On Pheasants and Polyamory

by Rebecca Golden


I found the pheasants accidentally. I’d gone looking for the avenue of shoes on Brush Street, a new art installation in Detroit, and got a bit lost. When I stopped to orient myself, I saw a single pheasant through a thicket of tall grass in a vacant lot next to a sagging two-story. The house had an old Ford F150 parked in front. I saw an empty kiddie pool, a plastic circle in turquoise with green fish printed on the bottom. I heard soft crowing, and walked stealthily towards the sound

As I approached, I saw more pheasants through the tall grass. I wanted to make out details, but the brush blocked my view, and I saw only the shapes of bird bodies. I tried to take their picture. I snapped off a few shots, but all I got were brown blurs against the bright blue sky.

Months later, when I finally went to see pheasants specifically, it snowed six inches. I walked around near the corner of Gilbo and Leander as my boyfriend tried to get his Ford Focus out of middle of the road. His tires spun against the hard-packed snow, and I walked toward the tree line, because I heard a noise that sounded a bit like pheasant crowing. Male pheasants crow. They have long tails and iridescent feathers and, it seems, harems too. Pheasants practice polyamory. Males have two or three mates. John throws the car into reverse. The tires can’t get purchase. I walk farther from the car, snapping pictures of marks in the snow I will later swear are bird tracks.

People love thinking of pheasants as mascots of urban decay, or the new apocalypse, or Detroit-as-frontier. They think of the city as desolate urban prairie, uninhabited, free of people. This idea has legs: I see it play out in books about Detroit’s decline. But in practice, wherever I go in Detroit, I see signs of human habitation. I see houses and people. Even at Gilbo and Leader, despite the emptiness by the street sign, I’m not far from inhabited homes. I see a red two-story with a wide front porch, power lines and fire hydrants. John throws his car into reverse. It moves slightly backwards. I walk away from the car, following the street towards the red house.

In a field covered in tall grass, I see a chair upended, legs pointed skyward. Snow covers the seat. I hear a noise, like birds, or like wind in bare trees. I decide “pheasants” and walk towards the sound. I see more tracks, but can’t find birds. I want to see them to prove to myself that I didn’t imagine them this summer. I know hunters have flushed hundreds of pheasants in Detroit and I wonder where I might borrow a hunting dog.

I’d like to eat a pheasant, but the only restaurant in town that serves them is pricey, and John is broke. During my last trip up to see him, I cried in the hotel because he told me he couldn’t afford a Christmas gift for me. He makes ten times my income, but has debts.

I know I’m ridiculous to care about gifts. I know I can’t keep him. Polyamory may work for pheasants, but I know it’s failing me. John has a wife, and I want more than he ever offered me. I know all of this, but I cry over the lack of a gift because physical artifacts let me know that whatever this was between us, it was real.

John finally tears the his car free of the snow. I walk over and climb inside.

“See any?” he asks.

“I saw signs!” I insist. “Pretty sure I heard crowing.”

“Should we go get breakfast?” he asks.

Before John, the idea of a married boyfriend never appealed to me. My mother held women who slept with other people’s husbands in very low regard, and I’d learned most of my ideas about romance and marriage from her. The idea seemed rather repugnant to me, too, at least until I’d read The Ethical Slut and put in a bunch of grad school applications. After a crushing breakup (my choice, still awful), I’d gone nearly 400 days without a single date.

That’s when I met John online. We made arrangements to meet. We hugged goodbye after a two-hour dinner. He kissed my cheek. A week later, we went out for Italian and watched You Tube videos for a couple of hours. I kissed him.

“Want to fool around?” I asked. “We can go in the bedroom.”

John is nine years younger than am, and I’ve never dated a man so effortlessly cheerful and (mostly) functional. Two years in, I found myself loving him in an unreasonable way. His wife now insists on her right to give or deny permission for time time we spend together, and I feel incredibly stupid about loving him.

In the snow, I agree to breakfast. We drive past the cemetery. We see some abandoned buildings: squat, grey concrete rectangles covered in graffiti. I snap pictures through the open passenger window, the wet, cold air stinging my eyes.

“If you wanted disaster porn, you could do worse than this part of town,” John says. A leftover Christmas wreath hangs over the graveyard fence. John finds an on-ramp to 94, and we drift under a billboard advertising the legal services of Joumana Kayrouz, a blonde personal injury lawyer with an enigmatic smile, like the Mona Lisa. I fall asleep in the passenger seat. When we get to the diner, John wakes me. He orders some a huge American breakfast. I want to talk to him about birds, or about Christmas, but I focus on eating instead. We settle the tab and head back to the highway. I can’t stay awake. I drift in and out. John steers us through slow traffic. Snow falls steadily, dampening the black pavement.

INJURED? asks Joumana’s billboard. I sleep.

John orders me a orders me a double Americano at the Starbucks drive-thru. We get to his house a few minutes later. I kiss him goodbye and head back to Toledo where I’m visiting relatives. The snow keeps coming, thick and steady. I can’t see the road. I drive 40 miles an hour and it takes me nearly three hours to make what should be a one-hour trip. I know I won’t see Detroit again until March, or John. I wonder if I’ll find pheasants then.

When I return to Wyoming, I see a pheasant. I’d found one here before, at Bart’s, a huge indoor flea market where I’d bought a purse with pheasants carved into the leather. Everywhere I go with that bag, people compliment it. During a pre-pheasant-outing visit with John in December, after the Christmas gifts incident, I stood in line at another Starbucks and when I got to the counter, the cashier admired my bag. “That is so pretty,” he said. It took nearly thirty minutes to get my drink. John came in with me, probably because I’d cried in the car, too. I avoided his gaze, clutching the handle of my pheasant purse so hard that by the time I finally got my order, my knuckles were white.

Months later, I found myself at Bart’s again. I like walking around large stores, especially at odd hours when they’re mostly empty. I do this at Wal-Mart. I hate Wal-Mart, but I live in a tiny town, and Wal-Mart is about it for many items. I travel between Laramie and Detroit. I work at finishing graduate school. I find myself at Wal-Mart at 3 am, or Bart’s after five on any weekday.

Bart’s stands near a gray and ugly freeway underpass. But when you park in front of the flea market, you can see mountains through curving concrete, the structure serving as a frame for a perfect view.

One day at Bart’s, I catch a glimpse of brown feathers. They have a pheasant for sale–two pheasants, in fact. The taxidermied birds pose together in a winter scene. The white-painted base of their tableau, meant to suggest snow, has several threadbare pine boughs attached, like branches of Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree. One of the birds sits on a broken piece of wagon wheel. The pheasants face each other, locked in an uneasy détente forever, or until their feathers molder and their stuffed bodies quit having bird shapes.

The pheasants sit near the entrance in a stall full of other dead animals: a jackalope made out of a rabbit and antlers in a glass terrarium, a beaver, a wolf leaping at nothing, its fur a rich mélange of grey and black. The peasants seem shabby compared to all these elaborately posed mammals. Their feathers lack that iridescent shimmer I know so well. These birds have muddy brown feathers, speckled with black. I consider this for a moment and think, they’re hens. They need their rooster for context.

I leave empty-handed. I walk to my car, pausing to watch the sunset through the brutalist frame of underpass. Light hangs in beads against steel trusses, each angled sharply towards the Rockies. I get in my car, see that I have no messages on my phone, and drive slowly towards home.

Rebecca Golden recently earned her MFA at the University of Wyoming. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Nerve, the Times of London, the Ottawa Citizen, MediaBistro and Airship Daily. Her book, Butterbabe, was published by Random House UK in 2009. Rebecca lives in Detroit, Michigan, and is currently working on a book about the city, its many pheasants, personal injury lawyer billboards, doomed affairs, folk art environments, and experimental taxidermy.

Photo via Roger J Frank/Flickr