Birdie, Published by “Breadcrumbs Magazine” 1/8/16

The plan was to find out why this Birdie girl wandered around our rooms, stealing our things. Living in a dorm with over sixty of us, we’d all roam in and out of each other’s closets from time to time, borrowing clothes, flat irons, hair dryers, and stuff like that. But from what I could tell, Birdie was the only one who strolled around our quarters, pocketing Q-tips and razors, deodorant and dental floss. And no one had a clue why.

The girls on the floor left it up to me to investigate the “Birdie situation.” I’d been known to not give a rat’s ass about poking my nose in other people’s business. It was true of course, but to my defense, I’d only get involved if it meant I could help someone. Like the time I’d spent a week spying on Jamie’s boyfriend Kurt because she’d suspected he was cheating. With a camera around my neck, I followed Kurt all the way down to the west wing of the theatre. While hiding in a groove in the hallway, I watched him walk straight into one of the back rooms. Minutes later, Chelsea, not Jamie, walked in after him. The next day, anticipating 9:00pm being their usual meet up time, I hid under the desk in the same room they’d met in the night before. Needless to say, I caught the whole thing on film and went straight to the darkroom to develop the pictures. A day later, I presented my proof to Jamie. 

Anyway, Birdie, from what I already knew, was a blue eyed, kinky-brown haired Minnesotan; a lover of country music and ice fishing. She wore the same silver antlers around her lanky neck every day, cut off jeans around the dorm no matter how cold the weather seemed to get. She called soda “pop” and ate peas straight from a can. And when asking her where the name Birdie came from, she told me, her real name was Blake, but her parents called her Birdie because she could whistle as good as any cockatiel.
“She called soda “pop” and ate peas straight from a can”

I’d been following her for a few days now. Along with my camera strapped around my neck, I kept a small notebook and pen in the coat of my right pocket. From what I’d gathered, her morning routine seemed average, waking at six with the rest of us. After she cleaned her room and did the bathroom chores, she’d grab her bath caddy and either showered or washed up at the sink. But then – and this was where it got weird – if Birdie were at the sink washing up, real quick, while the person next to her was busy rinsing the soap off their face, she would reach into their caddy and snag a bottle of shampoo, conditioner, basically anything she could get her hands on. Then walk back to her room – not even bothering to shut the door behind her – open a dresser drawer and dump the entire caddy out into it. 

The next morning, while everyone on my floor left for breakfast, I snuck into Birdie’s room and opened that drawer. It was filled to the brim with dozens of razors and body soaps, deodorants and lotions. Basically every type of toiletry you can think of – all of which were different brands. So the question now was: Were the things in Birdie’s bath caddy even her own?

I stayed in her room, taking pictures of the drawer, and scoping out her closet, which other than black slacks and dressy blouses – the classroom dress code – mostly held t-shirts and jeans. So it was pretty clear everything other than the toiletries seemed to be hers. But that we already knew.

Back in my room, I took out my notebook and wrote out my thoughts. Why toiletries Birdie, why? They were cheap and there was a trip to Walmart every weekend. Did she not have the money to buy her own? Or, maybe she had that obsessive-compulsive disorder where she just couldn’t help but take people’s bath supplies? I had no idea. And I was getting nowhere.

So I kept an eye on Birdie for weeks, following her all around the dorm, in and out of the dining room, the mailroom. I even started hanging out and watching movies with her in the lounge. Sure, she was a bit corky, being a teenage girl, wearing teddy-bear pajamas, knitting herself a lime green sweater while sipping hot coffee through a straw. But other than that and stealing basic bath necessities, she was pretty ordinary, interesting even, telling stories about running into black bears on hiking trails, catching snakes and eating them too. Conversation never felt forced. And by no means did tailing her around feel like a chore. Truth was, spending all this time investigating Birdie made me kind of like her. 

And then eventually all the extra attention I gave her opened my eyes to something new about the case. Just the other day, in history, the class discussion was about the colonial days. And somehow that led to us talking about people in those times never taking baths. To keep clean, they washed themselves with a cloth at a washbasin, which was basically just a pitcher or bowl of water.

During the conversation though, I accidentally dropped my pen under the table and when I went to pick it up, I noticed Birdie’s hands fidgeting on her lap. I also noted that when the teacher called on her to answer a basic question such as What place suffered from hardship, disease, and hunger? Her face grew red and she claimed she didn’t know the answer. Even though the answer Jamestown was in the book directly in front of her.

Birdie and I’d been hanging out for a while now. So later in the day, I just came right out and asked her why she got all tense in class earlier? She ignored me, changing the subject, going on and on about how annoying Frank had been, chewing gum with his mouth wide open.

I nodded and smiled, but her behavior in class really got me thinking. I made some excuse about needing to be somewhere, then dashed over to the library and began my Google search on colonial days in Minnesota. It turned out, back then, Minnesota was unknown territory, basically untraveled lands and blah, blah, blah. Then, out of curiosity, I typed in: Do people in Minnesota take baths? All that came up was some crap about saunas and Epson salt being good for your skin. How ice baths could help you lose weight and more stuff like that, which got me nowhere.

A week later, Birdie and I’d just finished eating lunch and were walking back to the dorm to change for sports. We stood on the stoop of Haryn Hall, chatting about our plans after graduation. Her posture drooped as we turned to climb the stairs and her backpack nearly slid right off. She gave her shoulder a shake to readjust the bag and, when she did, something fell out from the side and tumbled down to the bottom step. We both reached over to grab it, but I got to it first. It was a bar of soap wrapped in a cloth napkin. Both of us kind of froze there for a minute, staring at each other. I thought, now was the perfect time to just come out and ask her, Birdie why do you steal bath supplies? But a flush rose to her cheeks and I could see something troubling gathering behind her eyes. So I handed the soap back over, pretending I could care less about it. And just as I did, she responded in a language I didn’t recognized. “Dankie,” she said, casually, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. 

Back in the dorm, she went her way, and I ran like hell to the library. On the computer, I typed in dankie and found the etymology of the word was Dutch. Pennsylvania Dutch to be exact. Then I asked Google if there was an Amish Community based in Minnesota. And it turned out there was.  

I ran back to the dorm and waited for Birdie to leave her room so could I snoop around for mail. As soon as she did, I snuck in, grabbed a stack of letters on her desk and took a few pictures of the sender’s address, which, after another quick trip to the library, turned out to be an Amish village.

Finally, the case was solved. Birdie stole our toiletries because she grew up without any of her own. Back home for Birdie meant going to the bathroom in a communal outhouse. The Amish didn’t use electricity, never mind bothering with commercial-like products. Of course Birdie collected all the supplies she could before returning home for break. As a matter of fact, from now on, I’d help her gather whatever toiletries she desired.

But now the question was: What the hell was an Amish girl doing at a boot-camp boarding school in the backwoods of Connecticut?

Whatever the case, from here on out, whenever the girls on my floor asked me what I discovered about Birdie and our toiletries, I’d smile and tell them I discovered nothing. Nothing at all. Then, the minute they looked away, I’d steal the soap right out of their caddies.

Published January 8, 2016 by Breadcrumbs Magazine