Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bird of Paradise

Professor Smith glanced out the window of his second floor study, staring at the bleak and icy landscape, where birds, usually  smaller starlings,    infrequently scrambled through the air like they were  desperately looking for a hole in time to escape from the cold.  In spite of global warming, the  winter had been very cold. He was used to the cold, because of the clunker of a furnace. But the  cold this winter was  record breaking. The curtainless window he looked out was a little frosted, and the outside storm window would not come all the way down. His landlord Charley had said he would fix it months ago but there it was,  still stuck six inches from closing, as if it had been  welded there by some malicious prankster. He  was wearing the same  old Mackinaw he had worn when he lived in New Hampshire, and he wore gloves too, with the tips of the fingers cut off to enable him to type. If he hadn’t finally stopped drinking ten years ago, he would have drunk a whiskey to warm him up.
He was sitting at his computer on Christmas Day typing up a lecture on the philosophical implications of  relativity that he would deliver on the first class of  his philosophy 302  course next semester. He wanted to help students come to terms with the grand illusions of time and space instead of falling between them and getting  ground down in despair. It would be  the first and last lecture he would ever give on the subject. Christmas was Professor Smith’s unfavorite holiday. He had spent the first eight years  of his life in a Catholic orphanage where he was teased about his dark complexion, especially after he was cast in a Christmas pageant as one of the Three Wise Men, Baltasar, who was supposed to be from Africa.
He was teaching at the bottom of the academic food chain in a black college in Tennessee. Many years before, he had started out teaching in an exclusive women’s college in New Hampshire, then moved on to a state university in  California. Next he went to a private university in Minnesota, and then spent  then several years in Florida, finally ending up in the  hard-scrabble black college in Appalachia. But  he had never gained tenure in any of them, in spite of having an Ivy League Ph.D. because he had made no effort to hide his atheism or refrain from lecturing and speaking  out on controversial issues like abortion, communism, climate warming, same sex marriage, and the “n” and “c” words, nigger and cunt, on which he had devoted a whole class in the woman’s college in New England to at the beginning of his checkered career because he wanted them to understand the provisional role of meaning in language and  that they didn’t have to be trapped in the hateful stigma that somebody else attached to a word.
He had explained to the well-bred young women that the word   nigger was derived from “niggra,” which was the way Southern whites pronounced Negro, and niggra  had morphed into the racist epithet “nigger.”  But  all  of these words were  derived ultimately and innocently from niger, the Latin word for the color black. The Latin niger was also the root for the names of the African countries Niger and Nigeria and for the river Niger,  and the word cunt was derived from another perfectly respectable Latin noun cuneus, meaning a wedge, or a wedge shaped stone, the kind of stone that was used as a writing instrument on the of clay tablet writing known as cuneiform, one of the earliest of written languages. “There’s nothing  embarrassing  about having an etymological link to one of the earliest written languages; in fact, there is  something ennobling about it,”  he had explained to the young women, trying to raise their consciousness  about language, “just as there is something majestic about the mighty Niger River, whose relatively clear water  flows 2600 miles through western Africa.”
But before he was through with his lecture,  the only  black girl in  the class, a bright inner city scholarship student,  picked up her books and said, “I’m not a nigger and I’m not a cunt,” and walked out of the class straight down to the office of the dean of students, who was herself a black female.That was at the beginning of his career and now he was approaching the end.  He  had moved on from etymology to physics, and was tackling relativity, and explaining the difference between the way Newton and Einstein understood space and time.
“The Newtonian world we live in,  the world of space and time, is  an illusion,”  he would explain to them, without getting into the math of it, which was Greek to him anyway. But imagination was more important than math in understanding relativity—that was what Einstein had said. Einstein  admitted he wasn’t the greatest genius with numbers but he had imagination.  Einstein was “out of it,”  both professionally and personally, a daydreamer, an also-ran, working at a dull job at the patent office, which turned out to be the best place for him, better than any Oxford or Cambridge.  Just as a whaling ship had been for Melville, the patent office was Einstein’s Harvard and Yale.  It was precisely because he was out of it, that he had a different perspective on  things, on  telescopes and clocks, on  the trains and schedules. The Swiss made the trains run on time, even if they didn’t know where they were going, relatively speaking. Without the blinders of conventional wisdom, out of the publish and perish rut of academic life, Einstein  was able to take out a patent on relativity, leaving reality to Newtonians.
Just as  Einstein had glanced out the window of the patent office in Switzerland, the professor sat at his computer in Tennessee, stopping for a  moment of reflection, taking a break from the curvature of the universe.  He thought of Africa and the mighty Niger rolling on  tropically and topically through the green jungle until it spilled into the Niger Delta, as massive as eternity, with its many millions of birds of every color and  description.  He had saved enough money to take a trip to Africa, which he had never been to before.
 Thinking of Africa reminded him of his African-American neighbors, a couple of older strange birds,  the odd black couple and their two dogs who lived in the drab shingled house down the road with the smoke curling out of their  old chimney, as if the record cold was not letting the smoke amount to anything more than  a wisp before it dissolved almost immediately into the freezing gray day, without a trace. It was quite a contrast to the summer,  when Buddy, the nosey one of the pair,  sat in the rocker on their  front porch with binoculars in his lap, as if he was waiting for something  strange and beautiful to appear in the distant Smokey Mountains.
Professor Smith got back to relativity and the challenge of living without absolutes, without god and the other consoling illusions, without words indissolubly fixed  to what they stood for, without the need of faith in anything but himself. He stared at what he had so far written.  His lecture  was getting so  abstract that he could see his students yawning and stealing glances at the clock on the wall over his head. In spite of  the incredible speed of light, there was always a gap. The time they would see on the clock was an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the fact,  just as the faintest star in the sky is millions of light years in the past, and might not be there now at all.   He imagined his black students wondering, “Is  that what they teach white students in the Ivy League?”
Suddenly, there was the sound of wings flapping furiously, startling him. He looked at the top of the window, where a starling was trapped between the regular window and the storm window.  It had entered through the six inch space at the bottom and didn’t know enough to just go  down and exit the same way it had entered. Being a bird its instinct was to go up not down, and a hundred and sixty millions years of  escaping  by flying upwards was not going to get reversed. To escape, it  was programmed to fly up.   He stood  up and approached the window, which panicked the pootr bird even more. How was he going to help it escape? What would Einstein do in a situation like this? Or Newton? An idea occurred to him. If he got above the bird  maybe he could frighten it downward. He took the chair he had been sitting in and dragged it to the window. Standing on it, he held his arms out as if he was huge predatory bird, and made faces like Frankenstein, producing  groaning sounds.  He frightened the bird so much that it crapped on the window, but instead of going down, it tried even  more frantically to go up. He began rapping on the window as if he was trying to hit it, but the bird would not go down. He got off the chair and tried raising the storm window, as he had tried many times before, but it wouldn’t  budge. If he was bigger and stronger, maybe he could have raised it, but he was short and slight, weighing only 140 pounds. He decided to stay still, because the bird might injure itself and be unable to fly. A flightless starling was like a horse with a broken life. Without being aware of it, he was completely identified with the trapped bird. He shared its predicament and its panic. He felt he would be haunted if the bird died. He had an impulse to smash the window but the bird might be fatally wounded  by flying glass while his study would be as cold as Alaska.  
The phone in his bedroom rang. He wondered who that  could be. Somebody calling to wish him merry Christmas? The few acquaintances  he had would know  better than that. He went in the bedroom answered the phone.
 “Professor Smith?”
“Uh-huh,” he replied, not recognizing the voice.
“This is Buddy.”
“Buddy Bailey.” Buddy was always sticking his nose in other people’s business, which is why he got the nickname “Butt-in Bailey.”
“Oh, hi. What can I do for you?” he asked, wondering why he of all people would be calling. He could  not recall him ever calling before.
“Are you all right?” Buddy asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I saw you in the window waving your arms, like you was maybe trying to attract someone’s attention. Or somethin’.”
“You could see me?”
“Of course. With my binoculars,” he said. 
“Oh, right,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to attract attention. There’s a bird trapped inside  my storm window and I was trying to get it out.”
“A bird trapped in your window?” There was a touch of skepticism in his voice.
“That’s right,” he said
“A bird you said?”
“A bird? You’re sure it’s a bird?
“What color is it?”
“Black?” he repeated.
“You’re sure it’s not a bat.”
“It’s not a bat. It’s a small bird. I think it’s a starling.”
 “Franklin,” he called. “The professor’s got a bird trapped in his window.” The professor heard Franklin answer,  but he couldn’t make out what he said.
“No, he’s sure it’s not a bat,” Buddy answered  Franklin, who was probably in another room.  “You see, professor,” Buddy  said, “we once had a bat in the house. Franklin opened the door to shoo him out, but before he shooed  he bit Franklin on the ear. He had to have a rabid shot.” He could not make out what Franklin was saying from the other room.
 “Franklin says he’ll come over, if you wants help.”
“OK,” the professor said. “I would appreciate it.”
“ Franklin says he’ll be over as soon as he gets some clothes on.”
While the professor waited for Franklin to ring the doorbell downstairs,  he tiptoed to the doorway of his study and leaned his head in. The bird, clinging somehow to the top of the storm window,  was motionless, except for its heaving  little breast.  Edging in further, the professor was surprised  to see another starling standing on the window ledge, looking up with a cocked head  at his trapped counterpart. They looked so much alike, they could have been twins. The professor wondered just how they  might be related to each other.
When  he opened the front door fifteen minutes later to let the burly, bundled up good Samaritan in, he was  carrying a small red metal toolbox. By way of a greeting, he asked the professor  with a wink, “Cold enough for you?”
They went upstairs, where Franklin  took a can of WD-40 out of his tool box and sprayed  the storm window where it needed  lubrication, sending the starling into another tizzy. “Let’s let that soak in for a couple of minutes,” he said, though he really meant for a couple seconds, just long enough for him to remark,  “This stuff works miracles.”  
 Then with his large hairy hands, he forcefully lifted up the lower storm window just high enough so that he could pull down the top storm window about six inches.
Within seconds, the starling was out the window and winging its way upwards with astonishing speed, considering the energy it must have already used up trying to escape.
“Like a bat out of hell,” Franklin said.
To the astonished professor, whose heart was beating fast, the starling seemed  more like a bird of paradise than a bat.
In a matter of seconds it was just a black dot disappearing into the gray sky. The professor was not sure there wasn’t another little dot just behind  the first one.
Snapping shut his little toolbox, Franklin asked “Where do you suppose it’s off to?”
“Maybe the  Niger Delta,” the professor  answered.
“Where’s that,” Franklin asked.
“It’s in my imagination,” he answered.
“I bet this  is a Christmas it’ll never forget,” Franklin said.
“And it’s one I won’t either,” the professor said, shaking Franklin’s extended  hand while glancing at the clock on the wall,  wondering how many minutes or maybe hours, or even longer, it would be before he would  be in the frame of mind to tackle relativity again. From the window,  not thinking about gaps in time or the curvature of space but about the good deed he, Franklin, and the WD-40 had accomplished, he watched the Good Samaritan trudge back through the snow to the old house with wisps of smoke coming out of the chimney.