SHORT STORY CONTEST
by David A. Pepper
“Get the hell outta here, you asshole! You’re scaring my birds!”
The disheveled figure I knew only as “the Birdman” stumbled toward me, waving his arms and shouting a semi-coherent string of expletives.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” I replied, in what I hoped was a placating tone. I lifted my arms and held my open palms out in front of me to show that I meant no harm. I backed slowly toward my car and eased in. I pulled back toward the main road. The Birdman continued to gesture and shout.
My heart was still racing when I got into work. Before I even logged on to my computer, I told my co-worker Chris what had happened.
“I tried to talk to him today,” I announced. “He freaked out.”
“You OK?” Chris swiveled his chair toward me and quickly broke into a smile when he saw that I was unharmed, if visibly shaken.
Chris knew who I was talking about. I had a borderline obsession with the Birdman ever since I moved here and started working at the Left Coast Voice. What had driven a man to live in a battle-scarred orange station wagon and to while away the hours feeding seabirds?
I had considered writing a story about the Birdman, but I was ambivalent. I knew my readers shared my passion for the plight of the less fortunate, but I didn’t know whether the story of a local homeless man would play to a national audience. Plus, I’m really more of a news analyst than a beat reporter. Interviews aren’t really my thing. I also didn’t want to exploit him for my own benefit. I already felt guilty for dehumanizing him with the name “Birdman,” even if I never called him that out loud.
“You should probably just leave him alone,” Chris suggested, adding with a playful snicker, “Plus, you might get your Jimmy Choos dirty.”
“How do you know Jimmy Choo?” I joked. “He doesn’t make flip-flops.” Chris and I were opposites in many ways, most visibly in our fashion sense, but we made light of the differences and got along well.
As I drove home that evening, I glanced only briefly toward the Birdman, now lying on the hood of his battered Buick station wagon, surrounded—as always—by a loyal flock of seabirds. As if taking a cue from their human companion, the birds sat or stood on the ground or on the roof of the car, basking, preening, and resting. Although I had finally summoned up the courage to talk to the man, he was more of an enigma to me now than he was six months ago when I first saw him in this abandoned gravel parking lot on the coast.
I resolved to approach him again. I had already gotten as much information about him as I could from long-time residents of the area. My Uncle Mike, whose house I was living in, told me that the Birdman had been there for years.
“Nobody else has really used that parking lot since the fishery went belly-up, especially with it stuck there between the oil refinery and the old processing plant,” he explained. “I guess the cops are just as happy to let him stay because he keeps teenagers away.” He mentioned that the Birdman probably fed himself and his birds by raiding the dumpsters behind the bread factory.
I had tried to ease myself into the role as a beat reporter by talking to the night foreman at the bakery. He opened up once I told him that I wasn’t a safety inspector or an immigration official. He told me that he left discarded bread out for the Birdman and occasionally paid him a few bucks from his own pocket to help bundle up the trash, stack skids or sweep up behind the building.
“I don’t know anything about him though,” he said. “He hasn’t said more than a dozen words to me in the past few years. I just found him digging around in the dumpsters one night and felt bad for him.”
I had learned where and how the Birdman lived before I even spoke to him. I probably should have let it go at that, but just couldn’t.
I waited a week to let the tension subside, and returned on a chilly, foggy morning bearing gifts in the form of a hot Starbuck’s Venti and a glazed pastry. My timing was good. There were fewer birds around than usual, and the Birdman was pacing in front of his car smoking a crooked hand-rolled cigarette. He glanced briefly in my direction as I pulled up, but didn’t acknowledge me. I approached him slowly, saying in as friendly a voice as possible, “Hi. I’m Josh. I thought you might want a coffee.” He turned and examined me suspiciously. For a moment, I thought I spotted a friendly gleam in his eye, but it was so transitory that it barely registered with me before his face slumped into a dull scowl. He shuffled in my direction, and a wave of stale odor quickly washed over me. I tried not to react, but I flinched, turning my head to the side and crinkling my nose. He seemed not to notice, and before I had time to regain my composure, he had snatched the cardboard cup from my hand and went shuffling back toward his guano-stained car.
“I didn’t know how you wanted it,” I called after him, “so I brought sugar, Splenda, half-and-half, two-percent, and hazelnut creamer. They’re in the bag. There’s a glazed pastry as well.”
He turned around and hesitated, then began shuffling back toward me. I took a few hesitant steps forward, and passed him the bag. I felt like an awkward kid. He returned to his car, and sat on the hood. As he took a sip of coffee, I asked weakly, “What’s your name?” while smoothing the front of my charcoal micro-fiber shirt with my hand.
“This coffee’s burnt,” he replied, and continued grumbling unintelligibly for a few moments. “Thanks anyway,” he added, much to my surprise.
“It’s a Southeast Asian blend…” I began to explain, before quickly realizing that he probably wasn’t all that interested in the coffee’s origin.
The Birdman paid little attention to me as he sat eating the pastry and taking the occasional sip of his “burnt” gourmet coffee. Beggars can’t be choosers, I thought, before kicking myself for thinking that. I used the silence to examine him from several feet away. He appeared to be an average-sized man, although he may have been significantly taller before gravity, age, and unhealthy living had distorted his body. He wore drab and very dirty gray sweatpants, and a slightly undersized military surplus coat. His tennis shoes were very weathered, and were held together, somewhat miraculously, by frayed and tattered laces. He walked with a noticeable limp, stepping rather gingerly on his right foot.
His beard was a marvel. It consisted of equal parts dark brown, burnt orange and gray whiskers. It grew in irregular clumps on his face and neck as though it had sprung up overnight from seeds randomly dispersed over him in his sleep. His dark hair, which was thinning noticeably on top, hung limply down to his shoulders. A grainy powder of filth coated his hands and the exposed portions of his face, not completely hiding a deep, slightly reddish tan. He had the creased face of an old sailor. I estimated that he was somewhere between fifty-five and sixty-five years old, although his dingy face and straggly beard made his age difficult to estimate. I tried to see his eyes, which had caught my attention in the brief moment before I handed him the pastry, but I couldn’t.
I tried to make small talk. “Do ya suppose this fog’ll clear?” My aim was to sound like a longshoreman making idle conversation out on the docks. The Birdman nodded almost imperceptibly, but did not speak. He had produced a pouch of tobacco from inside his jacket, and was unsteadily rolling a cigarette on the hood of his car. I stood uncomfortably for a few more minutes, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, hoping the Birdman would say something. I had always envied people who could comfortably strike up a conversation with anyone, from a drunken football fan to the dean of Harvard Law School. My Uncle Mike was like that, but casual conversation baffled me.
“Well, I have to go,” I announced, probably much more loudly than I needed to. “Nice talking with you.” The irony of that statement made me wince after the words left my mouth.
“Next time bring smokes,” the Birdman said, expressionlessly as I walked to my car. “Camels.”
I drove off, feeling surprisingly giddy. The Birdman had merely demanded cigarettes, but I felt like the star quarterback had just asked me to the prom. Maybe I’d have a little more success with the Birdman on our second “date.”
I wished he hadn’t asked me to bring cigarettes. I felt morally ambivalent about enabling the Birdman’s nasty habit, but I was able to justify it to myself. After all, it was his choice to make, and he would smoke whether or not I brought him his Camels. I stopped at a corner store the next morning and walked up to the counter. “Pack of Camels, please.” I said casually, trying to seem nonchalant as I glanced around, hoping no one I knew would spot me. “They’re not for me.”
The clerk looked very bored. “What kind?” he asked, hardly moving his mouth.
“Uh, I don’t know. Just regular, I suppose.” The clerk threw a pack down onto the counter with a sigh. I paid and sped off towards the Birdman.
He was feeding the birds when I arrived, so I parked as far away as I could. I started to approach him slowly, but he waved me off. “But I have your cigarettes…” I began. “I’ll leave them right here.” I delicately placed the pack on an exposed slab of concrete and backed away like a criminal turning his firearm over to the police. I stood and watched for a few minutes as the birds flocked around him. He spoke to them and even called some by name. “George. George! Come here George!” he shouted to a magnificent white gull that had alighted on the hood of his car. I watched in awe as the bird hopped over toward the Birdman and ate a piece of bread from the man’s hand. Eventually, I left, a little disappointed that I had not been able to speak to the Birdman, but amazed at the connection he appeared to have with the avian world.
I persisted. In subsequent weeks I got a feel for his schedule, and stopped in when my own schedule allowed. I always brought along something—coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and still a bit reluctantly, cigarettes. He generally accepted these offerings, and occasionally thanked me. He was not so receptive to my offers of clean clothing. I wasn’t trying to give him a fashion makeover by any stretch of the imagination, but it was my ongoing project to at least get him out of his grimy coat and sweatpants. Yoga, the stair master, and a vegan diet had kept me in slim-fitting sizes, so I had appropriated some of my uncle’s roomier, if less stylish, cast-offs. Nonetheless, the Birdman seemed quite attached to his older clothing.
The Birdman’s mental state varied widely from day to day. Some days he was angry, others listless, and occasionally he seemed to be at peace. At times he was coherent and lucid, but at others he stumbled and mumbled incoherently, apparently only partially aware of who or where he was. Underlying it all was an inescapable sadness. At first I wondered if I was projecting this sadness onto him on the basis of my own interpretation of a life I could not imagine living. In time, I decided that I was not. There was a genuine sorrow in the Birdman’s eyes that was never entirely obscured by his changeable emotional states.
The Birdman’s eyes fascinated me despite this underlying sadness. They could probably best be described as hazel, but their color seemed to change with the lighting and even with his mood. When he seemed tired, listless, or introspective, his eyes were a dull and heavy brownish green, but when he became angry, the green intensified and sharp flecks of brown formed a fiery ring around his pupils. I imagined that in his younger days, his eyes were often fiery, showing happiness, excitement, and perhaps even a zest for life.
I arrived one chilly morning holding a hot cup of coffee, a cinnamon roll, and a new pack of Camels for the Birdman. He and the birds were relaxing serenely, looking out over the spilling breakers. He actually seemed happy to see me. “Hi Josh,” he said. “Whadaya have for me?”
I was stunned. He had never called me by name. In fact, I had some doubt that he knew it, although I had “introduced” myself on numerous occasions. I could tell he had been drinking, but I knew he often did, so it wasn’t just the booze talking.
“Hi,” I replied, trying to hide my surprise. “I’ve got coffee from the gas station—two creams, two sugars—a chocolate doughnut, and a pack of Camels.” I added, with uncharacteristic boldness, “But you have to tell me your name.”
He furrowed his brow and scowled slightly. “You can call me José,” he said blandly.
His scowl quickly cleared, and I handed him the coffee, the cigarettes, and the doughnut. But I was a little frustrated. I was not convinced that his name was José. If that had been his name, surely he wouldn’t have said, “You can call me José,” would he? He didn’t look Latino either, with his hazel eyes and his beard shot through with red. Or was I being culturally insensitive to think that way? People from Latin America can have all sorts of physical characteristics, I reminded myself. I feared for a moment that I was falling into the narrow-minded mode of stereotyping I so despised. In addition, I thought, maybe his parents just liked the name José, and it had nothing to do with his cultural heritage. I really hoped he wasn’t Latino—that would fit in too well with the misguided right-wing stereotype of the Mexican immigrant sneaking into the United States to take advantage of the system. If stale bread from a dumpster and a gravel parking lot constitute a system.
Some of the birds started to stir as José walked back toward his station wagon. He broke off a piece of his doughnut and held it between his thumb and forefinger. Several birds flapped their wings and shrieked noisily, but José asserted with some authority. “Here George. This is for you George. Here George.”
The large seagull with a massive beak and a stately manner that I had seen previously emerged from the fray and came forward to claim the prize from José’s hand.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “He knows his name.” I thought that couldn’t possibly be the case. I didn’t know anything about social hierarchies among seagulls, but I assumed that George’s size and powerful bearing may have entitled him to first dibs on all food offerings.
“Yes.” José acknowledged proudly. “Sara! Jody! April!” he shouted, but no birds magically emerged from the mayhem. “They don’t know their names yet,” he explained earnestly.
I stood quietly, just watching for a while, and eventually broke my silence. “Why do you love the birds so much?”
He looked at me with puzzled annoyance, as if the answer should have been obvious. “Freedom,” he replied forcefully. “Birds have no worries, except getting food, and I give that to them. They can fly away anywhere they want and they don’t have to answer to anybody.”
I understood why he thought the answer was obvious. Who hasn’t wished to be a bird at some point during their life? Still, there was a massive chasm between occasionally wishing to be a bird, and devoting your whole existence to feeding them. Then again, what else did he have to do?
I stayed for a while, enjoying the sea air, and trying to hide my disgust when the shifting breeze occasionally left me downwind of José and his makeshift aviary. A few birds fluttered, waddled, or hopped over toward me, but did not linger once they realized I had no food. I suppressed my strong urge to shoo them away, if only to avoid offending José. Then “George” approached me. In a ham-handed effort to ingratiate myself with the Birdman further, I called to the stately gull like a puppy, “Here George. Come on Georgie!”
The Birdman eyes blazed as he screamed at me: “Never call him that! He hates it! His name is George! It’s George!”
“It’s George,” he repeated more and more softly, until he unexpectedly burst into tears.
I had no idea what to do. “I’m so sorry.” I eventually managed to say. “I meant no harm. Of course it’s George. Of course.” I wondered if I should approach him and try to comfort him in some way, as unsavory a prospect as that was.
Thankfully, I was spared the decision and the accompanying awkwardness. The Birdman retreated to his car and slammed the door behind him, slumping low in the driver’s seat.
I didn’t return for a week, although I slowed down each day on my drive home to ensure that José was still alive and functioning. Finally, I summoned the courage to return, bringing coffee, snacks, and three packs of Camels. I expected José to drive me away or at least ignore me, but he acted like nothing had ever happened. I had planned to apologize, but I restrained myself, thinking that it might just reopen the perplexing but apparently painful wound I had inflicted. As usual, I stood a few yards away from José while he leaned against his car, drinking his coffee and smoking a cigarette. And as usual, he had little to say, so I tried to make conversation.
“I’m going to New York next week.” I mentioned casually.
“Drink at Sal’s,” he mumbled.
“Drink at Sal’s? Is that a bar there? Did you live in New York?”
“I was someone else back then.” he grumbled, apparently not wishing to elaborate.
I decided to press him. “What did you do there?”
“Bad things,” he replied sadly, looking at the ground. “The birds are my life now. Not a care in the world…” His voice trailed off almost wistfully.
I didn’t press him further. He seemed to have drifted back into his own little world. I promised to visit at least two more times before I left, but he just stared ahead vacantly.
I visited him every day that week, hoping I could learn more about his life in New York City, and perhaps even about the “bad things” he had done. I was gradually discovering that José really liked to talk when he was in the right mood—and when he could choose the topic. Some of it may have been nonsense, but at times José could be almost poetic, particularly when he talked about the birds. Of course, I didn’t want to know anything more about the birds. I wanted to know about his past; yet I felt that I shouldn’t ask him directly about such a sensitive topic. Instead, I asked somewhat vaguely “What brought you here?”
“My car. Drove up the coast.”
It was difficult for me to determine whether he took the question literally, or was deliberately being evasive. My uncertainty quickly cleared when I tried to clarify my question:
“I mean why…”
“I know what you mean,” he interjected harshly. The conversation ended abruptly on that note.
My last visit of the week was on Friday afternoon. José was drunker than I had ever seen him. I felt uneasy around him in that state, although in this instance, he was certainly very talkative.
“Josh,” he called to me. “Joining me again—in forma pauperis, in forma pauperis.”
I was startled with his choice of phrase. “Do you have legal training?”
“Yeah, it means I’m poor. Only legal phrase I still use, even though I’m not using it right. I’m poor and dirty and drunk. I’m so drunk. You come see me anyway. Even a pretty boy, like you.”
“Were you a lawyer?” I asked, ignoring his “pretty boy” comment.
“Yeah, a fuckin’ defense attorney,” he slurred. “I wanted to help the powerless, y’know, kids with no dads and no money who get sent to jail for no good reason. I really was a good person.” He paused for a moment. “I got rich instead. I was a millionaire ten times over in my heyday. Some of it was mob money. I’m so drunk.”
“Was that in New York?”
“Yeah. George! There you are George!” he exclaimed as several seagulls floated in on the sea breeze. “Look at him. Isn’t he a handsome bird?” I agreed with him for the sake of agreement.
After that, José mainly wanted to talk about birds. Occasionally, I’d try to steer the conversation back towards José’s history, but he resisted. I asked him for the third time, using different wording, why he no longer practiced law, and he answered simply and coldly:
“Because I killed people.”
He twisted his face, hurried back to his car and got in, slamming the door behind him. My stomach was in knots and a tingling sensation was radiating through my limbs. Was the Birdman really a killer? Surely this was a delusion on his part, or at least an exaggeration. But what if it wasn’t? I had never met a killer before, so how would I know? I thought I should report him to the police. It was the right thing to do, at least to be on the safe side. I brought the matter up with Chris and he talked some sense into me.
“What are you going to tell them?” he asked. “That a homeless lawyer got drunk and told you he killed people in New York a couple of decades ago? If he were really some kind of serial killer do you think he’d be living in a car, feeding birds, and telling people about it?”
I admitted that it was a bit unlikely.
Nonetheless, José’s words burned in my brain for the entire trip. I had traveled to New York to attend a Human Rights Convention, but I found myself obsessed with José’s story. I was in the city, where his “past life” had taken place, and I desperately wanted to investigate. Of course, the facts on which I could base any research were so sparse as to be laughable. José had been a lawyer in New York City, probably during the 1970s and 80s, he used to drink at a bar called Sal’s (or maybe owned by someone named Sal), his name may or may not be José, and he may or may not have killed people. Needless to say, I got nowhere.
The time away had given me a little more perspective and I headed to José’s gravel parking lot on the afternoon of my return from the East Coast. I soon wished that I hadn’t. A somewhat groggy José said as I handed him a pack of Camels, “What I really need is a drink.”
This presented a dilemma. I knew the alcohol was probably killing him, but I could hardly claim any moral high ground after buying him countless packs of cigarettes. On the other hand, I had to draw the line somewhere. I struggled internally for what seemed like minutes, but I finally decided that I would not buy him alcohol. I reached for my wallet. If he was going to get drunk, he’d have to purchase it for himself.
“Here.” I said a bit coldly. “Seven dollars. It’s all I have.”
For a moment he stood there sneering at the money in my hand as if it were covered in maggots. Then, his eyes caught fire, and he shouted, “Whadaya think, I’m a fuckin’ charity case? I don’t want your fucking money. Why are you here? Why, you queer?”
He stormed back to his car, while I stood absolutely dumbfounded. For the first time ever, I saw him start his massive station wagon and drive off, a huge cloud of bluish smoke and grayish dust trailing behind him. I knew I should call the police. There was no way he should be driving. And I still didn’t know for sure that he wasn’t a killer. I returned to my car, and sat in the driver’s seat agonizing over my next move. The digital clock in my car read 3:23. If he doesn’t come back by 4:00, I thought, I’ll call the police. I watched the minutes slip away, desperately hoping that José would return. At 3:57 I heard the rumble of the old station wagon as José pulled back into the parking lot. He stayed in the car, producing a bottle in a paper bag, and drinking greedily from it.
I don’t know why I didn’t leave. I just sat there staring out at the ocean, agonizing over what I had done wrong, hoping that José would emerge.
At last, he did. He opened his big orange driver’s side door and began to shuffle toward me. I got out of my car and stood watching him nervously. He had a half-empty vodka bottle in his right hand, while his left hand was thrust suspiciously into his coat pocket. Was this “confessed killer” coming over to make me his next victim?
I soon realized that I was being a drama queen. José withdrew something from his pocket that looked like a piece of cardboard, or possibly a photograph. He stared at it for a moment and returned it to his pocket. He then stood, somewhat slumped, a few yards from me. “I just wanted to go out somewhere to have a drink with you,” he said, slurring noticeably, and looking genuinely downcast. “I haven’t been to a bar in years.”
“Oh. Oh. I’m sorry. I misunderstood,” I replied hastily. “We could go somewhere now.” I immediately regretted the suggestion. I had a very sensitive nose, and I liked to keep my car impeccably clean. I quickly tried to remind myself that he was a fellow human being, and that I needed to look past my personal hang-ups. Then I realized that I didn’t really know any bars where I could take him. I had been to some of the more upscale places near my work, but I didn’t think he and I would be comfortable in any of these rather polished establishments.
“Maybe another day.” He took another drink of vodka. “Want some?”
I shuddered. “No thanks.”
“What happened to your foot?” I asked. “Why do you limp?” I had wanted to ask him about this for a long time, but had never summoned the courage.
“Walking too much.”
I was a bit confused by his response. “How much were you walking?”
“Forty miles a day, sometimes fifty.”
I was a little stunned.
“I need to sit down,” he mumbled, and I followed him back to his car. He sat on the hood and continued. “I needed to leave New York City. I gave most of my money to the people I hurt, and I just started walking.”
José continued his story with a somewhat distant and even strangely sentimental look in his eyes. He stopped occasionally to have another swallow of vodka. I was captivated. I’d heard José talk at length before, but never on such a personal level.
“I didn’t know where I’d end up,” he continued. “I just thought I’d keep heading west until my past faded away. But it followed me, so I kept walking. I slept by the side of the road, and in farmer’s fields, and sometimes in cheap motels. I had blisters on my feet so bad they bled. But the hills and forests out east didn’t cleanse me, so I kept walking. Then I felt naked and exposed on the wide-open plains. The stars were like eyes staring into my soul. I reached the Rocky Mountains, and the walking got tougher, but I went right up over them, trying to cover just as much ground as I had before. But it took its toll. On the way back down my heel started to hurt so badly that I could hardly put my weight on it. But I soldiered on. Next it was the top of my foot, and then my knees and my hips. I walked hundreds of miles in pain until I reached the Pacific Ocean. By then, I could hardly walk. I thought I might just start swimming and leave myself to the mercy of the sea. But I couldn’t do it. Not then. I slept on a beach outside of San Diego for about a month until I decided I would use some of the money I had left to buy a used car. I drove up and down the coast, sleeping wherever I could. I arrived in this parking lot a few years ago, and I liked it. Nobody hassled me. The guy at the bakery helped me out. I got comfortable, and I was tired of driving. Everything else seemed to heal up alright, but my foot still gives me problems.”
“Wow, that’s an amazing story,” I marveled, shaking my head. “You walked from New York to California!?”
“Yup,” he sighed. “But I still don’t have peace, except for my birds.”
“Do you want to tell me about the people you killed?” I asked, knowing I might be pushing my luck.
“Maybe some other time, José mumbled, without emotion. “I’m too drunk.”
I returned every day the following week. Our meetings were generally cordial, but I was unable to gather any further information. I decided that I would ask him out for a drink on Friday afternoon. I was prepared this time. Although I felt a little guilty about it, I had bought some washable seat covers and had scouted out some dark, lower-end drinking establishments where I could take him without being seen. I asked him on Thursday, and he agreed. By happy hour on Friday, we were seated in a dark corner of Barnacle Bob’s Bar and Grill, surrounded by a gaudy mess of nautical paraphernalia.
He was starting on his fourth draft beer when he looked me in the eye and said knowingly, “You really want me to tell you about the people I killed?”
I took a sip of Perrier, trying to look casual. “If you’re ready to tell me about it, I am.”
“One more beer and I’ll tell you.”
I sat fidgeting nervously for a few minutes, gawking at the ship’s wheels and the tacky signs on the walls: “Pirates Only-No Parking for Landlubbers!”; “I’m hooked on Barnacle Bob’s”; “Kiss the Captain!”
“This place is a shit hole,” José said suddenly.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, it is kinda, isn’t it.”
“Back in New York, I used to run up bar tabs into the thousands,” he asserted, rather forcefully.
I just nodded.
He began to speak slowly in a low and gravelly voice. “I kept a man out of jail. He was a good person. He was just sick. Deep down, he was a really good person. He made me a man. He never meant to hit anybody. He never meant to hurt anybody. He would’ve gotten killed in prison.”
He had suddenly become quite emotional and was almost pleading with me, but I was in no position to agree or disagree. I tried to console him. “Well, that was your job. Even criminals deserve an able advocate.”
“I bribed a judge and paid off witnesses,” he mumbled. “But I just couldn’t watch him go to jail. I couldn’t. He practically raised me.” He was pleading again, but I had no answer this time.
“Two weeks later, he was dead,” José continued. “He was drinking and driving again. He was sick. The girls in the other car were on their way home from a volleyball game. They’re all dead because of me.” He slumped forward in his chair, staring at the ground.
“You can’t blame yourself,” I said reassuringly, knowing that he could very easily blame himself. On the other hand, at least he wasn’t a cold-blooded murderer.
“Who was your client?” I asked, perhaps a little too clinically.
“I need to get back to my birds,” he said resolutely.
I didn’t push the issue. I paid the tab and drove him “home” to his car. We stopped on the way so that I could buy him whiskey and cigarettes, which I did reluctantly.
“Are you going to be OK?” I asked as he got out of the car.
He turned back toward me. “I haven’t told anyone about that in decades.”
I became suddenly emotional despite myself. My eyes watered. “Thanks, José. That means a lot to me.”
I continued to visit José. He had no desire to go back to a bar, which was just fine by me. He revealed very little else about the sordid aspects of his past. He mainly talked about the birds, the weather, and one thing that really did interest me—the four months he spent walking across the country. His descriptions of the experience were vivid, and although he often repeated himself, his story was deep and touching. Unfortunately, winter was setting in, and it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable spending time in the damp, cool parking lot, so I found myself visiting less and less often.
I arrived one very chilly December morning to find José sitting on the bare ground, his legs crossed, slumping forward and sobbing hysterically. As I approached, I noticed he was cradling something in his arms. It was a huge white seagull.
“George is dead!” he sobbed. “I loved him. He was everything to me.”
He continued to cry, while I attempted to pacify him from a few yards away.
After several minutes, he was able to pull himself together long enough to say “Go away, Josh, thanks for everything.”
I left, somewhat reluctantly. I knew he wasn’t all right, but I didn’t know what I could do about it. I decided I would stop in again during the late afternoon to check on him.
What I found that afternoon was sad, but not shocking. There was no sign of José, although his car was still parked in its usual spot. I soon noticed a makeshift cross, made of two sturdy pieces of wood that had been lashed together with old fishing lines. A large piece of cardboard was affixed to the cross. Scrawled across the cardboard in magic marker was a message:
The deceased seagull was wrapped in the Birdman’s coat at the base of the cross. A creased and faded photo lay atop the bird. It was of two attractive young men holding up pint glasses and smiling broadly at the camera. They were happy. I could see it their eyes—gleaming hazel eyes with fiery brown rings around them. “George and Matty, 1978” was written on the back of the photo in faded ink.
I called the police, but I knew it was futile—I had already begun preparing the obituary in my mind. I knew that the Birdman had finally decided to continue west. By now, he was floating somewhere out in the Pacific, the birds perhaps already descending upon him. I hoped that he had finally found peace.
David Pepper is a lecturer in geography and geology at California State University Long Beach. He holds a PhD in oceanography from Louisiana State University, and has published several scientific papers and book chapters focused on atmosphere and ocean dynamics, coastal erosion, and the effect of climate on human societies. He has always enjoyed reading short stories, and began writing fiction five years ago. Dave is drawn to characters who struggle in life as a result of character defects that they are unable to overcome, or perhaps even recognize. “The Birdman” is his first published short story. Dave lives in Southern California with his wife and three-year old daughter.