Amber flicked her cheap cigarette onto the ground and smashed the ember out with the toe of her designer label boot. She looked both ways as she crossed the street to the Section 8 apartment building on the east side of the city. The day was hollow gray and anonymously cold. Her steps sent a gang of pigeons scattering as a playground swing squeaked a desolate moan. She wrapped her arms tight about her knitted sweater against the bitter wind, which carried the detritus of poverty: plastic bags, plastic vodka bottles, Styrofoam to-go boxes, an infinity of cigarette butts. She pushed lock on her key fob again, just in case. The cooing birds briefly lifted with the double honk, before settling back to their endless pecking at the frozen ground. This apartment complex was the keystone of her own endless need: crank. Just fourteen floors up to her salvation: Loretta. Loretta could get a girl anything she wanted, but Amber had only one love: meth-amphetamines. She would go from dead inside to giant-sized and unstoppable with just one more line.
Amber stopped on the sidewalk because a pigeon sprawled, dead, on the concrete. There was a torn open cigarette package which read in the clear scratchings of a child: “hes a good burd. sorry. RIP.” Someone had staged a memorial service for this casualty of the city, complete with dead flowers and uprooted weeds. Amber was momentarily touched, remembering her own mother’s death the previous summer. She remembered the tombstone, the cut flowers, the tears. That was the beginning of all the wasting away. She kicked the sign over and kept walking.
“Hi, Amber!” Little Xtina came running and propped the sign to rest once more against the dead bird. Amber rolled her eyes at the wayward and obnoxious child. She was Loretta’s hatchling though, so there was no escaping her endless stream of trivial stories about all the tenants of the project.
“I’m six. My birthday was yesterday. Loretta couldn’t get me a present until she made some more money. That good-for-nothing Randy took her money again. He doesn’t know that he hurts my mom when he takes things. They brought me back a Choco-Taco from the Fast Stop and I got to watch what I wanted on TV all night. My friend Cinnamon gave me a necklace, too. She got it from work because when one of the girls got fired she left all her clothes and stuff in the back and everybody got to take whatever they wanted, so Cinnamon got me this.”
Xtina showed Amber a cheap locket on a blackened, knotted up silver chain. There was a picture of a baby inside. “Cinnamon said that he was the girl’s son, and that he died from Sid’s Disease, where babies just die in the crib when no one is looking. Do you think that’s what happened to the pigeon?”
Amber ignored Xtina and continued into the lobby where the doorman scowled at her. He was in a ratty suit and faded tie, bitter behind a cube of bullet proof glass. Amber could feel him looking down on her and flipped him the bird. She angled for the elevators and pressed the button. No light. She pushed again and again, cursing.
“It don’t work. Jim says they’ll fix it when mom pays rent. Jim has cartracks in his eyes. That’s where clouds grow in them and make it hard to see. Loretta says he’s better off not seeing anything here, since he’s so sad about his wife dying, and since he don’t like to have no fun anyway. His wife died a long time ago. But not from Sid’s Disease, from the cancer. Now, he just takes care of the pigeons, I help him feed them seeds when he lets me.”
The child grabbed Amber’s hand and led her to the staircase. The stairs were littered as the outside lawn: soaked through diapers, a filthy bra, brown-tarred glass pipes, the inevitable cigarette butts. The tainted air smelled of crack smoke and ancient body odors, which made Amber dry-heave.
Two more floors up an old, barrel-chested black man with a deep cough sat on the stairs. His yellow eyes seeped pus, strained from endless coughing. Amber could hear the phlegm rattling in his body and watched it congeal at the corners of his lips. He turned as the girls walked past and took a long drink off the brown paper bag clutched in his hand. Amber wondered how this old bird was still alive, he was pickled through.
“That’s Clarence. He has Emfeezeemee disease. That’s when you cough until you die, he got it from smoking too many damn Lucky Strikes. He said everything would be okay if only his Corsica had never broken down. He said he’s an honest man and he would work an honest day if he could. Now he just hangs out with Cinnamon.”
“What the ever-loving fuck, man!” Amber recoiled as they rounded the next landing where on the threadbare carpet was another dead pigeon. Xtina patted Amber’s hand in an act of solace.
“Loretta says everyone dies. My dad died of oberdozing. Loretta says he never could handle his shit. Some cops took him away and then we never saw him again. Loretta says he wasn’t never good for nothing, and she says she don’t need nobody anyway. She says she happiest all on her own.” Xtina looked away and pulled her too-big jeans up and pushed her stringy blonde hair behind her ears. She gripped Amber’s hand harder. Amber rolled her eyes at the kid, thinking everyone was better off on their own. Love was a drug with no high, only pain.
Amber pushed the heavy door open to the fourteenth floor and her fix, her head was fuzzy and she thought back to when her mom flew the coop, how things didn’t go the way they should’ve. How she didn’t even leave a note. Amber shook her head and forbade the tears.
Xtina led Amber excitedly over to a neighbor’s open door. The TV was blaring a daytime talk show and women were screeching about paternity tests. Amber peered in to see a gaunt woman with a pot belly putting on a pair of torn hose. A man was sitting next to the window smoking a cigarette, his hand escaping between the bars over the window. It occurred to Amber that the bars were not to keep people out – not at this height – but to keep disillusioned people and abandoned children from trying to fly. The man flicked his smoke to the ground and pushed the ember into the carpet with his boot. He threw a crumpled wad of bills onto the bed and pushed past the two uninvited guests.
“Hi Cinnamon! This is Amber, she’s my friend. We play outside together and she has her own car. Her parents gave it to her for her sweet-sixteen party. I told her you gave me this necklace for my birthday. I love it!” Xtina threw her arms around the weary woman and kissed her cheek. Cinnamon’s dark ringed eyes grew bright for a millisecond and she hugged the child back.
“That’s right, baby-girl! Now you gonna sing for me?”
“I am BEE-YOU-TIF-FUL! No matter what they say! I am BEE-YOU-TIF-FUL every every way! Birds can’t bring me down … ohhhhhhhh, ohhhh, oh!”
Cinnamon and Xtina laughed together while Amber was overcome with pity, she and her own mother sang that song together, once.
“Now go tell your momma to give Miss Cinnamon some candy from her toy box!”
Xtina’s face took a dark turn. She jumped off the bed and shuffled her toes.
“Momma’s having a bad day, Miss Cinnamon.”
“I don’t care about that, go tell her I need my candy or there’s gonna be hell to pay and I’m gonna tell Jim. Now go on, get, child.”
Xtina kicked her left foot with the right and looked up at Cinnamon with a contained sniffle, then turned and gripped Amber’s hand tighter.
“OK, Cinnamon, I’ll see you in a little while!” The two girls headed down the hallway, Amber’s anxiety subsided as she felt closer to her fix. Her tongue ring ran the back of her teeth in a crazy drumbeat and her palms wrung wet with need. She bit her lips where the little sores were springing up; she fingernailed the dime-sized scab on her otherwise lovely, suburban face.
“My Mom, I mean Loretta, named me after the best singer in the world, Christina Aggielarry. She says it’s good to be named after someone famous and that one day I’ll get to be on TV, too. Cinnamon has been on TV two times before, she made two movies before and she said she was the star, but I can’t watch them because they’re a special kind of movie for grown-ups. But then she met Clarence and now he helps her meet boyfriends and they live together. Cinnamon is so pretty, she has the most boyfriends.”
Xtina opened the door to Loretta’s apartment and inside was a violent tornado of chaos. Loretta was the size of a bobby pin and had eyes sunk as the Titanic, her aged-by-hard-luck face was deformed by frantic rage. She ripped apart the couch cushions with a knife and flung the white cloud fluff across the room. The end table was overturned, drawers thrown aside with take-out menus, packets of matches and junk mail flung everywhere. The kitchen cabinets were all open, conspicuously empty; a bag of rice was disassembled and scattered everywhere.
“Where’s Momma’s candy, baby? Where the fuck is it! Who was here, baby, was somebody here, baby? You better tell Momma! Don’t you care if we eat, don’t you care that I do everything for you?! Help Momma find her candy, NOW!”
“No one was here, Momma, I promise! I would never let anyone in!” Xtina openly cried and collapsed herself into a clinging fetal ball with sneakered feet tap-tapping out her terror.
“I have money.”
Amber didn’t care about the mess and the lost drugs. She just knew Loretta could get more, and sure as death, Loretta’s fit came to a swift stop. Amber held out the money and said she needed a teener.
“Watch the kid, I’ll be back.”
“I ain’t no babysitter, take the kid with you.”
“You are a babysitter if you wanna get fucking high.” Loretta stormed out, stuffing the cash into her pocket. Amber sat on the disemboweled couch and Xtina moved close to her side. A flush of nerves came over Amber, she’d just given all her cash to a freaked-out fuck of an addict; agitated, she chewed her lip. She could hear her dead mother’s nagging voice in her mind’s ear: Dead birds everywhere, dead people everywhere? Why don’t they leave if everyone is dying? Amber thought about leaving, too. A migraine started up in her head as she began to fear another night without a high. She fingered her phone for who else might be holding.
“Momma is always losing things. She would lose her head if it wasn’t born on, she says. Also, people steal you know, no-good god-damn thieves everywhere these days.” Xtina sucked her thumb and petted Amber’s shoulder in a wasted effort to get a hug. Amber’s heart burst into a quick laugh realizing that the old addled whore had probably just lost her drugs and that this little cuckoo child would probably know everywhere they could look.
“Where is your mom’s toy box? We could help her find her candy.”
“OK! Yeah, then she’ll be happy again! That would be a great present for my birthday, even though it was yesterday, you know. I’m six years old now!”
The two went from room to room, shook out sheets, felt in the toes of shoes and looked under the bathroom vanity, but Loretta had left no stone unturned. Amber began thinking that maybe that good for nothing whore and her pimp had stolen the stash. Or maybe it was that uppity blind man downstairs judging everyone as they came in just to get a score, just to be good to go again. What the fuck did that guy know anyway, she thought, his wife probably killed herself because he had a small-ass dick.
“Where do Cinnamon and the stairwell dude hide shit around here, Xtina?”
“Well, maybe in the shed where the Corsica is broke down.”
“OK, and what about Jim? Where does he keep his shit?” Amber figured that old man wanted to clean up the dealers out of the apartment building, so he could make more room for his pigeon friends.
“Jim keeps all his stuff in the mop closet. That’s where his cleaning stuff is, he likes to keep clean because he says cleanly is same as being god.”
Indeed, Amber thought.
The two girls went downstairs past the broken crack pipes and bird corpse and jimmied Jim’s lock on the utility closet. The toxic smell hit them first as they opened the door: a bin full of dead pigeons, rotting away.
“God fuck. Seriously, what the fuck? Why are all these birds dead and why is he saving them? Sicko.” Amber gagged over pursed lips and dumped the bin looking for drugs. The birds were broken and stiff, the stench of death overwhelmed both girls. Xtina whimpered and murmured no-no-no-no while she held her shaking head between her two baby hands.
“Come on, let’s go.” Amber left the feathered mess.
“Cinnamon says everyone is sick and then everyone dies.”
Amber grabbed Xtina’s hand and headed for the garage where Clarence’s Chevy Corsica was broke-down-dead. They passed the memorialized pigeon and the swings and opened the creaking wooden door to the shed. Amber rifled through the car, the glovebox, popped the trunk.
“Nothing, man. How does your mom lose a bunch of fucking dr… candy?”
Amber searched the drawers along the old workbench, flipped a birdcage and tool boxes over, and found nothing. She saw the bag of pigeon feed that Jim, the loony cataracted door man, kept for his beloved birds. Scattered about the ground were a bunch of tiny bags she recognized. Her heart flew. She tore open the twenty-gallon manila seed bag and gasped. Inside, nested throughout the seed, was dumped all the crystal meth.
“Well, at least now we know how all the fucking pigeons are dying.”
“What? Why?” Xtina seemed sheepish, she was looking down and kicking her foot again.
“All your Momma’s candy is in the fucking pigeon seed. It’s poison to the birds.”
Shit, Amber thought, everything died in the projects. Nobody left, no wife, no father, no tenant, no pigeon flew away; wings were lies, only hearses or garbage bags took anyone away. Birds of a feather, right? Amber sighed and squinted her eyes at Xtina, who was suddenly crying.
“I just wanted everyone to be happy again. I didn’t know it would kill the pigeons.”