like fine china

a short story

Dad picked me up, that time, on a Sunday. He opened the passenger side door for me and turned on the radio as soon as he sat down behind the wheel, reaching both hands through the sunroof and drumming his palms on the top of the car. After we waved goodbye in the general direction of the house Mom and I shared, he told me we were going to see my grandpa (a man I’d never met because Dad hadn’t allowed me to before now), and it caught me so off guard that I forgot for a second about wondering when he would pick me up next time. It was useless, anyway. Plans with Dad were always indefinite until he pulled into the driveway—no point in planning anything out, much less worrying.

Now I counted the yellow bird feathers Dad had stuck behind the passenger seat’s sun visor since I had last seen him, every extremity tingling with excitement. Eight. He had called my grandpa (his dad) a “barmy old coot,” and though I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I began repeating the last word in my head as we drove—coot, coot, coot—like some sort of bird call.

He was taking the highway out of town, which either meant we didn’t have far to go or he just didn’t want to drive on the interstate. I didn’t bother asking. Dad never gave me details about the surprises he had in store when he picked me up, and this was the biggest one yet. He hummed along to the music and I stared through the windshield at the corn fields I’d seen about a million times, my eyes squinty from the sun I couldn’t block out with the visor unless I wanted the feathers to fall to the floor. I was glad when we passed a sign that said “Crane’s Country Store” and Dad pulled off the road.

“Does Grandpa work here?” I asked despite myself. Mom and I had driven past the store so often I’d forgotten it was there, but I’d never been inside.

Dad laughed. “No, your crazy grandpa works at a screw factory. He doesn’t get off work till four. I have something I want to show you before then.”

The store smelled strange, like minty cleaning solution mixed with cigarette smoke. My dad led me past shelved non-perishable foods, refrigerated drinks, and racks of utility pants and camouflage t-shirts, to where a case of gleaming guns stood against the back wall.

“You want to show me those?”

He shook his head. “Look on the wall. The birds.”

I looked. About a foot above the display case, dwarfed by the frozen faces of a buck, a coyote, and a fox, were the tiny bodies of three stuffed birds. I looked closer at the first one.

“It’s just a cardinal!” Mom and I saw ones like it in our yard sometimes, bright feathers like a skinned knee, a red so shocking I couldn’t have forgotten the bird if I’d tried. It seemed too common for anyone to care enough to mount one on a wall, though.

“Not just a cardinal,” Dad said. “It’s Cardinalis cardinalis.” He pointed at the wooden board the bird stood on, where the foreign words were engraved on a small bronze plaque.

“Why the same name twice? Isn’t that kinda cocky of it?”

“Come on, Bree,” Dad groaned, and he didn’t seem to be joking like I had been, so I shifted my gaze to the blue jay directly beside the cardinal.

“How do you say its name?”

Cyanocitta cristata.” He made the ‘t’s sound like the click of fine china, the kind I imagined grandmas would have in a tea set, porcelain as blue as the wings of the bird in front of me. I knew the jay’s call in real life sounded less fancy, more like a grandma yelling at you for something silly like walking through one of her flower beds, or at least that’s what I assumed. Both of my grandmas had died before I was born, Dad’s mom only a month before Mom had me twelve years ago. Until today, I’d only really known one grandparent, my Grandpa Ben, who visited Mom and me every other Christmas.

Dad gestured to the right of the blue jay. “Colaptes auratus is my favorite.”

Unlike the other birds, the last one was displayed in full flight, and I could see why: The undersides of its wings and tail feathers were the yellow of clustered dandelions and mustard on a summer hotdog. And its first name, which sounded to me like collapse, reminded me of the fragile yolk of a sunny-side-up egg and how easy it was to miss a sunset, the way Mom often did when she came home from work half an hour too late even though she’d promised me we’d watch it from the porch. I was unsurprised when my dad told me the bird’s English name was Flicker.

I stayed there, looking at the way the fluorescent light bounced off its golden feathers until he offered to buy me a slushie (flavor of my choice) because “it’s not every Sunday you get to meet your grandpa.”

Back in the car, he pulled the flicker feathers out from behind my sun visor and handed them to me. “For you,” he said. “So you can start being a feather collector like your old man.”

I paused. “Did you…”

“No, no—I found these on the ground. Feathers are like eyelashes: they don’t count unless you find them by accident. And I didn’t shoot the birds in there, if you’re wondering. I just noticed them one day and thought they were too pretty not to share with you.”

I looked at the feathers in my hands, trying to imagine how good it would feel to find one myself.

“Show them to your grandpa when you see him—he likes feathers, too.” Dad started backing up the car. “Just don’t be too hyper. I think you’re old enough to deal with him now, but like I said, he’s a crazy coot.”

I nodded, giving him what I hoped was a grown-up smile, but as we drove, the chorus of coot, coot, coot began again inside my head. If I were a word collector, I decided, I’d want that one first and foremost. I wondered if it was worrisome that the same word that was a warning bell to Dad was a sound I would follow into a forest without even the promise of a dropped feather.