“I’m here to pick up a letter,” I said to the mail clerk, but he didn’t move. He didn’t seem to understand. He was flat and rigid, and I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open.
“Birds,” he said, “they’re everywhere.” He said this like he had heaved a great stone. He was proud of himself. I was proud of him too.
“Yes,” I said, “sometimes they are a bit much.”
“And they’re just so hard to catch,” he said. “You don’t even have a chance. They’re there and then poof, they’re gone. Like magic.”
“You should be careful,” I said. “Magic is a dangerous thing.”
“Yes,” he said. “My brother died of it.”
“No, of cancer.”
He led me behind the counter. We crouched with our hands on our knees and peered into one of the lower cubbyholes. The wood panels stretched for miles into the darkness, and far on the horizon, a light. Then a sound of dragging, heavy and close.
The mail clerk glanced at his watch and tapped his foot. “These birds nowadays, they’ll eat anything. I saw one get into a bag of Oreos once. It ate all the cream filling and left the cookies. I tried to catch it with a net, but you know how it goes.”
“Poof,” I said, “like magic.”
“No,” he said. “Like birds.”
At the edge of the cubby, a small bird emerged, pulling a twig with its beak. Its head twitched as it inspected us and it chirped and flew back into the darkness. The mail clerk lunged for it, thrusting in his arm up to his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said, squirming against the wall. “I think I have its toe.” With ferocious jerks, he tugged its toothpick leg. The bird was halfway out, flapping and chirping up a storm, when something snapped, and the mail clerk stumbled back. The upper half of the bird’s body was stuck in the cubby while its swollen bird feet waddled in the air. The bird had inflated.
“I am so sorry, sir,” the mail clerk said, as if a great stone was upon him. “They just don’t make them like they used to.”
“These things happen,” I assured him.
He nodded and went to fetch help, but he never came back. I sat down behind the desk and waited. After a while, and much muffled chirping, I gripped the bird’s toes and pulled until the swollen animal popped into my arms. It looked up and chirped. “Yes,” I said, and put the twig in its mouth.
Months afterwards, we were still waiting in the mailroom. It was getting late and I was scraping the cream from Oreos and feeding it to my inflated companion. He could fly now. At first he just swiveled his wings and bounced around like a beach ball, but now, with his wings flapping wildly, he could float and linger in the air, as if at any moment he could pop.
I never figured out what happened to my letter. Maybe the bird wove it into the twiggy fabric of a nest somewhere on the other end of the cubbyhole. Most likely though, he ate it.
The door jingled and a woman stepped inside. A small flock of birds flashed from the cubbies and plunged into the roaring city outside. The door swung shut. “What the hell was that?” she said, and came over and rubbed the bird’s belly.