Kenny sat thinking one day after they moved to the city where they lived on Palmwood Avenue, a brick street where sparrows seep-seeped washing themselves in the city dust by the curb. The house was a duplex and their home was upstairs, and below lived a family he did not like cause the man drank a lot and disturbed the peace. The house stood beside a great brick church, heavy and dark with age, which was A.M.E. and all its members were what his mother and father taught him to call colored, except when his father was short of temper over their Sunday singing and called them something else. Their singing was always marvelous to Kenny, sort of faraway loud and harmonizing with nothing in his life as he lay in his room Sabbath mornings with rejoicing voices next to his window, and through the heavy black-red brick wall not seven feet from his panes. (“If anybody asks you where I’m goin, I’m goin up yonder to be with the Lord.”)
Weekdays like this when he was alone after school everything was still, not only in the old church, but all through the neighborhood. His mother and father both worked because they said it was hard times, and there were no kids for him to play with unless he went blocks away. Kids hardly ever came over because a boy calling on his pal would stand outside his house and yell his friend’s name until he came out, and his father would yell at him, “Git the hell out of here! Quit the damn yellin!” So he often played alone with his Lincoln logs and toy soldiers.
Or sometimes other kids came around after supper and they played twilight-haze hide-and-go-seek, squatting in the hollyhocks and the mint bushes or the rhubarb in the back yard, and called “all-ee all-ee in free” in the damp air, which in Fall had wood smoke from colored people’s stoves in it and smelled lovely. His father always had coal delivered that Kenny had to carry though he hated it up from the alley garage, up pinch-narrow stairs dark and without a rail, and he got yelled at if he did not keep the house warm and take out the ashes to the end of the garage and do his other jobs. There were not many jobs, though, and after school before going in he sat down on the front steps to watch the sparrows and listen to them and sort of think about school, which was easy, and think about playing, which was hard.
Today he sat in the back yard instead, in the sun because it was early Spring. There was no snow, which was a little funny for Toledo, but it was kind of snappy and he sat and sort of thought about the chalk box and erasers and sharpening pencils and his ink bottle and paste, which all smelled lovely, and his ruler and Crayolas and soap eraser, and the fire escape drills so high-in-air-scary, and the free milk and apple for lunch. School. And about cops and robbers and croquet at his cousin Dottie’s out in the country, hunting four-leaf clovers never found, and tackle football on the gravel school yard or kick-the-can in the dirt alley, and the red-faced struggle to learn to dance in the Presbyterian church gym. Play.
He slowly knew someone was across the fence looking, which was that kind of fence that was wire and wood and easy to climb over, with the wire in a design of rectangles, with curves at the top as wide as his spread hand, with the curves interlaced, with a two-by-four along near the bottom, and the boards and wire held up by wooden stakes as high as his shoulder, and the boards had their flat sides up like long thin shelves. It was the little girl next door, who was the minister’s little girl, who was in his grade but they had different homerooms and he hardly knew her. Her name was Imogene and they pronounced it “I’m” instead of “Im” and she was taller and very black with pink lips and tan-pink palms and fuzzy white hair and very dark shining eyes in moist white.
“Hi. Whatcha doin, Imogene?”
“Ain doin nothin.”
“Me neither. Jis thinkin.”
“Thinkin bout wha?”
“Ever have any more a that swell ice cream like you guys were makin last Summer?”
“Member? You gave me some over the fence when you dad was crankin some more in that wooden thing. Member?”
“Yeah. Ah ain studyin that now.”
“Ah ain studyin no ice cream.”
“I don’t git it. Aren’t what?”
“Studyin it. Ain thinkin bout no ice cream. S too cold.”
“I git it.”
“It ain nothin to do is there?”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Ahmo go in.”
“So long. . . . Say, what your name. Ah fergit it.”
She went in, then he turned away again from the fence and sat. Maybe I should go over to Jimmy’s. Naw, he’s probly over to Dick’s anyhow. And that’s too far now. I got to be home when they come home. Gee, I better take up some coal. Perty soon. He stretched, then he heard some sounds like they were far-near, like drums he heard once from a parade while the band was not playing, blocks away, or a sort of ruffling too across the fence on the grass by the church’s dark wall, in shadow there was movement. He stood and went under the high part of the bare clothesline past its pole to the fence on tiptoes chin up. Gee, it’s a bird. A brown sparrow. It’s in trouble.
He put a foot in the fence wire and a knicker knee on the top board and went across and thumped down on the grass over there, scraping the small of his back on a loop. He could see the sparrow on the taller grass and the weeds by the wall where the minister’s mower did not reach when he tried to push it close, blades whirring and clacking and hitting its metal wheels on the bricks and chipping them pink in places. Kenny saw gray and brown feathers with flecks of white, a very small sparrow with a broken wing. Gee. Poor thing. Gee. He could see it pulse like a rhythm in its throat, and maybe its breast, and he could hear it but it had no voice and its eyes were closed and it was on its back drum-ruffling on the weeds and tall grass. Gee. He ’s really hurt bad. I bet he hurts bad. Geezow.
He remembered his mother said once when their car hit a bird that birds do not get well. They had been to the zoo and he had got pretty sick on lemonade and cotton candy, the sandwich baloney and mustard they took along, and the sad quiet tigers caged, graceful and soft-eyed and lovely. Then they drove out to his cousin’s, “Like a bat outta hell,” his father said. “What a crate!”
“Oh Hank, don’t swear in front of Kenny.”
“What ails ya babe? Huh?”
“Nothin, Hank. Honest.”
“Ya look a little peaked. What you need’s a good work out!”
His father put his hand on the soft white above her rolled stocking and squeezed and Kenny saw him do it from the back seat.
“The skin ya love ta touch.”
“A good roll in the hay! Give ya that schoolgirl complexion!”
Then the car hit with a thump a cardinal, and flung him onto the narrow road. Kenny turned and knelt on the seat and saw the bird through wet green eyes out the little back window, flicking a wing struggling receding.
“We really hit that awful.”
“Can’t help it! Goddamn it, Kenny, don’t be such a worry wart!”
“What’ll happen to im, Ma? What happens to hurt birds? Whatta they do, Ma?”
“They just die I guess. Birds don’t get well.”
“I mean their wings and legs never do heal. After a while they just die.”
I gotta help him. I can’t. I gotta do somepthin. There’s nothin. I know. Geez. I know. I cn kill im. Oh. He picked up the bird. It was small in his small hand, dark on pink-white, and he could feel warmth and he could feel the pulses as it beat-ruffled its feathers oh so soft against his palm. I gotta. I don’t wanta. I gotta though. He’s sufferin so bad I bet. How? No stone or sticks. I don’t see any stones or sticks. Geez, I could never step on im. Geez no. I know. If I throw him up against the wall. It’s brick. It’s hard. It’ll kill im for sure. Geez, kin I? Yeah. I gotta.
He held the bird loosely and whirled his arm and let go just short of the wall and the sparrow hit with the smallest imaginable thud. It fell onto the weeds and he heard the drum-ruffle small and saw the blades of grass and weeds move ever so little. Again. He held the bird again and whirled his arm as hard as he could while he sobbed nearly choking. It hit with its small thud and fell and moved and pulsed. Gawd. Geez. He held it, then threw it, now trying to be certain its head hit the brick, with all his might. Thud. Oh so small a thud and the head had hit and the bird fell. Movement. Oh gawd. Oh geez. He was crying-sobbing and he sweated inside his coat and tears were hot on his face skin in the cold air. Again. Whirl-hit-movement. Feathers warm on his hand and soft pulse. He threw. He threw. Again and again. Over, over, over. How many times? Geez. Gawd. Oh geezow.
Finally he placed the bird still in the shaded grass and weeds, soft and warm and brown-gray, in the tan weeds and not-yet-green grass, next to the black church wall where the mower could not reach. Then he turned and went back over the fence, falling and crying hot in the cold.
I gotta go in. I gotta take out the ashes and bring up some coal. I gotta do my work or I’ll git yelled at. I gotta hurry. Geez. Inside it was warm and he was cold with sweat, and he wiped his eyes and face, and he rubbed and rubbed his eyes red on his sleeve and took off his coat, and he still sobbed a little. Then he got his breath. He sat in the kitchen at the table with the oil cloth on it, in the fading light through the lace curtains, and before it got much darker he had some milk from the icebox and Borden’s powder and some of his mother’s cookies, and he took out the ashes and brought in some coal, and sort of thought, and waited for them to come home.