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The baristas don’t even look at him funny anymore. It used to be, back when he first moved, that he would get crazy stares everywhere – crossing the street; buying groceries; sitting every evening outside the local Starbucks, sipping coffee until the sun sunk down and the stars woke up. Of course, its not that he could really blame them. Who wouldn’t freak out at a giant blue bird strolling down Main Street, after all.
They call out his order – non-fat venti café mocha, no-whip - and he collects it quietly and sits outside. He always sits outside. Not many people appreciate the hustle and bustle of New York City, but for Carl Fethers, it has always been something of a comfort.
He uncaps his coffee and cups it with both feathery wings, lifting it to his beak and taking a sip.
It’d been years since his family first moved to the Big Apple; Carl had been just a kid at the time, a real fledgling. He remembered Mother had said the place was full of opportunities – jobs, she meant, of course. With her husband leaving her, back when Carl and his twin brother were just eggs, Mama Fethers had needed a job. Badly. However, very few companies were looking to hire giant birds back in the day, and middle-aged giant birds much the less, so she did what any caring mother would. She packed her bags and moved to the big city, with hopes of landing her kids a career.
The aspiration? Show biz. Because, let’s face it – nobody but a director is really comfortable working with a ten foot tall dodo anyway.
Carl takes another sip of his coffee, and clicks his beak. Show biz. What a joke.
A pigeon hops by his foot, pecking at a pebble kicked up from the blacktop. Its wings are a mottled mix of brown and grey, and the feathers stick out disjointedly. Carl frowns at it, and then gives the pebble a light tap with his toe before getting up and turning onto the sidewalk. The pebble bounces into a gutter, and disappears.
Carl was used to being second best. Mothers weren’t supposed to pick favorites, but Mama Fethers really didn’t try to hide the fact that she hands down liked Marty better. It felt everyone picked his brother over Carl, and he’d stopped wondering why years ago. From day one, he had been the underdog. Marty had always been the charismatic, successful one, and to this day, Carl was still standing behind the curtain, watching his brother’s career skyrocket as his fell flat.
The show business thing, it worked perfectly for Marty. He was a natural – the whole acting, smiling for paparazzi, signing autographs gig – he was built for it. Producers just fell all over him; kids adored him with a passion almost criminal. A week and a half in New York, and Marty was already a TV icon, staring in a children’s show viewed across the nation.
It wasn’t that Carl had ever really minded being second best, but things changed with Marty’s rising stardom. They used to be thick as thieves, partners in crime, brothers, really and truly so – but things had taken a turn for the worst quite a while ago. Carl remembered the days when he and Marty used to do everything together. Nowadays, they see each other maybe once in the morning if at all. Marty took a stage name back when he was still a new star, and that’s where Carl believes things really changed. Marty stopped responding to “Marty”, and even though Carl had tried every nickname from “Birdie” to “B.B”, things just weren’t the same. It was like Marty’s entire identity left with his name; sometimes, Carl still felt like he barely knew his own brother.
It didn’t help, of course, that Marty had to have the absolute lamest stage name the entire world had ever seen. Carl had suggested hundreds of juicer, more tasteful adjectives – he could have at least gone with “Gigantic Bird”, or “Enormous Bird”, or even “Yellow Bird” if he wanted to seem less intimidating to the kiddies – but Marty had rejected them all. Big. Carl couldn’t believe it. “Big” seemed so juvenile. His suggestions had been much better.
But, as Marty had said, Carl apparently just wasn’t cut out for show business.
He’d tried – he really had. He’d auditioned for every part imaginable on Marty’s show, but of course the producers had rejected him. He couldn’t act, it was that simple. He stuttered, forgot lines, and couldn’t cry on cue to save his life. He messed up when they put him with lights, fumbled with the cameras…point being, Carl had tried every show biz job under the sun, and he’d been fired from each and every single one. Basically, he made his living working in more humble advertising – he stood alongside the road and held up signs for a local diner about a mile or so out of Melrose, a full forty-five minute drive from the high end apartment Marty so kindly shared with him. Being a diner-mascot wasn’t exactly Carl’s dream job, per say, but it got him by. He could afford taxis and coffee, and really, what else did he need? Marty covered the bills anyway.
His one brief streak of almost fame – if it could even be called that – was also sort of advertising. More of modeling, really. He had posed for a couple of CD covers for a quintet from Philadelphia, who had found out about him from the caption on a family photo of Marty in a tabloid magazine. Apparently, being Big Bird’s nobody-twin-brother appealed to punk rock, and before Carl knew it, he was their official mascot. They handed him a check worth more than he was expecting for the two album covers and even gave him his own free copies. Carl had listened to both that same night. Although the alternative magazines raved and Carl himself couldn’t find a bad song on either one, the band never hit high on the charts, and their mascot’s fame was short lived. The lead singer still came to visit him every once in a while, though. He was a nice guy, albeit a little moody, who liked taking long walks along oceans and wrote songs about getting better and packing boxes and leaving.
He could relate to that, Carl. While it had never been his dream to hold signs outside of a Melrose diner, he’d always wanted to hop on a plane and live a little.
It isn’t until he’s two steps out of the elevator that Carl remembers Marty has company tonight. Every Thursday, he gets together with a couple of his “esteemed colleagues” for supper, at a different house each week. Seeing as there are five of them, Marty’s apartment only comes around about once a month, but that’s still more than Carl cares for. He grew tired of the whole charade a long time ago; at first, he used to sit through it and smile, but after a while, he realized it didn’t matter and spent those nights at local coffee shops instead. It wasn’t as if they really talked to him. Marty would probably prefer it like that, anyway.
They’re sitting around the table when Carl arrives, eating what looks to be a fine dinner of lobster and spiced asparagus on delicate china plates. The lights are very dim, with only the chandelier that hangs over the table lit. It’s a fancy thing, all cut diamonds and light bulbs, which Carl imagines are a real pain to clean. The curtains are drawn back on the massive window behind the table, and though the city view is spectacular, it does little to help the lighting situation. Carl slips into the next room – the kitchen – and flips a switch, fumbling through bronze plated cabinets for a cereal box.
“Carl,” floats Marty’s voice, and he turns. There’s a slight frown on the yellow feather-ball’s face, and Carl imagines the kitchen light is completely killing their carefully arranged ambience.
“Marty!” Carl replies, pouring himself a bowl of Lucky Charms and turning to face the dining room. “You didn’t tell me you had dinner-duty tonight.”
Marty frowns slightly. “Yes,” he clucks. “It was written clearly on the calendar. You should have seen it.” Carl shrugs, and pecks at the little rainbow marshmallows in the bowl.
“Nobody reads that calendar but you, bro. And maybe your seven different assistants. Sorry.” Marty’s frown deepens, and for a second Carl wonders if the assistant line was a bit much.
“I have three assistants, Carl,” his brother snaps. “Three.” But then, because it is his job to remain forever optimistic and jovial, he adds, “But very funny. How was work today? Did you ring in a lot of new customers outside of highway 49? Or was the sidewalk yesterday a little more successful? Have you considered switching to Applebee’s? I hear the one down the street is hiring.” This earns a snicker from the entire table, and Carl glares at his brother. He loves Marty usually, sure, but my God. The guy can be such a prick sometimes.
“They’re nice people,” he mutters to his cereal.
Marty chuckles again. “Oh, I’m sure they are. Very nice people. Why, they probably even pay you an extra ten cents above minimum wage, just because they’re nice people, don’t they! How nice.” And the whole table hoots with laughter.
“Enjoy your asparagus,” Carl mumbles. And he turns back into the kitchen.
Their petty conversation still drifts past his ears as he sits there at the counter, numbly picking at his cereal.
“So, anyway. I’m just not sure about it,” he can hear the furry green one continue, and it’s probably accompanied by some hand wave or other dramatic flourish, because Carl knows these people are all about expression.
“That’s so silly, Jackson,” the orange one, Earnest, snorts. “So silly. You couldn’t possibly be thinking of leaving the show – you’re character is positively irreplaceable!”
“My character is a grouch,” Jackson grumbles.
“But a lovely grouch all the same. You get a pet worm! The worm is simply adorable. I love the worm. All I get is a rubber duck, and I have to sing to it.”
“I have to sing to my worm. At least your rubber duck doesn’t sing back. My worm squeaks, and it sounds like it’s in pain.”
“It does sound rather pained,” agrees the yellow guy sitting next to Earnest. Carl has always found Bertram rather funny-looking – too much nose and too little hair, with a rather oblong head that almost resembles a loaf of bread – one of those perfectly formed ones, only seen on TV commercials and French postcards. “In all honesty, Jackson – and I mean this in the kindest way possible – singing really is not your strong suit.”
“Sometimes, I do wish it wasn’t part of the job description,” Marty sighs. There’s the shake-shake of someone sprinkling more pepper onto their asparagus.
“Oh, don’t complain, Marty. You really don’t have to do much singing,” scolds Earnest. “Do you know how many times I have to sing the Rubber Ducky Song? It’s on every show, it feels like. A sure chart topper, but still! I have trouble hitting the high E’s.” Carl gets up, and places his empty bowl in the dishwasher.
“The singing isn’t even the worst part,” Jackson groans. “I have to sit in a trash can! Do you have any idea how revolting of a thought that is?”
The furry brown elephant gasps in horror, and Carl wonders again how on Earth they manage to cram something so darned fat up the elevator shaft. “They don’t actually use it as a real trash can, do they?” But then, maybe the producers have told the elephant to slim down a bit, because when Carl saw him at the table, his plate was piled high with nothing but a small assortment of purple and green lettuce.
“Of course not, Timmothy! It’s a prop!”
As he slips down the hallway, their laughter grows fainter and fainter, until Carl could almost believe he is completely alone. By the time he reaches his bedroom, the apartment is very close to silent.
See, this is how it’s always been. He’s been the backdrop, the laughing-stock, a ghost, and Carl’s mind wanders to the pigeon outside the coffee shop, pecking at the pebble. He never does anything for himself. His whole life is like a pigeon’s – always feeding off of everyone else’s scraps. Marty’s fame. Marty’s money. Marty’s success. And what has Carl done? Modeled for two CD covers and failed at ten million jobs. He works at a diner – doesn’t even work really, holds up signs alongside highways. And what had it gotten him? A stuck up pinhead for a brother, and parents that never call. He’s running on empty. The late nights, the coffee shops, the long drives home, it isn’t anything new. That’s what he craves. New.
He plops down on his bed, and turns on the radio. It’s one of the fancy kind that can play CD’s and AM/FM, as well as tell time and keep alarms – another purchase of Marty’s; there’s one in every bedroom. There’s nothing good on though, just a bunch of dance-remixes of some pop-hit Carl couldn’t care less about, so he turns it back to the CD setting.
And there they are again. Those same songs about getting better and packing boxes and leaving. Songs about living.
Carl looks out his window, at the flashing lights below and the skyscrapers towering above, their tops disappearing in what could be clouds or dark or smoke. He’s not even sad anymore, not really. He’s just tired. Tired of this whole place. Tired of Marty, tired of New York, tired of asparagus dinners and tabloids and furry elephants that are still fat even though all they claim to eat are piles of purple salad.
“I’ve got to get out,” he whispers. “There’s got to be more than this.” He wants to go home – that’s it. But then, Carl isn’t even sure where home is anymore.
He tows his little duffel bag down the hallway, and he was doing pretty well until he got to the kitchen and his toenails clicked against the tile. His wing is on the doorknob when the dinner party sees him.
“Carl!” Marty sounds surprised. Carl can’t tell if he’s feigning it or not, but his face looks sincere. “Where are you going? It’s almost ten.”
Carl looks at them all in turn. There’s Jackson, dipping lobster in butter and not caring about anything other than trashcans and squeaking worms. There’s Earnest and Bertram, such a pair, same big noses, same lack-of hair, same mock-sympathetic frowns and perpetually furrowed brows. There’s Timmothy, still borderline obese, sprinkling pepper on his lettuce as if that will make it taste any better; and finally Marty, head cocked to the side in a bemused expression caught somewhere between confusion and utter shock. Marty. His brother. His ever loving brother, who teaches kids to count and sings the alphabet on TV and somehow makes millions, who pays the bills and tells Carl to get a real job and then laughs at all of it during weekly dinner gatherings.
“Philadelphia, I think,” Carl says to them all. “I’ve heard it’s nice there.”
Earnest whispers, “that’s positively silly,” and Marty snorts.
“That’s ridiculous. That’s…absolutely ridiculous! You need a plane to get to Philadelphia. Do you happen to have a plane, Carl?”
Carl shrugs. In the flickering light from the chandelier they all look like puppets – and maybe that’s what they are, deep down. Maybe they’re all just puppets, and maybe they’re happier that way even if he isn’t.
“Airports, Marty,” he says, and his voice sounds so bland compared to theirs, completely missing the whole camera-drunk pep, the rise and fall of perpetual excitement, that applause-begging cadence directors crave. He sounds dry, like talking cardboard. Cynical, pissed off, talking cardboard. “There are planes at airports. You buy a ticket and – get this – they let you ride in them. And you go places. You know. Like Philadelphia. Or Canada. Maybe France. Your choice, really, when you buy the ticket.”
Unamused, Marty frowns. “Very funny,” he snaps. “As usual.”
“Thank you.” And Carl turns, and makes for the door.
“We usually coordinate vacations!” Marty says suddenly, slamming a wing on the table, and his brother stops. “You’re supposed to write it on the calendar. And then we can plan. Carl, this vacation was not on the calendar; clearly, it cannot be legitimate. This is nonsense. Do you even have a ticket?”
“I can buy a ticket when I get there.”
“That’s a lot of trouble, Carl -”
“Look at me, Marty,” Carl interrupts, gesturing at himself, and then around the room. “I don’t fit in with any of this!”
And this stops them. They sit there, Marty’s beak still half open midsentence, all frozen like odd exotic ice sculptures, deformed caricatures in the half-light.
“I’m afraid I’m missing your point,” Marty finally stutters. Timmothy picks awkwardly at his lettuce, and Earnest and Bertram exchange uneasy glances.
“I don’t fit in, Marty,” Carl repeats again, and there’s a hint of desperation to his cardboard voice this time. “This is you. This is not me.”
“I fit in,” Marty whispers. “You can fit in too.”
“I’m really not sure, actually.” Carl hears Jackson muttering to his lobster, but he ignores him.
“I’ll help you fit in!” Marty insists, his eyes a little brighter, tiny little midnight skyscrapers, all lit up and full of potential. That’s what they’re lacking, see – that’s where they can’t relate anymore, because Marty has hit potential. He’s tapped into that vein of gold, but Carl? Carl hasn’t even come close yet. He’s still too busy digging to be anything more than a burden.
“I don’t think we’re the same. Not anymore,” he says softly. “Sorry.” And Carl opens the door, stepping outside and flooding the room with fluorescent hallway lights. “Goodbye, Marty.” He shuts the door, and in minutes, he’s down the elevator, out the door. In minutes, he’s catching a taxi to the nearest airport. In minutes, he’s gone.
The plane hurtles down the runway, and Carl wonders if Marty even bothered to say goodbye after the door slammed. The whole thing’s still vivid in his head; it keeps playing over and over, like some mental B-rate movie on repeat. He can still see that stupid chandelier; Timmothy and his lettuce; Jackson woeing and weeping over his poor singing worm and Earnest consoling him. He can see Marty still aghast. Maybe, in retrospect, he really had wanted Carl to stay, and Carl thinks about that as the fasten seatbelts sign flashes and the pilot proclaims over the loudspeakers that they have began their ascent. Maybe he could have stayed. Maybe he could have tried a little harder. Maybe they would have learned to like him.
But then he remembers Jackson muttering to his lobster and the way Bertram always frowned at him and how even Marty wouldn’t take him seriously. He could have stayed, sure. But then that wouldn’t have solved anything. He’d be right back to the drawing board.
Of course, he’s still stuck at the drawing board, but even so.
He shakes the thought out of his head and closes his eyes, wondering if the baristas in Philadelphia will ever look at him the same way the ones in New York used to.