“Your Bruce Jenner shirt,” my wife says, “is on the ironing board downstairs.”
It’s a Thursday morning in Coronavirus time. We’re having coffee in the kitchen. Later today I’ll go to the grocery store, an outing that used to occur daily. Now I go once a week, if that. For these trips, along with gloves and mask, I wear clothing I don’t care about, shirt and pants that might accidentally rub up against virus and will need to be washed right away. I’ll have to strip to my shorts in the garage before my wife lets me back in the house.
“Look at those fatties,” I say, pointing to the goldfinches perched outside the kitchen window. “They’ve emptied the feeder again.”
“Wear your crummy old jeans, too,” she says.
They’re crummy, all right–lawnmower jeans washed almost white, holes worn in the knees, a size too big that once fit my former, slightly fatter self. Standing in produce, I’ll look like a hobo.
It used to be squirrels, those acrobat rats, that emptied our feeders. Now it’s finches, the gold and house variety. We’ve had more traffic on the feeder than ever before, to the point I’ve begun to suspect the goldfinches might be gaining weight. I imagine them flying with difficulty, slower and lower, so low to the ground they struggle to maintain lift, plowing into the grass occasionally and rolling to a stop in a round yellow blur. They bump into each other, flutter for position on the feeder, a tube 18 inches long, a couple inches in diameter, bright yellow cap and base, with pegs for them to perch on. All day long there’s five or six of them taking turns feeding. They never stop eating.
“I’ll have to make a thistle seed run pretty soon,” I say to my wife. “Maybe stop at Ace today.”
“Do they do curbside pick-up?”
“I wonder if there’s such a thing as lo-cal birdseed,” I say. “You know, for the full-bodied finch?”
“Find out if there’s curbside.”
For a few years after winning a gold medal in the 1976 Summer Olympics, decathlon champ Bruce Jenner was everywhere. In a 2015 look back, the Washington Post describes him as the “buff heartthrob of America’s disco era,” adding, “He lived his life for the cameras.” He was pictured on the Wheaties box, taking a victory lap in Montreal. He launched a line of exercise equipment. In tv commercials he looked into the camera and uttered this tag-line: “I want you . . . to be ALL that you can be!” He screen-tested for the first Superman movie, losing out to Christopher Reeve. He launched a line of clothing.
My wife and I got married around this time. In short order she began to make gentle, helpful observations about my wardrobe.
I came downstairs one day wearing a burgundy banlon shirt.
“I hate that shirt,” she said.
“Banlon,” she said. “I hate your banlon shirts.”
I had three of them–burgundy, navy blue, and white. “But they’re comfortable,” I said.
“Bruce Jenner shirts,” she said. “I wish you wouldn’t wear them.”
“This shirt’s from Gap.”
“It doesn’t matter. Izod, Gap, Nike. Whatever. It’s the look. They’re all Bruce Jenner to me.”
“Don’t you think they accent my boyish charm?”
“No I don’t.”
I was working construction at the time. I flexed a bicep. “Don’t they display my awesome physique?”
“You’re no Bruce Jenner,” she said. “And I’m glad of that.”
Two years in a row, a couple of finches built a nest on our house. Not next to it. On it, precariously clinging to a window ledge. The window looked out from our downstairs half bath. Standing in front of the commode doing my business, with the octagonal window right in front of me, at head level, I watched with interest as these nests took shape. The first year, as soon as the eggs appeared, little light-bluish guys the size of olives, while the parents were away, probably visiting our bird feeder, something got to the eggs before they hatched, a predatory bird or an athletic cat. I watched the abandoned nest for a week or so. I was a parent. I felt sympathy, I felt finch loss, pondering nature “red in tooth and claw.” Eventually I took the nest down and threw it in the trash.
The next year they came back, male and female sitting on the eggs, unfazed by my presence. I wondered if they were the same birds I’d watched nesting the year before, as perhaps they wondered if I was the same guy they’d watched peeing the year before.
After a brief incubation period, all four eggs hatched.
I thought I was in for my own little National Geographic experience. Four or five times a day, when nature called, I visited and observed. Eighteen inches from my face, four little heads rose from the nest, little heads that were essentially all mouth, huge yaps that were perpetually agape.
Featherless, awkward creatures, finches make hideous infants.
Barbara Mackay, a Vermont naturalist, observes in Mountain Times, “One clue to identifying a goldfinch nest is its characteristic squalor. Unlike other birds, goldfinches stop removing fecal sacs after the babies become active, about a week after hatching. Instinctively perhaps, the chicks begin to defecate along the edge of the nest.”
A week after their birth I began to notice this housekeeping problem, what to do about poop. I assumed the young crapped in their nest and the adults, when not conveying food to their offspring, would fling the dung out of the nest. Soon our bathroom window was covered with it.
I looked at them and thought, you guys are disgusting, you crap in your own nest. They must have looked at me and thought the same thing.
Everyone’s in masks at the grocery store. No one talks. We barely look at each other. The mask changes everything. When social distance breaks down, as it usually does when people simply forget themselves, we shove past each other to grab eggs, milk, flour. We are by turns at ease and on edge, mainly just eager to finish and get out of the store.
I stop in front of the cheese counter, grab a chunk of fontina for my wife’s omelets, a tub of mozzarella, then deliberate briefly before placing a burrata in my cart.
I never feel good about buying burrata (from the Italian word for butter). It’s an indulgence, a guilty pleasure, creamy and rich, so soft you can almost drink it. The producer describes it as a cheese that comes with “a delightful surprise of creamy stracciatella that is wrapped inside its delicate mozzarella shell.” Elsewhere I’ve seen the shell referred to as “a purse.” So it’s a cheese that appeals to both the palate and the imagination. With a little olive oil drizzled over it, alongside a slice of tomato, or with a dab of it squashed on a crostino, you have the sensation of ingesting pure, cool, silky milkfat.
I know what my wife will say about it when I get home. You didn’t.
Then she’ll say: I’m glad you did.
Setting the table for lunch, we watch the finches chow down. According to Audubon, their scientific name is spinus tristis.
In addition to seeds they eat cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, blackberries, and figs. Well then: we have these foods in common. Right now a couple males are throwing their weight around, winging the smaller birds off the feeder, hogging the thistle seed. By the looks of them, these boys had pancakes for breakfast.
I remind my wife of how afraid of birds our daughter was. Still is.
“When I was in pre-school back in Italy,” she says, “one day there was a rondine–I think that’s a swallow–that was injured and couldn’t fly. One of the nuns, Suor’Attilia, made a little nest of the hair on top of my head and set the bird there.”
“Attilia,” she says. Uh-TEE-lee-uh.
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“No. I was a feral child.” I try to picture it, my wife with a bird on her head. That was another life, another person.
I unwrap the burrata and lay it on the table.
She asks, “How was the store?”
I tell her I can’t get used to it. It’s nerve wracking. You sort of feel hunted. As of today we’re near 100,000 dead in just a couple months. You think about that.
“Did you leave your clothes by the back door?”
I wore the blue one today. A blue Bruce.
“Just think,” I say. “If I had bought a dozen Bruce Jenner shirts back then, the official ones, not Gap, not Izod, but the real Bruce, I bet they would be collectors items now. People would pay a lot of money for one.”
“You’d be surprised what some people want.”
Spinus tristus. Why tristis? I wonder. The Latin root for sad. Can a bird be sad? Or do they just keep on living? I know how I felt when I found scraps of blue shell on the porch that year.
“What’s his name now?”
It’s Caitlin, I tell her. What sadness he must have felt, through those long decades of decline, not super enough be to be superman, the camera always a little less in love with him. Eventually he became just a guy.
My wife passes me the burrata. “Want some?”
I glance at the feeder. We watch them, they watch us. Looking at us through the window, the finches are like, Really? Are you going to eat that?