Danny lives in a three-bedroom standalone in Coney Island. Heavy weather and the ocean’s nearness give the house a terrarium feel. When I arrive for our final interview, he is red-eyed from sleeplessness but for once in pleasant spirits. He scuttles ashtrays from the coffee table to make room for my glass of water. Sits on the couch while I sit on the recliner. After a few clarifying questions, I will be finished with him forever. I want to leave and think about birds.
Danny worked as a big-rig driver for a company that produces the cheap dessert products popular in six-year-olds’ lunch boxes. He was refilling at a truck stop when the apparatus holding the hose cracked. Industrial hoses weigh a ton. This one fell onto his head and pinned him on the pavement, shattering his pelvis against the plinth.
In the diorama I’ve built of his life, a wife with box-blond hair, a young son in a karate uniform, and a dog named R2-D2 stand in a kitchen covered in Post-it notes. Like many of my clients, Danny uses these strips of paper as surrogates for the parts of his brain clear-cut by that hose. Over the course of several months, I’ve interviewed his family, doctors, fellow truckers, grade school teachers. I’ve plotted their anecdotes on a careful timeline I will present in court, chronologically to elicit more sympathy and a bigger settlement. I will ask the jury to imagine young Danny posed against lockers, popping an orange against his biceps. Studying for his trucker exams at night. I map pain to show what medical charts can’t—how he can no longer coach his son’s karate class, volunteer at church, pet his dog.
Danny flicks an ashless cigarette and bounces in place on the couch, occasionally checking the door leading to the kitchen. Crates are stacked along the wall, magazines piled on the floor. I smell fish and char. “You baking?”
He frowns. “Nah.”
I’m undermining him if I check, but the smell of burning thickens. We enter the kitchen, where hundreds, maybe thousands of reminders blink in the occasional ocean breeze. I never escape the sensation I’m being surveilled, except instead of a penetrating gaze they are commands, observations. DON’T FORGET RICE. PETER IS THE COUSIN WHO STEALS. AN HOUR IS SIXTY MINUTES. CLOVER HATES LILIES. TAKE SHOWER. Some are so old the paper has become cloth soft.
Danny plucks one from the wall. SALMON IN THE OVEN.
He opens the oven door, releasing smoke. “Oven mitt,” I warn when he is about to barehand the rack.
He pulls out a blackened piece of fish, throws it onto an unkind pile of eggy dishes in the sink. “Trying to be healthy. Hopeless.”
I write: GO EASY ON YOURSELF with a smiley face. I show him before attaching it to the wall where the previous note had been.
Clouds silver with rain over his cluttered yard. Atmospheric condensation aggravates already aggravated bodies. My clients normally bail on rainy days but Danny never cancels.
His pelvis healed, but it’s the invisible injuries that make him feel submerged. His friends, flanneled, soft-spoken men, showed up regularly throughout his hospital stay, helped his wife, Clover, fix a makeshift bedroom on the first floor. They were confused when Danny still couldn’t work a few months after returning home. It didn’t matter how many times I explained that brain injury is unseen, they wanted to see it. Injuries, like god, require faith. Clover resents the burden placed on her salary. She takes out-of-town jobs that pay more. Whenever Danny mentions her work, he uses his fingers to place quotes around the word.
I don’t share anything about my personal life with my clients. Friendship creates an unhelpful bond.
Danny fills a pitcher with water as R2-D2 gallops into the room to nuzzle my thigh. He is a two-year-old unexercised and panicky Labrador who looks as if he will at any moment speak. Everything in him wants to run. R2-D2 hunts scraps on the floor underneath Danny, who holds the pitcher brimming with water. I worry about his grip, but he wants to tell a story like an intact man about a fair he went to where a man balanced on top of a Ferris wheel. A tremor grows in his forearm.
I say, “Why don’t you let me hold that?”
“Are you listening? I’m talking to you.” He sways as if regaining his balance. The pitcher slips silently out of his grip, barely missing the dog as it shatters against the floor. R2-D2 yelps, scrabbles out of the room.
I collect the chunks of glass. “Was I holding that?” he says.
“Don’t move,” I say.
He says he won’t but forgets.
He roots in place. I’ve never raised my voice to him.
“Did you drop the pitcher?” he says, when I am transferring the large chunks to the trash can.
“Yes.” I guide him over the mess and into the family room. I motion for him to sit and hand him the remote. I wipe the kitchen floor and take the garbage to the outside patio where several other bags are stacked. The dog jogs beside me, sniffs a tree trunk.
On the train, I scoured online listings for wedding dresses, and e-mailed the sellers. Shotgun wedding, I joked. One of the brides has written back including her phone number. She signs the e-mail, Yours, Ada. My aggravation with Danny transfers to this woman’s salutation. How dare she be so trusting, personal. How dare my grandmother arrive at the last minute and make demands.
In the bathroom, I dial the number. I’ve cataloged every item in the sparse medicine cabinet: the knife on the shelf, the jars of baby oil crusted with disuse, Clover’s curlers like bright smacks against the earthen walls.
“Hello,” I whisper. “I’m the bride who e-mailed about the dress.”
“Hello,” she whispers. “It’s nice to sort of meet you.”
“I’m at work,” I apologize. “I have to be quiet.”
“Why am I whispering?” I hear a giggle. She readjusts to normal volume. “Would tonight be okay to pick it up?”
“Absolutely,” I say, and she says, “I live on Fourth Street.”
“Which one?” I say. “East or West?”
“Northeast,” she says. “By the park.”
“I didn’t know there was a Northeast.”
“You’ll have to try it on while you’re here,” she says, as if this thought has just occurred to her. “You’ll want to make sure it fits.”
“I’d be grateful.”
“Absolutely,” she says. Our word for the conversation.
“Is Northeast Fourth Street where the historic brownstones are?”
She says, “By the park.”
Footsteps behind me. Danny stands in the doorway, glaring. “I don’t have all day.”
Ada and I make final agreements and hang up. I follow Danny into the family room, apologizing without mentioning the reason for the call. He is upset, perhaps because he does have all day. Like most of my clients, his marriage is splintering. It’s challenging to be around someone in pain. People worry it will get on them. When I was hired, my boss, an injury attorney whose collar is never completely folded over the back of his tie, assigned me a book called The Reptilian Brain. The cover is a drawing of a reptile in the act of contemplation. The head is transparent, its brain waves represented in blue squiggles that emanate out of the parameters of the jacket and into the world, this suggests, into the reader.
A reptile’s biggest fears are isolation and immobility. Most of my clients deal with both. “Think about the reptile,” my boss reminds me. “How the reptile in you responds to the reptile in them.” I am encouraged to phrase my reports in reptilian terms.
A reptile wants anything there is to want—the sun, your best ideas, the center of the center of the eclair, everything. It wants to flip itself inside out and emerge a new and shiny reptile encrusted in star matter. It wants to sit on a blanket with its friends, dominating everyone. It wants to control storms. Our waking reality is their dream state, and vice versa.
Who’s driving? my boss writes in the margins of my reports. The reptile or the human? I think it is the only book he has ever read.
Danny’s synapses are unreliable and finicky. Even if they convey the whole message, they can’t be trusted to keep conveying it. You are holding this pitcher. Continue to hold this pitcher.
“How many Percocet did you take today?”
“Two when I woke up, and two before you came.” He checks his pill case. “Maybe more.”
R2-D2 scratches at the back door. For the dog the only thing worse than being with Danny is being without him. Danny wants to watch an episode of an old sitcom but I want to finish the interview so I can leave.
“We only have a few questions we missed from last time, then done. Sound good?”
He mutes the television. “Do you think that sounds good?”
“Please remember I’m here to help you, and that your answers will not be shared with anyone except your attorney.”
“And the whole courtroom,” he says.
“Not without your permission. Number five. Are you able to achieve erection whenever you want, occasionally, or not at all?”
He flips through silent channels. “Not at all.”
“That means never.” I read the questions quickly, in an even tone. “Have you achieved erection at all since the accident?”
“Once or twice.”
“That would count as occasionally.”
He punishes me for the enthusiasm. “Check me out,” he says. “Brad Pitt coming through.”
I write: occasionally.
“When you achieved erection, how long did it last?”
“A minute or two,” he says. “Not long enough for Clover to go for hers.”
“Are you able to ejaculate whenever you want, occasionally, or not at all?”
He shifts in his seat, stalls. “If I can’t get an erection, how could I ejaculate?”
“Sometimes in sleep, you’re able to . . . without really . . . also, it is possible to ejaculate while having a flaccid penis.”
“You’ll have to teach me that trick. What’s occasionally again?”
“Anywhere from one time on,” I say.
He hears my impatience, pouts. “Write down occasionally.”
Danny used to be quick to joke, according to his friends, but the accident triggered another man’s temper. He yells at Clover, the kid, the dog. He doesn’t even walk the same, Clover told me. This personality change is why certain lawyers present brain injury cases as fatalities. The client’s first life has ended.
“Are you able to go to the bathroom without assistance from anything or anyone?”
He waits for a truck commercial to finish before answering. My phone vibrates in my pocket with messages, e-mails.
“I’m able to piss but not the other thing,” he says.
“You’re able to urinate,” I say. “All the time, occasionally—”
“All the time.” He lifts the waistband of his jeans to show me a diaper.
“How do you relieve yourself of fecal matter?”
He points to a stack of medical supplies in the corner.
“I use gloves to remove what I need. Six or seven times a day. I don’t know when I have to go, that sensation or whatever is gone. I keep checking.” He slumps into himself on the chair. He’s crying, shoulders shaking, holding the remote like a sword.
I want to tell him that tears are a bother and a waste of time. “This is normal for someone with your injury,” I say. “Most of my clients can’t achieve erections at all.”
“I lied.” He pats his crotch. “There’s nobody fucking home. I sit here and diddle my life away as my wife screws everyone in New York.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.” I check my phone. The florist, Sam.
“You’re weird today. Distracted, jumpy. Phone calls. Why are you so anxious to leave? Hey.” He launches out of the chair with surprising speed and stands over me.
The self I put away during these interviews returns as I slide my phone and book inside my purse. I am alone in a house with an unstable man who, even injured, can physically overpower me. I must leave without upsetting him further. “That’s good information, Danny. We can stop.”
“That’s it?” He shakes his arms over me, as if trying to rid a tree of fruit.
Excited by his owner’s motion, R2-D2 leaps up and down against Danny’s leg, barking.
I stand, my bag already looped over my shoulder. “I won’t bother you anymore.” As I walk to the door every atom in the room takes on the wrung-out nature of incident.
As Danny’s adrenaline wanes, his pain returns. He sits on a pile of magazines on the coffee table. “Sometimes I feel like I’m watching my family from far away. Like they’re on a stage and I’m in the nosebleeds. There’s even a little me, a little Danny. I want to join them but my limbs don’t work. I want to say to the little me, stop fucking everything up. My voice gets stuck. After a while, I think, well, why don’t they find me? They’re too far away. They may not even be my family. I may be using all this energy to signal to the wrong people. Do you know what I mean?”
“It’s disassociation.” I pause in the doorway. “A lot of my clients have it. You’re not alone.” I want to think about my grandmother. I want to buy a dress and get married so something new can happen.
“You got somewhere to be?” His volume reaches its highest and most pained register. His loneliness is tangible, it could leave with me and ride in the passenger seat of my car. “It’s no fun sitting with the crippled guy?”
His pleading eyes match my own peeled insides. Against my better instinct, I decide to be honest. “The truth is. I’m getting married. You’re my last appointment for the week.”
“Married.” His eyes brighten. “That’s a happy thing.” He pulls a faded wooden box from a shelf. He lifts the lid, revealing a gun. I open the screen door and step outside.
“Wait,” he says. “That’s just what’s sitting on it. What a shitty thing to do,” he apologizes. He holds the gun as if it is a delicate bird. Placing it aside, he removes a paper from the box. “A poem,” he says. “A good one.”
“Why do you keep a poem in a box with a gun?” I say.
“I like it.” He studies me. “Maybe I’m dumb. Will you read it?”
“I’m no good at poetry, Danny.”
“Okay, but keep it,” he says. “I hope he’s a good . . . man?”
“Yes.” I am surprised by this consideration. “A human man.”
“I didn’t know whether you liked men or women,” he says.
“You’re like . . .” He makes a muscle, gives a bodybuilder’s pose. As I’ve been many times during our interviews, I am insulted and flattered. “He’s a . . .” But like when explaining the Internet to a bird, my mind empties. “. . . very hard worker.”
“You got a bridal party?”
Another reason you don’t tell them anything. The digging. “No,” I lie.
“Brothers? I can’t imagine you with sisters.”
“Brother, singular,” I say. “Older.”
“No one understands you like your siblings.”
“I’m sure that’s true with many siblings but not with us. We don’t talk. He’s. . .”
My laughter surprises both of us. “A playwright,” I say. “Who likes to use other people’s lives in his plays. And, last I saw him, addicted to heroin.”
Danny’s eyes sober. “That’s serious stuff. It breaks my heart to think of kids getting hooked. They don’t have the tools to get out from under it.”
On television, a child dressed as Darth Vader attempts to move a dog with his mind.
“I used to be great at weddings.” He raises his arms to hold an invisible partner. “Most men don’t get how to partner. Please stay,” he says. “I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Danny writes: DON’T FORGET TO GET MARRIED on a Post-it and hands it to me. He returns to his recliner. R2-D2 lies next to him, placing his head on Danny’s knee. “Bye, pup,” I say. Then, to Danny, “It actually is a lot of fun, hanging out with the crippled guy.”
His eyes remain on the television as he flips through muted channels. “See ya.”
I hurry down the street until the chased sensation dissipates. I stop at a DON’T WALK and listen to my messages. The florist reminds me that we have an appointment. Her certainty calms me, along with a message from Rose, who says she will join me after the movie. I am an ordinary woman getting ordinary married to an ordinary man. This thought fails to soothe.
A woman pausing next to me wears a coat over a red sarong. The light turns green and we cross together, reach the adjacent sidewalk in step. Our strides match though I’m younger and wearing sneakers. How is she so fast? We move down the street in such sync we may as well be lovers. I won’t slow my pace because I want to get away. I won’t move faster for fear of appearing aggressive. I hedge, debate myself.
I pump my arms subtly so she does not notice the effort. It is important this woman thinks I am winning effortlessly. My legs are strong from running. My pelvis is uncracked. My original heart beats solid in its cage. I have time to kill and the ability to see a movie in the city. Should I acknowledge the situation? A well-timed chuckle can engender camaraderie, even in strangers, but when I dare to check her face it is blank. She engages in no interior debate, unaware that she is doing the walking equivalent of doppelgänging me on the street. She is effortless.
I fill with unaccountable anger. Am I invisible? I should never have empathized. Fuck this woman’s ease and what it reveals in me.
She stops unexpectedly. Without thinking, I halt, too. She is younger than I’d have guessed because she wears the coat of a much older woman.
“You’re trying so hard.” Her eyes are pity-filled.
“I—” I say, but have no idea how to complete the sentence, which she seems to know because she turns and proceeds down the street with enviable agility.
Excerpted from Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux June 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Marie-Helene Bertino. All rights reserved.