Issue 17. Winging It

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This week, I present a new old short story. It was first drafted decades ago, and lay dormant in the digital file folder, till last summer, when I fished it out and gave it a good working over. I consider it a new story now. Life was breathed into it, and wholesale additions made. The original attempt was inspired by magic realism. Though the premise is absurd and nightmarish, there are silly elements as well. It was a fun story to write, and I hope you have as much fun reading it. Maybe it’s fitting to share such a monstrosity during Halloween season.


Wings

What was making it so hard for me to fall asleep? In bed I would ponder what seemed like routine matters: tomorrow's work agenda, the approaching visit from my father, the pressing need for a haircut. Why so much difficulty?  Was it the winter time, the cold, the dull shadows and white light? If anything, the absence of light made me want to sleep more. I tended to sleep later and more deeply in the winter. Sometimes, I would even sleep through the clock radio alarm. 

After a particularly unsettled night, which resulted in oversleeping, I hastily phoned work to tell them I was running late, then I called my father about the problem. He said, try an over-the-counter pill, but I disliked medicinal remedies, only using them as a last resort. He reminded me that he was coming soon for an extended visit, and he wanted to be sure I was making proper preparations. I told him I had new sheets on the spare bed, and an old fashioned wind up alarm clock on the stand beside it, just the way he liked it.

It had been two years since our last visit. Since then I had moved to a new city. I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment, a quiet and mostly settled life.

I am not the extroverted type. I stick to my job and do it well. My parents were always proud of my accomplishments. I don't smoke or drink. To relax, I go on long walks through the city, a fedora on my head and a thick scarf to protect me from winter winds. There, I stroll along the muddy river and contemplate my goals in life: stay organized and take solace from the efficiencies of modern living, like electricity and portable technology, remote controls and self-cleaning ovens. I smile broadly when beholding engineering feats such as well-constructed suspension bridges, light rail systems, and smoothly rounded cloverleaf highway exits. It seems to me that others don't appreciate them enough.

Grey Fedora | Club Penguin Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia

***

Work that day was filled with petty nuisances, and predictably, I was irritable and unable to rest at night. In bed, my head found no comfort in the soft down pillow. I kept scratching my scalp. The itch was intolerable, deeper than a dandruff itch. My fingers scraped the hair across the temples, the two sides like opposing mob factions. The mass felt like something familiar yet something that didn't belong. I went to the bathroom mirror, then rubbed my eyes to make sure I saw it right. There it was, as plain and bold as a TIME magazine cover.

Two large, hairy wings had grown on my head.

It was no metaphor and no fault of blow dryers or hair products. The closer I probed, the more the terror grew. Yes, they were literally wings, bony protrusions unfolding from my scalp, with a layer of hair covering them and short hair underneath.

How could I go into work with wings atop my head? When would it stop? The thought of going to the doctor was embarrassing. To think of sitting in a common waiting room with people who had internal problems like viruses and growths in their colons—how could one tolerate the shocking sight of cranial wings? They would all KNOW my condition, while theirs would remain discreet. Intolerable!

I took a personal day, then two sick days after that. I stayed in my room and took no calls. One thing was persistently obvious: I couldn’t snap my fingers and wish them away. I steeled my nerves and made an appointment with the physician. I settled the fedora over "them" and headed to the medical center.

In the examination room I removed all of my clothes, except for the fedora. The doctor entered and stifled a laugh.

“Doctor, please!”

“Cool your jets. Did the nurse say ‘you can leave your hat on?’ She's a kidder that way. What’s the problem here?”

“See for yourself.”

Removing the hat made me nauseous. The doctor examined me in a cursory way.

“Dandruff?”

He fingered my fine hair, picked some flakes off the wings. He was humming a tune to himself. It was unbearable.

“Have you seen this condition before?” I asked.

“What condition?”

“Doctor, please. Don't be coy. The wings growing on my head!”

“Ah, yes. Yes, the wings.” He paused, reflecting.

“You act like this is no big deal!”

The doctor was conversing more with himself than me. “We could surgically remove them. I hesitate to do that. It is like separating Siamese twins joined at the heart. You endanger the life of both. In this case, we are dealing with appendages connected to the skull. The brain, the nerves, all vulnerable. This is more than a cosmetic issue. Plastic surgery would be a temporary reprieve, at best.”

“Listen, I want these wings off my head. Doctor. Please...”

“What I am trying to explain to you is that these...you call them 'wings'...are fused to your skull, which protects your most precious organ, the brain. If we start hacking away willy nilly, you might suffer irreparable damage. Memory loss, hallucinations, loss of functioning in half your body, maybe the upper half, maybe the lower half, maybe one side. You could lose your hearing or sight. Loss of motor skills. You might never ride a bicycle again.”

“I don't ride a bicycle. I do a lot of walking, though. What about that?”

He frowned.

“Swimming?”

“Definitely not. Risk of drowning. The motor skills...”

“Can't you do an X-Ray, CAT scan, something?”

“We could, yes. Tests surely won't tell me much I don't already know. We could of course continue to investigate; however, there is the matter of your insurance coverage. Not all plans cover this condition.”

“Listen, how rare is this? Have you seen this before?”

The doctor didn't hear. He was staring at a pine tree out the window, perfectly framed. Flecks of snow were dancing off its branches. Something inside the tree was shaking the snow loose.

“Doctor, please, have you seen this condition before?”

“In a word. No. In medical school there was some discussion about....” He sighed deeply and glanced up at the clock on the wall.

A black crow emerged from the snow covered pine. We both watched it fly away. The room was quiet.

“Your condition is not life threatening. My advice: learn to live with it. Adapt. Consider yourself lucky. You could have contracted an internal disease.”

“But doctor, I don't want wings on my head. These are like exposed tumors. It's an abomination!”

He buttoned his lab coat, patted my shoulder, and nudged me off the examination table.

“These things happen, old chap. Left undisturbed, they are unlikely to grow more. If so, we will take next steps. In the meantime, see if you can get used to it. If you like, we will schedule tests. I can refer you to a specialist. I'll see you in two weeks.” He handed me the fedora. “Just keep them clean and well ventilated.”

***

The intervening days were infuriating. I couldn’t get answers. I went for tests and waited. I bought a wig. I spent a fortune obtaining something the proper color in a style that was as inconspicuous as a wig could be. That weekend, I practiced wearing the wig day and night, but by Sunday I could feel the wings growing, lifting. The wig shifted like a house built on sand. No good.

My father called to remind me of his arrival date and time. I assured him not to worry. Everything was written in my day planner. Everything was fine, ship shape. I did not bring up the wings. I prayed they would fall off by then.

On Monday, my manager left an exasperated message. They were backlogged. She said if I did not report to work tomorrow morning, she would be forced to let me go. I called back and told her I had influenza, but not to worry. I was on the upside and would be in touch soon. Wings or no wings, I must find a way to keep living.

It would be best to go to work, without the wig or fedora. March in there and announce to everyone within hearing range, here I am, take a good look around, have a laugh at my expense. Get your fill. Call me bird man, bird brain, think of something snarky. You have my permission

Upon arrival, my colleagues were savvy at ignoring my grotesque protrusions, so I tabled my grand proclamation. Some of them stopped by my cubicle and said they were glad to see me back. My assistant Joseph and I had lunch at the tavern as usual, and no words were exchanged about the hairy wings on my head. It was as if everyone had agreed not to talk about it. This contributed to my self-confidence. Perhaps the doctor had been on the mark in his recommendation. This was a condition I could live with, like getting gray hair or gout. Worse things could happen.

As the days passed, I began to almost admire the look of my wings. Something distinctive about them. Debonair. They made me think of Greek myths and vintage Mobil gas station signs. 

On Friday I got to the office early. Two of my coworkers entered the suite and while removing their overcoats, one said to the other.

“Did you catch the Red Wings, Flyers game?”

The other chuckled. “Man, what a game!”

Aha! I thought. I have seen through the dark glass!

Veiled references to the wings popped up in overheard office chatter: buffalo wings and hot sauce, the Cardinals' off season trades, the spreading avian flu, Big Bird of Sesame Street. Somebody bough the new Black Crows album. Another had seen the Counting Crows at the Fox theatre. Russell Crow was up for an Oscar. Somebody’s kid was addicted to Toucan Sam and Foghorn Leghorn.

I took to constant smirking. I could see the way the secretaries waved their hands while on the phone. The raven-like cackle of my manager's voice when she gave me instructions. The pitter-patter of Joseph's fingertips like sparrow claws on the lunch table. I had been blind all along. They had devised a vast, coded system for mocking me. Did they think I wouldn't notice?

I played along with their games. After lunch, I would break out into a warble. I would softly caw, just loud enough for at least one of them to hear. Sometimes I would shake my head spasmodically, ruffling the dandruff off. People frequented my area less and less, taking the long route to the photocopier. I would snack on sunflower seeds and watch them with glaring eyes.

***

One evening, while running a comb through the right wing, I felt it move. Then the left. They were twitching, coming to life. All night long, I practiced moving them. I would flap one, then the other. Then both at once.

I grew tired and slept deeply, dreaming of long soaring flights over the big muddy river. I thought I could control the flapping, but at the office, I had less control. I would be sitting at my desk filling out a form, and suddenly they would flap wildly. The pen in my hand would tumble across the desktop. I started keeping paperweights on top of all loose papers.

***

Three days before my father's scheduled visit, I went to the barbershop, waiting till closing hours so as not to be seen by others. I sat in the chair and pleaded with him to shear off my wings. He shook his head.

“We are licensed only for hair. I've been a barber for thirty years and never once drew blood on a customer!”

The following day, I sought out a veterinarian—a bird specialist, the yellow pages said.

“Where is the bird?” he asked.

“Look at my head.”

“That's not a bird.”

“Listen Doctor Doolittle, these things may have hair instead of feathers, but I assure you, they are real. They flap too. Watch this.”

“Look, I'm a veterinarian. I cannot ethically treat human beings. You need to go through your primary care physician....”

***

I tried wrapping my head in heavy bandages to cripple them. In bed, I could feel them pushing, and the feeling became unbearable. I finally removed the bandages and the wings flailed happily.

I tried talking to them. I gave them names. Flip and Flap. I tried reasoning. Please be quiet, tonight, I would plead. Somewhere on earth there's a bird missing its wings. Maybe tomorrow you can fly off and reunite with it? 

I fell into a deep depression. When sleep finally came, I dreamed my father showed up at the door. I had to let him in, and I didn't even cover up the wings. See what you've been missing, I said bitter and ashamed.

In the dream, he drew back and placed a palm on the wall. It left a blood stain.

“Son, you've turned into someone I don't know and can't love!”

“Father, listen to yourself.”

“I need time to think! Get me some water.”

He gathered his strength, I made him a cup of tea. He tried sitting with me. I said he could use my recliner. I would sit on the accent chair. He was too distracted by the incessant wing flapping to be able to get comfortable. I yawned nervously and said I was feeling quite tired. He seized the chance to depart, jumped sprightly out of the chair and made for the door, forgetting to hug or shake my hand. I awoke in a cold sweat. Flip and Flap’s incessant fluttering gave me the shivers.

***

Early Sunday morning, I got up early and felt a desperate need for fresh air. I slithered from the apartment building and walked to the river bank. There was a crusty border of ice on the shore, but the river itself was not frozen. The river current kept roiling angrily downstream.

It felt good to be strolling along the river again, almost like my old self. A few hardy early morning joggers passed me, and it seemed like none of them noticed or cared about my wings. I walked alone yet amid them.

Father was arriving today. How I had hyped the city to him. How I had bragged about my new position and promotion and pay raise. I said, we will take long walks together, through the city park, down to the river. I pictured what his face would look like when I met him at the station. He might point reflexively, aghast, just like the dream. What are those?

It would take all afternoon to explain, to justify their presence to him and myself. How do you explain something that has no reason behind it? He would grow suspicious. How could you NOT notice them growing? I would beg to be understood and trusted. He would probably hear me out then provide meager fatherly guidance. I would nod, the wings would react defiantly. He would find excuses not to be seen walking outside with me. It was all going wrong, and it hadn't even begun.  

Disgusted, I sat on a park bench. Across the river the chemical factory stack was shooting smoke into the sky, the trees surrounding it a bronze blur. Beyond were the hazy blue hills, distant and unreachable.

I was seized with an urge to go the hills, the fastest way, as the crow flies. I removed my hat. The wings responded, flapping harder than they ever had before, pulling my head, straining the neck muscles, yanking my skull, drawing me upright, stumbling towards the riverbank. In vain, the wings beat and beat. The scalp pain was so intense that I grasped the wings and shook them furiously. My feet were lifting off the grass, then I lost balance, toppling into a woman and baby stroller along the promenade. 

A massive alien howl screamed out of me. Something hard met my face, and I lost consciousness.

I don't know how long I was gone. My eye slits trembled, the cheek quivering in mud and grass. A surge of icy water skimmed the top of my head. If it had not been for the coldness of the ground, I think I could have slept there for years. A small voice trembled at the boundary of hearing.

“Mister?”

A cold palm on my shoulder. Faint smell of perfume. A mother's voice, a child's inquiries. The wings heaved weakly. I had not been a good friend. There was nothing left for them to do with me. But they were not strong enough to pull away. They could not lift me off the ground, could not break free.

“Is he dead, Momma?”

“No. He's just hurting.” 

Blurry white light invaded my opening eyes. The mother and child I had tumbled into, were bent over me. The child was petting the wings.

“He looks sad!”

“Can you hear me?” said the woman.

I rolled on my back and looked up. They didn't seem frightened. The woman knelt and cradled my head in her arms.

“Help is on the way,” she said.

I cleared my throat and drew in a breath. I wanted to believe her.

“I'm sorry I knocked into you. They want to fly, and my head holds them back. I wasn't born this way.”

Her lips formed a tight smile.

“Please don't die, Mister.”

“I can't die. My father is coming to visit. I need to pick him up at the station. He's expecting me. Have you seen my hat, anywhere? It's a gray fedora.”

I broke into a coughing fit. Flip and Flap were quivering again, but weaker than before. They must have wanted to give up as much as me.

“He's crying again.”

“It's a fedora. Surely you noticed when I ran into you...”

The mother and child scanned the area. The child pointed at the fast moving waters. The mother touched my shoulder, and I could hear an ambulance siren getting closer. Father would have to fend for himself now.

“I'm afraid the river took your hat away.”


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Until next time, be well.