The Bluejay

It was hot out, and Eve was waiting for the blue jay to fly past her window again. 

He had come several times already that day, just for a second. Blue jays are not like other birds. They are not like the fat robins or the unwieldy crows, they do not sit on the ground and shriek until they are full of shrieking. No, the blue jays slip from post to post too easy, never bothering to let you know that they’re there. They move unassailable.

It was hot out, and the blue jays still flew. It was that once in a summer heat, that heat so thick that the trees settle deeper into the earth and the air buzzes with the noise of electric fans. It was that merciless heat that comes on the wings of a hot breeze and a cloudy sky, it was that heat, and the blue jays still flew. 

The tiger lillies were wilting. And so were the people and the people who were wilting wouldn’t go out and water the tiger lillies and the tiger lillies that were wilting would offer them no incentive.

Eve sat by her window in this heat while sweat pooled on her skin and curled her hair and pricked up her underarms. It felt like blood on her sides. She pushed her glasses back up her wet nose and wiped her upper lip. She was waiting for the blue jay.

Eve leaned back on the slats of her chair and reached a hand out the window. She liked to imagine that anything the sun touched would just disintegrate along the clean line of light and shadow like something out of a myth she couldn’t quite remember. A myth or a movie. 

Nothing happened except that the inside air felt very cool on her hand when she pulled it back in. 

Her mind being in that melted way that minds get in the heat, Eve reached out again and laid a single finger on the railing of the fire escape. It burned, which should have been expected. She pulled back her hand, put it in the glass of water on her desk, and then shook a few drops of water out towards the rail. The water separated around the rusty patches, sizzled, and disappeared. 

Around the corner and through a screen window, Eve heard The Drifters singing to her. It seemed that all the bugs and birds and car horns had it in them to sing along.

She thought about the first time she had ever seen a blue jay. It was at Canarsie, when she was eleven, at least as far as she could remember. She had wanted to go to Canarsie because some characters in a book had, but their Canarsie was much finer than hers. That is a failure of books. 

She found herself by the ocean and there was no place to go dancing or eat corn dogs or buy soda water, like in the old book, just stone benches to sit on and look at the water moving on. If you paid money you could rent a rowboat and go out fishing, but she hadn’t asked for money. She had asked to go to Canarsie, she had done it, and she had wasted subway fare in the doing.

What a shame to want to do something and then realize that there’s nothing left to do once you’ve done it. 

So Eve was sitting on the stone bench on the pier and feeling very old and beaten down when a blue jay landed on the rail before her. A blue jay doesn’t belong by the ocean, but he looked just right there anyways. He turned his back to her at first and she dutifully admired the scaly print of his cape. Then he turned to face her and they nodded to each other as respectable birds do. If he had been wearing a cap, he surely would have doffed it. Then he lifted his wings and caught onto the ocean breeze without a single flap, and he went away. He was a very old-timey gentleman, she decided, who knew Canarsie when it was beer halls and prize booths and dancing under strings of lights, and that was why he came back to a place where he didn’t belong. Maybe he had found his wife under a tent on the pier or maybe he died falling off a rowboat (which would have cost substantially less in olden times) or maybe he just missed the colors and the boaters and the barkers and he came by every now and then to make sure they hadn’t decided to change it back. 

She felt very bad for him, but she thought that knowing him had made her trip worth it, even if it was sad. There had been nothing and then there was something, even if something was only a blue jay waxing nostalgic. 

Blue jays belong almost nowhere but the fine free forests of the north, but you’ll still see them almost anywhere. This informs the idea that they must have secret lives that they are always racing around to revisit. 

It was hard to think about racing when it was so hot.

There’s nothing to do when it’s so hot. You can’t even think for too long because it’ll make your head boil over. Everybody is just in stasis these days, lying on the couch or in a cold bathtub and watching reruns to fill up the hours till it’s cool again. There must be something divine to do with such heat, a heat on par with flood or famine. We have done something wrong and we must lie in dark rooms until we are forgiven. The smell of your own stink on such days in punishment enough. 

The heat made Eve sneeze, which added a certain frenzy to her slowness. She blew her nose over and over again until the tissues came away red. Then she tipped back her head to stop the flow. She could feel the blood run down the back of her throat and when she spat it was all stripey. It seemed to her a little pointedly cruel, on top of everything else. Somebody was playing a joke on her. Somebody was making her close her eyes and turn away when they knew she ought to be watching. 

It had been nearly two hours since the blue jay last came. If he didn’t come again today, it would be wrong. It just wouldn’t be right. 

Eve remembered the second time she ever saw a blue jay. She was thirteen and she was to be in a ballet. She was to be in The Nutcracker. She had started dance lessons just a year before on some fresh romantic whim and everyone told her what a great thing it was that she was in the show with so little experience. But she wasn’t, really. She was a gumdrop, a made up role for all the first year girls who were mostly five or six years younger than herself. Her shame itched at her back and wrung her smile out. 

When the director gave everybody notes at the end of the show she went back to the stage. She sat in the wings, where everything was black except for her dress, which was purple and had a hula hoop sewn into the hem, and she looked up. She thought of the lights and all the shows they might have seen and all the great dancers and singers and actors and all the gumdrops, and she thought about all the men and women in black who walked across the top of every show and made the sun and the snow and the warm lights to show that we’re back home and the play is ending. She thought about these things and she saw a blue jay thinking about her, and it seemed just right.

The blue jay in the rafters was not like the one on the rail. This one was not so portly nor so friendly, she fell more towards stand-offish. She was not unkind, but she was a theater bird and her business was necessarily one of secrets. She was sleeker too, as befitted her character, no doubt more preoccupied with her cigarettes than a fried dough. She was cut from silk with a sharper line and her eyes were framed in kohl. 

It seemed clear to Eve that she was the ghost of the theater. Every theater had one, and there had been no evidence of a ghost in this theater besides this ill-placed blue jay, so it follows that they must be the same. No doubt she was once an actress here, who wore sparkly dresses and rouge to shock her patrons. She had had a dressing room with low red armchairs and a blue willow tea service that she’d pour out for anybody who came by. But it was likely that most of the time she kept to herself, kept her mind swimming through the thoughts of Ophelia or Juliet, scarcely noticing the people around her. Surely she fought her way through the stage door flocks every night and went home to her cat and a nightcap, and it was absolutely positive that she couldn’t stand the quiet after she was gone, so she came back to perform again.

The bird smiled to confirm, then soared across the seats to the light booth. She had to check up on things there. Blue jays are always terribly busy. 

The busiest thing happening to Eve was the ice pack melting under her bra. Soon it would all be melted and she would have to get up and switch it out for something fresh, and later she would even have to go eat dinner. But just then all of her bones were soft and her feet were swollen and there was nothing to do. 

She thought lightly of cracking an egg on the sidewalk like they did in movies to see what would happen. Not likely that the neighbors would take that in stride. 

The only person doing anything that day was the mailman. She could see him out the window, walking along the street. He was delivering the essentials—the water bills and the flyer for the senate hopeful and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, which was pointedly appropriate. You knew it was hot because he got to wear the uniform with the shorts instead of the long pants. She watched him and wondered briefly how a person becomes a mailman. Children don’t dress up in the uniforms on Halloween. Young people don’t study for their mailman exams to get into the best mailman schools. Who becomes a mailman? 

The gentleman who walked up Eve’s stairs did, and he left a flyer for window repair. 

The people across the way were cooking something that smelled like garlic and red pepper. This made Eve angry. Everybody knows not to cook on a hot day. You order in, or else you make something out of crackers and that can of tuna setting in your cabinet. Eve had grand plans to eat a bowl of frozen fruit in the cold bath and then go to bed. But she couldn’t do that until she saw her blue jay. 

An airplane flew overhead, and it occurred to Eve that it was quite possibly the loudest noise she had ever heard.

That was the third time she ever saw a blue jay, by the way. Just so we’ve got the story straight. 

It was last year, when Eve was 15, and she was on a plane to go to her great aunt’s funeral. It was the first time she had ever been on a plane, which she was supposed to be excited about, while still maintaining an attitude of being properly somber. She sat in her seat and put her feet on the footrest and they gave her a coke with a lemon wedge. Everything was just a little off. She was, after all, sitting in a tube with a hundred other people waiting quietly to go to Ohio. It wasn’t quite the thrill she had expected. 

Then she looked out the window and saw her third blue jay. He was such a small fellow, sitting on the tarmac, and she knew instantly that he had been an Air Force fighter in WWII, that he had joined up a year before he was allowed by lying about his age, that he had had a sweetheart who sent him salamis and wore his pin, and that he carried her picture. She knew that his plane was called blue blaze, or blue streak, or blue lightning, and that it had had pictures of flames and pretty girls on the sides. Probably he wrote his mamma every week to tell her he was doing okay, and probably she hung a star in her window. There was no doubt in Eve’s mind that he didn’t like to drink coffee and that he was pin-skinny and that he was shot down over France. He lived, Eve was relieved to find, but he lost an arm. 

That was why he didn’t sit up on the plane or fly along. He was missing a wing, and he hopped away. If only for such a little thing, he could fly too. There was something bright about this kind of martyrdom. 

The flight itself was lackluster and the coke was flat. 

Five in the evening and the blue jay still had not come. Everybody was waking from their stupor. On the street some children were playing with chalk and downstairs a man was coughing. The ice pack was all blue and squidgy, but it didn’t need to be replaced. Somewhere close by someone was vacuuming—the worst was over.

A crow landed on the fire escape. Eve regarded him coldly, though made no move to discourage him from his spot. Crows were not magic, and he was taking up a spot meant for somebody else, although she would never be rude about it. He seemed to understand. With a perfunctory squawk, he was on his way again. 

There was a pattering noise coming from below the apartment. Could be a basketball, or hopscotch, or a bird pecking at something soft enough to hollow the sound of a beak. It was dimmer by then, but still hot enough that you could see the air before you. A swarm of dragonflies came through. There’s something about hot days that makes creatures act unnaturally, they swarm together or nest on your doorstep or eat something they don’t usually. Nothing acts right in a heart wave.

She was getting sick of not having anything to do. It seemed like everybody else had a sort of hum to them—the dragonflies and the mailmen and the basketball players—and she didn’t. But that was because she was waiting for the blue jay.

She was waiting for the blue jay to come back because she wasn’t sure of the nature of it at first glance. She had seen that it was a bird, she had deduced that it was blue, but then it had flown away before she had been able to discern anything more about it. The bird had appeared, but had left nothing in its wake. 

This was why she was so sure the blue jay must return. Otherwise everything would be tilted. She wouldn’t be able to walk straight if she didn’t see the blue jay again. 

A man on the corner was drumming. Why is there always someone drumming on such a day?

The last rays of sunlight throbbed just above the horizon, then disappeared. The street lamps turned on and all the hopscotch girls went inside.

Eve turned on her desk lamp, and sunk deeper into the rungs of her chair. She had time. It was dark out, and she was waiting for the blue jay to fly past her window again.