An Owl Story

Or, are you my father? 


On the way home from Macy’s, I stopped in the middle of Herald Square to take a picture of an owl. Macy’s had a special for the holidays. It was open on December 23rd all night long. Such a hoot. There was something about this owl, a bronze sculpture sitting atop a pedestal, that called to me. My father had always loved owls. I would take a picture of the owl and post the picture on Facebook. It was three in the morning.

I liked being out at three in the morning.

I had enjoyed doing my Christmas shopping in the middle of the night. I realized at a certain point that I was wearing one grey sock and one striped sock. It didn’t matter because this was New York City, the best city in the world. I bought myself new socks, purple cashmere and expensive. I bought my husband Jarvis a cashmere sweater, also purple. We both like purple. We are happily married. I bought my daughter Addison red leather gloves and a brown mascara because the salesgirl told me that brown was better than black. I also bought her a pair of dangling earrings. Addison did not have enough pretty things and sometimes, I worried about her. That people would mistake her for being gay. I bought my 92-year-old mother some good perfume to dab on her wrists. My mother never smelled very good and I had to stop myself from wincing when I kissed her goodbye earlier that day at the nursing home. It felt like a good omen, now, to find this owl. I had lived in New York City my whole life and never noticed it before.

Click.

I would make my Facebook post later, when I was back at home. I put my cellphone back into my purse and gently patted my Macy’s bag. I was pleased with my purchases. Who said it was a bad idea to wait to the last minute — and it wasn’t the last minute. Again, I was pleased with myself.

“Consumer goods,” the owl said.

The bronze owl sculpture on the pedestal.

“What?”

“Shopping,” the owl said, his disdain clear, “does not count as an accomplishment.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “I think it does. I just did all of my Christmas shopping.”

A talking owl. Okay. Why not? I shrugged. This was, of course, New York City. Unusual things happened all the time. I had left the city to go to college in Vermont, perhaps the biggest mistake of my entire life. I came home after graduating and have never left. My father was a famous writer, but he had died two years ago. Now I could not go to Christmas parties at his wonderful apartment, and bask in his larger than life presence. His wonderful Park Avenue apartment had been sold, the money divided up among my siblings. Now, I didn’t have Christmas dinner with my father and the woman he was then married to.

I did not go to the theater with my father anymore. Or to expensive restaurants. I would never be his plus one at one of the many literary awards ceremonies he attended. My life had been greatly diminished since his death. I did not know who I was anymore. I had become an ordinary person. I had inherited my father’s nose — bulbous, ugly, handsome only on a man. But I was not a good writer. Not like him. I was not even a passable writer, because if I was, someone would have published my work simply because I was the daughter of such a famous writer.

Still, I loved New York. At least I had that.

I did not think the owl had any right to insult me. Diminish my pleasure. I could go shopping in the middle of the night because Macy’s was open and I could walk safely from Macy’s to my apartment in the Village. I had always loved to walk in New York City at night.

“You are not safe,” the owl hooted. “You’ve just gotten lucky. That’s all.”

“You can read my mind? Is that it?”

“No, you poor child,” the owl hooted. “I can’t read your mind. I am your father. I know you. I know everything about you. Every last insipid thought.”

“Daddy,” I said softly.

I wondered if my father knew that I was wearing mismatching socks. This was something that would bother my father. He was a fastidious man. He was immensely attractive to women. He had married five times. I sometimes forgot the name of my recent stepmother. Annabelle. Or Edison. Or maybe Agatha. I did not particularly like her.

My father was always frustrated with me. The last thing he had said to me from his hospital bed was: “Can’t you do something with your hair?”

“I inherited your genes, Dad,” I said to the bronze owl. “I wish I looked like Mom. I really do. I would do anything.”

My mother was a tall lanky blond; my father used to call her his Greta Garbo. He had also beaten my mother once in a fit of jealous passion, a beating so bad that he had broken my mother’s nose and three ribs. The police had come. She had not pressed charges. They had divorced. Now my mother drooled and could only eat liquid food.

“You hair looks good, sweetheart,” the owl said. “I wish you would forget what I said. I was in a foul mood. I was dying. You are a beautiful woman.”

“Oh, Daddy.” I felt the tears run down my cheeks. It was another thing I loved about New York City. You could cry in public and nobody cared. You could talk to an owl and that was okay, too.

“Hey, Lady,” a black man with a shopping card said, stopping next to me. “You be talking to an owl.”

I blushed.

Like me, this man had shopping bags from Macy’s. His cart was full of them, crumpled bags stuffed with old clothes. Bedding. I looked down at my purchases. I couldn’t give him my husband’s cashmere sweater. It was the only present I had gotten for him. Jarvis was nothing compared to my father, he had no spark, no imagination, but he was my husband. He worked in an office. “Not everyone can be like you,” I told my father.

“Would you like to have five dollars?” I asked the homeless man.

“God bless you,” he said.

I know this is shameful, but I felt wonderful, knowing that I was going to give this man money, money that he clearly needed. Not a handful of change, more than a dollar. Five. That was generous. I felt as if I deserved to be on this Earth, to live in New York City, in an apartment my husband and I could never afford if my father had not given us the money.

My father had given me money over the years. It wasn’t a ton of money. As he liked to say, he was no Stephen King. My father had great animosity towards Stephen King, which grew even stronger when they met at an awards ceremony. King was beyond gracious, almost obsequious, praising my father’s books. My father was rich but he had never achieved a Stephen King sort of wealth or fame, a fact that made him rueful.

My father had had many wives, and therefore, many children. I was not the most accomplished, but sometimes, I liked to believe that did not matter. Two of my brothers were published writers. They were talented, respected, though not as good as my father. They were in fierce competition with my father, but me, I just wanted to love him.

I took my wallet from my coat pocket to give the homeless man the money I had promised.

“That is exactly what I was saying,” the owl hooted.

Did he sound like my father? I didn’t know. His beak appeared to be closed. The simplest explanation was that I was imagining things.

“It would have been so easy to pickpocket you tonight in Macy’s, my darling child. You never think.”

“But I wasn’t robbed, Dad. My wallet is right here. Look.”

I held it up for the owl to see, and then, I realized how stupid this was — how easy it would be for this homeless man to take my wallet and run. Or he could hurt me. The park, I noticed, was empty. It was three in the morning.

“You are talking to the owl again,” the homeless man said.

“Oh my,” I said. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

“There is medication,” the homeless man said. “I am on some medication. It stopped all the voices. It be good.”

“I don’t need medication,” I said.

“Oh, yes you do,” the owl hooted. “Hoo hoo.”

A clocked chimed. I had to get home. My husband would worry about me. But more likely, my husband would be asleep. My husband snored loudly. Jarvis was a good man, a kind man, but he was nothing compared to my father. He never had been. It must also be noted that he would never beat me in a fit of jealous rage, throwing me down a flight of stairs, making me fear for my life.

Sometimes, I wondered, if my mother’s dementia, if it was connected to all of those blows to her head.

I opened my wallet. I had only two singles and a ten. I had promised the man five. I certainly could not ask him for change. My husband would be upset with me if I knew I gave the homeless man ten dollars. He thought that I was not prudent with money. He explained that I lived as if my father were still alive to bail me out.

Ten dollars. I had no choice. He might spend the money on drugs. But drugs were good. The drugs stopped the voices in his head. I could go to a doctor. I could get drugs, too.

“You have always been careless,” the owl hooted.

“And you have always been critical,” I said.

It was time to go home. I gave the homeless man the ten-dollar bill. His hand was wrinkled, warm.

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

I put the wallet back into my coat pocket and then patted my pocket to make sure it was secure. I looked back up at the owl sculpture. That’s all it was. A sculpture made of bronze, sitting on a piece of carved stone. The owl was not talking to me. I wasn’t losing my mind. I was tired. It was the middle of the night. I missed my father. I missed him more and more every day. Next year, I told myself, I would get my shopping done earlier. I would stay away from Macy’s. I did not say good-bye to the owl. I couldn’t do it. It would be like saying good-bye to my father, and I never wanted to do that again. I started walking home.

I was almost out of Herald Square when I realized that there were footsteps right behind me, the squeaks and creaks of the homeless man’s shopping cart. I breathed deep. Okay, so I was going to get mugged. I had not been mugged since I was fifteen-years-old, making out with a boy in Central Park. I had had good luck living in New York City. I loved New York. I was a New Yorker, thick and thin.

I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I stopped in my tracks. I know it was stupid, but I did not run.

“Yes?” I asked the homeless man.

I did not think the money would help him, I did not think it would change his life, but still. I was trying to be kind.

“I have your change,” he said, handing me three dollar bills, two quarters, eleven dimes, a nickel, and thirty-five pennies.

“You dear man,” I said.

“God loves you,” he said, pushing his shopping cart filled with Macy’s bags in the other direction.

I closed my eyes.

“Daddy?” I said.

But the owl was quiet.

It started to snow.

The snowflakes were tears of joy. God loved me. I had prayed to him and he had answered my prayers. Maybe I did need medication. The snowflakes landed in my bushy hair and I did not wipe them away.