The Byrd of Orson Wells
The Byrd parked his bike and cut the motor in front of an old wreck of a factory on the outskirts of a little town called Orson Wells, CA, just east of the Salton Sea. The town’s population was 58 and falling. There wasn’t even room for him to stretch his wings anymore, but he stayed there anyway.
The chain-linked fence that defined the property did little to set it apart from the encroaching desert. The steel had rusted to the color of oxidized earth; weeds protruding from the ground wound their way through the links until the two were as good as one; gaps along the fence allowed all forms of sinewy creatures to walk and crawl across the barrier with little hindrance, until the factory remains became no more than another piece of a hardened landscape.
He scanned the warehouses and offices and two pillars that were the old smokestacks. Nothing really looked like what it was, but The Byrd had visited this site enough times to know what everything once had been. His father had died in the spring of 1982 working at this factory and The Byrd was drawn every year to the same spot.
It had once been a nitrogen fixation plant, which took the element from the atmosphere to make nitrates both for agriculture and for war. It was funny how a single substance like that could create or destroy depending on whose hands it was put in, like how an accident might result in a place where these highly virulent compounds were synthesized by men who often didn’t even possess formal educations.
Joseph “Jo” T. Byrd was one of half a dozen men killed in an explosion at the plant that occurred in the early morning hours before general operations commenced. And due to the close proximity of the buildings to each other it turned out it would be difficult to determine where the explosion had originated, so the investigation really went no further. The cause was never determined either. Someone had probably been negligent, but it did no good to go sullying his family’s name now.
The Byrd was born Edmund J. Byrd in November of that same year to the recent widow Martha Marie Byrd. His only inheritance was a few pieces of his daddy’s bike that hadn’t been completely blown to bits with the rest. These had served as the basis for the bike The Byrd rode to this day.
Jo Byrd had worked at the plant for twelve years as a foreman who oversaw the deliveries of workplace essentials, like toilet paper and antibacterial soap and copy paper and coffee creamer. His family, like the other families of the victims, received a small pension that provided five hundred dollars a month to the main beneficiary for the rest of his or her life. It was a pittance, but nobody tried to sue for more. Everybody just wanted to forget it, even though they couldn’t, what with the burnt out husk of the factory visible from their backyards.
It never did get rebuilt. The company that owned it allowed itself to be absorbed by a large energy conglomerate to avoid bankruptcy. In less than six months it had been fully liquidated, its assets sold across the border where cheap Mexican labor kept fertilizer manufacturing tantalizingly profitable. The remains of the factory lay undisturbed, dry-rotting in the desert air. To the old they served as a gruesome memorial, but to the young they were no more than an ash and steel playground. Every few years a group of high school kids would get wasted and sneak on out there to look for ghosts, and one or two would always end up seriously injured and have to be taken to a hospital over in Indio or Palm Desert.
The Byrd had a tender recollection of losing his virginity in one of those half collapsed storage buildings splayed out before him, in a room reeking of ammonia, rolling around on a floor littered with debris, with a girl whose name he wanted so badly to say again. Her family sent him letters from time to time, but he never had the nerve to reply. He chose not to remember the sterile lights and smells in the months that followed their first night together, all the hospital visits that ended with him sobbing at her bedside without any idea how to stop. He did remember the shard of glass that he accidentally rolled onto on that particular occasion of love making. To this day part of it remained stuck in his left ass cheek, reminding him with a little sting.
Taking one last look at the rotting desert, The Byrd started the motor of his bike and headed back for town.
The bar was empty except for The Byrd, Scarlett and Noela. Scarlett had a rag in her hand that she constantly ran up and down the counter, trying to get a nice shine out of a surface that was nicked and scratched from over a decade of serving patrons with idle hands, jaded men living in a town with no work and no escape, who didn’t mind carving their frustrations into senseless wood so long as Scarlett wasn’t looking.
The Byrd sat at a table against the far wall with Noela, saying nice things about her hair, how it looked like she must have gotten it done, insisting that she must have gotten it done even after she told him several times that she hadn’t, how it made her look like Meryl Streep. He liked making women feel pretty. He thought it was about time they realized that they were.
Noela, giggled at what The Byrd had just said, forgetting for a moment that she was twenty years his senior. Reaching across the table, she grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Byrdie, be my Valentine.”
“I would, but it’s May.” he said.
“It’s a better time to ask. Before anyone else.”
“There’s no good time.” He pulled his hand away. “I’m no saint and you’re no sick kid.”
“But I’m love sick.” she said.
The Byrd pushed his chair back and rose out of his seat. “Well I’m just sick of this.” He swept his arms around. “All this.”
“Hey, Ed if you don’t like the place you can get out.” Scarlett said as she bustled over to the table to wipe it down.
“Scarlett, you know I like your bar. It’s the only decent thing left here.”
“I wasn’t talking about the bar.” She worked her elbow furiously, trying to polish away years of wear in moments.
“I’ve got nowhere to go.” The Byrd said.
He had everywhere to go. Now that his momma was gone, nothing kept him tied to the town. It was dying anyhow. Give it another decade, wait for all the old timers to pass on, and Orson Wells would cease to exist. It was like the Salton Sea itself, everything that gave it life slowly evaporating away until nothing remained except dust.
Scarlett looked ready to say something as she abandoned her work and threw down her rag, but then the screen door flew in with a clatter, wire mesh fluttering as the door finally caught on the warped wood floor. She sighed and went over to drag it shut.
“It’s getting worse, this wind. I know it, and I’m sure you all can smell it.” The air carried the scent of the Sea, a smell like no other. It wasn’t just the perpetual rot. The Sea smelled like a factory, chemical, industrial, but it was not well ordered, controlled, so maybe it was more like a warfront, mustard gas drifting in every direction, indiscriminately killing. Who knew what long term cancer rates would look like? Asthma already occurred in the town at twice the national rate.
“You know they can smell it in Los Angeles and San Diego now, from time to time I mean.” Noela said, looking through the chicken wire that segmented the front window into a thousand empty stares.
“I don’t smell anything.” The Byrd brushed past Scarlett and pulled back the screen door. Sticking his head through the doorway he surveyed the empty street and all the empty buildings lined along it, waiting for people and things, for motion and light, to fill them. In an hour or so the sun would set and the dark would be absolute. Already the shadows had fully overcome the vacant storefronts. Next would be the bar. The wind threw up dirt, tossed his hair around. He breathed in, heavily. “It’s going to be a good night.”
The night settled in quickly. No matter how much light and heat the day brought, the night always stifled these in a jiffy. Without the hot press of living, breathing people, quartered close and snug, just a few feet from each other in their apartments and homes, darkness prevailed in cold, lonely silence.
The Byrd lay on the couch with only the television to light the house. It was a 1987 Higure Brand television with a 17 inch screen. The knob stuck and the clicker was broken so it only came on when he could stand to watch Mexican soap operas. His Spanish was getting pretty good. He understood when Carla called Hector a canalla presumido for cheating on her with their maid, Lucia. Then again, it was pretty clear from the pig noises she made at him.
In one sudden movement The Byrd was sitting up and leaning towards the television screen. Carla had got him thinking about his momma, the way she used to act when she’d walk into a bar filled with at least twenty intoxicated men and be able to handle the situation all right. Nobody ever got fresh with her twice. On the T.V. screen Carla slapped Hector across his face and he fell to his knees in a plea for forgiveness. She slapped him again and then kicked him in his rear as he fled from the room.
When he and his momma received the results of her tests and the doctor told them she had stage four lung cancer she just shrugged and said to him, “There ain’t nothing that ain’t dust or that won’t soon be.”
She died a little over a month later and he buried her using the last five hundred dollar check she ever received.
He rode over to Bert’s Place around noon the next day. Bert’s was a store that sold whatever junk you needed, sort of like a general store in the old west. Except the nearly empty shelves never got replenished anymore. Once a thing was gone it was gone for good. So Bert only traded with care. A person had to need something especially bad for Bert to give it away.
The Byrd entered the store without knowing what he needed. He only had this inexact feeling that Bert had something for him. It had occurred to him last night, while thinking about his momma, that the only person he had ever seen her friendly with was this squat old man called Bert. He could only recall a single instance of this happening but it was enough to get him thinking about it since it had happened only a week or so before she died.
He and his momma had been sitting in the shade of their front porch on one of those days when it was hot enough to get a person to risk breathing the outside air. Bert had come rolling up to their driveway in his dusty pickup, gotten out without even closing the door of the cab and walked over to the bed of his truck. “I found it,” he said, his voice trembling like a stalk of Burro-Weed. The Byrd’s momma told him to go fetch Bert a drink, which was her way of telling him to get out of their way, so he went inside and watched them from the window, half concealed behind a drape. His momma jogged down the driveway, clutching her chest in the way he had grown accustomed to seeing her do, all the way to where Bert was standing. He patted her on the shoulder with a big, calloused hand that made her withdraw her own hand from her chest for a moment and place it on top of his. Then they moved over to the rear of the truck, where it became difficult for The Byrd to see much of anything, except the bobbing of Bert’s head as he threw down the tailgate. And his momma had appeared a moment later walking back up the driveway with little arroyos winding through the dirt on her cheeks, hands planted square on her waist and a smile threaded on her lips. When she reached the porch she turned and waved as Bert got back into his pickup and drove off.
The inside of Bert’s place was perhaps even dustier than the desert outside. As he walked over to the counter every step The Byrd made left an imprint on the floor clear enough to read his brand of boot. Bert didn’t see him. He was too busy reading a volume on the carburetors of mid-century vehicles. The Byrd got his attention by ringing a bell placed in clear view on the countertop with a sign scrawled in marker taped in front of it that read Ring for Service!
Bert looked up on the second ring. “Sorry, finishing my sentence,” he said and rose to greet The Byrd. “What do you need?”
“Dunno.” The Byrd looked around the shop. “Not much left.”
“Yeah, well.” Bert moved around the counter to get a better look at The Byrd. “I don’t have much time left either.”
The Byrd leaned against the counter and focused his gaze on Bert so that each man saw the other’s face dead on. “You remember me?”
“It’s been a few years.” The Byrd said, bringing his face a little closer. The lighting was bad, so he thought it might help. “You knew my momma. Mrs. Martha Byrd.”
There was a pause.
“Yeah, I did.” Bert said.
“I came here for something.”
“You haven’t told me what you need yet.” Bert scratched his head. “Feel free to take a look around but I wasn’t really planning on parting with anything today.”
“I want to see whatever you showed my momma.”
“That was the first time in a long time I’d seen her smile or cry.” The Byrd said, edging closer. “It was the last too.”
The two men looked at each other unblinking, each waiting for the other to speak. The Byrd’s hands pushed into the edge of the counter as he leaned back against them, trying to focus on this pressure instead of on the one inside him.
“All right.” Bert led The Byrd down an aisle to a door at the back. It was marked with the same sort of sign as the countertop, except this one read Storage. No Peeking! Bert pulled a key from his pocket, jiggled it into the lock and turned it. Behind the door lay a dark gash that healed into dim shapes as Bert flicked on a single light.
The room had very little in it. There was a ladder and a hose, some old paint cans and not much else. Bert moved into the room and The Byrd followed, hesitant to believe that any of these objects could have had an impact on his momma but curious nonetheless.
“I found this when I was out scavenging in the desert.” Bert said, crouching in front of something The Byrd couldn’t identify. “It happens sometimes, where something that we think is lost comes back to us.”
“What?” The Byrd stooped over next to Bert and peered at what could only be described as a hunk of twisted metal.
“Help me get it into the light.”
The two men grabbed the object and carried it beneath the single overhead bulb. “It’s a motorcycle chassis.” The Byrd only realized this because some of the suspension was still intact.
“Found it almost a mile east of the old plant in a big patch of scrub.” Bert wiped his hand across his brow.
“This is what you showed my momma?”
“Wait.” The Byrd said. “I know what this is.”
“Took you long enough.”
“I thought it was destroyed.” The Byrd leaned down and touched it, feeling the cold metal as if checking it for a pulse.
“Nope. The thing rode the pressure wave right up into the sky.”
“What do you want for it?” The Byrd rose and dug his hand deep into his front pocket.
Bert looked straight at him and said, “I tried giving it to your momma but she refused. She said it was enough just to see it one last time.”
The Byrd stopped at the bar to say goodbye to Scarlett and Noela. Neither woman could believe that he was actually going. Scarlett chuckled and continued to rub down the bar with her rag. Noela straddled her chair and pouted her lips at him. “I really mean it,” he said.
“Really?” Scarlett stopped wiping for a moment. “No shit?”
The Byrd held up his leather knapsack as proof.
“What?” Noela looked ready to faint.
Scarlett moved over to the cabinet behind her and started rummaging around inside. “I know I saw it… here.” She pulled out a bottle of whiskey and thumped it down on the counter. “This is for you. A going away present,” she said. “It’s good stuff, so you better really be going.”
The Byrd took the bottle and nodded at her.
“Goodbye, Noela.” he called as he walked out the door.
The Byrd walked over to his bike and looked it up and down. He’d asked Bert to bury his daddy’s chassis where he’d found it and Bert had agreed. There would be no marker, no trace. It had gone back to the dust. Now The Byrd only had to put the whiskey in his knapsack and ride off into the desert.
Aaron Bagnell is the son of a librarian who spent his childhood rambling around San Diego, CA. He currently studies Earth Science and Creative Writing at University of California, Berkeley.