Max & Me
By Karen Reske Taber

He ruffled his feathers and cocked his head,

"Suppose you tell me what you think your normal life span is, then. . . "

He stopped and let out a whooping cackle that sounded distinctly like a laugh

". . . then we'll get on with this."

And he paused expectantly for my reply.

"Well. . . " I began hesitatingly. "I don't know. Let's see. . . "

As I pondered, his impatience bubbled over. Stopping but a second to caw a greeting at a grackle passing in front of the patio, he commanded, "Come on, come on." A staccato. "Let's go. Surely you know how long you plan to live."

The bird, Max, and I had met the day before as he was winging by on his annual flight east. He'd noticed me sitting on the patio and stopped. He was remarkable, most unusual with his long amber tail feathers and bright, intelligent eyes. I had no idea what species he belonged to, and he had refused to tell me when I'd asked him, squawking,

"You don't need to know what brand I am. That's the problem with people, always trying to find out details that are none of their business."

Now I wasn't answering fast enough for him and he cackled, "Let's get down to brass tacks," broke off to scoff, "Brass tacks. There you are again, you people, making things what they aren't. Why not steel tacks? Or copper?" The question was rhetorical and I waited for him to settle down.

Soon he did and repeated his thought: "Well, what about this death thing?"

He regarded me quizzically, hopping back and forth on the round glass top of the patio table where I was sipping green tea mixed with an ounce of sweet cream and a single slice of lemon. I had brought it outside to enjoy in the warm air of the late-summer evening.

"Death, you know, is inevitable," he chortled. "And thank goodness. Imagine having to spend eternity in that form you people take. Why, you can't even fly," he sputtered.

I waited again for him. . . for his shrill laughter to subside.

"I know death is inevitable," I began, feeling insulted. "Okay, let's say then I plan--or had planned, or--no. Funny, but I never really considered it before," my voice trailed off.

"Another problem people have," Max nodded in agreement with himself. "Why if we birds went around like that. . . "

He broke off again as two young rabbits came into view, approaching from across the greensward deep in conversation, unsuccessfully negotiating around the sprinklers streaming water on the once-thirsty grass. They were heading directly toward us, having watched us for some time as they hopped. I was a little embarrassed to be caught talking with a bird.

"Don't worry about it," said the larger of the two when they reached us, fluffing out his fur to shake off the water and noticing my consternation. "Everybody does things that make others feel superior. That's what you're doing talking with Max here," his voice tinkled. "Imagine what anyone would think if they saw you. Whatever it was, they'd certainly feel superior to someone talking to a bird. Even a bird of Max's caliber," he added, scrupulously flicking his whiskers to shake off the last of the water.

"So Benny," Max hopped to the other edge of the table. "What brings you and Calvert out this evening, so long after the dinner hour?"

"We're on our way to see Melchoir--to find out, you know, how to live forever like he does--is. How to never die." Benny delivered these lines as nonchalantly as if he were reciting a grocery list.

"Can't be done, my lads, can't be done," chortled Max. "Melchoir'll tell you the same thing, too. Why, that's exactly what we've been discussing," he said, nodding in my direction, "death. And life. And time, of course, ultimately."

"Sure it can," insisted Benny. "Just look at Melchoir. Why he must be. . ." he hesitated thinking, ". . . must be forever years old. And with all these coyotes roaming around, too." He waved his paw in a sweeping arc to indicate where the coyotes might be found and promptly losing his balance, tumbled. Quickly righting himself, he continued,

"and Cal here, and me, we're going to find him and ask him the secret."

Calvert wiggled his nose and nodded his head vigorously up and down in agreement.

Max snorted.

"Can't be done," he repeated gruffly. "Nope, can't be done. You're going to die, and Calvert, too. And me. Even Melchoir. That's just the way it is." He turned again in my direction. "I was asking how long she'd planned to live. She was about to tell me."

Benny and Calvert stared at me with sudden interest and then settled comfortably back on their haunches, having forgotten about Melchoir for the moment.

I shifted in my chair and took another sip of the rapidly cooling tea. The larger audience I'd acquired seemed to give more weight to my reply, and I wanted to think about it a little.

"Normal," I began slowly. "I plan to live a normal life span."

Now it was my turn to break off. I couldn't be heard over the rumbling noise coming from Max.

"Well after all," I continued defensively when his laughter stilled, "normal works some of the time, I think. As a concept. In reality. At least it ought to. Else why call it normal?"

I thought some more. "Okay, okay, then let's say for purposes of our discussion that I had planned to live--plan to live," I corrected myself quickly--"an average life span. Average instead of normal."

But Max was no more satisfied than before. He fidgeted back and forth across the table top.

"Average--normal--same thing. Who cares? Who cares? Let's get down to it," he demanded, "give me numbers. . . a number."

I swatted a gnat from my forehead with the palm of my left hand, abruptly ending the gnat's life span. "Let's say, then, seventy-five. Or maybe eighty. No, let's say seventy-six. That's years. That seems reasonable."

"Seventy-six years?" Max shrieked. Then: "Okay, fair's fair. I asked you. Not everybody can be a bird, of course," he added cryptically. "Okay, seventy-six years. So, then. . . what's the problem?"

"Problem?" I replied blankly. "Why none, I guess. No problem. It just means I should have years left to live and what if I haven't?"I continued slowly. "With cancer, you know, you don't know. That is to say, you can't be sure."

"Sure?" Max sputtered. "Sure? And you could be sure before? When were you ever sure?"

"Well, I said a normal life span. That means expected. That I can expect that many years; be sure of that many years." I sounded dubious now, though.

"You can expect anything you choose to expect, I suppose. But that only says it's what you expect. Not what really is."

"No," I argued. "Expect, in this case, is based on sound thinking, reasoning. It's based on, you know, what's normal, what's normally expected, what most people get. Or have. What I'm entitled to," I trailed off, my words sounding unconvincing to my ears.

"It obviously makes sense for me to expect what's normal," I insisted sullenly, seeing Max's look of disbelief.

His pearly laughter cracked the darkness, drenching the evening in waves of sound before it faded into silence. Then he noticed the small, serious faces of Benny and Calvert peering up at him, anxiously waiting for his response. They were settled on a soft, high patch of green grass.

"One trouble is your fixed idea of what normal is, or average, based on what others think, or do, or have. No basis in any reality. Others have nothing to do with you, after all. Actually all those people with your average or normal life spans don't even exist. They're a figment of your imagination. Nothing but fiction.

"And aside from that," Max jumped around impatiently, "even if you were entitled to seventy-six years, which you're not, but even if you were, how old are you now?"

"Sixty-one." I tried to keep the note of dramatic tragedy out of my voice. "Only sixty-one."

Overhead the great night carpet of stars was spreading itself across the sky and the last patches of dim light were nearly gone. The light was dying and the dark birthing. And always at a different time from the prior nighttime, I thought. Or mostly different, it seemed. I idly wondered if Tuesday's light resented the fact Monday's light had a longer life--or a shorter one--or. . . but that was ridiculous. What you get from spending time talking with birds, I thought, and rabbits.

A brisk breeze roughed the surface of the tea remaining in the cup. Picking up unexpectedly, the wind was gaining strength ahead of what looked like a distant storm on its way.

"That means fifteen years is what you'd ordinarily have left, then?" Max was demanding my return to our conversation.

"What?" I replied vaguely, still partly focused on the evening's birth, on how darkness, at first just smoky shreds of gloaming, had fast reached its full-term blanket of blackness. It is as beautiful as the daylight's fullness, I thought, and as splendid in its appearance, in its beginning at the end of each day, as it is inevitable. And in its ending at each day's beginning.

"Fifteen years, that's what you think you ought to have remaining of your life?" And this time Max's persistent voice succeeded in shattering my musings.

"I guess," I agreed a little reluctantly. "I mean, yes, that sounds right. Okay." But for some reason I wasn't sure. The idea of any exact number, even give or take a few months, didn't sound right. Did the night only agree to be born if it could be guaranteed a certain amount of time in existence? And what about Max? Did he think he had a right to a specific number of hours of life as a bird? And Benny and Calvert? And, my, but how I'd like to talk to their Melchoir, a genius, apparently, at avoiding becoming a coyote's dinner. I wondered what Melchoir would have to say about all this.

"You see, my dear," Max paused importantly, waiting for a group of noisy quail to walk past before he'd continue, "you see, you are not taking into account all the contingencies and perturbations." He pronounced these two long words with their eight syllables so slowly and with such obvious relish I wondered if he had just learned them.

"The contingencies and perturbations are everything. Everything. Without them you have nothing. No basis for concluding anything whatsoever. Forget them and you might as well forget it all.

"Take your cancer now. . . a contingency causing a major perturbation if I've ever seen one," and he burst into such loud and happy laughter that Benny and Calvert both joined in. The racket caused a great horned owl to hesitate in passing, circle once or twice.

"Very odd," he said to no one in particular. "Two young rabbits abroad at this late hour and apparently having a party. I wonder what that's about."

Then he continued across the night. He never found out. I frowned and waited.

"Contingencies are what you people always forget. Never happens with us birds."

"Nor with us rabbits," piped in Benny. "We know lots about those. Why just the coyotes alone. . . "

"And snares," interrupted Calvert.

"And snakes," piped in Benny again, the similarity of the words apparently jogging his memory.

"Yes and snakes," agreed Calvert.

"All life is subject to contingencies every minute it's in existence," continued Max. "And it's a dangerous business to forget about them. Perilous. Throws it all off if you do, you see, all of it. Can't plan for anything without them."

"But you can't plan for anything with them, either," I said, chewing on my lower lip. "You have to be able to count on something, have some kind of a base. You have to plan with some kind of a base."

"Do you expect to eat breakfast in the morning? Max asked abruptly.

"Of course," I said.

"What will you have?"

"Same as always, my favorite. A bowl of cold shredded wheat cereal with sugar and raisins added, a thick slice of hot buttered toast--crisp French sour dough bread--and a glass of orange juice. Oh, and a cup of hot green tea afterward."

"What if you're out of French bread/"

"Well then whole wheat, I guess."

"And what if there's no cereal in the house? None?"

"But that's ridiculous. There's always some kind of. . . "

"What if not?"

"Then I guess I'd have two slices of toast instead."

"And if you're out of orange juice?"

"Then apple juice, I guess," I replied testily, out of sorts. "There's always some juice."

"And what if there isn't?" Max continued relentlessly.

I looked at him moodily, refusing to continue in this vein.

"You're being silly," I said. "And I know what you're doing, the point you're trying to make. But this is hardly the same thing as a proper life span, proper thinking about a normal life span."

"Oh isn't it?" Max hooted in challenge, "like proper thinking about a normal life span? It has nothing in common with the fifteen more years you're entitled to?"

"Well, no," I replied defensively, still miffed despite myself. "I'll eat something for breakfast. Maybe something a little different from what I'd originally planned, but it'll still be breakfast. And," I added, "it would be my own fault anyway if I'd run out of bread or juice or cereal. That's not true of a shortened life span. I have no control over that."

"Bingo! Exactly!" For the first time, Max sounded pleased with what I'd said.

"Time can be likened to sand, you know," he pontificated. "And so can life. But they're not the same. Not really. Think of time as grains of sand and in their totality a collection of grains makes up a life. Sometimes a collection has lots and lots of sand grains; other times, not so--many fewer grains. That's because now and again the sand gets caught by a contingency, gets blown around by a perturbation, and thus some grains get dislodged--removed permanently--from the collection. If you forget those contingencies and perturbations, well, that's when you go astray. They're all that really count, that matter, in the last analysis. And that's what you people have so much trouble learning. You get so enchanted by life, by the whole panoply playing out in front of you--the acts and the scenery and the dialogue--so taken up by it all, in by it all, you forget the perturbations and the contingencies over which you have absolutely no control whatsoever, or practically none most of the time. And you forget there never was any guarantee, any right to any of it. No right to even one minute of life, let alone years and years of time guaranteed to you.

"And anyway," he finished up, glancing at me sideways, "you've already had most of what you claim you were guaranteed. You've already lived better'n eighty percent of it" (I hadn't thought of that before), and spotting a worm making its way across the grass, he flew off in its direction, his dinner menu thus settled. I wondered if the worm knew about perturbations and contingencies.

Max flew back.

"If a person must needs walk the dark corridors of time. . . "

I jerked my head toward him, startled by the pretentious sentence and the unaccustomed somberness of his tone.

". . . of time," he repeated for emphasis. "Then that person must needs try at least to understand that domain a little bit, to learn a little bit about it.

"Tell you what," and now his voice had reverted to its old lightness, as though he had resolved something in his mind.

"I think you should go with Benny and Calvert. Perhaps if you could speak to Melchoir you'd understand more. He's very wise. You'd learn there's no such thing as normal or average or any of the other ideas you've been babbling about. Numbers don't live in time. They inhabit their own domain. You could start trying to bring a little of that intelligence you people claim to the whole matter.

"Yes, good idea," he said firmly. "Go with them and find Melchoir. Talk to him.

"And think about this, too," he added in afterthought. "You're really already over your so-called life-time limit. You survived polio, you know, that contingency, when you weren't supposed to. Would have been cut out of time when you were six years old," he snorted.

I'd forgotten how I'd nearly died in 1946 from my bout with polio. How the doctors had given up hope within hours of my arrival in the quarantine ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital, desperately ill, burning up with polio's fever, its dread paralysis creeping its way toward my chest until it reached that inevitable destination and forced me into the wheezing clamor of the huge iron lung. My parents had been told I wouldn't live; told I was dying. Funny how that close call had slipped from memory. How that fact of near-death, that contingency, had become obscured in all the years of rehabilitation, of learning how to get around, disabled, in the world. Had become obscured by the very stuff of life itself, by. . . what?

By things like the childhood rides after dinner in Dad's brown Hudson to the new soft-ice-cream store for a cone--vanilla--that iced my tongue as I licked the creamy thickness into sharp peaks over and over again. By the idle paddling of us kids on surf boards in mountain lakes of vibrant sapphire that contrasted starkly against the deep greens of the pines hovering high overhead up and down the shores. By my nervousness on my wedding day, wishing my maid-of-honor, Susan, would stop weeping, lest in her joyful emotion she cause me to do the same. By the births of my two children and by the feeling of their solid bodies laid across my own for the first time. Yes. . . by the very stuff of life itself.

"But that doesn't mean," I argued, suddenly appalled, "that now I should just be grateful and ready to die."

Max ignored me, said, "Go on now." And with that he shook out his feathers and extended his wings and lifted off into the warm night air, soon disappearing in the dark sky overhead.


Author Biography
Karen Reske Taber, a retired California attorney, writes full-time now in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. She lives with her son, who is a mathematician, and also has a married daughter who teaches school in Oregon, and two granddaughters. While attending law school she worked as a court reporter in Los Angeles, California. She is a member of the California Bar, the Society of Southwestern Authors, and a former member of Mensa.

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