“Ornithology” by Molly McArdle

21 November 2014 on Fiction   Tags:

Their mother’s body obscured their view through the front door. “I’m very happy to have you both home for Thanksgiving,” she said. “I bought a beautiful turkey.” And then, “It’s too big for the fridge. I’m keeping it in the tub until tomorrow.”

Bobby, Caroline’s older brother, wore the same style of bunched-up cargo pants he had worn since childhood, large enough for someone twice his size. He used all of the pockets—those tiny, out-of-the-way, maybe-decorative pockets sewed in at mid-thigh, at knee, at calf, so that each leg’s fabric billowed out like a parachute weighted down with stones. His wiry, black hair, which curled in broad, thick loops (same as their mother’s), was clean but otherwise unmolested: a strange white-boy fro. He looked like a P.E. teacher. That same dumb, sweet smile on his face, though. Her brother.

She couldn’t drive her mother’s overfull stick-shift, one that even in this cool weather had a vague, sweet, rotting smell about it, and so she had taken two trains (Metro) to Union Station to meet his one (Amtrak), which he had caught that morning from Boston. As large as he was, he had always moved like someone much lighter, as if he had the hollow bones of a bird. He had floated out from the gate. This was why she had gone to pick him up, this moment of them together, by themselves, okay. Their embrace was perfect.

Bobby dropped his bag on the threshold. “You put a raw turkey in the bathtub?”

Caroline laughed once, nervous. She could feel Bobby clench up.

“It’s frozen! Who do you think I am!” Their mother’s teeth—a full set of dentures, now three years old—did not quite fit her mouth and shifted unnaturally below her lips. “I’m keeping it on ice and I bought it frozen.” She rotated her jaw just so to snap them back into place, and then, more quietly, “I’m not incompetent.”

Bobby’s face melted to a blank. He was trying, at least. “I just don’t want you to take on too much for us, Mom.” Each word enunciated. “We don’t need anything fancy.”

Their mother pursed her lips. “Well Caroline cares. Just because you don’t care—”

“It’s not about caring, Mom.” He picked up his bag again. “Why don’t we go on inside, okay?”


Inside: how to even begin. Since excising at great cost the fourth member of their family (a father), the manner in which they lived changed drastically. They had left the house in Mount Pleasant and its garden out front, with their mother’s tiger lilies and lilies of the valley and fistfuls of daffodils (she was always good at cultivating growth), and moved eastward into a series of subsidized shoebox apartments where all the growing was done inside rather than out. Things had a way of coming into the apartment and not leaving. Caroline suspected that the objects, once inside, themselves multiplied, like the subdividing cells of a tumor or the expanding flock of mice that flew through their quarters. It was harder for Bobby because he had moved away, Caroline knew that. It was a space without space.


Their mother pushed ahead of them both to clear a path through the hallway calf-deep in detritus (half-ripped magazines, long tongues of discarded receipts, plastic grocery bags filled with other plastic grocery bags, loose and crumpled cans of Diet Coke) that led to the bedrooms. Their apartment’s one bathroom—usually wide open and three layers deep in dry-cleaning, the hangers hooked over the door so you could never quite close it—was firmly shut.

“I’m trying to keep it colder in there,” she said to them. “Keep the temperature down.” She didn’t look back. “You know that’s how old ice boxes worked.”

From behind, Bobby called, “What have you been doing about using the bathroom?” She did not answer. Caroline didn’t know either. She had been at Jared’s since the weekend, wearing the same set of her clothes mixed with some of his. She still smelled like bed.

She pushed open the door to Bobby’s old room. His bed, sheetless, was piled with boxes. “It’s the Christmas ornaments,” their mother said, “You can just move them into a corner. I was thinking we might put them up on Friday, before you leave. It’ll be time.”

Images of tinsel-covered mounds of dirty laundry, holly-decked piles of dirty dishes, flitted across Caroline’s mind. Bobby said nothing.

Their mother gestured to a white trash bag on the floor. “I put a set of clean sheets for you in there.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You know I barely just got the bird,” she said, as if no time had passed between their first conversation and this. “We can all pop in the shower once it’s in the oven tomorrow.”

Caroline had dropped away to clear a space on a shredded, once-white love seat in the living room, moving a box of popsicle sticks and gel pens from the cushion to the top of a pile of months-old newspapers on the floor. Caroline called from her perch, easy to hear from everywhere: “We’ll all end up smelling like steamed turkeys.” The apartment, even with its three bedrooms, was about as large as a sneeze, and as loud as one.

Their mother whistled through her teeth, “It will put us in the holiday mood.” She, like Bobby, enunciated when she was upset.


Caroline stood with her mother in the small nook that was their kitchen. She shredded the slightly stale white bread into big, feathery tufts. “Six loaves, mom? Are you expecting more people for dinner?”

“You both love stuffing!” This was true. “Plus, you love making those sandwiches afterwards. Actually, on that thought, save some slices for sandwiches.”


It was unclear what precisely her mother was accomplishing in the kitchen. She moved ingredients in between cupboards, put dishes on one counter and then another. The local classical station was on and Caroline found herself tearing up the bread in time to that Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. When that dizzy, zig-zag eruption of notes began, her mother started to eke out her own version along with it. Caroline joined her, laughing: two ill-fit voices chirping against the radio’s trill, two mouths open and tilted up as if they belonged to baby birds.

“You never really could sing,” she said to Caroline when they were done.

“Excuse me, you are no Maria Callas either.”

“You get it from me. Neither of us can sing. Bobby always had a beautiful singing voice.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard him sing in about a million years.” Caroline reached to the back of the bag and pulled out a last, bitten-through slice. She peeked at the plastic: a wide, chewed-open hole. Mice.

Caroline sighed but said nothing. Thankfully, Bobby had set himself to cleaning off the table and chairs so they’d have a place to eat—he would throw a fit if he knew their stuffing bread had been eaten through, contaminated. Caroline quickly checked the remaining three bags—all were, thankfully, intact. Caroline threw the holey slice out and tore off the bits of the neighboring slices that looked nibbled. “Mold,” she told her mother when she shot Caroline a concerned look.

Bobby got Thai for them all and walked out to get it rather than dealing with a delivery man passing their dinner through the junk-crowded front hallway, much less past the two rounds of buzzers that led up to their door, remnants of the neighborhood Columbia Heights once was, a place resolutely without Thai food.

They ate at the table and watched TV, a sci-fi show only their mother had seen. “Do you know why he did that?” she asked. “Where are they now? What is it that she just said?” And also: “I love this show.” She fell asleep like that, in the elbow of the love seat, surrounded by articles she had half-clipped out and boxes of lock-and-seal gallon plastic bags. A half-eaten plastic container of pad thai sat on her lap.

After the show ended, Bobby gently lifted the carryout from her knees and restored its cover, picking up the rest of the leftovers on his way to the kitchen. Caroline wiped down the card table with its new plastic tablecloth, covered in rosy-cheeked, blonde Pilgrims holding baskets: the boys with squash, the girls with corn. A bunch of butchers, she thought to herself, and she scrubbed dried panang curry off of their faces.

From the kitchen Bobby said, “Hey, do you want to get a drink? I’ve also really gotta pee.”

“Shit,” Caroline said. “Yes, yes. I don’t want to mess with the turkey morgue either.” She picked up the sponge and the last of the empty containers. “Let’s get out of here.”


“Even the elevators smell nicer,” Caroline said to him on the way down.

“Brand new sidewalk outside, did you see it? It looks pristine.”

“It makes you wonder how long this place will last, what will happen here.”

“The city will have a lot more trouble closing the Section 8 places than the plain old privately-owned slums.”

“Any idea where you want to get a drink?”

“Do you remember that place Lucy’s, on U?”

She frowned. “Oh yeah, that closed.”

He shook his fist theatrically. “Lucy!”

“Most things down on U now are really loud.”

“Well, up by Park it looks like a fucking suburban circus.” He had an old look of disgust on his face. The giant shopping complex up by the Columbia Heights Metro was too perfect, too fake, too new. Maybe Bobby only liked things that met his private ratio of clean to dirty—a weird urban Goldilocks. Caroline was less discriminating.

The November night was cold in a noninvasive, invigorating way, which is to say not very cold at all: a gesture towards winter, but not the thing itself. Caroline pulled on her gloves under their apartment building’s intense, day-bright spotlight. “I always feel like I am in a movie in this exact spot,” she said.

Bobby looked at the twelve-foot-high, black metal fence that surrounded them, the whole building complex. “But what type of movie?”

“Action-adventure,” said Caroline, stuffing her gloved hands into her jacket pockets. She stepped out of the spotlight. “Fantasy. Musical.” She warbled a thin, wavering note.

“Stop, stop.” He laughed, pushing his hand into her face, over her mouth. “Let’s go. We can walk towards Adams Morgan.”


This was one of their favorite walks. They cut up and over 14th Street, skimming the northern edge of Malcolm X Park, though all the signs now read Meridian Hill. (All over the place, things were losing their names.) At least here, the sidewalks were still the same. Tree roots thrust themselves, crusty with bark, up through the plates of cement. They passed the long strings of familiar row houses, some untouched, more with new coats of paint, window boxes where flowers would go in the spring. On the right, when they crossed over 16th, was their old library, which had since grown a boxy, glass, expensive-looking addition. As they walked, Caroline pulled leaves off of the ivy that grew up and down the street, over fences and down brick retaining walls. She’d slice off the stem with her fingernail, then segment the leaf into halves, quarters, and so on, discarding the pieces she cut loose along the sidewalk behind them.

By the time they got to the coffee shop-slash-bar that Caroline had in mind, she was skipping ahead of him. “You get us seats,” she turned to say, walking backwards now, “I am going straight to the bathroom.”

Caroline loved this kind of grungy place, too dimly lit to notice what was wrong with it but shabby in a way unlike their mother’s. Tasteful, she supposed, and tasteful because it was purposeful? Bobby had disappeared into his phone when she landed in the armchair across from him. He was bewildered when the waiter came and momentarily tried to eye the menu and his illuminated screen at the same time.

“It’s so quiet here!” she said.

“I was going to say it was busier than I thought it’d be. Night before Thanksgiving.”

“Everyone wants to drink before Thanksgiving,” the waiter said. “Hard day for a lot of people.”

After they ordered, Bobby put down his phone, face up, and pressed his hands against his forehead. When he lifted them, there were white finger marks against the beety red of his skin. “The newspaper clippings?” he began.

“The newspaper clippings?” she answered.

“The ones that are taped to the front door. That’s—that’s new. Taping papers to the wall.”

“Oh yeah.” Caroline looked down. She scratched at the seam of her jeans, digging her fingernail under the crease of fabric. “Well, she’s had papers taped to her bedroom wall for a long time.”

“This is…” Bobby shook his head. “There’s something different about this. Like, A Beautiful Mind? She used to at least pretend—well, she expressed a desire, at one point—for a place that looked normal?”

Their drinks were set down before them. Caroline took up her beer and at once began to push away at the edges of the damp paper label.

“I mean,” Bobby said, and here he picked up his drink, a rum and Diet Coke. “She wants to hang up pictures and things. To hang up Christmas decorations! But you can’t do that on a wall covered in, like, crazy clippings.”

By now Caroline had peeled back the entire label and was scratching at the adhesive still stuck to the glass.

“Right?” He looked at her for confirmation.

“Yes,” she said. “I guess.” She put the beer down. It was already half empty.

Bobby’s phone briefly flashed. He glanced down at it, then pressed the sleep button. “So how are classes?”

“Oh, I’m not…I’m not taking a class this semester.”

“How many credits are you away from the degree?”

“Like three or four more classes before my associates. I picked up more shifts at the Blind Dog this fall, and I can take everything I need in the spring. Just nice to just work for a little while. More money.”

He looked at her, all scrunched in concern. “How are you with Mom?”

She shrugged.

“I just worry. I mean, I can’t imagine…” He looked down at his phone again, still off. “Well, I can imagine, but.” He flipped it so the screen was facing down. “You know, if you ever want to come up and stay with me…”

Caroline had nearly scraped the bottle clean; it was an anonymous vessel of brown glass. She put it down. Three-quarters empty. “I know,” she said.

“There’s good public transportation and you could get a job…”

“I’m here, Bobby.” She picked up her beer again. “I want to be in DC.” She finished it.

Another beer came. Bobby was only halfway through his first.

“I know it’s expensive, but it’s worth looking around for places. A group house. You can get a pretty good deal.”

“I look at Craigslist sometimes, but…” She stopped herself. “I don’t have enough yet. I need a better job first. Something—”

“I’d love to go over your resume with you, if that would help. Your cover letters.”

“Bobby, enough. I get it. I know.” She looked around. “We should probably go to the bathroom again before we leave.”

“Oh Jesus, right. The fucking turkey.”

“Do you remember when there were roaches in the oven clock?” Caroline cackled, loud. They were walking home.

“No, no, no.”

“Do you remember when there were roaches in the coffee maker?”

“Blahgh.” He made fake vomiting sounds.

“Do you remember that she still uses the same coffee maker.”

“Ahhhhh—” Bobby covered his eyes with his hands. Caroline snorted, and he started to laugh too.


“Caroline, I think we should look at the turkey.”

They were in the elevator. She was already thinking she’d like to go to the bathroom again.

“If it doesn’t look good, we dump it.” His eyes were closed. “We can get another one in the morning.”

Caroline squinted up at him. “Will the grocery store be open? Will there be turkeys left?”

“Yes, and I think so.”

“Don’t you think Mom will notice?”

He pressed his lips together until they formed a straight, white line. “Probably not. I don’t think so, no. If she does, I’ll make something up. It can be on me.”

She slipped one hand into the crook of his arm. “What about the corpse,” she said. “The decayed remains.” She made a gagging sound, bringing her other hand to her throat. “Do you even want to go in there?”

“We have to go in there.” Bobby didn’t look down at her, at her mugging. “What happens if we don’t go in there?”

A solitary guffaw erupted from Caroline’s mouth.

“I’m serious.” He shook her clasped hand off his arm. “It’s just so unsanitary. Unsafe. We dump the bird and clean that fucking tub. Lord knows she won’t.”

“She might cover it in baking soda. She covers everything in baking soda.”


“Yes, okay, okay.”


In the hallway: “Bobert, what do you propose? What’s our game plan?”

He sucked his teeth. “Let’s find a trash bag and, like, cleaning supplies first. Clorox if we can get it.”

“Rubber gloves,” Caroline echoed.

“We dump it and then clean the tub.”

“What if it looks okay? The turkey?”

“I don’t know.” An involuntary shiver ran through his shoulders, his gut. “I have a hard time imagining it will be presentable, and even if it is?”

She rubbed his back, and hooked her arm around his again. “We’ll get it done.”


They found the trash bags easily enough, and with greater effort, a total of three rubber gloves. Bobby gave Caroline the complete pair. Clorox they couldn’t find: the space under the kitchen sink really was full of boxes of baking soda. Caroline grabbed an unopened one, a scrub brush, and the dishwashing soap. It was the best they could do.

Their mother had moved herself from the loveseat to wherever in her bedroom it was that she slept. A small, mother-shaped cavity remained where she had been, her imprint bordered by the boxes and papers she had left in her wake. They stood in front of the closed-up bathroom. Bobby held the trash bag—white, kitchen-sized—in his ungloved hand. Caroline still held the cleaning supplies. He opened the door.

The room was dark and still. Bobby could make out the outlines of layered clothes that hung on every available hook or bar. He leaned in and flipped on the light. It was cooler in there.

Their bathroom looked much as it always had: the floor littered with half-empty bottles of hair dye, giant family-size discount shampoo, romance novels—all bearing the marks of having been slightly water-logged. At the end of the room was the tub, and in it they could see the pale, rainbow-sheened breast of the bird.

Caroline sniffed loudly. “It isn’t too bad in here.”

Bobby was still holding his breath.

They pushed their way through the bottles. They could see the ice, most of it still unmelted, surrounding the bird, which looked as if it were receiving some kind of strange spa treatment, afloat in the chilly bath.

“It looks pretty okay,” Caroline said. “It doesn’t look bad.”

Bobby still said nothing, stepping forward with his trash bag raised like a crucifix. His foot knocked up against the bathtub accidentally, making a hollow sound, and the bird shifted in the ice. Caroline jumped behind him.

“Jesus,” she said and pushed her way to his side. “What do you think?”


A mouse, smooth and sand-colored, erupted from beneath the backside of the turkey, zigzagged across the ice and around the rim of the tub, and disappeared into a small hole from which the pipes of their sink extended.

Caroline shrieked. Bobby jumped now too.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Jesus fucking Christ.” She took deep, gulping breaths.

“No way this fucking thing is staying. No fucking way.”

“Do mice eat turkey? Do mice even eat meat?”

“Who the fuck knows, in this shitty fucking place they probably eat everything.” He shook the bag out so it caught the air, inflated.

“Wait, wait, Bobby, what if there are more.” Her voice slid higher, wound with nerves.

“The sooner we get this over with the better.” He looked at her, half-plaintive. “I’m going to try and get the bag around one end of the turkey and then I am going to need your help getting the whole thing in. If you want, you can hold the bag and I can do the other part.”

“No, no, that’s fine.” She closed her eyes and shook her head in an effort to shed the crawling revolt that had settled into her limbs.

Bobby wrapped the plastic of the trash bag around his exposed hand and began to ease it over the turkey’s headless shoulders. “Here,” he said, “help tip it up.”

Caroline leaned over and put both hands around the bird’s fat, stubby wings. The skin was still taut around them, but the muscle itself felt soft. It reminded her of a baby, of holding a baby. She pulled it forward.

“That’s it,” he said, sliding the trash bag down the turkey’s body. They tilted it further upright.

A single, smooth-bodied mouse slid out of the turkey’s bottom cavity. It did not move.

“Oh my God,” Caroline cried, feeling the nausea rise up in her throat, the hot, acidic pressure of vomit sitting right below her mouth. “Oh my God, oh my God.” She didn’t let go. She looked away and swallowed.

Bobby got a better grip and lifted the whole turkey—large enough, they now could see, to have fed a family four times their size—out of her grasp, flipping the bird over and into the bag. There was a fair amount of liquid inside with it, and it threatened to dribble.

“Come on, let’s go,” Bobby said, quickly pulling the yellow drawstring of the bag closed. “We’ll deal with that later.” He lifted the bird up and out, keeping it as far away from his body as possible. Its dimpled skin pressed through the plastic, nearly clear. “Come on, come on,” he called after her, carrying it across the bathroom and back out into the apartment, then into the hallway beyond. Caroline didn’t look at the little drowned mouse floating in the icy bath water. She hurried after her brother, her wet, gloved hands held out in front of her, too, though she now carried nothing.

They sped down the dimly lit hallway, past metal doors with big harvest wreaths and others beaten up beyond recognition. They turned one corner and then another. Caroline could see that the bag had started to drip. Bobby held it slightly to his right so that it wouldn’t fall on his shoes. When the trash room was in sight he pivoted, so his back met the door first and pushed it open. Caroline was right behind him.

“Open the thing, open the latch,” he said. The turkey was still held out in front of him, a thin, clear liquid dribbling from the bottom of the bag.

She hurried past him and fumbled to get the silver metal door—smeared with unknown, long-dried refuse—open. A warm rot wafted up from the shaft. She held the door down as wide as possible, like a jaw. Bobby swung the bag forward with his ungloved hand, and caught the bottom side of the bird with the other. He lifted it up and over the mouth of the chute and with both hands pressed down. The bird caught.

“Fucking shit,” said Bobby. It was too fat for the narrow opening. Its wings bulged around the entrance. He pushed again, and the wings flapped pathetically inside the bag. He was exasperated. Caroline stood at his side with her mouth open. “Can you help me here?”

Her body snapped into motion. “Yes, yes.” She pushed the wings in, arranged the loose muscle to fit into the square opening. “Keep pushing, it’s going in.”

“I’m afraid the bag will break.”

Caroline was grimacing. The turkey, even now, felt so slack under her hands. There was something horrifyingly human about it. She laughed again, without pleasure, as she got the top of the breast through the opening. Thank God she was wearing gloves. Thank God.

Bobby gave the bird one last push and felt it ease into the chute, where it tipped out of his hands and fell into the darkness. Caroline let go of the latch, which closed like a mouth. Bobby held up his hands, one gloved and the other bare, neither of which were dry.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Caroline said again. “What the fuck.”

“Come on,” said Bobby, who held his hands out in front of himself like a doctor, propping the door open again with his hip.

“That was so fucking gross.”

“Let’s clear out the tub, wash our hands, and go the fuck to bed.”

Caroline shuddered, remembering the tub now, too.


He scooped up the small mouse body for her. He threw it in the kitchen trash can and brought that bag out to the chute, too. Caroline stood in the bathroom looking at the pool of ice and water that remained. She reached in, her hands still gloved, and pulled the plug out. Then she turned the shower on. Pulsing streams of water, first warm and then steaming hot, fell on the ice, which vanished rapidly beneath them. It was satisfying, this erasure. Caroline took the bottle of dish soap and drizzled it over the entirety of the tub with the shower still running. A cheap, powerful lemon smell rose up into her face. It was not entirely unpleasant. When Bobby got back, she turned the shower off. It felt like her pores were beginning to open again.

“Well, it smells better in here,” he said.

She lifted up the dishwasher soap.

“Here, let me take your gloves, I’ll wash them in the sink.”

She pulled them off finger by finger, then held them by the tips.

“Why don’t you throw some baking soda in there or something. I have no idea what it does, but…” he shrugged. “Mom believes in it?”

Caroline wriggled her hands; they felt damp. The box of Arm & Hammer, though unopened, was not entirely new. She had to peel the cardboard back, it had become so soft. Still, the baking soda sat inside as pristine as snow. She tipped it over without compunction and the stuff poured out like sand, like salt, like everything corrosive and clean. She covered the still-wet tub with it, where it dissolved into a thick paste. She’d rinse it off tomorrow. Let it all be soaked up.


The supermarket floors, this early in the morning, smelled powerfully of bleach. Caroline felt cleaner just being there. The store, a new Giant that arrived with the rest of the suburban horde, was one of her favorite places: large and well-lit and abundant. You could make any food here, have any life. She ran the empty cart towards Bobby and jumped onto the back bar. It slowed to a stop less than a foot away and she stood, one arm out, one foot in the air, posing for him to see.


He jerked up from his phone.

Caroline hopped down. “You didn’t see my thing.”

“I thought you were a stranger.”

“We’re the only ones here!” It wasn’t even seven yet. “I bet you like this place better now that you know it’s 24 hours.”


“The turkeys are this way.” She pushed off the cart again, more gently this time. She looked back at him. He was both so big and so fragile, like an old balloon. “Do you want a ride?”


“We can both fit on the back part. Come on.”

He put his phone in a tiny cargo pocket below his knee.

“Here,” she said, and gestured to where he could put one foot, one hand. “We’ll give it a good run first.”

They gathered speed, one smaller and one larger body, and at the same time jumped, the cart wobbling under their weight. Caroline hooted in delight. Their outlines flickered across the rows of refrigerator case doors. They looked, for a moment, like birds.

Molly McArdle's fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Midnight Breakfast, PANK, Bitch Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She is the Tumblr Editor for The Rumpus.

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