Crazy Bird

A bird trapped in your chimney sounds like someone outside raking leaves, except you don’t habituate to it. Unlike the neighbor’s raking, this periodic swooshing was impossible to ignore. I told my wife it must be a bird because a squirrel or raccoon would have been able to climb back up, or down into the parlor. She suggested making a fire to smoke it out, which probably would have burned down the house. It’s lucky I was home to stop her. It was our first house, a hundred-year-old Victorian. We had been told the fireplaces, one in the living room and that one in the small parlor near the front door, needed flue repair before they could be used safely.

My office was downtown on Michigan Avenue, but I had a few patients here at the house on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings, and that was the room I used. It was a Friday night when the bird fell or flew in, and as I recall, I only had one appointment scheduled the next morning: a high school kid named Richard who wouldn’t speak to me. I was tempted to use the excuse to cancel the session—if you think it’s easy to sit patiently, pretending to be unflappable in the presence of a hostile teenager for fifty minutes, try it—but I’d hate to let him off the hook.

Opening the damper and shining a flashlight up, I could see black and white feathers. At first there was no movement, but then the bird flapped desperately, raining dirt and leaves and charred bits of brick onto my face.

“Can you reach it?” Andrea asked. I’d never handled any bird. It would be one thing, though, to hold a tame one; it would be something else to try to grab a frightened one, possibly injured or diseased, that was stuck up behind the flap of the flue damper where I couldn’t see anything but its wing feathers.

“No,” I said, “it’s too high up. If we just ignore it, I bet it’ll be gone by morning.”

Animal Removal and Pest Trappers,” she read from the Yellow Pages. “Twenty-four hour emergency service.” I said let’s wait and see if it gets out on its own. But she wanted that “creature” out of her house. She was about eight months along with our first pregnancy, and not to be argued with.

It was nearly midnight when the two guys showed up. One of them, Bruno, explained he didn’t really work for the company; he was the owner’s son, covering for his father who was in the hospital. With rabies, I imagined. The other guy was at least seventy, missing his front teeth, in a wool-lined camouflage jacket that smelled like an ash tray. His beer breath knocked me back a step as he confided, “I always get called out on a Friday night. I’m’na stop carrying that damn pager one a these days.”

“We’d know where to find you,” Bruno said, winking at me, though he’d had a few himself. We watched the old guy squat down and stick his head up the flue, with my flashlight.

Andrea came downstairs in her slippers, stretching her robe around what we called the watermelon. “You’re not going to kill it, are you?”

Bruno said, “We charge extra not to. Naw, just kidding. Paul, don’t kill the damn bird. Unless in self defense. Ma’am, can you get him a box or something?”

Tipsy or not, they knew what they were doing. As soon as my wife brought a carton, Paul extricated the bird. It struggled as he cupped one hand around its breast and throat while his other hand enfolded its wings. I said, “What is it?”

“It’s a bird,” the comedian said as my wife answered, “A gull.” They put it in the carton and held the top closed. Andrea said, “Is it okay? Can it fly?”

“Hell yes,” Paul said. We went out on the porch and opened the box. The bird fluttered out on the floor, hopped to the balustrade and took off into the crisp autumn night.

“Good job,” I said. “What do we owe you?” I wrote a check for the eighty bucks, including the surcharge for after hours, and gave them another twenty in cash, and they were gone as fast as the bird, back to their respective bars.

Five minutes later, the crazy bird—it was a young one, judging by the size as well as its poor judgment—flew back into the damn chimney and fell again all the way down to the damper. “Shit,” I believe was Andrea’s comment.

“We’re not calling them back,” I said.

“Can’t you get it out? Like he did?”

“He’s a trained Animal Remover.” She glared at me. I said, “You do it.”

She looked down at her belly and told it, “That’s your Dad.”

I closed the fireplace screen and said we’d assess the situation in the morning. We couldn’t hear the bird in the bedroom, at least.

Richard was the only patient I’ve ever had who refused to talk, session after session. I’d seen him more than a dozen times by then, almost four months. First his mother had come to consult me alone, and then again with her ex-husband and the kid’s stepmother and a sister who was in her twenties. The parents had been divorced for years, both kids staying with Mom, but when he reached his teens and the sister moved out, Richard turned defiant and violent toward his mother. She’d retreated from asking anything of him, beyond civility, but even that was more than he could manage. They didn’t eat together—he ate before she got home from work—he had no friends that she knew of, and never left the house. Whenever she asked if something was wrong, he told her to get lost (or worse). In the course of a couple of tantrums he’d threatened to kill her and himself if she kept accusing him of depression. It sounded to me like anything from clinical depression to a drug problem to a psychotic disorder. He’d refused to see counselors of any kind, and threatened to run away if they tried to bring him to one. Based on their report of a suicide threat, I talked to a psychiatrist friend at the hospital, who arranged with the parents to bring the kid there. If he refused, they were to tell him two burly men would come and take him by ambulance. Richard capitulated then, but after a four-hour assessment the hospital couldn’t admit him against his will. He denied any suicidal or homicidal intentions. There was no sign of drugs, nor was he delusional. So my friend made a “deal” with Richard: He could go home if he’d agree to weekly family therapy.

Two days later, I met Richard. He walked in ahead of his father and mother, smaller, skinnier, and more baby-faced than the tough teen I’d pictured. His long blond hair covered both ears and half of each cheek. He said tersely, “You can’t make me talk.”

“That’s certainly true,” I said, improvising. “If you want to sit here in silence for fifty minutes every week until you’re eighteen, it’s fine with me.” His father shook his head, fed up. His mother bit her lips. I said, “In that case I don’t see any reason for your parents to come, do you?” No answer.

Richard and his mother lived less than a mile from my house. It was like a Saturday detention: All he had to do was show up, which he did on time, to the minute. He made it clear he saw me as an even nastier piece of work than his parents, and he had nothing to say. That proved easier for him than it was for me. In theory, I would be patient, gain his trust, show him I’d accept him on his own terms. In reality, we both knew I was a lackey of the parent/school police state, and the asshole who’d engineered his close encounter with the psych ward.

By the middle of the second session, I was almost ready to throw in the towel. I was asking myself if this was doing more harm than good when he suddenly spoke. “Is that a chess set?”

I nodded. “Do you play?” He nodded. I brought over the box he’d noticed, and my old wooden chess board. We set up the pieces. Hiding a pawn in each fist, he held them toward me. I tapped one: Black. He turned the board so White was on his side, and slid the pawn to King Four. He had me by a pawn and a bishop in about ten moves. I resigned as the clock registered the end of the session.

I had an excuse: couldn’t play my best game while half my strategic faculties were engaged in trying to appear professionally competent but relaxed, and the other half in guessing what his hostility masked. To him, of course, the fact that we did nothing but play chess, at his father’s expense, meant he was in control. That was how I wanted him to feel, but in truth, I had no more idea whether it would soften him toward the possibility of talking than I did about what he might need to talk about.

The following week I took the game seriously. I hadn’t played for years, and was never much of a chess player. Those plain wooden pieces, some missing their felt bottoms, were my grandfather’s, who had taught me the moves. He used to play without a queen, until the first time I won. After that he went to full deployment, and I never beat him again—or my college roommate, either. But I remembered a principle or two, and White was still alive when our time was up. We lifted the board over to the cabinet, where it stayed undisturbed for a week.

So it had gone, every Saturday. I sent monthly bills to Richard’s father, and took his checks, telling myself I earned my fee taking a beating, week after week. The one time I managed to force a draw, I let Richard go home twenty minutes early. I suppose he won a total of eight or ten games. Sometimes we’d sit for minutes, contemplating a position. While he pondered his line of attack, I’d speculate about the source of this frail kid’s rage. He felt helpless—about what? His mother had mentioned that her ex-husband “had a temper” but had never been physically abusive. She and the two kids seemed to have got through the divorce and the five or six years since then rather well. She struck me as no more demanding, probably no more irritating than any mother is to her adolescent son. Yet Richard’s defiance and hostility toward her were extreme. No friends—what did that mean? Living with Mom wasn’t the only thing bothering him.

Although our chess games soon became relaxed, almost cordial, any forays I made into other territory met with stony silence. “How was your week?” No reply. I had to remind myself he was a patient, this rudeness was a symptom. Still, it bothered me more than my string of lost games, humbling as that was. I asked him once if he played much chess other than here. He responded: “None.” I said he was awfully good. “Actually,” he said, “I’m not.” Point taken.

One Sunday, running along the lakefront path, Richard passed me. I mentioned it at the next session. He didn’t reply. “Don’t know if you recognized me when you went sailing by.” Nothing. “You’re pretty fast, how far do you usually run?” No answer.

Thus matters stood between my young patient and myself on the Saturday after the midnight service call from Paul and Bruno. When my wife woke me with the news that the gull was still flapping away in the parlor chimney, I decided not to cancel Richard. “Maybe it’ll distract him,” I said, “and I’ll beat him for a change.”

Richard had barely sat down, examining the board, when the bird started flapping around. He turned and stared into the empty brick hearth. “There’s something in your chimney.”

I know,” I said. “A gull flew in there last night.”

“Really? It must be a pigeon,” he said, suddenly more animated than I’d seen him before. “You never hear of a gull going in someone’s chimney.”

“I agree with you,” I said, “but I saw it and it’s a gull. Smallish, but just like the ones on the beach. We had it removed and it flew back in.”

“Why would it fly back in?”

“You want my professional opinion, it must be crazy.”

That failed to get a smile out of him. “What are you going to do?”

I explained that having paid $100 to liberate the damn thing, I wasn’t going to pay them to come back and kill it. “In a day or two it’ll starve, I guess, or die of thirst. I need work done on the flue anyway. I’ll call the chimney people on Monday.”

His eyes dilated, as though realizing for the first time how dangerous I really was. He took a moment to ponder the situation: This would require delicate negotiation. “Maybe if we let it out now in the daylight,” he suggested, “it won’t fly back in.”


“Do you mind if I try?”

I felt it wouldn’t do our therapeutic alliance any good to add heartless animal starver to stupid, irritating, and opportunist in his view of me. I said, “Let me get you a pair of gloves.”

When I returned with my good leather gloves from the front closet and the carton we’d left on the porch last night, Richard was on his back with his head in the hearth, shining the flashlight up the flue. “He’s right there.” I insisted he put the gloves on. He seized the bird as easily as the professional had done. I helped him to his feet. He was flushed, exhilarated as if he’d run five miles. I held the box open and he laid the gull inside it, but before we could close the top, the bird flapped its wings in our faces and flew at the window blinds. It squawked, landed on the back of the sofa, then leaped to the table where it swept most of the chess pieces to the floor. Richard lunged for it and tipped over a floor lamp, both of us yelling at the damn bird, which kept flying at the window. My patient picked himself up in front of the door just as it opened, where he looked up at the abdomen of a very pregnant woman, whose agitation he might well have taken for the first signs of labor. Andrea observed, “What the fuck?” ducking as the bird flew past her head into the hall and the sunny living room beyond.

The damage it did before Richard managed to net the crazy bird in an afghan wasn’t extensive, but was impressive: a sooty smudge where it brushed its wings across a white sectional cushion, a trail of bird shit on the antique desk and another on an armchair, and a stack of books knocked to the floor by myself as I missed the bird. It achieved what no human had been able to do for a long time: Richard was laughing. So was I. Andrea was not. She rushed to get rags and the vacuum.

We maneuvered the poor gull into the box and folded the flaps together to close it. He said, “Let’s not release it near your house. I can walk it over to the beach, after.” I told him to wash up in the powder room while I put the box out on the front porch. When Richard and I returned to the room, we set up the board for a new game. I had glimpsed another side of him—and he of me—but he sat down and played with his usual concentration. There was nothing to suggest that game would be our last. When our time ended, he was a pawn ahead.

“How was your session?” Andrea asked, tongue in cheek.

I half expected the bird to fly back into my chimney, even if Richard did release it four blocks away. By mid-week, however, it hadn’t. I called the flue man and scheduled a cleaning and an estimate to repair the whole thing, including a screen over the chimney top. On Saturday, I thought Richard would ask whether the bird had returned. But he merely sat down and looked at me as tensely as ever. Was our adventure forgotten, or had it ruined what little rapport we’d built?

I brought the chessboard to the table, the black pieces facing him. He was up a pawn. But Richard didn’t pull his chair up to the table. He scooped up the captured white pieces on his side and dumped them in the middle of the board, doing the same with the black pieces I had captured. Then he carried the board back to its place on the cabinet, and sat down. He chewed his lip nervously but met my eyes, I think for the first time.

“I’ve decided to give you a chance,” he said. “Do you know anything about bulimia?”

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