In fall 2004 I went to an office supply store during lunch - I had finally gotten some of my materials together to petition for a transfer Science credit as part of my degree plan - trying to convince the school administrators that massage school counts as a science class if I made good grades in massage school - after all, we did learn Anatomy & Physiology... Anyway, I was getting over-anxious about whether I had understood the college submission requirements (the instructions are 8 pages long) and was still frazzled when I came out of the office supply store with my hole punch and tab dividers.
The store was next to a Corner Bakery so I decided to have lunch there, hoping my favorite DC Chicken Salad would calm me down. As usual, all the tables inside were full so I took my bottled water and went to sit outside - I wished for something to read but all that was out there were some slick Dallas fashion giveaways dropping names of Dallas and NY design people I have never heard of and showing Dallas women wearing clothes too young for them.
Despite the fresh air and peaceful sounds of parking lot and lunchtime traffic I was still not quite thinking straight. When the server brought out my salad trio realized I had forgotten to pick up silverware and napkins inside. Since my table was so near the main door I left my plate on the table when I went inside. I thought I could keep an eye on it through the glass, but that turned out not to be correct - the napkins and silverware weren't all that close to the door, so my table was briefly out of sight.
Hurrying back outside, I saw several black birds fluttering at the edge of the sidewalk. There were quite a few of them and I thought it was strange I hadn't noticed birds out there before. They weren't aggressive - they flew further away as I walked toward them. As soon as I sat back down I realized I had stepped into some spilled food on the sidewalk. It was pale and fluffy like cake frosting - or was it cheesecake? I looked around under my table and couldn't believe I hadn't seen all that spilled cheese before - the area around my table had looked clean when I sat down, and there was no one anywhere near me, just two men sitting several tables away. Had some bratty kids walked by?
I tried to distract myself from the annoyance of cheese on my shoe by focusing on the delicious-looking food on my plate. There was only one odd thing about the food - a bare spot had appeared on the side of the plate nearest the parking lot. Nothing was missing but it almost looked as if someone had slopped down the plate in such a hurry that the food had slid around - but I knew that wasn't the case because I was sitting right there when the server set down theplate. Belatedly it occurred to me to wonder whether the birds had come near the food - but wouldn't they have been more interested in the large piece of bread perched on top of my salad? That had not moved at all, it was still perkily centered on the plate. I glanced toward the guys' table and wondered if they would have noticed birds in my food - no, they were deep in conversation and I wasn't going to make an idiot out of myself asking that question.
I started eating my chicken salad and my pasta salad, which had been pretty well covered by the bread, so I figured they were safe from whatever had possibly happened. I was afraid to eat any of my fresh tomato salad because it was on the parking lot side of the plate and had been mostly uncovered - although I wasn't sure about birds wanting raw tomatoes (do they eat those in gardens?) - I didn't want to take a chance.
As I chewed chicken and pasta my gaze fell again to the cheese on the pavement. Would the white Italian cheese in my tomato salad, if dropped from a height, have splattered in such a way as to render it fluffy? What if a bird had picked it up, maybe thinking it wasbread or cake, and then dropped it in disgust - the forensic pattern of where the cheese had splattered would be about right for this theory. I was hungry and didn't want to spend time buying another lunch since I wasn't even sure anything bad had happened to this one, but due to this new thought direction my stomach was starting to feel strange. I kept telling myself I was only eating from the left side of theplate, which had been covered by bread, but these thoughts weren't strong enough to wipe out inner questions of what kinds of diseases humans might catch from birds...city birds who eat out of garbage cans...
There I sat, eating cooked fowl in mayonnaise... I couldn't really blame the birds - I blamed myself. Why hadn't I carried my plate inside with me? Or at least perched the Dallas fashion flyer over the top of the plate? I feebly tried to blame my college for providing such confusing instructions that I became over-stressed while buying tab dividers, but that was hard to turn into a convincing case.
I didn't come down with any bird-borne diseases (not with obvious symptoms, anyway - although some toxic thing might still be developing deep inside me) but I did have a stress stomach ache all afternoon.
Two days later, I got home before Craig, who had to work late. Billie (our younger dog) ran to meet me at the garage door but Marley (our then 8-year-old beagle) was hanging back in the den, seeming a bit reluctant to come into the kitchen. I wondered if he was feeling bad, since he usually rockets toward the kitchen as soon as he hears my car - but when I got down his bag of dog food he went back to normal behavior, which is grunting and woofing to express his displeasure with my lack of speed.
After eating, Billie ran outside to play. I glanced outside and was annoyed to see her chewing on the black backing of our patio rug - lately she had been turning the rug upside down and ripping the bottom.
No, wait a minute - that wasn't black rubber, that looked like feathers - no, wings. She had pinned a bird on the patio rug, and it was still alive.
Immediately I knew why Marley had been avoiding me - Billie must have been working on that bird before I got home and Marley had expected they would both be punished for her sin. Now I noticed stray feathers in the den - had the bird been in the house?!, or had the feathers just stuck to Billie's hair when she ran inside?
I screamed at Billie until she dropped the bird and came back inside, then I locked the dog door. But what to do with the bird? It was flapping around outside in a very unnatural way.
I called Craig but he said he wouldn't be home for an hour - I tried to reach a male neighbor but no one was around. I'm the most squeamish person I know but I couldn't stand the thought of letting the bird suffer in the back yard for an hour while the dogs and I sat on the couch, staring at the dying bird through the patio glass.
After pulling off some downy feathers that had stuck to Billie's doggy lips (she looked like Sylvester after he'd finally gotten Tweetie), I went out for another bird inspection. It was difficult to make a thorough analysis since I had an overpowering urge to squeeze my eyes shut as I neared the bird.
Let me put it this way - Billie used to have a plastic toy that was shaped like a plucked chicken, and she had done her best to make parts of this bird resemble that nude chicken. It had no feathers left on its neck and not many on its head. Past that, my half-shut eyes would not allow me to evaluate.
In desperation I remembered our friend Kenny's tale of using a shovel to finish off a large frog his dog had attacked. I figured a shovel would be heavy enough that even if I just dropped it a few times on the bird, it would do the job.
As I grabbed up the shovel I felt like I was heading out for battle - I had to do a kind of mental "girding," a summoning up of my inner resources. To further boost the inner resources, I gulped down half a beer before leaving the kitchen.
As I walked back into the yard I saw several birds fluttering on the ground near the bird feeder. I immediately thought, maybe the bird is OK - maybe it will fly away on its own. Nope - the healthy birds went up into the air and my feathered destiny remained slumped on the ground.
I hit the bird until it stopped its feeble movement, and then I hit it several more times to make sure it would never move again. I figured my job was done and left the bird outside for Craig to pick up.
He had been asking me on the phone whether it was a large or small bird, so after he came back in from the dumpster I asked him if it was bigger than he thought. He said, "Well, maybe - all I can tell about that bird is that it's flat." I told him that at least we know the bird didn't suffer. He said, "Yeah, but how many times did you have to hit it before it stopped moving? It probably felt your first ten hits or so."
For the next week we kept finding feathers in odd places in our house - carried inside by Billie, they floated through the house like a haunting.
As usual, I shared my story with pet-owning friends in search of perspective. My friend Susanna told me that she used to have a cat who mangled birds. Susanna would do an amateur vet evaluation on them, and if a bird's situation seemed hopeless, she would scoop it up in a shoebox and position the shoebox under her car's exhaust pipe.
I was really impressed with that technique until I realized that with my personality, I would probably wake up in the middle of the night and start worryingthat the bird I thought I'd gassed had come back to claustrophobic consciousness while tied up inside a sack in the dumpster.