“Fuck off!” He yells this louder than he’s yelled in a long time. He hasn’t emptied his lungs out like that since…when? Was it the time he and his father fought about him using the pickup truck without their permission? His father had checked the mileage on a hunch and so had tangible proof, but still Reynold denied it. He’d screamed at his father, trying to get him to let him out of the corner he’d lied himself into. His father had responded with silence that only escalated Reynold’s volume. Was it when Jenny told him she was pregnant? He had hooted and hollered, thrown his fists in the air and jumped around like a maniac, slowing only to approach her and reach for her belly, still small then. He’d gotten real quiet, stooped against her and he swore to her he could hear its heartbeat. She’d laughed and said, Impossible! But he’d believed it, right then and there, with her fingers in his hair and the phantom heartbeat coming from her stomach he’d declared, “I’m the luckiest man.”
Now, in the yard, he feels small just like his father looked moments ago. There is the slumping over that he feels now has been approaching him all his life, pausing only to let him believe he was destined for good things. He takes off his father’s shoes that are too small for him and stands in the yard, feeling the cold wet of the winter ground soak up through his socks. The string on his sweatshirt is uneven and the left side hangs down near his waist, he can feel his nose beginning to reach the brink of dripping, and he thinks about how you never stop feeling like a child, no matter how high you count each year. He is not a man equipped to raise a child, and he wonders if it is something you are only ready to do because you are doing it, like going over the edge of slope for the first time on skis that feel too separate from your feet to be safe. He trails mud up the walkway toward the house. He supposes he will never know.
The house smells like something baking. As he removes his socks, heavy and dark with moisture, he pretends it is Christmas morning and that the house is full of people upstairs and in the kitchen, that he has taken a moment to himself but will soon be immersed in a presence other than the rising raucous of birds behind him.
The lights are off in the kitchen, as is the oven, but his mother has left two boxes of cereal and a bowl out for him. There is a Dollar General candle burning on the table that lives up to its label marked “Christmas cookie.” He fills his fist with Fruit-Os and heads back upstairs.
“They’re still out there.” Reynold’s mother comes out of her bedroom to tell him. She has begun applying her makeup, but she’s only slathered on the foundation, and her eyes sink beneath the pale. He feels as though he should reach out for her, as though she might crumble underneath at any moment.
“Yeah, just give me a minute. I need new socks,” he says with the cereal in his mouth.
She looks down at his bare feet, sighs. “There should be some old ones in one of them drawers.”
He digs around for a while, forgetting his original mission for socks. He finds the knife he sent off four Copenhagen tobacco labels to get when he was a kid. His dad quit chewing when his mother swore she’d never kiss him again if he didn’t quit. That summer the dentist yanked two of his molars and he never touched the stuff again. There are pieces of candy left over from countless Halloweens, old patches from Boy Scouts, his grandfather’s dog tags, an empty pack of Camels from back when they could still advertise to kids. He remembers the socks, which are pushed almost all the way in the back of the drawer, except there’s something else back there. He pulls the drawer to the point of falling out, and sees the red tissue paper lining the Lady Fingers. Behind those are four Black Cats, as big as pencils.
Reynold grabs them in his fists, cupping them like water. He rushes back down the stairs, past his mother and into the living room where his father keeps the long matches next to the fire place. The amount of crows seems to have grown in size, the tree limbs visibly bend toward the ground, threatening to break. You could probably hear their strain if it weren’t for the calling of all those birds. Their feathers are shiny; they look dipped in oil and Reynold fantasizes that he could catch them all into one fire that would explode into the sky like a flare, telling every crow everywhere that they are not wanted here. This is not a place for them to live, to feed, to make their noise.
Reynold does not notice that his feet are freezing against the ground, still littered in places with dirty snow and melted snow that has frozen again overnight. No, his senses are well occupied with the sound of all those crows and the smell of the matches that he is lighting, one after the other. The Lady Fingers are small and crack apart when he throws them into the air. The first few rows of birds scatter, but the top rows ignore him like they ignored his father. He is no longer angry; there is nothing but the sizzle of the Black Cats, the light of the sparks spewing from their ends, the flapping of wings, the whooshing that he can’t tell if it is coming from all of the crows as they fly away or the branches as they sway and bounce and settle amongst each other again, now a little lower, a little more bent and crooked, a tree that has been used and tried and affected. He has scared the crows off for now, and though his left arm is bleeding from where a spark has burned him badly, he is elated seeing the shadow of the tree against his parents’ yard with the details of its branches instead of one large shadow, foreboding. The neighbor’s wife peeks out the window that’s supposed to resemble the tiny round windows at the bottom of a ship and Reynold waves. He begins to feel the cold in his toes, except for in his pinky toes that have gone numb.