Tariq Shah

the yellow belly

Arriving home from the office, Lester nearly pancaked him—a wounded lark, cornered in his apartment building’s doorway.

A fledgling. It couldn’t fly. The lark would spring into the air, flapping, then crashing, would scurry about the brownstone steps in a zany figure-eight. Dumbfounded, he glanced around for additional eyewitnesses. Lester considered.

A visceral urge to near dueled with fears of getting pecked. It all struck him as vaguely cosmic. An omen, perhaps. A wash of paranoia– someone could be watching. Anything was possible.                                            

Still, he itched to dispel it all as a wild fluke, brought to bear by simple, dizzying thirst. The impulses clashed, jammed him up, left him tingling like a tuning fork.

How strange. Just moments earlier he’d been stomping down the street, livid with fantasies of reprisal, of tattooing those transgressions (of which they were guilty beyond all doubt) onto the skin of every last one of those lawyer pricks for whom he slaved. It had been a trying day at work.

All the more puzzling– that fury, wiped clean by a stupid little bird, as if the wrath that poisoned Lester’s blood had only been disappearing ink.

The lark was lint blue. Of a size akin to a balled-up sock, stuck to toothpicks. Lester couldn’t snuff his smile. He searched for others once more.

Though he could not spot any blood, though nothing appeared broken, it was obvious the thing had been molested pretty badly, with its feathering mussed and quilled. Like it had just been given The Chair.

What to do. Robins in the pin oak stoked a blood feud with larks in the cherry.

Lester texted the news to Lou, who was the bright, tricky girl he drank with on weekends, whose pliant affection for Lester sometimes stumped him, and reinforced suspicions he was a dimwit.

Lou:           :(!
                  U just get home?

Lester:       Almost.  Been keeping this one ‘lil
                  birdie company.     

                 :wait.

                 :oh no...am I a sap?!

                 :....am I turning into a big old
                 gross lonely old person??

Lou:          been known to happen 
                  even to the best of us

                 :gasp!   what if someone
                 sees you!?        

Lester looked around a third time. The coast seemed clear.

Physical contact felt rash, as a course of action. Old conventional wisdom, from who-knows-where, floated up into Lester’s mind: Keep your Hands to Yourself.

He admired the lark’s anatomical particulars— that long thin bill, downturned like a barrette, lending a permanent appearance of woe, as much as any naughty child’s sorry, bulging lower lip. Heaving breaths. Hyper, quizzical looks swiveling after a car door’s bang. Black nails, like tiny thorns of onyx, clawing up the door’s glass.

Its position prevented entry into the vestibule, and the lark seemed in no hurry to flee. Lester grumbled. Not yet broken-in, his new boots chewed his feet, and his posture had been gradually buckling from his shoulder bag since the afternoon. But here was this puny little pipsqueak, pretty much screwed, while the robins in the birch at the sidewalk jeered, or, like some raucous beer garden in the branches, made merry.

Lou sent the number for animal control. Her boundless capacity to nurture the hurt and downtrodden being one such quality it annoyed Lester to repeatedly, if fleetingly, realize he cherished.

It seemed a bit of a fuss. Pulled-heartstrings aside, calling animal control sounded drastic, an unnecessary escalation, a bit overboard, as-yet uncalled-for, to have them dispatch some coveralled pawn in a van with a cage or something–heavy-duty rawhide gloves, a hooked, aluminum pole–just to handle and remove a trembling fuzz ball that would croak anyway. Kind of an ordeal. Envisioning the giant drag shaping up, like a rogue wave, Lester whimpered, wished he’d never blabbed about it to Lou. It was unfair—he had been trying so hard of late to be the very best Lester he could be.

Passersby, homeward-bound from the day’s work themselves. Lester’s attempts at grabbing their attention, flagging them down, to alert them of this pitiful discovery of his, all failed. They were half-hearted. That his sense of wonder toward the animal, this unfolding dilemma, which locked his legs would even slow, let alone break their strides seemed dubious. Amid the fall of a honeyblue dusk, they wore sunglasses to blunt the groovy warmth of color and headphones like talismans to ward off the world’s relentless intrusions. They would just laugh. Lester couldn’t really blame them.

Or, worse yet, they would gush with sympathy. Revivified by this cute baby critter’s emergency, they would actually halt, at which time he would have no choice but to make small talk. Shoot the breeze. Dying fledgling banter. Involve them. Lester shuddered. Fiddled with his phone. The urgency he wished to telegraph proved as solid as a soap bubble. Lester watched them. They feigned blindness. The fellow with the spade, that brittle chick in the smock, those luck-lorn suits, knifing past strollers—they don’t give a damn, he was sure. Lester balked in a shy panic. Had the lark cowered in any other door, neither would he.

And so they passed, would never know. Lester quit. There he was.

He took a seat on the building steps. “Looks like our back’s against the wall,” he murmured. His street began to calm, as if everybody verged on dozing off. Hi, Hi, he heard the birds sing.

A brief summer idle, in the wake of gridlock, during which a couple clear thoughts might surface.

-A lull, welcome as open seas.

                                                                              *

“Hello, fellow clerk,” he remembered Andre calling to him one time, with a casual, two-finger salute.

Lester couldn’t recall the exact occasion. There’d been a promotion. Or an estrangement. A lesser holiday, of some variety. A total bummer. Along with an hourly wage came complimentary grievances earned at the same rate, of a kind only stiff cocktails cured.

By week’s end, the grind and the strain and all the nauseating flattery amounted to catastrophic injury, qualifying them, in their estimate, for exemption from any and all obligations to public decency and moral restraint, as specified under universal guidelines for contractual clauses delineating Acts of God. Put simply, the two would no longer be held responsible for anything.

At any rate, Andre had dreamt up some common cause for a drink and they wound up having very many. As a habitat, Saint Marks Place was tailor-made to beings so newly-released to the wild.

Liquor slackened those crooked Windsor knots. Everything was beautiful. A few bathroom trips for key bumps were par for course, and amplified the reach and scope of their natural facilities, the breadth of their good character. Consequently, when a shoeless crust punk—like the lone survivor of a dirty bomb— shuffled by as they stood outside, splitting a smoke, Lester felt no need to bite his tongue.

 “Whoa whoa whoa...where are your shoes, man?”

It was New York. It was summer. But come on.

The punk sighed, and explained they’d been stolen by some guy, along with the rest of his stuff. Lester was outraged. Andre was aghast. They were feeling really great.

“I’m offended!” Lester cried, and on the spot, judged that smelly chap’s situation just plain unacceptable. An America in which a crust punk’s belongings–sneakers and all!–could be so nonchalantly burgled was an America in which Lester would play no part. As such, he resolved to immediately retrieve them, and return them at once to the mopey, barefoot lad with the lacquered eyes and tranquilized jaw, whose name, they learned, was Norman.

Andre just gave them a blank face, though Lester didn’t flinch: “We’ve been given a mission.” Between them dangled a tacit moment of truth. “Seeing as the park’s only half a block away…” Andre conceded. On the steps then, Lester remembered how he began to dance, to soft shoe, right there in the street.

Gung ho. Shadowing Norman to the fenced perimeter of Thompson Square Park, the geeked duo peered through leafage and a night gloom thicker than a thunderhead. Norman pointed out a chubby, shaggy slob, loitering amid a loose circle of –in Lester lingo– ‘goofy-looking knobs,’ exciting a slobbering pit bull leashed round the fatso’s forearm. It was tiger-striped and joyously mauling a galosh, though it seemed half-blind, bellowing out hoarse barks at impostors that weren’t there.

Some distance behind them, in their makeshift camp: a largesse of litter and backpacking junk.

Andre gulped.

“Norm?”

“That’s the motherfucker,” he whispered.

In the daylight, Lester snickered at the flashbacking words, as somewhere beyond view a Mr. Softee truck jangled off Pop Goes the Weasel, on and on and out of time, as if some ghost town saloon’s player piano. Both Lester and the lark turned to lend their ears, keeping hush, until the player’s last notes wafted through once more, and without ceremony, gave up on music for good.

It was quieter below the trees. Weirdly drastic. The canopy broke the massive thumps of the bar’s subwoofer into shards that gave the leaves a buzz, much like the street lights gobbled up by the landscape, but Lester found he’d developed a kind of nocturnal eyesight brought forth by the reflective, late evening dew, a precision of hearing cranked by some electro charge sequestered in the pent air, the cloaked, measured prowl of a stoned, drunk leopard. Operating under the assumption the chunky ringleader was imaginary, Lester gestured to a maroon hiking pack and asked, “Is this one the one?”

In a cracked voice Norm warbled, “Naw, it’s the b-burgundy...”  

Any threat that mongrel posed only dawned on him after the fact. The damage it could do. The risk they ran, of screwdrivers, wine bottles, revolvers to the temple. The prospect of it all being a ruse, a death trap, of mean kids’ cruel kicks being a real thing that actually happened to regulars and transplants alike, only dawned on Lester after the fact, only after he entered those dim grounds, hefted Norm’s backpack, turned heel, lugged it, as if claiming baggage from some rickety airport carousel into lit space, without so much as a cursory over-the-shoulder peek, with a bland face, guided by a distant taxi’s orange tilted headlights, which he mistook for some lysergic double-vision of the moon.

Lester had stopped there, tingling then, too. Altogether different, though, from that brought on by this doorstep lark.

Norm barely thanked them, rushing instead to inventory his possessions. They didn’t mind. Andre and Lester were content to bathe in the afterglow of their virtuous deed. Norm, with unique care, removed a shoebox and placed it on the sidewalk. Lifting the lid, he revealed a pigeon.

Lester, this time, bell-rung and listing from vibrations along a heavier frequency.

“Now you guys get why I was flipping out,” Norm explained, sprinkling droplets of water onto the pigeon’s head, hopeful a few would enter its beak, but they just wicked off its plumage, and anyway it was irrelevant—a basic fact to which poor Norm was totally oblivious—the pigeon was completely dead.

                                                                              *

A squad car sharking up the block spooked away the memory. Lester scooted into the last few shavings of sun. He yawned, cracked his back. The lark slanted his head toward him as if to say, Aren’t you going to do something?

But Lester knew what he would do. Everyone knows the outcome coming. Let’s not kid ourselves. He saw it, gaped, and bowed towards it. Put on knockoff Ray Bans.

As if to say, That’s that?

Weaving a nest from a tree-snagged plastic, the robins took no heed of what transpired beneath them, while the larks bickered amongst themselves. Bird brained. It finally clicked.

Lester sat tight on the steps and guarded the lark a little longer. It would chirp, at a dwindling pitch, chew-toy squeaks, every now and again. He made a pivot of focus, back to those blithe pedestrians, whom he supposed had better things to do, and probably did, in their own little cosmos.

Andre and Lester, edging away from Norm while he propped up the limp bird, at an angle conducive to swallowing, then making their measured retreat, making a toast, obliterating from mind that macabre scene with the power of a couple Irish car bombs. In complete agreement their little recon sortie’s final twist warranted exclusion from subsequent tellings. Being just a wrinkle. They’d won the day. That was enough. How many people get mugged there every year? I don’t know. Dozens at least. That junkyard dog was definitely rabid. Everyone knows to never go into Tompkins Square after nightfall. Let’s be honest.

“That went rather well. Creepy little curveball at the end there,” Andre cackled, dusting off his sleeves. We are champs, they’d roared. Looking back, Lester again located the fat vagabond in the dark. He was laughing too. This was a story of truth, justice, and the American way, with a happy ending, a conclusion that help is just round the corner. It was settled.

A simple question of when to stop talking.

The lark, plopping down on the concrete, became a lump of gasping down. He named it Clark.

Norman had a sweetheart. Believe it or not. Wanda, or something. It was she who’d vainly watered the clearly-deceased pigeon. Come to think of it.

Furthermore, and on the other hand, one should never invade the personal territory of any beast, feral or otherwise. That goes double for those internally bleeding.

Additionally, no sudden movements, evidently. Just trouble all around.

Lester began to hold his breath. His neighbor, Trish, happened to return home then, walking her ten-speed, the neighbor whose name, even after three years, Lester had yet to speak aloud, though she spoke his, which never bothered him for more than a handful of seconds, but during that handful of seconds, made him as remote as a cave diver.

It all rendered Lester seasick–the relentless seesaw of the past, through which he steered, rudderless and blinded by all that raw, icky clarity. That was always the problem with peace and quiet. Everything got so clear.

 “Some day, huh,” He murmured to himself, rankled when the words, unacknowledged, caught in the air, dispersed like seeds.

Clark the Lark was still. Lester eased back onto his feet. He crept in, searching for signs of life, speculating what the twit lawyers would think, repeating, in a gently diminishing fade, “And we’re relaxing….we’re relaxing…”

In all honesty Lester had no inkling whether Clark was a lark. Hadn’t the faintest idea what any bird actually looked like at all.

Pit bulls make the most loving companions. It so happens. Go look it up.

He remembered the open sea can, in fact, be quite awful.

  Lou then, from nowhere:

          :are u really, really scared??

          :whatcha  fraid of
          fraidy cat?

          :just hang on - here I come to save the day!

Can, in fact, be rather dangerous.

Don’t look down, whatever you do. Horrifyingly immense, and mesmerizing, that profound abyss. An inch of plank parting endless sky from the sea’s countless tongues.

Imagine what awaits, down below.

Imagine those depths.

Tariq Shah

Tariq Shah is a writer living in New York, and a student in the St. Joseph's College Writers Foundry MFA program. His chapbook, 'a sedge of bitterns,' was a finalist for the 2015 No, Dear / Small Anchor Press chapbook contest. He was born and raised in Illinois, and has works appearing or forthcoming in Gravel, King Kong Magazine, Denver Syntax, TASTY Magazine, BlazeVox, and other publications

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