by BENJAMIN PAGE
Each morning, provided the weather is right, I take my coffee onto the terrace to survey the West Lawn. I glance at the pond by the eastern redbud trees, the ivy growing along the rotunda. I listen for the cardinals gathering at the birdhouse hung by the rose garden. But on this particular morning I see that the birdhouse is missing, a naked nail jutting from the tree, and it is at this point that I must go find Dinton. As is too often the case, I find him passed out in the azalea bed with his dick stuck in the birdhouse hole.
When we first interviewed Dinton, he assured us he was a great thinker. In the top 5% of Middlebury, at least. He claimed to have read many books, and when my wife and I asked him for specific titles, he named ones we recognized from our mahogany-lined study. Moby Dick, Don Quixote, a Shakespeare. He added that he wasn’t entirely right-brained; he also excelled at mathematics. I asked if he was able to calculate the time of day based solely on the shadow cast by our granite dove fountain topper, and he said that he could, given a proper protractor. He began to explain his thoughts on whether animals possess sentience, but my wife and I put up our hands. “No. No politics, thank you.”
Still, we were impressed enough to hire him on the spot.
“Dinton. Dinton!” I say, shaking him awake. “Get your dick out of my birdhouse, Dinton.” He slowly comes to, his breath reeking of alcohol. We never, ever buy him spirits, but he’s somehow learned to distill mead from the apiary.
I find his writing tome, the one we provided with the ornate leather cover and ruffled pages, beneath a mulberry bush. I dust off the book and check the most recent entry. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. I drop the book on his stomach. “That’s plagiarism, Dinton.” I fish his peacock feather pen from a tree branch and stand him up.
“You’re supposed to spend nights in your cave,” I say. “Why weren’t you in your cave last night?”
“The TV was out.”
“Well, yes I know, Dinton, but we’ve talked about this. I cut the TV because for the last two nights we could hear you watching Cheers from clear across the yard.”
“It helps me think.”
“You watch it too much, and you know the lady of the house thinks all that blue light is bad for her gardenias.”
“It’s for my thesis.”
“No, Dinton. I know it’s not for your thesis.”
From behind me I hear the click of a door, and I turn to see my wife step onto the terrace. Lovely and serene, she watches the butterflies among the Peruvian lilies as she lifts her coffee to her lips. But then her smile drops, her brow furrows, and she scans the lawn from left to right.
“Get going,” I say, handing Dinton his tome and pushing him out onto the grass.
She looks relieved. Her eyes sparkle as she watches Dinton write something, nibble thoughtfully on his feather, and write something again.
This isn’t to say that she’s in the dark. We’ve had several heart-to-hearts about our Dinton problem. It would be difficult to avoid his increasingly irate debates with our landscaper, after all. One man insists on the incorruptibility of the human soul, the other argues it’s too late, we’re 100% corrupt, and no one has suffered through this growing divide more than the Sutherland begonias both men stomp over as they scream.
There is also the fact that, for a hermit, Dinton is obnoxiously popular. My wife and I have returned home on several occasions to find him eating peanuts on our stoop with a bearded, redheaded gentleman. Other times we’ve discovered cigar butts littered across the belvedere, remnants of a foregone poker game. The landscaper has approached me with alarming news of condoms clogging the pond filter. “Only some of us are corruptible,” he said. We’ve asked our neighbors if it’s their ornamental hermits cavorting on our property, but these “friends” are evidently from the greater Middlebury area.
On Saturday we brunch on our terrace with Mrs. Sandlebee, who lives at the end of the lane. We enjoy ourselves, delighted by the freshness of the cucumber water, and Dinton, for the most part, is on good behavior. He picks a daffodil, studies it, then jots down a few notes.
“He seems gentlemanly enough,” Mrs. Sandlebee says. “Though, I must say, is that a sock beneath your drink cart?”
My wife pinches my thigh without even turning to look and I hurry over to scoop it up with my napkin.
“So sorry about that,” I say.
“It’s all right. I’ve already finished eating,” Mrs. Sandlebee says.
“But of course now you see what we mean,” my wife says.
Mrs. Sandlebee pulls a small metal case from her clutch and clicks it open to produce a monogrammed toothpick. She places it between her teeth as she glances toward Dinton.
“I’m not sure I should even mention it, since I’m not sure what he’ll say, but my nephew is looking for summer work.”
“Oh. Oh I don’t know,” my wife says.
“Is he a scholar?” I ask.
“He’s not terribly bright.”
I ask if I can borrow one of her toothpicks and she passes her case across the table.
“No, no we couldn’t fire Dinton,” my wife says.
“Well, it’s something to think about, anyway,” Mrs. Sandlebee says.
“Think about the sock, honey,” I add.
“It would crush him. Where would he go?”
Across the grass, Dinton has found a rabbit and he contorts himself in an effort to mimic its hop.
“If it’s hurt feelings you’re worried about, there are other ways,” Mrs. Sandlebee says.
“Murder?” I say. This gets a good laugh.
“Goodness gracious, no.” Mrs. Sandlebee leans forward and lowers her lilac organza hat. “I hear they can be a bit…territorial.”
Mrs. Sandlebee goes on to tell us a story about her beachhouse neighbor, an oil baron or steel baron or some such, who also wanted to rid himself of a hermit that kept pissing in the dunes. “It wears them down, you know. It’s not allowed.” The baron couldn’t bring himself to fire the hermit, so he instead planted large swaths of beachgrass to shore up the sand. Unfortunately, the baron hated the sight of those dry ammophila weeds, so he also brought in a shipment of baby beach turtles to liven up the landscape. Very expensive, of course, but very popular. “Have you seen the turtles?” “You must see the turtles.” “Such adorable turtles.” Increasingly frustrated, the hermit made a big scene during a party near the end of summer. He downed an entire pitcher of sangria and took one final, huffy dip in the ocean before storming off down the beach. The last Mrs. Sandlebee heard, he’s working at a golf course, where he’s the star attraction of the 14th hole.
“Turtles!” She laughs and then leans back in her chair.
On Tuesday morning, I catch Dinton over by the croquet court.
“A quick word, Dinton,” I say.
He turns with a start, cradling a jar of pickled onions he got from God-knows-where.
“If light travels 300,000 miles per second – that sunbeam above your very head – then how can we measure human language? The speed of an idea?”
I shake my head, “That’s all right, Dinton. I just wanted to let you know that I’m expecting a delivery today and I’m hoping you won’t get in a fight with the driver again.”
“Verbal sparring. Jousting, really, a medieval sport.”
“You’ll keep it under control, then?”
He nods. “I concur.”
I smile, pat him on the shoulder, and go enjoy a Tom Collins in my Adirondack chair by the petunias.
Dinton eyes me from across the yard, confused as to why I’m not at work. He hesitantly sets the onion jar on the ground, retrieves his tome, and pulls the peacock pen out from his underwear band. I take a sip of my drink. Dinton stares up at the sky, touches the feather to his chin very dramatically, and then writes. I take another sip and wipe a piece of lint from my pants. He runs his fingertips gently against the trunk of an ash tree and then writes. I yawn lightly. He lifts a croquet mallet, gives it a gentle swing, and then writes.
The horn of a large truck sounds from the other side of the house.
“Back in a jiff, Dinton.”
When I return to the West Lawn, both Dinton and the onion jar have vanished. I tell the delivery man to unload over by the pond.
I watch from the kitchen window and they really are majestic. The slender necks, the neon plumage. Seven Andean flamingoes in various states of rest. One sits nestled in the buttercup patch. Another takes stock of the algae, dipping its head beneath the water.
I see Dinton gradually emerge from behind the crepe myrtle. He approaches one of the birds cautiously, stretching out his hand. The flamingo, otherwise unflappable, snaps its beak in warning. “Dinton,” I mutter, rolling my eyes. He sidles toward another, pokes its flank, and the bird spins around to bite Dinton’s finger. Unsure if they’re real, now he knows. “What the fuck is this?” he screams to no one in particular.
He rushes across the terrace and pounds furiously on the kitchen door.
“Dinton!” I say. “I see you’ve met the rest of the team.”
“Team? I’ve been here six years. There’s never been any team.”
“The lady of the house,” I say. “You know how it goes. She sees a nature show, she sees flamingoes, she wants flamingoes.” “You tell the lady of the house,” Dinton begins. “Listen, you just tell her I’ve got nothing to say to flamingoes.”
“It’s not about dialogue, Dinton,” I say. “Just, kind of, zigzag among them.”
“Zigzag? Is that a mathematical term?”
“It’s an instruction.”
Dinton frowns at me, picks a twig from his beard, and ambles past every bird on the way back to his cave.
We don’t see him much after, not in any meaningful way. He picks fruit from the brandywine bush and collects his nightly salisbury steak from the dinner chute. He refills his canteen at the well spout. But Dinton always returns quickly to his cave. His friends join him
there, though they keep the noise to a minimum. Setting up my telescope on the terrace one night, I see the redheaded man crossing the lawn and we both give a polite wave.
My beautiful wife, reluctant at first, has grown to adore the birds. She finds them stoic. She loves the way they stretch beneath the morning sunlight. She loves the bursts of pink against the greenery. I, however, have begun to find their stillness eerie. Their heads are too small for their bodies, their knees too knobby. Our landscaper, meanwhile, has gotten in several altercations with Abernathy, the clear alpha of the flock.
Sitting on the terrace for afternoon tea, my wife tosses breadcrumbs into the grass and stretches out her hand as the flamingos inch closer.
“Isn’t it nice?” she says. “It almost feels like a real paradise.” She dips a strawberry in cream.
“Indeed,” I say, “nearly a real paradise, indeed,” but my heart’s only half in it.
The following day, I stroll out to Dinton’s cave in the early hours. He’s installed a row of plastic flamingos outside the entranceway to ward off the live ones. I can hear him sleeping inside.
“A true man of letters,” I sigh. I quietly push a nail into the cave’s earthen vestibule, and from it, I hang Dinton’s favorite birdhouse.
Benjamin Page is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at George Mason University, where he was named the 2013-2014 Honors Fellow. He won the 2014 Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Award and received Honorable Mention for the 2013 Virginia Downs Poetry Award. Born and raised in North Carolina, he currently lives in Washington DC, where he writes for a nonprofit magazine.