Left to right: Bill, Cub and I are sitting on the roof of the dairy. We’re like clocks, with our sticky legs hung over the edge like this, swinging back and forth. Bill’s got the end of his string wound up on his wrist so his hand is fat and purple-full of blood.
“Pull it now,” Cub says around a white lollipop stem. Bill tilts away from the edge, and looks for my call behind Cub’s back.
“Not yet,” I say.
Cub sees down below what the birds are doing now. He sees what I saw, only a second later. He sees that I was right, and that he was wrong. He spits out his stem.
Bill rolls his head over his neck and knocks his Chucks together. A pebble falls loose and drifts down towards the ground. It makes a small noise against a metal drum when it lands. A few birds fly off.
Cub and I have already pulled our strings. We could go down there and set up our traps again, but we’re not in a rush, so we decide to wait for Bill. We always wait for Bill to pull, even though he’s never caught anything and he’s always the last one.
We come here most days to set up our traps, sit up on the roof and fish for blackbirds. We tie string to thick twigs with wishbones on one end—the wishbone twig holds up a wooden milk crate and is heavier than it looks. We prop a crate up on the wishbone end of the stick, and jam the straight end down into the broken pavement. We climb the ladder up to the roof and wait for a bite. When you pull your string, the thick twig slips and the wooden crate falls. And if you’re good, like me, there will be a blackbird in there.
We haven’t been catching much lately, so we’ve taken to scattering sunflower seeds or crushed melba toast on the ground. We don’t mind though, and we don’t keep count of whoever catches however many. Sometimes one of us nabs one. But even then, when we go down to the lot and lift up the milk crate, the bird always flies off before any of us can get a good look at it. From up here the birds look small and dark, so we call them blackbirds. None of us really knows what kind of birds they are—that’s just what we’ve always called them. Mostly, I think we just like to hang out up here until it gets dark, and it’s nice to have something to look down at while we wait.
It’s pretty good on top of the dairy beneath the sun. The tar is pocky and runs flush with the edges of the roof. In the summer, the tar gets too hot to sit on this early in the afternoon, but its September now and the tar is perfect. It’s soft enough to write your name in it with your thumbnail. Warm you through your shorts for at least an hour or two after it gets dark.
“Either of you boys want a sucker?” Cub says, reaching into his book bag for some dumdums. His eyes get big when he says “sucker” - he loves saying that word.
We don’t talk a whole lot, not any more or less than we’re supposed to, but sometimes Cub gets to talking about all the girls he’s had. He tells us how he always tells them “I never did either” and how they always tell him “Oh, go slow”. He says each one’s always prettier than the last. I’ve never met any of them though, and neither has Bill.
“I got three left, one for each of us,” Cub says. Cub only ever shares stuff that nobody else wants. I snort and Bill just stares down at his trap and then slowly winds some of the slack around his hand.
“Cubby,” I say. “You’re nearly seventeen. How long before you’re gonna stop eating that shit?”
He looks up at me. He’s got a headful of thin inky hair, and a weak smear of it under his nose. He’s got a week-old black eye that his dad gave him. His pimply lips peel back into a smile, sweet and grainy like old fruit. He’s got teeth tanner than his skin, which, when its not pink from the sun, is blue-white, like skim milk. They’re round and set far apart, little yellow dowels stuck in the loose mud of his gums.
Sometimes I dream that I’ve got teeth like Cub’s. Teeth that bend around words. Teeth that squirm while I’m trying to think. Loose teeth that I can’t pull out.
“And besides,” I say. “Aren’t they all soft by now, what with sitting in your pocket all day like that?”
Cub looks me straight in the eye while he peels another lollipop, pinching it by the tail like it’s a mouse. Without looking down, he holds the yellow candy up to his mouth and clicks it twice against his brown front tooth to show me it hasn’t melted. Then he winks, slides it into his cheek, and turns back towards the traps.
“Can’t a man eat in peace?” he says, and he knocks his Chucks together.
I laugh quickly. Bill leans forward and looks at me across Cub to see what’s so funny. There’s got to be a million cracks all over the pavement down there. They drag and split, and every day that we come back there’s more. The lot is a map. It’s carving itself into countries and cities and towns while we sit up here and watch, our legs swinging and our lips clicking like stove lighters.
Bill yawns a quiet squawk. His sweaty bangs are clumped together, the flat blonde leaves of a grass skirt stuck to his forehead. His eyes look small but they’re not - like there’s a whole lot of eye hidden in that face of his.
“Now,” Cub says. Bill’s chubby red hand fidgets on its leash. I glance down at his trap.
“Nope, not yet,” I say. Of the three of us, I’ve caught the most blackbirds by far, but I don’t care.
Cub tumbles the dumdum over his tongue and into his other cheek. He’s still looking for patterns in the blackbirds, watching them whisper and hop, watching them flicker over the cracks and around Bill’s slack-jawed trap.
I remember that I’ve got an issue of Weird Stories rolled up in my book bag. I slipped it in there at the store a few days ago. I stole it. It’s junk. Nobody buys it anyways. I steal paperbacks but I don’t read them. Instead, I just hold them and stare off, or pretend to read and look like I’m thinking. I let my eyes turn waxy, and I spread them flat across the page. Trying to think up things to think about, seeing if I can feel anybody watching.
I lie back and flap the magazine over my face, between my eyes and what’s still left of the sun. Weird Stories has small print and no pictures. It smells like dust. For a little while, I let things just happen by themselves. Cub crunches loud on his lollipop. I can see the sun behind the magazine, but the sky’s starting to bruise.
“It’s getting a bit dark,” I say.
Bill’s head jerks up toward the sky, but only for a moment, like he’s just making sure it’s up there.
“Yep”, Cub says, but doesn’t break his gaze and he doesn’t hear me—his mouth is hanging open. His tongue is trying to count the coarse outline of his ferret teeth.
I’m going to write my name in the tar. When I try though, my blunt thumb just smudges a mute line in the dust; I swallow my fingernails when I chew them. I hold my thumb up close to my face then squeeze it red. The pulpy skin that’s supposed to be covered by the nail is tender and dark. I stick it in my mouth, and manage to suck some of the black out.
The sky’s gone dull pink. I notice a stretch below my belly; I need to pee soon.
From the other side of the dairy I can hear milkmen’s voices with the words bleached out. I can hear the air brakes of asthmatic delivery trucks hiss and wheeze.
“What’s that you just said?” Cub says. He cranes his neck toward nothing in particular and scratches the skinny hairs under his jaw. Dark little wires patched into his big plug board head.
“It’s starting to get a bit dark, I said. Did you remember that flashlight?” The tar is already cold.
“We don’t need it yet,” Cub says. He pats his book bag and, with his other hand, he thumbs some snot from the brims of his nostrils. Then snaps it off his fingers and shoots it out over the ledge.
“Just asking,” I say. “Be right back,” and I stand up too fast. Stuff goes a bit grey.
Bill lets some slack into his string and anchors it under the cinder block. Then he stands up too. His shorts are riding high and bottoms of his pockets are poking out. It looks like his shorts have got a tight grip on his balls, which are bulging out over his groin. Bill shimmies his belt back down to his waist, and his bulge falls loose. He stumbles.
Everything is very grey and I’m imagining a girl who tells me “Oh, go slow.”
I feel normal again, so I turn around and walk over to the drain where we pee. I drop my pants over my ankles and my pee falls through the grate and the air is going cold. Bill yells, and the fat bang of something on concrete rings out behind me. Bill is dead, I think. Bill fell off the roof. This is the last day we fish. I look down at my Chucks, and they remind me of Bill. I’m not sad, but I think that I will feel sad, and that things might take a very long time. I turn around and I catch a glimpse of the cloud of birds boiling up off the lot. I walk back towards the edge and stand next to Cub.
Left to right: Bill, Cub and I are standing at the edge looking down.
There’s the lot, cracked and birdless.
There’s Bill’s string, limp.
There’s Bill’s twig, poking out from under his trap.
There’s Bill’s trap, biting the ground.
Over here’s mine, and over there’s Cub’s.
Three traps, two empty, one swallowing the bird that swallowed seeds that swallowed the sun.
“We’ve got time to go set them once more before we leave,” I say.
“Bill’s caught something,” Cub says. I’m not surprised. Maybe I am. Good for Bill, anyway.
“A blackbird?” I say.
“A crow,” Cub says.
When I look up, I realize that Bill’s already over by the ladder—he can be a real jerk sometimes. Bottom to top: Bill, Cub and I are stepping down the ladder. Bill’s looking over his shoulder for the crow he caught. Cub’s looking up my shorts with a lollipop poking through his mouth. I’m just watching them and then the rungs as they collapse into dots in the distance. When we finally get to the bottom it’s dark. I can smell the milk going sour in the drums.
Doug Poole is a writer and musician based in Providence, RI. He performs and records with Cool World (coolworld.bandcamp.com).