I started this blog soon after I quit my job at Telltale to freelance, with the nebulous plan of posting about writing and other stuff. It’s become a place where I mostly post pictures of dollhouses and occasionally of my spoiled rotten dog. I still write, I just don’t talk about it much. For someone who makes a living getting press coverage for other people I’m kind of shitty at self-promotion. (We writers call that irony.)
In the early 2000s I spent some time writing short stories and creative nonfiction and trying to get published. This dropped off when I started focusing on novels in 2004, but I did get a few pieces published in literary journals, most of which are archived halfway down this page.
“Big Bird Grows Up” was not published. A magazine was interested but they were concerned about trademark infringement, and I stopped sending it out after that. I recently stumbled across it in an old folder after thinking it was lost and figured I’d post it here for posterity. If Jim Henson’s lawyers come after me, well, that’ll be a funny story someday.
Considering I wrote this more than ten years ago, there are things I’d do differently now. But there are also things I wouldn’t change at all. I hope that means it doesn’t suck.
Big Bird Grows Up
Big Bird has had it.
He’s been trying to tell them for months — years! — about the gentle giant with whom he spends his afternoons, playing Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Parcheesi. He simply wants to widen the circle, to introduce old friends to his new friend. His best friend. But they don’t listen. They tell him in patronizing tones that Snuffy is imaginary, a figment existing only in the deep folds of his bird brain. “Then who’s moving the red checkers?” Big Bird insists. Snuffy always plays red.
It’s okay to have imaginary friends, he’s told. Many children have them. Many adults had them once. Over birdseed milkshakes, Mr. Hooper speaks of an imaginary friend who lived in an old-fashioned popcorn popper. “In those days,” Mr. Hooper says grandly, “we popped corn over an open fire. When I flipped the popper on its handle it looked like a boy, with a round flat head, just my height. Johnson and I, we had adventures!” Big Bird clamps the tip of his beak on the straw and sucks, sucks his thick shake down his throat. “But all my mother saw,” Mr. Hooper says, “was me playing with the popcorn popper.”
Big Bird knows the difference between reality and imagination. Snuffy was not conjured in this way. Together, he and Snuffy have cried real tears; imaginary things can’t cry.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Big Bird insists to the adults. “Snuffy is not a popcorn popper. He’s real! He’s alive! He’s my very best friend, and a bona fide Snuffleupagus!”
His name shoots back at him in chorus: “Oh Big Bird!”
* * *
The music — can they hear it?
It drifts in from the rafters as adults, muppets, and children congregate near the basketball hoop. Sunny day, keeping the clouds away. This theme has been played to children rolling down grassy hills, to children pushing hula-hoops down the sidewalk, to children running behind Barkley, the mop-haired dog. It’s played daily while the sponsors are rattled off. They seem not to notice the music as it strains onto the scene. Or if they do, they think nothing of it.
Big Bird stands under the basketball hoop in his Birdkateers uniform, speaking in earnest to the semi-circle of children and muppets before him. He’s raving, as he often does these days, about the real live Snuffleupagus who’s dying to meet them all. “I already gave him a uniform,” Big Bird says. “We made some alterations for his snuffle. He’ll be here. I promise.”
Now there’s nothing to do but wait. A few in the semi-circle try to imagine a game of tic-tac-toe, but keep forgetting where they have made their marks. One girl with the sniffles rubs her nose on the wing of her Birdkateer uniform. An Asian boy in glasses raises his hand as if in school, and says he must be home in fifteen minutes for dinner.
As evening falls the children trickle off, saying goodbye to Big Bird, saying maybe next time. Girls pat him on the wing with maternal regret. The only ones left are Big Bird and Telly, one of the monsters, who has anxious wrinkles folded deep into the fabric of his forehead. “I’ll wait with you,” Telly says. “As long as it takes.” They sit under the basketball hoop well into the night. Mr. Hooper brings dinner outside for them, peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Lights switch off inside Sesame’s buildings: Ernie and Bert’s for their 9:00 bedtime; Gordon and Susan’s an hour later. The Fix-It Shop has been dark for hours. Mr. Hooper returns to his shop to close up. “I’ll wait with you some more,” he says as he leaves. “Don’t want you out here alone, this time of night.” Telly, who has fallen asleep on the asphalt, lifts his head and looks around. “Did I miss him?” he asks. Big Bird sadly shakes his head. “I better get home,” Telly says, in a tone of apology. He looks about to cry. Big Bird watches him go.
Snuffy, who promised today would be the day, has not come.
When Mr. Hooper returns from his shop, armed with hot cocoa and sugar cookies for a snack, Big Bird is gone. Mr. Hooper calls for him, softly. Then he walks past the nest to make sure Big Bird is safe. Which he is, curled up under his electric blanket, as if he’d been sleeping there for hours.
But he’s not asleep. He stays up half the night, wondering, worrying. He tries to lull himself to sleep through counting, and in the blink of an eye the nest is full of sheep — baaing, bleating, banging through the toy box. Big Bird opens his door and sends them spilling onto Sesame Street in the dark. The sheep wake up half the neighborhood.
* * *
Big Bird tries not to blame the children.
After all, they don’t even live here. They only visit. Why is that? Maybe they’re too noisy, too messy, unpredictable. They’re not always smiling and that’s important on Sesame Street. If any emotion is to be taught it will be done by a muppet. One of the union members. One of the flock.
Or because children, unlike muppets, must go to school during the day and to church on the weekends and to visit Grandma and Grandpa at Christmas. Can’t count on them to stay up past midnight for a sheep-counting sketch.
Maybe it’s because their parents would get lonely. There’s no room for more adults on Sesame Street; those slots are taken. And as much fun as the children have with that diverse cast of characters, Susan, Maria, and the gang are not their mothers.
Or maybe it’s this simple: muppets do not grow up. Children do.
But he’s running out of recruits. Those that petered off in the night were the last group to listen to him talk about Snuffy with lit eyes and held breath. They believed him for awhile, children and muppets alike. They, too, wanted Snuffy included in the daily fabric. But they’ve grown impatient. Every time Big Bird tries to set up a rendezvous, Snuffy doesn’t show. These recruits have missed out on playground trips and excursions to the zoo. They’ve watched Big Bird’s agitation mount, have listened to his earnest voice ring bitter with disappointment. Some of the children have begun to realize that there are more important things in life.
The muppets, too, are finding better things to do. When Big Bird meets Ernie on the street and invites him to a vigil, eye contact is avoided. “I just can’t,” Ernie says. “It’s Rubber Duckie’s bath time.” Big Bird has run through them all: Kermit the Frog, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Telly, the Count. And, in his quest to bring Snuffy to the light, he has been left alone.
* * *
Truth be told, Big Bird is one of the lucky ones.
With his wings and free feet, he can walk anywhere he pleases, so long as he fits through the door. Most other muppets are confined to the areas behind walls, where they can hide their freakish semblances of legs to create the illusion of wholeness. Lucky Oscar, he has a trashcan to call home. Bert and Ernie their cozy apartment. The Tweedlebugs their flower pot. Others aren’t so fortunate. Those cows, where do they sleep at night? The honkers, the aliens who say yip-yip-yip, the two-headed monster whose heads can never agree on which way to walk? They’re sheltered, but in accommodations not nearly as comfortable. They huddle together in storage closets and trailers. But they don’t complain. They’re happy to have this community, this chance at greatness. They witness Big Bird’s agitation and begin to grumble about ungratefulness, about rocking the boat. “You should see that pad of his,” says a sheep to a circle of muppets who have never been inside. “Electric blankets, toys, a trampoline, the works. I say one of these days we storm in. Take over. We’ll show him what’s imaginary and what’s real.”
Big Bird is barely six years old and stands at over eight feet. His feathers are canary yellow — hence Oscar’s well-worn insult, you big canary — and he’s often leaving feathers around. Molting, perhaps. Big Bird is concerned about the people around him, about the way the world works, about whether the world will keep working as it should. One Christmas he nearly froze to death on the roof waiting for Santa Claus, because Oscar told him that fat Santa would plug up the chimney. The following Easter, a similar stunt. Oscar is fond of such jokes because Big Bird’s an easy target.
Just recently, Oscar sent Big Bird on a scavenger hunt of massive scale, turning over every rock and hard place on the street to find his pet inchworm Slimey, who’d gone missing moments before their big magic show. Slimey, of course, was curled in the trashcan under a lettuce leaf, watching television. But Big Bird took this plea in earnest, traveled near and far calling the worm by name. He missed his Birdkateers meeting to search.
“Why do you let him upset you?” the adults ask. “Why not just ignore Oscar’s bait?”
“Because these things are important!” Big Bird insists. Will the world keep turning if Santa doesn’t make it down the chimney? If Slimey fails to show up for a skit? If Mr. Hooper isn’t there one day to make the birdseed milkshakes?
How about if he can never, ever, ever convince them that Snuffy is alive and real. Will the world keep turning then?
* * *
Just who are these adults taking his welfare so seriously?
A stellar example of diversity at work.
There’s David: black. Susan: also black. Her husband Gordon: black and bald. Olivia: black and a hell of a singer. Luis: Latino. Maria: Latina. Bob: white. Linda: white and deaf. And Mr. Hooper: white and old. A man who has lost friends to world wars, his mother to hysteria, his father to leukemia. The muppets look to him as their patriarch. He feeds them for free in his cozy store and tells them faraway details of this vast planet. They listen, hungry. Most muppets have only seen this stretch of street, lonely in its abrupt beginning and end. No one would turn the corner of Sesame Street for fifteen years.
Big Bird has tried to reason with them. He’s even set up meetings, but the adults never make it to his nest in time. Snuffy has to go off and see his mommy, or use the bathroom, or all sorts of other inconveniences. “Why can’t you just stay one more minute?” Big Bird pleads. But Snuffy looks at him with those big, oh-Bird eyes. He turns slowly on his slow legs and plods off, with heavy steps, just as the adults run in from across the set.
“Can’t you see him?” Big Bird cries. “Look over there, can’t you see him leaving?”
They look in the direction of Snuffy’s retreat, but he’s already turned the corner.
“Didn’t you hear him?” Big Bird shouts. “Didn’t you hear us talking when you were standing outside the door?”
But the adults are dispersing. Mr. Hooper can’t leave the store for long; what if someone wanted a sandwich? Luis needs to get back to the Fix-It Shop to finish a transistor radio due back this afternoon.
It’s almost as if they’re in cahoots. The timing is too perfect. Even that meeting at the art museum was bungled, a whole night of breathless darting from room to room, followed by near-misses. They hardly had time to look at the exhibits. And the adults blamed Big Bird for taking them on a wild goose chase.
Is it possible they have met before, accidentally on the street, and are now playing a trick on him? Big Bird thinks about this. What a cruel trick it would be. But Snuffy seems a little too willing to play along. He’s always going on about how he and Big Bird don’t need anyone’s approval. You only need two players for Parcheesi. Could it be — is it possible — that Snuffy has had a hand in this?
No, Big Bird admonishes himself, don’t think like that. Snuffy doesn’t even have hands.
* * *
The adults start to wonder if they should cut him some slack.
Big Bird has no family; the adults on his block are responsible for his well-being. He lives by himself in the nest — a one-room apartment on the east side of Sesame Street, filled with his toys and feather-paintings and steel barrels painted red and blue and green. His actual nest, where he sleeps at night, is just like one you’d find fallen from a tree, shaped like a massive hockey puck with a hollow that fits Big Bird’s body, interwoven with twigs and other materials. It’s well made and doesn’t come apart even in the snowy weather. Big Bird eats his meals at Hooper’s store and always looks carefully, both ways, before crossing the street. Excuse the pun, but Big Bird is a good egg. So the adults start to wonder, as he grows increasingly agitated over this imaginary friend of his, if what he’s trying to communicate is something else entirely.
They know what’s happening in the world, outside Sesame Street. They read newspapers. Children need to know, now more than ever, that adults can be trusted with anything that tortures them. That “Nobody will believe you,” is a downright lie, a weapon that must be removed from the war.
On the other hand, what can the adults do? Tell Big Bird that they believe him when they don’t? True, this gentle giant could be someone real, an adult who sneaks into the nest under the curtain of afternoon naptime. A man, with a long snuffle, who plays games with Big Bird when no one else is around. But this is not what he’s told them, and they don’t want to put words into his beak. They encourage him to tell the truth but can’t presume to know what that is. They remember what it’s like to have imaginary friends. Indeed, they muse over a treat of Irish coffee at Hooper’s store one night, they never had such ruffled feathers when the adults around them couldn’t see these mysterious beings. They had felt honored knowing that their imaginations could conjure up people who floated invisibly before their eyes but lived, very clearly, somewhere in their brains. Their parents fostered creativity. Shouldn’t they encourage the same development in Big Bird?
They try distracting him with an invitation to join the Sesame Street Band.
He plays the clarinet, Suzuki-style, but recently has not been practicing as often as he should. Snuffy plays the cymbals. Sometimes they play duets in the nest, Chopsticks or lively renditions of Heart-and-Soul. They’ll hear our music, Big Bird thinks, and come rushing to see who’s with me. But it never pans out this way. Snuffy has to leave, for one reason or another, and inevitably an adult knocks on Big Bird’s door just after. Once, he was complimented on his many, many hours of practice. Another time, he was asked to keep the racket down just a touch.
He goes to his first rehearsal, clarinet case in hand, his mind on other things. Some of his muppet friends are there: Telly on the oboe; Bert on the triangle. Some local children have turned out too. They gather under the basketball hoop arranged by height, with Big Bird in the back. The bottom of the net grazes the top of his head. Bob, the band’s conductor, stands before them with baton in hand, his poised arms up. The band members raise instruments to their lips.
The squawk of noise that plays is so massive, so ear shattering, that Mr. Hooper comes running from his store. Ernie, wet from the bathtub, sticks his head out the window. Linda, the deaf woman, jumps from her seat on the stairs to see what’s wrong.
When Big Bird relaxes his clarinet, he sees that everyone is looking at him. He’s not quite sure what happened. He remembers thinking how much Snuffy would enjoy this group, and that he should ask Bob to extend an invitation. And now they are looking at him, some in disbelief, some, it seems, in disdain.
Bob says, “Maybe we need a few private lessons before you’re ready for the band.” He’s invited to watch the rest of the rehearsal from the sidelines, but after a minute or so Big Bird packs up his clarinet and leaves. Snuffy is at the dentist today, but Big Bird would rather be alone right now than with this group, this loud music.
Linda has been watching him since the incident. She takes his wing as he passes, gently, and squeezes it hello. He pulls away, equally gentle, but does not acknowledge her.
He walks for much of the afternoon, clarinet case in hand, until he looks up and realizes that he has gone farther than he should. Somewhere beyond the cameras and bottomless walls he finds himself in another place altogether, a place unlike any he’s seen on Sesame Street. People in green costumes shout lines to one another over the rapping of drumbeats; their chests are smeared with ketchup. A man with square glasses yells “Action!” and “Cut!” From his perch in the shadows, Big Bird studies a man nearby. This man wears a tribal necklace of sorts, not around the neck but draped over one shoulder, hanging long and low to his belt. The charms are silver, shiny like the Christmas ornaments hung yearly in Hooper’s store. Big Bird wants a necklace just like it. He feels he’d know, just by wearing it, that he was someone who belonged.
And clutched in this man’s hand, Big Bird sees something that both scares and excites him at the same time, if that’s possible — or, maybe the jolt he feels through his insides is another emotion altogether, one the adults haven’t taught him yet.
What he sees is a gun.
* * *
There’s something wrong.
The muppets sense it. Something in the air smells different.
It starts out with brief conversations amongst themselves, snippets of Everything all right today? Did you hear something strange? The story of a recent band rehearsal circulates. Whispers of an emotion none of them have learned about, an emotion that perhaps the adults have been trying to hide. Telly has been seen pacing outside Big Bird’s nest, muttering and wringing his hands. Oscar finds himself remorseful, even ashamed, at some of the practical jokes he’s pulled. Something has to be done, but no one is sure what. Communication with the adults would be a start, but most muppets shy away at the thought. How can they possibly articulate the gravity of what they feel thick in the air around them?
Kermit, usually their leader, is on location in Manhattan. Who else can they trust to be discreet? One of the cows approaches Bert, bashful-eyed, and asks if he’d be willing to speak to the adults on their behalf. “You really do know them a lot better than we do,” she moos. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Yes,” he says, “I’ll go.” He heads for the Fix-It Shop, his eyebrow set in determination, his little hands clenched. Something must be done.
But Bert fails to convince. The adults try to sympathize, but truth be told, he’s making no sense. Big Bird is going to do something horrible? What on earth could he do? “I don’t think you understand, Bert,” Luis tells him, looking up briefly from the bicycle chain he’s mending. “Big Bird can’t do anything horrible. Everything is all right.” It’s like one of the 45s on Ernie’s portable turntable has begun to skip. “I don’t think you understand, Bert,” Maria says, giving him half the banana she’s just peeled for a snack. As if he could choke something down his closed throat at a time like this. “Big Bird can’t do anything horrible,” Gordon says, and Susan puts her hand on Bert’s shoulder as she says, almost sultry, “Everything is all right.”
He returns to the muppets and says, “We’re on our own.”
The muppets look back at him with wide ping-pong-ball eyes. With one firm voice they say, “Lead us.”
* * *
What’s running through Big Bird’s mind, as this comes to its climax?
When tomorrow dawns, nothing will be as it was.
The facts are these: Big Bird has lured his best, imaginary friend into the nest with the full intention of ending this, once and for all. It dawned a day like any other but when dark falls, something will be different. He will no longer be haunted. Only what’s real will remain.
If only the adults could urge patience. As he matures into a man, he’ll see that small things do change all the time, on their own, without being forced. He’ll learn that the space between Christmases is far less than a lifetime. He’ll move out of his childhood nest, possibly away from Sesame Street, without the world imploding. Stars in the sky will burn themselves out. Television shows he knows and loves will be cancelled. And still, the world will turn.
But they can’t tell him these things. Big Bird is not a boy who will grow into a man. The world around him may change, landmarks may dissolve into sand, but as long as the lights are up Big Bird will be there, shiny and new and covered with feathers. And he will never, ever get older.
He raises the gun, sets his sights, and fires.
In that moment, every last one of them knows what will happen. This shot heard ’round the world means the end of safe warm beds and three square meals a day. The end of bathtubs overflowing with suds and pillows stuffed with soft down feathers. The end of bedtime stories. The end of the safe, perfect world that is theirs.
When Big Bird fires his gun there are muppets rushing in from all sides to stop him, spilling down the stairs of 123 Sesame Street, out of Mr. Hooper’s store, from under the basketball hoop, swooping down from the eaves. They will make this one, desperate attempt. They carry whatever they can grab — baseball bats and sticks, a bent-up coat hanger here, a length of jump rope there. More muppets than you’ve ever seen in your life, old standbys, one-sketch wonders, even some who seem to have spawned for this very moment. Sheep, tweedlebugs, cows and horses, honkers, aliens calling yip-yip-yip! Letters and numbers with wide, bewildered eyes. Monsters and more monsters, pierced with a determined drive for survival. Hoping beyond all hope that they can knock something out of focus. Bert is heading up the group; Ernie is near the back. There will be no time for goodbyes.
Mr. Hooper makes himself small as they knock past. He’s too frail for this revolution, and he senses, as only a man who’s lived can sense, that this is something they must do alone.
They yell out as they reach the nest. You’ve never heard such a cacophony! Bert at the front chanting La la la linoleum! like it’s an old Southern spiritual; Telly blowing his oboe in harmony.
Snuffy faces his assassin with sad, oh-Bird eyes. Raises his snuffle off the ground just a touch. Stands his ground until the bullet hits.
That one bullet kills them all.
* * *
All that’s left is a blank set.
How can that be, when just moments ago it was littered with the bodies of the martyrs?
They clean up quick around here.
But wait — the music — can you hear it?
Lou Reed, singing in anguished baritone: It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you. It washes over this empty set as an afterthought, swelling gradually louder. A song meant for lovers but more fitting to console the depths of personal sadness. A song that reaches into the soul to make you feel that you’re not alone.
Such a perfect day, it’s what keeps me hanging on.
A song about going home. Can you hear it?
* * *
On the stairs of 123 Sesame Street, Mr. Hooper stirs.
In the dark, he had been sure there were fallen bodies all around him. He heard the thuds of their landings and the cracks of their wiry, brittle bones. But now, as the lights come up, he sees no one. He pulls himself up and stumbles across the street. The Hooper’s sign is hanging from one nail, creaking in the wind. He can almost hear the rustle of tumbleweed.
Mr. Hooper limps into his shop, shuts the door, and turns the Open sign to Closed.
“Big Bird Grows Up” © Emily Morganti. Do not reproduce without permission.
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