The Smiling Bird

Young Benny Horton sat in the cavernous living room of a luxurious high-rise apartment on a round, backless white couch with a giant white button in its middle. It was 1959. Men wore hats. Women had big hair.

People wore sunglasses, and smiled an awful lot.

In the room with Benny was Benny’s mom, Mom. She wore a long, flowing purple , a string of gold pearls draped about her neck. She stood cooly gazing at the city below through the room’s great window.

“Ah, the teeming city,” said Mom. “It is like an organism unto itself.” She spun and regarded her son. “You understand what I’m saying, Benny, do you not? About the city living and breathing as a single organic unit?”

“I sure do!” piped up Benny “Absolutely! The many is just like the one.” He laughed nervously. “I mean, it’s maybe just a tiny little bit bigger than your typical single-cell organism -– but still! The one is comprised of the parts! Everything is in everything! All of life is one! ‘Thou art that,’ as they say! Definitely! You bet!”

His mother looked decidedly nonplussed.

“God, you have a lot to learn,” she said, turning back to contemplate the view.

“It’s true,” said Benny. “I really do. I know it. You’re right.”

Mom responded not. That happened.

“Um, Mom?” said Benny. “I was wondering. You know all those cacti you placed in my bedroom, in what I guess was the middle of last night? They’re really nice and everything. What characters! But the thing is, I don’t think — ”

“No,” sighed Benny’s mom wearily. “You don’t think, Benny. You’ve never thought. It’s simply not in you. At the absolute best your opinions are diverting. You must surrender to the fact that your life will never be a cerebral one, son. The world of the physical is your realm. There lies life the Great Creative Spirit intended for you.”

“Yeah,” said Benny. “I could see that. I actually kind of like that, because … ” Benny thought real quick of soccer, for some reason.

“My child, tell me,” said Mom. “Have you ever had an erection?”

“What?! Jesus, Mom. I gotta tell you, I don’t feel — ”

“No, no you don’t, Benny. You don’t feel anything. That’s your problem. You’re like those poor, stubby cacti I placed in your room last night as a subtle reminder of the fact that the world, Benny — this whole, vast, complicated, screw-’em-before — is full of pricks. The symbolism of my gesture escaped you, naturally. Metaphor is, after all, a subtle, delicate thing, not handled well by strictly linear thinkers such as you. Now, I’ve asked you once, and I’m asking you again. Have you ever had an — ?”

Someone rapped on the apartment door.

“Oh, God,” breathed Mom. “It’s ice cream. I know it.” She crossed to the door, her gown flowing behind her. She swung the door open to reveal a trim, dark-haired, white-uniformed Good Humor man. He was holding a small paper bag.

“Ice cream delivery!” said the Good Humor man. “Did somebody order a half-gallon of Double-Double Triple Quadruple Heart Attack Chocolate?”

Bennie’s mom leaned against the edge of the door, running her hand up and down along its edge. Feeling the power of her lyre-like hips, she said, “You bring creamy, delectable gifts from the heavenly fields of Krishna, don’t you, you delightful thing?”

The Good Humor man looked down into his sack, smiled, and said, “I guess I do!” Then he looked past her to Benny.

“Hi, ya Benny!” he waved. “How’s it going?”

“Pretty good!” said Benny, hoping to use this opportunity to further develop his social skills. “But I’m trapped here with my insane mother! Please help me!”

Not so good with the social, still. Still!

“I hear ya!” rejoined the Good Humor man. Then he dropped his voice and confided to Benny’s mother, “Still doesn’t quite have it, does he?”

“No. We’re thinking of having him committed.”

“I had a cousin who got committed,” said the Good Humor man. “Those places are hell holes. Better to take him to a vacant lot and shoot him if you have to.”

Benny’s mom grabbed the Good Humor man by his collar, and pulled him forward until their noses were touching.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she hissed. “It would be good for him. Psychologists are our friends. Are you trying to tell me what’s best for my son, you obviously repressed homosexual neurotic?”

“No ma’am,” said the Good Humor man, suddenly feeling very sorry for Benny. “Not at all. My mistake. Sorry.” He pushed his clipboard up between them. “Sign here, please.”

She released him. “What am I signing for?” she asked sweetly.

“Ice cream.”

As if in a daze Mom penned her name and handed the clipboard back to the Good Humor man.

“Suddenly I feel paralyzed,” she said.

“I don’t!” said Mr. Humor. He snatched his clipboard and dashed away down the hallway. “Enjoy your ice cream! Bye! Good luck!”

Benny’s mom feebly waved in his direction. Staring down at the carpet, she remained where she was. She began to dream about when she was a little girl living in a poor country orphanage. She remembered herself barefoot and crying. She remembered her hair caked with dirt. She remembered insects crawling through a half-eaten pan of cornbread on the floor.

She let the ice cream fall from her hand, though not before noting that it was not chocolate at all, but strawberry sherbet. Barely aware of her own movement, she walked off down the hallway toward the elevators. She felt like she was gliding, her feet inches off the ground.

Benny crossed to the door of the apartment, and looked down the hallway.

“Are you going out to lunch?” he called to his mother’s back.

Without turning around she dismissed him by quickly flitting her hand around in the air behind her head.

“I said, are you going to dinner? — you life-sucking, psycho-witch from hell!” Benny screamed. In the hallways his mother stopped in her tracks. She slowly turned to face him. She raised both of her hands. “Can you see the blood coming from my palms?” she asked.

“No,” said Benny sadly. “I can’t. I’m sorry, Mom. I just can’t see it.”

“Well, it’s there,” said Mom. “You know it’s there.” She turned and walked away again, disappearing around a corner. Benny soon heard the familiar sound of the elevator bell. He heard the elevator arrive, open, and close. His mother was going down.

Benny then became aware of how quiet it was. Nobody seemed to be home in any of the apartments on his floor. It was hard to be sure that was true, of course. All those doors. All those homes, and lives.

Benny looked down at his hands, which were hurting. Both had blood on them. He pushed his hands against the outside of his front door; he moved them around a little, leaving red smudges. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door behind him, and washed his palms. The cuts there were small after all, received most likely from the cacti. They barely hurt at all.

Benny sat down upon the round backless couch. He heard a helicopter flying right outside the window. It went whap whap whap whap whap.

Next he heard a “fwunk!” at the big window. He got up, looked, and saw that a pigeon had flown into the pane, and was now lying on the window’s outside ledge. Its neck was broken. It closed its little black eyes. Benny tried to open the window, but found it painted permanently shut. How had he not known it was like that?

Benny went into his bedroom, took a small potted cactus from the floor near his bed, and carried it back into the living room. He placed the small terracotta pot and plant on the inside ledge of the window, but one pane of glass away from the bird. He got down on his knees, resting his elbows on the sill beside the pot. He stared at the bird. He would never be able to state it as a certain fact, but for the rest of his life, Benny would believe that, at that very moment, the bird had done the most impossible thing in the world.

It had opened its eyes, looked right at him, and smiled.

Print Friendly

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Shell

    It wasn't comfortable, feel-good reading, but this post, and the last, seemed to need reading. (You're probably freaking out some people though!) God bless you.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Do you think? I figure no one will read them anyway. They're not normal stories, I know. I took a serious interest, a while back, in creating as new a literature form as I … could, basically. I think, with stories such as these–well, with this one here, anyway–that I actually did that, if that doesn't sound too extreme, or arrogant, or whatever. I just wanted to try to … well, do that: Try to create a new kind of fiction, a new way of executing this particular art form. I'm extremely pleased with the results. I have no idea if anyone is–though, in truth, I once had a lot of luck publishing stories done in this style–but I just … don't care. I never wrote them for anyone but me, you know? I mean, I'd LOVE people to get them. But I know that's not terribly likely.

    Many have, though. More than enough for me. And, invariably, it's the people who DO get them for whom I always already share the richest affinity. They're always … the wounded people, basically.

  • Shell

    I don't know if I get it–probably not. I'm usually not conscious of the art or craft behind anything I read. If the writing's good and the story engrossing, I get pulled into it immediately, and pretty much forget that I'm reading words that someone actually thought up. For the time that I'm reading, it's all real. It makes me LOVE reading, but makes me terrible at discussing what I read in any kind of literary way. Bennie and his mom were real people for me while I was reading your post.

  • Shell

    Again–poor, poor baby. My childhood hurts don’t really compare, but what has helped me is something I started a few years ago. As I’m falling asleep, I imagine myself as a small child, and place myself in God’s arms. I can feel His strong arms holding me, I can feel the warmth of His huge chest against my cheek, hear his heartbeat. He just holds me and rocks me and loves me, in the way I wish my earthly father had, but he couldn’t, for whatever reason. This has been very healing for me–the feeling of being utterly loved, safe and protected by a father (by THE Father). And of course, He could just as easily be a mother holding her child, if that’s what one needs Him to be.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Shell: I don't know if I get it, either. And, actually, I'm with you: To me, as I'm writing them, they really are real characters. The way you read is a writer's dream, by the way. But you knew that …

    Hey, I shared your wonderful excercise with my readers on Crosswalk.com. You can find that post here:

    http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/johnshore/11571852

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Shell: You read that whole story? Awesome. That’s … a pretty major commitment to … reading online. Anyway, yes: BEAUTIFUL THING YOU’VE SAID HERE. It’s amazing what a healing “excercise” that is. It must be universal; I, too, while “praying,” used to imagine almost that exact same thing. I always imagined me, the size I am now, curling up in the giant lap of giant Jesus, and/or him simply hugging me, and me relaxing into that.

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Thanks for sharing this with me–and reminding me to go back and do that lovely, natural imagining again. It’s been too long since I did that. Thanks again.

  • FreetoBe

    John: don't all people read that way? I always have; the story is real life as long as I'm reading. I didn't realize everyone doesn't become totally engrossed in a story.

    Shell: thanks for sharing your falling asleep imagery. I will certainly try that tonight!

  • Shell

    Wow–cool. Well, being on the other side of the world, I'm off to bed as you are starting your day. Have a nice day!

    By the way, when I was in Korea, I was struck by how many Christians there were. Being totally ignorant, and just passing through the country overnight, I wasn't expecting the people (Korean people, not white missionaries) handing out Christian literature in the airport. And the churches! From the airport to the hotel and back, I saw so many churches! Crosses everywhere. Steeples everywhere. I was really suprised. Anyway, good luck with your book there.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Free: Nice comment. Sweet. Thanks.

    I WISH I could read that way. I'm a Nazi when I read. For me, reading is like what it must be to be, say, an architect looking at a building: He (or she!) can't help but register all the technical stuff, all the style choices, the intentional flourishes, the nature of the support system, etc. I'm like that when I read: The whole time, I'm terribly aware of all the CHOICES the writer has made.

    Anyway, it's … stupid. But it makes a ridiculously picky reader. I almost never read ANYTHING I think is really great; I'm forever not finishing books I've started. But when I think someone IS a great writer, man, I'm in like Flynn.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Shell: Good night! (And yeah, I was very surprised to learn that the FIVE largest mega-churches in the world are in South Korea.)

  • http://wineymomma.wordpress.com wineymomma

    Nicely written, John!

    I have a compulsion to finish reading something once I start it. And I happen to like your stories even if they do make me feel uncomfortable. That just means I am growing!

  • http://skerrib.blogspot.com skerrib

    wineymomma, same here. There are very few times I haven't finished a book/story/whatever.

    I'm on the fence, but I admit I got fairly sucked into this one.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Give into it, man. Surrender to the fiction brilliance that is this story…revel in the metaphoric symbolism, the raw irony, the disjointed harmony, the stylistic innovation, the … stuff that I thought was pretty funny even though going back to look at it just now I couldn't actually find anything in it funny at all…the part about the bird.

  • ruralurbanwitness

    I kind of zoned out, but I finished it anyways.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X