Carrie Bartsch ~ Bird Dog

Randall Morgan pre­ferred to sit in the back row, whether it be
in air­planes, cars, even the mega-whop­per-dare­dev­il roller coast­er at the
Little Heaven amuse­ment park.  He was a cool play­er, didn’t say much,
a real hood of a fifth-grad­er.  His Grandma Lottie raised him.
Our whole class knew Lottie because she came to the annu­al gym bake sale
fund-rais­er drunk as a frat boy.  The back of her pool-blue housedress
was tucked into her panty­hose and she was not wear­ing much underneath.
She reeked of lawn fer­til­iz­er and the first thing she did when she slid
into the gym was come and hug me, just shove my face into her bag­gy bosom.
Randall watched.

Just like he watched my lips move when last month I told him I had slept
with his wife, Laurel.  I went over to his house in Highland Hills
on a Friday night.  He had made it big, invent­ed a new kind of earplug
that didn’t hurt when worn for more than sev­en-point-five hours.
Laurel engi­neered the whole oper­a­tion.  They met when she moved from
Nebraska dur­ing our fifth-grade year.  On her first day, she opted
to sit in the back row of our class.  “It was des­tiny,” he said, “real­ly.”

I worked for my father, who owned a Lucky Spoon Restaurant franchise
near Marine St. Croix.  I was the heavy, the guy cus­tomers came to
when things could not be solved by Jenna, my stepsister.

Laurel was a coupon queen.  She liked stuff for free, and that’s
why I encour­aged her to vis­it me, dine at the ulti­mate fam­i­ly kitchen.
The first time she came, I had to hide in the men’s room, sheer anxiety.
She was a thin, long-waist­ed red­head, with bushy, high vol­ume hair and
when she stepped down from her blue Suzuki crotch rock­et, I felt woolly
hot.  She wore black motor­cy­cle pants and Lottie’s beat-up old Harley
jack­et.  Sometimes she wore a hel­met, and this, I told her, turned
me right on. Then she’d do the char­la­tan hair shake.

She ordered a choco­late frosty, a dou­ble bacon burg­er and crin­kle fries.

Randall Morgan knew things.  Even in fifth grade, he was a lime-smart
kid.  Other kids would cheat and he would take the rap for it.

All right kids, now some­one here did a bad­di­ty.  Raise your hand
if you’re inno­cent,” Ms. Pleemeier would say.

We would all raise our hands, even me, who hid a crib sheet in my palm.
I raised my right hand high­er and shoved the answers down my pants with
my left.

Ms. Pleemeier looked at Randall, who sat with a slight grin on his face.

I see,” she said.

I slept with his beau­ti­ful wife in the Spoon’s back room, the back of
the cheapy movie the­ater, the tool shed in his own back­yard. She
had a love­ly body, a damn near Rockette.

I’m a louse,” I told him that day he cov­ered for the Pleemeier incident.
“I’ll just do this over and over again and I won’t be sorry.”

He picked up his three tall sharp­ened pen­cils he kept at the top of
his desk.  One of them rolled.  We watched it fall, all the way
down until it bounced off my shoe.

I know,” he said.

I picked up the pen­cil and walked back to my desk.  I looked back
at him and eyed his cool smile.  Something about the smile I wanted.

The next week­end, I stole his dog.  Sure, I had one, Barney, a
pit bull-dachs­hund, but I want­ed Felicia, his mighty leonburger.
The dog was a steer, full-blood­ed, wag­gish and slob­bery, but the most majestic
crea­ture I could find in the neigh­bor­hood.  Lottie fed her raw roasts
and cab­bage heads soaked in bacon grease.  I want­ed to see if Felicia
could pull me across the neigh­bor­hood pond on a toboggan.

So why didn’t you keep her?” said Randall dur­ing lunch the next Monday.

Freakin’ A,” I said.  I dumped my cot­tage cheese into my canned
peach cup and mixed them with my plas­tic spork.

Maybe you should think about hav­ing a leash next time,” he said.
He nudged me and made me gig­gle.  I laughed like a girl, a goddamn
pre-tee­nie.  I hat­ed when he did this.

Lottie tell you she saw me?” I said.

He did not say anything.

Listen.  No, for­get it. Don’t,” I said.  I had the urge to
pop him one, for no reason.

His eyes bright­ened up some­thing big.  I fol­lowed his gaze to the
lunch line.  Laurel had picked up a two per­cent milk carton.
She drank the whole thing and threw it away before she reached the cashier.

When I drove up to Highland Hills to bring the news, the front yard
was filled with com­bat gear and camou net.  It real­ly looked like
D‑Day for squirts.  Kids flew all over the tires and ropes.
A tiny girl paint­ed a cam­ou­flage face on anoth­er lit­tle girl. The
paint­ed girl held a mir­ror to her face.  She dropped it and punched
the oth­er girl square in the nose.  “This is what they do,” said the
paint­ed girl.

A pudgy boy wailed from the tire obsta­cle course area, all four limbs
lodged in a Firestone tun­nel.  His bud­dy, a lanky, too-tall-for-her-age
tomboy, pulled at his com­bat boots.  They seemed to be around the
age of the oth­er kids, six to eight years old.  I walked over to the
tire kids and announced myself as a friend of the fam­i­ly.  “Good,”
said the girl, “then pull on Ronny’s legs.”

She gave me his right leg and we pulled on the count of three.
Ronny shot out and flew into the near­by climb­ing wall.  “Hey kid,”
I said.  I walked over to him and squat­ted down to his level.
“Do you want me to call your mom?”

Across his face spread a slim sat­is­fied grin, one I knew since childhood.
A G.I. Jane came up to us and gave him a kiss on the cheek.  “He takes
after his grand­fa­ther,” the woman said.

I turned around and felt queasy.  “Laurel.  I mean, well I
was look­ing for Randall.”

Just leav­ing, dears,” she said.  She winked at me and head­ed for
the street, toward her cycle.

Dad says she goes out with oth­er guys,” said Ronny.  He got into
a karate pose.

I took off my jack­et and grabbed a green face cray­on.  “Is it a
duel, drag­on man?” I said.

The sky dark­ened as we made Bruce Lee nois­es and flipped each other
around.  Two oth­er kids joined him.  They got me good, with the
tomboy pol­ish­ing me off in the third round.  After a blow to the chest,
I fell to the ground and pre­tend­ed to be dead.  The kids got bored
and head­ed toward the pop cooler.

I fell asleep while star­ing at the sky.  After about twen­ty minutes,
a lit­tle toe poked my fore­head, then nudged my head so it fell to the side.
I half-opened my eyes and saw the face-painter girl.  Minuscule blonde
ringlets framed her face.  I got up fast and she screamed.

Hey maybe we could be friends,” I said.  I offered her my rough
old hand.

My dad­dy says if you hold your breath like this,” she said and sucked
in a bunch of air.  We stared at each oth­er as the time passed.
I looked at my watch and then showed her the sec­ond hand.  Her cheeks
got big­ger and pink­ish-pur­ple and then when her eyes seemed to bulge, she
aimed her two index fin­gers at her cheeks and popped them.  “Then
you can learn con­trol,” she said,  “and so I …”  She held
her breath for anoth­er forty-five sec­onds and then blew it in my face.
“So I prac­tice it every day.  Wanna try?”

Her warm munchkin hands touched my cheeks.  I blew up my cheeks
and she kept her hands on them.  I did cross-eyes for her.

That’s not part of it,” she said, “OK, now just hold it there and um,
just wait.”

She ran toward a swarm of kids.  Screams of delight filled the
air, then they all joined in uni­son,  “Happy birth­day to you, you
live in a zoo …. hap­py birth­day dear Sharon.”  The crowd formed
a large cir­cle and in the mid­dle of it sat the blond ringlet­ed girl.
She wore a hair gar­land of pop­corn and a Girl Scout cook­ie strung around
her neck like a medal.

Now hon­ey,” came a male voice.  I looked hard­er behind the group
of kids.  “Your real presents are inside, but here’s your favorite
cake.”  Randall Morgan broke through the human chain car­ry­ing a large
log-shaped cake.  It had real sparklers stuck in it.

I must have passed out from hold­ing my breath, because the next thing
I know the kids are gone and Sharon’s got a big plate of melt­ing cake and
a dead sparkler in the oth­er, say­ing,  “Daddy told me to tell you
to eat before it rains.”

I looked up at the now indi­go-black sky.  “Well, crap,” I said
to myself.

Randall walked up to me and gave me his hand.  “Sharon’s already
plan­ning her next,” he said and smiled.

The kids went to the base­ment and we set­tled around his gas fireplace.
Randall pressed a but­ton and the log lit up.  He popped in his crackling
fire CD and motioned for me to sit on the floor.  No fur­ni­ture in
the house, just rugs.

I moved over so he could also be in front of the fire­place.  “Sit
here,”  I said.

He sat down cross-legged against the far wall.  We were about fourteen
feet apart.

I for­got,” I said and turned around to face him.  I mim­ic­ked his
yoga pose and felt my knees crack.

Sharon thinks you’re neat,” he said.

Listen, there’s some­thing I’ve got to tell you, it’s why I’m here.”
The fire­place vent now blew hot air.  My neck began to sweat.

He took off his cardi­gan.  “I know all about it,” he said.

I turned toward the Laurel wall, a six-by-ten-foot mur­al of Laurel lying
on her back, blow­ing her pin­wheel on an emer­ald knoll.  I felt the
need to bite my nails, then scratch my head, then bite the nails again.

I was there.”

It made sense some­how.  “So what kind of hus­band are you anyway?”
I said.

Randall straight­ened his back and a shad­ow fell on the side of his face.
“You’re my friend.  I’d give you my house,” he said.

I felt a prick at the base of my skull.  I stood up and walked
toward him, hear­ing the creak of the pine floor beneath my feet.
When I was with­in a few feet of him, I sat down and leaned back against
my arms.

I won’t stop see­ing her,” I said.  My knuck­les grew white against
the floor.

His smile grew.  “How would you feel about shar­ing her?”

Sharon came up from the base­ment with a messed up slinky.  She
laid it in my lap.

Ronny says you’re good at things.  Can you fix it?”

Randall pulled him­self to his feet and excused him­self, say­ing something
about the basement.

I pulled my read­ing glass­es out of my front pock­et.  Sharon grabbed
them from me and put them on her face.

Oh, cool, how do I look?  I got­ta see the mir­ror,” she said and

The glow-in-the-dark slinky, man­gled by many eight-year-old hands, sat
in a sad clump in my hand.  “Pieces of shit,” I said.

I heard that,” said Sharon from the bathroom.

A month ago, I had my job, my affair, my taek­won­do, a whole lot of things.
Within that month, Dad pro­mot­ed Jenna to man­ag­er and I got her job as hostess.
The boat I bor­rowed from Randall got spray paint­ed by the locals.
Laurel still met me for cof­fee every oth­er morn­ing.  She had a tired
look, bought Visine drops and bag­gy eye crème.

How are the kids?” I said.

She cried and dug into her sausage link.

I mean, that’s it.  I can­not get her to stop cry­ing.  I kiss
her and I end up drink­ing her slob­ber and woe, but this is what she chose,
I tell her.  She seems to want the both of us.

Last week she stabbed her waf­fle six­teen times and pro­ceed­ed to fork
it into a hun­dred pieces.  When fin­ished, she poured cat­sup all over
the plate and turned to me.

It’s enough, don’t you think?” she said.

I took the bot­tle from her and set it back into the sil­ver lazy suzanette.
“Give me your hand,” I said.

Randall named an earplug mod­el after me,” she said.  She opened
her hand and out fell a balled-up tissue.

I motioned to Jenna for our check and then closed up Laurel’s hand again.
The icy fin­gers locked against the palm.

I drove home think­ing about Laurel’s con­di­tion and then about eyedroppers,
what amaz­ing things they were.  I kept a stop­per bot­tle in my jacket
pock­et and would some­times fill it with sub­stances I found around the kitchen.
Milk, olive oil, pep­per­mint extract, water if I felt rain would cure my
mood.  Laurel hipped me to the idea dur­ing a fifth grade chorale concert
in the gym­na­si­um.  Laurel was a phe­nom­e­nal zither play­er. We
sang a few Joni Mitchell songs and when the audi­ence thought they could
take no more of us, she would begin, mas­sage that baby until it sang.
Even my moth­er was impressed.

During inter­mis­sion, Laurel led me into the robe closet.

Here, hold this,” she said, and hand­ed me a flashlight.

I turned it on and shined it up my nose.  “Look, I’m Nosferatu,”
I said.

Laurel held an amber glass bot­tle with a black stop­per.  The liquid
inside swirled and then sep­a­rat­ed into mag­ic bub­bles, which rose to the
sur­face.  “Drink this,” she said in a low voice.

I shined the flash­light on the bot­tle.  The bub­bles seemed to dance
and taunt each other.

Sparrow, we don’t have all day,” she said.  She gave me that nickname
after she found me singing to a dead spar­row in my back yard.  Barney,
the ruf­fi­an, had tak­en the baby from its nest and pawed it until it stopped

Told you to quit it with that name,” I said.  “You do it first.
I’m watching.”

She shook the bot­tle, unscrewed the cap, closed her eyes and stuck out
her tongue.

I licked my fin­ger and then stuck it in her ear.

She kneed me in the stom­ach but kept her mouth open.  “You do it.
Give me ten drops,” she said.

Her whole face fas­ci­nat­ed me now.  The upturned chin, the freckles
that bridged over the nose and the small one over her right eyebrow.
I removed the bot­tle from her fin­gers and held it over her mouth, the thin
pink lips.  “Ready?”

She stood still as I squeezed the black rub­ber stopper.
Bright pur­ple drops oozed and dove tongue-ward.  After the saturation,
she closed her mouth, opened her eyes and smiled.  “Now you,” she

It tast­ed like con­cen­trat­ed grape juice and some­thing else, which burned
when I swallowed.

It’s called vod­ka,” she said.  “The potion won’t work without

She put her arms around my neck.  The things I had smelled before
from a dis­tance were now threat­en­ing my space.  The caramel neck sweat,
the apple-blos­som hair, the rose-scent­ed tal­cum pow­der on her neck.
All of this would be detect­ed on my cloth­ing by Randall, no other.

This is it,” she said.  Her breath I still remem­ber to this day,
a con­coc­tion of grape juice and a sex­u­al ele­gance beyond her years.

Laurel liked pin­wheels.  Randall won her over when he bought her
the rain­bow col­ored mod­el that lit up when you blew into it.  I had
giv­en her blue and green metal­lic six inch­ers, then the clas­sic Happy Days
mod­el.  I also found a charm­ing clear glass pin­wheel in Redwing.
It spun.

He gave you the Super Special Lite mod­el, huh?” I said to her.
It was our fresh­men year at the University of Minnesota.  We sat in
the hall­way out­side her dorm room, two in the morning.

She rubbed her neck.  Recurring eczema from her mother’s side,
she told me.

He ordered it from a cat­a­log months ago,” she said. “He’s been thinking
about it for months.”

I imag­ined her inside my brain, dis­cov­er­ing her name and face etched
in every lobe and cav­ern. “Are you going to mar­ry him?”

She fell against the wall and hit her head.  The hall­way echoed
her slow exhale.  “Hand me that, will you?”  she said.

I gave her a bot­tle of Slivovitz.  She sniffed it first, then drank
it down like Kool-Aid.  Her body con­tort­ed as the plum brandy fingered
its way down.  She smiled at me and drank more.

We should go camp­ing this week­end,”  I said.

Sparrow, I love the both of you, but him more.  Spilled milk?”

I forced a laugh, then grabbed the Slivovitz.

Randall called me up, rather woke me up from my after­noon nap, and told
me he was not wor­ried any­more.  “Hey, man, you want to go cruising
down Hennepin, just like we used to?”

My forty-sev­en-year-old eyes stayed crust­ed shut.  “In the middle
of dream­ing, Randy.  Maybe anoth­er time,” I said.  Still spread-eagled
on my stom­ach, I reached my arm out to hang up the phone and missed.
The receiv­er dan­gled from the bed­side table.

Be over at your abode in about ten,” he said.

I lift­ed my head to yell at the phone, but col­lapsed.  Soon I entered
Sparrow land, where I could fall into unsus­pect­ing ele­va­tor shafts, make
love to Laurel, or go back to col­lege, where I should have told her I loved
her.  Instead I dreamed of run­ning a marathon in which I competed
against only dogs.  Barney and Felicia act­ed as the pace cars and
heck­led me as I strode into my twen­ty-fifth mile.  “Drop dead Sparrow,
you can’t win,” said Felicia, her face a somber brown.

My body jolt­ed and I opened my eyes.  Randall stood before me wearing
jeans, a black leather jack­et, and a Harley cap.  “You look dead,
man,” he said.  He socked my arm.

Watch it, I bruise.”

He went over to my bureau and pulled out my sweats.  “Unless you
want to wear some­thing else,” he said.

What are we cruis­ing for this time?”

He smiled and pulled car keys out of his pock­et.  He’d brought
the Ford Fairlane.

All right all ready,” I said.

Cruising with Randall did not cap­ture the excite­ment of blow­ing a pinwheel,
but it suf­ficed.  He bought me bratwurst and pil­sner at the Edelweiss,
where boys wore leder­ho­sen and girls were ample.

Ah Minnesota,” I said, view­ing the flushed Scandinavian dumpling bending
over to take the next table’s order.

Do you like that one?” said Randall.  “You can have her.”
He motioned for the wait­ress to come to our table.

Solveig,” she said and point­ed to the brass bratwurst on her lapel.
“Sole-Vay, long on the Oh.  What can I fetch you?”  She whipped
out her order pad.

Sparrow here doesn’t think he’s attrac­tive enough to get a girl of
your exquis­ite beau­ty,” he said.

I sunk my face into the giant stein.

Would you go out with him on let’s say, Saturday night?” he said.

She bent down between us and exam­ined both of our mid­dle-aged faces.
“Well, let’s see here.  Got any kids?”

No, as a mat­ter of fact, he doesn’t,” said Randall.  “Look at
him, he’s a prime exam­ple of a man who has some­thing to offer.”

She touched my stub­ble and then the back of my head.  “I don’t
like dogs, I hate snor­ing, and I want to go out with oth­er guys.”

My beer was gone.  “Could I order a side of spaet­zle?” I said and
pulled on my sweat­shirt hood.

She turned farm-girl sweet and rubbed my head.  “Next beer’s on
the house,” she said.  She took the menus from the table and glared
at Randall before she left.

What’s wrong with you?” I said to Randall.

He took my head in his hands and locked his fin­gers onto the bone.
“I love Laurel,” he said.

I tried to remove his hands from my face.  “Why does she still
see me then?” I said.  I want­ed him to give up, fess up and realize
he had no grounds to stay mar­ried to her.

We stared at each oth­er. Every few sec­onds, the ceil­ing fan chain scraped
against its light fix­ture, phwish-tong, phwish-tong.  His long fingers
worked their way down to my throat.

Laurel and I have not had sex,” I said.

He let go and took a sip of his beer.

Slept togeth­er.  We cud­dled, took naps, kept warm,”  I said.
“Nothing more.”  My truth star­tled me.  I felt tox­ic, shaky.

German pol­ka music came out of the loud­speak­ers, fol­lowed by a string
of dancers.  Solveig and a leder­ho­sen boy sashayed down our aisle.

You should be hap­py then,” I said.

He sunk deep into his chair.

Solveig came over and sat on his lap.  “You know I’m not really
German,” she said.  “Buck up, old boy.”  She leapt from his lap
and con­tin­ued the dancing.

She left me this morn­ing,” he said.

I reached out my hand.

Don’t,” he said.  He took his hands off the table and tucked them
between his legs.

Two more beers appeared.  I felt some­one pinch my behind.

We sat for a while in silence, tak­ing in bits of the music, staring
at our bub­bling pints.  I thought back to Sharon’s par­ty, the family,
the cake, the kids.  “Wait,” I said.

He pulled out a fold­ed note from his shirt pock­et and tossed it onto
the table.

That bad, huh?” I said.

He lit it on fire with a bar match and let it burn between our eyes.
The flames zipped around the edges, danc­ing and con­sum­ing, laugh­ing and
dying.  We watched the sen­tences dimin­ish into words, then to a single
let­ter.  He caught the ash­es in hands and rubbed the flakes into fine
gray pow­der.  Sighs of relief came from the tables around us.

Do we know this guy?  Does he live around here?” I said.

It’s who she is,” said Randall.

A hard weight lift­ed from my chest.  I thought of Laurel, her third
man, the crazy way she looked at me yet did not see me, then I thought
of Randall.  I felt gid­dy and heard myself laugh out loud.  “Can
you feel it?”  I said.

He shook his head and then looked up at me.  The far­ci­cal music
gained speed and vol­ume, snuff­ing out our thoughts.  The bar hand
flipped a switch above his sta­tion and pro­ject­ed song lyrics onto an open
white wall.  Other peo­ple in the restau­rant rose from their tables
and joined in the pol­ka.  They linked arms and sang, sway­ing and pulling
them­selves into a strange new family.

I drank the rest of my beer and wiped my face.

Well,” he said.

It would be freak­ish,”  I said.

He stood up and walked toward the dancers, his ashen head soon bobbing
in the wild carousel of youth.


Carrie Bartsch is a Minnesota native who cur­rent­ly resides in Hollywood, CA. She received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. Along with free­lanc­ing as a vio­lin­ist, she runs insane dis­tances. “Bird dog” is reprint­ed from Pif Magazine by the cour­tesy of the author.