Thomas takes his lunch outside the shelter, on one of the park benches that look out over the interstate and down all the way to the containment pond. He has wondered whether a passerby seeing him from the highway would know whether he worked at the shelter or was one of its clients. He has had this thought most days that he has sat here. Today, though, his attention has been arrested by a small patch of gooselike objects floating out on the containment pond. If they are geese, it will be the first time he has seen a living thing on that pond.
Birds of the Air
by Joseph Pitkin
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
Thomas takes his lunch outside the shelter, on one of the park benches that look out over the interstate and down all the way to the containment pond. He has wondered whether a passerby seeing him from the highway would know whether he worked at the shelter or was one of its clients. He has had this thought most days that he has sat here. Today, though, his attention has been arrested by a small patch of goose-like objects floating out on the containment pond. If they are geese, it will be the first time he has seen a living thing on that pond.
Dorothy stands behind him with binoculars; Thomas doesn’t notice her until she speaks. “Those are Aleutian Canada Geese,” she tells him. “Do you have any idea how rare those are?”
Thomas has no idea; he’s not much of a birdwatcher. But Dorothy gasps behind him as though she is seeing an apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe through her binoculars.
Back in the shelter after lunch, the men line up at Thomas’ table for their shower stuff. Women and their kids line up at Dorothy’s table, all the regulars. Except, Thomas notices, Janine and her daughters—this is the first day in weeks he hasn’t seen them. The men nod gravely at Thomas as they pick up their towels, the little wrapped hotel soaps, the toothbrushes, the disposable razors.
Only one of them, Dave, stops to talk. He stands before the table, a paunchy hard-breathing man who might be sixty. Or maybe he just looks sixty. He says he can wait another ten minutes for a shower.
“You know, I would say at least a quarter of the people on the street have chosen to be there,” he says. “Not everyone wants a mortgage and car payments and all that nonsense.”
Thomas has never had a mortgage, has no car payment, barely even pays rent. So Dave makes a lot of sense. Thomas notes, however, that Dave didn’t identify himself as part of the 25% that likes being on the street.
At the end of his shift, Thomas goes into the shelter’s living room to turn off the TV, left on as it almost always is. Some kind of ad or infomercial is playing; a woman’s mahogany voice is intoning phrases like a blessing: beautiful, sustainable, ecologically-friendly native birds. Human genomic transmogrify: one more way the Amazonagra Company does good things. Dorothy seems to think that the Amazonagra Company has taken over most of the functions of the US government. Thomas is withholding judgment on that, partly because he’s not that interested in politics, and partly because he doesn’t know what to think.
About a week later, Thomas is biking to the shelter and he sees Dave panhandling a new corner, or at least a corner where he hadn’t seen him before, a big grassy space next to the freeway offramp. He sits on his haunches like a wretched Old Testament prophet, his easy, flaccid belly pressed against his updrawn legs. At his feet he has gathered what he has received from the drivers today, items that they imagine he is in need of, which they imagine he cannot trade for drugs. A five-pound bag of apples. A pair of tube socks. Half a breakfast burrito. He sits beneath twin blue signs at the end of the offramp, one pointing to the left, in the direction of two gas stations and a Denny’s, and the other to the right, towards a third gas station and a Carl’s Jr. His cardboard sign says “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason.”
“What does your sign mean?” Thomas asks.
“It’s from Hamlet. Enculturate yourself, lad.”
Thomas hears Dave say this, but he is not looking at Dave. Instead, he is watching the cars as they come down the offramp. The drivers as they pause at the intersection employ an arsenal of ruses to avoid looking at Dave or his sign. The most common strategy is for the driver to hunt, or pretend to hunt, in the cup holders of the car, in search of possible spare change, head down, as though the driver’s most pressing desire is not to avoid looking at Dave but rather to unearth the 65 cents she knows to be in her cup holder and which she might pass to Dave without looking. Others look right past Dave at the blue signs above his head with a withering intensity, as though deciding between Denny’s and Carl’s Jr. were a dilemma worthy of Solomon.
“Adam and Eve left Eden in despair,” Dave says to him, “and in their desolation they must have turned back towards the garden. The womb of all life. But God has placed a flaming sword that turns every way at the gate to the garden. Which is to say, we can’t go back that way.”
Thomas takes this as a sign that he should get moving again, leave Dave to his intense musings. Thomas wonders as he leaves at Dave’s novel panhandling strategy—how much does he make by putting a Shakespeare quote on his sign? In a crowded, competitive environment, everyone is looking for a special strategy, a niche.
When Thomas arrives at the shelter, Dorothy shows him a photo she shot with her cell phone of a blurry little bird clinging to what looks like a rosebush. “Loggerhead shrike,” she says. “That’s what Monica turned into.” Monica is one of the regulars at the shelter.
“What do you mean?” Thomas asks.
“Don’t you listen to the news?” Dorothy asks back. “The Amazonagra Company sent a guy here to turn all the street people and drug addicts into birds. He’s got this big high tech gun that turns people into birds. That’s their grand crime fighting strategy: step out of line, they’ll turn you into a bird.”
Dorothy’s definition of the news was an AM talk radio station where all the hosts and callers had the same intense, unhinged quality as Dorothy. The same intense, unhinged quality as Dave, for that matter.
“Um, how do you know that’s Monica?”
“Do you have any idea how rare this bird is? And it’s just hanging around Waterworks Park? And Monica’s disappeared? Think about it.”
Thomas does actually think about it as the day goes on, as Monica fails to show up at lunch, just like Janine and her kids, who also don’t show up again, for the eighth day in a row. When he comes in, Dave corroborates: the company man’s name is Colonel Jacob. Colonel Jacob carries around a strange device that looks like a chrome bullhorn, but which he points at people like a pistol.
“Colonel Jacob? So, is he an army guy or a company guy?” Thomas asks.
“I’ve never seen him,” Dave answers. “But according to the people who have, he wears some kind of uniform.”
That Monday a bunch of people in jumpsuits come by the shelter, drive up packed into an unmarked white van. They offer to paint the building for free.
“You go to hell, you company bastards,” Dorothy tells them. But later that afternoon Dorothy gets a call from Reverend Waller, the shelter supervisor, telling her that the building is going to be painted. Thomas notices a few days later that there is no more graffiti anywhere in the city. Eating his lunch outside the shelter on Friday, Thomas sees a small flock of bluebirds dash by. Dorothy identifies them as mountain bluebirds. Very rare, as always.
After a few weeks Thomas works pretty much alone in the shelter. Dorothy spends the days driving around town in her beat-up Cadillac with her Sibley Guide to Birds, looking for former clients. Thomas sits at the desk and hands out towels to the people that come in for a shower. One morning it is just eight people. Then it’s two guys Thomas hasn’t seen before, and Dave. The next week it’s just Dave.
“Don’t get caught out there,” Thomas tells him as he leaves.
“Oh, I’m a pretty crafty fox,” Dave says.
Thomas actually sees Colonel Jacob with his own eyes, sees Dave transformed by him. When Thomas is biking towards the grassy patch by the freeway offramp he sees the two of them. Colonel Jacob does wear some kind of uniform, reflective sunglasses and a belted dress coat and jodhpurs and tall leather boots, like a motorcycle cop. He and Dave are talking with one another. Or maybe Colonel Jacob is talking and Dave is shouting or wheezing at him, sticking his fat finger in the colonel’s face. Thomas is too far away to hear what Dave is trying to say. By the time Colonel Jacob pulls out his strange chrome gun, Thomas can just make out the sign Dave holds in his other hand: “What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason…”
Thomas expects the sound that comes out of the pistol will be the brash, comical honking of a bullhorn, which the pistol does indeed resemble. But there’s no sound at all, or none that Thomas can hear. Dave simply collapses. Thomas rides up to the scene to see Dave’s shirt and pants and skin and hair in an unruly pile like so much dirty laundry. Out of the pile struggles a little buff and blue colored falcon, which flies off towards the top of a lamppost a little ways away.
“He was an English teacher, you ass!” Thomas shouts at the Colonel. Thomas thinks that this is almost certainly not true, but it seems the most plausible defense he can concoct on the spot about Dave.
The Colonel, who seems to be dialing down his fabulous pistol, looks up at Thomas on the bike as though seeing him for the first time. “He might have been, but he was maladapted. He certainly wasn’t made for this world. Look at him now: he’s clearly much happier up there.”
“How the hell can anybody know that?” Thomas flings his hands out dismissively, as though daring the Colonel to turn him into a bird also. Perhaps Thomas secretly desires that such a thing happen.
The Colonel smiles as though meditating on the fabulous stupidity of Thomas’ question. Then he folds up his pistol, gets into the white car parked at the corner, and drives away.
According to Dorothy, Dave has become an American kestrel. She doesn’t even consult the Sibley Guide to make that judgment. “The kestrel really isn’t rare at all,” she says. Dave still hangs out near that grassy spot by the freeway offramp, hovering in the wind on summer days, waiting to dive on whatever it is he sees in the grass there. Probably mice, or voles. He doesn’t fly off when Thomas approaches. Sometimes Dave lets Thomas sit beneath him where he hovers, balanced like a diamond on a blade of grass. Sometimes it’s so quiet Thomas imagines he can hear the individual wing beats, strangely slowed down, like the tolling of some terrible bell.