by E.D. Burnette
You loved Free First Tuesdays for the chance to contemplate a rainbow titled “Number 11” and Ruscha’s kind of Heaven. Settled on a wooden bench, you had gazed, luxuriating in time previously considered unaffordable. But today, after seven months spent pondering these paintings, you realize the first is hyped-up acrylic and the second is not the soaring, live-in-the-moment call you once thought, but a sinking, out-of-reach ideal that could spur you to chase the horizon forever. You are not enjoying an unplanned sabbatical, waiting for the right job to make you love working again. You were fired. You are running out of money. And you are nibbling your last organic truffle hummus sandwich.
A woman offers an apologetic smile as she and her toddler son claim seats at your bistro table. She spreads out a delectable lunch of pasta salad, kiwifruit, apple slices, and bottled lemonade. You bristle at the intrusion, and then notice the vacant tables in the museum’s courtyard flank the Bird Man, a grizzled old bear who wears the same dingy layering of shirts and coats no matter the weather. Gulls and pigeons, squawking and swooping over each other, use his table for their playground. He hoots and coos while feeding them. It is heartening that the mother doesn’t know that you, too, are a regular like him.
A small pigeon flies to your table and bobs his head: kiwi…no, sandwich…no, kiwi. The mother snaps her food containers shut. The pigeon hops closer to you.
You whip your gourmet hummus out of reach. “I’m not in the mood.”
Suddenly, talons clench your outstretched hand and vulture-like wings whoosh in your ear. The beak of a monstrous gull brushes against your herbed focaccia.
You swat him. He nips you. You wrench the sandwich away. He caws and pounces on your shoulder. You shriek. The Bird Man crows with laughter.
The mother hurls apple pieces at the gull, who dives for them, gobbles them down, and then springs onto the table, knocking off the pigeon. She throws kiwi into Bird Man territory, and the thuggish gull returns to his playground.
“Are you okay?” She winces at your shredded sandwich. “You’re welcome to some of my orzo.”
You can’t speak because, inexplicably, you loathe this woman. You hate her slim runner’s build and sleek jogging stroller. You hate the knobby diamonds embellishing her ears and hand. You hate, even though the attack wasn’t her fault. Or was it? For months, you ate alone. No kiwis. No birds.
She seems to grasp this, for she quickly packs up and leaves. Soon, the courtyard empties of everyone but the regulars.
The Bird Man offers his last hunk of bread to his followers. They peck it, and he chomps it. He grins at you while they feast. When everything is gone, he says, “Might as well give us yours.”
Glaring at the beasts, you cram the hummus into your mouth. “Mine,” you growl. “All mine.”