American Songbirds

A short story about First World Problems and being confused/disillusioned about this whole “American Dream” thing

When they shop for their future from the gubernatorial seats of their leased Toyota Camry, they say that Pleasant Street is nice, don’t you think?

Father holds on by the steering wheel at ten and two o’ clock — I’m sure his grip is sweaty. He swings his gaze left and right and left again, with the dependability of a grandfather clock.

Exactly every 0.2 miles we approach another street. Mother’s voice lifts, sings, and squeaks as she announces the name of this street and the addresses of its purchasable homes: “Oh! Twenty-One Pleasant Street, Keatsville, Illinois! Doesn’t it just have a nice ring to it? Say it with me, Taylor.”

“Twenty-One Pleasant Street,” I drone from a comfortable distance in the back seat, which is uncomfortable because the poorly designed headrest is pushing my chin down to my collar-bone, plus sweat crawls down my arms underneath my sweatshirt, because it’s too cold to open these windows even though the sunlight is strong enough to make us into sweaty little ants through a patented magnifying glass called a Sunroof.

Confession: I’m scared. I feel alone because this place is new, and I feel exposed because this place is flat. Right now I’m listening this Eminem song called “Brain Damage”, where he raps about changing schools every three months and getting bullied just for being the new kid. And this time I’m about to be the new kid. This time it’s physically impossible for my friends from Farmington, Maine to “be there”.

Now, people talk a lot about how your best friends are there for you in the hardest times. What they don’t talk about is how important it is to have friends that are there for you in the good times. Who’s going to surprise you on your birthday? Who’s going to listen to you blab about the exciting new boy you met? Who’s going to go to the gym with you, spot you on the bench press, and scream “You’re better than this!” when they catch you skipping leg day? In short, who’s going to love you enough to demand that you make the best of yourself even when you don’t? Who’s got your back?

I feel cheated. Cheated out of the chance to cross the finish line with those same human teammates who’ve been saying “I’ve got your back,” for twelve years now. I’ll never know what it feels like to make it out with everybody alive, and then realize that this was just the beginning, and from now on every day is my choice.

I know I sound like just another bitter unappreciative teenager, brainwashed by rock and rap, and maybe I should just post this on Tumblr, but look, mostly I’m confused. I’m concerned that my family’s reason for moving to the Midwest might be entirely bullshit, a product of a very American desire to gain elusive stuff that they won’t want anymore once they have it.

Hefting my baggage off my lap, I scrunch my face grotesquely into invisible windows, which are lenses into middle-class America.

All around, proud lawns bear stripes from recent mowing. The sidewalks are bare, excepting the occasional leaf. Here and there a black or brown person wields a hedge-trimmer, weed-whacker, or leaf-blower. Mom says that “just like in Chicago” Keatsville plants the American Sweetgum, the American Basswood, and the American Patriot Elm, and other stuff2 too. Songbirds flit from branch to branch like notes transversing versing a musical staff. Through sealed car windows I discern the muffled screams of far-off landscaping machines. In the silences between revving engines, I hear the birds still singing, and I’m thinking how life would be so much easier if they cared to share what they’re so happy about.

Mom’s excited now because we’ve spotted a party in someone’s front yard. Over the din of hedge-trimmers we hear a large PA system wielded by a Top-40 Pop DJ. Young people hold red Solo cups with one hand and point at the sky with the other. When we slow down to taste their joy, I feel the pulsating bass in my chest. A banner strung between two American Patriot Elms in the front yard of the modest cape says “David — Congratulations on your BMW!”

Suddenly, the crack of thunder. And then the pulsating bass drum counts down. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four, and rain. Torrential rain. A downpour. Rain- ing cats and dogs.

The adults are shouting: the DJ panics, unplugging his speakers with a massive pop and rushing to cover his equipment; a man shouts with frustration because the grill is out and the sandwich rolls are soggy.

The kids are shouting: isn’t this mud-puddle fun, you’re It, got c’yer nose, go get the frisbee, Snoopy!

Those smart-ass birds are singing.

Even though I’m scared and concerned, I’m mostly confused, and the more I write and think and talk, the more I think that little kids and birds are onto something. Maybe we don’t have to worry about the grill going out, or soggy sandwich-rolls, or traffic jams. Because if birds eat worms three meals a day and still like to sing, maybe people are mistaken in viewing these small inconveniences of life as deeply and personally unfair.

So let’s be songbirds.