The Bird and the Glass


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 a lot.

In the room with Benny was Benny’s mom, Mom. She wore a long, flowing purple gown, with a string of gold pearls draped about her neck. She stood coolly 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.”

His mom remained silent.

“Um, Mom?” said Benny. “I was wondering. You know all those cactuses —”

“It’s cacti.”

“Cacti that 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 the life the Great Creative Spirit intended for you.”

“Yeah,” said Benny. “I could see that. I actually kind of like that, because —“.

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

“What? Holy cow, 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-they-screw-you world — 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 yourself. 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.” Her gown flowed behind her as she crossed to the door. She pulled open the door to reveal a dark-haired, white-uniformed Good Humor man 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 cooed, “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!”

“I hear ya!” said 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. 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 to be committed. 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 began to dream about when she was a little girl living in a poor country orphanage, barefoot and crying, her hair caked with dirt. She thought of 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. Barely aware of her own movement, Mom 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. He looked out down the hallway.

“Are you going out to lunch?” he called.

Mom 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-bitch from hell!” Benny screamed. His mother stopped in her tracks. She slowly turned toward him. She held up 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 of the hallway. Benny soon heard the familiar sound of the elevator bell. He heard the elevator arrive, open, and close. His mother, he knew, was going down.

It was so quiet. All the apartments on his floor seemed empty. It was hard to be sure if they were, though. All those doors. All those homes.

Benny looked down at his hands, which were hurting. Both of his palms were bleeding. He pushed his hands against the outside of his front door and moved them around, leaving red smudges. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door behind him, and washed his hands. The cuts on him palms turned out to be small, received most likely from the new cacti in his room. They barely hurt at all, and when they were cleaned stopped bleeding.

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 room’s big window. He got up, looked, and saw that a pigeon had flown into the glass, 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 it was painted permanently shut.

Benny went into his bedroom, took a small cactus from the floor near his bed, and carried it back into the living room. He placed the pot on the inside ledge of the window, as close to the bird as possible. He got down on his knees, resting his elbows on either side of the pot. He stared at the bird. He would never be able to positively state it as a fact, but for the rest of his life Benny would believe that at that very moment the bird opened its eyes, looked at him, and, however fleetingly, smiled.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hey, I appreciate you reading it at all. Thanks for giving it a go. This kind of work isn't for everybody, that's for sure. I'm not sure it's for ANYBODY. It's a … thing I was trying, and that I like very much. But of course I'd like it: it's me, basically, talking to me.

  • (Actually, I was trying for Maximum Art. That's … what it really was. I mean, it was both. Oh, never mind…. 🙂

  • Sandy

    This reminded me so much of how my ex-husband would treat me. There was always some universal truth that I just didn't get, according to him, and that meant I was seriously flawed.

    These stories of yours are uncomfortable to read, because they are touching on those painful memories that I have, and that's probably why I like them so much. Like really good poetry, these stories cause buried emotions to be evoked, and I am taken out of my context for a moment. I feel like I am mentally catching my breath.

    Honestly, thanks for sharing them.

  • Bill

    OK, I confess. I don’t get it.

  • DonP

    I saw wildly colored fat props on this stage. The characters, as caricatures painted by an emergent addled mind just this side of and perhaps dipping a toe into a sea of insanity. This painting as it were, independently animated is sitting on a eisle that itself is floating through the air with thousands of other eisles. Some large, some small, all animated and dipping and bobbing in a fantastic dance called………”Don’t touch me” Then suddenly and only for a second, all the paintings flash very a small but very clear sign. The sign says: “welcome to the real world”

    My God man! You are nuts!

    Don’t touch me.

  • Ace

    I don't think you're supposed to. Because, like Benny, you just aren't smart enough.

  • Well, you know what they say: Good art is all about the crazy.

  • Allyson

    Earnest Benny makes my heart hurt.

  • Well, I liked it…felt comfortable…like being home. Which is disturbing.

  • Jeannie

    Yikes, the mom in me wants to reach into the story and take Benny home with me for good. This is artfully (and uncomfortably) written, John.

  • Hey, I've been so busy playing bloggy whack-a-mole over on my post about evangelizing that I haven't had a chance to say how much these receptive and encouraging comments to my weird fiction mean to me. These stories mean a LOT to me, for a whole lot of reasons. And I do know they're weird, and not for everyone. But it means a lot to me when anyone … gets them, and I really appreciate you guys taking the time to let me know you do. Thank you, very much.

  • There's some really cool imagery here, Mr. P.

  • That IS disturbing. Yikes!

  • Tanager

    Ouch! Artfully written, indeed, but there’s a part of me that wants to ask: did therapy help??? I’m not sure I could put a piece so intensely personal and self-revelatory online. Kudos to you, and keep writing! Or, keep dredging up older stuff ‘cuz it’s worth reading 🙂

  • Thanks John. Coming from you that is an exceptional compliment. Your writing is light years beyond mine.

  • Listen, I'm sorry it's taken me so long to comment on this; I've been thinking about it for days. I feel like I remember reading this before and the graphic looks familiar… was it in the New Yorker? Anyway, of course it's good- thought-provoking, painful, disturbing, nicely done.

    But I keep thinking about you in reality.

    And just this incredible frail condition we call being human.

    Dang it's good God loves us.

    Wanted you to know even while you're having fun playing whack-a-mole- again, I'm still thinking about this…. :-

  • Bill

    Your condescension is insulting. I challenge you to explain it to me or retract your insult, which you should do in any case if you contain within you and ounce of common civility.

    I've read it three times and don't get the point of it. As for all the comments, there are many kudos for the imagery and caricatures and artistry and poetry…..but no one seems to be explaining it. For all the comments, do any of you really know what the story is saying?

    WHAT IS THIS STORY SAYING, PEOPLE? I grant it must be something cause John is usually writing something pretty profound. But I can't find it here. Or has he presented this simply to challenge our perceptions?

    BTW, Ace, you suggest Benny isn't smart enuf. Smart enuf for what? He seemed rather perceptive to me, seemingly quite accustomed to and unwounded by his mother's nutty character and denigrating barbs toward him. Benny seems to be made of strong stuff. Forgive me John if this story is meant as an allusion to you and your mother. The story makes Benny's mother out to be very odd indeed.

    But I just don't get the pigeon ending.

  • Bill

    Your comments seem to all add up the the fact that you didn't get it either. Tell me I'm no the only one.

  • DonP

    Please excuse me for my intrusion here. Bill, did you feel anything when you read it? I don't ask as a reference to the sarcastic. Rather sometimes art, no matter what the form, is only intended to make one feel. I suspect with John here though it was written perhaps as a cathartic exercise. One that he thought worthy to share to provoke both thought as well as feeling. Like much art, the point is you and what does it do for or to you.

    It is truly a pity, Bill, what it provoked in/out of you.

  • Ace

    Uh, it was a joke. And more aimed at Benny's mother than anything else. Sarcasm aimed toward elements of the story itself (which I did like) that had nothing to do with you. And getting that defensive about stuff on the internet is bound to shorten your lifespan, I can't really recommend it.

    In any case, I think the story is just an exploration of a child's feelings dealing with an unloving, irrational parent. My own grandmother was quite like Benny's mother toward me when I was groing up, actually, so it makes sense to me. If you are looking for a pithy, Aesop-like moral, though, I think you're going to be sorely disappointed.

  • Bill

    OK, I accept that. As a person with a Speech degree I'm quite aware that jokes do not work well when all one sees is the visual typed words with no facial expressions, vocal inflections or body language. Those telling the jokes, especially when they appear to denigrate someone, should be aware of that also.

    'Nuf said.

    I don't think I was expecting a moral but I was looking toward an ending that gave meaning a point to the story. The pigeon thing didn't and I still don't get it, perhaps because there is nothing there to get but just some odd, unrelated thing added on to the story.

    John, if you have an explanation, I'd be glad to hear it. Otherwise I'm just gonna let it go.

  • Bill

    What I felt is more than what I said in response to Ace. Benny is obviously a boy made of strong stuff as I said above, dealing in a rather perceptive way with a flaky, emotionally abusive mother.

    What I didn't want to tread on was the dawning suspicion that John was alluding to his own childhood and mother. I just didn't want to go there for the sake of John's sensitivities, even tho this seems to be a blog for exposing one's sensitivities to some degree. I guess I've done it too.

    It wasn't the story that provoked me. It was Ace. He's forgiven =;-)

  • I'm sorry I haven't chimed in sooner; it's an extraordinarily busy time for me just now.

    And my chiming in here won't help at all, I'm afraid. I don't know how to say this without sounding pretentious, but my singular concern with this and the other stories I wrote in this tone and style was to create as pure an art as I thought I could with words. They were experiments in what I suppose you could call surrealistic meta-fiction. I tried the impossible, which is to blend allegorical symbolism with literal real-worldness.

    Anyway, who cares? There's no right or wrong. I'm flattered anyone would even care enough to TALK about the stories, much less "get" them. And, in truth, I've been deeply gratified by how many people DO get them. I was, in essence, trying to formulate a language by which I could express the most raw emotion possible in what would still, of course, remain a strictly linear form–and this is what I arrived at. I LOVE it–but, who doesn't love their own art? (Well, me actually: I never much like ANYTHING I write after a week or two—but these, all these many years later, I still dig.)

    Anyway, no right, no wrong. A lot of people like William Blake; I don't, at all. Who cares? Art–or at least "modern art," of the sort I've tried here–is so intensely, restrictively subjective that it's not even possible to think of all people reacting to it in the same way. Half time time, when people DO love these stores, and tell me why, I have no idea what they're talking about.

    Trust me: I know these stories aren't for everyone. I'd be scared to go grocery shopping if they were.

  • Bill

    Yes, we survive and sometimes we wonder how we did it. There were two times in my life I was suffering so badly emotionally I thot I would literally have a heart attack. One was the agonizing over my divorce, the other was when my partner of 8 years left me for, of all things, fundamentalist, orthodox Catholicism. I've been flat on my face several times in my life facing that blank terrifying unknown emptiness. All one can do sometimes is step thru that doorway into that blank space believing that there is a loving God.

    I have a friend who's favorite reaction to negative occurrences is, "Life goes on." Well, yes it does…..until it ultimately doesn't…..or maybe it does even then in a different way.

  • Geri

    Hey John – Powerful work! Do you ever fear when writing pieces like this, that you might be wading into the insanity just beyond the point of being able to get back?

    As I read it, I felt myself willing to suspend reality long enough to “get it” as others have said. Although I’m quite certain that I do not begin to understand the symbolism of it, I sure did get the feelings! Thanks! Geri

  • Don Rappe

    OK, so it’s my favorite thing on the blog, with regard to its beauty. Reminds me of Willy Mays saying: “I don’t explain’em, I just catch’em” Except I’m sure that’s not quite what he said. It’s easier for me than visual art and so I like it.

  • Don Rappe

    Interpretation? OK! Maybe it’s a question to God about why he makes such a beautiful pigeon and then confuses it with helicopters and window panes. I love surrealism because every answer is right.