Finches Will Save the City
Eugene watched the Nazis gather in the park from inside the safety of his house. The wet, humid air glued his t-shirt to the skin of his thick belly. The sight of the flames swirling in the darkness below had begun to cause his vision to blur. The old, thick smell of the ghosts moving around him inside the apartment building stifled his breathing. When the drumming began pounding his head, he went downstairs and walked across the empty street, not bothering to look both ways as he’d been taught by the social worker at the government building on First Avenue.
Eugene started receiving a Social Security check three years ago. The check showed up in his mailbox—a rusted little container hanging from two rusted nails that had been hammered deep into the rotten wooden siding of his one-story home on the north side of the city—and he could cash it at the Savings and Loan, the last bank left in Titus, Wisconsin. Inside the bank the women behind the bulletproof glass regarded him with apprehension, distrust, and a fair amount of pity that Eugene could not understand.
Each check was for four hundred dollars and it arrived twice a month. There was never any explanation for why it arrived; Eugene assumed it was Reparations finally come to pass even though another black man he met inside a dark bar that smelled like stale cigars hadn’t received any checks. The black man told Eugene to save the money and Eugene told him no, that’s how they find you. The black man asked who and Eugene said the Nazis.
The Nazis ran Titus. It was like a ghetto. It was a ghetto. The Nazis were the ones who bought all the businesses and then sent them overseas so now everyone was stuck inside the city.
Eugene, unemployed, sat in his small house and stared at his tube television and talked to himself when he walked into the kitchen for a fresh glass of apple juice from the refrigerator. The refrigerator was stocked with empty plastic bottles and half-eaten meatball subs.
Eugene had a place where he could keep tabs on the Nazis: Wanderlust Apartments, the condemned apartment building on the end of the block. Condemned apartments in Titus were normally a safe haven for gangs and homeless but not Wanderlust. Wanderlust’s pre-condemnation days had been something of a legend: lighting fixtures that caught fire, rats the size of dogs sneaking in through a hole in the basement, an elevator that malfunctioned twice and killed dozens.
When the city finally condemned the place, what few public works employees still existed came in and boarded up all the first- and second-floor windows and the doors; they wrapped the building in a chain-link fence and then walked away, brushing the dirt off their hands. This is how cash-strapped cities solve such a problem.
This is how Eugene solved a problem: an old set of bolt cutters that had belonged to his sister. She’d kept a lot of tools in the basement of their house. Before she disappeared, she’d rebuilt most of the porch but never stained or painted it so now the dark wood was beginning to rot.
Inside the condemned building, Eugene picked a room on the third floor. The room overlooked Fifth Avenue and beyond; across the cracked empty street was an old park with a rusty swing set and a tall plastic slide. The slide had once been yellow but every time a gang walked by, someone felt compelled to add his name to the already-colorful array of tags. They were animals, Eugene thought—wild beasts that felt the urge to mark their territory. The Nazis kept an eye on these tags and monitored the progress of each gang in the city.
The apartment Eugene had chosen—352—had a single easy chair he’d slid up to the window. There was a mattress in the small bedroom but he’d never slept in it, not yet at least. The kitchen was empty, only a small rusted pipe exposed in the drywall where an oven had once been, its white countertop cut as if an angry evictee had taken a knife to it. The carpet under Eugene’s feet was stiff, covered in gray dust, and rubbed against his shoes in such a way that it sent a shiver down his spine, the way fresh powdery snow sometimes felt under his winter boots.
In the apartment across the hall—351—three families of finches occupied three separate corners of dusty old bookshelves built into the walls of the small living room. They were rosefinches and were mostly a whitish-gray except around the head, which was colored a pinkish-red or a reddish-pink depending on the family. They had short, slightly curved beaks and whenever Eugene stepped inside to say hello they cocked their heads and studied him. When he closed the door, they resumed their conversations and he listened at the door, jealous.
Sometimes in the afternoon when the wind picked up, the building groaned. The thin windows rattled in even the gentlest breeze. The halls were dark and the stairwell felt like it was swaying when you grabbed the hand railing, as if it was hanging from the building by ropes.
The Nazis danced and partied almost every night in the park across the street. The Nazis came with their flames hanging from long chains. They danced and spun the flames in wide, arcing circles.
Eugene watched them twirl their fireballs in dizzying circles. There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more hiding behind the thick trunks of the ash trees. The lights from the flames danced like searchlights across the black park, over the black street, over the black apartment building. They all wore loose, colorful dresses and shirts with drawstrings.
Eugene thought tonight would be the best night to confront them. Wouldn’t get a better chance. He went downstairs, outside through the hole in the fence.
A police officer was parked across the street.
When he saw Eugene crossing the street, he opened his door and stepped out of the car, leaving the engine running. He lightly grabbed Eugene by the sleeve of his shirt. It was a cool evening but Eugene always wore his Cleveland Browns t-shirt after the sun went down. It had afforded him considerable luck against things of the night.
“The hell are you taking me?” Eugene asked.
“Your house,” he said. “You need to go back to the health clinic this week.”
“You seen Virginia lately?”
“No,” the officer said. “Your sister’s gone. Remember how the social workers explained it?”
“She’s gotta paint the porch.”
The officer’s grip tightened around Eugene’s arm. “You used to be fat, you remember that? I used to see you shopping at the supermarket on Second Avenue. You used to talk to the frozen food.”
“That place is closed now. Nazis got em. They won that battle.”
They walked across the street. The sidewalk was broken in places and the officer used his flashlight to illuminate one large circle of concrete at a time so they could navigate each one like a kid’s hopscotch course, hopping over the cracks. Eugene looked over his shoulder at the Nazis across the street. They were standing in a circle, singing along to the beat of the drums.
“You gonna let the Nazis keep it up?” Eugene asked, pulling his arm away.
“Yessir.” The officer gave him a tug to pull him away from a jagged, triangle-shaped piece of concrete. “And they prefer to be called transcendentalists, I think.”
“But they have flamethrowers.”
The officer held Eugene’s elbow as they walked up the rotten staircase, onto his small porch that was just large enough to fit a cooler and a white deck chair that Eugene had dragged out of a dumpster.
“Here,” Eugene said, leaning over the cooler. He pulled out a bottle of beer, wet from melted ice, and handed it to the officer. “Keeps NASA away.”
The officer took it, unscrewed the top, took a long drink. “Here’s to keeping NASA away, then.”
They drank and stared at the empty street. It was so dark that you could see the Big Dipper in the sky above. Eugene could hear the stars twinkling like little flies.
“Everybody left,” the officer said, taking a long drink from the brown bottle. “They moved out the moment they could. Like a race.”
Eugene turned and looked Officer Glen in the eyes. “I am the reader machine.”
The officer nodded, setting the empty bottle down on the unfinished porch railing. “Stay safe, Eugene.”
Eugene reached into his pocket and handed the officer a pamphlet for the movie There Will Be Blood. Written on it in black marker was Eugene’s full name, his social security number, and the date 07/02/1864. The officer took it and walked back to his car. He put the pamphlet in the glove compartment with all the others Eugene had given him.
Eugene walked into his house, locked the door, then peered through the small diamond-shaped window to watch the officer walk back down the street. He went into his kitchen. All of his dishes were sitting in the sink, dirty, so he picked the one with the least amount of food on it—a plate with a printing of a small finch, crusted with red sloppy Joe mix that covered the bird’s wings—and poured a stack of chips on it.
The doorbell rang. He hadn’t heard the doorbell since his sister left. Back then the city still had a pulse, faint, and Eugene’s house had been cleaner. Virginia had dusted the bookshelves, had cleaned the old windows, had wiped down the coffee table and thrown away the bubble gum wrappers, the candy bar wrappers, the bottles of beer, the magazines with images of various Celebrity Nazis torn out.
Eugene taped the celebrity photos to the walls. Virginia had occasionally taken them down. Now the photos were everywhere, taped up or glued or nailed to the walls.
A woman was at the door, Eugene’s age, fifties, her long straight hair clearly gray under the light of the forever crescent moon. Eugene turned off his porch light, but it was too late—the Nazis had found him.
“I have a joint,” the woman said through the window.
Eugene let her in and they smoked the joint on his couch and she remarked upon the house’s general lack of cleanliness but didn’t seem disgusted so he asked her if she’d like to have sex.
“I don’t have sex,” she said, her head tilting back on the couch. “I have to stay pure. The moon is pure. It only reflects shades of blue.”
Eugene shook his head. “I don’t buy it. I see through lies.”
“Purity brings us closer to nature,” she said.
“No one really says that.”
The woman wandered out at some point and returned without ringing the doorbell and placed a dented birdcage in the living room. In the cage were two finches, gray-crowned rosy finches with white heads and, like their names, gray crowns. They had small pointed beaks and wild, calculating eyes and thin stripes of pink and red plumage.
“We have to give these away,” the woman said. “They had to be rescued. There are men who raise exotic animals and breed them and then they just let them die if they can’t sell them. So we go in and save them.”
“I don’t want them.”
“You’re lying,” she said, pointing to the white mayonnaise stain on his shoulder. “You want all of the finches.”
Eugene gave her a poster for The Blob and he’d scrawled important dates over and over again in the white spaces. “Now we’re even, at least.”
The woman took it and put it in her pocket, then left.
The next day Eugene put the new finches in a room in the condemned apartment—320—and left a bag of birdseed in the hall. He collected sticks from one of the overgrown trees in the park and stuck them in the drywall. “You’ll be safer in here,” he told them before leaving. “This city’s not ready for you yet.”
The finches stared at him, curious. The sound of their colorful plumage was like the rustling of crisp leaves.
At night the Nazis danced again in the park and banged their drums and sang. Later the same woman showed up at his front door with another cage. In the cage were three Pine Grosbeak finches. They had gray wings and red bodies and forked tails and long beaks. They seemed to enjoy singing, a high-pitched warble of music that seemed to dance in the air, bouncing and leaping.
“Wanna do it?” Eugene asked.
The woman shook her head. “I’m not a good person. I made a lot of mistakes before they found me.”
She came back the next night with two more cages of birds, then two more the night after that. She told Eugene she was using Oxycontin and couldn’t stop.
Eugene put the finches in other rooms in the condemned building, all on the third floor. He opened the doors so the finches could move from unit to unit, and he placed two more bags of birdseed in the hallway. He went down to the park during the day when it was safe from Nazis and he collected more and more sticks. He asked for permission from the trees when he needed to break off a branch. He explained that the finches had nothing to perch on because the apartment building was mostly empty and this was important, so important. It was clear to him now that the beauty of these birds was enough to turn things around for this city forever.
The next war was coming soon.
Eugene spent more money on birdseed. Instead of eating a foot-long meatball sub, he just got six-inch subs. He stole the salt shakers and left behind the same note every time: “Because of the interest to be a recipient of already paid-for services. Also, interested that services already paid—for to any business(es) which might be affected by any thing(s) gotten, received, etc. From/of etc. the business(es). Subway. Eugene Griffin. 04/09/1865.”
He tried to hold conversations with all of the different families of finches but there were too many and he lost track easily. None of them seemed interested in knowing about the Soviet submarine at the bottom of Lake Michigan but most listened politely. Some of them sang. The bird droppings were beginning to paint the floors, leaving messages.
The finches listened about the upcoming war and considered Eugene’s plan and called out to one another. He spoke to the Redpolls about their role in the upcoming war. He told them how to load a cannon, how to prep the black gunpowder and keep it dry and measure the saltpeter.
“We’re living the same lives. Over and over and over.” He snapped his fingers, causing the two Redpolls sitting on the windowsill to flinch. “We’re either ghosts of the North or ghosts of the South and this is the new Civil War. We may be doomed no matter what but we gotta try and save this city.”
The city fell asleep, exhaling cool breaths that tickled the leaves of the ash trees in the park. Eugene and so he’d walked around the city looking for the Nazis, but they were gone.
“Too tired,” he told the Redpolls when he returned to the apartment. He coughed. His shirt felt like it had grown. “Got a bruise. Got a bruise. Got a bruise. Don’t mind a houseguest for the night?”
The Redpolls shrugged. The little red markings on their heads seemed to glow under the crescent moonlight. They had tiny beaks and their songs tasted so metallic and savory that Eugene couldn’t help but lick his lips.
He fell asleep in the chair to the sound of wings flapping.
He woke in his chair to the sound of thunder, of frightened cries of hundreds of finches, their wings beating furiously and then the building shook; drywall cracked and chips of ceiling fell onto the shit-stained carpeting. Eugene ran down the hallway to the pitch-black staircase, ignoring the pain in his hip, shouting “The god-damned war’s starting” over and over.
He left the building and ran to the front, expecting to see cannons and soldiers but instead there was a wrecking ball and people. The wrecking ball crane was very slowly adjusting its massive pear-shaped ball of steel, the wire groaning as the winch slowly wound it in. Eugene ran past the orange cab, to the men and women who were watching him with the same sort of curiosity as the Redpolls, cocking their heads as they sang to one another.
“Don’t hurt them!” Eugene shouted. “Listen. We need to win this war. We need beauty. We need to be beautiful. We’re never beautiful anymore!”
The crane’s cab turned and the wrecking ball swung toward the building. The ball connected with one of the windows on the third floor, exploding the glass, sending chunks of brick falling onto the dead grass near the shuttered entrance of the building. The wrecking ball pulled away, dropping and swinging back and then the finches began pouring out, first a few and then dozens and soon it seemed as if the entire sky was filled with colors, a melting rainbow that sounded like a showtune and tasted like sherbet, so beautiful that everyone left in the city could only stop and gape in wonder.
The birds dispersed but the colors remained, painted to the abandoned buildings and dripping like raindrops from ankle-high grass. And the music hung in the air, drowning out the sound of old car mufflers.
And the taste of sugar, so sweet, lingered on their tongues whenever they spoke of the finches.
Ken Brosky received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He graduated, wrote a YA series on Kindle, then started on a mystery novel. He's currently represented by Fairbank Literary.