The albino got drunk and captured a flamingo. I mean, there was a lot leading up to it, I’ll tell you some. There was a whole life, really. He put in for time off from work. He had a factory job putting wood modeling glue in plastic containers. They liked him there. He was the star. He shook everyone’s hands, and got on a bus from Duluth, Minnesota, where he was born. He took the bus all the way down to the Everglades, a burlap sack sitting on his lap.
The albino liked to dress like Buddy Holly, a little bit of a fetish. He once told human resources that he considered himself the reincarnation of the singer, but eh, he wasn’t going to do anything about it.
The bus ride took three days but he’d never seen the country, and so was starstruck by the average scenery and all the truck stops along the route. And the country was bland, and was fine, and was ugly, and was just staggering. They stopped in Des Moines, and ate at a cafe across the street from The World’s Second Biggest Ball of String. The man stood staring at the ball of string for a while, kind of irrationally mad at it. The bus driver yelled at him and broke his trance. After that they stopped in Quincy—Quincy, haha, big shit. Quincy.
They spent the night in Nashville and he went to the Grande Ole Opry. After the tour of the Opry, he broke away from the group and had relations with a Mexican prostitute who was costumed up like Dolly Parton. He said what’s your real name, she said, “Dolly Parton.” She had fucked him for half price, she claimed, just for the fun and experience of being with an albino. She took polaroid photos with him during and after, laughing and saying, “These will be great for my portfolio.” He felt exploited. He felt embarrassed to feel exploited, knowing she was exploited too. Everyone under the sun was exploited. I am and you are, too. He said, “See you later, Dolly.” She said, “See ya later, Buddy.”
He decided he wanted a change. He would dye his hair red like his dead hero. He walked down the street towards the glowing lights of the pharmacy. Everything was a miracle—internal and external.
A car headed towards the train tracks slammed on the brakes at the last second. Burnt rubber. The train thundering across the road. The wooden crossing arm must have malfunctioned and not lowered down. God! An elderly woman had seen this near catastrophe and she yelled at the driver in the green Prius, “You’re a lucky sonofabitch!” The driver yelled back, laughing, pointing at the train still blazing past. “Ah, don’t I know it!” The albino said, “I know it too!” And the elderly woman looked at him like he didn’t belong and the driver hung out of the window too and looked at the albino like he didn’t belong.
He walked into the pharmacy, a lonely brick building, feeling fine anyway. They had airplane pillows. He bought one for the bus, and walked out of the store with it around his neck. But then on the way back from the drug store he was robbed by two junkies, a man and a woman who came out from the dumpster like wraiths. He had to hand over the plastic bag with the hair dye and the potato chips and new insoles for his sneakers. The thieves let him keep the airplane pillow, maybe thinking it was a neck brace or something. The woman sat down on the sidewalk and puked. The man said, “Sam! Get up!” She got up, wiped her mouth, and apologized. The thief was so kind to her, and she was so kind to him. The albino thought, aw they must be in love. The man with the knife was also nice enough, or high enough, to let him keep his wallet, he just had to hand over all the cash in it. $173. So the bus ticket remained. And his Visa Cash Rewards card remained. And his union card remained.
He said goodbye to the thieves, and even shook the man’s hand. The woman just grinned, keeping her distance. She said, “Now I’ve seen it all.”
The albino slept in a motel room with a view of another motel across the highway. People over there were having the times of their lives, he could just tell. The time of their lives, he thought. The time of their lives, he thought. He went to sleep and had his reoccurring nightmare that he was being surrounded by flamingos. They pressed in from all sides. They pressed in and knocked him over and climbed all over him. He woke up feeling drained. The air conditioner was murmuring Satanic verses. He looked out the motel window at the view of the other motel. All the lights were off over there now. The time of their lives, he thought. The time of their lives, he thought.
In the morning, back on the bus after a plate of eggs and grits, he philosophized, Oh the things you can do with corn, you can do anything with corn. He started talking to the person in the seat in front of him. A man from Devil’s Lake, North Dakota who was on his way to see his grandchildren in Pensacola. At first the man from Devil’s Lake was such an enthusiastic talker, and travel companion but the problem was he kept having to turn around to make conversation with the albino and between the combination of the man from Devil’s Lake developing a crick in his neck, and the raised ire of his seat mate, a teenaged goth who was sketching in her pad with aggressive spasms, the talk waned and the albino could tell he should shut up. So he shut up.
In the lingering silence that followed, the albino decided maybe he’d transform into a person who designed billboards. Look at all of them stuck on the side of the interstate like wild flowers. So easy. Put anything you want at all on them and all the people driving by could do nothing but say thank you thank you, praise you by gobbling up your products, whatever they may be. They’d fall right under your spell.
When he got off the Greyhound bus in humid humid humid dripping sweat Florida, all he saw was concrete and the concrete dismayed him. He waited outside the accordion door and said goodbye to all the other passengers as they exited the bus, even re-entering to shake hands with the driver, who said, “Now you take care of yourself, Mr. Holly.”
The depot was like a war zone. But a black boy was leaning against a rusted van in the depot parking lot. The boy said, “Taxi.” And the albino said, “Hey give me a ride to the swamp for money.” The boy said a sum that seemed way too high and the albino said, “Black boy, you’ll drive me for half that or no deal.” The boy walked up with a congenial look on his face, and then he just slapped Buddy—I guess that’s what we are calling him now. O! He slapped Buddy hard on the face and then the boy danced back, going O! O! But there was no audience. And the wind had started whipping. He missed Dolly Parton.
When the man came at the boy, he got slapped again and that was the end of that. “Don’t call me that, you fuggin’ vampire.” The albino said he was sorry. He got money out of the ATM, gave it to the child. Then they journeyed on together.
“What do you want to be called?” The boy didn’t answer, right away. But after he turned the key and the engine started knocking, he said, “I wanna be treated like anybody wants to be treated—with respect.” Buddy nodded.
And then the child drove, barely being able to see above the steering wheel of the van. And as he drove on he continued with his line of speech, “I saw on TV, this show about people who hunt pale human ghosts like you in the jungle. They kill your ass. You’re a trophy to them.”
The albino said, “I saw that show, too. People collect anything I guess. I’m magic. Whoo-hoo. My hands and feet are worth quite a lot. They pay top dollar for my privates parts.”
The child said, “Now don’t let it go to your ego. It’s just old world superstition. Here in America, you’re worthless, baby.”
Buddy had a map and cheeks that stung, and newfound respect; and the man maybe was magic. He was learning. He was taught. There was beer in the van that the albino promised to replace. The child was worried his stepdad would not be happy, but then remembered that man was never happy.
They drove on, the passenger side headlight flickering on and off, on and off. An electrical problem. Buddy said politely, “Please turn up here.” The boy said, “Why sure.” And turned and hummed. The boy’s name was Maurice, he finally said. As he drove farther into the Everglades, Buddy drank beer after beer, throwing the silver cans onto the marsh beside the narrow road.
Maurice wondered if the man would try to kill him. Try, haha. It was a nice place to get murdered, he thought. So peaceful. So serene. First they saw the white ibis through the sawtooth grass. Maurice said, “You if you was a bird, spitting image.” The albino remained quiet.
And then he saw the pink flash of the mimosa blossom, all alien and feathery. And then there they were, three flamingos together walking through the mud. “Stop the van.” Maurice pressed the brake.
Buddy got out and stood at the edge of the muddy water, the burlap sack in one shaking hand, the beer can in the other perfectly still hand. He coughed and the flamingos looked over at him and stared back at the flamingos, until they finally looked away. He’d been dreaming about them. Every night he had a normal dream, where something good would be happening, maybe he’d be joking with his first wife and she’d be laughing, or he’d be climbing a mountain to collect whatever the prize in the dream was, and then suddenly the dream would be interrupted by flamingos who just kept pushing into the frame, jerking around and honking. The three flamingos were so pink and they looked just like they belonged in National Geographic, only, and not the real world.
But then in the corner of his eye he saw there was a fourth flamingo. But this one was malnourished and there was something wrong with its coat. It was a sickly pale. The albino threw his beer can into the mud, and launched into the water and the healthy flamingos scattered. Maurice shouted, “Stop!” The pink flamingos got away but the white flamingo got one of its feet lodged on some trash that was floating in the water and the bird was anchored. He put the burlap sack over its head and the bird screamed once and then was deathly quiet. The man carried the thrashing flamingo to the van.
The boy said, “Now fuck you, I ain’t driving!” Buddy said, “I’ll drive, then.” Maurice tried to slap Buddy but he pulled back and Maurice hit the bird in the chest and it hissed, and he was sorry. “I just want to feed the thing some shrimp, goddammit, Maurice.”
Maurice said. “You’re not gonna hurt it, I’ll see to that!” The bird was put gently into the back of the van. “I’m not gonna hurt anything.” The doors were closed. The man said, “It’s getting late, let’s go.” He climbed behind the wheel and the two of them drove twenty minutes towards civilization. Maurice was giving directions now. It’s always faster to go back the way you came, than it is to come out into the unknown.
He directed the man to a neon light food stand on the side of the road that sold boiled craw, shrimp cocktail, scallops, any fried fish you want. The albino bought two pounds of raw shrimp with the heads still on them and fed it to the flamingo in the back of the van. The bird was happy the bag was off its head. Munched up the shrimp. The bird shit in the van. The bird looked around the van like the van was its new home. The bird looked okay with it. No predators and they feed me shrimp. The bird vomited. The bird shit again.
Maurice said he didn’t care it was his fake father’s van. The sun fell. The half moon came up. It was just a sliver in the sky. Buddy wondered where the World’s Biggest Ball of String was. And wasn’t it always changing? The flamingo slept. Just as the food stand closed for the night, Buddy bought the boy a fried catfish sandwich and a sarsaparilla, said, “Your tip.” Maurice said, “Oh lucky me.” The albino’s feet hurt and he wished he had his insoles, “What now?” Buddy said.
A cop car drove through the lot but kept going, taking the easy short cut to the other county road. Maurice said, “What now? I don’t know. It would have been easier to bring the shrimp to the bird and not the bird to the shrimp, not the other way around. You’re stupid.”
The albino said, “You’re bright.”
Maurice said, “Let’s take it back.” It being this sickly creature. Let’s take it back to the wild. Let’s let it continue its sickness in the maw of nature. The pale man agreed. He popped the last beer, and then handed over a twenty dollar bill to the boy even though the beer couldn’t have been more than half that. He was on vacation. Money just falls out of everywhere when you’re on vacation. Buddy said, “Let’s go, let’s bring this poor thing home. And we’ll get to enjoy how the stars shine out there in the boonies,” he said. “I’m curious to know.”
The child laughed. “If you don’t know how the stars shine by now, no experience is ever going to help.”
“Either you know, or you don’t know.”
‘Then I don’t know, motherfucker.”
“You don’t. Congratulations. And you never will.” Buddy shook the child’s tiny hand. Then he went around the side of the restaurant to use the toilet. And he wondered if Devil’s Lake was as cursed as it sounded. And he wondered if anyone had been killed by that train yet. If not yet, then like all things, soon. As he opened the squeaky restroom door he heard the van start, and he kind of grunted in accepted defeat. When he came back, refreshed, the van was long gone. The diseased, white flamingo was standing in the middle of the parking lot. A fluorescent light was shining down on it, making the flamingo glow like some kind of long-necked seraph, doomed to roam the earth. A misplaced angel, cast off from everything.
And the angel looked straight at Buddy and Buddy felt his mouth get dry. The flamingo went honk, honk, honk, honk.
Buddy wiped the sweat from his face, and thought about Duluth and glue.
You ever wonder why you are beautiful?
You ever ask anybody?
Well, me neither.