I feel guilty about what happened to Rudy, as if I know what happened to him.
Rudy and I were night shift orderlies in the west wing of the med center. On the night shift you sit around doing nothing, and then all of sudden it’s like a house on fire.
To get through the slow hours Rudy and I made up a game he named feathering. The med center became a big aviary. The doctors and sometimes the nurses were geese, bunching up, skittering around. Patients were usually specified, if that’s the right word. One portly fellow was the pigeon. The midnight OD’s were juncos for the sake of the pun; the skinny grandma a snowy plover. Neither of us knew all that many birds so the game was sporadic.
“What bird am I?” I asked Rudy one post-midnight hour as we sat in the empty cafeteria sucking Pepsi.
“Red-legged partridge,” he said without a moment’s hesitation as if he couldn’t wait to say it; it had been sitting on his tongue so long. Red-legged. That let me know he had been thinking about it, and this wasn’t spontaneous. There really is such a bird. I wikipedia-ed it. “A rotund bird…When disturbed, it prefers to run rather than fly…”
I waited for him to ask me what bird he was, but he didn’t so I went ahead and said, “You’re an ostrich.” He flicked his hair with his fingers “It’s not your feathers,” I said, “it’s the way you walk around with your butt in the air.” Pepsi sprayed out of his nostrils. Partridge insult nothwithstanding, I loved this man who could laugh full throttle.
He could get me going too. One night in the cafeteria he told a story about when he was in the Peace Corps in Kenya. He had hired a taxi to take him out into bush, and on the trip they ran over a guinea fowl. The taxi was soon surrounded by irate villagers demanding restitution from the white man in the back seat. There didn’t seem to be other options so he handed over a wad of shillings for the roadkill in the ditch. He would have left it there but the driver wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in the trunk. For poor people like the driver, Rudy figured, any meat, even stringy old guinea roadkill, was better than no meat.
Back in Nairobi, at the hostel where he was staying, he was befuddled when the taxi driver opened the trunk and put the dead bird on the doorstep. No, no, you take it, Rudy insisted, but the driver ignored him and drove off.
Rudy couldn’t leave it lying around to attract the vicious dogs in the neighborhood. He asked Ibrahim, the night watchman, for help. Ibrahim, a grizzled old man new in town from his village, spoke little English but understood what Rudy wanted, and took the bird away.
At dinner in the hostel the next evening the cook came out of the galley carrying a platter bearing a sliver of meat smothered in a tomato sauce. “Guinea fowl,” the cook announced. “Local product.” When the platter got to Rudy he said, “No thanks, I decided this morning to be vegetarian.”
He had me howling. Every time I got myself back in control he’d add another brilliant detail or intonation and I’d be convulsed again. People walking by the cafeteria gave us stern looks.
“Grackles,” Rudy called them.
Gradually the feathering game changed tone; the correspondences acquired an element of hostility. More vultures, titmice, and grouses. Rudy was unhappy. He hated the job. I didn’t. I’m someone who likes to be helpful. It makes me feel good. Also, I was happy to have any job, since I hadn’t finished my degree.
“You should go on stage,” I told Rudy in a flash of inspiration. “You’re a comic genius.”
“Genus comediensis,” he said. “Distinguishing feature is lots of guts.”
I kept offering little encouragements and after a while Rudy actually began to consider giving it a try. “I’m massaging some material,” he said to me one day, flexing his fingers. “I’ve got a stage name, Oz Stritch. What do you think? The bastard spawn of the Wizard of Oz and Elaine Stritch.”
I presumed and hoped he was joking, but one day he showed up with a flyer announcing a performance by the “nationally acclaimed comedian, Oz Stritch.” He gave out flyers to doctors, nurses, lab technicians, everyone he knew even remotely. “They all said they’d try to make it,” he told me. “I’m going to be a starling.”
Shortly after five the evening of the performance I got a phone call from Rudy. “You’re not going to believe this. They moved my slot from ten thirty up to six thirty, before the band. Nobody’s going to be there. Will you come down? I’ll feel better if there’s somebody in the audience.”
When I arrived all the tables on the main floor were empty. I didn’t want to be conspicuous so I took a seat at the dark end of the bar where there was a small crowd. When Rudy came on stage he stumbled around in the excessive brightness of the spotlight like a drunk. I couldn’t tell if it was part of his performance. He was getting the type of laughs you don’t want.
The show went on. Laughter was as scarce as ice in a desert. He wasn’t connecting but he had no audience to connect to. I postponed moving to the main floor and the longer I did, the less I wanted to be a bystander at the wreck. By the time Rudy got to the anecdote about the guinea hen in Kenya, the bartender had turned on the TVs at either end of the bar and what little audience Rudy had shrunk even further. “This is a great story,” I said to the bartender. “You should hear it.” The bartender continued to line up martini glasses.
“Stop talking,” Rudy shouted from the stage, sounding desperate.
After he left the stage, I located him in the curb strip next to the parking lot, leaning against a sycamore tree. I didn’t know how to comfort him.
“Were you there?” he asked.
“Just the tail end,” I said. “Bad bus connections.”
“I was roadkill.” The turn of phrase was a good sign that this would turn into a joke. “I suppose I have to go back in there.”
I stayed with him at the club until 10:30. He was afraid that people from the hospital would show up and he wanted to explain what happened. It was thoughtful of him, but no one from the hospital showed up, and by eleven we were both soggy with martinis. As we parted, Rudy said, mostly to himself, “I am due for migration.”
The following night he was not at work. Nor the next. I knew he would not be coming back. I kept half-expecting to find out something horrible had happened to him, that he got hit by a bus or something. I imagined him as a bloody arrival in the emergency room.
That was some years ago. I still think about him periodically. I could have helped him, if I had tried, but I didn’t. Or maybe I tried too much.
I’ve kept my interest in ornithology. Ornithology is too fancy a word. I’m a birdwatcher. I have a life list. Last winter I flew to Australia to see the kookaburra in its native habitat. It’s called the laughing bird.