The Pigeon on State and Lake
By Bryan Swan
My brother and I were, by definition, mean little bastards. You know, those kids that you would see tormenting some little girl and say, "Mean little pricks," just like that. After getting suspended several times, Dan and I stopped that and moved on to pigeons. We would put Alka-Seltzer inside breadcrumbs in the hope that a pigeon would gobble it down in the park. We then waited for the pigeons to pop, since they were unable to burp. They just waddled around then sometimes, a pop, they would just fall over after trying to fly away. I think they must have thought that they could fly away from the feeling. "Mean little pricks," I remember one lady said as she fed the birds. She tried to make them fly away, but they always returned to eat the Alka-Seltzer filled bread. They were not homeless bird people, just older women relaxing. Sometimes the old people who fed them would cry and say, "Don't eat that," and "No, don't," with upside-down smiles and sometimes tears. Sometimes the women chased us. I don't know what they would have done if they had caught us.
Older Dan slit his wrists one afternoon. I didn't hear from him much anymore because he was in the far wing of the hospital. He was roommates with this guy who had sex with his girlfriend in the hospital room while wearing a paper bag on his head with a smiley face drawn on it. I don't think that was a healthy environment for my brother. Things were different the. And at twenty-one, I didn't enjoy killing pigeons or throwing things at little girls. That would get me into trouble.
The first time I saw the pigeon on State and Lake was at night. After I got done working at Dunkin' Donuts I had to wait high above the street, on the El, for my train to the south side. It was freezing out. Thick snow coated everything. I stood under a huge heat lamp that resembled a toaster's inside. No one was on the stop and the wind blew the snow into wisps that curled into waves atop the overhangs. This was when the pigeon came. It was a pretty good-looking pigeon, from my experience anyway. It had a normal gray body, glistening green neck, but its head was strongly white, which I had never seen before. It was not a normal white. It sat on the other side of the tracks and walked calmly through the curling snow wisps on the roof of the station. What a badass pigeon! I thought. Most of them were hiding or otherwise out of sight of the snow wisps.
After ten or so minutes, the pigeon hopped down from the roof with a flutter of wings. It then flew over near me. Now it's your chance, I thought, no one would see if you could just coax it over a bit, you could look at its head real close. I held out my hand, like I used to do with breadcrumbs, and beckoned this white-headed pigeon over. It cocked its head, looking at me with beady eyes and glowing in the orange light of the giant toaster, walking a little closer. Foot by foot, the radiant-orange pigeon walked closer to me and I could see into its glowing pigeon eyes. It liked me. It got to within about two feet of me and I made my grab, lunging forward like a tackle, but missed. It flew away. I braced with my arms, but was still snowy and wet.
The next night was more of the same, no one out, just me and the pigeon. This time I brought some donut holes. I lured it close with the donuts and yet again the pigeon's reflexes bested me. I was beginning to think there was something special about this pigeon. After two more nights of donut holes in the snow on the wind-blown El stop, I decided just to feed it and see what happened. I was tired of falling in the snow. For months I would talk to the pigeon about my day and how my manager took me for granted and how sometime I would poison him like I did all those pigeons before him. The pigeon was a great listener and just cooed and looked at me. I took that as, "Everything is cool," which actually made me feel better. I did this until spring. The pigeon had put on some weight. I think it expected our little conversations in the night.
One night, in the spring, I came with some donut holes, but the pigeon wasn't there. It came an hour late with its friends. There were brown ones and black ones, all sorts of colors, but no white ones except my pigeon. They were on the other side of the tracks and I called out to my pigeon, "Hey, come here. I brought food," but none of them came. I got jealous and began throwing donut holes at them. They rustled their feathers and cooed and looked at me. "Cool out," they seemed to say. "Chill out?" I thought. I fed you for months. Now you are with your cronies and won't even look at me. When I got on the train I was angry and planned on poisoning the lot of them the next night. I was sad and crying in the empty car, when I heard something on the other side of the window.
"Why are you leaving me?" It was my pigeon! It flew alongside the train in the night. I could barely make out its body but I could see its white head clearly.
"You left me," I said. "You didn't even look at me."
"Pigeons need time with other pigeons sometimes. It doesn't mean that we aren't friends," it said.
I got angry and yelled at the glass. It was dark outside so I mostly saw my reflection, but I could still make out the pigeon. "Pigeons are supposed to mate for life. I know that and I'm not even a pigeon."
"Come back tomorrow night and I'll show you what it's like," it said.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Just come back tomorrow night, coo, and you will find out so many things."
I returned the next night, cutting out of work early to wait for my pigeon. The moon was full and clouds floated past it. They soaked up the moon glow and made a large white-eye peering down on me. I waited and waited, but no pigeon. It did show up, late, around one thirty, and asked me to follow it. It flew off the balcony and waited for me as I walked down to the street. It was silent and responded with, "Just follow me, I promise."
We came to the entrance of the silent subway. I could even hear the ticktack of the pigeon's fast claws echo as we went further down into the subway. I paid. The pigeon just walked under the turnstile. An old man walked up the stairs as pigeon and I walked down. He had his head down. We came to the waiting area of the subway and the pigeon began heading down toward the electrified railings that the trains rode on. "Down here," it said, "but don't step on either of the rails."
People hardly look at each other on trains, especially crowded subway cars. I always find a good pair of shoes to concentrate on. I get scared when people look me in the eye. You can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. Nike, leather, designer, dirty, dusty, pain-ridden, written-on, of all their faces, sometimes it's their shoes that tell what someone's life is like. I remembered a pair of beaten-up Nikes that an old black woman had on. The old woman's clothes were nice except for her old and oversized Nikes, with writing on them. Upside down pitchforks were on the sides of them. The word "folks," was crossed out on the back of them. Why would an old woman wear an old pair of Nikes like that? If you can answer that, then boy, you've got it made as far as people are concerned.
I followed the pigeon onto the tracks and into the dark tunnel, lit only by sparse yellow lights. I began to get scared, thinking, if this pigeon knows about the stuff me and Dan used to pull, I'm a goner. "In here," it said, and wing waved to a maintenance opening in the tunnel. "What's in there?" I asked to no reply. I went in anyway. There was faint light and then a large room, bright with flood lamps, creating a ceiling of light beaming down. You might not believe this, but there were small seating in there in the shape of the British Parliament, with row upon row of pigeons sitting in place of people. In the middle stood a very large pigeon, nearly three feet in height. It wore a crown and its feathers shone brightly from the light above. Everyone gasped and cooed when I walked in with my white-headed friend.
"Coo, what is this?" The large pigeon said, looking to the others around him.
"Why have brought this man to the lair of the Rock Doves?"
"I brought him here to see, as I have done before, Calvin."
"I see. Are you quite sure this man will see our ways in this great city?"
"Very well then."
Calvin beckoned me with his giant wing. The entire floor was coated in pigeon shit and breadcrumbs. I had to keep my head down to avoid the ceiling. Calvin told me to get down on all fours. He stood on my back. I thought it was precarious and difficult, but I let him. I could smell the pigeon shit, choking and wheezing under the smell and pressure from the bird. He flapped and flapped his wings and began cooing, along with the rest of the pigeon parliament. It got so loud and rhythmic I thought I was going insane. Dank hot air whirled around me and I could feel the tops of Calvin's enormous wings hitting my sides. My arms began stretching without pain. My chest enlarged with every breath. I started breathing with such power, but I was shrinking, down to the size of a normal pigeon. I could see my mouth and cheeks puffing out. Things got faint and I took several minutes on my stomach listening to the cooing of the pigeons get softer and softer. Then quiet, and ticktack, I saw White Head walking toward me.
"Are you ready to come see?" White Head asked.
"To see what?" I mumbled.
"Coo, America from above."
They took off out of the subway faster than hell. I was behind, but Calvin and White Head told me to keep flapping and not to worry. With every pump of my wings I got higher. My feathers cushioned the air to a cool breeze. The group began rising and we followed. We flew up and pumped our wings around huge skyscrapers that had been sliced by giant samurai swords at angles impossible to create, over areas with meowing trumpets and slushy back alley stairs. Through telephone poles with the coo cooing of gossip and chess players sipping late coffee in Hyde Park. Over the folks on the corner in puffy jackets and cigar clouds. We flew over abandoned houses, industrial wastelands, brick buildings that ached with hundreds of humans. That's when I saw my brother again, sitting on a green park bench near an old brick condo. He saw me, and with wide eyes screamed out and held up his arms. His wounds were gone and he was feeding pigeons in a park under several white lamps.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006