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Pigeons

by

Harry Buschman

When the pigeons arrive in your neighborhood it's a sign you're living in a place that's going to pot. You know your town is going downhill. They don't come overnight mind you, they creep in a few at a time and before you can do anything about it they're everywhere. The singing birds, the nesting birds, the ones that made the morning a joy to wake up to, leave town and these rodents of the bird world take over. Scavengers that pick through your garbage, shit on your laundry and look back with hatred in their eyes when you shoo them away.

I've been to many cities ... beautiful cities, the kind you pay dearly to visit and it's always the same. They put up a great front with their museums and palaces, grand and stately temples of worship ... but they can't hide the pigeons. Some people call sparrows the mice of the bird world, but pigeons are the rats -- their golden eyes are fixed on the city they've come to claim. They come in their best clothes. Some are spotted, some are striped ... some are iridescent, overlaid with mauve, purple and green. They do their best to make you think they're beautiful. They step out of your way when you approach. They bow and coo politely -- sidle off to the side and bide their time.

Before we laid our claim to this world were there any pigeons? If we hadn't civilized and macadamized our countryside would there be any pigeons? You never see them in the forest or the field. What brought them here -- are they a by-product of ourselves?

<><><>

The first light of morning coated Ernie's pigeon spotted bedroom window, and Ernie Hightower, with the painful knowledge of his seniority, carefully tested each muscle and joint before pushing out from his bed. His left knee complained loudly as he limped to the window of the small bedroom and looked out at the bleak prospect of another summer day. "Another hot one," he thought. It promised to be a lot like yesterday's scorcher -- maybe a little hotter, more humid. He remembered how eager he and Edie used to be in the morning, couldn't wait to get started -- they would listen to the kids stirring upstairs, watch the dog stretching and yawning by the foot of the bed looking from one to the other and wondering which of them could be coaxed into taking him for a morning walk.

"Pretty nice little town then wasn't it Ernie?" Did someone say that, or did he think it? Well, it was a pretty nice little town. He and Edie moved out here right after the war. About four hundred families -- well, they weren't really families yet, they were just getting started and nobody had more than one kid. The town was a potato farm before the war. Acre by acre the property was assembled and rezoned for single family dwellings and the little Monopoly houses sprung up like dandelions. They were pioneers, all of them a year or two of the same age and no more than a dollar or two in the bank, fully convinced their youth would last forever.

There must have been twenty pigeons out there this morning. That was one of the big differences ... pigeons. Where were the bluebirds, robins and red wing blackbirds that used to live in the back yard? They're gone now, he thought. Edie's gone too, so have the kids ... raising families of their own. All the people who used to be neighbors have moved on or passed on. A new crowd now, all of them young enough to be his children. He knew few of them by name and didn't recognize them when he met them in the street.

He remembered walking to the post office to get the mail, there was a hardware store a deli and a market that gave credit. Nobody had a checkbook. Nobody had a credit card. When winter came, the snow lay unplowed in the street for weeks. The men commuted to the city on the Long Island Railroad for twelve dollars a month, it took a big bite out of the budget. There wasn't much room for fooling around.

He read in the local paper yesterday that four thousand people lived in this town now, surrounded by shopping centers, outlet stores and supermarkets. Much of what had been farmland was paved over, bridged over, or over-passed over, and the town was left in the eye of a hurricane of commerce. He pulled up the window a bit and the pigeons took flight. He sniffed the air outside and closed it again quickly. The good smell was gone too. It used to smell of grass and honeysuckle, now it smelled of diesel fumes from eighteen wheelers making early morning deliveries to the mall. A flight of seagulls passed overhead on their way to the dumpsters and the back doors of the fast food joints.

Ernie made his way to the bathroom and looked at his face in the mirror. There it was, an old man looking back at him. He shut his eyes and washed up not wanting to see any more. Funny, how he could think young, sometimes even feel young and yet look so terribly old. Wouldn't it be great to have those young and yeasty days back again. He laughed to himself as he plodded out to the kitchen -- "You started off the same way yesterday," he reminded himself, "you wanted the old days back again, you're in no shape for yesterday, Ernie. No strength left to mow the back lawn or shovel out the driveway. You'd have to be young again to do that, and when you're my age you ain't got the patience to be young again."

Ernie's kitchen window faced the street, and he checked it out. He was used to seeing the same cars parked in the same places and he could tick them off -- the green Buick, the blue Plymouth and that cute little girl's red Toyota were always where they were supposed to be. His old Chevy Impala sat in the garage, hardly ever used now, and it normally left an empty space at the curb in front of his house. But this morning there was a difference ...

At first he saw nothing when he looked across the street. There were no cars and the street seemed wider than it should be. There was a white line up the middle of it and parking meters at the curb. The little row of one-story houses across the street were gone. Even in the dim light of the morning, Ernie realized something was very different. Something happened during the night.

Looking closer he saw a chain link fence across the street -- that wasn't there last night. It was topped with two strands of barbed wire upon which a soldierly line of gray pigeons sat facing him. The houses were gone, the cars that should have been there were gone. It was like looking out the window of a strange house, not the one he'd lived in for 45 years. He looked at the kitchen clock. A quarter to seven -- normally he'd have the coffee on by now. Torn between his usual routine and the changed state of things outside, he decided to get dressed and go outside.

It sure wasn't the old Arch Avenue he knew. The light was better now, the sun was a hazy orange ball in the east. "It's gonna be a scorcher today," he thought. He could see that the chain link fence ran the entire length of the block and behind it was a brick wall about three stories high. It looked like a factory or a warehouse. His side of the street was lined with small office buildings with darkened windows, a pigeon or two sitting on each sill. "What's happened here? Where the hell am I?" He muttered nervously to himself. He turned back to his own house and to his amazement he saw it was no longer there! -- it was a parking lot between "Northeast Waste Disposal Corp." and something called "CyberSystems, Int'l." Nowhere to go, he stood in the empty street fully convinced he'd lost his mind.

He sat on the curb, and to his utter disgust and shame began to cry. He never, never cried, but this was way beyond him -- something very powerful had happened, and the malevolent appearance of this strange street filled him with fear.

A vehicle appeared down the street. Ernie struggled to his feet and wiped his face as it approached. He had never seen such a car before, it was narrow in the front -- glass topped, and wider in the rear. It made no noise as it cruised up to him and stopped. The driver was a man in uniform wearing bug like sunglasses.

"S'matter old-timer, lost your way?" the question was directed to Ernie while at the same time the man was talking to someone else on what looked like a throat microphone. He was the first person Ernie had seen since waking up this morning, a welcome relief from the pigeons. Maybe he was someone who could explain what the hell had happened here, but his mind was a blank and Ernie could only stare at him. The driver heaved a sigh of resignation and opened his door. It was a queer sort of door -- it slid up and over the side of the car ... he still wore his microphone as he walked over to Ernie and "Holy Mother of Jesus!" thought Ernie, "he's black and he's wearing ridin' britches. Around here the law don't wear ridin' britches."

He flashed what looked like an ID card and said, "Don't give me no shit old timer, I ain't here to give you no trouble, but you're trespassin' see." He waved his hands to indicate both sides of the street. "I do patrol on Arch Avenue all the way down to the Post Road -- if y'got some reason to be here all well and good ... lemme see watch'ya got for ID"

A trespasser! On his own street! In front of his own house! "I'm Ernie Hightower, damn it -- I live here, I've lived here all my life -- my kids grew up here, my wife died here." His eyes moistened again. "What do I need with ID? ... if anybody needs an ID it's you in your fancy ridin' britches."

The driver stood in front of Ernie and displayed a mouthful of bright white teeth. "Jesus, you really are an oldster aint'cha? I don't believe I ever seen one old as you. How'd you get through?"

"I live here I tell you -- what's this parking lot doin' here? There was houses here last night ... there was a Porter Rican family right over there across the street, what happened to them? Look, I'm a little mixed up. Let's start over ... this is Arch Avenue right?"

The radio in the vehicle sprang to life loud enough for them both to hear it say, "Bring him in Cal, we'll deal with it." Then to Ernie, "Mr. Hightower, come with the officer please, we'll straighten out the problem down here."

"Waddya say, Mr. Hightower? -- let's do what the man says. No sense gettin yer shorts in a knot."

Ernie thought a bit, there wasn't much else he could do. Maybe somebody down there at this 'down here' place could straighten it out. He was too old, too confused and too scared to do anything else.

They walked to the car and Cal slid a panel up exposing the back seat. It was wide -- wide enough to hold three or four people and when he eased himself in two vinyl belts snapped around him. One went around his waist, the other, higher up, pinned his arms to his side. He felt like a prisoner. "Don't fret none, Ernie," Cal explained, "It's automatic, it's just to keep you from doin' something you'd be sorry for later."

'Down here' was a low gray concrete building Ernie had never seen before, he seemed to recall it was where the post office used to be. On the short ride to 'down here' he recognized nothing, he was in a strange city, everyone was young ... that was the strangest part of all -- young people and more damn pigeons than he'd ever seen before. Cal brought the car to a stop, got out and opened Ernie's door. He pushed a button on his belt and the straps that had kept Ernie immobile retracted into the seat behind him ... "Okay old timer, let's get it over with. They'll straighten the whole thing out inside."

The car must have been air-conditioned Ernie thought, a wave of oppressive heat smothered him as he climbed out. The two of them made their way through a river of pigeons underfoot between the car and the front door.

"Goddamn birds," Cal muttered as he kicked them aside, "there's more of them every day -- too bad they're too small to eat."

"It's because there's no trees," Ernie told him, "you took away all the trees, they got no place to roost 'cept on the street. Serves you right if you ask me." The front door opened by itself and they walked up to a desk ... a fat man with three stripes on his sleeve sat there. From what Ernie remembered, the place was laid out like the old police precinct in Pottstown, except it was new -- very new and had a hospital smell.

"Mornin' Cal ... good morning Mr. Hightower. Take him to room 5 Cal, the mentor will be right in."

"Look sergeant whatever the hell your name is, I'm a taxpayer and a law abiding taxpayer at that ... I don't need no room 5, I don't need no mentor neither. What I need is somebody to tell me what the hell's happened to this town. Something's happened here last night! Where's my house! What the hell's goin on?" He wanted to say more but he didn't know where to begin. The men were smiling at him, treating him like an unruly child. He had to control himself -- show them he was stronger than they were.

He straightened himself, took a deep breath and followed Cal down a blindingly white hall to room 5. They entered a windowless room, inside were a table and two chairs -- fluorescent lights flickered on. Ernie sat in one of the chairs and Cal stood by the door. Cal said --

"You got a lotta spunk old timer ... I give you that, but lemme give you a word of advice, Okay? When the mentor comes in, don't start nothin', all right? The mentor's here to help you, see. Problem is, we don't see people like you anymore. Cal walked over to the table and stood looking at Ernie.

Just as Ernie was about to start drumming his fingers on the table, the door opened and a nun dressed in gray and blue walked in with a large leather covered notebook. She smiled sweetly and sat primly in the chair across the table from Ernie. She fixed her clear gray eyes on him.

"Earnest Hightower, is that right?" Ernie, completely confused, could only nod -- "My name is Sister Mary Mentor," she opened the book -- "You know Mr. Hightower you're not listed. Do you realize how embarrassing this is? There's really no excuse for your name not being in here," she added impatiently. "How did they miss you? That's three in twenty years -- far too many, the system was supposed to work better than that."

"We owe you an apology, Mr. Hightower," she went on, "Your reward is long overdue." She fingered the crucifix at her throat. "I'm sure the reward will be all the sweeter. You must have friends and family waiting for you. The longer one waits, the sweeter the reward," she looked at Cal and they both smiled knowingly. "For all of us I might add."

"I'm not lookin' for any reward Sister." What was all this about a reward anyway? All Ernie wanted was to go home and have things put back the way they were.

"You must accept it Mr. Hightower, all of us are rewarded at the age of sixty five. The problems of the world are for the young to deal with, not the old timers. You will be with your friends again, your wife ... all of you together. It's the least we can do for you."

She went on to explain the 'Kevorkian Principle', as she called it. How the movement began late in the 20th century by this unappreciated man. How incurable disease and the natural degeneration of the human body inevitably turned life into a living hell for most people over sixty five. -- How little they contributed to the human equation and how their continued existence drained the energy of the living and the Gross National Product. Their reward was "Eternity Today," as she put it. Toward the end of her explanation she grew more animated and her eyes, beady and black with gold flecks, (like a pigeon's eyes) Ernie thought. They seemed to look into the distance, focussing on the wall behind him.

Ernie was not quite ready for "Eternity Today," if he had been, he was capable of accomplishing it on his own without Sister Mentor's help. But, there was something about the woman that kept him silent. He sat there as speechless as he was in the back seat of the patrol car. He was unable to resist, he felt left out ... in a new world he didn't understand. A world of the young. The estrangement was quite real to him, and he was sure of one thing -- he would be better off not being part of this world if things were going to be this way -- if what he saw was true. How could he get along in such a world? An old man to be stared at and grudgingly offered the crumbs of working people.

Sister Mary Mentor stood and smiled at him gently. She unclasped the crucifix and placed in in Ernie's hands. "Hold it," she said "Remember us in eternity Mr. Hightower -- wait for us and greet us with joy."

Ernie held the cross, the ancient symbol of sacrifice and pain. He breathed deeply and stared into the eyes of Sister Mary Mentor. The room grew dark. The last image he took with him was that of the Sister closing her ledger and tucking it under her arm. There was nothing after that, nothing at all.

<><><>

"How can there be nothing if I know there's nothing," he wondered. He could see the darkness beyond his eyelids and he wondered how darkness could be seen. When will eternity begin? Would there be light? How would I know I was there without light to see by? -- There must surely be light!

Then he sensed a lightening beyond his closed eyes, and his heart beat quicker ... wait a minute -- heart? How could that be? He was supposed to be in eternity, his 'reward'! Where the hell was his reward?

He opened his eyes slowly, and there it was ... his bedroom window! The sun rising and the white pigeon shit still clearly etched on the glass as it had been yesterday. And yes! Every muscle and joint in his body complained as he hurriedly pushed himself out of bed. "Screw you!" he answered. There they were, twenty or more, pecking away in his back yard -- gray ones, some streaked with mauve and lavender, some iridescent green.

He bypassed the bathroom -- no sense seeing that face in the mirror again ... he knew who would be waiting there. He hurried to the kitchen window, every joint complaining. There they were ... the Green Buick and the Blue Plymouth parked just where they were always were -- and Glory be, he hit it rich this time, the little blond was just getting into her red Toyota. He was treated to a memorable flash of white thigh as she swung herself in.

"I think I can live with eternity," he smiled and put the coffee on.

1996 Harry Buschman
(3360)

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