The Life List of Adrian Mandrick
Greenville, North Carolina, 1976. Everything Adrian needed had been loaded into his backpack the night before. He loved that. It was very early—that clear-headed part of the morning
when plans were made and not yet botched. His mother took out the map and stood at the kitchen counter in a cotton shirt and jeans, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, pushing her fingertip along the Carolinas, whispering where they’d go: “Forty south to Wilmington, Seventeen along the coast past Myrtle Beach, then west till we get to the swamp.”
They passed through the living room with their coolers and bags, Adrian first—the TV silent in the corner, Adrian’s father’s BB gun mute on the mantel. And while Greenville slept, they backed out of the damp driveway and sped off.
Adrian’s mother drove as the radio mumbled about a town called Love Canal, which sounded like a fairy-tale place where no one actually lived. Adrian sucked on Necco Wafers and studied her profile as she sang along with the song that came next, “Just slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan,” and “get yourself free.” In a place called Sunset Beach, they stopped for boiled peanuts that came in steamy wet bags, and when they got back into the car, Adrian teased his mom about hiding behind her big white
sunglasses in a voice like a guy from a cop show about to arrest her, till she laughed and slapped at his knee.
By late afternoon, they slid along the river in an old rented canoe, quiet, thinking their own thoughts, letting the sun and water press those thoughts into nothing. Spanish moss hung from the arms of towering cypresses like great loosely woven shawls as they floated beneath them. Adrian pulled the tongues out of his shoes so they’d dry better. His mother pursed her lips, scanning the trees, when—in a lightning flash of discovery—she gasped, mouthed Adrian’s name, jabbed at the air, and hissed, “Ivorybill!”
There it was. Perched on a branch of a cypress on the far bank of the swamp, the Grail Bird, the Ghost Bird, the Lord God Bird—the feisty, war-painted Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the extinct, most impossible bird on earth.
Or so his mother said.
In that wide-open moment, Adrian slipped down in the cool water and sloshed in the direction of the bobbing, joyful nearly two-foot-high creature, the river parting before him, the bird piercing the old tree again and again, its crest dipped in a bright blood red. As Adrian turned back to his mom and gestured broadly at the ivorybill, water fanned from his outstretched arm. She snapped a picture, and the woodpecker began to lift from the tree into the sky.
When they arrived back at the hot tar driveway and whirring window fans of the Greenville house, Adrian’s mother found the magnifying glass in the rolltop desk. They hunched together on the couch to compare her Polaroid with both a drawing of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and a drawing of a common Pileated Woodpecker in the Birds of North America field guide.
“See?” his mom said, squinting at her photo. “Yes, Adrian, there is the red tuft on his head. There’s the white on his face extending right down his neck to his back.”
She pointed to the drawing of the pileated in the field guide. “And see that?”
“That’s called the trailing edge. It’s black on the pileated. But see how on the ivorybill it’s white?” She pointed out the difference in the two illustrations.
Then she pointed at one of the partially opened wings in her own photo. “Now, what color is that?”
“White,” said Adrian, fingering the tight skin on top of his sunburnt nose.
The birds lifted everything up—outside in the trees or hopping around the grass or winging across the sky or down the highway by the bay or amid the live oaks on the dirt road by the Pamlico River. But inside the town with its concrete and its buildings, inside the houses with their rooms taped together like boxes, things were spilling, falling, gathering speed on their way to the ground.
Adrian’s mom threw a mug of coffee at the entryway wall just as his father was careening out the front door—just as Adrian and his older brother, Evan, were coming in with Slurpees. Adrian’s Slurpee spilled, and he stood there straddling it until Evan said, “Clean it up, nimrod!” His mom shouted, “Leave it! I’ll get it later,” but there would always be a stain under that welcome mat.
Then, a couple months later, pumping gas at the Shell station, Adrian’s mom spilled petroleum all over the asphalt and soaked
her shoes. She screeched like she’d been burned. “Stay in the car!” she warned Adrian, then she took off the sneakers and left them soggy and flammable on the pavement. Adrian still smelled gas all the way home, and when they came into the living room, his father smelled it too. He laughed, grabbed her by the arm, and marched her into the shower. The whole time they were in there, all Adrian could hear was the water running.
Sometimes they kissed right on the lips, their hands running up and under each other’s shirts, glasses and bottles clinking late into the night with friends from the contracting company. His mom cried out, “Dean, stop,” then they both laughed. Adrian snuck looks at them on the way to and from the toilet to pee, trying to identify them as parents. Other times, Adrian’s father looked worried or sad when his mother left the room. (Adrian had caught him doing it.) The next minute, his dad would catch up to her and they would argue. His mom would shoo Adrian away, saying, “Go on! Go outside!” while his father watched him with eyes full of rage or something like it.
When Adrian and his father played Battleship, his father always won. The night that changed, Adrian was maybe nine. His father said, “One more!” but Adrian won two games in a row, and it was past midnight when the pretzels were gone and his neck ached before he lost again. During that final big game, his father hid his aircraft carrier, battleship, destroyer, patrol boat, and submarine all in the center of the board. Adrian found one, sank it, and started searching the perimeters. By the time he came back to the center, it was too late. He had been duped.
As his dad bolted up, victorious, he flipped the spindly table
with his belt buckle and both boards fell so that all the pegs bounced and spread across the kitchen floor. “Pick up this mess!” he demanded, hands on his hips. Adrian didn’t mind putting the red and white pegs and gray ships back in the box—he liked putting things in order—it’s just that his dad had been the one that spilled them. Adrian’s mistake had been winning.
Not long after, Adrian’s father took his BB gun to the crows out the master bedroom window. He waited for their intermittent arrival like a sniper on a rooftop, while Adrian paced back and forth along the hallway, pausing in the bedroom door. The birds were tall and upright enough that he actually saw one of them topple over when it was shot, and by late afternoon, dusty black, square-tailed corpses littered the yard like fallen soldiers. His dad knew Adrian and his mom were crazy for birds. He knew they watched the sky and trees for them and listened for their sounds.
Late that night, she came into Adrian’s room and shook him awake. They stole out into the dark yard, collected the bird carcasses one by one in a bucket they used for watering, then buried them in a mass grave along the back fence line. Adrian didn’t remember going to sleep again when they came back inside, but the next morning, he woke up in a knot of blankets on the couch with his mother when his father slammed the front door.
That was about the time when Adrian’s stomach started grinding. The doctor said he had a duodenal ulcer. It made his stomach hurt, and he had to take medicine and drink milk. The doctor also said he needed to relax, but nobody ever said how. A couple of weeks after he was diagnosed, a perfect ball of poop
escaped from his intestines in the middle of the night without him knowing. When he saw it in his underwear, like some billiard-ball-sized egg he’d laid, he was so shocked he wadded his briefs around it and threw the whole lot into the laundry hamper. It was a month before he realized that his mother had certainly seen it or, worse, stuck her hand into it. She never said a word, just kept Adrian’s secret to herself. The whole thing was so distressing, his stomach hurt even more.
It turns out crows are one of only a handful of species that hold funerals for their dead, which Adrian read in National Geographic magazine. He thought back to the night when his mom had come in to get him and they buried all the birds, and he wondered if they had disturbed the natural way of things, leaving the crows with no corpses to grieve—no dark-suited crow processionals marching around the yard, folding tiny flags into triangles, playing taps on tiny trumpets. Adrian never told his mom what he’d learned. He could keep a secret too.
Goose Creek State Park, 1980. Labor Day. Evan, Adrian, and their mom and dad were unloading their cooler and bags at the picnic table by the river. The air was tart with pines. It was the last day of the year for swimming. The last day for a lot of things.
Circling high above them, in a sky suspended in a fishnet of clouds, a Red-shouldered Hawk screamed its descending “Kee-ah!” like an announcement or a welcome or a warning.
Adrian and his mom threw back their heads to locate the bird, and with her blouse slipping from her shoulder, she climbed on top of the picnic table, squinting into the sun, and echoed, “Kee-ah!”
The bird answered, “Kee-ah,” and back and forth they called, “Kee-ah,” “Kee-ah,” until sound filled the river basin.
Adrian’s dad shouted, “Get down from there!” for no reason anybody could see except that his mom was calling like a bird and Adrian was calling along with her. Adrian hadn’t even known he was doing it.
His dad yanked at the leg of his mom’s shorts, and she clambered down—their words sizzling like bacon in a frying pan, their backs shielding the boys from their faces—then he pushed her shoulder and she stumbled back, and he pushed her again so hard she fell to the ground. Adrian gasped. He thought Evan, fifteen then, might do something, anything, but neither boy moved.
His mom stood back up with little bits of gravel poking out of her palms, and to everyone’s surprise, she slapped their dad’s stubbly red face. Evan and Adrian waited for the explosion, but their father just looked down and nodded his head, too fast, like the quiet movement in the beginning of an earthquake.
They all walked back to the car in silence. Evan carried the heavy cooler by himself while Adrian carried the blanket and bags. When they were almost to the Pontiac, their mom stumbled over a railroad tie that separated the path from the parking lot. It wasn’t like her to stumble like that, and Adrian reached out to steady her. But his father lunged for his wrist and held it up in the air like a prize, until Adrian relented. “Okay, Dad, I’m sorry.”
That night, as the brothers lay stretched out in their beds, police arrived. They could hear their father and mother yelling, but they never heard the voices of the cops. They just lay there staring at the ceiling, occasionally giving each other a look to affirm they
were not alone. When the police car drove away and its red taillights snuck along the bedroom wall, Adrian got into Evan’s bed.
Outside, the cicadas began chirping again. Measuring the night. It was late.
Finally, Evan said, “That one girl, Cindy, called me on Friday.”
“Who? The one from the pool?” Adrian balled a pillow up under his neck.
“Yeah, the one who takes a Walkman everywhere and actually listens to Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs.”
“Who’s Boz Scaggs?”
“That’s not the point, a-hole. She’s totally cool. You’ve seen her. Plus she won the talent show freshman year.”
“Gymnastics.” Nothing more needed to be said.
“I’ll never have a girlfriend,” Adrian stated simply.
“Yeah, probly not. A-hole.”
Adrian shoved Evan playfully by the shoulder. Evan shoved him harder. Then when Adrian was keeping himself from falling off the bed, Evan gathered him up and tossed him back down like a pile of dirty clothes and pinned him, eyes screwball maniacal, inches from his face.
“I am not going to hurt you,” Evan wheezed like the guy from The Shining, then went in for a grinding, head-to-head noogie. “I’m just going to bash your brains in!”
“White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man!” Adrian screeched, trying to twist out of Evan’s hands. “White man’s burden!”
Evan heaved himself forward so his whole weight mashed into Adrian’s shoulder and, in his most sadistic Jack Torrance, whispered, “It’s his mother. She . . . uh . . . interferes . . .”
They both laughed hysterically, jabbing each other in the ribs,
whipping the sheets onto the floor, swatting at each other’s heads with pillows, breathing hard. Soon they lay on their backs again, smiling into the darkness, and before long, Adrian fell asleep against his brother’s cool, pimply back.
Adrian woke with the gnawing of the ulcer in his stomach in the wee hours of the morning. He got into his own bed and pulled the covers up over his head, lying out like a cartoon character that had been run over by a road paver, head to one side, feet pointed down. He tried to stop breathing. In times like these, he liked to imagine that if someone came in, they wouldn’t even notice him there, he was so flat and still. But the grinding in his stomach only grew worse, so he decided to go for a glass of milk.
Just the little light over the stove was on when he turned the corner into the kitchen. There was his father—his large body curled up on the Formica floor, collapsed against the cupboard, crying.
He hadn’t heard Adrian come in at first, and he looked up suddenly.
Adrian tried to make himself invisible again and hurry away.
“Where you going?” his father demanded, hoarse. “You don’t just leave people like that.”
Adrian opened his mouth to try and say something—he didn’t know what—but his father shouted, “Get out!”
A week or so later, that’s just what they did. Evan, Adrian, and their mom drove north from North Carolina to New York State in their forest-green Pontiac in the middle of a workday and into
the night, with boxes and bags overwhelming the back seat and his mom’s easel jutting over Evan’s head.
Adrian was instructed to sit in front with his mother and was put in charge of the map. He’d never know why he was granted this honor, but it was the most important job of his life. In spite of all the rushing and shoving and open box flaps and garbage bags and slamming doors that had characterized their morning, examining the map made leaving seem crisp and orderly, like a beginning.
That long drive was thrilling, in fact, with their lives suddenly crowded ahead of them and the map telling Adrian precisely what came next—what river, what crossroads, what mountain, what town. They drove past the battlefields of Virginia and along the busy highways around Washington, DC (Evan kept repeating “the nation’s capital” as if he were making a joke). They drove over long bridges crossing the Chesapeake Bay and the wide Delaware River, and they got so close to New York City they could picture the skyscrapers rising into the clouds.
When they arrived in Kingston, the map went back into the glove box. They had nowhere to go. There had been someone their mom was going to call, some long-lost uncle, but whoever it was, he never answered. They stayed in a Howard Johnson’s for three nights, swimming in the pool in their shorts and crunching on ice from the machine, but that all cost too much money, and with no alternative she could see, their mom moved them into a building where they slept in a dorm full of people in bunk beds with two bathrooms at the end of the hallway—one for men and one for women. They ate breakfast and dinner with strangers at
long tables in another building two blocks away, and all the food, including what turned out to be “mustard greens,” mashed potatoes, and sloppy joe meat, came out of stained silver tubs. Most of their clothes and toys and books and belongings were forever stranded in the house they’d left behind. For a while, Adrian couldn’t quite remember who he was.
He stood with Evan on a street corner watching for a school bus that would take them to other school buses where they would go their own ways. Their mom looked, every day, for a job, trying everything, coming back haggard, asking the boys what they’d learned in school. Adrian learned that their new town, Kingston, was the first capital of New York, where the NY state constitution had been written. Then the British burned it to the ground. That’s what they got for waving their independence around like a flag.
At the end of his first week of school, Adrian’s mom took him with her to sell her wedding ring, which a fat, bearded jeweler put onto a scale and weighed like a grape.
“Not worth much to me,” the man said. “Guess it’s not worth much to you either,” he smirked, but his mother didn’t smile or laugh. Neither did Adrian.
As they walked out onto the street again, she folded thirty-five dollars into her wallet, and Adrian found himself peering into alleyways, half expecting his father to burst forth and demand to know why his ring was lying at the bottom of a yellow plastic bowl.
“Dean is capable of anything,” he had heard his mother say.
Within the space of a few weeks, Adrian’s mom secured work at the brand-new Hudson River Maritime Museum, at the
information desk. It wasn’t a real museum, she told them, just a historical one, but Adrian was deeply relieved. Even Evan hugged her and said, “G’ job, Ma.” The first Saturday she had a day off, she brought both boys for a visit, and they saw intricate models of ships, a real, life-sized tugboat, and Adrian’s favorite, tools for “harvesting” ice. The museum seemed like a victory they’d all won, and soon they were living in a house again.
Their mom drank wine in the evenings instead of whiskey; she bought oil paints and brushes and turned out paintings one after another—sunrises on the water, fruit in a bowl, roses on a table—mustard yellow, cadmium orange, cobalt blue, deep red. She made a close friend at work, Suzanne, with hair like a well-made brown hat, who began coming over to bring little tables and pots and pans and blankets and folding chairs and food, until everything was new.
Before Adrian even learned Suzanne’s last name (Bingham), she had moved in with them. His mom subtly stroked her forearm at the dinner table and left notes for her on the refrigerator when she left for work: “Can’t wait to see you tonight—xo June.” The two of them made meals with courses and desserts. They bought a new television. Evan was allowed to bring home friends (girls as well as boys). Adrian read for hours without ridicule and set up a bird feeder so he could watch pigeons loiter outside his window. His father would never have allowed any of it. And though Adrian was pleased by all the new freedoms, he feared things were too quiet. Like they said on the cop shows. Too quiet wasn’t good.
In the late afternoons before the women came home from the museum, when he sat working on his fractions and division at the
kitchen table—any pop or crack in the yard, low noise, or familiar motor sound from a passing car made him breathe shallowly and his heart pump in his ears. He leapt up from his work to peer through the curtains at the front window, imagining the possibility of standing opposed to his father, should he find them and come to call—imagining his father stalking around the corner of the house, BB gun braced against his shoulder, ready to take back what was his: his wife, the Pontiac, the small TV from the kitchen, and the two boys.
None of this plagued Evan, who sat hunched over in his bed with a jar of beef jerky at his side and a roach clip around his neck, playing the Doors, the Stones, Santana, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Evan wanted to stay sane until he got through high school, he said. He had no interest in writing a part for himself in the family’s little suburban drama, just wanted out of the whole fucking movie, “no offense.” He wanted to be an easy rider, like Dennis Hopper.
Stakes were highest at night. How could his mom hear the sounds on the street or in the yard when she was making so many sounds of her own? Adrian had heard night sounds plenty of times between his mother and father—repentant, punishing, or triumphant sounds. When his mom and Suzanne were together, though, the sounds were different and went on longer. Sometimes he couldn’t distinguish between the voices at all, which sounded like two starving women feasting at a dinner long denied them, or like the cooing of pigeons, or like two people breathing one breath, over and again.
Why couldn’t his mother have found another man to be with? The strangeness and exclusivity of two women together wasn’t lost on him, but men were, Adrian assumed, impossible to live
with (at best) and unpredictably violent (at worst). It was just that unpredictability that he couldn’t forget.
His father didn’t like to lose. So Adrian stayed up as late as he had to, sometimes past midnight—listening for the creaky front door, the sticks in the yard, the passing cars and trains, and the boats chugging and yawning a half mile away out on the Hudson—so they wouldn’t all be shot down like a murder of crows.