workmen were gathered around a curious sight. In the middle of an open field, that was now just dirt and fallen trees, there stood a concentrated little grove of sunflowers, thirty or forty in all, packed tightly together standing twelve to fourteen feet tall. However, the men were not looking up at the sunflowers to marvel at their broad, bright faces, but instead, were staring at a singular spot on the ground. Each man’s face a dismal mask.
“Please go, Jimmy,” Margie said urgently. “Go now.” Margie’s hands were tightly weaved together and her lips were quietly moving in prayer.
Jimmy took one last look at the sunflowers and pulled on to Highway 54 with his mind racing. It can’t be. He looked in the rearview mirror at the boy who sat quietly staring out the window with the sun shining on his face and Jimmy was comforted. Margie asked what he was looking at and Jimmy said nothing. The boy’s presence was not his to share. They turned onto I-75 and Jimmy felt the urge to engage Margie in conversation, but he knew her mind was at work trying to reconcile the sunflowers, as was his, so he remained quiet for the duration.
Jimmy pulled his station wagon past a large banner that read, Central Florida Pigeon Club Summer Classic. He could see Margie’s eyes open wide at the zoo of people and vehicles that packed the area. A woman wearing an orange vest waved them toward a parking spot. It was the first time Jimmy had brought Margie to a race.
Margie waited solemnly by the car, ringing her hands together, as Jimmy paid his entrance fee and exchanged pleasantries with the race officials, whom he knew from previous races. Jimmy walked back to the car with one of the officials who affixed an aluminum band to each of the pigeons. Upon each bird’s arrival back in Dade City, Jimmy would remove the bands and place each one in a lockbox that recorded the time of arrival. Money was won based on a ratio of distance and airspeed, if the birds made it back.
Jimmy opened the back of the station wagon, which excited and agitated the birds. A few of the birds flew toward the cage door, while the others continued to peck at grain that Jimmy had tossed in the cage to keep them occupied. When Jimmy swung the cage door open, Horse and some of the more eager birds, took to the sky. He prodded the others out and they flew toward a white and wispy, cotton candy cloud, that to Jimmy resembled an old man with an unruly beard. They stood together, Jimmy and Margie, watching the birds shrink from sight.
Jimmy looked around for the boy, but Mateo was nowhere in sight. He was certain Mateo would be present for the release and felt himself growing anxious. Jimmy turned to the sky and watched one pigeon separate from the others. He took two steps forward and reached to the sky with both his hands. In his heart, Jimmy knew something profound had been lost and he felt the familiar urge to fly away, to forsake the ground.