Despite the damp fall weather, he was sitting on his porch. A tattered stocking cap covered his bowed head. The sleeves of his red wool coat barely reached the bands on his fingerless gloves. His skin was wrinkled and his fingers distorted but he carved with the concentration of a master.
He scarcely looked up when I delivered his meal. “Just put it in the refrigerator. I’ll heat it later.” He was polite; but he spoke; it seemed, without seeing me. But as I came back out on to the porch he said, “You’re new aren’t you? Where’s Ann?” Ann normally delivered the meals to the home-bound residents of Angel Port. “Ann is serving meals at the Senior Building today. They were short-handed,” I responded.
Ann had been trying to get me involved with the program ever since my husband’s death. I had always found an excuse. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was now that Don was gone, but I was certain it was not delivery of meals to the aged and infirm. That day she had caught me off guard, so there I was.
Avery was the last delivery on the route, so I stood for a while quietly watching him carve a tiny bird. “Have a seat,” he said pointing to the other weathered, but sturdy, wooden rocker.– I sat.
“My wife used to sit there and watch. I miss her.” He spoke without taking his eyes off of his work. “You’re quiet,” he continued. “My Liza was quiet too.”
I sat there for thirty minutes, maybe more, watching him finish the bird. Then he abruptly tossed it into the bucket of shavings. Startled, I jumped to my feet. “Why did you do that?”
“What?” he asked, looking up with surprise?
“Throw it away?” I couldn’t believe he didn’t know what I meant.
He smiled as he picked up another small piece of wood and began to whittle away. “I just do this because it is something to keep me busy. If I kept all of them you wouldn’t be able to get into the house.”
“Can I have it?” I asked as I picked through the shavings to retrieve it.
“You really want it?” he inquired.
“Of course,” I replied.
Then he told me that I could have it on one condition. I had to help him out to his garage for some sandpaper and come back the next day to get it.
He stood, leaning heavily on his walker, and shuffled to the porch steps. Then he put his frail arm on mine while we took the two steps to the ground below. I was grateful it was not icy. I handed him his walker and stayed close by his side until we reached the garage. He opened the door, entered first and said, “I haven’t been out here since Liza died. That was two years ago.”
I followed him in. There was no car but one side of the garage was covered with cabinets, each door tightly closed. The other side was lined with animal carvings. There were birds and bears, and wolves and eagles, all covered in dust, but proudly displayed along the shelves. He had more than enough talent shown here to brag about it, but he didn’t.
“Do you sell them?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s just a hobby. I’ve given a few away, but I’ve never sold any.” He struggled with his balance as he opened one of the cabinet doors.
I wasn’t sure if I should offer to help, but then he asked, “Can you reach that package to the right?”
I pulled down a sandpaper bundle. He sorted through it and removed several piece, rolled them into a tube and slid them into his coat pocket. Then Avery handed me the remaining pieces and I replaced them on the shelf.
“Do you have a key for the garage door?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s in the kitchen drawer. Why?”
I didn’t answer. I turned the lock before I followed him back to the porch. When he was safely reseated I said, “Next time you go to the garage, you will need your key.” Avery said nothing and barely nodded in response.
The next day I volunteered to make the meal deliveries again just to see if he really would let me have the bird. This time he looked up when I arrived. “You came back? I wondered if you would.” Then he held out his hand, “I’m Avery, but you probably already know that from the delivery list.”
“Is that short for Elizabeth?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“My Liza was an Elizabeth too. I miss her.” For just a moment I knew I had lost him to his memories, but then he asked, “Do you have time to sit awhile?”
“Let me put your meal in the refrigerator and then I will.”
Just as before, I sat quietly watching him carve. I wondered what had happened to the bird that he had promised me the day before. I did not ask. I marveled at the intricate details he achieved despite the gnarled condition of his hands. Tiny lines defined the bird’s feathers. Tiny inset sockets outlined slightly rounded eyes.
Suddenly he stopped carving. He put his hand in his pocket and removed a perfectly formed bird. “These always remind me of the blue birds I used to see as a child,” he said. “We don’t see many blue birds here on the coast.”
As he handed me the carving he asked, “Do you think you could paint it to look like a blue bird?”
At first his question startled me. Before my husband’s death I had sculpted and painted clay flowers for jewelry, but I had never created birds or animals. After he assured me that my acrylic paints would work just fine, I told him I would try
That evening I went home and checked my art books and bird sites on the internet looking for blue birds. I analyzed eye detail and color variations. I compared the feather detail to the carving. The sculpture was perfect. Early the next morning I painted the bird. When I made the meal deliveries that afternoon I took the carving with me. I couldn’t believe that at sixty-five I was still seeking approval, but I was.
That day the wind blew violently and there was a temporary power outage. It was later than usual when I arrived at Avery’s house. He wasn’t on the porch. I knocked and yelled, “Avery, its Beth.”
When he responded, “Come in,” I slowly opened the door, making certain that he wasn’t standing in the way. I entered and found him in the kitchen putting a kettle on the stove for tea.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked. “Liza and I used to have tea together at this time every day. I miss that.”
I agreed to tea provided that he allow me to prepare it. He finally agreed, directed me to the teapot was and explained exactly how much tea to put in the strainer. He shuffled to a chair and sat quietly at the chrome dinette. This time I could feel him watching me. I poured the tea and seated myself on the other side of the table. “Well?” he asked. I pretended not to know what he was asking. “Well,” he asked again, “did you paint it?”
I didn’t say a word. I wondered what if he hates it? What if he thinks I have destroyed his work of art? Slowly I opened my purse, all the time regretting that I had agreed to paint the bird. I pulled out the tissue parcel and removed the wrapping. I placed the carving on the table and waited.
I watched his face color as he lifted the bird and turned it around and around in his hands. I was unable to read his face. And then his eyes moistened. His chin quivered. In a voice more scratchy and choked than normal he blurted out, “Liza always wanted me to paint one of these damn birds blue.” At first I wasn’t sure if that meant it was okay, but then he said, “If I give you another one, can I have this one back?”
I took the second carving home, painted it blue and placed it on my window sill. There I could see it first thing in the morning when I opened my drapes. I called it my blue bird of happiness. That evening I painted a blue bird on a card and wrote Avery a thank you note.
That was the beginning of our secret blue bird project. Avery carved birds. I painted and delivered them. Soon every shut-in on the meals delivery route had a blue bird of happiness from “someone who cares,” along with a hand painted blue bird card so they could write a “thank you” if they chose.
I shuttled blue birds and thank yous back and forth for weeks without telling a soul where they came from. By early December we had delivered blue birds to everyone on the meals program, to several sick children and even to a few new mothers.
I saw Avery nearly every day that fall. As autumn turned to winter he grew more and more frail. We never talked a lot, but it was obvious how much he missed his dear Liza. On December 31st he gave me two birds. He seemed extremely calm as he told me that these were the last two birds. When I asked him “Why?” he responded with a “just because, Beth, just because.” That day as I left, I don’t know why, but I hugged him just before I walked out the door. That was the last time I saw Avery. Late that night he went to join his beloved Liza.
I was shocked when the minister at his memorial service talked about Avery’s blue bird project. It had been our secret. We had both promised that we would never reveal the source of the blue birds. Later that week I discovered that Avery had saved all of the thank you notes. They were tied in a ribbon with a note that read, “My purpose in life, in memory of my beloved Liza.”
The last two carvings have never been painted. They sit on a shelf in my studio. I use them as models for the clay blue birds I now sculpt and deliver. Every time I receive a thank you I place it in a wooden box along with the note I have written that reads, “My purpose in life, in memory of Avery.”
(A short fiction piece for Three word Wednesday: brag, icy, polite.)