That summer—after the one-two punch from his wife and the university—George doped up on extinction. At first, of course, there had been a void: The absence of love, the absence of sex, the absence of money. A Bermuda Triangle of early middle age, a Holy Trinity of unholy ghosts. All around George the world went gray, draining his reserve of stamina and good will, nipping at his hairline and his squirrel fat. And then one morning—suddenly, inexplicably—George stood in the eye of the storm, somewhere between the before and the after. So he surged. He plunged headlong into the quicksand of his research. Soon herds of mastodons thumped within his chest; Carolina parakeets sang him to his slumber. By the time he arrived in Washington D.C. to see Martha, his inspiration in the war against Darwin, a diet of dodo (so new, so sumptuous) had padded him against both desire and necessity.
The petrified air of the Smithsonian crystallized George's resolve. His presence possessed a destiny, a raison d'etre. He mattered. How unlike the hordes of tourists who'd guzzled in from the heartland for a glimpse at plate blocks of inverted postage stamps and Archie Bunker's chair. He reassuringly patted the appointment letter in his breast pocket and strode rapidly through the maze of exhibits. He found himself wishing that they charged an admission fee so he would not have to pay it. Museums did this to him, positioned him in the history of the cosmos. So did movies about scientific heroism. His apotheosis was cut short only when the research receptionist (one of those bright-eyed peasant beauties who fade into maternity) demanded a precise accounting of his identity and intentions.
I have an appointment to see Martha, he said.
Martha? And you are?
No, George. Lloyd George, like the British prime minister.
I see, said the receptionist. She clearly didn't.
Obfuscating to clarify was a habit he knew he had to kick, and still he found himself growing more demanding with each passing year. To the telephone operator he'd say P as in Phaedra, X as in Xenophon. He'd buy subway tokens in historic quantities: four like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ten like the Lost Tribes of Israel. He acted on hope, not malice. He longed for everyone to know everything, or at least for everyone to know everything that he did. And yet his disappointments mounted like the sorrows of Job—his wife proved unfamiliar with the Wonders of the Medieval World, his landlady rusty at Ecclesiastical Latin—until at the ripe old age of thirty-four, he had sadly concluded that ignorance was pandemic.
The receptionist examined a list of phone extensions; a valley settled between her eyebrows. And then she was retreating to the rear of her den, her head and torso soon shielded by an aqua draw-curtain. George's eyes followed her legs. She sported platform shoes, tinted stockings. His gaze locked. When the girl returned, his head remained bowed at her feet like a penitent's.
We don't have a Martha, she said.
I said, We don't have a Martha. The girl leaned forward and spoke slowly; she was apparently surveying him for signs of sanity. I checked the directory to be certain and there isn't anybody with the name Martha on the staff. First or last name.
The girl smiled apologetically. A narrow gap divided her front teeth.
No, said George. Of course, there isn't.
She's a bird, said George. Not a person.
The girl frowned.
She's a stuffed bird. A stuffed passenger pigeon. I have a letter here from the keeper of ornithological specimens.
Oh, said the girl.
Passenger pigeons once accounted for forty percent of all the birds on Earth, George explained. He felt the obligation to edify. In 1800, he said, there were eighty billion of them. When they migrated, they blackened the night sky across Tennessee and Kentucky. It was like a solar eclipse for three days running. By 1914, there was only one left. Her name was Martha and she occupied a small cage in the Cincinnati Zoo.
I'm just the intern, answered the girl. I'm filling in. The research clerk is away on jury duty.
That so? asked George.
Yet he waited without complaint while the girl rummaged, probed, phoned. She cradled the telephone under her chin and emptied the contents of resistant drawers. She dialed another number and ran her hands along dusty shelves, behind the volumes of the Encyclopedia Americana. He paid close attention and, snippet by snippet, deciphered the mystery: The keeper of ornithological specimens was giving birth, the director of taxidermy was out on worker's comp. It was the research clerk's wife, of all people, who finally directed the girl to a folder labeled "B" in her husband's filing cabinet.
Bingo, said the girl. B for Bird. And, key in hand, she led George through a rear door into a cabinet-lined conference room.
How unlikely a place to meet his subject, in that small, dimly lit chamber. There was a coffeemaker, a watercooler. There were manila files stacked waist-high in the center of the room, where the table should have been, as though a short man had attempted to use them to change a light bulb. There was a rabbit-eared black-and-white TV. It was all so Dickensian. Yet here, in a cast-iron safe beneath the television, Martha roosted atop her final nest.
That night at the motel, George recorded the meeting in his journal:
She loves me. She's one of those delicate creatures who love all of humanity, all of life. I can see it in her eyes. Upon our first encounter, I felt like Stanley confronting Livingstone, Crusoe meeting Friday. Her guidance will shore me up, will drive Professor Darwin to the footnotes of history. Khrushchev must have known my euphoria when he warned, We shall bury you.
Beneath these observations, he added:
Also encountered an intriguing girl.
He fell asleep in his clothes.
The girl encroached upon him. She crept across the landscape of his routine, scouted from the threshold of the conference room. He must have cut a queer figure, he recognized, a grown man staring at a stuffed pigeon over an array of open notebooks. He was not oblivious to the norms of the outside world, even if he chose to flout them. But then there was the girl—full-breasted, broad-hipped—staring at a grown man staring at a stuffed bird. Now that wasn't so normal, either. She was only sixteen, he reminded himself. A rising high school junior. He couldn't exactly show up at the university one day with his evolutionary treatise under one arm and his teenage mistress hanging on the other. Forget deferring his tenure another year! They'd out-and-out boot him. And yet there were exceptions, Chaplins, Polanskis, a veritable macropoedia of genius and aberration. The girls ministrations tipped the scale.
Pumpkin pie, she said, balancing her weight on one leg.
He looked up, frazzled.
I baked a pie, she said. Pumpkin. Would you like some?
It was a ruse to lower his guard, he realized, like flavored antibiotics. He consumed two slices.
Lunch, she said, curling her bangs between her fingers.
He hadn't written a word all morning.
Lunch, she repeated. I forgot mine. Would you like to join me in the staff cafeteria?
He'd brought along a bag lunch. He left it to rot inside his briefcase.
Pandas, she said.
George had never eaten panda, had heard that it tasted like pigeon or chicken.
I'm going to see the panda bears on Saturday. Would you like to come?
And so, several days later in Washington, George found himself accompanying Nancy to the National Zoo.
The zoo unfolded around George like a lost continent and displayed all the forgotten specimens of his suburban childhood: Pregnant women pushing perambulators, pre-pubescent girls roaming in packs. Here and there, young couples—his own age, but young nonetheless—fondled and groped as though liberated by the example of the animals. George absorbed his fellow man with primal wonder. He had never, in his entire life, seen so many children.
Pandas, said Nancy. It was the first inessential word she'd said all morning, and she served it up like cotton candy.
George focused on the two black-and-white creatures beyond the plexiglass barrier. If she was interested, he was interested.
You like pandas, don't you? he asked.
I guess, she answered.
At that moment, the pandas, possibly in an effort to stimulate spectator interest, tossed aside their bamboo sprouts and embarked on a game of lead-and-follow. Mating ensued.
It doesn't embarrass you, does it? she asked unexpectedly.
You know. You and me being here, like this, and the pandas going at it like that. I imagine you'd find that somewhat uncomfortable.
Why so? he asked. He felt as though he weren't wearing pants.
I don't have many friends, she answered. That's because I'm very mature for my age.
Nancy turned to face him and rested her elbows against the wooden railing. George wondered how she would respond if he leaned into her, pressed his dry lips into her full ones. This girl was different, he told himself. She knew the names of songbirds, the classifications of plants. She'd watched all the back episodes of Wild Kingdom. George was flooded with a sudden desire to nurture, to heal, as though healing the lonely child might justify his other desires.
I'm sorry, he said.
She laughed. Don't be. I'll have friends, soon enough. Just wait until I get to college.
You're gorgeous, said George.
You're blind, said Nancy.
A boy—no more than seven or eight—pointed at the mating pandas and shouted, That's what grandma does, to the consternation of his dumbstruck mother.
Nancy led George through the World of Apes, the House of Birds. The gallinules were flashing their plumage when he built up the courage to take the girl's hand.
Questions, answers. The girl longed to know George's how, why and whether. Could he briefly explain the causes of his breakup, elaborate on the politics behind his academic stagnation? Would he give her a hint or two about his research, his pigeon-staring? It was like taking oral graduate examinations on a daily basis. In principle, of course, George had no aversion to unburdening. In fact, he truly wanted to share his secrets: how Lois had left him to shoot stag films, how the department chairman had called him an intellectual troglodyte behind his back. But sharing meant intimacy, seriousness. If the girl knew him, she might fall in love with him. Real love, not puppy love. She might even expect him to drive down from Philadelphia the following spring to accompany her to the high school prom. It was unacceptable. Absurd! He sat in the conference room, breathing the dry, dehumidified air and searching Martha's eyes for wisdom. On domestic matters, she offered none.
There was no denying that Nancy buoyed his research. He'd filled three notebooks in the course of two weeks. At times, he assured himself as he reread his musings, his language even waxed poetic:
What a noble, heroic creature, this Martha. So dignified, so tragic. The last of her race. The men who kept her must have recognized the truth: She is a martyr, not a victim. Billions of her brethren willfully sacrificed themselves for the welfare of the commonweal, the good of the planet. Their time had come. How renewing to know that the pulse of evolution is Nietzschean, not Darwinian—that an entire species can will itself into extinction in the interests of its fellow species. Never weakness! Herculean strength!
He had suggested his theory only once in a public forum. In a widely uncirculated magazine called Devolution. Even there, sandwiched between advertisements for human pheromones and love elixirs, he had drawn several dozen letters of condemnation. No fewer than three past winners of the Nobel Prize had branded him an ignoramus. Greenpeace and the Committee for the Commemoration of the Holocaust had joined forces to silence him. He faced the academic's worst nightmare: He was both universally despised and thoroughly obscure.
How's the work coming? asked Nancy.
He shut his notebook.
Fine. Just fine.
Do you ever wonder what she thought about?
Martha, she said. Do you ever wonder what she thought about during those final years? It must have been awfully lonesome, don't you think? Knowing that she was the last of her lot.
The passenger pigeon's brain, said George, weighs approximately three grams. Accounting for sexual dimorphism, Martha had about two and a half grams of gray matter upstairs. I don't think she did much thinking about anything.
Nancy pushed the stuffed bird to the center of the table and seated herself in front of him. Don't be obnoxious, she said.
I was just—
You were just deflecting the subject. I read your notebooks last night. You left them in the safe with Martha, Lloyd. You forgot that I have the other key. So now I know what you're up to. You don't really believe all that about her not thinking.
So you know what I'm up to, do you?
Lock, stock and pigeon.
And you still like me? You don't think I'm nuts.
Not only do I like you, I love you. I think you're absolutely brilliant.
George reached across the table and nuzzled her fingers.
You're absolutely brilliant too, said George. But you don't love me. You're only sixteen. You're not allowed to love me.
Oh, said Nancy.
Her eyes went glassy like the bird's.
When you get to college, you'll fall in love.
Oh, I know, said Nancy. Her cheekbones sank, her eyes melted. But that doesn't mean I don't love you too. I thought you'd meant something else.
I don't know what I mean exactly, said George. He squeezed her hand and then returned the pigeon to its chamber. For a moment, he wished he were like Martha—the last of his lot. That would justify his bachelorhood, make his isolation easier. Then he could wander the streets alone confidently, with an explanation, like a homosexual or a priest. Instead, he suffocated under the summer heat and the wary looks of attractive women.
He visited a local florist at lunchtime and, on the return trip, armed with a dozen red roses and the pulse of adventure, he felt a hell of a lot better.
They fell into the routine of playing adult. During the day, George stared at the pigeon. Martha offered inspiration, confirmation. He viscerally knew that she had sacrificed herself, that they had all sacrificed themselves. He still did not know why. In the evenings, however, it was Nancy who urged him on. Her influence was more subtle, almost unobtrusive. She baked him desserts—rhubarb cobblers, strawberry meringues. She even showed up at his motel room one morning with four small pigeon pies. These touched his funny bone and moved his palate. Yet even as the girl infused ease into his life (she cleaned, she took dictation, she made him origami swans and crepe paper lilies), he couldn't help feeling that they were both mimicking grown-ups in a pantomime of domesticity.
The girl's parents remained conspicuously offstage. They existed, he knew—but like Oz behind the curtain. Somewhere, a fifty-one-year-old starch manufacturer and a forty-six-year-old dental hygienist waited to meet George, their daughter's boyfriend, a wholesome young man with an affinity for zoos and amusement parks. A youth who showered their daughter with long-stemmed roses and nature books. But the youth they sought was actually George, middle-aged ornithologist and well-known crackpot. A man still scalding from memories of his wife's last touch. He could no longer picture a future without either Lois or Nancy, and yet it was sitting on the bed in his motel room, watching the girl reading through his notes, when he most missed the companionship, even the disdain, of his wife.
Question, said Nancy.
Answer, said George.
One-word exchanges were their romantic signature.
Why won't you sleep with me? the girl asked.
What do you mean?
I mean we've been going out for almost a month now and you still haven't tried to get me into bed. Are you set on driving the human race into extinction?
Not at all, he soothed. It's just not a good idea.
I think it's a good idea, she said. I love you. You love me. Why isn't it a good idea?
It just isn't a good idea, that's all. It will make this relationship too serious. I really do love you, I think, but you know that I can't marry you. In the first place, I'm already married.
Who said anything about getting married? she asked. I don't plan on getting married until I'm twenty-eight. Until I have my Ph.D. But there'll have to be a first, you know. So why not you? That way, when you're famous, I'll be a footnote.
She sat down next to him on the bed and rested her head on his shoulder.
It's just not a good idea, he said. And he said it again and again, intermittently, between kisses and caresses, until at some point she produced a condom from her purse. And then, seemingly without his input, the decision had somehow been made. She squeezed too hard, ran her dry fingers up and down him like sandpaper. He didn't fit. He tried to show her what to do and quickly discovered that it was much easier to just do it himself. And in spite of it all—to his wonder and relief—she actually seemed to enjoy herself.
That wasn't a good idea, he said when they were done. I love you a whole lot, though. He sat on the edge of the bed, stark naked in the strong light. He lit a cigarette.
You don't regret it? she asked.
Neither do I, she said. I feel like an adult.
So do I, said George.
Yet when she had gone—he pointedly refused to let her stay over, drew the line at driving her to the school bus stop—he felt as though he'd butchered something sacred. When he was nine years old, he'd fed rat poison to his sister's parrot. Watched the bird stagger and cramp. He'd never shared the secret. For several months, the crime ate at his innards like a tapeworm, and then it stopped. Only now, the neon lights of the nearby strip mall bathing his room pink and green, he longed to phone his sister and apologize. But his sister was dead of pancreatic cancer, a closed book. His journal lay open on the bed. He wrote:
What caused the passenger pigeon to sacrifice itself? What greater good was served by its death? Maybe nothing more than to warn mankind of the dangers of extinction. Is it possible that Martha was the messenger? Can she be saying that if eighty billion can die, so can eight billion? If the most populous species of bird, why not the most populous species of primate?
He paused and added a further thought:
Then he ripped the page from the notebook and crumpled it into a ball. He squeezed it to reduce tension as he dialed his wife's number in Philadelphia.
The conference room greeted him with the aroma of new leather. The girl had installed a folding table, covered the plaster with streamers and etchings. She was standing on a stack of milk crates, installing a carving of a wooden heron above the television, when he entered. He thought the carving suggested a crucifix. He saluted Martha with a pat on the tuft.
What day is today? asked the girl.
Our anniversary? he guessed. One month? Five weeks?
National Birdwatching Day, she retorted.
It's also Bastille Day. I brought you a guillotine from my French class. And a saber.
George deposited his notebooks on the table and examined the papier-mâché guillotine. It resembled a paper hat. He ran his fingers along the blade of the saber. Real metal.
I'm glad it's not Guy Fawkes Day, he joked.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1608, he explained. And then he stopped.
The saber is my uncle's, said the girl. His great-grandfather fought in some war against Mexico. Or Spain.
Indeed, said George.
Nancy stepped down from the milk crates. She had expected a lecture on British politics. His silence alarmed her.
What? she demanded.
I spoke to Lois last night.
You mean your wife Lois?
She wasn't cut out for stag films, said George. He focused his eyes on the pigeon. They wanted her to dress up as Jackie Onassis for a pornographic Kennedy tribute. She thought it was too contrived. Beneath her.
Nancy said nothing. Her mouth hung slightly open, her gap-tooth visible. She folded her bare arms across her chest and rubbed them as though swept with a sudden chill. George suppressed the urge to warm her, to heal.
I'm going back to Philadelphia this morning, he said. The director of specimens said I could take the bird with me on loan.
Oh, said Nancy.
I'm so, so sorry, he said. You can't believe how sorry I am. I really do love you though. You have to believe me.
The girl opened her mouth, closed it. She hugged herself. Her eyes bounced around the room as though her brain had lost its balance, and then they settled into cold glass.
Life makes sense with Lois, he continued. It's just circumstance. You have to believe me. You do believe I love you, don't you?
You called her, didn't you? the girl demanded. Her tone was heavy, almost dead.
I spoke to her last night and—
But you called her, right? She didn't call you.
I really do love you, George insisted. You're the girl of my dreams. It's just that there's the future to consider. I'm not what you want. Not really. Like you said, you'll go off to college and meet hundreds of boys. You might even meet one more attractive than I am.
He smiled to convey that the last bit was a joke. He wanted her to smile. Or even to cry. He wanted her to do something. Silence was as painful as a stoning.
I guess I will, she said thoughtfully. And then she lifted the saber, ever so gingerly, and decapitated the bird with the full force of her sixteen years.
Feathers exploded around George like the remnants of a pillow fight.
Nancy said, Fuck you, and began kneading Martha's remains with her hands.
The feathers accompanied George back to Philadelphia. He sat in the smoking car, his plume-filled briefcase open on his lap. Two portly women in their Sunday finest fought him for elbow room, their crepe-banded hats announcing an impending funeral in the City of Brotherly Love. He resisted the urge to relate W. C. Fields' epitaph: I'd rather be here than in Philadelphia. He suppressed his desire to lecture his unwitting travel companions on the history of millinery, to speak of the mad hatter epidemic of 1782 when the mercury in men's top hat linings drove the craftsmen to insanity. His time in Washington had thoroughly extinguished his pedantic instincts. Now he felt like an escaping predator, a wolf deserting the hen house and leaving a trail of butchered fowl in his wake. George opened his journal and made one final entry:
Some scientists still maintain that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was an act of altruism, a manifestation of mass will and benevolence. Others see it for what it was: Not an act of sacrifice on the part of the noble victim, but a testament to the enduring ignorance and cruelty of the killer.
He set the journal atop the blanket of feathers and shut the briefcase; when he returned home, both theory and evidence would receive a proper burial. Then he closed his eyes and let the train carry him forward, toward his wife, toward his future, struggling to blot out his memories of the girl he had left behind and his own enduring loneliness: the loneliness of a bird in a cage, the isolation of impending extinction.
Title graphic: "Martha's Friend" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012. This story previously appeared in Literal Latte in 1999.