The anti-feeder speakers, of which there were many, seized on the concept of “precedent,” and all said the same thing in slightly different ways: that is, they had no problem with this particular bird feeder, which was tasteful and even not unattractive, but it would set a precedent, implying that soon Bristol Court would be overwhelmed by ugly bird feeders.

  • From my short story, THE BIRDS OF BRISTOL COURT, a story about widowhood and condo scandal.

 Here is the full story as published in Crack the Spine Literary Journal.

 THE BIRDS OF BRISTOL COURT

by

Peter Obourn

 

FLORA

The widow Florrine Smythe, who preferred to be called Flora, but not Flo, lived at 16 Bristol Court.

Flora sat on the stool in front of her dressing table, feeling her bottom spill over just a little on the sides. Once she had finished her facial work, she would carefully squeeze herself into her foundation garment, which worked in a ruthless and primitive way by pushing a lot of her upward in a flattering way. The problem was that when she had it on, she could barely breathe and was forced to sit only on the edge of the furniture. Three hours was about all she could take. She knew that the proper solution was to lose fifteen pounds, and every time she put the damn thing on, she committed to do just that, but soon after she had it off, and mealtime or between-meal time arrived, her resolve melted in the face of temptation.

 

MILDRED

The young widow, Mildred Forsythe, lived next door at 18 Bristol Court in a house that, at first glance, looked the same but, on closer examination, was just a little finer than Flora’s in every tasteful detail.

Mildred, who was seldom called Millie, was seated in her living room, trying to stay focused on a needlepoint pillow cover. Every few minutes, she walked to the front window, parted the drapes a fraction of an inch, and looked out onto the street.

On her fifteenth trip, her vigil was rewarded. A car pulled into Flora’s driveway and disappeared as the garage door was raised and lowered to allow the car to slip into the vacant spot in Flora’s two-car garage. Mildred knew the car, having seen this performance many times before. It belonged to Lucia Fiorini, one of the kitchen staff at the country club, who was delivering another meal that Flora would heat up and pass off as her own, with much theatrical detail. Mildred told her friend Betty that Flora would have made the perfect television chef, if only she knew how to cook.

Mildred now knew with certainty that right around six o’clock she would see Harold Overmeyer emerge from his house, dressed for an evening at Flora’s. Harry would have been invited for 6:00 p.m. He would never be unfashionably early, but he would also not dare to be late.

 

HARRY

Harold Overmeyer, a widower, lived at 17 Bristol Court, almost directly across the street from Flora and Mildred, indifferent to the subtle differences between the widows’ houses.

Harry was watching the Giants-Steelers game, which had gone into overtime. He looked at his watch. He was due at Flora’s in twenty minutes for cocktails, and he could not be late. He knew from experience he would not get his second drink if he were late. She would rush him right to dinner, thereby upsetting the flow of his entire evening. An evening with Flora required at least two manhattans. He felt so awkward around intelligent women. He wished Joan were there to steady him, which was absurd: the only reason he was with this woman was because Joan was gone.

He was going to miss the tense sudden-death ending. He still had to shower, shave, and dress. He amended the budgeted time for his toilet to ten minutes, down from fifteen. He wished he had listened more carefully to his son Jeffery, who had shown him how to record a program in progress. He looked at the remote, which had over fifty little buttons. He hesitated and then, afraid if he pushed the wrong button the whole system would self-destruct, gave up, sighed, pushed “Off,” and headed for the shower.

At 6:01 p.m., Harry, combing the few hairs left on his head as he walked, hurried across the street. He glanced up at Mildred’s front window but did not see her because, except for one eyeball, she was concealed behind closed drapery.

 

DINNER

Flora was stiffly perched on the edge of the sofa, trying to breathe more or less naturally. Harry was deep in the wing chair, which must have been the favorite of her late husband, Charles, whose portraits at every stage of advancing age and weight were scattered around the house.

“Shall we eat?” said Flora brightly.

“Sure, Flora,” said Harry, smiling, “but let’s have just one more short one.”

Flora left Harry to make the drinks while she went to the kitchen to pretend to put the finishing touches on the meal.

She stirred and tasted, wondering how she could get Harry off the subject of his grandson Zeke. “A good kick in the pants—that’s what he needs,” Harry had said at least three times, and she knew the repetition would increase with the second manhattan. He never had more than two, and then a glass of wine or two. She could live with that. At the right level of alcohol, he was a delight, but it was a narrow band.

Harry joined her in the kitchen, handed her a fresh drink, and walked to the window. “Had a terrible drive today on that hole,” he said, pointing across the cart path to the golf course. “Sliced it over the rough; ended up somewhere over here, I think, in Mildred’s bushes. Out of bounds—a new four-dollar Titleist.”

Flora, coming to his side, could not imagine a more boring subject than golf. “It doesn’t look that bad, do you think?” she said. “Can you imagine that thing could cause such a stink?”

Harry looked out the window again. He couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. “I’m sorry, Flora, you lost me. What thing?”

She pointed. “My bird feeder—right there.” There was Flora’s bird feeder, ten feet away, with a squirrel sitting on it, greedily spilling sunflower seeds. Until the day before, he hadn’t even known it existed, even though he drove past it every day in his golf cart. No one could see it, except from Flora’s kitchen.

“Charlie’s sister gave it to me. Usually, I forget to fill it, but now I’ll be damned if I’ll take it down. I won’t stand by and let that bitch Alice try to push her weight around. She thinks she’s queen of the condos.”

The damn thing had nearly caused them to be late for their tee time. When he dropped by to pick up his golf buddy Simon Morgan, Simon’s wife Alice had made Harry sign a petition in support of her campaign to force the removal of Flora’s birdhouse. “I signed the petition to allow it to remain,” said Harry, which was true because, as it happened, later that same day Martha Birnbaum had arrived with a petition to allow the feeder to stay. Martha loved to talk. Without hesitation, he signed it and encouraged her to move on to get more signatures.

“You’re a doll,” said Flora.

Flora went back to the stove for some more culinary stage business. He walked over and stood very close to her at the stove. He leaned against her, then glanced down at her slimmed, solidified hips and waist, puzzled by what was different about them. She rattled the cover on the empty saucepan prop she had placed on the stove top, then added a touch of pepper to the mysterious mixture of ingredients on the stove and, finally, fiddled with the controls, turning one up and then back down again. “There,” she said. “Just needed to kick it up a little.”

Dinner went smoothly, although she never got Harry too far from the subject of his lazy 25-year-old grandson. Then Harry insisted on helping her clean up. “You spent hours in the kitchen. It’s the least I could do,” he said.

She appreciated the gesture, but she was dying to release her confined body from its straitjacket and snuggle onto the couch. Cleanup could wait until morning, and she was sick of Zeke. So she said she had a headache.

Harry put his arm around her and held her close. “My fault,” he said. “I talk too much.” Ten minutes later, he left.

As soon as the door closed behind Harry, she slipped her dress off, unhooked all the stays, unzipped all the zippers on her girdle/corset/bustier, stepped out of it and, almost naked, feeling giddy and almost weightless, danced a few steps around the room. She flopped into Charlie’s armchair, where Harry had sat. He wasn’t perfect, but she had a warm feeling about Harry. Tomorrow, she’d clean up the mess and go shopping for some equally powerful but more comfortable underwear.

Harry walked slowly home. He sat in the dark for a few minutes, then turned on the TV and tuned to a basketball game. He sighed, and although he had no interest in the game, there were too many thoughts in his head to sleep. He leaned back on the sofa and allowed the flickering light from the game to dance around the room. He couldn’t decide if she was shallow and superficial or charming and genuine. Somehow she seemed to understand him, know how to please him, make him comfortable.

 

THE MAIL

The mailboxes for 16, 17, and 18 Bristol Court are mounted together on a single post at the curb on the widows’ side of the street. The next morning, at 11:30 a.m., Harry walked across the street to check his mailbox. He saw Mildred emerge from her front door thirty seconds later, with her coat wrapped around her shoulders, but he did not notice the curtains in Flora’s front window stir. Mildred walked toward the mailbox with her head down, watching her steps. He waited. “Hello, Mildred.”

She looked up and smiled. “Oh,” she said, “Harry, I’m frightfully sorry. I guess I didn’t see you.”

Harry went through his thin pile of mail. “Bills and junk. That’s all I get,” he said.

Mildred, who didn’t seem to have any mail, said, “Did you and Simon Morgan play eighteen yesterday?” Harry nodded. “So he’s back from his business trip.”

“Got in late—night before,” said Harry. “Barely made our tee time.”

“That’s nice,” she said, smiling at him again, brushing a wisp of hair away from her face. “Well, have a nice day. I have to hurry—Monday lecture at the Prosser. I never miss it. So nice to see you, Harry.”

“Yeah, it seems like we always meet at the mailbox,” he said. Harry, who did not wonder why Mildred seemed so interested in Simon, walked back across the street, set the mail on the hall table, and then went into the den, turned the television on, and started flipping through the channels. He’d never been to a lecture in his life.

After attending the art lecture, Mildred stopped at an antiques shop and then an independent bookstore that served espresso superior to Starbucks’. Back home she gardened in her tiny backyard, prepared a light crepes Véronique for herself, dined alone, cleaned up, then sat in her perfectly decorated and appointed living room and turned on the gas fireplace with the fake logs that burned but were never consumed. She read by the cone of light from the reading lamp next to her chair as darkness overtook the rest of the house.

 

WHAT FLORA SAW

Fretting about the bird-feeder meeting the next day, it was midnight when Flora turned out the lights and headed to her bedroom. As she glanced out at her bird feeder, out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw a silhouette in the dim light from the security lights along the golf-cart path. The figure stepped carefully into Mildred’s yard—a man. Before she could get to the phone and dial 911, he stepped on something and hopped in pain. At the same instant, Mildred’s back-porch light flashed on and off, the door opened, Mildred’s head appeared, and she more or less pulled the hopping intruder into her house.

Flora lay in bed, the worries about the bird feeder replaced by a replay of the scene of Harry and Mildred chitchatting at the mailbox. Could it be Harry?

 

THE MEETING

Harry arrived at Flora’s dressed in coat and tie, in accordance with the club’s dress code. Flora looked different. She looked fabulous. He hadn’t realized she had a waist. Usually, she looked sort of lumpy. Then, last Sunday she had a new shape: better but strange, firm and round, sort of like an ice cream cone. Tonight she had a red silk dress smoothly wrapped around her that showed she had a real figure. She pirouetted for him. “So, what do you think? I bought it at Nordstrom today.” He noticed her face was softer, with less harsh color. “They helped me with the makeup too. I think I lost the hang of it.”

“You look—you look wonderful.” They set off in their finery in Flora’s electric cart down the cart path on the third fairway.

The room was packed. Alice Morgan, who served on the condo board, was the instigator and leader of the campaign to remove the bird feeder. In accordance with Alice’s interpretation of the rules, the Royce Management Company had told Flora to remove it. Flora had appealed to the board.

They ran into Simon at the door.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Simon,” said Flora.

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss this,” said Simon. “I’ve got a surprise for you, Harry.” He handed Harry a golf ball. “That’s your mark, isn’t it?”

“Thanks,” said Harry. “Where the hell did you find this?”

Simon laughed. “I stepped on it in the dark,” said Simon as his wife rapped her gavel and called the meeting to order. Flora glanced at the ball as Harry slipped it in his jacket pocket. It said “Titleist.”

Alice explained to the condo owners what they already knew, that they could do as they liked to the interior, but the outside of the houses and all the grounds, landscaping included, even everyone’s front yard and backyard, were maintained by a management company engaged by the condominium association. Flora leaned toward Harry and said in a loud whisper, “That’s interesting. What about Alice’s flower garden?”

The anti-feeder speakers, of which there were many, seized on the concept of “precedent,” and all said the same thing in slightly different ways: that is, they had no problem with this particular bird feeder, which was tasteful and even not unattractive, but it would set a precedent, implying that soon Bristol Court would be overwhelmed by ugly bird feeders.

Harry slouched down in his chair wondering how it was possible for time to pass so slowly, when a late arrival caught his attention. She made a stir, because there were hardly any vacant chairs, and several men rose to offer her a seat. Simon Morgan removed his jacket from the empty chair next to him and she sat. Harry looked up and saw that Alice Morgan, sitting at the head table, was glaring at the new arrival who had interrupted the meeting.

As the woman sat, she turned toward Harry and smiled, but he had never seen her before. He’d thought by this time he had seen everyone on Bristol Court, especially the attractive women, of whom there were not many. She was wearing a plain black dress, what Harry called a “cocktail dress.” It was simple, with a round neck and long sleeves, but it clung to her slim figure in a fascinating way. Her lips had a hint of color. Her hair was sort of silver; pulled up, exposing her neck. Flora didn’t seem to be paying her any attention. She must have known her.

Mona Finnigan pointed out that many birds had come to depend upon the feeder and would starve if it were removed. Martha Birnbaum, the leader of the Flora supporters and a sweet lady, took even longer to point out the number of species that used this area as part of their migratory path, including several species Harry had never heard of, including one called a “tit,” which struck Harry as amusing. Finally, someone shouted, “You forgot the blue-footed booby, Martha!” and Martha, the sweet old lady, turned and hissed through clenched teeth, “Who said that?” Armond Zambini quoted from the United States Constitution and stated that things had come to a sorry state when a man could have the right to carry a handgun, when they could all shoot at each other, but were forbidden to feed the poor hungry birds. He had a deep booming voice, and his speech was simultaneously ridiculous and moving.

Suddenly, the door to the meeting room was flung open, and the condo association’s attorney rushed to the front of the room in a bustling flurry of paper. He apologized for being late, then announced that the motion under debate was out of order. The birdhouse was “explicitly” banned by the rules. The rules could be changed only by a two-thirds majority vote by petition at the annual meeting, which would take place in approximately eight months. The room erupted into mass confusion. Alice Morgan, sitting at the head table, turned quietly to the chairman, who nodded, struck his gavel, and the board filed out of the room. The meeting was over.

It was now after six. “Well, that’s that,” said Flora. “Let’s go to dinner.”

As Flora and Harry stood, the beautiful stranger also stood, turned, and approached them. “Hello, Harry. Hello, Flora,” she said.

“Hello, Mildred,” said Flora.

Mildred, thought Harry—another Mildred?

The woman gave Harry a strange look. “Don’t you recognize me? Do I look that bad?”

It was Mildred—his neighbor Mildred. “I’m sorry,” he stammered. “The dress. You changed your hair.”

“Yes, it is quite a dress, isn’t it?” said Flora. “Well, come along, Harry.”

Harry didn’t budge. “I’m so sorry, Mildred. We’re staying at the club for dinner. Are you alone? Why don’t you join us?”

Suddenly, Harry felt himself being forcibly yanked toward the door. “I’m sure she has other plans,” said Flora.

 

DINNER AT THE CLUB

At the bar, Flora was greeted warmly by a few of her supporters. The opponents avoided her and would not meet her eye unless Flora spoke to them, which she made a concerted effort to do.

Harry stopped in the men’s locker room, where all the talk was about Mildred.

In the ladies’ lounge, Flora ran into her chief supporter, Martha Birnbaum.

“So, what did you think of Mildred’s dress?” said Martha.

Flora looked around to see who was in earshot. “Alice better watch out,” said Flora.

“Alice Morgan?”

“Trust me on this one, Martha,” said Flora, raising her eyebrows knowingly.

They left the lounge together. “Uh-oh,” said Martha. “Here they come. See you later.” Martha left hurriedly as Alice and Simon Morgan approached, arm in arm.

Flora moved behind a potted palm, then stepped out in front of them. “Well, hello, Alice,” she said cheerfully.

“Flora,” said Alice, “I’m so sorry about the last-minute lawyer thing. It took me totally and completely by surprise, as you can imagine.” She took Flora’s hand. “I really, personally, have no objection to the feeder, but I’m on the board, you know, and as a board member—”

“Oh, give it a rest, Alice,” said Simon.

“Actually, Alice,” said Flora, “to tell you the truth, I really don’t give a shit one way or the other. By the way,” she continued, “don’t you think Mildred looked stunning tonight? She is finally coming out of her shell. It’s been so hard for her since she lost Desmond.” Alice and Simon exchanged a quick glance, but not quick enough for Flora to miss the look of dread on Alice’s face. It was a moment Flora would cherish, worth a thousand bird feeders.

Flora drifted through the club dining room, bestowing a relaxed smile on friends and enemies alike, finally arriving at the corner table where Harry was waiting. He smiled. “You were gone so long, I was beginning to worry about you,” he said. He stood and held her chair for her. “I hope you are not too distressed, Flora, about the way things went at the meeting.”

Flora, unrestrained by her new undergarment, turned gracefully and gave Harry a public and possessive kiss on the cheek. “Harry,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve felt so wonderful in years. I’m so glad you got your four-dollar Titleist back.” She turned to the young man in the starched white jacket standing next to the table. “Thomas, Mr. Overmeyer will have a Canadian Club manhattan, and I shall have the same—with two cherries.” She turned to Harry, reached across the table, and squeezed his hand, the glow of triumph on her face.

 

THE END