McTeague, by Frank Norris, an American novel

I shoulda went when I shoulda went. Now I got this here bum knee and I can’t went nowhere nowise.

Carrying a book can getya into a conversation. You don’t have to read the book, just carry it. Carrying a dog, a cat, a snake works just as well. But people with a bird on their shoulder should stand away from the platform edge. A strong wind could ruffle that bird’s feathers. The bird in McTeague was his one redeeming feature. Like most of us, McTeague was just misunderstood. A good social worker coulda rescued his life, his marriage, and all those gold coins. Instead of Death Valley, he coulda ended up in Valley Stream. He coulda danced all the way to the retirement home. But nobody woulda wrote that story. Nobody would make that movie. Get rescued and you get forgotten. Want to go down in history? Stay away from those rescuers. They can screw up your life pretty good.

A life is a fragile thing. It has to be handled with care. Or not handled at all. Snakes, too. Better not handled at all. But that bird was McTeague’s soft side. He was a big, strong guy, but a very gentle person, really. Tried to be a nice guy, rescue people’s teeth. That didn’t work out. Bureaucratic red tape put him out of work. Then he tried to be a tough guy. That didn’t work out, either. He could murder when he had to. He was sensitive to offense. In an earlier time he woulda died in a duel. Not likely he’d be much of a marksman, or any good with a sword.

But McTeague had his routines, too. Kept coming back to that bird, wondering where everything went wrong. His mother was right to send him away with the medicine man. Such a sweet guy couldn’t spend his life in a coal mine. His office was bright and cheery, lots of light, looked out on a busy street. But that bird. When McTeague left home, that’s the only thing he took with him, the only thing that reminded him of who he was. A kid knows who he is by the time he’s a year old. But we forget. We get distracted, or envious of others who are not us. We go astray, take the wrong turn. Not everybody has a bird to get him back on the right path.

McTeague shoulda went to the woods. He didn’t have no “issues” with his knees, or anything like that. He coulda went along his own path through the woods. The bird woulda liked it, too, out there, riding on the shoulder of a giant. Of course, in that situation a bird will put on a lot of weight. I don’t know if it’s fatty foods or what, but a bird on your shoulder gets heavy as hell when you’re schlepping through the woods, trying to follow your own narrow path. At some point you have to recognize the bird. He’s there to pull you back into your self. He’s there to make you collapse under his inevitable weight.

He is free now. No more cage for him. And McTeague? Never made it to the woods. He shoulda put the donkey and everything on that bird’s back and flew away, free, to the mountains. They already had snow up there.

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