by Greg Golley
On a Monday morning in April the Starlings arrived. I know it was a Monday because that’s trash day and I remember checking to see if the garbage collectors had picked up the broken swivel chair I’d put out the night before. They had. Or at least I thought they had until I went into the kitchen to get my coffee.
In the kitchen I happened to glance through the sliding glass balcony door and saw the swivel chair on the backyard lawn next to the picnic table. What’s more, there was a man sitting in it. He was eating from a Styrofoam takeout container, some kind of taco. Or was it a tostada? Something with lettuce and meat and a red sauce – like what they hand out at taco trucks. Anyway, this character was sitting in my old office chair, which he’d taken the trouble to roll into the yard from the street. He had two kids with him and was sharing his breakfast with them.
From what I could see, he was a large white man with a rangy, coyote-colored beard. A filthy cloth facemask with a paisley pattern hung around his neck as he ate. Neither of the kids – a girl and a boy, about five and seven, both black – had any face coverings. Their dad (or whatever he was) was doling out their breakfast, bite by bite. Meat and lettuce dribbled from their mouths.
“Do you think they’re vaccinated?” my wife Robin said when she came down in her bathrobe and stood next to me at the balcony window, cradling her own coffee mug. There’s a heat register at the base of that window which warmed our feet as we talked.
“God knows.” I said. “What do you suppose they’re doing out there anyway?”
“Looks like they’re eating breakfast,” she said matter-of-factly and blew over her coffee to cool it. “They’ll probably move on soon.”
Probably move on? Good Lord! But I didn’t say anything. My wife practices something called “radical acceptance” and she simply will not tolerate any deviations from this philosophy. As a matter of fact, the family did not move on. It’s true they disappeared for most of the day, but by evening they were back again. Only this time the guy had three kids with him: the two young ones from before, plus a teenage boy in dreadlocks, about my daughter’s age.
I had just come in from work and was pouring myself a bourbon when I confirmed my worst suspicions and fears. Not only had they come back, they’d actually started a fire in our barbecue. The whole family was standing around our grill warming themselves. The younger kids had collected quite a pile of dry sticks from the adjoining playground to feed the fire. They must’ve used stuff from our recycling bin to start the blaze because I could see crimson squares of old frozen pizza containers, Amazon cartons, and beer boxes curling and flaming at the base of the inferno as the two smaller kids looked on with that eager, destructive delight that children have in the presence of fire.
There was still snow on the ground from the last storm, and when the kids laughed, their giggles came out in bursts of fog. They kept running back to the playground area to get more sticks, making a game of it. But all this capering about had little effect on the man or the teenager. Those two just stood glumly by the swivel chair, their hoodies pulled low over their faces. Both father and son were drinking sodas, their heads inclined together in an attitude of grave consultation. Now I saw that they were actually cooking something on that fire. They’d fashioned a spit out of one of Robin’s bamboo garden stakes and had a small joint of meat balancing over the flames – a technique as old as the ice age. The fire flared with the drippings. Except for the sodas, these guys might’ve been depression-era hobos, or horse thieves on the prairie, or even a couple of poachers in eleventh-century England, furtively roasting one of the King’s deer. The orange light from the fire illuminated the father’s beard and serious face.
We live near the university where my wife teaches sociology. Our townhouse is about three blocks from the lake so we obviously get our share of visitors. But this was the first time anyone had settled in like this. Which is surprising, now that I think about it. In a way the space is perfect for outdoor living – protected by fence and wall, sheltered by honey locusts in summer, and with several obvious points along the perimeter that make for easy entry and rapid egress. Moreover, the drainage is decent unless it rains for days on end. Standing at the window, I began to see for the first time what an attractive yard we really had. This family’s barbecue party was a dangerous precedent.
I decided to go down and talk to them. It was one thing to eat breakfast at our picnic table. But an evening meal was a gateway to permanent settlement, as everyone knew. And that I could not accept. “No sir,” I said aloud to the empty kitchen, shaking my head firmly at my reflection in the window. As I spoke, the ice clinked against my bourbon glass. “You’ve had your breakfast. Okay. And now it’s dinner. Fair enough. But you are not going to sleep here. No way. Just finish your food and move on.”
It was settled then. There were, in fact, laws on the books addressing this sort of thing. The statutes against trespass had not been revoked, as far as I was aware.
I was gearing myself up. Practicing certain turns of phrases that balanced moral imperative against legal necessity. One had to be empathetic, but firm. I took a long pull of Jim Beam and glanced around the kitchen. I couldn’t just walk out there empty handed. So I grabbed the little bucket that holds our composting material – we are very conscientiously green in our household – and went downstairs through the TV room to our sliding back door, which leads directly to the backyard.
The evening was clear and stingingly cold. The first breath I took shocked my lungs. It was still light, but it wouldn’t be for long – dusk was spreading out over the snow like a violet blanket. The smell of cooking meat permeated the darkening air. When I closed the door behind me, I tried my best to act surprised at seeing a strange, mixed-race family of vagabonds standing around my barbecue. “Oh! Hello,” I said pleasantly. But I don’t think they were fooled. The dad looked up from the fire and nodded, somewhat suspiciously. “Having a fire, eh?” I went on in what I hoped was a friendly tone. But even to me, the words sounded thick and unnatural.
No one answered my question, which I admit was technically a rhetorical one. It was obvious they were having a fire. Still, their silence represented a setback. I stood there stupidly with the compost bucket in my hand. “I just came out to dump the composting,” I said. “Don’t mind me.”
I slipped past the visitors and headed toward the place behind the yew tree where we keep our composter. I took my time dumping it, occasionally glancing rearward through the tree’s lowest branches to study the family at their campfire. The bourbon had already worn off in the cold, and I was beginning to regret not putting on a jacket for this errand. The courage I’d felt in the kitchen had completely dissipated.
But then I caught sight of Robin looking down from the balcony door. She must’ve just come home from her Monday seminar. Backlit against the recessed ceiling lights in our kitchen, her body was elegant and slim in her professional clothes. Still an alluring woman, I thought with an ache of regret that only a man married twenty years will understand.
Now I walked back toward the house, fully conscious of being observed by Robin. I stopped at the barbecue, the empty compost bucket in my hand exuding a high-pitched stink. “You folks planning on staying the night?” This time my voice sounded an inch or two closer to natural.
“Thought we might,” said the man, without looking at me. He poked at the fire with a gardening hoe he must’ve found in the tool shed. (Robin never remembers to lock the shed, and I made a mental note to present that charred hoe handle as exhibit A in my case against lackadaisical home security.)
“But you’ll be moving on tomorrow,” I said, trying to frame the words as a statement rather than a question. The fire flashed and smoked with dripping grease from their dinner.
“Tomorrow never knows,” the man said, invoking the Beatles’ song title – which frankly threw me off with its poetic turn. Suddenly both the man and teenager lifted their eyes to meet mine, a swift and deadly motion. It was as if they’d choreographed and practiced this move for just these sorts of occasions. Only then did I observed how physically impressive these two birds were. The man must’ve been close to two hundred pounds. And the boy, though much lighter, was just as tall – and very wiry. Remarkable specimens, both of them.
I was casting around for something more to say when I noticed in the firelight a pile of something in the snow near my feet. I thought at first it was an old frozen rag until I saw the oozing patch of bloody fur. In a spasm of comprehension my gaze shot back to the knots of sizzling meat suspended over the fire, and I knew for the first time what those cook smells were. Good God! What would Robin say when I reported the news that our visitors had actually killed and flayed two squirrels that were now roasting over our backyard grill? Suddenly the whole earth seemed to tilt like a ship’s deck under my feet. The tables had turned – and with delirious speed. I stood shivering before the Starlings like a man on trial. But then the youngest one met my gaze with an honest, twinkling smile, and I saw with relief and sudden nauseous horror that she was holding a package of hamburger buns.
“All right then,” I said, feeling dizzy. “Stay safe.”
When I went back in, I was careful to lock the door behind me.
It will come as no surprise that the Starlings were still there the next morning. Early risers, they had already lit a small fire in the barbecue and were staring into its pale heat with the blank expressions we all wear at that hour of the morning. The outside temperature read thirty-nine degrees and, as I scooped coffee into the coffee maker, I briefly considered making extra for the man outside and his teenage son. But I couldn’t very well do that without at least fixing up some hot chocolate for the smaller kids. The hot chocolate, of course, would only make sense with some warm toast. So, seeing how one thing would always lead to another, I finally decided to stick with my normal routine and made the usual amount of coffee.
Robin came down in her pajamas and bathrobe and, after filling her mug, joined me at the balcony window. The two littlest Starlings had discovered an old yard toy in the toolshed, a blue plastic motorcycle – one of Athena’s favorites when she was little. They pushed each other around the yard, laughing, while the father sat as motionless as a bullfrog in my old office chair, bundled in his denim jacket and hoodie, gazing vacantly into the fire. The teenage boy stood in a sentinel’s pose on one of the picnic benches, hands in pockets, his eyes almost as deserted as his father’s.
“They must be hungry,” Robin observed, pulling her robe together with one hand. “And cold.”
“The sun should warm them up soon,” I said hopefully. “It’s actually going to be pretty nice today.”
Now our daughter Athena came down, already dressed for school.
“Good morning, Glory!” I said. “You’re up bright and early.”
Athena didn’t answer, but only made a sort of grunt as she pulled down a cereal bowl from the cupboard.
“Tuesday morning choir practice,” Robin told me with weary tolerance for my chronic ignorance about Athena’s activities. I want you to know this wasn’t always the case. When Athena was in grade school, I was the one who had her soccer schedule memorized, who took her to swimming lessons and knew when her ballet performances were. And I was the one who remembered to get the tickets for her spring recital ahead of time. I knew all her friends’ names and the titles of her favorite songs and movies and books. Up to now I assumed puberty had something to do with my new status in the family as the chronic ignoramus. But I was beginning to suspect Athena’s adolescence was going to last the rest of my life.
“Are the Vags still here?” Athena said, pouring milk into her cereal.
“Don’t say Vags, honey.” Robin turned to look at our daughter. “Are you wearing that blouse?”
Athena glared at her mother by way of an answer.
“Isn’t it a bit much?”
“You’re the one who gave it to me.”
“Yes, for special occasions. Not school. It’s too distracting for study. It leaves way too little to the imagination.”
“What do you think, Daddy?” Athena turned to me.
“Me? I have no imagination.” I turned to the yard. “Should I bring them out some food, or…? What’s the protocol here?”
Now Athena strode, with her cereal bowl, toward the balcony window to study the vagabonds through the glass. Down in the yard, the whole family was now huddled around their meager fire sharing a large bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos. “They actually look kinda nice.”
“That boy must be about your age,” Robin said, projecting her Buddhist smile toward the yard. “Have you seen him in school?”
I had to go along with Athena on that one and said as much. We were talking about a family that was subsisting on squirrel meat and Flaming Hots. Did Robin actually think the kids were enrolled in school?
“When are you going to step outside of your bubble?” Robin looked into my eyes with a pitying frown.
Classic Robin! Here she is wondering if one of these hunter-gatherers might actually have passed Athena in the hall on the way to trigonometry and I’m the one in the bubble!
“Well, on that crazy note. I’ve got to get to go make a living,” I said and, shouldering my workbag, went to put my empty coffee mug in the sink. “Radically accept that,” I added under my breath – far too low for anyone to hear.
A client cancelled on me that afternoon, so I came back from work early. The first thing I did was look in the backyard. To my relief, the yard was empty. The swivel chair and the ashy remains of the fire in the barbecue were the only obvious signs anyone had been camping there the night before. I took a deep breath and went to the bedroom to put on some jeans and a sweatshirt, thinking I’d bury those squirrel guts before god-knows-what came around to eat them. Whistling a Beatles tune, I slipped on some hiking boots and went out to assess the damage.
No sooner had I stepped out on the back step than I spotted some activity. Not in our yard, but in the adjoining play lot. There are two hollow concrete cylinders back there – remnants of some ancient water project that had been repurposed as playground equipment back in the 1960s before tort law put an end to such whimsical improvisations. I saw secretive movement in one of the cylinders. As I approached, I caught diagonal sight of two figures huddled inside one of them and I could smell the sweet, oily scent of teenagers vaping. One of the figures I now recognized as Athena. The other was the boy who’d slept in our yard that night.
They both looked up as I approached.
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I’m just cleaning up a little.”
“Daddy, can Nathan stay for dinner?” Athena said innocently. This was a trick she’d been using since grade school. Even though I had long ago made myself clear that I refused to be put on the spot with these sorts of public requests. “Nathan?” I said with equal innocence. Of course, I knew full well who Nathan was.
“Daddy. This is Nathan Starling.”
“Hello, Nathan. Nice to finally meet you.” He nodded at me sleepily from the concrete tunnel. “As for dinner. We’ll have to see about that. I’ll check with your mother when she gets home.”
“Why don’t you just text her?”
“Because she’s teaching. It can wait an hour,” I said and turned to go. I felt I’d made a good escape, bought at least sixty minutes of time to figure out a way of refusing Athena’s request. But as I worked in the yard, stabbing at the frozen ground with the garden spade, I could come up with no decent way of denying her new friend dinner.
Heavy with defeat, I went to return the garden spade to the toolshed, where something dark on the floor caught my eye. When I saw that it was a set of nylon sleeping bags, carefully rolled and stored there, I knew my troubles had just begun.
I spent the next several hours in my downstairs office, happily shut off from the rest of the house. I heard Robin come home around five-thirty, but never went up to say hello. When I felt satisfied that I was caught up with everything for work the next day, I went upstairs to get a beer.
I seemed to be alone in the house. Soothed by the sound of the furnace kicking in and by the feel of warm slippers on my stocking feet, I opened the fridge to see what was there. I finally selected an IPA and ambled over to the window to admire my newly cleaned-up yard, wondering distantly how the whole dinner-with-Nathan question had been settled. Looking back, I can now appreciate these few thoughtless actions as my final moments of true innocence. What I saw when I looked into the backyard was my future – handed down to me like a sentence.
Once again, a fire was blazing in the barbecue and the Starlings had circled around it. But this time their configuration had been altered to accommodate Robin and Athena. True! My wife and daughter, both bundled in down jackets, had seen fit to join the Starlings for dinner! They were all there sitting around the fire, laughing and talking, a package of bratwursts broiling on the grill. To add insult to injury, the father of the family had abandoned my broken office equipment for one of our brand new Bass Pro Shop camp chairs, and he seemed to be drinking one of my hefeweizens. It looked like quite a party. How can I explain the shiver of betrayal I felt at discovering that I – in a sense, the founder of the feast – had been left inside to watch this party from the balcony window? It was an ecstatic kind of heartbreak – like something divine. I didn’t understand it at the time and still don’t.
In a lust of outrage, I threw open the sliding glass door, stepped onto the balcony and called down to my wife. “What the hell, Robin?”
“Come join us, honey. You have to hear Joe’s impersonation of Jerry Stiller. It’s hilarious.”
“It’s the only one I do.” Joe said modestly, looking up at me from his camp chair.
“Joe?” I said, again playing innocent. I could see full well who Joe was.
There seemed to be no way to avoid going down there and hearing Joe Starling’s Jerry Stiller impersonation. Even the slightest sign of balking at the invitation would have shut me out of Robin’s world permanently. This much I understood. Robin has often described me to friends as antisocial. It’s true I like my alone time. I have what I consider to be a healthy suspicion of outsiders. When Athena was little, my attitude had the effect of drawing the two of us together in a sort of father-daughter union of hostility toward the outside world. But something changed when Athena was in sixth grade or so. Again, I’m laying the blame squarely on hormones. She grew oddly sympathetic to her mother’s spirit of community responsibility. I say “oddly” because the two of them fought like Tasmanian devils most of the time. Still, there was a bond that developed between them, something chemical. And the worst part of it was that Athena, my little girl – “daddy’s girl,” so to say – had begun more and more to see me through her mother’s eyes. Which is to say, as a disappointment.
I stood on the balcony and looked down at that cookout party, nursing my confusion. Finally, I nodded in assent. The fact is I didn’t want to miss it – whatever it was. Robin really did look lovely in the firelight, holding the stem of her wine glass, her legs pulled up under her in her camp chair. And the bratwursts sent up their own smoky enticements from the Starling’s wood fire.
“Guess it’s gonna be dinner with the Starlings,” I muttered as I pulled my jacket out of the hall closet.
When I stepped outside with a folding chair in hand, Robin introduced me to everyone. There was Joe, the father, who stood now to his full six feet two inches to bump elbows with me, transformed by Robin’s grace into a proper southern gentleman. Nathan, perched on the picnic table next to Athena, nodded shyly and stared at the ground when Robin explained that, in years past, he had studied at Franklin Academy of Fine Arts where he had won several awards for his spoken word poetry. Then there was Byron, the seven-year-old, master of firewood, whose preschool career had been permanently derailed by the pandemic. And finally his little sister Lena, all of five, who had never been to school at all.
“How are you enjoying that hefeweizen, Joe?” I said, setting up my chair on the lawn.
“A little yeasty. But that’s true of all hefeweizens…”
A little yeasty! Yes, I thought, I suppose it’s a good deal yeastier than the diet Sprite you were guzzling at breakfast.
“Joe is a bartender by training,” Robin explained, maybe reading my thoughts.
“Yes. He was just telling us how the kids lost their mother in the pandemic. She worked right here at the medical center.”
“Janitorial services,” he told me and peered so directly into my eyes it was as if he was trying to discover at the back of my retinas the answer to some nagging question about the universe itself. I almost blushed under his gaze.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“She was one of the good ones,” he said and returned his gaze to the fire.
I was wondering exactly what he meant by that, if I should take offense, when the first raindrop hit my face. Whether it was a rogue drop or a harbinger of a true storm was hard to tell. I glanced at the moon, partly obscured now by clouds. Hadn’t it been clear just a half hour ago? Jesus H. Christ Almighty, why wouldn’t anything ever stay put in this world? My mind started to race. What were the possible implications if it really opened up?
“Did I just feel a raindrop?” someone asked.
“Joe, Robin tells me you’re quite an impersonator,” I said, trying to change the subject – trying, I suppose, to distract the weather itself.
“I only do the one,” he said. “You know, Frank Costanza from Seinfeld?” Joe straightened up in his camp chair and let loose a great, yawping “Serenity now!”
Robin giggled girlishly and reached over to touch Joe on the arm. “It’s so spot on!”
“Daddy, I think it’s raining,” Athena said with a whine in her voice left over from her tenth year.
“It’s nothing, honey,” I said and turned to Joe. “Can you do any more? How about that scene where he challenges Elaine to a brawl?”
“You mean this? ‘You wanna piece a me? You wanna piece a me? You got it!’”
Now I was chuckling myself. I had to admit, Joe did a very good Jerry Stiller.
“Daddy, let’s take everything inside. It’s really starting to rain.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said, studying the sky judiciously.
The Starlings sat politely and stared into the fire, each of them – down to five-year-old Lena, who was contemplating one particular bratwurst sputtering sadly in the rain – waited with animal stoicism to learn what the next sudden contortion their fate would take.
Finally Robin stood up. “Let’s all go inside then. Everyone help bring up the food.” She began folding her camp chair.
Joe, Nathan and I helped gather all the food and everyone hustled it into the house. I watched the kids step through the sliding glass door and look around with a sort of stunned disbelief at our downstairs TV room.
Now it was only Joe and me standing by the barbecue, watching the meat cook. I held the spatula and Joe the serving platter that Robin had thrust into our hands. “You think these are done?” I asked him finally, the rain pelting my shoulder.
“To a tee,” he told me.
Together we began to load the platter.
Of course, the Starlings slept inside that night – and every night that followed. Our TV room became their permanent campsite. The downstairs bathroom – recently renovated – began to smell permanently of Nathan’s patchouli. I guess you would say it was an adjustment. One morning I came down to my office and found Joe sitting at my laptop. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, looking up. “Robin told me your password.”
“Why would I mind?” I said, confident that sarcasm was outside the hearing range of any Starling I knew.
“I’m just. I’m trying to locate Roneesha’s sister. She lives in Atlanta, last we knew. She never did find out about Roneesha’s passing…”
“Oh,” I said and sat on the sofa I have in there.
“I’m starting to think maybe she didn’t make it,” he told me matter-of-factly. “Anyways… I’ll let you get to your work.”
He got up from my desk and left the room. Something about the way he said that – “your work” instead of just “work” – seemed to hold some judgment in it. As if I was just fooling around, as opposed to everyone else. Well, I let it go. You can spend your life agonizing over word choice. Second guessing a person. It’s not worth it. Play dumb. That’s my motto. It’s worked so far.
About a week after the Starlings moved in with us, I was having breakfast with Lena, the youngest. Breakfast was a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and raisins, a cup off coffee for me, a glass of juice for Lena. This had already become a kind of routine. I’m always the first up in our family, and Lena, being five, is an early-riser too. She sat next to me at the table, eating silently, watching me look through the news on my phone.
“Looks like we’re finally going to have some decent weather,” I said, looking out the window.
Lena turned to look too, but said nothing.
“In the fall, if you’re still here, you can start school. How would you like that?”
Lena shrugged and picked an almond slice from her oatmeal with the very tip of her spoon.
“There’ll be other kids your age. That’ll be fun right?”
She nodded solemnly and without conviction.
“Well. Don’t you want to learn things? Learn how to read?”
Lena looked at me. “Why?”
“Well… It’s fun for one thing. Passes the time. Me, I always have a book on my nightstand.”
“What’s it doing there?”
“Well, it’s…” I looked at Lena. Maybe this was the first time I really looked at her eyes. I’d never noticed before that they were green. They were her father’s eyes, beautiful against her dark skin – which Robin had described as “café au lait.” “Okay. Wait here a minute,” I said. “I’m going to show you something.”
I pushed back my chair and went into the living room where we had a pretty sizable bookshelf. It was filled mostly with Robin’s books left over from her college days. Many of them were stamped on the edge with words like Campus Book Store and USED PRICE, etc. From all those hundreds of books, I went right to our copy of Alice in Wonderland. When I turned to go back to the dining room, I almost ran over Lena. She had followed me into the living room, silent as a cat. “Come sit down,” I said. “Have you ever heard of Alice In Wonderland?”
Lena shook her head. We sat on the sofa together, and I opened the book to the title page, reading, “Alice in Wonderland, Jabberwocky, and Other Nonsense, by Lewis Carroll.” I looked up from the book. “Athena used to love the poems in here when she was your age.”
“Athena did?” Lena said, suddenly interested.
“She loved them. Her favorite was Jabberwocky.” I flipped through the chapters, explaining to Lena a little about the author. “You see Lewis Carroll was a brilliant mathematician in England. And he liked to treat words sort of like numbers…”
Lena didn’t say anything. Of course, she could hardly have understood. And frankly, I didn’t either.
“Anyways, he wrote these stories and poems to amuse a young girl he knew, who…” I stopped there, deciding it was possible to know too much about the author of any book. In any case, I had come to the poem in question, marked by an old elementary school valentine card upon which some second grader named Jeremy had scrawled Athena’s name. “Okay. Here it is,” I said and began to read.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
Lena listened to the poem, laughing at my phony British accent and my exaggerated character voices. It wasn’t just her father who could do voices, I thought. I really put my heart into it when it came to my favorite lines: “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
I really chortled in my joy on that one. And Lena was in stitches. “Read it again!” she screamed. And so I did. Over and over, just as I had with Athena a lifetime ago.
Lena and I were still on the sofa, recovering from the last reading when she noticed a photo album on the lower shelf of our coffee table. She lifted it out with two hands and began to flip through it.
“Who are these?”
“These? This is Athena, age one,” I said, reading the handwritten notes next to the photos. “See how chubby she was?” I pulled the album a little closer to me. “My sweet girl.”
Another photo showed Athena, about three years old, holding my hand at the zoo. We were standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking at the camera, surrounded by crowds and crowds of strangers – people young and old. It was a bright autumn afternoon, judging by our sweaters, the flaming leaves, and the blue sky behind us. I looked at the photo, lost in it. Suddenly I felt as if I might separate from my body. “Sweet girl,” I said again and touched the photo. “What a beautiful day.”
Lena touched the photo too, her little finger next to mine. “Frabjous day,” she said, correcting me.
Greg Golley is a stay-at-home dad, trained as a teacher of Japanese literature. His academic book, When Our Eyes No Longer See (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008), was translated and published by Heibonsha for their paperback series in Japan, where it won the Miyazawa Kenji Award in 2015. He lives in Chicago.