The hummingbird feeder was empty again. I was standing in the kitchen looking at the empty hummingbird feeder hanging from the eaves outside the window. It was swinging slightly in a breeze that was beginning to pick up, swinging slightly and I was looking through the drawers for the sugar to mix some sugar water when I heard him in the next room, whispering again.
“I will,” is what he usually whispered. He was always agreeing with something. You don’t know how creepy it is to hear an old man saying, “yesssss” just inside your range of hearing over in the next room.
Mom wasn’t keeping her sugar in any of the normal places you’d normally look for sugar. Outside the window, a hummingbird whizzed up to the feeder, hovered a second, whizzed away. I was torn for a second: do I go into the utility room and check above the washing machine for sugar, since that was where she kept the breakfast cereal and it wasn’t such a big step from breakfast cereal to sugar, or do I sneak over to the corner of the kitchen, over by the door closest to the living room and eavesdrop, try to hear what my uncle is promising under his breath?
I decided the hummingbirds would wait two seconds. “Yes… yes. I will, I will.” Nothing new on the whispering front. Sure enough, the sugar was above the washing machine, right where it belonged. I put a pan of warm water on the stove and stirred in a couple cups of sugar. When it dissolved, I went outside and funneled it into the feeder, then hung it back up.
The breeze was getting stronger. I didn’t know much about hummingbirds. They were so small – did they hide out when it was windy, or not? They didn’t strike me as the soaring types.
My uncle’s nurse wouldn’t be here until late in the afternoon. Until then, it was just him and me and whoever he was whispering to. Mom was out at some mall; it was never a good idea to try and calculate when she’d be back because she thought of new errands once she was out and could greatly inconvenience people who were waiting for her at home to come cook a meal; she could pile her grandkids into her car for a quick trip to the pharmacy and by the time she got back it was bedtime and they were dehydrated.
“Yes.” Always those sibilants. He’d been doing this, the whispered deal-making, since his heart attack. Since his wife was senile and in a rest home with a big fence, my mother had agreed to take care of him. He was a tough old guy and had recovered well. Or we had thought he’d recovered. He had his sense of humor back. Of course he wasn’t running laps around the track or anything, although mom did catch him chopping wood. Eighty years old, massive heart attack – they had to restart his heart twelve times that first day – and he chops kindling the first day he’s out of the hospital. “He’s a tough old logger,” is what mom had said.
My mother doesn’t believe me about the whispering because he doesn’t do it when she’s around.
I went into the living room. “Brought you some tea, Max,” I said.
He gave me a Nazi salute. “Sieg Heil.”
“The hummingbirds were out of food,” I said.
“Looks like we’re getting some wind,” he said. “Blowing down from the North.”
“Mom’s out. Sandra’s supposed to be here to pick you up at four.” Sandra was his Guatamalan nurse.
“That one.” He snorted. “She’s pregnant, you know.”
My heart jumped. I waited for pain to radiate down my arm, but the moment passed. “Why do you say that?”
“Wasn’t me,” he laughed. “Gotta be careful with those Catholics. Regular baby machines.”
“She married?” I asked. He shook his head. “What makes you say she’s pregnant?”
“I’ve good sources,” he said, and looked around himself theatrically.
I brought him a few of the photo albums from the bookcase at the other end of the living room. “Want me to turn on the television for you? I think baseball’s on.”
He nodded. I went outside to chop some wood. From the backyard I saw him sitting there on the sofa, leafing through the albums.
The wind had turned into a real storm by the time Sandra finally showed up. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Power lines were down and I had to take a detour.” A branch struck the roof of the garage with a loud bang, and we both jumped.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “He’s in the living room whispering as usual.”
“I should go check on him.” Her clothes were scattered around the garage. She picked them up, got dressed and went into the living room. I heard him say, “Sieg Heil” to her too.
There was a very loud noise as a big fir tree crashed through the roof of the house into the living room, crushing my uncle on the sofa. It took me a second to realize Sandra was screaming. I ran into the living room. There was dust and sheetrock and insulation everywhere.
“He was just sitting there one second,” she said. Then she started crying some more.
The sofa was buried under rubble, with the tree half visible on top it all. The wind blew through the hole into the house and whipped the dust and fiberglass particles around, stinging our eyes. It was the weirdest storm, all wind, no rain.
“Call an ambulance,” I said, “and the fire department.” I tried to dig him out, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I started tossing random junk through the room, it felt pointless but I didn’t stop.
“Phone’s dead,” Sandra said.
“Then help me dig,” I said.
I found a photo album and tossed that aside. Something had hit the television and that had burst, and books from the bookshelves had flown all over the room and the wind whipped their pages back and forth.
Sandra and I dug and dug. We didn’t know what else to do. It was like, if we stop digging, then what do we do? Digging was a good thing to do while we thought about it. Briefly, I wondered if he was really there, if there were really a sofa at all beneath all that junk, and if he was really on it. What if it’s just knickknacks and sheetrock all the way down, I wondered. I found a heart-shaped satin throw pillow; my mother had briefly been into sewing throw pillows and giving them away as holiday presents. This one was covered in dust.
Finally, the rain started. It grew quickly from a few fat drops falling through the hole in the roof to a downpour flowing into the house in great streams.
I imagined my mother looking at a selection of greeting cards, and buying lottery tickets. Sandra and I kept digging.