We weren’t supposed to say anything about Aunt Linda’s birds. Our parents would take us to her house every three months or so, for some holiday-related obligation or other, and before we got out of the car, my mom would turn around in the front passenger seat to remind us. “Do not say a word about Bert and Ernie, okay? You got it?” And the three of us would nod our heads—my little sister already spilling out of her car seat, my older sister sulking in a Guns & Roses shirt, and me, wedged in the middle seat I was always forced to take, due to being so bony.
Aunt Linda’s house was nothing like our house. Blue paint peeled off the wood shingle siding outside. Her fence had collapsed so long ago that tall weeds grew over the fallen planks. She had a dog named Jocko who roamed free around the neighborhood, romping from neighbor’s yard to busy intersection. “Your dog’s across the street, Linda,” my dad would say, coming into the house, and she’d cough-laugh through her cigarette and shrug. We all expected Jocko to die some grisly roadkill death or wind up shot by one of the neighbors, most of whom had car-mounted gun racks and used Confederate flags as curtains. But he never did. Every time we’d walk up the driveway—with bags of Christmas presents, with Fourth of July hot dog buns, with bowls of Thanksgiving mashed potatoes—he’d run up and greet us, slobbering and filthy, eye crusts matted into the fur on his face.
It was the birds we’d needed to worry about. It was the birds we always wanted to see most. We’d hold still long enough for Aunt Linda to give us forehead kisses with her dry, hot-pink lips. We’d wriggle past the living room couch and Wayne, Aunt Linda’s common-law husband, a man whose beer belly looked like it contained quadruplets. “Is Wayne having a boy baby or a girl baby?” my little sister had asked once, on the drive home, and my dad had laughed so hard he’d pulled over and put the emergency flashers on for a few minutes. We’d ignore their questions—did we want some sody pop, how old were we now, did we have any boyfriends yet—while we dashed for the back of the house, up the stairs, to the end of the hallway with the stained gray carpet and the greasy framed portraits of extended family on the walls. We’d stop in front of the the bird cage, where we’d always find Bert & Ernie, two delicate, jewel-colored parakeets, waiting for us.
The thing was: They were never the same birds. Sometimes they were red and yellow, sometimes they were blue and green, sometimes they were gray and teal. They could be overfed silent lumps one visit and tiny chirpy jumpers the next. Even if we’d been to Aunt Linda’s a month or two earlier, we’d run upstairs to find new birds, completely different from the birds before. “Did you say hi to Bert & Ernie?” our aunt would call up from the bottom of the stairs. “They sure did miss you.”
The first time we noticed it, we asked about it. It was Thanksgiving, and we ran down the stairs and into the kitchen. “Nope. Same ones,” Aunt Linda had said. She was pouring a carton of cream over a pan of canned green beans, and it was coming out as clumps instead of liquid. Her fridge was harvest gold and covered with Garfield magnets and horoscopes she’d clipped from the newspaper. “But they’re different colors now,” I said, and my mom, washing dishes at the kitchen sink, cleared her throat and turned around to look at me with big eyes. Cut-it-out eyes. Aunt Linda stopped working on the casserole, and I watched the rolls of her back, the way her heavy breaths inflated and deflated her pilling XL t-shirt. “They molted is all,” she said, finally, opening a bag of shredded yellow cheese and pouring it into the dish. “They lose all their feathers and change color. Molting.” And after that, we weren’t allowed to ask about it anymore.
Whenever I tell people about Aunt Linda’s birds, they ask if she was lying to protect us, to spare us the childhood trauma of an animal death. But Aunt Linda wasn’t the sparing type. She had a habit of whipping out syringes full of insulin, mid-conversation, so we’d be forced to watch her administer her own diabetes shots. Wayne was constantly expelling gas in one form or another. Sometimes we ate with our t-shirt collars pulled up over our noses, and he would laugh. Once, we had cake, and Aunt Linda, after taking a bite, sat back in her chair, moaned for a few minutes, and said, “Well girls, let me tell you: this is better than sex.”
Aunt Linda didn’t have any kids of her own. She also didn’t have any sort of job. She called it early retirement, but my dad said that was just her word for unemployed. Wayne worked as a night security guard in the kind of office building that doesn’t really need a night security guard. It must not have been much money, for the two of them and Jocko and the rotating cast of birds. But Wayne watched pay-per-view car races and boxing matches, and my aunt regularly mail-ordered those plates commemorating royal weddings or pivotal scenes from Gone with the Wind. They always had so much food—industrial-size bags of cereal, cans of heat-and-serve chow mein, boxed cupcake mixes. It spilled out of their pantry and lined their kitchen countertops and dining room table, filled part of a lightless spare bedroom seemingly devoted to junk. It often expired before they could eat it, but Aunt Linda thought expiration dates were a hoax. “Still good,” she’d say, opening a package and sniffing its contents.
Things got worse when I was in fifth grade, though: Wayne shot himself in the foot while on duty and declared himself disabled. (“Who thought it was a good idea to give Wayne a gun?” my mom had asked, after she’d hung up with Aunt Linda, calling from the hospital.) They sold their house and moved east of the city, to a one-stoplight town that smelled like cow shit, no matter which way the wind was blowing, even when the wind wasn’t blowing at all. We stopped seeing them on holidays. They had no car to drive to town in, and between soccer matches and dance recitals and school plays, we rarely had time to drive four hours out and back, especially when the destination was so undesirable. But we got regular cards, filled with pictures of the new house—a stationary trailer—and its muddy front yard; of Jocko, dirtier than ever; of various birds, in every color available to parakeets. “Bert & Ernie!” Linda would scrawl on the back of those photos, still.
In junior high, my little sister and I made up our own language, based primarily on elaborate jokes and insider family history. If someone was lying, they were birding, we said. For example, if I told our mom that no, I hadn’t skipped sixth period gym, my sister would yell, “Birder!” Or she would deny having a crush on some boy in her English class, and I would tell her, “You’re totally birding right now.” This girl at our school, Stephanie, was the worst birder we knew. She told us she had a boyfriend in the Bahamas. At summer camp, she said she’d made friends with a ghost. It was infuriating. To be a birder, we thought then, was the worst thing you could be.
“Why does she lie about it?” I asked my mom. “The birds?”
She was driving us home from piano lessons, up the hill to our house, our matching tote bags full of sheet music stacked neatly in the trunk. Our mom was usually quick and definitive in all her communications: Yes, No, Do your homework, Pick up that mess. But this time she was quiet for a few minutes.
Aunt Linda was somehow her sister. It seemed impossible to believe that my mom—who vacuumed the crumbs out of the bottom of her purse, whose favorite eye shadow color was “nude”—shared her childhood and essential portions of her DNA with a woman who talked through her burps and curled the bottom fronds of her mullet. Yet there it was. Sometimes I’d flip through the old photo albums in our living room bookcase, and if I went back far enough, there were pictures of my mom and Aunt Linda as teenagers, as kids. In black and white, wearing matching dresses and backpacks on the first day of school. In 1970s color, with long, feathered hair and hoop earrings. If the lighting was poor, if the angle was right, they looked the same.
“Just let her pretend,” my mom said finally. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
When I graduated from high school, Aunt Linda and Wayne found a way into town and came. They’d both grown so large that their knees could no longer support them, so they’d started riding motorized scooters. At the reception, I could smell them as soon as they wheeled into the restaurant, the cigarette odor they’d tried to mask with generous squirts of Old Spice and White Diamonds. Wayne made a beeline for the open bar. My friends were watching, and I spent most of the night carefully avoiding the two of them. But as the servers were clearing the buffet for cake, my mom grabbed my elbow. “Go say hi to your Aunt Linda,” she whispered in my ear. “She’d like that.”
They were parked on their scooters in a corner, on the outskirts of the party, not talking to each other, not talking to other people. I stopped a few feet away from them and waved. “Thanks for coming,” I said and started to turn around, planning to immediately dissolve back into the crowd, before anyone could get the wrong idea. I’d already learned, by then, that even the smallest misstep could cause lasting ruin. But Aunt Linda’s scooter was speedy, and she quickly closed the gap between us, beckoned me down for a hug.
She rubbed my back with both blubbery arms, my head buried in her shoulder, and started singing the birthday song into my ear, except she’d changed the lyrics to “Congratulations to You.” When she finished, she grabbed me by the cheeks and held my face close to hers. “You’re going to meet a lot of those boys in college,” she said. “Get married. Start a family of your own.” She was crying, her blue eyeliner streaking down her cheeks. It was the first and only time I ever saw Aunt Linda cry, and it surprised me. Partly because I hadn’t seen the woman in four years, not since my older sister’s graduation. Partly because I was just going to college up the interstate, not moving to another country, not dying. Mostly though it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something she did, crying. It seemed like an activity reserved for other people—smaller, quieter, honest people. I pulled back and looked away, embarrassed. “Yeah, something like that,” I said. “Anyway, see you later.”
I did meet a lot of those boys in college, and one of them—Tom—became my husband eventually. It was one of the first family stories I told him: my Aunt Linda and her not-dead dead birds. “What do you think it means?” I’d asked him. We were walking through campus, holding hands and eating post-dinner soft-serve cones from the dorm cafeteria, watching the hacky sackers and tanning girls and guitar guys on the quad. I was into treating everything like coursework back then, analyzing and diagnosing, writing essays—even if they were only in my head—about the books I read, the people I met, myself. I had a lot of theories about Aunt Linda and her troubles. But Tom has always been a let-things-be type, and he responded to my question that night with a gentle shrug. “That you have a weird aunt?” he said, smiling. His family is East Coast rich and has its own problems, but they’re called eccentricities at that income level. One of his uncles has a porn hoarding problem, for instance. His aunt has called their priest more than once to haul it away.
We used to play this game, lying together in one of our extra-long twin beds, whispering so we didn’t wake up our roommates, where we talked about who we’d be if even one thing was different about our lives. Like, if I took the time to blow dry my hair every day, instead of letting it air dry into a wavy snarl, would I have different, cooler, better-looking friends? Or just worse grades because I’d be late to class every morning? My husband once wondered who he would have been if he’d been his uncle’s son, raised over a basement full of triple-X films. It was a joke, but it’s the hypothetical that has stuck with me the most over the years. Mostly, lately, I think about his uncle, and who he might have been, if he’d been focused on Tom instead of low-budget fantasies.
A couple years ago, Wayne called me from a hospice care facility down the highway from their trailer. He’d tried to reach my parents, but they’re retired now and were in Spain, on one of those tours where you ride bikes everywhere and drink a bunch of wine. I told my sisters, and we took a Friday off work to drive out and visit.
Aunt Linda was in a closet-sized room with no windows, just a twin bed and a medical toilet, fluorescent lighting. A well-intentioned someone had hung a hotel-quality painting of a ship navigating a roiling ocean on the wall, but it somehow made things worse, highlighted how lacking the rest of the room was. She was asleep or knocked out, maybe some combination of both. It was the first and only time I ever saw her without makeup, colorless. She’d lost a lot of weight, almost all of it. I could see her bones. How small her wrists were, how small they’d always been. I’m not sure what I had expected—I’d known she was sick. But there’d been a part of me that thought we’d find her the same as always: red-faced with exertion, forcing Jell-O eggs into our bare hands. Wayne was nowhere to be found, and we weren’t sure if we should wake her up. So we stood in the room for a few minutes, exchanging glances. Then we set the flowers and card we’d brought on a little TV tray in the corner, and left her.
She died not long after that. At her funeral, my sisters and I were giggly in that juvenile way people get around death. We elbowed each other during Wayne’s eulogy, whispered jokes about our aunt meeting all her dead birds in the afterlife. “Tell Bert & Ernie we said hi. It’s gonna take a while.” And so on. My mom, sitting in the pew in front of us, turned around and gave us a look. But on my drive back to the city, alone, this sad old song came on the radio, and my face wrinkled up and I started to cry. I don’t even remember what song anymore—just that it was a song I’d never actually liked, that hadn’t meant anything to me. Somehow I’d listened to it a million times without ever really hearing it.
I was flying down the interstate, and I could see the city’s skyline rising in the distance, miles of grassland stretched out around it, a view I’d grown up with and knew well. Tom and laundry and dinner were waiting for me. But all I could think about was Aunt Linda, crammed in that overstuffed ramshackle house, in that tiny trailer, in that motorized wheelchair, shrunken in that twin bed. I thought about crusty Jocko and farty Wayne. About all those pretty birds she couldn’t manage to keep alive. About how it must feel to be standing in line at the pet store, again, holding an empty cage, pretending everything’s fine.
© Corey Dahl
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Corey’s interview]