Skip to main content

The Nests of Hummingbirds

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997

Jeremy Bockman sat in the rare book room of the university library, poring over Birds of America. He had written a report on John James Audubon for his fifth-grade art class the previous year, and, in the course of researching the report, had surprised himself by becoming genuinely interested in his subject. That interest had continued to grow with time. The public library had copies of Birds of America, of course, and Viviparous Quadrupeds of America, too; Jeremy could easily have checked them out and taken them home to read there. But the rare book room’s copies were bigger and better.

The rare book room itself was bigger and better, too. Jeremy sat back in his chair and looked around the room, taking in the massive wooden tables and chairs, the slant-topped wooden book rests on top of the tables, the tall, leaded glass windows inlaid with brightly-colored stained glass medallions honoring literary figures. The mid-June sun was filtering through the medallions just then, lighting them up like jewels, coloring the air. Jeremy had discovered this room while doing research for his Audubon report. He thought it looked like part of a castle, a castle filled with words. He loved the look of the place, and the smell of it, too; all those books, all those words, smelled old and serious and knowing, almost as if a person could take in knowledge simply by sitting at one of the tables and breathing.

Jeremy turned back to Birds. He had the volume open to one of his favorites, Plate 21, depicting four mockingbirds in a tree having an epic battle with a rattlesnake. The snake had its mouth open wide, preparing to strike; one of the birds was poised to peck the snake’s eye out. Go, birds, go, Jeremy thought. He studied the details for a while—the desperately spread wings and urgent open beaks of the birds, the snake’s minutely rendered scales and fangs. It was hard to believe that Audubon had probably captured the scene by shooting birds and wiring them into position.

Jeremy remembered how shocked he had been when he had discovered the amount of killing involved in Audubon’s work. Before doing the research for his report, he had always thought of Audubon, when he had thought of him at all, as a sort of bird watcher who liked to draw what he saw. Soon, though, Jeremy had discovered in Audubon a man with a driving passion, a naturalist and ornithologist as well as a painter, a man nearly as handy with a gun as with a brush. Observing the birds on the wing, it turned out, wasn’t enough; Audubon had required the kind of sustained, close observation only possible when a creature was either captive or dead. He had even eaten some of his victims. Yet, how very much alive his birds looked: the tilt of a head, the glistening black bead of an eye, a beak open in song or clamped around a bug, a small, clawed foot clutching a branch, a wing tilted just so. Jeremy could not understand how the artist had brought such convincing life out of death.

He turned over to Plate 25, which depicted a pair of song sparrows going after a meal of spiders. This sort of thing was what had finally brought him to terms with Audubon’s killing: the realization that the birds themselves were constantly eating other creatures. The bald eagle about to devour a catfish; the barred owl menacing a strangely unconcerned squirrel; the Swanson’s hawk swooping down on a rabbit that was doomed and looked as if it knew it; the barn owls preparing to feast on a chipmunk. For every willow ptarmigan watching over a sweet-looking brood of fat, fuzzy chicks, there was a golden eagle flying off with a rabbit clutched in its talons. Audubon and his gun had fit right in.

Jeremy closed the bird book gently and opened The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. He had discovered this book while doing his research; previously, he had never known that Audubon was even interested in quadrupeds, or, as the artist spelled it in his journal, quadrupedes. “From what Jeremy had been able to tell, most people had never heard of the quadruped book. Jeremy thought that was a shame, because, in its own way, it was just as good. The very first plate, for example, depicted an ocelot perched on a log that spanned a stream. The cat’s graceful, muscular body fairly quivered with life; his ears were angled far forward, and he peered acutely downward at a catfish floating, unsuspecting, beneath the surface of the water.

As Jeremy examined the illustration, he noticed the initials in the lower-right corner: J.W.A.That would be John Woodhouse Audubon, the son who, along with his brother, Victor, had assisted the elder Audubon. Victor had been in charge of the business end of things, making sure the books actually got into the hands of their subscribers, while J.W.had followed in his father’s footsteps as an artist. Jeremy had discovered that John Woodhouse shared the same obscurity as the quadrupeds book, and wondered why the son had never achieved the recognition that the father had. He thought it might have something to do with the eccentric, larger-than-life character John James became, running around London in woodsman’s clothing, his long, flowing hair dressed with bear grease.

Jeremy leafed carefully through the volume. It seemed as if credit for the quadruped art should be about equally divided between father and son; J.W.apparently had handled most of the larger animals, J.J.the smaller. Jeremy studied some of the plates carefully. He found it impossible to tell the difference between the work of the two artists. It seemed to him, for instance, that J.W.’s rendition of four house mice (Plate 123) was easily as fine as J.J.’s painting of meadow jumping mice in Plate 122.But then, Jeremy was no artist.

No one knew that better than Jeremy himself. It would have been hard not to know it, having, as he did, two artists for parents. He had always been aware of how different he was from them. It wasn’t just that he had no aptitude for drawing or painting or any other form of art he had tried. More than that, his entire way of thinking and being seemed to set him apart from his parents; he just didn’t look at things the way they did. This sense of his own differentness, his separateness, was very strong in Jeremy. A couple of years before, he had even gone through a time of thinking he might be adopted. Only his strong physical resemblance to his father—the same straight, brown, silky hair, the same pale blue eyes with a darker rim of blue ringing the iris—had kept him from questioning his parents about it.

He had taken a number of art classes both in and out of school, everything from ceramics to watercolors, to please his parents. He always pretended to enjoy himself, and certain aspects were fun— playing around with colors, for example—but he knew, and had always known, that he simply didn’t have the eyes of an artist. Let alone the hands of one. Heredity hadn’t worked for his family as it had for the Audubons.

He glanced at the clock on the wall: 3:30. He had told his mother he would be home by four. He returned the books to the front desk of the rare book room. Then he went outside to the bike rack and unchained his bicycle. Even though the hottest part of the day was past, it still felt as if it were in the 90’s outside; the Chicago area was in the midst of an unseasonable heat wave. Lake Michigan was only a block away, and Jeremy could smell its limpid scent on the damp breeze. On the way home, he made a game of seeing how slowly he could pedal and still keep his bike upright.

Jeremy and his mother shared a house in Wilmette. It was a fairly old, two-story, three-bedroom house with white-painted wooden siding and blue trim. Jeremy opened the side door with his key. “Mom? I’m home.”

There was no answer. Probably his mother was in her studio, working. Jeremy bumped his bike down the basement steps and leaned it in its accustomed corner in the furnace room beside the lawn furniture, which they hadn’t gotten out yet. Then he went upstairs to the kitchen, got two root beers out of the fridge (one diet, one regular), and went outside to the garage, which was separated from the house by about ten yards.

As he had thought, his mother was in there. She was pounding on a sheet of copper with a ball peen hammer, making closely-spaced little dents over the surface of the metal. Each blow produced a hard, sharp bang.

Jeremy watched his mother work for a while. Catherine Barron was a small, thin, intense woman with an aura of prickly strength about her. She and Jeremy got along well, most of the time. He didn’t like to argue with her, though. Her long blond hair was shot with gray; she refused to color it. At the moment, her hair was pulled into a tight knot on the top of her head, and she was wearing shorts, a tank top, and her usual work shoes: steel-toed boots. She was a metal sculptor, and, as she liked to say, you only need to drop an acetylene torch on your foot once.

Jeremy felt his usual mixture of pride and embarrassment when confronted with his mother’s work. Nobody else’s mother did anything like this. Most of his friends’ mothers either stayed at home with their children or had normal jobs; his friend Michael Goldman’s mom, for example, was a lawyer. And his father was an accountant. Not like Jeremy’s father, who lived in a loft in Bucktown and painted large, abstract canvases, often in black and white. Jeremy was proud to have talented parents; at the same time, though, he couldn’t help wishing they were a little less unconventional.

He also wished they all lived together. Jeremy and his mother had lived alone for nearly ten months, ever since she had asked his father to leave.

Jeremy watched her hammer the copper for a couple of minutes before announcing his presence.

“Hi, Mom,” he said. He timed his words between two hammer blows.

She paused, turned, and looked at him. She smiled. “Well, hi,” she said. Her voice still held a trace of the lilt she had brought with her from North Carolina 32 years before. She set down the hammer, took off her work gloves. He walked toward her and handed her the diet root beer.

“Thanks, honey,” she said. “I could use this.” They both popped open their sodas and took long, appreciative gulps. Jeremy belched resonantly. “Hey,” his mother said. They went through this nearly every day.

“Sorry,” he said, then, “How come you’re not running the AC in here?” He fanned his face with his free hand.”It’s hot.”

“It’s not that bad with the door open,” she replied. “At least, it wasn’t until the afternoon sun started shining right on me. What time is it?” “I think it’s about four. Maybe a little after.”

She sighed. “Well, time to knock off, anyway. I’ll come in and shower. How about an early dinner? I skipped lunch, and I’m starved. Chinese okay?”

“Sure. I’ll help you clean up.” As he carefully stacked sheets of copper against the garage wall, Jeremy said, “What are you working on here?”

“Oh,” his mother replied, “it’s an outside piece. Sort of an abstract windmill thing. Some people with a 19-room house out in South Barrington want to give their garden a little class. The copper will oxidize green and fit right in with the natural surroundings.”

“Oh,” Jeremy said. He tried, and failed, to imagine what the finished product would look like.”Cool.”

They left the garage together. He shut the door for her; then she locked it. They started toward the house, swigging root beer as they walked. “Have a good time at the library?” He shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “Yeah.” “More Audubon?” “Mmm-hmm.” “He was a great artist,” his mother said. “Feeling inspired?” He knew what she meant. “I don’t know.”

“There’s still time to sign up for that pastels class at the high school.” “I know.” “Think about it, all right?”

“All right.” He walked a few more steps. “Dad coming over tonight?” “No,” his mother said. “Maybe tomorrow.” “Okay.”

They reached the house. His mother went upstairs, and Jeremy went to the den.

The den was his favorite room in the house. He flopped on the sofa and looked out the French windows at the back yard.

There wasn’t much to the yard, actually. Grass, of course (a little too high—Jeremy would have to mow it soon), a few old, tired rose bushes, some lilacs, some hostas, four trees. Neither Jeremy nor his parents were particularly interested in gardening.

Jeremy was very interested, though, in the bird feeders he had recently installed. Before talking his mother into investing in the feeders, he had done quite a bit of homework on the subject. As a result, all the feeders were sturdy and squirrel-proof, not a dud in the bunch. He was proud of that.

Mounted on a post was a stationary feeder that Jeremy kept supplied with safflower seed, which cardinals liked. Hanging from a tree limb was a stout metal basket for suet, beloved by chickadees and downy woodpeckers. Another tree limb supported a tubular plastic-and-metal feeder filled with black thistle seed. This was the preferred food of goldfinches; Birds of America even depicted a pair of the sleek little birds perched on a thistle plant. Hanging nearby, close to the house, was a bright red hummingbird feeder containing a nectar mixture. The Bockmans seldom had hummers in their yard. When it happened, though, Jeremy wanted to be ready.

Hummingbirds seemed almost magical to him, as if some ancient alchemist had succeeded in crossing a bird with a dragonfly. This feeling had been enhanced when, in the course of his Audubon research, he had discovered how hummingbirds made their miniscule nests. Rather than using twigs or leaves or mud, they used plant down—dandelion fuzz and cottonwood fluff and the like. And they held it together with spider silk.

Jeremy smiled, remembering how he had felt upon this discovery. It had almost been like stumbling into the world of some children’s book where animals wore clothes and talked and gave tea parties, and where pixies and elves took shelter in hollow logs. Hummingbirds, he thought, must come from that world. He could just picture the hummers zooming around on pinions vibrating invisibly fast, rocketing by like so many thoughts on the wing, harvesting fuzz and using their needle beaks to do battle with spiders.

Two goldfinches, the male a bright canary yellow, the female a lovely, muted olive color, flew into the yard. They perched on a tree for a minute or so, scanning the yard for predators, then fluttered over to the thistle feeder, Jeremy recognized them as Mr.and Mrs. G.Finch. To Jeremy, they were instantly distinguishable from the other two goldfinch pairs that frequented the feeder because they were slightly larger, their plumage a little more brilliant, their black markings more distinct; perhaps they were more mature. Mr. G. Finch was by far the boldest of all the neighborhood goldfinches Jeremy had seen, daring to banquet on thistle while other, larger birds, gracldes or even bluejays, hulked in the lilacs nearby. Mr. G. Finch, Jeremy reflected, had no idea how lucky he was that Jeremy was only a harmless boy and not John James Audubon. These finches were in no danger of being shot and strung on wires like marionettes in poses imitating their lives. They could dine in peace.

He closed his eyes. He was a little sorry not to be seeing his father, Justin Bockman, that night. Perhaps his dad would be spending the evening with one of his girlfriends. Jeremy had found out about them by overhearing his parents’ discussion of the matter almost a year before. Not that he had been eavesdropping, exactly; it would’ve been difficult not to overhear that conversation. He had always wondered if the Lins, their neighbors immediately to the west, had overheard, too. If so, they had never let on.

Jeremy heard the squawk of the Lins’ screen door. He opened his eyes to see the three Lin children tumble into the backyard, followed by their mother, who sat in a chair on their patio. The youngest child, Nathan, was behind the other two, slower, as always; he was small for a four-year-old, and wore a brace on his left leg. He was slightly retarded, and had severe medical problems that had resulted in many hospitalizations. These episodes could be quite dramatic. Only a couple of months before, Jeremy had awakened in the middle of the night—2:34, his bedside clock had read—when an ambulance wailed up the street and stopped in front of the Lins’. He watched from his bedroom window as the paramedics wheeled a gurney into the house and then wheeled it out again with Nathan strapped to it. His mother went next door wrapped in her robe, walking across green lawns that looked black in the darkness, and returned shortly after. Later that morning, over breakfast, she had told Jeremy that Nathan had been having problems with his heart.

Jeremy watched the Lin kids play for a while. Lisa, who was eight, initiated a game of run-through-the-sprinkler. Jonathan, her five-year-old brother, joined her, racing back and forth through the glittering spray with enthusiastic screeches. Nathan hung back for a minute until Lisa went up to him and gently put her wet hands on the sides of his face, then on the top of his head, dampening his thatch of black, shining hair. She smiled, spoke to him, then took his hand and led him toward the sprinkler. Jeremy smiled to see the look of surprise on Nathan’s face when the cold water first showered over him. Soon, though, the little boy had his arms over his head, waving them in the air, grinning as he tried to catch the water droplets falling past him.

Jeremy watched the sprinkler game for a long time, thinking about what life was like for the Lins. He knew that theirs was a noisy and chaotic household. The place seemed happy, though, and, in spite of the pandemonium and the mess and the medical emergencies, had moments of peace that Jeremy viewed with a longing that surprised him. Whatever it was that held that family together, he thought, it wasn’t spider silk.

He stayed there, watching and thinking, until it was time to go pick up dinner.

The next morning Jeremy, after mowing the lawn, rode his bike over to his friend Michael’s house. Like Jeremy, Michael was 11 years old, slim, a little on the short side, and liked to play softball. Unlike Jeremy, though, Michael was a prodigy—a chess player ranked fifth in the country for his age group.

Michael’s house was a big painted-lady Victorian in an expensive neighborhood in Evanston, near the lake. Jeremy dodged the sprinkler in the front yard and carried his bike onto the porch, a broad one that wrapped around two sides of the house. The floor of the porch sloped slightly in a way that let you know it had been there for a while. On the east side of the porch was a glider in which Jeremy and Michael sometimes sat and played chess with Michael’s portable set. Michael always won, of course, but he was a good teacher, and kept insisting that Jeremy’s game was improving.

As Jeremy gently leaned his bike against the house, he heard clarinet music from inside. He knew it was coming from Michael’s nine-year-old brother, Ben, who was almost as talented at clarinet as Michael was at chess. For the most part, Ben, at his teacher’s behest, stuck to classical music. Every once in a while, though, he would cut loose, usually with Israeli folk music ornamented with wild, playful wailings. It was this kind of music Jeremy was hearing when he knocked at the front door.

Michael opened the door. “Finally, you’re here,” he said. “I’ve been going nuts listening to this stuff—the klezmer music from Hell.” “I think it sounds kind of fun,” Jeremy remarked. “You don’t have to live with it. Let’s get out of here.”

Michael grabbed two cans of Coke from the refrigerator. On his way out, he picked up a softball from a table by the front door that often served as a repository for mail.”Want to go down by the lake?”

“Sure,” Jeremy said. The two boys left the house and turned east, toward Lake Michigan. They walked slowly; it was only 9:30, but it was already hot. There wasn’t much breeze, and the still and heavy air lay over the earth in a haze of humidity. People’s gardens were running wild in the heat, and the scent of greenery and soil and blooms was strong. Sprinklers were doing their work. Here and there lawn services were in people’s yards, mowing. In some yards dogs were staked out, in others, toddlers. The little kids all wore sunsuits with short pants and squinted into the hot light from under the brims of pastel caps. Jeremy and Michael tried to stay in the shade of the trees that towered over the sidewalk. At one point, they passed under a densely-leafed, deep-green tree loaded with tiny yellow-white blossoms; the blossoms smelled of citrus.

“I wonder if this tree repels bugs,” Jeremy remarked. “What?” “It smells like citronella. All sharp and lemony.”

Michael sniffed experimentally. “Yeah, I guess it does. And it issharp and lemony. You have the damndest way of describing things, Bockman.” “It’s my evil genius at work.”

“Speaking of evil geniuses, how’s your dad?” Michael gave Jeremy a shot with his elbow.”Just kidding.”

“He’s okay, I guess,” Jeremy said. “Mom and I might see him tonight. Go to a movie or something.” “They still trying to patch things up?” “Well, Mom’s trying.” “The counselling’s not working?”

Jeremy shrugged. His parents had been seeing a therapist together for more than six months. Jeremy had been to a few of the sessions, too. The therapist, a young, blond, earnest man named Chuck, kept referring to his parents as “you kids.” This did not strike Jeremy as a good sign. Neither did it strike him as a good sign that, when he had visited his dad at the loft in Bucktown the previous month, he had found a small, silky pair of women’s underpants behind the clothes hamper in the bathroom. He had mentioned this discovery to no one, not even to Michael, certainly not to either of his parents.

Neither of the boys said anything for a minute. Then Michael said, “Your mother still trying to get you to take that art class?” “Yeah. I’m not going to, though.” “Good for you. A man’s gotta stick up for himself.” “I know it.”

They had reached a simply landscaped, grassy park just across Sheridan Road from Lake Michigan. They stood about 15 feet apart and began to toss the softball back and forth, gently, catching it barehanded. They talked between tosses, throwing out bits of information to each other along with the ball.

“My mom’s working on a commission,” Jeremy said after a while. “It’s like a windmill thing made out of copper. For somebody’s garden. She was making dents in the metal yesterday with a hammer.”

Michael caught the ball, held it for a moment, looked at his friend, said nothing, tossed the ball back.

“You don’t like my mom’s work, do you?” Jeremy asked. He wasn’t angry; he simply wanted to know. “It’s better than your dad’s,” Michael replied diplomatically. “That’s not a real answer.”

Michael caught the ball again, picked up his can of Coke, which he had put on the ground near his feet, and sat on a nearby park bench beneath a tree. Jeremy joined him. They started in on their drinks.

“Look, Jer,” Michael said. “I mean, I don’t want to make you mad or hurt your feelings or anything, but, frankly, I think your parents are patzers.”

Jeremy knew that “patzer” was chess talk for a minor player. “What are you talking about?” he said. He was a little offended, but he also respected Michael’s judgment.”Their stuff is all over the place.”

“So what does that mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good. I mean, for example, look at that painting of your dad’s in your living room. A bunch of gray squares. Brilliant! And how about that sculpture of your mom’s in that park in Skokie? Haven’t you ever noticed it looks just like a woman’s crotch?”

Jeremy looked at his friend, stunned. He did think that particular sculpture looked a lot like a woman’s private parts—at least, what he knew of such parts from the illustrations in the anatomy books he and Michael had pored over in the Evanston Public Library the previous summer. He often thought that his mother’s sculptures resembled body parts, or else machinery. He had always kept these thoughts to himself, though.”You think so too?” he said, his voice hushed and appalled. “So would anybody who wasn’t a complete putz.” “Oh, shit,” Jeremy said. “So, you think all the kids at school?. . . .”

“Nah, don’t make me laugh. Most of those idiots don’t know any more about anatomy than they do about art. Besides, hardly any of them ever go there. If they did, I’d see ‘em when I was there playing chess.”

Jeremy felt weak with relief. If the guys at school, particularly the Kupfer kid and his little gang, ever saw that sculpture and found out Jeremy’s mother had made it. . . .

He turned suddenly to his friend, his eyes wide. “You’ll never tell, will you, Mike? You won’t. Swear!”

Michael raised his right hand. “Relax. I swear, I swear. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, and all that crap. But we’ve gotten off the subject. The subject being, your parents are nowhere near as good as they think they are, and they have no business lording it over you the way they do and trying to turn you into some kind of prodigy. Believe me, the prodigy business is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Jeremy looked at him. “I thought you were gonna go nuts before Nationals this year.”

“I did go nuts.” I blew an opening my teacher and I had gone over about five thousand times, and then I started giving pawns away like a beginner, and I just couldn’t get it together. That’s how come my rating fell.”

Before Nationals, Michael had been rated third in the country in his age group.”I know,” Jeremy said.

“It all happened because the kid I was playing against psyched me out. You know that, right?” “Yeah, I know. You told me.”

“This kid,” Michael went on, nevertheless, “is one of those people who does nothing but chess, day and night, like the Russians. He doesn’t even go to school. His dad, who is a total fiend and drives all the other parents insane, pulled him out and has him tutored at home so he can have more time for chess. The dad has created a monster; he’s a regular Dr. Frankenstein. When I shook that kid’s hand before we started playing, he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m gonna destroy you.’ Then he started playing like it was a speed game, and I got rattled.” “It could happen to anybody,” Jeremy said.

Michael kicked at a clod of dirt, hard, shattering it. “I’ll never fall for that again, I’ll tell you. But you shoulda seen my dad’s face, Jer. You shoulda seen it. He looked like he’d lost his last friend.” He looked at Jeremy.”There’s more to life than trying to be some kind of genius, Jer. Don’t worry about it. Ignore your parents. Don’t let ‘em psych you out. You’re fine like you are.”

Jeremy wondered if that could possibly be true. He didn’t feel as if it were.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It would be cool to have some kind of talent.”

“How do you know you don’t?” Michael replied. “Maybe you just haven’t found it yet. Who knows?”

The boys sat side by side, looking out over the flat blue sparkling sheet of the lake, watching the seagulls wheel and dive, wheel and dive.

That night Jeremy went out with both his parents; they saw a movie and then went for pizza. Over dinner, Jeremy was quiet, spending most of his time listening to his parents’ conversation, It sounded normal enough, for the most part (except for the ten minutes or so they spent criticizing the movie’s art direction), but it didn’t feel normal. There was an underlying uneasiness, a sense that something unpleasant was constantly on the verge of happening. It had been this way ever since Justin had moved out. In fact, Jeremy realized, it had been that way before he moved out, too.

It was after 11:00 when they got home. Jeremy’s dad came into the house with them. When Jeremy was ready for bed, his dad came into his room to say goodnight. He sat beside Jeremy on the bed and talked to him, mostly about sports; both of them were fans of the Cubs, who were already tanking even though it was only the middle of June. After a few minutes the talk trailed off. Jeremy’s father looked around the room, taking in the sports posters on the walls, the bats leaning in the corner, the books scattered over the desk and dresser. Then he looked at Jeremy. “You know I love you, son,” he said. “I know,” Jeremy said. “I love you, too.”

Justin looked as it he wanted to say more. Instead, he simply leaned over, kissed Jeremy on the forehead, stood up, and left the room, closing the door gently behind him.

Jeremy lay still in the dark. The light from the streetlamp on the corner filtered softly through the blinds at the windows, dimly illuminating the poster of Mark Grace on the opposite wall. Jeremy heard his father’s footsteps recede down the stairs. Then he heard his voice in the kitchen, along with that of his mother.

Jeremy slipped out of bed, crossed the room, opened the door, and walked to the head of the stairs, trying as hard as he could to make absolutely no noise. His parents’ voices were louder from this vantage point, but their words were still unclear; they were keeping their voices low. Jeremy stood there for what felt like hours, trying to make out his parents’ conversation, but although the voices did get louder a couple of times, they never got loud enough for him to distinguish words. His eyelids and shoulders were beginning to droop, and he was seriously considering going back to bed when he heard the kitchen door open. The words were suddenly clear.

“Well, if you’re sure this is what you really want,” his mother was saying. Her voice was quiet, but sharp-edged. “I’m sure,” his father replied.

“You’d better be. I don’t think you’ve given this your best shot, Justin, I really don’t. But I have, and I’m just about all used up. Once the papers are filed, that’s it, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I don’t blame you, Cathy.” Jeremy knew his mother hated to be called Cathy. “I just have one request: let’s not make Jeremy suffer for our mistakes.”

“Our mistakes?” Catherine’s voice rose. “I’m not the one who couldn’t live without a harem. The great artist and his women.” “Shh.”

“Don’t shush me in my own house. You’re lucky I don’t set off the burglar alarm and call the cops. How dare you suggest I might use my son as a weapon?” “I thought he was our son.” “Too bad it took you 11 years to figure that out.” “That isn’t fair, and you know it.” There was a pause. Jeremy could feel the air vibrating.

“Look,” his father went on. “This is getting us nowhere. I think I should just leave now. We can start working out the details after the papers are filed.” “Fine with me.” “Cathy. . . .” “Don’t call me that.” “Catherine, then.” There was another pause. “I really am sorry.”

For a while, Jeremy thought his mother was not going to reply to this. Then he heard her say, “Goodnight, Justin.”

Jeremy heard his father’s footsteps cross the hardwood floor to the front door. The door opened, closed. A car started outside.

Jeremy went back to his room and crawled into bed. He heard his mother in the kitchen, running water and putting things away. His heart was pounding, and his stomach had shrunk into a small, hard knot around the pizza he had eaten. His mouth was dry, and it took him a long time to swallow the hot, jagged lump in his throat.

The next morning Jeremy came downstairs to find his mother in the kitchen. She was making pancakes, as she always did on Sundays. She used a recipe of her mother’s, the only “farm food,” as she called it, that she still made.(She didn’t cook much of anything, really; most evenings, she and Jeremy had take-out or sandwiches.) When Jeremy greeted her, she smiled at him over her shoulder, then turned back to the mixing bowl and stirred the pancake batter a little longer while Jeremy went to the fridge for a glass of orange juice. He sat at the kitchen table and watched as his mother poured herself a cup of coffee. Then she joined him at the table.

“I know you’ve probably already figured this out, honey,” she began.”After all, you’re a pretty smart kid.” She smiled again, but the smile didn’t stay. Jeremy noticed that she had circles under her eyes, and the lines beside her mouth looked deeper than usual.”But your dad and I have decided to get a divorce.”

Jeremy looked down at his glass of juice. She was right; he had figured it out. It wasn’t surprising at all, really. Especially given what he had overheard the night before. But he had been hoping all the same.

“We tried, honey, we really did,” his mother went on. “I really wanted things to work out. But they just aren’t. Your dad seems to need to live his own life, and I guess we have to let him do that.”

Why can’t he live his own life here?, Jeremy thought, but said nothing.

“You’ll still be able to see him a lot,” Catherine said. “So you don’t need to worry about that.” “Okay,” he said.

“Jeremy?” His mother rose from her chair and crouched beside him, looking into his face.”You know this isn’t your fault, don’t you? We’ve talked about that.”

He nodded. They had discussed it when his father had first moved out: “This problem is with your father and me,” Catherine had said, “not with you.” It made sense to Jeremy, but yet it didn’t, too. He couldn’t help feeling as if there must’ve been something he could’ve done. Had talent, for instance. Maybe that would’ve helped. “Do you need a hug?” his mother asked. He nodded again.

“Good,” she said, “because I know I sure do.” She reached toward him and pulled him into her arms. He smelled the mother-scent he knew so well, the old terry-cloth robe Catherine had worn for years, the soap she used, the cream she put on her face, the smell of her hair, and he rested his head on her shoulder and wept as he had not done in a long, long time.

That afternoon, he went with his father to visit his grandmother. Jeremy saw Grandma Bockman about once a month, sometimes at the house, sometimes at her swanky retirement village in Winnetka. (Grandpa Bockman had been a wealthy man, part owner of an insurance company. It was his money that made both the high-class retirement home and the expensive loft in Bucktown possible.) Since the separation, Jeremy had made the trip to Winnetka more often than his grandmother had made the trip to Wilmette; she seemed uncomfortable around Jeremy’s mother.

His father picked him up after lunch. It was quiet in the car, and tense. Justin made a few attempts to get the conversation going— sports again—but Jeremy couldn’t keep his mind on things. He concentrated on the landscape passing by outside the car: Green Bay Road getting greener and greener as they went farther north.

He hadn’t wanted to go on this outing to begin with, especially not after the talk he and his mother had had that morning. She kept telling him that she and his father shared the responsibility for the divorce, and he supposed it might be true. He suddenly remembered an argument from a couple of years back in which he had overheard his mother telling his father, “You think you’re the next Rothko, but you’re not even Andy Warhol.” He had always tried to avoid getting his mother angry at him. His father was the one with the girlfriends, though. Jeremy wondered if the underpants behind the hamper had ever been found. He doubted it; his father was a slob. The loft was a tornado of empty turpentine cans and paint-blobbed rags and miscellaneous piles of clothing. Jeremy breathed a prolonged, noisy sigh through his nose.

His father gave him a long glance as they pulled up to a red light; Jeremy saw this out of the corner of his eye. The car pulled forward again. “Guess you’re pretty mad at me, huh, son?” Justin asked. Jeremy said nothing. He continued to look out the window. “I don’t blame you. Divorce is hard on a kid.” “No kidding.”

His father looked at him again. “My parents almost got divorced, you know.”

Jeremy had not known that. He turned his head and looked at his father.

“They loved each other,” Justin continued, “at least, I think they did, but there was always trouble between them. My dad left home several times while I was growing up. He always came back, but things were never really good.” He paused as he negotiated a turn. “My dad was not an easy man to live with.”

Grandpa Bockman had died five years before. Jeremy remembered very little about him. What he mostly recalled was an impression, undefined but strong, of a tall, solid, powerful man who had smelled of tobacco and had seemed, somehow, vaguely threatening. He had even managed to look forceful lying in his coffin, his hands folded over his chest like the wings of a shot bird.

They pulled into the parking lot of the retirement village, got out of the car, walked over a closely-mown, bright green lawn to Grandma Bockman’s unit—a sort of townhouse—and knocked on the door. After a minute the door opened and they stepped inside. “Well, hello, Jeremy,” his grandmother said. “Hi, Grandma.”

She reached toward him and rested her hand on his shoulder. The hand felt nearly weightless. Everything about his grandmother seemed soft to Jeremy: her tenuous, fluttery touch, her whispery voice, her powdery makeup, her wrinkled, yielding skin, her pillowy body, her fluffy halo of thinning white hair, her unidentifiable floral perfume. Even her personality was soft; she was rarely definite about anything. She didn’t seem quite solid, until she bent slightly and hugged Jeremy. He was never prepared for how strong her arms were as they went around him.

She released him and kissed his cheek. He kissed her in return, then brushed at the lipstick he knew she had left behind. She and his father kissed, too, before she started to shut the door.

“Mom, why don’t we let Jeremy play outside for a little while?” Justin said.”I need to talk to you about some things.”

There were a couple of seconds of silence. “Well, all right,” she said.”That’d be fine.” Justin nodded to Jeremy. “Go on, son.”

Jeremy opened the door and stepped outside. Going from his grandmother’s air-conditioned entryway into the afternoon heat was like suddenly opening the door of an oven, and the sun made him want to close his eyes. He wandered over to a nearby clump of maples and sat at a wooden picnic table beneath them. A couple of squirrels were playing several feet away from him, chasing each other in circles, up the tree trunks, down again, flipping their tails. Viviparous quadrupeds. They didn’t seem to care about the heat. Jeremy watched them, wondering how long it would be before it was safe to go inside.

Jeremy and his father spent the afternoon with Grandma Bockman, took her out to dinner at a seafood restaurant in Highland Park, then spent a little more time with her back at her place. The visits with his grandmother had always felt uncomfortable to Jeremy—he never knew what to say to her, what to do, where to sit. This one was the worst yet, with all three of them tense and sad, but trying to act as if they weren’t. It didn’t work terribly well; their conversation was punctuated with awkward, preoccupied silences that got longer and longer until the evening finally just stopped.

When Justin dropped Jeremy off at 9:30, he did not come into the house. Instead, he waited until Jeremy unlocked the front door, then waved at his son, pulled away from the curb, and drove off.

Jeremy shut the door behind him and turned the deadbolt. “Mom?” he called. He waited a few seconds, heard nothing. Then he went to the den.

The den’s French windows gave a full view of his mother’s garage/studio. Jeremy saw lights on in there; his mother was working. She often worked at night, sometimes far past midnight. The following morning she would sleep late, and Jeremy, before going to school or wherever else he might be headed that day, would go softly into her bedroom and kiss her goodbye. Sometimes she stirred, sometimes not.

Jeremy stretched out on the sofa on his back, facing the windows. He heard a dog bark briefly, then subside into the neighborhood’s usual Sunday evening quiet. Even the Lin children, next door, were subdued, probably asleep. Jeremy could hear a night breeze rattling the leaves of the trees in the back yard; the finch feeder swayed gently in the soft reflected light from the house. Jeremy knew his mother was welding that night, because even though he could not see her—the garage door faced away from the house, toward the alley—he could see the light of her torch through the garage windows. She would be wearing her welding outfit: black jumpsuit, heavy pigskin gloves, goggles. Steel-toed boots. Jeremy lay on the sofa for a long time, focused on the garage windows, watching the hard, arcing sparks, the sharp, blue, painful light.

The next day he was scheduled to visit his other grandparents. Every summer since his eighth year, he had spent two weeks with them in North Carolina. His mother always went down with him on the plane, stayed for a day or two, then flew back; he made the journey home by himself, excited by his independence and a little scared by it, too.

He and his mother left for O’Hare at 7:30. Neither of them was fully awake. They dozed in the back seat of the taxi as the driver wove his way through the morning rush hour.

They had awakened somewhat by the time they boarded the plane. After the plane was in the air, Catherine turned to Jeremy and said, “How did things go yesterday?”

She had still been in her studio when Jeremy had gone to bed the night before. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.” “Did your dad tell Grandma about the divorce?”

“Yeah. But I was outside at the time. I could tell he told her, though.” “Why? Was it weird?” “Very.”

She patted his knee, unbuckled her seat belt, and crossed her legs. She was wearing a black linen tunic sort of thing over black leggings. She dangled an espadrille from her toes, swinging it back and forth with the motion of the plane.

“You’ll have a good time with Grandpa and Grandma Barron,” she said. “Yeah,” he replied.

This was actually true; he would have a good time with them. He always did. It wasn’t that he and his grandparents ever did anything much. Far from it. Occasionally they would all go for a walk or see a movie together, and he always helped his grandmother do her shopping, and he had a few token chores to do around the house. They also took him to church on Sundays, something that never happened at home, and, though he generally found the services boring and endless, he didn’t mind much; he liked some of the hymns, and the little church his grandparents attended had a preacher from the deep South who was good with words. Other than that, though, he spent most of his time wandering the countryside or exploring the barn or sprawling in the hammock strung between the two oaks in the back yard, reading and trying to fight off sleep. Thinking about this, he smiled.

His grandparents met them at the airport and drove them home. They still lived on their property up the mountain above Asheville, but they no longer farmed, having sold most of their land to other farmers. It pleased Jeremy to see that the place looked exactly as it had the previous year, and the year before that.

As soon as the car stopped, he jumped out and ran to the barn. He pulled open the big, red, sliding wooden door just enough to admit himself, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.

He looked around at the old, empty stalls that had previously housed cows and horses; the antique tack hanging on pegs on the walls; the innumerable bits of sunlight filtering through the gaps in walls that had shrunk with age. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet faded smell of hay and dust and animals long gone, then exhaling it, then taking it in again. He climbed the ladder to the haymow and lay on his belly, looking through the small, high window at his grandparents’ house. He could see his grandmother showing Catherine her prize rose bushes at the front of the house, while his grandfather carried the bags inside. Jeremy realized that he should’ve helped his grandfather with this task; he’d been so excited about visiting the barn again that he’d forgotten all about it. He would help him with something else later, to make up for it.

Jeremy watched his grandmother take her daughter by the arm and walk with her into the house. Then he rolled over onto his back, stuck a piece of hay into his mouth, and stared up at the roof coming to a peak directly over his head. He chewed slowly on the piece of hay; it tasted earthy and faintly sweet. Dust took its time drifting through the bars of sunlight that filtered through the narrow gaps in the walls and ceiling. He lay there, watching the floating dust, listening to the coo of the mourning doves that roosted in the eaves.

He and his grandparents drove his mother to the airport on Wednesday afternoon. On the way back to the house, they stopped at a market and bought lemons. Jeremy’s grandmother chose them carefully, hefting each one in her hand to make sure it was heavy with juice. When they were back in the car again, she looked at Jeremy over her shoulder and held the bag of lemons in the air like a trophy. “Lemon custard ice cream,” she said.

She often made homemade ice cream, and lemon custard was Jeremy’s favorite.”That doesn’t look like ice cream to me,” he said, smiling. “It will soon enough,” his grandfather said, and laughed.

At home, Jeremy grated the lemons for their zest (careful to grate as fine as he could and avoid the bitter white part beneath—he had done this before, he knew what to do) and squeezed them for their juice while his grandmother slowly cooked milk and eggs and sugar together into the silky ice cream base, her wooden spoon making a homey clatter against the sides of the pot. When the custard had reached the proper stage, she removed it from the heat and slowly stirred in the juice and zest. Then she put it into the fridge to cool for a while before putting it into the ice cream freezer.

“There,” she said. “That was hard work. I think we deserve a reward for that, don’t you?” “Yes,” Jeremy replied.

She poured two glasses of milk and handed them to Jeremy, who took them to the kitchen table. She followed him, carrying the cookie jar, which was ancient and heavily mended and shaped like a teddy bear. The table was an old, rectangular one topped with white enamel, and it made a satisfying echo when she set the jar down on it. The two of them dug into the jar for the oatmeal-raisin-walnut cookies she had made the day he arrived with his mother. They dunked their cookies, dangling them in the milk until they were on the verge of disintegration, then hurrying the saturated morsels into their mouths.

“Good,” Jeremy said. He wiped his mouth with his fingers, then wiped his fingers on the leg of his jeans. His grandmother didn’t bat an eye. Instead, she said, “You’re a good helper.” “Thanks,” he replied. “It’s fun.”

There was a silence while they ate. Then his grandmother sat back in her chair.”Well, Doodlebug,” she said.”How are you doing?”

She had always called him Doodlebug. He was beginning to think it was a little infantile, but he rather liked it, too, so he never said anything. “You mean about the divorce?” he asked. She nodded.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I guess. I mean, it’s not like I can do anything about it or anything.” “No. And I guess I can’t, either.” She sighed.

Jeremy looked at his grandmother, who was wearing a blue cotton skirt, a matching blouse with a bow at the collar, and old tennis shoes. She wore her gray-white hair in a short, wavy, old-lady style. At the moment, a floral-patterned smock apron covered most of her front. Grandpa, if anything, was even more grandparentish and countrified, with his cotton wash pants and short-sleeved shirts and caps advertising agricultural products that he no longer used. Jeremy wondered, not for the first time, how two such conservative people had managed to produce someone like his mother, who had moved to the big city at the age of 18 and become an artist and married one, too. And was now being divorced from one.

She looked back at him. Behind her glasses, her eyes were large and green and transparently clear.”You’ll be all right, you know,” she said.

Jeremy was afraid tears would come to his eyes, it felt so good to hear her say that.”Thanks,” he replied.”You will be, too.”

She continued to look at him for a moment, then stood up. “Come on, helper,” she said.”Let’s get that ice cream freezer going.”

That Sunday, after a post-church lunch of fried chicken and homemade biscuits—his favorite meal—Jeremy was helping his grandfather do some weeding in the garden and happened upon a dead dove.

It was lying under the President Lincoln lilac in the back yard. It was on its belly, with its wings spread gently out beside it as if sheltering chicks; its head was tilted to one side and slightly to the back. At first, Jeremy thought it was alive. As he edged closer, though, he could see how the body was slumped into itself and toward the ground, how the wings and neck were slack, how the plumage had a curious dullness. He called his grandfather over.

“Well I’ll be,” the old man said. “Dead dove, sittin’ there like that all by herself.” “What killed her?”

Grandfather Barron knelt and looked, not touching the bird. “I don’t see any marks,” he said.”So I don’t think it was an animal. Besides, the body is still here. Don’t think an animal would’ve just left it.” He looked for a few seconds more.”I really can’t say, Jeremy. Looks to me like she just died. Sometimes that happens.” Jeremy looked at the dove. “Shouldn’t we bury her or something?”

His grandfather stood, dusting garden soil from his hands. He looked at Jeremy.”I guess we should,” he said.

They buried the bird where they had found her. Jeremy dug a grave, small, but deep, to discourage neighborhood predators. His grandmother came out of the house, and the three of them had a moment of silence before Grandpa Barron laid the dove gently in the grave and covered her with earth.

Jeremy spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the mountain. The day was hot and dry (though, for some reason, it didn’t feel as hot as it had felt up in Wilmette), and Jeremy gravitated toward the small patches of woods. It was green and cool there, and the way the sunlight looked filtering through the leaves reminded him of the way it looked coming through the chinks in the walls and ceiling of the barn. It was different, though; here, the sunlight moved as the tree limbs overhead shifted in the breeze, and rather than falling on hay and dust, it wandered over moss and tree roots and fallen leaves and shrubs.

On the way back to the house, Jeremy took a slight detour to the boundary of the McPherson farm, which occupied a large part of his grandparents’ former property and bordered the back yard. He went to the boundary out by the road and leaned on the rail fence for a while, watching the cows. They were Holsteins, with a few Jerseys mixed in (the latter kept for the sake of the richness of their milk; his grandfather had told him this years before), and they strolled slowly over the pasture, grazing constantly, switching at flies with their tails, the bells around their necks giving out mellow clanks with the motion of their bodies.”Hi, cows,” he said, knowing they would ignore him, and they did.

That night, instead of reading himself to sleep as usual, he lay on his back in bed looking at the ceiling and thinking of the dead dove. He couldn’t help it; he kept thinking of how it had looked on its little death bed on the ground, how defeated, how helpless. He thought again of Audubon, father and son, and their mysterious ability to take something as utterly dead as that dove and, somehow, bring it to life. At least, on paper. In real life, that didn’t work. Once those artists had killed an animal or a bird, it had stayed dead; the drawing was only a sort of monument.

Maybe that was how it was, he thought. Maybe artists, deep down, were people who killed things and turned them into art. The Audubons had killed their creatures of the woods and meadows; his parents had killed their marriage. Their nest had all been plant fluff, with nothing strong enough to hold it together. Would the breakup surface as a subject in his mother’s sculptures, his father’s paintings? Would that be their monument?

He turned on his side and drew his knees up toward his chest and finally drifted off to sleep, wondering if all artists had to be killers.

He awoke earlier than usual the next morning. The clock on his bedside table read 6:29.As he watched, the minute hand nudged itself forward a little, and he heard the grandfather clock in the hall chime the half-hour.

He wondered what had awakened him so early. He knew his grandparents were already up. They always were by now, and he could hear them talking in the kitchen, but they were keeping their voices low, not wanting to wake him. He lay there, pressing his face into the pillow, and was on the point of slipping into sleep when he realized he was hearing cowbells.

They were close; some of the McPherson’s cows must be right up by the fence at the rear of his grandparents’ back yard. The McPherson’s farm was sizable—they had bought almost all the Barren’s acreage, and the herd had plenty of room to wander—and Jeremy had rarely seen the cows so close to the house. He got out of bed, crossed the room, pulled aside the curtains at the window, looked out, and saw nothing.

Not nothing, precisely; what he saw was the dense whiteness of an early-morning fog. This was a common thing on the mountain. Jeremy had seen it before, and he always enjoyed these times, relishing the thought that he actually was inside a low-lying cloud, at least until the sun burned it away. He smiled, and then he heard the cowbells again, and saw no cows to go with them.

He peered through the glass, searching. Then he slid the window and its screen open, put his hands on the sill, and leaned forward so that his head was outside. He opened his eyes wide and stared toward the sound of the bells, but saw nothing but drifting white.

After a minute or so he leaned back into the room and stood there, still gazing out the open window. He could smell the thick, cool wetness in the air; he was inhaling little bits of cloud with each breath. The knowledge made him feel slightly light-headed. He listened to the cowbells, muted and ghostly, sounding out of the mist, and he felt himself filled with the commonplace mystery of what he was witnessing, the wonder of cowbells inside a cloud and him inside it too, hearing them, seeing nothing except sifting tendrils of mist.

Jeremy breathed deeply of cloud. He closed his eyes and suddenly felt his surroundings transformed. Somehow, the spot his room overlooked no longer was the back yard, the McPherson farm; instead, it was a place of cloud-dwellers. This, he thought, must be the land of the talking animals and the elves, the land from which hummingbirds came.

He opened his eyes. He wanted to tell someone about all this—to rush down the hall and talk to his grandparents, perhaps. Somebody. After a minute or so, though, he realized he didn’t need to do that, or even really want to. Someday, maybe, but not yet, not until he was ready and had decided how to do it.

For now, this would be his secret, his own little place in his mind. He would carry it with him, and go there any time he pleased. Any time he needed to be inside a cloud. Any time he wanted to consider the nests of hummingbirds.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading