This is a selected story from Barcelona, or Notes from the Shallow End, Pt. II.
After spending the night at Alba’s boyfriend Dani’s apartment – Alba on his bed, me on the living room couch – we arrived back at Vilassar de Dalt in the morning stinking of sweat and sporting ruffled hair. I headed upstairs to brush my teeth, change my clothes, and spend the rest of the day in the sun with Bukowski or Grass. I threw off my dirt-covered and sangria-stained J. Crew shorts onto the bed, rummaged inside my suitcase for something to wear, pulled out my black soccer shorts, sniffed my armpits, and made a mental note to put a deodorant in the next fifteen minutes.
“Or,” I thought, “I could just take a shower.” After a deliberation that involved smelling my towel and my hair, I decided that I could go without showering for today since I wasn’t going out anywhere. I headed back downstairs into the quiet kitchen where Alba sat curled up in a metal chair at the coffee table. Her fingers tapped the keyboard and rolled over the mouse pad, her eyes flickering up and down following the stream of words and pictures that appeared before her. I mentioned to her that I was thinking of sitting outside and taking the day easy, and she gave a curt reply that denoted fatigue or inattention, maybe both. On the other side of the glass door that separated the kitchen from the patio, Pingu huffed-and-puffed and stuck his tongue out.
“Ya goofball, come on inside.” I opened the door, and Pingu trotted inside while I stepped over him and onto the patio. I crinkled my nose and glanced at Pingu.
“Is Pingu covered in shit or something?” I asked Alba.
“What?” She took a look at the dog, called him over, and grabbed him to examine him closer. Pingu began licking Alba’s bare legs. “No, he’s clean. I mean, he’s a stinky dog, sort of, but there’s nothing on him at least from what I can tell. Por qué?”
“Porque something smells like blue-fuckin’-waffles.” The pebbles of the patio crunched under my feet as I scoured its eight-by-sixteen square meters. I found nothing that explained the rankness, and Pingu came back outside to join me with his tennis ball grasped in his jaws. I shook the ball out of his mouth, winded back my arm, and launched it over the wall of shrubbery and into the front yard. Pingu, who had tracked every movement of the ball, shot between the walkway that connected the patio and the yard. I followed him, and at the end of the path in front of the garage door laid the source of the pungent aroma.
“Aw, for fuck’s sake.”
“What is it?” Alba’s voice sounded from inside.
Under a cloud of feasting flies, the carcass of a black pigeon lay on the cement. Instead of eyes, only the blank sockets remained, and a straggling line of ants crawled over and along the dead pigeon’s body carrying their afternoon meal clasped in their jaws. I walked back inside and informed Alba of the situation, who reacted to the news by squealing and sticking her tongue out.
“But the bird out there still looks pretty fresh, you know? Only a day or two old, maybe. This summer in Philadelphia, whenever I had to cross the South Street Bridge to get to Penn Park to play soccer, there was this pigeon that had been sliced in half and its guts were just splattered out there to cook and rot on the sidewalk. I had to pass by it every time, and it would smell worse and worse–“
“Stop! Qué asco, Hans! I hate hearing about dead animals and these things.” Alba’s face had turned pale, and her hands clutched her face and her two index fingers plugged her ears.
“Fine. In all seriousness, what’s happening to the bird? Is someone going to clean it?”
“I think my dad will take care of it when he comes back.”
That sounded like a fair answer to me, so I proceeded to carry on with my plans, albeit with minor changes. I made coffee for myself using the coffee machine, and instead of going outside into the miasma, climbed upstairs to my room, where I rummaged my Kindle out of my backpack and plopped on the bed. I opened Bukowski’s Ham on Rye:
I was in the 4th grade when I found out about it. I was probably one of the last to know, because I still didn’t talk to anybody. A boy walked up to me while I was standing around at recess.
“Don’t you know how it happens?” he asked.
“Your mother has a hole …”—he took the thumb and forefinger of his right hand made a circle—“and your father has a dong …”—he took his left forefinger and ran it back and forth through the hole. “Then your father’s dong shoots juice and sometimes your mother has a baby and sometimes she doesn’t.”
“God makes babies,” I said.
“Like shit,” the kid said and walked off…
I read for an hour, at least half of it spent on laughing, decided to jerk it real quick to some porn on my computer, and fell asleep afterwards.
My nap came to an end after fifty minutes. I woke up to shouts in Spanish of different pitches coming from all over the house. The bass – I recognized it as Alba’s dad’s – grunted and spat out a bunch of nos. The alto – Alba’s – attempted to beg and negotiate something from the way her sentences dragged out a word or noise towards the end. The tenor – Alba’s mom’s – provided immediate, longwinded responses to Alba’s pleas. Pingu provided the percussions by barking and howling at the other dogs in the neighborhood. I got out of my bed and walked out into the hallway where Alba, coming down the staircase, sighed and rubbed her arms. I inquired about the reason for the impromptu performance of the Andilla Symphony.
“So, my dad told us to clean up the dead bird.”
“Like, right now.”
We headed downstairs to the garage to examine our dead, odorous friend. Its smell had gotten stronger, and Alba made a barfing expression. She remarked that this was a disgusting, un-Catalan affair, and her dad poked his head into the garage and barked something out in Catalan that included my name. I asked Alba for a translation.
“He said, ‘Be a man and clean it up, Hans.’”
“As opposed to what, ‘Be a woman and give birth to a healthy son?’”
“I don’t get it either. Let’s just get this over with.” I agreed, and we proceeded to look for a shovel of some sorts to scoop up the goop and plop it in a trashcan somewhere. Five minutes later, Alba’s father put an end to our search by informing us from the kitchen window that there were no shovels in the house.
“Okay, fuck it,” I told Alba. “You know what, I’ve picked up plenty of dog shit in my life, and I’m going to treat this dead piece of chicken just like another pile of dog shit. I need a plastic bag and a pair of gloves.”
“Are you sure?” Alba’s concern wasn’t fooling anybody – her tone failed to conceal her relief and joy that the American staying at her house and eating all the food for free volunteered to do something useful for once. “There are latex gloves in the kitchen, I think. I’ll find the plastic bag for you.”
I plodded into the kitchen to grab my latex protection while Alba’s father, standing in front of the sink and enjoying a watermelon, eyed me with glee. Alba called to him from outside that I was looking for a pair of rubber gloves, and he pulled them out of the second drawer to the left of the stove. He then pointed to the roasted pigeon outside, said something in Spanish, and laughed.
“Sí,” I replied, “esta un pollo. La comida para la cena.” This caused Mr. Andilla to choke on and spit out a piece of watermelon that he was eating. I thanked him for the rubber gloves and snapped them onto my hands.
I walked back outside through the garage and stood a foot away from the decaying carrion. Squirming in her grey tank and light blue shorts, Alba hastily handed me a plastic bag and backpedaled into the corner of the garage. I sucked in a deep breath, reminded myself that this was just like picking up dog shit, and squatted down to the level of the pigeon. As my hand went through a scooping motion, parting the sea of flies that hovered around the bird, I expected some guts and insides to slop its way out of the pigeon. This was where my theory that picking up a ripe, rotting bird was just like picking up dog shit fell apart at the sinews.
The bird felt soft. As I lifted the pigeon in order to place it onto plastic bag, a glut of yellow-white maggots spilled out from the bird’s undersides like writhing candies from the corpse-piñata. One of them covered slimy extract landed on my shoe. Alba, who had been watching from behind me, shrieked, causing Pingu to begin barking up a storm. I flipped the bag inside out so that the bird was securely enclosed, tied a knot on the bag, and rammed the maggot on my shoe against a jutting rock on the front yard. I looked back at where the bird had been, and maggots wriggled en masse like fucked-up frat boys at a college party.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” croaked Alba.
I tossed away my latex gloves in the kitchen trashcan, and Alba told her dad to look for a spray to kill the larvae. I opened the fridge to see if there was anything to eat for lunch. Alba’s dad tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around.
“Tenemos un ‘pollo’ para su almuerzo.” He glanced back at the window where the blue plastic bag and its contents lay and nodded in their direction. “Esta alli.”
Alba mentioned that she was really going to throw up now and headed towards the downstairs bathroom. Her dad strutted behind her flapping his folded arms and making pi-yo, pi-yo noises.