The Pigeon Repairman of the Bronx
a short story
My father was an honest man, as long as you were not working for a government agency, Wall Street, or for some reason the ASPCA. He spent his career teaching aspiring mechanics the distinct types of drill bits in what seemed to me to be a foreign language. His auto-shop students were young, hardened by work and life, and eager to please my father. My father, in turn, was quiet and difficult to please, but I was his only daughter, and I did not have to try. I lacked the eagerness to please and the eagerness to learn the parts of a car. As a child, I was more interested in digging up worms in the garden and scratching moss off stones.
The one thing that my father and I connected on was our love of common birds. For me, it was sparrows. I found them mischievous, spritely, and delightful. For him, it was pigeons. He found them everywhere -- until, of course, the fateful day when the pigeons began to disappear. It is difficult now, looking back, to pinpoint the exact day or even month when it started. It became more obvious in the spring, but they could have been disappearing all winter. One morning in eighth grade, swinging my mud-caked shoes back and forth as I ate my Lucky Charms, I inquired as to the pigeon’s numbers.
“Seems like there are less pigeons this year, right dad?” I asked, munching away absentmindedly. We lived in the Bronx in a towering apartment complex that we could barely afford, but it was right across the street from a park, and therefore, I loved it. I loved the sycamore trees as they dropped their winter skins to the steaming earth below. I loved the sparrows as they picked through the trash and bathed in the dirt. I loved the candleflame lichen that sprouted neon yellow, and the speckle back lichen that spread like an ocean tide over the rocks. I loved it all, but he must have noticed there were less pigeons this year. My father was keenly attentive; some would even say hypervigilant. It was just the two of us. We had to look out for each other. I looked out for him, and he looked out for me and the pigeons.
“Yes,” he said, his brow creasing. “I wonder… they don’t migrate, you know, pumpkin? They stay in the city all year round, like us. They’re built tough.”
“What do you think is happening to ‘em, then, dad?” I asked, attempting to rip the “BOX TOPS FOR EDUCATION” label off the cereal box, for school.
“I don’t know,” he murmured. “I don’t know.”
By the time I graduated high school, my father and I had grown distant. The language barrier had grown too big to cross. His world of nuts and bolts, and mine of botany and pretty girls, seemed to run like the subway cars, always carefully avoiding each other, always skimming over designated time and space. He tried to ask me about birds, but I’d stopped looking for them. I’d stopped seeing them. I was instead seeing a young woman named Mathilde and the flash of her brilliant green eyes -- impossibly more varied than gold dust lichen -- was all I had time for.
I applied to a college far away and got in with a generous scholarship. I took out loans for the rest and never dreamed of asking him for a penny. The summer before I left, the pigeon population had made a miraculous comeback. My father was happy and hard at work. I didn’t think to ask him what he was working on, but after Mathilde suddenly broke up with me, (“I can’t do this anymore. I don’t think I owe you an explanation. I just can’t”) he decided to tell me.
“You look sad,” he said simply. “Do you want to see something cool?”
“I don’t know, dad,” I said, “I’ve still got loads to do before I leave. I’ve got a lot to pack… paperwork to file…” But seeing the disappointment on his face, I relented, “Alright, alright. What have you got for me?”
He took me to the elevator of our building with a new key jangling in his pocket. I was too sullen to ask where we were going, but when we reached the top floor, he got out and led me to a locked door that was plastered with warnings: EMPLOYEES ONLY, PREMISES UNDER 24-HOUR CCTV VIDEO SURVEILLANCE, MAINTENANCE CREW ONLY.
“Dad, I don’t know if we are supposed to be up here,” I said uneasily.
“Relax, pumpkin. I’ve got a key,” he winked dramatically, then unlocked and swung open the door.
A flurry of white and gray, like snow -- pigeons greeted us. Clean, gleaming bird cages and attentive violet and orange eyes blinked in the bright light of the roof. An open-air rehabilitation center for wayward pigeons. Emotion throttled me as I took in the view of the city.
I walked between the cages of pigeons to the view from the rooftop, where thousands of apartment windows looked out to thousands of more apartment windows. I could see into some clearly -- there was an apartment filled with ferns and greenery, another with carefully placed mandolins and ukuleles displayed on the wall… another with two cats in the window and two cheerful strangers enticing the cats to play with them -- other apartments were simply light, or dark.
I turned back to see my father taking one of the pigeons out of the cages. “This is Pluto,” he said, thrusting the feathered creature towards me. Pluto tilted his head and surveyed me suspiciously.
“They’re carrier pigeons?” I asked.
“...not quite,” he said, pulling Pluto back into his chest.
I saw my father’s brow crease in worry for perhaps the first time, in a strange way: he was worried not about protecting me from the world, but about protecting the pigeons from me.
“I won’t tell,” I said, even though it felt strange and childish to say.
“These pigeons are in need of repairs,” he said, smiling down at Pluto.
“They’ve got broken wings, or something?” I asked, my palms sweating as I realized just how strange the situation was, how long and hard he must have worked to keep this a secret from me. Then, the cloud of guilt when I realized he wouldn’t have had to work awfully long or hard at all -- I had been ignoring him for so long, my embarrassing mechanic father, my hardworking and kind father, my teacher, and coach.
“Not broken wings. Broken souls,” he said.
I blinked rapidly. He went on hastily, “They are pigeons who have forgotten how to pigeon. They wander off; they skirt traffic. They can no longer fly, they don’t believe in themselves. They turn invisible or they go blind -- the invisible ones I can paint, but we are still trying to figure out a solution for the blindness…”
“‘We’?” I echoed.
“Oh, yes. There are six of us pigeon repairmen. One for each borough of the city, and an alternate, who travels to us when one of us gets sick or can’t make repairs or has a question.”
“Wait -- did you say turn invisible?”
“Oh, yes. There’s a ton of different horrible illnesses going around that can befall the poor things. They can get dropsy, or a nasty little cough, or something that Bernie calls ‘imitation illness’ where whole bunches of them think they’re lamp posts, and they forget how to fly, like I said… The invisibility is just one of them. I’ll admit, it’s the syndrome that people latch onto, because it’s so strange… but still. It’s hard work, good work, and I’m happy to do it.”
“Dad, I appreciate the strangeness of this all, but… why are you doing this? Why pigeons? And why now?”
“Why?” He posited Pluto back in his cage where he peered back at us. “Because I am a repairman, pumpkin. It’s what I do. I’m happy to help the little guys, and I needed something that I could look forward to, after you leave, and I retire… I thought you would understand.”
“No, I…” I bit my lip and reached out to touch his dirty sleeve. “I mean, I do understand you wanting to help, but… how do you even get them here?”
“Ah,” he said, tapping his temple and smiling at me, “That is where the real magic comes in.”
“And the invisibility bit wasn’t magic enough?” I laughed and followed him to beyond the cages, taking a step down to where a small radio was set up on a dais.
“It used to be catch-and-release, in the old days,” he said, “But I built this, with Bernie’s help. Now, they hear it and they come to us.”
He flicked on the radio. For a moment, nothing happened -- then strange piano music began to pour out, soft and haunting and altogether unearthly. I had never heard anything like it, but the pigeons had. Soon they filled the air and again, I lost my breath as they fluttered and scattered, gathered again, cooing, and crying and flapping.
I looked at my father to see his face was full of pure joy as they gathered around him. I fought the strong urge to throw my hands up in front of my face. The sight was both ghastly and wondrous -- pigeons, with barely a spot of sky between them.
“Yes, yes,” he shouted to them, his voice thundering and proud, “One at a time, one at a time. I’ll see to all of you.”
I looked over at him in awe. “You’re like the pigeon doctor,” I said.
“Repairman,” he said, wagging a finger and grinning conspiratorially at me, “Repairman.”
He had been telling the truth: there were some with the invisibility sickness, a few who had learned curse words and couldn’t stop parroting them, a few who had cigarettes caught in their throats, a few who had broken feet, and a few who I could only describe as Very Strange. They buzzed and bustled around my father with a greater affection than I’d ever given him, and a swell of regret washed over me.
“This is more than a hobby to you,” I said in realization. “This is your greatest achievement. This is your greatest treasure. I can’t believe I didn’t know, I --”
“No,” he said simply.
“But -- but they love you,” I said, “Look at all the birds you have helped. Each one goes on to return to the sky, to fill the city.”
“No,” he said, then jerked his chin up and smiled at me. “I mean, yes, that is true. But they are not my greatest achievement.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Then what? What could you possibly have that’s more wondrous than these birds?”
He laughed: “You, pumpkin,” he said, letting one of the birds go. It soared above the city, ducking, and turning -- well again, and full of joy and a pigeon’s purpose. He repeated: “My greatest treasure is you.”
I took a staggering breath in. The blue sky, painted with long, striking swaths of white, peppered with pigeons, turned blurry and altogether too bright. I forced myself to keep looking up, anyway -- I kept looking up, into the bright blue, into the sky, into the brilliance where the pigeons took flight.
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