A carcass of a starfish sat on the mantle. Packer stared at it as if seeing it for the first time. There was no fireplace below the mantle, just a brick wall painted white. All the apartments around the neighborhood have false fireplaces like his. He bought the starfish from a trendy home decor store on Beverly Blvd. for five dollars. Packer tried to picture where the starfish’s eyes were, then wondered if they even have eyes. He realized he knew nothing about starfish and regretted buying it. He had no connection to starfish, no love of them, there was no reason it was on his mantle except he thought it would make him look ‘cool, and so he couldn’t escape the fact that he knew nothing about himself as well, or rather, what he knew repulsed him. It was official, Packer decided, Holden Caulfield would conduct an angry internal monologue about what a phoney piece of shit he was.
This is the stuff that went through his mind. Nobody buys dead rats. Why do we think squirrels are cute and not rats? They’re both rodents. Lady bugs are good luck when they land on you and they’re nothing but beetles. A normal black beetle we step on without thinking about it. We let cats and dogs sleep on our beds with us but scream should a spider mosey onto the pillow. Humans are like the “mean girls” of the animal world.
The night was coming at him like black-clad thugs in an alley. His mood was non-negotiable and outfitted for mordant reflection. It’s an enigmatic contradiction: how emptiness fills you up. Nothing on the television could distract Packer from the nagging tug of this loneliness. It hits him every so often, like an old friend calling on his birthday. Calling to tease him about getting older. Getting closer to death. He got up and opened the fridge. Looking at all the options, he realized he wasn’t even hungry. It made him think about Africa and the Middle East and places where people are starving and dying in the dust and it made him sad. He closed his eyes and saw flies circling the heads of emaciated children.
When you’re blue, everything is black.
Packer felt an overwhelming urge to get outside and walk. He grabbed his keys off the table and locked the door behind him. The sun was setting to the west, a crescent moon was rising over the mountains; the despot turning the kingdom over to the jester. Rush hour traffic dominated the air, with noise, with exhaust, with kinetic energy. Horns blared and brakes squealed and it made Packer feel better, slightly. The loneliness didn’t go away, but now instead of feeling empty, he felt surrounded. At least it was something.
He kept walking, not sure what he was looking for. Or if he would discover anything worth finding, like a gold miner after the creek’s been panned dry. He came upon an intersection where a silver Mazda was idling with the door open. Across the street he spied the driver, a man in a Rolling Stones t-shirt arguing with another man who stood on the opposite side of the street. “You want to say that to my face,” he yelled.
The other man shouted, “Yeah! Watch where the fuck you’re going! You had a stop sign. You almost ran me over, asshole.”
“Don’t tell me how to drive, faggot!”
Packer watched the commotion, unable to comprehend why people waste their time like this, what sudden possession makes people act like demons. The scene sat heavily in his stomach, an indigestible plum leaking toxin into his bloodstream. Like the little girl staring at the TV in Poltergeist, Packer couldn’t look away.
“Faggot? Real nice. Dick!”
Crossing the street, the driver shouted, “You want me to kick your ass, motherfucker?”
He got in the other man’s face, clenched his fists and pumped his shoulders up, challenging the man to fight. Packer turned his attention to the opened door of the man’s car. He could easily jump behind the wheel and take it if he wanted. Not to steal it, just to drive it a few blocks away and dump it, teach the guy a lesson. The impulse tingled through his body, calling him like the needle to a junkie. Maybe this was why he left the house, what he was looking for? A chance to do Good in this world. Ruin an asshole’s day. Karma’s pizza boy.
His fingerprints would be left in the car, though, but he could pull his sleeves down and not touch anything, still, might there be some witnesses that could identify him? Was it worth it? These thoughts cycled through Packer’s brain as he watched the driver push the pedestrian, who was now backtracking and putting his hands in the air. “I don’t want to fight,” the pedestrian was saying, retreating.
Packer knew if he was going to deliver justice he would have to act fast, act now.
“Pussy,” the driver yelled at the man. “Why don’t you mind your own business next time!”
The car sat there, its door ajar like a hooker with her legs spread open. A nervous, excited energy pulsed through his body. All he had to do was run over, hop in, put his foot down on the pedal and go. All he had to do was move. But Packer was frozen. He couldn’t do it. The tyranny of inertia occupied his bones.
The bully spat on the man who was now walking away, a giant, arching loogie that splattered on the back of his head. The pedestrian didn’t do anything, kept walking like he couldn’t hear the insults or feel the spit dripping down his neck. The driver turned and walked back to his car, wearing a cocky grin like he’d won the Nobel Prize for assholes.
It was too late. Justice would go undone.
He saw Packer watching him. “What are you looking at?”
Packer shook his head. “Nothing, man.”
“That’s right,” the driver barked. He climbed in his car and slammed the door, then pealed out loudly, leaving a trail of smoke behind him. Even though it had nothing to do with him, Packer reeled from the threat of violence and words of hate. It all took less than a minute, but he felt scarred by the experience. The cacophony of the city was muted by his thoughts and everything became coldly still. Trusting Mankind to exist peacefully in Civilization seemed desperately foolish and destructive, like building a vacation cabin on an active volcano. He continued to stare at the intersection. It, too, seemed scarred, changed by the conflict. Skid marks were the only sign this confrontation ever took place.
Behind Packer, a bush shook with the chirping of tiny sparrows hidden inside the foliage, this parliament of wings and beaks articulated its spastic debate in bird code. It jarred Packer from his rumination and he returned to his melancholy wandering.
He passed a coffee shop, rows of heads buried in laptops. If he got coffee, he’d be up all night, and he didn’t want coffee, he didn’t want anything he could name. He wondered what everybody was looking at, why they travel from their house to the coffee shop only to isolate themselves in their cyber worlds. It’s like we want to be a part of something, but we just don’t know how.
Next door to the coffee shop was a doggy day care. He stopped and tapped on the glass. A little black poodle ran over and started barking and scratching its paws against the window, its tongue lolled merrily and its eyes were wide and hopeful. Packer smiled. He felt connected to the little furry creature behind the glass. Dogs are simple. They don’t fall out of love with you. They don’t call you names. They don’t manipulate emotions, except perhaps when they make that sad face while watching you eat. Packer started to feel relief. He revised his outlook. Maybe the problem is looking too wide. Narrow your focus, think about simple equations, he told himself. Take pleasure in a sea salted caramel treat, don’t demand seven course meals.
He was touching up his color palette, working in more colorful hues when the woman who worked there came up with a scowl and banged her knuckles against the glass. She wagged her finger at Packer, then mouthed the words: would you please stop that.
He mouthed back: sorry.
Packer turned and walked away. Past the liquor store, the artisanal candle shop, and the plant store where he bought the cactus that she accidentally brushed up against the night she got drunk and yelled at him that it was over, that there was no point working on it anymore, as if Packer were nothing more than a project that had maxed out its potential. Packer’s done so much not to think about her, but tonight, the moon dressed up in its cruel clothes, he relapsed, and he couldn’t prevent the avalanche of memories from tumbling down Heartbreak Mountain. He remembered cleaning up the blood from where the needles went into her arm, putting on the band-aid while she cursed him. She didn’t even take her guitar with her, instructed him to burn it. He thought of it now, stashed in the back of the closet behind the surfboard he hasn’t used in three years. He made a note to take it out and have a bonfire when he got back to his apartment. The surfboard too.
We’re programmed for pain, he thought; every religion teaches this, every drug dealer knows this, and every lover reinforces it. He summed up his thoughts in two words. “Fuck everything.”
Down a dark alley, at the end of the block, behind houses and the backs of businesses, there was a kid spray painting on the wall. At first Packer pirouetted to walk the other way, but that’s what everybody does: turn their backs. Tonight he was determined not to be complacent, not to be scared. He’s over 6 feet tall. He’s got muscles. He shouldn’t be afraid of some young punk.
Getting closer to the kid, it was obvious he was about 16, 17 years old. He wore a brown knit cap and a gray shirt with paint splotches and a chain going from his back pocket to his belt loop. He had on headphones and was deep into his work. Packer steeled himself for the encounter, telling himself he was a man and tough and somebody had to say something to these kids fucking everything up these days.
Packer took a deep breath. In his deepest, most intimidating voice, he growled, “Hey, kid. What the fuck are you doing? Stop that shit right now!”
The kid didn’t see Packer coming, jumped back from the wall when he heard his voice and accidentally dropped the spray can.
“You scared me, dude,” the kid told Packer. He picked up the can and shook his head. “You almost made me fuck it up.”
“Listen, asshole, people live here,” he said, pointing to the house.
The kid smirked. “Yeah, me.”
Packer looked at the mural the kid was painting. It was a drawing of a middle-aged woman with thin bifocals and curly hair, a sweet smile framing her warm face. The portrait was skillfully done. In big bubble words it said: RIP, MO-. The kid was halfway through the last M. There was a date underneath that was from last week.
“What?” The kid snarled. He wouldn’t look at Packer, went back to painting.
“Your mom died?” Packer asked.
“You’re correct, dick. She did. Her intestine twisted up like a pretzel and burst. She died because shit leaked all throughout her body and the dumbass doctors didn’t catch it in time. Ain’t that something?”
The kid laughed derisively. “Yeah, well, good for you.”
Packer wanted to say something else, he wanted to tell the kid that his own mother died of cancer three years ago, and that it would get easier as time went on. Packer didn’t say anything, though, because he didn’t want to sound pedantic and patronizing.
The kid turned and gave Packer an annoyed look. “Do you mind?”
“You said that already. Can you just leave me alone?”
Packer felt like a goddamn asshole. “Sure.” He started to walk away and stopped. “Hey, it’s a good drawing,” he told the young artist.
“Whatever,” the kid sneered back.
Some nights you can’t win, even with three aces. Packer cut back to the main street and walked along the storefronts. He thought about the woman and what kind of mom she was, picturing the type of mom who always insisted you eat a second helping of dinner and reminds you to take a jacket when it’s cold.
His eyes no longer focused on anything. His legs moved on cruise control. The city became a blurry fever dream.
Packer stopped at the corner and stood there, outside a trendy Italian restaurant, hiding his hands in his pockets and breathing heavily. He battled a deviant urge to throw a rock through the window, the people inside fogging up the glass with their besotted breath and senseless chatter. He watched a couple staring into each others’ eyes and saw two future exes, the rose in the middle of the table three days from wilting, the bottle of wine just a headache waiting to happen.
Everything was black.
He kept walking. The blocks fell underneath his footsteps. He was trying to escape this mood, but he dragged it behind him like a mummy that caught his rags on a nail and was now unwrapping itself. Not only did he carry it with him, he transferred it to everything he saw. The yawning universe contains infinite wonder stretching in every direction, but when he looked up at the bed of stars they only impressed upon him the smallness of his life. The meaninglessness of it. The triviality. He pulled his hoodie over his head and thought about Franciscan friars, about how it feels to have a nail pounded through your hand — not if you were the Son of God, but simply a devoted follower trying to walk in His footsteps. A mortal. When the agony crescendos, does the realization that you’re not Jesus hurt worse than the nail piercing through your flesh?
He decided to make a shortcut through an empty lot where weeds grew wild and car tires lay abandoned. As he trampled through the dirt he heard a cooing near his feet and stopped to see if he could find the source. With the light from his cell phone he scanned the ground until he spotted a baby pigeon nursing a broken wing, dragging it around in circles.
“Hey, little guy, what happened to your wing?”
A powerful compassion came over him. His heart stirred. This might be it, a chance to make the world better, if only for one pigeon. He can’t save the world, but maybe he could fix a broken wing. Packer decided to take it to a vet in the morning and searched through the litter and trash for something to transport the bird in. He found a Styrofoam takeout carton and dumped out the crusts of a grilled cheese sandwich. The bird resisted at first but Packer was able to get underneath it and cup it in his hands. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he whispered, gently closing the lid on the injured bird who released a deep-throated moan while lowering its neck.
Packer’s seasick heart had found a port. The night eased its grip. His steps were more buoyant, purposeful. Packer talked to the bird as they traveled through the city. “It’s going to be alright. Packer is here. I care.” Passing people on the street, he wondered if anybody could ever guess what he had in the Styrofoam box wasn’t leftovers but a pigeon he was going to mend. Packer thought about what she would say if she knew he was bringing a baby pigeon home to fix up. She hated pigeons. One time, a pigeon landed on the table where she was eating, and when she went to shoo it off the bird reacted too slowly, and she connected. She landed a punch that sent it spiraling to the ground. She giggled. He was horrified. Packer imagined she’d call him insane and refuse to let the bird inside the apartment.
Even if it wasn’t from his choosing, the yoke of relationship obedience was removed, however, and the resulting freedom permitted this act of avian aid. He didn’t have to worry about what she thought anymore, and right now this made him giddy.
He lifted the carton close to his mouth and whispered, “I’m going to call you Lucky.”
Fifteen minutes later he reached his apartment. The lights were off when he entered with the pigeon. He fumbled momentarily for the switch in the dark. Packer then set the takeout carton on the kitchen counter and rushed to the bathroom. He relieved himself, washed his hands, and analyzed his face in the mirror. His eyes seemed misplaced and drained of their normal color, like they belonged to somebody else. He wondered if maybe she would’ve been right. Maybe he is insane.
The next step, he figured, was to give the pigeon something to eat; although what, he didn’t know. He scoured the fridge and then the cupboard, deciding sunflower seeds were probably the best option. If Lucky didn’t like that, he could always tear up pieces of bread like an old man in the park.
Lifting the carton, Packer thought it was strange that the pigeon wasn’t making noise or moving around any more. A sick premonition filled his heart. When he opened the lid, Packer let out a guttural moan. The baby bird was lying on its side. Suffocated. Dead.
“Fucking black,” Packer whined. “Everything’s black.”