When I was a teenager, I knew a boy named Monfiori who lived in the neighborhood. He was pale skinned and thin with wiry hair. Everyone at school hated him, but for a while he was my only friend. He ate cockroaches for a dollar and huffed paint behind the woodshop building. He smoked cigarettes in my bedroom despite my weak lungs and my coughing. My mother was worried people would think I was a troublemaker for being friends with him.
“We’re like hemophiliac brothers,” Monfiori said. “They tell us don’t bleed, don’t bleed, but we’re dying anyway. They don’t know anything.”
Sometimes he played jazz on a toy trumpet. Variations on Monk in C, his own creation, this arrangement—or so he claimed. “Psychedelic funk,” he called it. We drank cheap vodka in his basement and I played drums on upside-down buckets. I liked being at his house because I could drink and smoke over there without anyone knowing.
“My mom has jazz records,” I told him. “She listens to them on nights she wants to be left alone.”
“She’ll be alone soon enough when you die,” he said.
Monfiori said we were both dying. “Might as well poison ourselves,” he said. “At least that way we’ll die in our sleep.” He’d already gotten two blood transfusions. He had bruises and moles all over his body. He was the ugliest boy in our school, and maybe the meanest.
One time in his basement we smoked a joint and he told me he was going to set the school on fire. “We’ll watch the whole place go up in flames,” he said. “I’ll send smoke signals to the Indians. Fuck the police and everyone else.”
Monfiori and I had to do twenty hours of community service for stealing guitar strings from the music store downtown. We were going to use them to tie the spokes and chain of his brother’s bicycle so that he would crash. They caught us later in his backyard. We had to go to juvenile court.
“My son’s not a bad kid,” my mother kept telling everyone.
That winter I fell ill with a stomach virus and my asthma flared up. The breathing machine they put me on was loud enough to hear all through the house. At night the dogs next door kept me awake with their barking. They belonged to our neighbors, who were an old couple, immigrants from Poland. Their names were Milosz and Gertrude. They brought me soup and crackers and a dessert called faworki, which they said was known as angel wings.
“They’re for good luck,” Gertrude told me. “It’s a Polish specialty.”
My mother and Gertrude became close. They talked about bread and sausages and red wine. Milosz made paper airplanes for me. From my bed, in my sickness, I watched him pull up a chair. He folded a piece of paper into an airplane and tossed it across the room.
“I had a son once,” Milosz told me. “My wife and I lost him. He was about your age.”
He stared into the floor. He seemed to be searching for the right words. We could hear my mother and Gertrude laughing in the next room.
“His name was Aleksander,” he said. “He liked to play the piano.” I could see the lines in his forehead, the loose skin of his jowls.
“My son, my son,” he said.
He folded another piece of paper. I watched his fingers move, all bone and skin. He concentrated on each fold, creasing it, holding it up to the light to make sure he got it right. He folded the paper into a bird and handed it to me.
“You can name it anything you want,” he said.
“Aleksander,” I said.
I held the paper bird. I noticed Milosz’s hands were trembling.
“Aleksander it is,” he said. He stared into the floor.
When I think back, I know I was a very lonely child. My mother called me imaginative. Those days I was sick I would often see a male cardinal appear on the branch outside my window. One morning I opened the window and he flew in. He was such a beautiful bird. He flew wildly around my room. He glided from desk to bedpost, from bookshelf to lampshade. His wings were red like velvet. He was proud but silent. He seemed to be attentive to some inner presence, as if he had a clear point to make as he strutted across the windowsill. Once, he spread his wings proudly for me. This was his own show, a brief abandonment of the natural world, his own strange fantasy. The last time I saw him, that winter day I was ill, he flew in and shook the frost from his body. I let him eat sugar from my hand. In the pale gray light of my bedroom, in one final, cool gesture of farewell, he cocked his head to look at me, then flew out the window.
For several weeks Milosz continued to bring me paper birds made from colored construction paper. I hung them with string from my ceiling so that they twirled constantly. There were red birds, blue birds, yellow birds, purple birds. Monfiori didn’t like them. “Can we set them on fire?” he asked.
“Aren’t you too old for this? Look at this place.”
He challenged my integrity. He dared me to cut myself and bleed.
I challenged back and he laughed it off. One Friday I stayed the night at his house. We drank his mother’s vodka until late. I fell asleep on the floor in his basement and woke up at some point in the middle of the night, feeling sick. I found him sitting in the corner of the room, watching me.
“What is it?” I asked.
He mumbled something.
“What’s wrong with you?” I said.
“We’re both dying,” he said. “We’ll die together.”
I was sick the whole next day. In my room, Milosz sipped wine and told me stories about a boy who kept birds to fend off devils. “The birds protected him,” he said. “They changed colors and held healing powers, like tiny gods or angels. They showed courage. They taught the boy to believe in himself.”
Milosz wheezed and coughed. I coughed too. His glass of red wine seemed to glow in the dim room. The paper birds twirled above our heads.
One night I woke to something knocking at my window. I sat up in bed, pulled back the curtain, but saw nothing. Outside, the wind was blowing. It was a tree branch, I told myself, and went back to sleep.
Later I dreamed of the cardinal at my window. The cardinal spread his wings, glowing red in the night.
Weeks passed and Monfiori left as quickly as he entered my life. I saw him for the last time later that winter. We sat in his basement drinking cheap vodka and smoking cigarettes. I watched him wrestle his little brother to the floor and punch him in the chest until the boy started crying and ran out of the room.
“You need to stop being mean,” I told him.
“I’m not,” he said. “We’re dying, so what does it matter?”
He turned on the strobe light. We stayed up late in the night listening to some sort of death metal, all screams and guitar. I remember slamming my body into the wall. I remember lying on the floor and pulling a blanket over me.
I’m convinced he tried to poison me in my sleep. The next morning they found me unresponsive. I don’t remember being carried out of the house, the ambulance ride, or anything else. I woke up in a hospital bed on the third floor of Southwest Central Hospital, where they watched me for several days. There, my mother kept telling the nurses I wasn’t a bad kid. They fed me tapioca pudding. They helped me out of bed and tried to talk to me, but I wanted to be left alone. I watched cartoons and old movies on TV.
“He’s a quiet kid,” one of the nurses told my mother. “He never talks.”
When I returned home, the first people who came to see me were Milosz and Gertrude. They brought me angel wings. We drank tea and listened to old records on the antique record player. I mostly kept to myself in my bedroom.
My mother said Monfiori tried to hang himself and they took him away. He wouldn’t be coming back for a while.
“That boy is nothing like my son,” my mother told Milosz and Gertrude. “He was trouble, it’s so sad,” she said.
They all agreed I was nothing like him.
“My son’s very happy,” my mother kept saying.