By coincidence, or so it seemed, the rooster set up shop on the far side of the compound fence just around the time old Bert had his fall.
The fall took place at his ocean-view apartment at the Paradiso Condominium, an hour or so before sunset on a cloudless but hazy November day. Damp orange light was slanting in past the lifted shades, highlighting flaws that Bert had long ago stopped noticing—the warped rectangles of faded carpet that stretched away beneath the windows, the bubbled paint where hurricane-season winds had blown wet salt air clear through the walls, the tiny tears in the sofa cushions between the piping and the worn upholstery.
Bert had been in the kitchenette, preparing to feed his dog, when the telephone rang in the living room. This clutter of events presented a problem for the old man. His hands were full—a can of dog food in one hand, a scoop of kibble in the other—but, as he was widowed and childless and with few surviving friends, it was something of an occasion when his phone rang and he didn’t want to miss a call.
For a moment he was immobilized by options and just stared down at his occupied hands. Then he put the kibble scoop on the counter. It tipped, and kibble clattered softly onto the linoleum floor. Flustered, Bert started moving more quickly than he should have toward the ringing phone and he tripped over the wire that connected it to the wall. The can of dog food fell and splattered some gravy on his slippers and Bert made a failed attempt to brace himself with his free hand as he went down. While he was lying on the floor, a friendly voice came through the earpiece of the knocked over phone, soliciting a donation to the Police Athletic League. Bert shouted toward the receiver, “Fuck the donation, send an ambulance.” The dog, a chihuahua named Nacho, first yapped then whimpered as it licked the old man’s face and arms.
At Florida Keys General, the emergency room nurse asked Bert for details of the accident. She said, “Let me make sure I have this right. You tripped over your phone?”
“The wire,” he said. “The wire from the phone.”
“Your phone has a wire?”
“Yeah. That’s how it works.”
“Cool. Is that some new thing?”
An hour later Bert’s right wrist was in an almost weightless, high-tech cast and the doctor was telling him how fortunate he was. “Your age,” he said, “a fall can be a death sentence. You break a hip instead of a wrist, you’re stuck in bed, you get pneumonia, pffft, lights out.”
Bert was not as impressed by the doctor’s gravity as the doctor thought he should be. He said, “Death sentence. Fuh. I had one a those already.”
“Heart attack. Many years ago. Dead for like ten seconds. Very disappointing experience. No blue lights, no angels, no nothin’. Where’s my dog?”
The dog had been seen to by Joey Goldman, the person Bert listed to call in case of emergency and also as his next of kin, which he was not. They were just longtime friends but it was one of those tender and regardful friendships that sometimes arose between sonless fathers and fatherless sons, something close to a family bond but without the complicating hurts of childhood and disillusionment of youth. In the hospital parking lot, Joey handed over the chihuahua, which sniffed at and licked Bert’s cast. Then they climbed into Joey’s car. Knowing that his friend would be embarrassed by his fall, the younger man didn’t say much about it. He just said, “How ya feelin’?”
“Stupid,” Bert said. He swiveled stiffly in the passenger seat. He still had a full head of white hair tinged yellow at the edges like the pages of an ancient book. His eyes were black and deep-set, and he had an enormous nose that pointed the way like a hood ornament on a 1950s car. “If you must know, I’m feelin’ stupid.”
“Hey,” said Joey, “could happen to anyone.”
“Not really. Most people, they answer the phone, they don’t fall down.”
Lacking an answer to that, Joey just drove down A1A, the road that flanked the ocean. The sky was dark now except for a narrow swath of bruised green at the horizon; the water was flat and coppery. As they were passing the Paradiso, Bert said, “You missed the turn.”
Without looking at his passenger, Joey said, “I thought we’d go to my house.”
“Just for a couple days.”
“Coupla days? Listen, I don’t want—”
“Come on. You gonna cook one-handed? How you gonna feed the dog?”
The old man paused at that. Chewing on his heavy lower lip, he said, “Shit, Joey, this ain’t right. Imposin.’ Plus I don’t have any of my stuff—”
“Sandra already brought some things from your apartment. Your room is all set up.”
Bert blinked and felt a burst of heat behind his eyeballs, a mix of gratitude and shame. “Christ,” he said. “Ya see, this is exactly how I never wanted things to be.”
Joey shrugged. “Well, it’s how things are.”
“Two days,” said Bert. “Two days, then I’m goin’ home.”
Joey didn’t argue, just kept driving along the Key West shoreline as far as White Street, where he turned inland toward the neat and quiet house he shared with Sandra, his wife of twenty years.
Two days became four days, then Bert walked up to Joey while he was doing some paperwork out by the pool and announced that he was going back to his apartment. Joey put his pen down. “You really think that’s a good idea?”
Bert didn’t answer the question. He said, “This, look, you and Sandra have been great, wonderful, but it ain’t right. Youse got your lives to live.”
“It’s fine,” said Joey. “It’s our pleasure having you here.”
“Nah,” the old man said. He shook his head and his big nose fanned the air. “It ain’t right. It’s a whaddyacallit, a disruption. I mean, me, I keep crazy hours, I never know when I’m gonna be awake or asleep. Even the dog knows it’s fucked up. I’m padding around at four a.m., I grab the leash, he looks at me like, what the fuck, we’re going for a walk now?”
“It’s fine, Bert. Come and go as you please.”
“Nah,” he said again. “It’s a nuisance. Ya think I don’t notice? I see your bedroom light come on. You’re worried about me. I bump into things. You hear the noise. It’s like having a ghost in the house. It’s not right.”
Joey didn’t answer right away but the truth was that it had in fact been a bit of a burden having Bert around. It had been many years since he and Sandra had shared their home with anyone for more than a night or two, and the presence of another person forced them to alter routines they’d never really had to think about and that defined the feel and rhythms of their life together. What they wore around the house, or didn’t. Whether they had to talk first thing in the morning. How they chose what and when to eat. Suddenly, things that had always just sort of happened needed to be planned; even the littlest things seemed to call for the making of decisions. It was different and it was wearying.
Joey didn’t say any of that to Bert. He said, “I just don’t see you going back to that apartment. Not right away, at least. It’s booby-trapped.”
“It’s where I live.”
“The carpet is lifting at the corners. Nails stick up. And that step down into the sunken living room is a killer. What the hell were they thinking with that?”
“It was the style.”
“Plus,” Joey continued, “your nice old neighbors, they’re all gone. Who’s there now? People on vacation. People passing through. Is there one person looking out for you?”
That hit home. The Paradiso used to be a friendly building. Guys played gin by the pool. Couples got together for highballs. It wasn’t like that anymore. In season the place was full of short-term renters who didn’t talk to anybody but each other. In summer the halls were empty except for the occasional group of bargain-hunting Germans or Norwegians. It had become a lonely place, and privately admitting it made Bert feel suddenly very tired. He didn’t want to give in and sit but he put his good hand on the table next to Joey’s papers and leaned a fair bit of his weight on it. Very softly, the words not wanting to come out, he said, “Joey, I don’t know where else to go.”
Joey frowned and pondered that, or pretended to. In fact he already had a suggestion ready. It was something he and Sandra had talked about. But he somehow felt it would be more considerate to Bert to let it seem that the thought had emerged that very moment, pulled into being by the two of them talking. Very deliberately, he said, “I have an idea–”
Bert leaned a little farther forward but said nothing. He was hopeful that Joey’s idea might be something good or at least possible but he also knew that an idea meant change and change was never easy.
“—but only if you feel like doing me a favor.”
The old man knew this was bullshit. Joey wasn’t about to ask a favor. He was about to offer one and was trying in his sweet but see-through way to make it seem the other way around. Bert waited him out.
“I’m wondering if maybe you’d like to move into the compound for a month or so. Till your cast comes off, at least.”
This took the old man completely by surprise. He became suddenly aware of the weight of his jaw; he couldn’t tell if his mouth fell slightly open or if it only felt like it did. The compound was a cluster of small cottages around a common area with a pool and hot tub in a nice but not too nice part of town. Bert had several times visited it with Joey, who owned and managed the place. It would never in a million years have occurred to Bert that someday he might live there. “The compound?” he said. “That compound? With a bunch of lunatics and nudists?”
“They’re not nudists,” Joey said. “It’s clothing optional. Most people keep a towel on or something. Most of the time. And they’re not lunatics. Mostly. A little different, true. But look, you just said you keep crazy hours. So do they. You’ll have company. And it’s a nice group in there now. Got a couple nurses, a bartender, a fishing guide, a guy who thinks he’s a writer, a guy who gives a different answer every time I ask him what he does. Look, I have a vacancy and I don’t want the headaches of renting short-short term. Take the place and I’m set.”
Bert didn’t remember sitting but he now found that he was in a chair. The fingers of his good hand were drumming on the arm of it. He was trying to think about the compound but what he saw in his mind was an image of his long-dead wife standing at the kitchen counter in the Paradiso condo back when it was still considered a prime address. She was wearing a fuzzy pink bathrobe and stirring a cup of instant coffee; the spoon clanked against the sides of the mug and clanked again when she dropped it in the sink before taking the hot coffee to the little table by the window. Bert said, “Nah, Joey. Thanks, but movin’ out, it’s just not somethin’ I could do.”
On moving day Bert was a nervous wreck, even though he’d made it clear that this was only an experiment.
He might go back to his apartment in a day, a week, he wasn’t promising anything. For now he took almost nothing from the condo: one suitcase, a few photographs, his scuffed and ancient stovetop espresso-maker, some dog food and a bagful of squeak toys.
It was mid-afternoon when Joey punched in a code and opened up the compound gate. The two men stepped through it onto a crunching white gravel pathway that wound through hibiscus hedges toward a free-form swimming pool. No one seemed to be around and the place was very quiet. The hot tub was capped by a vinyl cover; a whiff of warm chlorine escaped. The water in the pool was undisturbed save for tiny oozing waves that spread out from the skimmers. The overarching palms were still; the new green fronds looked almost starched. Bert bent slowly and put the chihuahua on the ground. Immediately it started straining at its leash, whiskers twitching, sniffing at the stems of shrubs and dents in the gravel where cats had walked and at the wooden wheels of rolling lounge chairs, excited to the point of tremor by all this newness. The excitement climbed the leash to Bert’s good hand but the old man felt it less as thrill than as something close to dread. There’d be so much to get used to, so much to remember: the gate code, the names and faces of his new neighbors when he met them, new routes to his favorite places around town and to the toilet in the middle of the night. He reminded himself that he could go home if he chose to. But for that he would need a reason beyond simply feeling daunted. Otherwise he’d just be caving, giving in, and he’d never thought of himself as someone who caved.
Joey led on to the cottage that would temporarily be Bert’s. It was painted turquoise and had a fake thatch roof with bald spots through which the real roof showed. Its front door was a glass slider that faced out to the pool. Inside there was rattan furniture with floral upholstery and idle ceiling fans with broad wooden blades. Most of the windows were frosted louvers that let in light in slices. Joey carried Bert’s suitcase to the bedroom and helped him bring a few things to the kitchen. Then he said, “So whaddya think?”
Searching for something to say, Bert said, “Little small maybe.”
“What? You gonna be throwing parties, opening a club?”
“It’s just I’m used to a little more space, is all.”
“Square feet?” said Joey. “It’s the same square feet as the condo.”
Bert looked dubiously around. “Different layout, I guess.”
There was a silence. Bert’s good hand fidgeted. His eyes plotted paths around the furniture and through the doorways.
Joey said, “Well. Wanna grab some lunch, a drink?”
Bert declined. He said he’d better use the afternoon to settle in. The two men shared a somewhat awkward hug—how tight to squeeze, how long to cling?—and Joey left. Bert listened for the compound gate to open and close, and then he felt a feeling he knew that he had felt sometime before in the very distant past but couldn’t put his finger on. At length it dawned on him that the feeling was very like the way he’d felt when he was five or six years old and being left behind for his very first day at school.
He spent quite a while unpacking, refolding, and putting away the half-dozen shirts he’d brought along.
The shirts were flamboyant and distinctive—teal linen, salmon-colored silk—and though some of the collars were fraying and some of the buttonholes gapped he found them reassuring. The monograms and the custom stitching reminded him that he wasn’t just some ordinary schmo but a person of elegance and style: Bert the Shirt, as he’d been known to friends and enemies alike. Back in the day, he’d had quite a few of both. With his friends he’d rollicked and raised hell. Equally, though, his enemies had been of value in telling Bert who he was, not just a face in the crowd but someone who counted. Lately he had had no enemies.
Fondling the shirts must have led to daydreams, because by the time Bert had finished emptying his suitcase it was nearly six o’clock. The light had gotten soft and lavender and there were voices coming from around the pool, though he hadn’t noticed exactly when they’d started. There was a gurgling hum that must have been the hot tub running. There was the happy sound of ice cubes landing in the bottom of a glass.
Bert considered stepping out to join his neighbors, but hesitated. The hesitation surprised him. He was generally the most sociable of men, glad to shoot the breeze with almost anyone, to introduce his dog to people, to offer his opinion on nearly any subject. But in that moment something held him back. It wasn’t shyness; not exactly. It was concern that his unease at being there would show and that he wouldn’t make the sort of first impression he wanted to. He wanted to be seen as easy, regular, not nervous or uncomfortable or needy; like a guy who would fit right in and be a pal even with lunatics and nudists. He needed a little more time to feel that way and act that way.
So he kept his lights low and he fed the chihuahua. Feeling slightly fugitive and a little disappointed in himself, he walked the dog in a tiny private area behind his cottage. He went to bed not long after dusk had faded.
He used the first part of the night to get used to certain things—where the bedroom window was, the angle at which the gleam from a distant streetlight slanted in, where the little troughs and ridges in the mattress were. The dog lay at his feet, twitching or snorting now and then as it dreamed. Sometimes the old man slept and sometimes he didn’t.
It was around three a.m. when the rooster started crowing from the far side of the compound fence. Bert couldn’t be sure if the crowing had woken him up or if he’d been awake to begin with, but he seemed to hear it before the dog did. A city person, Bert knew nothing about roosters except that their cry was generally described as cock-a-doodle-doo. This struck him now as totally inaccurate. True, the crowing came in five-note blasts, but there were no hard-sounding letters in it. It sounded like er, er-Er, er-Errrr.
Bert listened to three or four repetitions of the cry and then the dog woke up. It didn’t wake up gradually. It woke up with a sudden spasmodic straightening of all four paws and a snapping-back of its neck as though it had been given an electric shock, and immediately it started howling. The howling seemed designed to mimic the rooster or at least to imitate its cadence. It was high in pitch, improbably loud, and it seemed to be rasping the little dog’s throat. Bert felt bad about the dog’s anxiety and also about bothering the new neighbors on the very first night. He whispered, “Piano, Nacho, it’s just a chicken.”
The dog kept howling. Bert reached stiffly down across the twisted sheet to pet it, but he couldn’t quite reach so he sat up in bed and pulled the chihuahua onto his lap. It was quivering and when it wasn’t howling a tiny growl was rumbling deep down in its chest. Bert cradled it and stroked it but it wouldn’t calm down and then Bert realized that the dog was peeing on his pajama leg. “Oh, for Chrissakes,” the old man said, getting to his feet as quickly as he could manage. He grabbed his worn red satin bathrobe, found the dog’s leash, and headed outside through the sliding glass door that gave onto the pool.
He expected to be alone out there but he wasn’t. There was a fellow, maybe thirty-five, slightly pudgy, dark hair pushed back in bundles, sitting in a lounge chair in his jockey shorts, smoking a cigarette. Bert didn’t notice him right away, not until he saw the exhaled smoke rising in the low moonlight through the dappled late-night haze. Then he said matter-of-factly, “Oh. Hey. How ya doin’?”
Just as casually, the other man said, “Good. You?”
A moment passed. The rooster crowed. The chihuahua twitched at the leash and barked in reply. Drawing on his cigarette, the man in the underwear said to the man in the damp satin robe, “You always walk the dog this late?”
“He’s all worked up,” said Bert. “This is embarrassing but I think he’s scared shitless of the chicken.”
Mildly, the other man said, “Everybody’s scared of something.”
“Yeah, sure. Plane crash. Cancer. But a chicken?”
The other man just shrugged and smoked.
“It wake y’up?” Bert asked, nodding toward the fence that the chicken was behind.
“Me? No. I don’t sleep at night.”
“Sometimes. Not now.” He left it at that. “You’re new, right?”
“Today. I’m Bert.” He held out a long and bony hand then remembered it had a cast on it and pulled it back. “Sorry. Took a fall last week.”
“Ah, too bad. I’m Ted. Good to meet you.”
“Lived here long?”
“Around four months. At the compound, I mean. Key West, six years, maybe seven. Little hard to keep track down here. Cigarette?”
Bert declined but took the offer as an invitation to sit down in a lounge chair next to Ted. He settled in and the rooster crowed again. The old man jerked his good thumb toward it and said, “And how long’s the chicken been around?”
“This time? Week, ten days.”
“There were other times?”
Ted stubbed out his cigarette in one of those hurricane-resistant ashtrays with burlap on the outside and beans or ball bearings used to weigh it down. “Other times, other roosters. Plenty of ‘em around. Gone feral. Or could be the same bird coming back, who knows?”
Bert frowned. The dog was trembling; he could feel it through the leash. It was still trying to answer the rooster note for note but its voice was growing hoarse and labored. “This could be a problem. Dog’ll wear himself out.”
Ted lit another cigarette. He leaned his head back, looked up at the sky, and unselfconsciously scratched his stomach all around his belly button. “Guess we could try to kill it,” he said.
“Or catch it. Or chase it away.”
“Maybe just chase it away,” Bert said peaceably.
“I know exactly where he is,” said Ted. “There’s like a narrow little space between our fence and the next one. All overgrown. Tangled. Probably full of bugs and shit for him to eat. Cats would have a tough time getting at him. Cozy. Want to try to flush him out?”
Bert hadn’t imagined being directly involved in chasing away a chicken in the middle of the night and he fumbled for a moment before he answered. The truth was that he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t see that well at night. He didn’t like bugs, he wasn’t that sure of his footing, and if even cats had a hard time maneuvering in the choked and narrow passage then it wasn’t a good place for him to be. On the other hand, his dog was in distress and it was the first time he was meeting this neighbor who seemed like a nice guy and was offering to include him in something. The old man swallowed, summoned conviction, and said, “Yeah. Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Okay,” said Ted. “Gimme a sec.”
He got up rather heavily from the lounge chair, rearranged his underwear, which had sagged a bit across his bottom, and briefly disappeared into a yellow cottage just beyond the hot tub. Bert assumed he was going to put some pants on but he didn’t. When he emerged a moment later all that had changed was that he was wearing flip-flops and carrying a flashlight. “Ready?” he said.
Bert lied and said he was. Ted led the way along the white gravel path and out through the compound gate to the driveway. The old man chose his footfalls carefully, trusting to his thin-soled and gravy-stained slippers to find safe passage. The rooster crowed at random intervals. The dog seemed to have given up on answering in kind and responded only with a wheeze that softly rose and fell. It pulled at its leash but also kept glancing backward for reassurance.
Just beyond a wooden enclosure where the garbage cans were stored was the unkempt swath between the fences. Its entrance was partly blocked by a stubby palm whose fronds drank up most of the light from a nearby streetlamp. Stepping around the trunk, Ted pointed the flashlight into the alleyway but the beam soon died in the knotted undergrowth. Still, he advanced, slowly, swatting spider webs at the level of his nose and mouth. Bert followed gingerly, keeping one hand on the fence like a blind man. His slippers crunched over brittle fallen fronds; his toes were now and then captured by snarls of root or stem. The dog no longer tugged the leash but hung back behind his master’s ankles and needed to be lightly yanked. The rooster had gone silent. In the quiet they could hear bugs crawling under leaves.
Holding aside an encroaching branch of oleander, Ted looked back and asked Bert how he was doing.
“Dandy,” the old man said. “Just dandy. How much farther?”
Ted shrugged, his soft middle jiggling slightly with the rise and fall of his shoulders. There was a thin dashed line of blood on his side where something had scratched him. They pressed on. Thorns pricked at the red satin of Bert’s bathrobe, lifting loops of thread. The dog inhaled something nasty and gave a single wracking sneeze.
Finally they broke through to a tiny clearing, maybe three feet on a side, where a spongy mat of decaying vegetation was smothering new growth. In a corner of the clearing stood the rooster. Ted shined the flashlight at it and for just a heartbeat it froze stock-still like a spotlit actor in a stage tableau, throwing a crisp and oversized and menacing shadow. The rooster’s head was black, its eyes a glassy crimson, its comb a liverish pink. There was both white and red on its chest and its feet were a preposterous and pebbly yellow; its claws shone a crusted and steely silver in the brightness. After a stunned moment it started puffing up the feathers on its neck and strutting inches forward, inches back, with a herky-jerky cadence. Then it started crowing its head off, either in fear or defiance or because it imagined that the flashlight beam was some abrupt new form of sunrise. Er, er-Er, er-ER! Er, er-Er, er-ERRR! Er, er-Er, er ERRRRR! There were no pauses for breath between the cries and each one was higher in pitch than the one before.
The dog had hunkered low and was pawing at the mat of leaves, but scuffling backwards as it did so. Bert swayed in his slippers, trying to keep his balance on the yielding and uncertain patch of ground. Then Ted raised the flashlight like a spear, took a half-step forward and started screaming at the rooster.
He wasn’t screaming words but he wasn’t just making animal noises either. It was somewhere in between; nonsense syllables but definitely human. The screaming at first shocked Bert but then it seemed to be contagious and the old man found that he was hollering too, as loud as he could, filling and emptying his lungs in a way he hadn’t done for years. The more he screamed the more he wanted to, aches and demons seeming to fly out with his breath, the burn of life seeming to waft back in with every inhalation. The men’s screams bounced off the close fences of the alleyway and came back blurred and blended.
But the rooster held its ground.
Until the dog joined in. Nacho grew up in that moment. Something just switched on in him, and suddenly he was yipping and growling, straining toward the rooster, lips back, ears raised, quailing no more in the face of that hard beak and those hideous claws. Ted bellowed, Bert yelled, Nacho bared his tiny but determined teeth, and finally the rooster, backing till it could back no farther, began to flap its clumsy wings. Dust rose from the ground, feathers scratched and clattered, and the bird lifted haltingly, gracelessly, wobbling like a small plane on a windy runway, until it finally struggled up above the level of the fence, threaded and bashed its way through the web of overhanging foliage, and was gone.
Ted gave one last shout, a kind of punctuation. Bert worked at getting his breath back, his ribcage stretching and contracting inside the robe that was now hot from the excitement. When he was able, he bent down and lifted the dog, brushed filaments of cobweb from its whiskers and its muzzle. “You did it, Nacho,” he said to the creature, feeling its heart still fluttering within its peewee ribcage. “You chased him away. You were very brave, weren’t you?”
The chihuahua licked Bert’s face.
Then the rooster crowed as lustily as ever from someplace not very far away, a backyard or a different alley.
Ted tilted his head to gauge the direction from which the cry had come. He shrugged and it could be seen that there were bits of leaf and twig clinging to his jockey shorts and mixed in with his chest hair. Resignedly he said, “We didn’t scare him far. He’ll probably come back sometime. Short memories, roosters. Just a question of when.”
Surprised by his own bravado, Bert said, “And we’ll be ready for him when he does.”
“Yup, we will,” said Ted, and he led the way back between the fences. The distance seemed much shorter now, the footing not so treacherous, the dimness not so blinding. In moments they were back on the driveway, then through the compound gate and onto the white gravel pathway that gleamed softly even in the dark, and Bert was headed back to the cottage that was already feeling a great deal more like a home away from home.