This afternoon when I left work at the cafe, I stepped out into the gravel lot behind the building. It had been sunny all morning — I had been watching all morning, loving all the bright light coming in to the cafe. I think I kept the booths by the windows extra clean today. Then as lunch went on it started to cloud over and by the time I came out of the building it was dark and gray. It was like all the life went out of me suddenly, like I breathed out a big breath and the life went out with it. The back entrance of the cafe is miserable, anyway. Some people say the town looks more run-down these days, but it really does back there where nobody pays to take care of it. It was a paved parking lot once, but now it’s broken clods of blacktop and gravel and potholes. There are trash cans back there, some of them from other businesses, and they always seem to be knocked over, and other junk jumbled around our big black dumpster. There’s some old metal fixtures that used to be in the five-and-dime up the block that got crushed, and they’ve been sitting there rusting for years. A pile of broken lumber from when somebody was going to fix up the old hair salon — that was that really old one that still had some of those dryers like space helmets — and then they stopped halfway and left their junk in the alley. In the winter the snow piles up on this stuff and on days like today the leftovers from the snow clumps around, all dirty and gray, in the puddles and ruts. This part of the winter is always the hardest. The early Spring, when you get excited that the sun is coming out and then it clouds over and gets cold and snows again.
I had been looking forward to getting off work but by the time I got to my car door, I couldn’t even remember what I had thought I was going to do with that good mood I had been in. I was standing there, leaning against my open car door, trying to remember what I had been in such a hurry to get out and do when I saw this beautiful little bird sitting up there on top of the dumpster, just looking around. He was a light color, a lighter color than the old dirty things in that alley, with white feathers peppered in among his brown, and a bright little orange cap behind his hair, a little bit of sunshine color, like he’d gotten dressed up to go out. Listen to me talking about him like he is a ‘he.’ But that’s what I thought, looking at him. What a beautiful little thing. I once found a little bird that was just learning how to fly, that had fallen out of its nest. He was flapping around on the ground, almost getting it, but he couldn’t get himself up. He had been in a nest in an old hanging pot my mother had left out from the summer before, where she had planted flowers and then forgotten it and then it had filled up with birds. I didn’t want our cat to get him, so I caught him with a box and then picked him up in my hands to put him back in the nest. I always remember how light he was. Birds always seem powerful to me when they’re flapping their wings so fast, and you think about how hard you’d have to work to get yourself off the ground like they do, but they’re really light, when you hold them. He didn’t weigh anything. I thought of that, looking at this bird sitting on the dumpster, how light and colorful he must be. He seemed to be looking around, not any more impressed by that alley and that grey afternoon than I was. Then he looked at me for a quick moment. It felt like he was saying, ‘I think there are better places than this.’ And then he lifted up and flittered away. And I thought, ‘That’s what I should do, too,’ and I stepped down into my car and drove away. The bird was right, the afternoon got better when I went somewhere else, mostly because I kept thinking about the cheerful looking bird with that sunshine cap on his head.
I’ve seen birds like him before. Every spring, probably. I don’t know what they’re called. Isn’t that stupid? I live around these birds and I know them but I don’t know the name of them. I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s like living on a street your whole life and you wake up one day and realize you don’t know any of your neighbors. I was remember some birders who came into the cafe last weekend. They were from out of town, down in Bismarck. Came all the way up to Jericho just to look for birds. They talked about a field and some woods up northeast of town, I think it’s that field of the Hoffarts. They haven’t been farming it, if I’m thinking of the right one, and I guess birds like it. “People talk about that field from all over the state. Birders do,” he said. I’d never heard of such a thing, birders. This guy knew how many different kinds of birds he’d seen in his whole life, four hundred and something kinds. I couldn’t name ten birds — crows and hawks and geese and ducks. I don’t know the names of the rest. This guy was all excited about different birds he’s seen up here before — I can’t even remember the names. He was surprised I didn’t know. He’d name one and say, “You haven’t see that? My god, the yellow feathers, it’s spectacular!” And another one, bright blue, and so on. I guess that’s what people do down in Bismarck, look at birds. After this afternoon, though, I shouldn’t criticize. Maybe they feel more of that lightness, brightness every day, no matter what the sun does.