Fiction: Highly Classified by Eugenio Volpe

I’m standing at the kitchen window. My son is sitting crisscross on the countertop, his back against my chest. We’re watching the birds ravage our feeders—a female cardinal and both sexes of chickadee and finch. That’s what we get here in West Lafayette, Indiana. Nothing too exotic. Just the way God likes it. If he so pleased, I wouldn’t mind seeing something freakish, preferably an eagle or falcon. Any sex would do, but in the bird kingdom, males do have the finer feathers.

Micah just turned three. He’s our one and only. A titmouse swoops down, pecks itself a sunflower seed, and flies off. Micah says titmouse. He can name just about anything that eats from our feeders, even squirrels and chipmunks. Every morning before work, we spend an hour at the window naming birds. We’ve done so since day one. It’s healthier than the iPad. We see our kitchen window as one big flat screen. That’s how smart men view the world, through real windows, not technological ones. I’m not a smart man, but I work at the local university, famous for its quarterbacks and astronauts. I wash the windows and floors at the Bioscience Center. It’s all glass, tile, and brains in there. I like to wax philosophic with the geniuses. I ask these men questions about Micah. They say read to him. They say turn his attention outdoors. So I do, every morning. Today I’m heading into work late. My wife is having her face peeled.

It’s ten after ten. Rebecca should be home any minute. This special face peel takes half an hour, but costs three hundred bucks. We consulted Pastor Cawley about spending that kind of money on vanity. He gave us the okay, but only because we were decent enough to ask. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. That’s what he said to us. He also told Rebecca that she didn’t look a day over thirty. It bothered me to hear Pastor Cawley lie like that. Rebecca is forty-seven, as am I. We both have crow’s feet. She has some faint marionette lines. I’m grayish in the whiskers. That said we look better than Pastor Cawley and his wife, and they’re fifteen years younger than us. I hate thinking like that, but he’s the one who brought it up. Contrary to what Pastor Cawley believes, Rebecca doesn’t need false praise. She only wants what’s best for Micah, our little miracle. Rebecca wants to appear youthful for him. The other preschool moms are in their early twenties. On the first day of class, one of them referred to Rebecca as Micah’s grandmother. The sad thing is we may never meet our grandchildren. Rebecca is peeling her face just in case.

A third female chickadee enters the feeding frenzy.

“One, two, three chickadees!” Micah shrills.

It never gets old. I could listen to his rosy little voice appointing species of bird all day. Micah is that sublime. I hate to sound so proud, but God must understand where I’m coming from. I’m a so-so man, and even worse custodian, but I’m one hell of a father and an unbeatable disciple of Christ our Lord. I’m allowed to sing my son’s praises. I welcome God to test me. Unlike Abraham, I’d turn the blade against him just for asking, for second-guessing my faith.

The titmouse returns, perching itself on the outside pane. He stares at us through the window, his head tilted in curiosity.

“He’s looking at us,” Micah says.

She is looking at us. It’s a female,” I say.

I’m not one hundred percent on that. Its black forehead patch is the tiniest fleck. The larger the patch, the more likely it’s a male. I’m judging from information and images I’ve studied on the Internet, and I don’t trust that place. The Forestry and Natural Resources department is across campus. When I have time, I’ll drive over there and ask an expert. I’ll then share the scientific explanation with Micah, but for now, it’s a female on my authority. I hate gambling with his trust. If wrong, I could forever depreciate my cred. By the time Micah’s in college, I want to look like the wise old grandfather, not his dumb decrepit dad who’s still wielding a mop because he borrowed from his 401K to install a super-wide double slider kitchen window.

It’s twenty past ten. The spa is a ten-minute drive from here. The temperature is barely above freezing, but the sun is out. It hasn’t rained in days. The roads are bone dry. I’m sure Rebecca is safe. Maybe she stopped for gas. They’re re-paving Salisbury Street. Maybe she’s stuck in traffic, but why wouldn’t she reroute to Northwestern Ave? I’m not sweating it. Everything is great. We love each other so much. We’re so lucky to have Micah. I’m so happy. It’s almost stupid.

A male House Finch drops in for a hello. Micah says finch. I don’t make him specify. No need to zap all the fun out of learning. I remember when I was first teaching myself the classification of birds. Our kitchen window was just two narrow casements then. I’d stand before them with ten-month old Micah in my arms, our Audubon book open on the counter. He could only say two words, banana and church. I’d spot an American goldfinch or Red-bellied Woodpecker for the first time and mistake it for a godsend. Now it’s old hat. I see birds and feel nothing. I haven’t opened the Audubon book in a year. I’m starting to believe there’s a happy medium between ignorance and genius. There’s a kind of grief to knowing everything, but I shouldn’t worry. I’ll never be aggrieved with wisdom. I’m more dumb than not, and I’m glad for that, ecstatic really. I’m happy to be the whistling custodian buffing scuff marks from the floors of the Bioscience Center. I’d hate to be any of those sulky, heel-dragging geniuses. I respect their brains, but pray for their souls. Not a hint of spirit in their step. In that sense, Micah takes after Rebecca. He’s the happiest kid, rejoicing around the house nonstop. I press my nose into the back of his head and take a huge whiff. I can’t even describe how wonderful he smells. I would never try. I wouldn’t dare.

Another female chickadee lands. I wow about it for Micah’s sake. He’s deeply moved by the new, albeit redundant arrival. He’ll never get bored of these common birds. Unlike mine, his curiosity is the real deal. I’m sure he already understands that I try too hard. A kid of his acuity must have some gut idea that his father struggles to understand almost everything. I’d love for Micah to see my face if a Harpy eagle or Andean condor landed at one of our feeders this very second. That kind of brilliance would put a legit smile on my face.

I hold my breath and pray, but nothing freakish falls from the sky. I exhale. I tap a beat-beat-drum cadence onto the countertop. I look around the kitchen at more nothing until the sound of a distant chime puts me to the test. It’s Rebecca’s phone. I’d know it anywhere. She set her text messages to sound like a triangle saying hello. She’s offered to keep her phone on silent mode, but I like hearing it. I tell her to keep the volume up. On occasion, she politely insists, but I always insist further. It’s really not a problem.

Her phone chimes again. My mind wobbles and spins nonsense. Is Rebecca here in the house texting herself? Did she come home without announcing it? Did she never leave in the first place? The old logic finally kicks in: Rebecca left her phone at home. Dear God. She really shouldn’t have done that. It’s pushing ten-thirty. She should be home by now. There’s no practical explanation. The titmouse tilts the axis of its curious head. Micah pokes at the widow in attempt to startle it. The titmouse stays put, inquisitive as ever. Her phone says hello a third time, now a little devil in its voice. Rebecca never takes that tone with me. I don’t know why. I have my suspicions, but no clues. Like all things, I need it spelt out for me. Is she cheating? Only God and God alone can determine the cost of knowing.

Rebecca is never late. Maybe there were complications during her face melt. At this point, that’s the best-case scenario. She could have swung by Pastor Cawley’s for his approval on the peel, to scrutinize it for any deceitful charm. His house is only on the way home if she rerouted to Northwestern Ave. I have no reason to be fantasizing this. There’s been zero evidence, but then again, look at God, the greatest truth in the world, and largely unprovable. God is one big hunch in the gut.

Her phone says hello again. I leave Micah on the counter to investigate. It shouldn’t take long. Our house is just a two-bedroom ranch. The chimes aren’t coming from the bathroom, living room, or dining room. Our bedroom figures as the natural place so I go there. Her phone isn’t anywhere obvious. I drop on all fours and look under the bed. There’s nothing. I approach her dresser. The phone chimes again. It’s coming from across the hall in Micah’s room. I open her drawers and search anyway. This is my only chance to go through with it, the certainty I’ve always sought. Regardless of my findings, I’m going to hate myself more than I already do. I might as well be thorough. There’s a right way to do a wrong thing.

I open the top drawer and run my hand through her panties. Nothing there either. I open the second and third drawers. Nothing but blouses and slacks, all perfectly folded. I approach her side of the bed and lift the mattress, a sort of standing clean and jerk. One big glaring nothing. Satan chimes again. Someone certainly has a lot of something to say.

“The titmouse won’t stop looking at me,” Micah reports from the kitchen.

I enter his bedroom. It’s a good kind of mess in there, like a mad scientist’s laboratory. Plastic test tubes and beakers. Microscopes and telescopes. Protractors and compasses. Transistor radio parts. NO TOYS. The geniuses advised against them, especially action dolls. They recommended low-tech instruments. It’s how I’d raise my own children had I the slightest urge to procreate. That’s what an astrophysicist said to me. As a kid, I never wanted to be an astronaut, and as athletic as I was, I never wanted to be a quarterback. I only wanted to be a dad, and a better one than my own. Sadly, a man has to choose a woman for that. Rebecca is the best mother I could have landed Micah. First and foremost, she’s beautiful. I’d say she’s twice as smart as me, but two times zero is still zero. So like I said, she’s really beautiful. Lots of women are. I’m by no means comparing myself to Jesus, but I’ve sacrificed some for Micah. I’m a terrible man for even thinking that, but God knows how much I’ve invested in my son. God’s not the one who will punish me.

“Don’t fall off the counter, buddy,” I shout over a shoulder.

“Don’t worry about me,” Micah answers.

Rebecca’s phone is right there on his desk, a thin wire plugged into its charger port. The other end of the wire is wrapped around the positive terminal of an old ammeter I stole from the physics lab. Micah must have borrowed the phone for the sake of some highly imaginative science experiment. I’d hate to skew his findings. I scroll through Rebecca’s text messages, careful not to disconnect anything, my hands shaking with dread. As suspected, Pastor Cawley is the texter. I brace myself for her rod.

The messages say nothing. Nothing unholy anyway. It’s just him blessing her face peel with some scripture, and also reminding her to thank me for polishing the church floors and Pledging the pews. I started doing it a few months ago as self-prescribed penance for my thoughts on Lady Cawley. Only God knows, but I’m sure he’ll somehow let Rebecca know and inspire her to leave me. I’m an even worse husband than custodian. I’ve never believed that more than now, scrolling through her other texts to double check. My suspicions are falsified. She’s a saint, and I’m her ticket to heaven. She may already have a foot there. Pastor Cawley too. Even if he did lie about Rebecca looking young for her age.

“Fucking squirrel scared the titmouse away!” Micah shrieks.

I delete Pastor Cawley’s messages, but leave the phone connected. I go to the kitchen. Micah is kneeling at the window, pounding on the glass in attempt to frighten the squirrel. It’s hanging upside down on a feeder chowing seed. All the birds are gone. Micah is going to put both palms through the glass unless I say something.

“Some squirrels eat mushrooms,” I say.

Micah slaps the window once more for good measure before sinking back on his haunches. He crinkles his face in disgust. He hates mushrooms. Put one on his plate and he’ll toss a fit. I hook his armpits and draw him into me. He rests the back of his head against my chest. We watch the squirrel pillage all three feeders. Gluttonous pest. I kiss the top of Micah’s head. I kiss it again and again. I love him more than God could ever know. I love him a gazillion times more than Abraham loved Isaac. Some men put their sons in cages, but most put them on a cross. I have given Micah a seat before nature. He’ll make or unmake it as he wants.

The Corolla pulls into the driveway, and Micah loses it. He springs up and forward, head-butting my lip. The pain is a little something, deserved to say the least.

“Rebecca Mary Walters!” he shouts.

Rebecca gets out of the car, and waves to us like crazy. Micah pounds his palms on the glass, repeatedly chanting her full name as if trying to convince her that it’s so. The squirrel drops from the feeder, and darts across the yard up our oak. Rebecca mocks the covetous pest by scurrying to the window in short frenzied steps. Micah laughs. Rebecca puts her nose to the glass and kisses him. Micah slaps at her mouth with joyous energy. She smiles back with twice the exuberance, but her face looks painful, burning red and taut. I take a step back and taste my blood. I check my teeth. They’re intact. Everything is fine. Everything is more than fine. Everything is amazing, purely perfect. I am so happy. I am so happy it’s not right. Something must be wrong with me. What kind of a freak?

Eugenio Volpe is author of the eBook The Message. His stories have appeared in Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Contrary, The Nervous Breakdown, BULL, and dozens more. His recently completed novel won the PEN Discovery Award. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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