Pickleball by Meghan Louise Wagner

There were dead birds on the Pickleball court again. When I pulled my bike into the community center, the researchers were already there, loping around in orange hazmat suits, draping the fences in green and yellow tape. My crew stood on the edge of the parking lot, twiddling their paddles. Frank Monaghan lived in the neighborhood, two streets over, and Charlie Keegan was a friend from college who owned a condo downtown. Our fourth, Vic Kustnetsov, was always late, yet he was a solid Pickler so we put up with it. My podiatrist used to be our fourth but he was a bit of a dinkler.

A few feathers had flown off the court. I pumped the brakes and skidded to a stop, causing the beers to clunk in my paddle bag.

Frank pointed his paddle at me. “You get the group text?” 

“There’s dead birds again,” Charlie said, nodding at the SUVs parked beside the pool. On the other side of the courts, I saw my podiatrist and his new pickleball crew leaning against the white picket fence, slugging skinny cans of hard seltzer. Jeez, they even drank like dinklers.

Frank pointed his phone at the sky, as if taking a picture—but God knew what for. I unzipped my paddle bag, grabbed a can of lager for myself, and tossed one to Charlie. Suddenly, our fourth, Vic Kuznetsov, materialized and held out his hand. I always avoided him when we played doubles. Talk about a poacher. But he had the best drop shot in the neighborhood.

“Same thing’s happening in Michigan,” Vic said, cracking the tab of his beer.

“They say it’s getting worse,” Charlie said, squinting.

“It’s the atmosphere,” Vic said. “Nobody knows what to do about the atmosphere.”

I sipped my beer and watched the researchers pack bird carcasses into the same Glad bags they always did.

“This is taking forever,” Frank said, tapping his cell phone. “Let’s just try Southpoint.”

We downed our beers and made plans to meet at the community center in the neighboring development. Once again, I hopped on my bike. Kids skirted along the edge of the parking lot, anxiously tugging at beach towels and pool-noodles. Meanwhile, their mothers swiped phones and looked to the skies. 

The guys and I headed south. Before I’d even passed the gated entrance to Southpoint Estates, my phone buzzed at my hip. I rode the bike one handed and checked it. A group text from Frank:

>More dead birds<


After we finished my brews in Southpoint’s parking lot, I pedaled home. My wife sat at the kitchen table, typing on her laptop. It was still light out, barely a cloud in the sky. I opened the fridge and asked if she just wanted to order from the salad place for dinner. 

“Or Thai,” I said, closing the fridge. “I’m easy.”

“I found the email the window guy sent us,” Greta said, not looking up from the computer. “He said the turf guard would last a decade.”

“What’s wrong with the windows?”

She stilled her fingers and peered at me. “The birds, Nick.”

I searched the condiment drawer for takeout menus. “We got dead birds on the pickleball court,” I said. “Had to reschedule for tomorrow.”

She returned to her computer and typed. “I tried calling him,” she said, “but he blew me off, so now I’m emailing everyone.”

“We’ll probably have to fight Dr. Brill and his crew for it.”

“The sales manager, the VP, the president of operations.”

“We’ll be lucky to get two matches in, the way those geezers play.”

“Here,” she said, flexing her fingers, “Listen to this.”

I shuffled through menus while she read the email aloud to me. Something to do with the potency of the reflective glass, the failure of the window film they claimed would repair the issue, and the physical and emotional toll of disposing of dead birds on a daily basis.

“Should I sign off with best,” she asked, “or all best? Or all the best?” 

“It all sounds good,” I said, waving the menus. “Hey, you want Thai or salad?”

“Whatever,” she said, returning to the computer.

I called the Thai place and got a busy signal. Next, I tried Salad Daze. Same. Then I called Frank’s cell phone to see if my phone was working. His twelve-year-old son answered on the first ring. 

“Hi, Bill,” I said, “your dad around?”

“Him and Mom went back to the courts. He left his phone.”

“Wait—is pickleball back on?”

“What do you think is going on with all the birds, Mr. Coventry?”

“Are your mom and dad playing with another couple?”

“Mr. K says it has to do with the atmosphere.”

“Just tell your dad to call me if they get a game going.” I hung up and lingered by the counter. Greta was fiddling with the wireless router. I tried Salad Daze again.

When I got another busy signal, I returned to the fridge. The shelves were stuffed with fresh produce. Leafy greens, spring onions, carrots with feathery tops, cherries with stems and pits. It all needed to be washed and peeled and sliced before anything could be done with it. Greta always bought more than we could use. She liked to snap photos of it all laid out on the counters, but left to her own devices, she’d rather nuke a Hot Pocket than peel an onion. She was nothing like my first wife who only ate fast food at airports or rest stops. Sabrina would use every part of her produce: Swiss chard ribs became crunchy pickles, carrot tops were transformed into chimichurri, cherry pits got soaked in vinegar to make salad dressing. One time, Charlie Keegan threw a build-your-own pizza party at his condo. His wife, Anna, set out lumps of dough, bowls of sauce, shredded cheese, pepperoni, olives, diced onions. We ran out of cheese pretty quickly and, since it was late, the only grocery store downtown was closed. Sabrina found an old gallon of milk in the fridge and said she could use it to make ricotta. Everybody thought she was full of shit, but I knew she could do it. Guests weaved in and out of the kitchen, checking her progress. Charlie hung near the sink, heckling her the whole time. Anna complained that we all ate too much dairy anyway. After the milk boiled, Sabrina turned off the heat and squeezed fresh lemons into the pot. She set a timer on her phone for fifteen minutes and grabbed a slotted spoon. When she dipped it into the milk, separating the curds from the whey, everybody clapped. I was proud. If we ever found ourselves on a deserted island or dwelling in the aftermath of a nuclear wasteland, Sabrina would be the reason I’d survive.

I ended up making a salad with untoasted pecans and store-bought dressing. The power flickered on and off throughout the evening. During the blackouts, Greta shut her computer and grabbed her phone. I lit every unopened holiday candle I could find. Soon, the bedroom smelled like pumpkin spice. I didn’t want to waste the charge on my phone so I sat in bed reading Wired. It was the only magazine I had in abundance since my mom bought me a subscription every year. 

Each time the power flickered back on, Greta and I rushed to the outlets to charge our cell phones. I searched “dead birds” + “tennis courts,” but all I got were articles from a British Columbia newspaper from 2008.

Around eleven, Greta climbed into bed with me, dressed in her vintage Blondie tank top. The cool light from her phone lit her face: the curve of her forehead, the shadow of her cheek, the thumbprint of her chin. Everything else was dark, nonexistent.

I didn’t know why I kept thinking about my first wife. As Greta and I sat in bed, I thought of all the nights I spent camping with Sabrina. We had a thin, weather-worn tent she inherited from her older brother, a serious rock climber. She knew how to build fires and put them out safely. We’d sleep on the craggy ground, cuddled in our unzipped sleeping bags, and wake up stinking of sex and sweaty socks. Years later, even when we could afford hotels with room service, she’d still trace her finger along faded hiking maps, pointing out spots where we could pitch a tent. At the time, I hated this about her. This insistence on living as if we had to scrape by.

The power returned. Briefly, it felt as if all of mine and Greta’s things had also returned to existence: bookshelves, picture frames, dressers, laundry baskets. We sat there, still quiet, swiping through our phones, waiting for it to all disappear again.


In the morning, the power remained on, but so much had gone bad in the fridge and freezer that Greta was throwing it out. Curdled milk, cottage cheese, melted lettuce. To be honest, I wondered how much of that produce had gone bad anyway. She hadn’t started a pot of coffee so I brewed it for us. 

I poured some into a travel mug and left the rest for her. On my way out the door, she asked me to take out the garbage. I waited for her to tie the bag into a knot. “Can you be home by five thirty?” she asked. “The window guy’s coming back.”

“We got pickle ball,” I said.

“Nick, they don’t listen to me.” She handed me the garbage bag, which was heavy and dense. She looked tired, older than thirty-three and, somehow, for a reason I couldn’t explain, she looked at me like that was my fault.

I lugged the trash out and drove to work. On my way out of the development, I passed the pickleball courts. Yellow tape bordered the parking lot. Green tarps covered the fences. Once I hit the main road, I turned into Southpoint Estates. Their pickleball courts and community pool looked exactly the same. Yellow tape, green tarps. 

I pulled over, took pictures, and texted the group chat, asking if the guys knew anything. I sat in the car, waiting for responses.

Charlie: >Maybe we can find another court<

Vic: >It’s like this everywhere<

Charlie: >What about the rec center?< 

Frank: >Maybe we should just take a break from pickle ball

I froze, unsure how to respond to that. I waited for one of the other guys to say something, to tell Frank he was being nuts. Three dots vibrated on the screen and then:

Charlie: >Yeah, that’s a good idea<

I dropped the phone in the cupholder and drove off. To be safe, I took another detour and cruised past the rec center. From the road, I caught glints of yellow and green. Once I arrived at work, I was half an hour late. My team waited in the conference room. I blamed it on the power outage and they all looked at me the same way Greta had. Eyes drooped, cheeks sallow, chins like thumbprints.


Sabrina used to say my greatest tragedy was that I didn’t have any tragedies. All my success had come easy. I couldn’t handle losses, even small ones, because I’d never had a big one. “Your problem,” she’d say, “is you think life’s supposed to be easy.”


After the team meeting, I texted my younger sister, Cassie, and asked if they had any dead birds up in Maine. She wrote back that her husband, who managed his family’s bed and breakfast, was still recovering from falling off a ladder. 

>Sorry to hear< I texted, >but what about the birds?<

Three dots vibrated on the screen for at least two minutes. Then, all she wrote back was: 

>ya we got dead loons

I texted my mom and her twin brother in California. They decided to move in together after Dad passed a few years ago. It was weird but no one ever talked about it. 

Mom said they had dead bees in the succulent garden. Buckets full. She sent me a picture of their front porch, covered in black and yellow flecks. Most of the canyon roads were undrivable. They even shut down parts of the 10 and 405. 

>Bees?< I wrote. >you don’t have birds?

>they might be wasps nobody knows<

Uncle Paul sent a meme through the group chat. A big, fuzzy cartoon bee sitting at a diner drinking coffee. >Where does a bee sit?< 

Three dots vibrated. 

Mom: >on his bee-hind


At lunch, I called Dr. Brill. If my crew was too scared to play, maybe the dinklers could let me in on one of their matches. When he answered, he asked about my plantar fasciitis. 

“It’s great,” I said, “good. Hey, you guys got a game going tonight?”

“Haven’t you heard about the birds? They think it’s got something to do with the algae bloom. They’re catching it from the lake.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “but what about pickleball?”


I took the long way home. More green tarps, yellow tape. I passed two car accidents on I90, a third on the offramp. Birds all along the shoulder.


When I arrived home, a Reinecke Windows van sat in our driveway. I parked behind Greta’s Audi and climbed out. She stood in the side yard, squinting at the sun, while a young man, late-twenties, climbed a ladder to our second story bay window. 

Greta folded her arms, glancing upwards. “See?” she said. “It’s not working.”

“This is the best turf seal we got,” the guy said, rapping a confident hand against the glass. “Don’t know what more you can do.”

“The birds keep thinking it’s real,” she said. “They keep flying right into it.”

“Ma’am,” he said, “everybody’s got dead birds.”

She waved to me. “Nick, come tell him.”

I joined her in the side yard and shielded my eyes from the sun. “Our birds are different,” I said, looking upward. “These are sparrows, bluebirds, cardinals. They’re not like the ones dropping dead on the highway.”

He leaned on the ladder, squinting. I thought of Cassie’s husband and their gutters. This guy was cut from the same cloth as my rugged brother-in-law, same as my dad had been, same as Sabrina, even. 

He remained up there, high above, and gazed past the treetops. A minute later, he climbed down. Once he was on the ground, I was relieved to see he was actually about an inch shorter than me.

“I’ll tell it to you straight,” he said, looking between us, “you’re not gonna find better quality than what you got here. Even if we refund the work—yank ‘em out for you—it’ll still cost an arm and a leg to reinstall with another company. And even after all that, you’ll still have the same problem.”

“Dead birds?” I asked.

“Most likely, yes.”

Greta stepped away from us and released a sarcastic laugh. I ignored her and asked the window guy about other types of non-reflective films we could try. As he talked about sealants and protective blinds, I felt a familiar sickness rise from my stomach—We could try this, we could try that—and I started wondering how hard it’d be to live with dead birds. 

As the window guy showed me images of turf-guard packages on his phone, Greta rolled her hand and snapped her fingers at us. I didn’t know what the hell she was going on about until I saw the zip of the feathers. 

And heard the plunk.


“Maybe we can live with it.”

“Dead birds? You think we can live with dead birds? Everyday?”

“It’s happening everywhere, babe.” 

“Do you understand the emotional toll of shoveling dead birds out of the yard every day?”

“You’re not the only one affected, you know.”

“Nick. No one cares about your pickleball.”


If you were to ask Sabrina, she’d probably say the reason we got divorced was because I didn’t want children. That’s not completely true. I liked the idea of having them with her. Yet, it got too hard after a while. The appointments, the specialists, the interviews, the time off work, the long phone calls arguing with insurance agents. 

Here’s the thing: we tried everything and kept hitting brick walls. Over and over. There’s only so much suffering a person can willingly walk into. If you were to ask Sabrina, she’d say I gave up on us first. But it’s not true. It wasn’t my choice for her to leave. None of it was.


The power conked out again. We lost internet, too. Not even our phones could pick it up. We ate a mix of canned beans, corn, and tomato sauce for dinner. Simmered on the gas stove, poured over stale tortilla chips. It reminded me of camping and, when I mentioned that to Greta, she shrugged.

“I’ve never been camping.”

“Not even when you were a kid?” 

“My brothers did boy scouts. I did gymnastics.”

After we ate, I tried to wash dishes but the water sputtered out like the faucet had a smoker’s cough. The sunset was a pretty shade of violet and pink, streaked with yellow. Greta sat at the table, illuminated by her laptop, flipping through saved files. Mostly vector paintings and comic strips. When we met, she was studying graphic design and illustration, and landed an internship at my company. She wasn’t on my team or anything, but we’d run into each other in the break room, in the elevator, at the coffee shop across the street. She carried vintage lunch boxes instead of purses, and we got to talking about The Smurfs, Star Wars, and Jem and the Holograms. She was the one who introduced me to Instagram. She’d scroll through posts on her phone, showing me pictures of surfers on Lake Erie, gourmet pastries on sun dappled tables, and sad, dreamy selfies. She always swiped past those ones shyly. After Sabrina and I split, I had gotten into a habit of staying late at the office. One night, I ran into Greta in the empty parking lot. Her car wouldn’t start and she didn’t know who to call. Her eyes puffed with tears. Her nose ran. I wished I had paid more attention when my dad tried to teach me how to work on cars. Instead, I asked if she had Triple-A. She said, “I think my parents do,” and I said, “You should call them,” and she bit her nails and said, “They’ll just give me shit for not taking care of it,” and I wanted to help someone, I wanted a problem I could actually solve, and so I called my mechanic for her and covered the cost of the tow. While we waited, it began to rain. I thought about asking if she wanted to sit in my car and listen to music or something, but I got scared people might see me, the newly divorced project manager, getting cozy with the college aged intern, so we stood under the awning outside the lobby and, as Greta’s shoulder pressed against mine, as she told stories about a quirky ceramics professor who used to make them headbang to Swedish death metal before studio, it felt like camping. It felt like the brick wall I’d been hitting and hitting and hitting all these years had finally dissolved and washed away.


The power never came back on. 

The next morning, I stood at the stove in my t-shirt and boxers, wondering if I could make coffee in a saucepan over the gas flame. Sabrina used to do it. It was like a pour over. As I held a bag of coffee in one hand and a glass measuring jar in the other, Greta entered the kitchen, dressed like she was going to a job interview: charcoal blazer, white button down, black slacks, leather pumps. 

“Power’s out,” I said.

“I’m going to talk to the window people,” she said, sliding her laptop into one of my old leather brief cases. “Make them see reason.”

“Maybe you should hold off. The highways were looking rough last night.” 

“I can’t just live with it, Nick. I can’t learn how to be happy this way.”

“Alright,” I said, trying to eke water from the faucet, but it only sputtered out in weedy coughs.

Greta grabbed her car keys and walked out the laundry room door. A moment later, I heard her manually crank the garage door open. I returned to my coffee experiment. I lined a colander with paper filters. I boiled water.

While the coffee seeped, I tried calling the office but the phones were out. Internet, too. Finally, I filled a mug with weak coffee and walked outside. Dead birds littered the driveway and street. More than the usual sea gulls and crows. There were cardinals, sparrows, woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees, common grackles, summer tanagers, bluebirds, orioles, warblers, bobwhites, dark-eyed juncos. 

I took out my phone, snapped photos, and sent them to Greta to prove it wasn’t just the windows. This was everyone, everywhere. 

Each text came back with a message. Delivery Failed: Try Again?

On my way inside, I heard more plunks and thwaps. I finished the coffee, left the mug in the sink, changed into a clean shirt and shorts, and laced my trainers. I packed my paddle bag with all the beers left in the garage fridge. Most were still cool. I climbed on my bike, lifted the shovel, and balanced it on the handlebars. As I swerved past the birds, it reminded me of winter mornings as a kid, heading off to shovel driveways for extra cash.

The courts were still covered in tarps, yet more birds had fallen, creating a dented crater in it. I cleared the carcasses away the same way Greta had been doing at home: lifting them in the shovel and depositing them in a pile near the trash. She was right. It did take an emotional toll.

Twenty minutes later, Frank Monaghan joined me with a snow shovel. Soon after, Vic Kuznetsov came around, fished a beer from my paddle bag, and told us how he heard this was it: the end times. The bees in California, the nighthawks in Colorado, the bats in Texas, the pigeons in New York. The skies would open next, the floods would come, the fires, the hunger, the long dark days. 

Once the court was cleared, Dr. Brill squeezed through the fence with his paddle in hand and asked if we were getting a game going. I tossed him a beer and we divided into teams. Collectively, we decided Charlie Keegan wouldn’t make it from the city. (God knew what was happening to them). 

It was Frank and I versus Vic and Dr. Brill. I served, they volleyed. When the wiffle-ball bounced on our side, Frank crouched and raised his paddle over his head, whacking it back to them clean. Talk about a scorpion. It soared straight past Vic and hit the kitchen floor before landing in No-Man’s land. What a sight: a real shake and bake. When it was Vic’s turn to serve, he was his usual aggressive self. Such a banger. But I still got a few good volleys going with Dr. Brill. We played the rest of the day, light on our feet, no dead balls, no dead dinks, a couple golden pickles. The birds, of course, continued to drop, but we made do. We took breaks to grab the shovel.

Meghan Louise Wagner lives and teaches in Northeast Ohio. Her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming such places as Nashville Review, Cutleaf, Cleveland Review of Books, Story, Okay Donkey, AGNI, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories.