Come rain or shine, Walter fed the gods.
On the shit-slick rooftop, right before we’d strap in to drop and hit the windows, he’d open a brown paper bag, pull out a stale slice of Roman Meal, and feed them. Like clockwork. He fed them the way a farmer might feed chickens in a coop—minus the coop, of course—but Walter wasn’t a farmer, just like the pigeons that plagued the rooftop of Saint Michael’s Medical Center weren’t birds. They were Walter’s dark gods, divinity on silver wings, and the reason my Lizzie’s still alive.
“They’re smiling,” Walter said one dreary afternoon.
We’d just finished our lunch break and he was standing near the ledge, looking down at what I assumed was the park below.
“No way you can see their faces, Walt.” He had glasses thicker than glaciers.
A swift breeze belted. Walter teetered, stiff arms twitching a balancing act.
“Not the people,” he said. “The gods.”
He looked over his shoulder and smiled at me, a warm melting smile like he’d just pissed in a pool full of nonbelievers. He jumped down from the ledge, back to the safety of the rooftop. Pigeons swarmed at his feet, cooed franticly when he dumped the last of the crumbs from his bag.
“Call them what you want, Jackson. You see pigeons, I see gods. And gods need to eat.”
It’s not my place to judge. My aunt Carol once thought she’d seen the Virgin Mary in a Funyun ring, kept it in a plastic bag and brought it with her to the Pixie Mart every time she played the numbers. Still has it tacked to her bedroom wall, right next to that winning ticket. That’s what she prayed for. That’s what she got.
But Walter wasn’t the kind of guy who’d pray for something like winning the lottery. I’m sure of it because, the following day, I got to see what he prayed for.
“Why would god—”
“The gods,” he corrected. “Plural, as in many.”
“Okay. Why would the gods ask for stale bread? Why not prime rib or lobster?”
“They have beaks, Jackson.”
“And? You’re saying a couple hundred of them couldn’t get something like that down?”
“Bread is eternal. Flesh fades. Ever hear of manna?”
“Like in the Bible? Biscuits from the sky?”
“Something like that.” He nodded, waded through his gods to the winch where we’d buckle in to drop.
“It’s what they want,” he said. “Nothing fancy, nothing beyond our means. Just bread. It’s the least we can do, right?”
He locked his harness in, tugged the cord taut, leaned back, planted his feet on the ledge near the face of the building.
“Like a tithe—ten percent, or something along those lines.” I’d been to church before.
He squared himself on the scaffold.
“No, Jackson. They can’t eat money.”
“If they’re gods, why do they need food in the first place? And couldn’t god…” His face soured. “…the gods, have sent something better than bread? Beefsteak; there were cows back in those days, right?”
“Those days? Those days are now. Only instead of one god, we have thousands.”
Walter gazed at the pigeons as they plucked up the last of his crumbs—his Roman Meal manna. He waved to them, actually waved. Thank you and come again.
“You feed your gods whatever you want, Jackson—crackers and wine. But don’t expect anything in return. These gods, when I feed them what they want, give back to me.”
“We’re window washers, Walter. Gods don’t give a shit about visibility.”
“Sure are,” he said. “The closest we’ll ever get to heaven is up here washing these windows. Listen, I need a solid from you.” His soft farewell demeanor faded into something serious. I locked in beside him, stepped onto the scaffold.
“Sure. What do you need?” I figured he was going to ask me to cover for him the following week. He’d been talking about taking a trip soon.
“I need you to feed the gods tomorrow.”
“Yup. Bring some bread.”
He lowered us down and looked up at a jet stream slashed across the sky.
“It’s the least you can do, right?” he said.
Walter’s life insurance policy paid in full, got his wife and three kids out of the slums and into the suburbs. They wouldn’t have paid if he’d jumped or accidentally been blown off the ledge while feeding those fucking birds. Part of our contract. This he knew.
First thing after his shift was over, the day the gods smiled at him from the park below, he bought a plane ticket on a flight that crashed two minutes after takeoff. The gods brought it down, stuffed the engines full of feathers and bones—I know they did.
I wasn’t aware of Walter’s secret flight until Monday when I showed up at Saint Michael’s with a headache pounding like a bass drum. His death would have shocked me, put me at the bottom of a bottle for a few days, if I hadn’t already expected it. I’d seen the fire in the sky before it happened, you see, red feathers and steel reflected in a dozen tinted windows, when I’d fed the gods on Saturday morning. Just like Walter had asked.
Well, almost like Walter had asked.
Truth be told, I let them starve.
There’s a chapel on the first floor of Saint Michael’s where I’d pray. Not for insurance payouts or lotto numbers—nothing like that. I prayed for Lizzie. Still do, sometimes.
Susan had a tough go at it, eight long months and pushing. Month six, she fell.
I’d seen the water pool underneath the dishwasher door from a leaky rinse cycle or a dog dish accidentally kicked, spilled onto the linoleum. She was spreading mayo on white when it happened, ended up racing her to Saint Michael’s right away. It was a Saturday, if I remember correctly.
Water and slips aside, the candlelight in the chapel is what caught my attention, got me to pray to the wrong kind of god until I found the right ones. Just fire, everyone has access to it even if you don’t smoke. But inside a building, it’s special. Inside a building, fire means control. Or it means someone likes to watch buildings burn. Not likely.
Not on the Saturday afternoon Susan and I almost lost Lizzie. This was before Walter had taken a dive. One week before I began to feed the gods like he’d asked me to. Plus or minus a couple of days—a couple slices of heaven.
Long after I’d prayed my heart out in that chapel.
The doctors said Lizzie was just a heartbeat after Susan’s fall. Static. Background. White noise.
“Give it the weekend,” I said to her.
Her doctor didn’t.
I took her home. Cleaned the kitchen, making sure to sop up the pool of water she’d slipped in. I rubbed her ankles, fed her toast—nothing heavy—and took the L-train to Saint Michael’s to work.
The bread, I forgot.
I was halfway down the face of Saint Michael’s when I saw Walter’s flight explode, the image from the day before burning in the back of my brain like an old roll of celluloid film across the tinted windows.
It might be déjà vu, I remember thinking, some strange subconscious ripple of the Challenger overlapped with about a dozen action flicks I’d seen—Die Hard, maybe 9/11 in there somewhere. I hadn’t even considered that Walter might be onboard, that his last thoughts might have been about how he’d never have to clean up bird shit again, that his prayers had been answered, and that the gods would continue to be fed by his old buddy Jackson.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
And something he might have seen out the window were the pigeons in the park below, the ones he said had smiled at him, frowning. Not because Walter was dead—or on his way to dead at the time—but because they were hungry.
I recognize that hunger now, see it all the time.
Sundays are dirty-window days. Nothing gets washed. Thank god—singular—for that.
So when I showed up to work on Monday, ready to train the new guy, Pete, I think his name was, there was a whole lot of scraping to do.
You can’t take it personal. It’s not like those pigeons eat any more on Sundays than they do on Mondays, but, on this particular Monday, two days after Walter took a dive, it felt like they’d saved up every drop of white acrylic just for me.
“Does it look this bad every Monday?” Pete said. He slipped around, hands and boots smeared like a toothpaste accident already.
They rose up around us in a charcoal sheet, a wall of pigeons perched on all four sides.
No cooing, just beady black eyes.
I should have brought bread, that simple, that easy to fix—to stop what Walter had started right then and there. But Pete wouldn’t let up, and my prayers weren’t answered yet.
“Meat bags,” he said, “you know what new boots cost?” Then anger-swiped a row of them with his hand.
I said, “Cut it out, Pete,” tried to get him up to speed on the winch, how to strap in and safety measures and such, back to work, but he just kept swatting, thumping the fat part of his palm over their stubborn little heads like bowling pins.
He grabbed his grub pail, one of those heavy metal jobs that can crack a jaw, and hammered one of them. It didn’t move, just went from puffy regal chest and feathers to Susan’s special meatloaf sauce, real bright red and sweet.
Pete laughed about three seconds before that black sheet covered him.
Pigeon gods don’t play, and when I say they covered Pete like a sheet, it sounds kind of nice, kind of sweet, like he was being tucked gently into bed, forehead kisses and all, but what I really mean is that they covered him like pitch. Roof pitch, pitch dark, a quilt of nightmares in a daydream. Jesus, it was glorious.
The candle in the chapel must have went out that very second.
Pete’s death dance spanned the entire rooftop. He spun wildly, raked at his face, did the electric boogaloo—the slide—until his final Black Swan moment. Not the dive part, because then the gods would have to fly all the way down to the street where he’d land, but the giving up the ghost part, minus that stupid mattress and the pretty pirouette.
No, Pete died, pecked to death, in a pile of god shit.
Those were Walter’s gods and they’d been good to him. He’d been good to me, and who the fuck was this Pete guy pounding Walter’s gods? I figured they’d be good to me, too, if I just let them eat in peace.
Bread alone was enough in Walter’s case. But for me, not so much. My prayer required something more. Something inexhaustible.
Pete was just an appetizer.
Lizzie’s static, her white-noise heartbeat, got stronger after Pete was picked apart.
And then there was George, the next washer in line. He made it all the way to lunch break—and damn were those chicken fingers he had delicious—before a dive-bomb crew, a pantheon of Walter’s gods, caught him right between the eyes, knocked him silly on the scaffold, laid him out flat for breakfast, all except the parsley part. Gods don’t garnish.
Then Glen and Beth and John and the list goes on and on. Worms and morning dew.
My boss Edwardo was getting suspicious, and Lizzie was getting stronger, and Susan was really happy for that, but the rooftop of Saint Michael’s Medical Center was red instead of white now, a different kind of slick.
This went on for weeks until Edwardo transferred me across the street to a shorter building—a bank with only five floors of windows to wash. I was a hazard, a never-ending hazing ritual that always ended in death. I was that thing that leads you down into the basement.
And also, I began to miss Walter.
I began to wonder if my prayer was wrong. That I should have prayed to win the lottery instead and just let nature take its course, take that white-noise static and just crank up the volume to eleven until I was deaf and couldn’t hear that heart-inside-a-jello-mold sound anymore—that primal throb.
But you know why pigeon gods are vicious—why they do all that killing and never seem to find their fill? They do it for the squabs.
Lizzie’s fine now, thank the gods, and I finally fixed that leak under the dishwasher door. No more slipping, even at work where I wash the windows solo now, eat my lunch alone then race home to make sure the gods get properly fed. It’s not bread anymore, not like Walter had said, I can tell you that much.
The part I left out—well, didn’t leave out but completely forgot to take into consideration—about Walter’s answered prayer is that he paid a price. He gave back to those black beady eyes with his life. Bread was just a cover up, a thick layer of white lies to keep him sane. Really, Walter was a pretty sick puppy, but he did it for the squabs.
Susan left—should have seen that one coming. I’m sure she’ll never forgive me.
Her bags were always ready, though, lined up right next to the front door like pearly coffins in a parlor, and she was always on the phone with her sister, whispering, sobbing, and I could never get her to look me in the eyes, even for a second.
I don’t blame her, I gave up on that train as soon as Lizzie was born, all healthy and viscid and ready, someday, to leave the nest. It could be that Susan felt like I violated her, and I think I did. From the inside, hands-off like, through the power of prayer. Or it might just be because of all the bandages I wear, all the rolls of gauze, and band-aides, all the bloody wounds and tears that never have time to scab over, not with Lizzie growing so fast.
It’s breakfast time: toast and butter for me…and flesh that fades.
I hear Lizzie on the roof.
She’ll never be the kind of girl that likes skyscrapers or parks. She’s a homebody.
My fucking ribs are killing me. She likes the same spot for some reason, an inch or two below my nipple. I step outside, lift my shirt, and pretend to smile, cringing inside.
Her shadow looms; she spreads her wings and they blow the leaves clean of the yard. Her chores are done, at least.
Then her beak snapping, always the hungry spitfire wanting the worm. Wanting the flesh. She coos frantically, tears into me.
It’s the least I can do, right?
S. H. Mansouri is an MFA student at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert, and a writer of all things fiction. You can find his current work in the new anthology The Internet is Where the Robots Live Now by Paperdog Books and upcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash
Published December 13th, 2018