There are three things an Irishman should never do: admit that he can’t hold his liquor, fail to weave a good yarn, and confess to being down on his luck. I’ve always kept up my image so that the Doherty clan has had no cause for embarrassment, but secretly I swore off the human race even before I hit the age of thirty and found a new species to take its place.
It was a Saturday evening in June when I waited for my pigeons to return from one of their races. I stayed close to their loft in my backyard and listened for the familiar sound of wings in the air. The sun was a brilliant orange as it began to lower in the sky, becoming partially lost in the giant oak that graced my next-door neighbor’s home. The dry weather these past months had been perfect for “old bird season”, affording my pigeons, aged one and over, an opportunity to fly every weekend. Each Friday night I loaded them onto my truck and drove to the race’s venue. Each Saturday morning, I released them into the sky, then drove home to await their return. So far, we were not leaders in distance or speed, but I knew that I had to earn “my wings”. In August I would start on my birds under a year old and see how they fared during “young bird season”.
In the meantime, I was content to train them daily. I banged on an empty tin can every time they were fed so that they’d come in for a landing whenever they heard that sound. I also bred them in the winter when the predatory hawks focused their attention elsewhere, and I cleaned the coops once a week. I had come to know all the types of homing pigeons, or homers, including tipplers, rollers, and flying tumblers, and I knew that Dad would have been proud since he tried for years to teach me about pigeons but I showed little interest.
He’d always say to me, “Eddie, if you want to be a great racer you have to keep the coops clean and you have to be able to identify each kind of pigeon just by looking at it.”
I’d nod as he described their types and markings, but I’d watch the trail of cigarette smoke that rose, serpent-like, into his blue eyes, causing them to water. I loved his eyes. I think that’s why I fell in love with Kathleen. Her eyes were that same royal blue color. But the pigeons all looked alike to me. Pigeons and racing never interested me until after Dad died. I’ve often wondered why.
A few days after the funeral, Mom got rid of all the pigeons and coops. A pet store owner found someone in the area who wanted them. I was twenty-three by then, living on my own in Manhattan and I only came back to New Jersey to help her deal with Dad’s death. In just a few weekends, after his pigeons and coops were gone, his clothes, shoes, and toiletries went, and finally his bird racing magazines. It was almost as if he’d never lived in that house. Mom gave me his coin collection and an old class ring that he hadn’t worn in years. She kept his wedding band and cigarette lighter, and she gave his watch to my sister, Margaret.
About three years later, Kathleen and I got married and we bought a home right outside of Spring Lake. Mom was thrilled that we moved so close to her because Margaret had gotten married, leaving her alone in that big house in Toms River. To me, though, it felt strange. I didn’t want to disappoint Kathleen so I agreed to move back to New Jersey, but the sea air and chirping of crickets were long out of my blood. As luck would have it, I must have disappointed Kathleen anyway, because after only two years of marriage, she took off with some rich guy from California whom she’d met at her tennis club. He was very young and tan, and California seemed like another world to a girl who’d been sheltered all her life. She split and headed for the land of celebrity and smog. Left me with the house. And that’s when I decided to raise homing pigeons.
I contacted the American Pigeon Racing Union and they sent me literature on setting up a loft. I cleaned out my garden shed, turned it around so that the front was facing south, (pigeons like to face the sun), and bought strips of wood to make a landing board. Then I attached hinged wire to the board, making sure the wire opened inward so when the birds pushed against it they could fly in, but wouldn’t be able to push their way out again.
Once the loft was set up, I began to contact pigeon breeders who were recommended to me by Racing Union members, and upon receipt of several pigeons, training began. Pretty soon they took to the air. I really got a tremendous kick out of watching them. Whenever they returned from a practice flight they changed course and folded themselves up, free-falling straight for their landing board. They always dropped their tail feathers like an airplane drops its tail wing, and they flapped their wings backwards for a smooth landing.
I discovered that the people who raced pigeons were down-to-earth and didn’t talk too much. We all just enjoyed the outdoors, watching our birds fly, wondering if our homers would make it back, when they’d make it back, and if any of them would win.
One Saturday in June, I had set my birds free in Western Massachusetts, and after the drive home I stood at the loft until the older birds were home. They soared over the loft and then backtracked, free-falling to their landing board with precision and grace. I checked their bands as they landed and guided them into the loft. When one of my Oral Janssens came in for a landing, I noticed something attached to his band. I removed the little piece of tightly folded paper and opened it. Then I read the following words: I need you to help me. Please. If you want to save my life please meet me in front of 8150 Mallery Road, New Ashford,Massachusetts at noon on Saturday. Bring your birds. PLEASE. BE A LIFESAVER. It was signed Char.
I was intrigued. I’d just been to New Ashford but I didn’t know who might have attached the note, unless a fellow racer needed my birds for something. It was a long ride for an unknown reason but since I hadn’t had any adventure in my life in years, I decided to go.
When Saturday approached, I loaded the birds onto my truck and drove off. I found the house on Mallery Road without any trouble. When I rang the doorbell, a woman answered. She stared at me.
“I’m supposed to meet Charl here with my birds. Do you know where I can find him?”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Eddie Doherty.” I waited. “I got a note from someone named Charl to meet him at this address. It was attached to my bird’s leg. Sounded urgent so I came up from Jersey,” I added.
She closed the door behind her and stood in front of me on the porch.
“Didn’t think you were actually going to come. I mean, who would really drive all the way up here for a note?”
“Well, I don’t know. The person sounded in desperate need of help. I…”
Her eyes opened wide. “I’m so very sorry. Charl…” She cleared her throat. “My daughter Charlotte shouldn’t have sent that note. By the time she told me what she’d done, it was too late.” She cleared her throat again. “And there was no way to get in touch with you. Didn’t think you’d actually show up,” she repeated. “I’m really sorry.”
“I thought maybe one of the other bird racers needed my birds for something important.”
She stared at me. She was probably in her mid-thirties, but she looked like a woman whose life had been whittled away like a young piece of wood that stiffens from too much of the knife. Her brown hair shone in the sunlight and I could see that she’d once been pretty. Her face was sallow and drawn and her lips remained pursed. She studied my face, which made me feel uncomfortable.
“Do you know why your daughter wanted me to bring my birds, Mrs.–um…”
“Yes.” She sighed. “Birds have always fascinated her. One of our former neighbors had pigeons. He lived up there.” She motioned in the direction of a sun-drenched mountain. “Charlotte used to help him train them until he moved away a couple of years ago. We still hike up there on nice days. That’s where we were when she spotted your bird.” She looked down at the ground. “I want to apologize for what she’s done. I scolded her when she told me, but as I said, it was too late.”
“It’s really fine. I’d–um–I’d like to meet Charlotte, if that’s okay. I mean, is she around?”
She hesitated. “I’ll call her out in a minute. I, well you should know that she’s a little different. I mean, different than a lot of children her age.”
I didn’t say anything.
“She–um–well she’s been through many hardships in her young life. First her father, my husband, was killed in a car accident.”
She put up her hand to stop me. “Then last year, her younger brother, Bobby was…” She swallowed. “Was abducted from our backyard.”
I stared at her. “Here? It seems like such a nice neighborhood!”
“It is a nice neighborhood. But bad things can happen anywhere.” She stared down at the ground again. “Another reason why I didn’t want her writing that note. I’m very uneasy about having strangers come around here.”
“I totally understand, Mrs. Findlay. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss…losses.”
She eyed me momentarily, then looked away. “Thank you,” she said. “But right now I have Charlotte to worry about. I have to be strong for her. She’s been feeling guilty ever since the day her brother was taken. Because she went inside the house to get a drink of water. It…” She coughed slightly, then recovered. “It happened in just a split second; you see. One minute Charlotte and Bobby were playing outside and the next minute…well…Anyway, she feels guilty about that. I keep telling her that it wasn’t her fault. I’m the mother, after all. I’m the one who should have…well…” She waved her hand at me and walked a few feet away to compose herself.
I stood there awkwardly until she returned.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Eddie Doherty. Eddie is fine. Look, I should probably go. I don’t want to upset things more than I already seem to have done. I obviously misunderstood the whole scenario. It’s okay. I’m not here to cause any trouble or extra sadness or…”
She stopped me with her hand. “Eddie, it’s okay for you to meet Charlotte. I just want you to understand a few things about her before that happens. Charlotte is gifted. At least that’s what they told me. The way things are turning out, it seems more like a curse than a gift. After her brother’s abduction, she was able to tell the police the exact spot in the county park where his body lay. She was able to see the murder scene, even though she’d never been to that park. She sees lots of things. Always has.”
“Like a sixth sense?”
She nodded. “Now that they’ve finally caught this…the one who did this…she’ll have to testify, and I don’t know how that will affect her. But I’ve found a therapist for her, and I’m trying to be strong. But protective, too. That’s why I was angry when she told me what she’d done. Like I said, we’ve had enough strangers come through these parts.”
“I understand completely, and I can assure you that I had no hidden agenda in coming here. I was just answering the note to bring my birds. I’m so sorry for the mix-up.”
She smiled slightly, and I could see a little of what she once was. “Let’s see what you’ve brought,” she said, motioning for me to go to my truck, and following closely behind. She looked in the cages at the back of the truck and smiled again. “Oh, she’ll get a big kick out of these.” Then she turned toward the front of the house and looked over her shoulder. “Wait here,” she said.
I stood there patiently, admiring the scenery, wondering how such a beautiful place could hold such evil. When she reappeared, she was accompanied by a girl of about ten or eleven.
“Mr. Doherty, this is Charlotte.”
“Hi there, Charlotte,” I said. “And please call me Eddie. Or you can call me the man with the pigeons!” I smiled.
“Hi,” the girl answered as she squinted up at me. Then she walked over to the back of my truck and tried to fit her fingers through the holes of the crates. “I can’t believe you really brought them!” she said with a broad smile and a toss of her dark braids.
“Well you wrote that I would save your life if I did, so how could I refuse?”
“You didn’t tell me you wrote that, Charlotte! That’s a terrible thing to say!”
I laughed. “It’s okay. Really. As a matter of fact, it’s so beautiful around here that I’m going to stay overnight at a motel and go back home in the morning. If you want, I can unload the crates and leave the birds in your backyard until tomorrow. That way, Charlotte, you can keep them company for the rest of the day!”
“Really? I mean…is it okay, Mom?”
Her mother nodded and smiled.
I began to unload the crates from the truck. “Do you know all the different varieties of pigeons, Charlotte?”
“Oh, sure! Mr. Harding taught me all about them.”
“That was the neighbor I told you about,” her mother added.
“Okay. Then I guess you don’t need any more explanations. I’ll entrust the birds to your care.” I smiled at Charlotte and she returned the smile.
“And I’ll see you both before I head back tomorrow.”
I opened the door of the cab and had one leg in when I heard Mrs. Findlay call my name.
“Thanks so much, Eddie! This will be wonderful for Charlotte!” This time, her smile was broad and unencumbered.
“My pleasure, Mrs. Findlay.”
“Please call me Ginny,” she said.
“Ginny,” I repeated. I started to drive off, then put the truck in reverse. Both of them looked up. “Actually, Ginny, would it be too forward of me to ask you out to dinner this evening? I promise that I’m harmless.” I put up my hands in a show of surrender. “Unless you have other plans. I don’t know anyone in town and, well, we both have to eat. Of course, Charlotte’s invited, too. My treat.” I looked down in my lap.
“It wouldn’t be too forward at all!” I heard her say. “But I’ve already got something cooking on the stove. It’ll be ready in time for supper. Why don’t you come here to eat? That way, Charlotte can spend more time with your birds.”
“Oh, I don’t want to impose.”
“I’ve got plenty. Charlotte won’t sit still in a restaurant anyway, knowing the birds are back here.”
“Yes, Eddie, really. Say about six?”
I gave her the thumbs-up and drove off. My heart was beating with excitement, though I had to keep my emotions in check. After all, these two people had suffered tremendous loss and sorrow. I knew that Ginny was just being polite by inviting me to dinner. She felt bad that I’d made the long drive up. But even so…
I found a nearby motel, left my overnight bag in the room, and went out exploring. It was a beautiful New England locale, with mountains and farms, little shops and museums, and even a small movie theater. The afternoon passed quickly and after a warm shower, I returned to the Findlay house for the first home-cooked meal I’d had in a long time.
Ginny and Charlotte were both relaxed and talkative. Ginny laughed at all my corny jokes and listened when I spoke. I told her about my job selling insurance, about my marriage and divorce, and about my dad. She told me she’d been a teacher, then got married and had kids. The evening was comfortable and easy. I hadn’t felt so good in years. I wanted to savor it, to take things nice and slow. After dinner, she and I had coffee, while Charlotte went outside to check on the birds. Then I helped with the dishes, and we said goodnight.
When I got back to my motel room, I tried to sleep, but I tossed and turned for most of the night. I kept thinking about how much of my life had been wasted and about how I suddenly wanted to make a change. I started rummaging through the recesses of my brain where I had kept things buried for years. Here were a mother and daughter who’d experienced unspeakable horror, yet were able to relate to people, to be kind and accept kindness in return. And here I was, devoid of human connection, living in a world without emotion. If I wanted to move forward with my life, I would have to come to terms with all those buried parts of me. I was determined to make that happen. When I finally did fall asleep I had strange dreams, and before long the alarm rang for me to get up and head on back to the Findlay home.
Ginny and Charlotte gave me a warm greeting when I got there, and I felt very happy and excited to see both of them.
“I’ve made a decision, Charlotte,” I announced. “I’d like you to officially adopt my birds. That is, if it’s okay with your mother.” I turned to look at Ginny.
“Oh that’s too generous, Eddie. We couldn’t accept that,” Ginny said, her eyes beginning to well with tears.
“It takes quite a bit of work, you know. I don’t know if you’re up for hard work, Charlotte…”
“Yes I am!”
“And I was thinking, I just don’t have that much time these days to devote to them. Besides, I think you need the birds more than I do. So, what do you say, Ginny? Deal?” I waited.
“Please, Mom! Please!” Charlotte said.
“Well…if you’re really sure, Eddie. I mean…”
“And besides, that’ll give me a reason to come up here and visit you guys!”
They both smiled at me, and I felt warm inside. Charlotte’s note had been correct. By bringing my birds here I was being a lifesaver, but for more than just one life. I extended my hand to Ginny and she reached up and kissed me softly on the cheek. Then I shook Charlotte’s hand and got back into my truck. As I drove away, I waved, and they waved back. Then Charlotte turned her attention to the birds.
A sense of well-being engulfed me on the ride home, and when I was back in New Jersey, I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey. Then I drove to the cemetery where my father was buried. I stood there for a very long time just staring at his grave, thinking about his life. He had never really communicated his feelings to my sister or me. It’s how he’d been raised, and how he raised his own children. It was the only way he knew. I would need to make a lot of changes within myself if I wanted my life to turn out differently and I knew that this was my last chance. Birds weren’t enough for me anymore. I read and reread the few words on his tombstone. EDWARD DOHERTY. BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER. How little I had really known about him. But I knew that I loved him and that’s what mattered. I raised the bottle of whiskey into the air and took a long swig.
“Here’s to us, Dad,” I whispered.
Marcie Ruderman is a freelance writer who has had several fiction pieces, poems, and essays published in a variety of literary journals and magazines, both in New York and around the country. One of her essays, which focused on her time spent as a teacher of creative and expository writing at a branch of the City University of New York, won first prize. Currently, Marcie is working on a novel and hopes to have it completed within the year. Born and raised in New York City, she currently resides in New Jersey with her spouse and their four-year-old golden retriever.