Thanks again for voting on which short story to post on my blog. I’m pleasantly surprised at how this one turned out. This is a version of a short story about mystery, plastic bird men, and awkwardness, I guess. If you like it, please share it.
He sits down next to me. His slim fitted pants wrap up his legs like a much anticipated Christmas present, one you don’t even intend to eye all that often because you already know what’s inside, but you stare anyway. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good conversation with a stranger, even longer since I’ve flirted with one. Longer still that I’ve been flirted with.
We’re on a stone block between a fountain that doesn’t have any water in it yet and a lamppost. He takes his glasses off and places them in a blue case after he removes a lighter and a cigarette from to it. He lights the cigarette with his eyes closed, covering his mouth with his right and as sucks. The lighter goes into his right pocket. The cigarette tilts down from between his left index and middle fingers. The fingers squeeze the cigarette flaccid. He holds it in his mouth and plucks it from between his lips with his thumb and index fingers, blowing smoke out at the couple standing near the statue of a man with his arms stretched out under a bear. The tall woman under the armpit of the bear swings her head, straightens the back of her hair against her back, and walks away from the smoke.
“You think they’ll ever let us in?” I say. The man blows out his smoke mid-puff and looks over at me. We both look past the fountain at the steps up to the museum. A woman in a black dress and boots stands at the top. She checks her watch and scans the crowd below.
“Last year it took an hour before they let us in,” he says. He puts his cigarette out on the stone under us.
“I’ve never been,” I say. I watch his brown eyes and then look down at the charred paper on the stone. He moves his hand away from mine.
“It’s pretty alright. Weird stuff. Are you with a blog or are you here for pleasure?” he says.
“Insider.” He flashes his press pass.
“You’re with the Insider? I thought they went all freelance now.” I back my head up and scoot away, but then scoot over to him, an inch or so more than before.
“One of the last. Local events. Finn Wayland.” He scoots closer and extends his hand. I shake it. We stare at one another.
“James,” I say.
Two women come over and stand by us. Finn lowers a leg. Our knees touch. He gets up off of the stone. “I’ll see you inside,” he says. He walks the women closer to the steps. The crowd gathers under the woman at the steps. I join them. She walks down, her hands at her sides. I smile at an older gentleman in a dark green sportcoat and at a woman in a gray cashmere turtleneck. I grin at a man in straight bootcut jeans and a polo, my dry front teeth rubbing against my upper lip. He smiled back. He has a wallet chained around to his front belt loop. I settle in place.
“We’re about to get started,” the woman says. She matches the volume of the crowd. “Before we start, we want to thank Dr. Bloom for once again sponsoring this year’s opening and keeping the ticket price free until 2020.” Everyone claps. A man in a black suit blushes and retreats as everyone around him pats him on the shoulder. The woman raises her voice. “Now if you’ll all join us inside, you’re free to enjoy the evening at your leisure. Also please talk to any of the staff in red shirts about giving a donation. We appreciate you being here with us tonight.”
Finn walks in with the front half of the tide of bodies washing up the steps. I look for my cowboy. He’s behind me with a young woman. He wraps his arm around her and puts his other hand in his pocket. He wears his smile as he walks up the steps. He removes his hand from his pocket to scratch behind his ear. He keeps it down at his side the rest of the way. I excuse myself through the crowd.
“Hey, buddy, we’re all going to the same place,” Dr. Bloom says. He’s walking with a gang of suited men and women behind him. He tucks on his white bow tie. I smile at him, push through the crowd, then the heavy door.
Beethoven on low. The hand painted walls are frameless, but cluttered with black and white murals. Empty off-white squares of various sizes are scattered up and down throughout the lobby. Employees in red shirts and black slacks all stand and pace in little circles, watching. No one is behind the counter.
Finn stands under the archway that leads to the sculptures. He talks to two blonde women who share a nose and a man with a scruffy face who looks like he smells of a thick cologne. As I get closer, I can smell it. It smells like distrust.
I walk between Finn and the scruffy man, keeping my eyes fixed on the muscular bust in the center of the next room as I step through the short hall. I adjust my eyes in the room with the white walls as I browse the centerpiece, a gray nude dancer with no feet, melting into the base, kneeling, his arm resting on his knee. His hair is detailed, dark from a distance, fine and precious up close. I touch the hair on the head.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Look at the body hair,” Finn says. I melt into the stone. One of Finn’s girls laughs at a small brown clay figure on a pedestal. A skinny bipedal figure stands with its mouth open wide. It’s arms are held out. A woman screams.
The chatter softens. Men in red button ups run into the next room. The woman in the black dress follows. Through the doorway leading into the contemporary art room, someone shouts.
“Call 911.” The woman in the black dress takes a cell from the staff member nearest her. A woman pulls a black gate closed.
“What’s going on?” I say. A cell phone dings.
“Doesn’t seem good,” Finn says. People, huddling in small grounds, keep to their corners. Another cell phone dings. I stand in place and look around the room. Near the gate, a dollhouse carved out of stone rests on a table. Inside it, using the stone furniture, are little plastic people with bird heads, all different colors. Their beaks are enormous. The walls and furniture are smooth and solid.
“Do they know who it was?” An older woman in a turtleneck says, ruffling her hand through her thick gray hair. Her mouth is open and her eyes are wide.
“I don’t think so. No one is saying anything,” another woman says.
I move all the bird men and all the bird women into the sitting room. Finn watches me.
“I guess you got your story,” I say.
“Not quite,” Finn says. He picks up two of the bird men, one red and one blue, and places them next to each other in the hallway. He peeks through the gate.
A fast melody plays from a cell phone from one of the women behind me. The woman with thick gray hair answers.
“Okay. Okay,” she says. She whispers to her friend. Finn joins his friends over by the melted man. I keep to the birds. I rearrange the bird people in the sitting room so that they are all facing a partner of a different color. Their beaks don’t touch.
My cowboy in boots pulls on the top of the brown paper head a few sculptures down. The young woman he’s with laughs. They move on down to the dollhouse.
“Cute,” the woman says.
Three men in blazers and two women in blue t-shirts and black pants walk in from the lobby. I stay by the dollhouse. A woman in a red shirt opens the gate. They go in, one by one. The oldest looking man enters through the gate last. He wears a badge on his belt. He smiles. The gate closes.
Many people are on their phones. Finn leans against the wall by the short hallway and smokes a cigarette. Finn plants his foot onto the wall behind him and extends his thickly wrapped thigh. He sucks and breathes. I walk over to him, lean against the wall beside him, and watch through the gate beyond the melted man.
“Couldn’t hold out, huh?” I say.
“Nope,” Finn says. He shows me the open pack. I shake my head and wave my hand sideways. He returns his cigarettes to his pocket and lays his hand along the wall. I let my arms fall from their fold over my chest down to my sides.
The gate opens and then closes. The older officer walks toward the melted man with his badge held high.
“Hello. I’m Detective Kurr. I apologize for the inconvenience. We appreciate your cooperation and as soon as we ask you all a few questions we can continue to evening,” he said. He starts with the man nearest, the cowboy. They speak briefly and then he talks with the woman from under his shoulder. He moves on to the scruffy man who smells of distrust near the dollhouse.
Finn drops his cigarette and mashes it with his shoe. He pushes away from the wall. He walks into the lobby and touches the screen on his cell phone. The scruffy man joins him. Detective Kurr moves on to a woman in a salmon colored dress over by the brown paper head.
“Is that yours?” A man in a red shirt says. He points to the cigarette in the floor. Smoke rises. I stomp my foot over it.
“I don’t smoke,” I say.
“There’s no smoking in here,” he says.
“It’s not mine,” I say. He curves his mouth and picks up the butt. He bends at the knee and extends the cigarette out from his chest. He walks over to the dollhouse and tosses the cigarette into the trashcan just before the gate. Finn plays on his phone and cuts up with the scruffy man. I walk across the room and play with the dollhouse.
“Have you spoken with Dr. Bloom any this evening?” Detective Kurr says. He came out from behind the melted man.
“Doctor Bloom?” I say.
“Yes. Well dressed. Older. Bow tie,” he says.
“Only outside. I accidentally cut him off coming up the steps,” I say.
“What did he say to you?” He says.
“He told me to slow down,” I say.
Detective Kurr looks at me. His brown eyes scorch mine. He smiles. He walks to the other side of the melted man. I move the red plastic bird man into the sitting room and leave the blue bird man in the hallway. Smoke rises. People say fire. A man in a red shirt rushes over. He sprays. Detective Kurr comes back from behind the melted man.
“Sir, may I take your name?” He says. His sulfur eyes strike mine.
“James Hatcher,” I say. I play with my bird men. Detective Kurr writes on a legal pad. He walks across the room, back behind the melted man. I look for Finn. I play with my bird men.
Eric Shay Howard is a creative writer and editor. He lives in Louisville, KY and edits Likely Red Magazine. He’s on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.