This week, Guernica has a new story from author and veteran Odie Lindsey, whose debut story collection about soldiers coming home from war, We Come to Our Senses, will be published by W.W. Norton later this month. Included in the collection, “Bird (on back)” picks up in the middle of a disintegrating relationship between an unemployed diorama artist and his vibrant but terminally ill girlfriend, who before they met contracted a sexually transmitted autoimmune disease from a soldier on leave.
When the story opens, the boyfriend/narrator and the girlfriend, Darla, have moved down South to Darla’s home state of Mississippi after her “homeopathic hippie nurse” (boyfriend’s term) told her the big city was making her illness worse. It is immediately apparent that the boyfriend is not taking the move well. He complains of the false friendliness of Southerners and puts on a bad accent. (“‘Varmints’ abound in the South,” I declare, describing hawklike mosquitoes and vole infestations.”) No one appreciates his art, putting him and his dioramas that were celebrated in the city on the same artistic level as “the cousin who carves melon sculptures.” And, to make matters worse, Darla has a job, while he hasn’t been able to find and keep employment since the move:
I have found no job since my nasty split with the town’s Oriental rug shop. A few weeks ago, I was passed over for a window dresser position at a women’s boutique on the square. Though demoralized, I decided that the right opportunity would find me if I just held out, just held on. I shared this optimism with Darla when she got home from work. She tore her navy blazer off, said, “Gee, man, it must be tough having tons of time and no expectation. Thank god we can’t have children.” She then laughed at her own sorry situation, infertility being one perk of her illness.
In moves like this one, Lindsey builds flesh onto this increasingly toxic and passive-aggressive relationship with darkly humorous flair. The story is told mostly through the boyfriend’s inner monologue about the past, while the present action is only a brief but provocative scene that Lindsey sustains through the 4000-word story. In the present, the boyfriend wakes up in the morning from a jealous dream about Darla cheating on him, and while he lies there and stews on it, Darla asleep beside him, the cat busts out the screen on the open window to chase a bird. Before the boyfriend can get up, a huge black bird flies in and lands on Darla’s sleeping back.
I was terrified that the bird’s talons might break her skin, injecting some otherwise run-of-the-mill bacteria, and sending us straight to the emergency room, again. The bird, a big black one, stood up and stomped in place. Darla bore no thoughts of her sickness, or sepsis, or hospital; she didn’t budge.
The boyfriend’s concern for Darla throughout the story is touching, and he obviously loves her, but he’s also obsessed with her frailty and has a definite martyr complex that, as the story develops, transforms Darla’s illness into a narrative about him and his sacrifice. The soldier who infected Darla stands between them like the boyfriend’s jealousy made incarnate, and the boyfriend even goes so far as to harbor the insane wish to take Darla’s disease onto himself and in that way remove any barrier between them:
She met the soldier who would infect her over spring break, sophomore year. Throughout our relationship I’ve seen him in every uniformed guy. In every war movie, every tribute, every stupid soldier commercial. Woe, the battle-bruised warrior. The remorseful kid-killer. The one-night-stand hero whose viral dick still dictates our life.
We could have broken his hold early on. All we had to do was lose the condom . . .
Back in the present, the huge black bird walks up Darla’s back as the boyfriend watches (the black bird as symbol for death can’t be accidental here) and starts rooting with its large beak in her hair. And that’s too much for the boyfriend; he punches it in the face. This wakes up Darla, who isn’t pleased to find a half-dead grackle (that’s the kind of bird it is, the boyfriend tells us) on her bedroom floor.
The fight that follows is elucidating for both their characters and, among other things, highlights Darla’s strength and the boyfriend’s self-pitying weakness. By the end of it, you almost want to punch him in the face like he punched that poor grackle. The argument leads the couple into the garage, the boyfriend’s “studio,” where he has built a garage-sized diorama depicting the petty disagreement between himself and his former employer at the earlier-mentioned Oriental rug store. A diorama that he compares to the Cyclorama, the world’s largest diorama, which depicts the Battle of Atlanta. It’s a George Saunders-esque move, elevating a minor work squabble to the height of a pivotal Civil War battle, and Lindsey pulls it off with both humor and pathos—because, surprisingly, despite the aforementioned desire for face-punching, you do end up feeling bad for the guy. Darla commands him to explain to his hand-carved diorama town why everything went wrong in their relationship, and he does, in a way that is as infuriating as it is pathetic but that also exposes a vulnerability at the center of him.
“Well, um,” I said to the unfinished chaotica of small-town façade, to power tool, paint and plywood scrap. I cleared my throat for they: the miniature postal clerks and student-baristi, the genteel abortion doctors and half-painted pastors and proud teenage miscegenators and roadside retriever mixes. “Ahem,” I said, to not one goddamned soldier.
“Bird (on back)” deals with war only peripherally, but if the story is any indication of the quality of Lindsey’s forthcoming We Come to Our Senses, it is sure to be a dark, sometimes funny, and certainly complex collection of stories that tackles important subjects from unexpected angles.