Fiction: Friendship (Fear & Pity)
By Cole Ruoto
I had lost my only friend to rot. Maslow’s decomposition had overtaken his body, and I could no longer bear to have what was left of him near me. I blamed myself for the grief I felt. My attachment had become too great in too short of a time, against my better judgment. It wasn’t something I should be letting upset me so much. I should have expected that our time was more fleeting than most, since he was dead when I found him.
I had known him for such a short time, but there were many things about him I already missed. More than anything, I had lost a witness to my great lectures. I would often discuss philosophy with Maslow. I explained to him my understanding of our relationship. Friendship, to my understanding, is entirely founded on fear and pity. It usually shook out like this: fear was the inciting emotion, as it was for most things. Both parties feared to be alone, so they sought companionship. However, a shift occurs with the pairing. One party cultivates a feeling of pity for the other, seeing a lack of merit in their friend, and continues the relationship out of this. The other, well aware of their worthlessness, continues to operate on the fear of losing their benefactor. It was a disgusting, tragic power dynamic, but that is how it always went.
This was even how our circumstance came to be. When I came across that mangled pigeon on the street days prior, I just felt terrible for him. He had only recently died as far as I could see, but had already been lightly trampled. It was pathetic, and that made him perfect. I saw in him my chance to be the one who pitied in the friendship. Besides, all my fears had come to pass a while back, and I was reaching my fifth month of solitude. I waited for the crowd around me to pass and scooped him off the ground. He went into my pocket and home with me, where I assessed the damage.
There was a bit of a dent in his head, a chip or two in his beak, and his tiny beady eyes did not look like they would remain for long. But it was his body that had been most disturbed. His wings were twisted up and his chest had caved in. Both of his legs were completely missing. He was barely a pigeon by now. Pity welled up within me and I knew I had made the right choice. I took some printer paper and folded it into something resembling a suit. It went up to his neck so the worst of him was obscured. I even cut up a bowtie for him and used a bit of tape to affix it to his collar. He looked passable. I named him Maslow, and he became my friend.
Our initial few days together were lovely. I spoke often and he seemed to listen. My throat was sore from all the talking and I felt like a great public speaker. By the end of every day, I would place him on my nightstand and fall asleep with all that I had spoken of still buzzing in my head. There were troubles, though. Dinnertime was an especially tense experience. The way he stared at me while I ate was disquieting– I hated people watching me eat– but there was something more behind it, I could tell. He didn’t seem disgusted, as far as I could discern. I never had any poultry in front of him, not to insinuate I ever ate anything like that before we met. My diet, I knew very well, was not a filling one. It was hard to eat with my nerves. I mostly ate various forms of bread, about a slice a day. I had broken off a piece and put some in front of him before, as I assumed he would have eaten that in life, but he never really took to it. I started to wonder if he felt like a vulture eating my scraps. It was pitiful that he never had a meal of his own, only my crust. Maybe it distressed him. Pity gave way to guilt, and I knew I had to do something about this before our meal time became even less bearable. I had enough trouble eating as is, and this only heightened my malnutritive tendencies. I decided to go out and get him some seeds. A special meal just for him, to get him off my back. He went into my jacket pocket and I took to the grocery store.
Regret stung me as I entered. Everywhere I went in public, I got the sense I should not be there. The air in the store felt thick and impassable. It was a struggle to move or breathe. The quicker I got this done, the less chance I had of causing a scene. My first stop was the bread aisle. I got myself some plain bagels in hopes I could stomach it, then began scouring the surrounding aisles in search of seeds. I hated getting groceries more than anything else. It was soul-bearing. It implied I was a person, just like everyone else, and I had to eat. I hated that people passing by would know that about me without my permission. I soldiered on for Maslow’s sake. I finally found an aisle with sunflower seeds. I recalled Maslow’s crumbing beak and wondered if they would be too large for him. I decided to get sunflower kernels instead. Next, I pondered over whether to get them salted, unsalted, or roasted. Annoyingly, there was a pair beside me talking amongst themselves while I was trying to think. They were discussing dinner plans, evidently with a large group in mind. I scanned them up and down trying to determine which was feared and which was pitied. It was hard to get a read on them. They were wrapped up in their winter clothes and barely audible. I managed to make out:
“What about pie? Do you like pumpkin, or key-lime?”
“I like both, but key-lime more.” Of course it was key-lime. I could tell by the look in their eyes they preferred key-lime. I kept listening. The other replied, “I could make that, but should I do one or more?”
“Maybe more? Kyle gets hungry.” Of course Kyle got hungry. It was just like Kyle to get so hungry that they’d have to shop around him. I hated Kyle, I’d kill him if I had the chance. That had answered my question, though. Kyle was the pitied one, even if these two were also clearly in fear of his appetite. I had forgotten that friends could go beyond pairs. They had now stopped speaking to stare back at me. A searing moment of silence ensued. I tried to strike up a conversation:
“Salted, unsalted, or roasted?”
“Which would Kyle prefer?”
“What?” I was trapped now. Was it said because they couldn’t hear me, or because there was no Kyle and I had misheard the name on account of their muffled voices? I decided to cut my losses. I grabbed unsalted kernels and skidded out of the aisle. If Maslow didn’t like it, I could always add salt or roast them myself, I thought.
I made it to self-checkout and scanned my bagels and kernels. It was crowded and my nerves began to act up. Through shakes, I reached for my wallet to pay. I had trouble finding the right pocket. My trembles became tremors the longer I fumbled. Surely I was holding up the line. Surely someone was watching me jerk and flutter around while I slapped myself all over. The most simple of tasks always brought me to ruin. It had to be in one of my jacket pockets, I finally decided. I shakily unzipped it, and, of course, Maslow fell out onto the ground. He made a hollow thud. Everyone around rubbernecked right at us. Most were silent, but a few gasped. All stared. Had they never seen a dead bird before? I attempted a witticism.
“Don’t worry, the suit is handmade.” I was met with silence. “I didn’t shoplift it,” I added, for clarity’s sake. Still nothing. Bystanders are hypocrites. They want to be non-participants, but forget that a crowd often has an effect on the spectacle. They kept staring. I plucked Maslow off the ground and stuffed him in my pocket. I plodded out the door, feeling their eyes on me all the while.
Dinner was unpleasant. Maslow didn’t touch his kernels and I could only stomach half a bagel before I became too anxious to eat any more. I kept thinking about what I could have done at the store to have been charming. There had to have been a pithy remark that would have got them all on my side. But I had tried that, and it was a dud. Maybe I was better off having said nothing at all. But that surely would have led to speculation, and maybe someone would have actually thought I did shoplift the suit, as unlikely as that was.
Maybe it was hopeless, not because of the situation, but because of me, because of how I looked. It hurt terribly to be ugly. I was well and truly foiled. There was no recourse for it that I could afford, and even if I could, there is no cure for having been ugly. No amount of surgery could remove the memories of being treated like a freak. I will admit, with some reservation, that the dead bird in my pocket did not help my treatment, but that was a symptom rather than a cause. I looked over at my symptom. He looked much worse than I did. That made me feel a little better.
Just then, I thought I saw Maslow’s eye twitch. I jerked back in shock. Did my companionship reanimate him? Was it the scent of food? I got closer. It was true there was movement, but I saw now it was not a twitch; his eye had fallen off. Almost a week had passed since we met, and Maslow was falling apart more by the day. I had to take swift action to preserve my friend before he was too far gone.
I couldn’t find a taxidermist nearby, so I decided to take him to an animal hospital close to where I lived to see if they offered the service. If they were going to go through all the trouble of putting them down, why not stuff them, too? I walked in and it was nearly empty inside. There was very little to look at aside from a few metal chairs in the right corner and a glass coffee table with some pet magazines. I stood a few feet from the front desk. The man there was on his phone. I’m not sure he saw me enter. Pushing through my nerves, I approached him, pulled Maslow out of my pocket, and placed him on the front desk. His little neck was limp and his head drooped, setting him off balance. He fell to his side and tottered back and forth. The man at the front desk shrieked.
“Hello,” I said, “can you stuff him?” “What is that?!”
“How long has that thing been dead?” “He... Died in my arms. Last night.” “Last night?”
“Recently. I don’t know, I was grieving.” “You said this was a bird?”
“Yes. Named Maslow.”
“Oh, uh, cockatiel? Chickadoo? Cockadee? I don’t know, I’m grieving.”
“Why is it wrapped in paper?”
“He’s wearing a suit.”
“Okay...” He was pinching his nose and holding back vomit, but I could tell we were reaching an understanding.
“Can you stuff him? I don’t want him to rot away.”
“We don’t do that, sir. Sorry.”
“Oh. Do you know any taxidermists nearby?”
“Okay, thank you.” I picked up Maslow and put him back into my jacket. I anticipated some sort of goodbye from the front desk man, so I tried to expedite the process. “You, too.” I said. He remained silent.
Another day or two went by and I could barely bring myself to look at Maslow. I was afraid to come to terms with his sorry state. When I finally did, it was worse than I imagined. He was rotting beyond recognition. His skin was peeling off and the few feathers left on his body couldn’t hide it. His suit was dampened, covered in holes, barely able to keep its shape. The only thing left on his face was his chipped beak. It was hopeless. The time had come to say farewell.
I took the roll of tape from my room, placed Maslow in my jacket one last time, and took to the streets. As I walked, I scanned the ground for rocks. There were a few good contenders, but it took a while to find one best suited for him. It had to be flat and heavy, but I also wanted it to look comfortable. I finally managed to find a round, relatively smooth stone of ample size around halfway to my destination. I put it in my other pocket and went forward.
The lakefront was especially serene in the early winter. The crowds had taken to congregating inside by now, and the only noise offending the ambience was the sound of my flat feet dragging across the concrete walkway. The wind had died down with the skylight. It was becoming difficult to see the lake ahead, but I was just able to make out the glob of water I was trying to reach. A few lighted buoys and the walkway kept me in the right direction. I had Maslow and a rock in my pockets, and I felt worse than alone.
I took Maslow to the path along the lake and found a lamppost to sit underneath. I removed him from my pocket and sat next to him on top of the “No Diving” sign painted on the ground. My feet dangled over the edge. Maslow leaned up against me. It looked like he was looking out at the water at first, but then I recalled that his eyes, had he still been in possession of them, would be placed on either side of his head. Maslow was looking at me, with one eye hole at least. The other was staring off somewhere unimportant.
I took out the rock I had found and my roll of tape. I pressed Maslow against the rock and wrapped the tape around him until it was secure. I fixed his tie and patted him on the head. Then, with a gentle underhand, I tossed him into the murk. The rock made a tiny kerplunk and water spouted all around it before coming back down on top of Maslow, shoving him down. I watched the ripples and it made me a little queasy, so I turned to the vacant sky. My stomach had been empty for a while, which did not help. The best part of a funeral was supposed to be the food, and I had forgotten to bring a bagel with me, or some farewell kernels for the departed. I focused back onto the water.
The ripples had gone away– Maslow had sunk. His little bowtie had come back to the surface to float away from me. There was nobody for me now above the water. I was scared, and I felt a little bad for myself.