It happened because she was edgy and bursting. It was the first day you could really feel Spring approaching. It was that brief time in between seasons that she could feel something new happening, and it made her anxious and excited. It was like new air, or sweeping cobwebs. There was a light rain outside and Madeleine wanted to throw open her two little windows to her small apartment space and let the warm mist fill the room. But the noise from the traffic would've been too much, and she was worried for the bird. As it was, the hiss of the scratchy needle was barely audible. She crouched down beside the heating vent to listen. The music was low and tired. Something like Billie Holiday. It was Billie Holiday, but for the two weeks she had looked, she hadn't been able to find it in any of the record shops. She leaned against her raggedy old reading chair and stared at the stack of books and odd art supplies next to her. Too much time spent inside reading and dreaming, she worried.
She looked up at the small, blue-green bird in the cage next to her bed, and then picked up a blue crayon. The bird was quiet. Quite still and beautiful. Every once in a while she would turn her head slightly to observe her new surroundings. She was calm. Even when Madeleine had brought her home a week ago and taken a polaroid of her, she had fluttered her wings, but in a gentle way. The softly blurred movement was a moment of perfect grace, Madeleine thought, as she ran her fingers along the edge of the picture which now hung on the wall beside the chair. She looked like the sea. As she put down the crayon for another, it started. She wondered how long Maggie had lived down there. How long she had been there. She rested her head against the wall and began to slowly peel away the old crayon's paper label. She reached for a jar of rubber cement and twisted off the top. The music mixed with the sound of Maggie, as if the sobs were a part of the song. Not like an instrument - not an accompanying sound - but interior, as if growing from within the music. A ghost. Madeleine brushed a streak of glue next to the polaroid and stuck the green paper to the wall. "Seafoam," she whispered.
< 2 >
Typically, she had only gone on Wednesday afternoons. It was the one day that they ran a bargain matinee and it only cost her $3. Besides the price, she liked the fact that the theatre was empty then. It was an old movie house where they played revivals and art films. Madeleine liked the musty smell inside, and the worn crushed burgundy of the seats. She liked the warm glow of colors that were muted by the darkness, like the old Hopper painting that hung above her chair. Occasionally, she would bring her little reading light and a sketch pad and work on a face from the film.
It was on a Sunday night that she had met her. One of those odd times when she had to pay full price, because the film she wanted to see was only a weekend run. It was Stardust Memories, by Woody Allen. He had been one of her favorites before the awful thing with his wife's daughter. Before the fear of age and death had become too overwhelming for him. She had seen one or two of his newer movies, and it made her feel embarrassed. Like finding out a close friend has been lying to you.
"Do you ever draw birds?"
Madeleine looked up from her wallet. "I'm sorry..."
"The drawing pad. You're a painter?"
"Um, I sketch."
Madeleine was startled to realize it was the woman from her building. She had seen her in the basement laundry room that first day she had been down there. One of the woman's laundry baskets was overturned and used as a step, so that she could climb up onto the washing machine and then again to nestled herself in a window above the machines. She had pried open the dingy window frame and was quietly feeding a few small birds through the security bars. Madeleine watched as they hoped in and out, pecking crackers straight from her hands. It was three days later that she first heard her through the vent and realized she lived in 3c, directly below her. She had seen her one other time out her window one evening. She had been exiting the building, alone. Madeleine remembered the way that her hair had lifted softly, caught by the wind as she walked off out of view.
< 3 >
"I like this one," the woman said, tearing an orange ticket from her ticket spool. Madeleine struggled with the loose bills in her wallet.
"Although, he's kind of a creep, now."
Madeleine put her $6.50 on the booth counter and looked up again. She noticed the woman was smiling at her. She had a beautiful, quiet smile, that was enhanced by deep pensive brown eyes. Madeleine wanted to tell her that she didn't really like Woody Allen anymore either, and that she was only coming to draw the sad woman who had played Woody Allen's first girlfriend in the film. That she hadn't seen the woman in anything else, as if she had disappeared. And that there was one particular scene that she adored. Just simple shots of the woman - jumpcuts of different expressions: manic anxiety, whimsical laughter, pain, sorrow. She wanted to tell her that this was all she had come for. Just to sketch her in her book, to take her from the film and close the door on Woody forever.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," she eeked out in an apologetic manner. Lame, she thought.
"Here you go." The woman nonchalantly slid Madeleine's money back at her, with her ticket.
"But won't you --"
The woman smiled softly and nodded. "Go ahead, I'll see you around. You can get me another time."
"Oh. Thanks ..." Madeleine smiled. She gathered her things.
"Thank you, Maggie."
The lines were simple, as Madeleine let her hand go. She was half-conscious of what she was doing, caught somewhere between the last sounds of Maggie and her fading song, and the tapping of the rain which had started to fall hard on her window. It was the bird who brought her out of it. She had pecked the tiny silver bell, hanging from the top of her cage. The bird tilted her head to look down at Madeleine on the floor. Madeleine stared for a moment, smiling, and then turned back to the wall to finish her sketch: a ribbon around the bird's neck drifted across the wall into words: HELLO, SAD MAGGIE.
< 4 >
She didn't take the elevator, because she wasn't sure if it would bother the bird. By the second set of stairs her hands were beginning to tremble. The rain clattered off of the metal dumpsters outside, and filled the stairwell with echoes. "You okay, honey?" The bird hopped from one perch to the next, calmly inspecting the passing walls and handrails. As she entered the hallway and stepped up to the door, a horrific thought occurred to her: "Hello, Maggie? I know i've only seen you around a couple of times, and well, there's this vent in my place, you see...anyways, I hear you crying and I...I just wanted to give you this bird?" Yeah, right. Shit. She began to freeze up. "Don't. Don't freeze up," she thought. She looked down at the bird. She turned back to the stairs, and just as she was about to retreat, it happened. The bird cheeped. A little one. She froze. She looked back down at the bird. The bird was staring up at her. Another. Madeleine couldn't move.
The apartment door opened. Maggie peered out. "Bird?"
The bird began to sing. Maggie stepped out into the hall.
"Oh, sweetheart. You're lovely. Yes." she said, as the bird continued. She turned to Madeleine. "Hi."
Madeleine smiled. Her face was red. She wasn't sure if she could move. She raised her arm tentatively to present Maggie with the cage. The bird sprung up against the front of the cage door to greet Maggie. Maggie leaned in an ran her finger against the bars near the bird.
"Um. I bought her for you."
Maggie looked up at Madeleine. She was quiet. "Oh," she said. She smiled softly, looked serious for a moment and then her eyes started to become wet.
< 5 >
She took the cage from Madeleine's slightly trembling hands. She continue to stare at Madeleine. "Can you come in?"
Madeleine tried to relax into a smile.
The first thing Madeleine noticed, once inside, were all of the plants. Not the amount of them - although there were a few - but how green they were. She had never seen such lush house plants in the city before. Or, anywhere for that matter. They surrounded the two small window spaces.
"How do you keep your plants so green?"
Before she could get an answer, she felt a soft hand touch her neck. She turned and Maggie leaned in and kissed her.
"Thank you." Maggie whispered.
Madeleine looked into her eyes, as Maggie reached up and brushed Madeleine's hair lovingly from her forehead. She kissed her again.
"I talk to them," Maggie said. Madeleine smiled.
"There was something I've been wanting to tell you," Madeleine said, feeling Maggie's hands still brushing against her waist. She looked over at the bird, who was still leaning tight against the cage door, staring up at the two women.
"Well. This is kind of stupid but ... the first time when I ... well ...," She paused, serious. "When I came to the theatre I wanted to tell you ... I really don't like Woody Allen anymore, I think he's gross. I just really liked that film. Yeah. There." She exhaled and laughed awkwardly.
Maggie laughed. She kissed Madeleine's forhead.
"I sketched the woman in it." Madeleine continued shyly.
Maggie nodded, smiling.
< 6 >
Madeleine looked around the apartment and then back at Maggie.
"The first girlfriend," Madeleine added.
Maggie nodded, knowingly. "Jumpcuts," she said quietly.
Madeleine smiled. "I used to think you were a ghost."
"How do you know I'm not," Maggie grinned.
"Well. I guess I don't." She paused and looked over at the bird. "But, the bird sees you, too."
"That lovely bird's probably seen lots of ghosts."
Madeleine was quiet. She looked down at the ground. She looked back up at Maggie, her head tilted slightly like the bird. "Are you?"
Maggie paused. She sighed. "I'm not sure," she said softly. Her look became distant. Madeleine took a deep breath and step towards Maggie, squeezing her hand lightly. Closing her eyes, she leaned in and kissed Maggie just below her ear.
"I don't mind," she said.Jesse Miller