for Charles Bukowski
It all happened that summer of West Nile Virus, when the news put sick people on TV and ran stories on how mosquito repellent was flying off the Wal-Mart shelves. I had a job trolling the streets of Fresno bagging and tagging dead birds. We believed that the virus would manifest itself in birds first, that they were predictors of how the sickness would move through humankind, and that summer the birds were falling from their perches in the trees and probably right out of their flight patterns. I had a government-issue phone, and I’d be sent on calls to pick a bird out of someone’s pool. They float—I think I’m one of few people who’d know that—and I’d use my government skimmer to take them off the top. Then dead birds became such a common sight people stopped making reports. I’d be driving home and see them littering the highway like a load spilled off a truck. I blocked traffic bagging and tagging, horns blasting behind me, cars backed up for miles. I was called names, considered crazy. Me, the fine line separating public health from an epidemic, called crazy.
“I know how you feel,” my researcher friend Henry told me, after I complained to him about my circumstances. He always came outside after I dropped off my specimens to smoke an unfiltered with me. This particular day he had a pink smear of bird blood on his smock in the shape of a talon, as if one of the avian cadavers had fought back. He pushed his glasses up his nose. He was constantly pushing his glasses up his nose. We were both sweating in the summer heat—Henry worse because he was used to the air conditioning inside the lab. He dropped his smoke in the alley and smothered it with his shoe. His caterpillar eyebrows were visible over the rims of his glasses: the specs were on their way down his nose again. He said, “You should take your Missus along with you tomorrow. Get her out of the house.”
“A date with the reaper,” I said.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Pet. At most you’re his janitor.”
“Speaking of,” I said, walking around the pick-up, jangling my keys.
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day,” Henry said, talking as if he had the authority to grant vacations. “Go home, have a nice meal, wine and dine the lady.”
“You’re the boss,” I told him, and drove away.
Actually, I was heading home. I had been heading home for three days now. I wanted to go home. The missus and I leased in a northeast neighborhood; our house was only a few years old, its closets still smelled like new carpet. A grand place from what I remembered. I thought I could rest there. And I was on my way home again when I saw the black bullets of dead crows under a streetlight. I pulled over to the curb only a few blocks from my house, telling myself I was seeing things, I needed to go home and rest. Then I heard the muffled thump of another one hitting the pavement, then another, and then they really started falling, a hailstorm. I watched them splatter. They lay prone on their backs, feet up, wings out, or on their shoulders with their backs to me, elongated, elegant black.
I should have gone home anyway. I was all set to do exactly that, to restart the engine and drive away, when I saw him. He was skipping from the circular glow of one streetlamp to another, like a kid doing puddles. He had an umbrella and a white dust mask. I watched him squat before a crow and prod it with something. We called his type novitiates, regular citizens who tried to examine the dead birds without our equipment or training; novitiates suffered delusions, and were known to have a death wish. They were considered somewhere between a nuisance and a threat to public health, and it was official policy to prevent a novitiate from contaminating a sample. Instead of continuing home, I got out of the truck and approached the scene. Once I’d gotten closer, I saw that he was poking the crow with a ballpoint pen. He looked up at me, startled, the dust mask practically glowing. “You must be with the CDC,” he shouted, his voice muffled.
Close enough, I thought.
“It’s the plague of crows over here.” He toured me around the corpses, holding the umbrella over us. There were four-dozen at first count, black humps of fresh crow. They lay in the street, guttered up next to the curb, on the sidewalks and grass strips. When I went over the area with my flashlight I found more on roofs, stuck in rain gutters or nested up against chimneys. The novitiate felt the need to explain the relationship between death and falling. “The real question is cause or effect,” he said. “If they died in the air, then hit the ground, or if they hit the ground while still alive.”
I didn’t say much. Bag and tag.
“It’s West Nile, isn’t it? It’s started right here in my neighborhood.”
“The birds have to be autopsied first.”
“Oh, I already know what will happen,” he said, smoothing a few wiry strands to his bald crown, looking into the night over the rim of his mask. “These will go into some lab, but no answers will ever come out.”
“No news is good news.”
“People already have news,” he said. “We want Information. We want to be informed.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
“It starts with you, you know. What can you tell me about these specimens?”
“Well, they’re dead. But I guess you told me that.”
“Is it official policy to make fun of the citizenry?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“I pay taxes. I vote in every election at every level. I fill out my census immediately. I have a right to know what’s happening right here in my own back yard.”
“I can’t tell you much,” I said. “But crows are never a good sign.”
“I thought not,” he said, nodding but looking scared. His skin was going as pale as the dust mask, the blood draining out of his face.
“They’re big birds, you know. It takes a lot to bring one down. This many?” I shrugged my shoulders, letting him fill in the blank with the terrible truth. I said, “Have you been out here long, sir?”
“I—a half-hour, I’d guess.”
“And you’ve been wearing that mask the whole time, correct?”
“—You’re a wise man to have kept that mask on.”
For a second I thought he was going to collapse and weep in the street. “What about you?” he asked, the fear in his voice cutting right through the mask. “You’re . . . unprotected.”
I stopped my work to give him a meaningful look. I leaned in a little closer. I could smell the breath leaking out—as if that cup of paper could stop a dread disease. It couldn’t even stop halitosis. “There’s a government vaccine,” I said.
He recoiled a step. “I knew it.”
“Excuse me,” I said, and turned to my job, leaving him to think he’d been right all along, the best feeling any of us can have.
Each bird got its own bag, with a tag relating the location I found it, and whether in fresh, desiccated, or decomposed condition. The fresh ones went straight to the researchers’ tables. I marked the spot I found them with Xs of pink spay paint, so if they found West Nile in the bird they could search the area scientifically. Such cases—clustered specimens, we called them—created a lot of excitement in the lab. I always called ahead. The boys and girls in goggles would be waiting on the curb for my truck to pull up, filled with bumpy orange bags. Enough for everybody, I would joke with them. The imminence of disease spreading through the air turned us on. Our careers—our lives—had meaning, hard work and dedication about to be recognized.
It was certainly the granddaddy of clustered specimens, but I got them all. Into hedges to retrieve birds, up onto roofs, an arm’s reach down a chimney, where a crow had come to rest in an abandoned barn owl nest. I left pink Xs on box shrubs and composite shingles and bricks. I ended up having to finish with an audience of morning commuters leaving their homes for work, which of course was not ideal. No one is friendly finding you on his roof. They were less than understanding about the Xs, calling it defacement, calling it criminal. One day soon, I thought, they’d look back and be glad I was there. The man who cut West Nile off at the pass, who put public health above the petty concerns of property damage and trespassing—they’d talk about me with reverence for years to come, the hero of the West Nile story.
I tooted my horn when I pulled into the alley behind the lab. I had a feeling this was the one that would prove all our fears, and it came from practically my own neighborhood. I watched in the rearview while the researchers unloaded the birds, two orange bags for each smock, like hunting trophies or harvest bounty, our reasons for being. Henry knocked on the passenger window and held up his pack of smokes and a Zippo. I shut off the engine. “I figured you’d have been home by now,” I said, getting out of the cab.
“Who among us goes home?” Henry passed me a lit cigarette. The paper was moist from his lips. “I thought you went home as well, and look at us, both right here.”
“Touché,” I said.
The floor of the alley was still in shade, cool from the night, but a blade of sunlight was working its way down the lab wall like a slow-moving guillotine. Henry and I watched its progress awhile without talking. Then I started telling him about the specimens. He lit me another cig as I talked.
“So this is the batch, for sure,” he said.
“That’s what I figured.”
“She’s arrived, my friend. The ship’s come in.”
“Armageddon is upon us,” I said.
He tossed away his cigarette and pushed up his glasses just in time. “It’ll be more like a thinning out,” he said. “The frail and elderly first. Then the indigent.”
“We’ll save the rest,” I said.
“That’s the spirit, Pet.” He slapped my back. “We’ve got to be patient. It’ll all be worth it in the end.”
Patience, I kept thinking while driving home. I was learning how to be patient with a disease that refused to make its grand entrance. I asked Henry to call me on the official phone the minute they found something—I insisted he call me—but I couldn’t help thinking that one of the lab boys, perhaps the very second I drove away, was calling out, “Eureka!” and they’d proudly celebrate the discovery of life’s destruction without me. Could I count on Henry to interrupt the orgy and say, “That’s one of Pet’s, Pet brought that bird in, let me give him a ring and we can all toast Pet!?” I depended so much on the birds and the clues their deaths contained. Without them, I was just a trash man. The birds made me a hero on the frontlines.
In the living room of my house a woman was asleep on my couch, wearing panties and a t-shirt, one leg slung over the back. Her chipped painted toenails looked like tiny dishes. I stood there blinking at her. Her name was Camille. We were married. I decided the best thing was not to wake her. Let her finish her sleep. I’d get breakfast ready, and then she could explain to me why she was sleeping on the couch. Except I was noisy in the kitchen. Clanger of bowls, dropper of eggs, shouter of curses. I went out for some fresh air instead.
Our paper lay wrapped in a plastic sleeve on the lawn. I checked the mailbox but the postal woman hadn’t been by yet. I sat on the porch with the Fresno Bee and turned through the sections looking for another picture of myself. About six-months before, I’d appeared on the front page, just doing my job. Today there wasn’t anything worthwhile. I folded it up and let it balance on my thigh. I sat there squinting out at the warm morning, the familiar houses, the cars in the driveways and at the curbs. The image symbolized for me what I’d been doing out there for three days straight: protecting everyone’s right to come home at night and stay until morning. I—we, my cohorts and I—braved the worst scenarios so no one else had to.
It was so quiet and still. I watched down the block for a door to open, a car to back into the street and drive away, a school bus to come around a corner and load up some kids. I strained to hear something besides the lazy knock of oak branches against my roof, or the sea-sounding breeze in the fig leaves. I looked again at the newspaper: Was that date really today? Had something happened I wasn’t aware of, stopping time? Had Henry let me down? Then, entering my senses as if surfacing for breath, I heard the scratching, so soft I thought it might be a product of my imagination. I sat perfectly still and waited. I heard it again. Like the tearing of paper. Like the whittling down of wood by sharp knives. Like clawing-out. Goose-fleshed, I tried to discern the source. I scanned the street from one horizon to the other before I realized the scratching was coming from behind me, within my own house.
I burst through the front door. Camille was at the sink and I startled her. She glared at me wide-eyed, her hair a tangled nest from the couch. “What the hell, Pet—”
“—Sshh!” I crawled alongside the wall, listening. “You hear that?” I whispered.
“All I hear is the thin ice cracking under your feet.”
“Sshh!” The sound had leaped into a frenzy and then fallen silent. I’d heard that before. I knew then what I had inside the wall. “It’s birds,” I told Camille.
“Of course it is.”
“Somehow we’ve got birds trapped in the wall.”
I looked up and down the textured surface, decorated with pictures. Occasions, family. I hardly recognized my face in any of them. Crawling left and right, I rapped with my fist, listening with my ear near the baseboard for a response.
“This is too much,” Camille said.
“I’m trying to listen.”
“Bullshit, Pet. Bull shit. You’re crawling around like a nutcase, that’s what you’re doing.”
“Here,” I said. I’d heard their answer despite the distraction in the room. I scratched a mark into the paint with my thumbnail, then went to get my tape measure, then took the measurement from the front door to the spot.
“I want you to leave whatever it is alone and talk to me,” Camille told me. “I want whatever it is to stop. Okay? You can’t keep staying gone, Pet. It worries me sick and I can’t take it anymore.”
She stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, her bare thighs touching under the t-shirt hem, and her face was red and swollen with tears. She was waiting for me to tell her that everything was fine, but I didn’t know yet. I had a job to do.
“Tell me where you’ve been!”
“Just a second.”
“Who is she? Tell me who she is!”
I went out to the porch again. Pages of the newspaper were plastered against the spindles by the breeze. Pieces of it tumbled over our lawn into our neighbor’s. I measured from the front door and painted a pink X where the birds were entombed.
Camille stood in the doorway. “What in fuck are you doing?”
“Marking the location.”
She seemed to see me in a different light then. Her head cocked a little to one side and her eyes, which had been stained with tears, now shone with understanding. Her voice came soft and musical. “Who can I call, Pet? Tell me a name. There must be someone I can call for help.”
“This is my job, honey. I do this everyday.”
I retrieved my reciprocating saw from the garage, and when I came back, Camille was leaning on the porch rail with her back to the world. Gooseflesh stood alert on her thighs. Her bare feet had left moist footprints on the boards where she’d been pacing. “Let me call someone,” she said.
“I am the one people call,” I assured her.
If she said something in response, the buzz of the saw covered it up. I pushed the blade into the siding, cutting out a square panel to free the birds—working from outside so I wouldn’t release the virus into our living room, for Camille’s sake. The story swelled in my head to grand proportions: Hero bird collector finds disease in own house, saves all.
I removed the cut siding. A talus slope of hollow bones poured out, a burial ground of my avian friends. “Look at that,” I said, full of wonder. Somehow the bones had been speaking to me.
But I, Pet Petersen, was talking to no one. Camille had gone inside. I got an orange bag from my truck. I poured handfuls of the bones into the sack. I wrote down my address, then marked the box desiccated.
No one came out of the lab when I blew the horn. I banged and banged on the door, and a researcher I didn’t know finally opened up. “What in the world is it?” he asked me.
I held out the bag. The bones rattled together like chips of ice when he took it. He regarded me, then peeked inside the sack, a violation of safety regulations. Slowly his eyes lifted to mine. I said, “Henry here?”
“He went home,” the researcher said.
“What happened? Did you find West Nile?”
He shook his head no. “It’s been a frustrating day,” he said, then started to slide away from me into the lab. “Maybe this one,” he said sarcastically, rattling the sack of bones.
“They came from my house,” I said.
He nodded once and shut the door. I heard the deadbolt engage as per regulations, though it felt personal.
I sat in the truck with the AC going full blast until it smelled musty and was blowing lukewarm air. I could barely breathe. There was this painful speed to my heart. It was beating the back of my breastbone as if to get out, and all at once I understood what was going on inside me. It explained why I couldn’t get home, why I found specimens everywhere I went, why I heard them in my wall. I put my hand on my chest. I knew all about birds, I’d been highly trained by the government, but still I wasn’t prepared to feel one in there, where a heart should be.
It wasn’t fair. Instead of being on the cover of Time Magazine, this development would put me in the tabloids. People would only read about my life while waiting to pay for groceries. All the good deeds I’d done would be blown away by the turbulence of a bird in my chest.
I worked hard to catch my breath. I did my best to arrange a natural face, even checking my color in the truck’s chrome bumper. Henry would have known something was wrong with me, but Henry had abandoned the cause. I knocked and knocked on the lab door. The same researcher opened up, and I wondered if he was in there by himself. “What’s your problem, guy?” he said.
“I need to borrow a scalpel,” I said. He looked at me over his perfectly fitting glasses. I missed Henry. Henry I could have told exactly what was going on inside me. Henry would have lit me a smoke and heard me. I told this other guy, “I just got a report of clustered specimens in a vineyard outside of town and I need a scalpel.”
I huffed impatiently, talking fast to cover up how my voice trembled. “You ever been to a clustered specimen site in a vineyard? Fucking mayhem, man. The canes—that’s what they call the branch of a grapevine, cane, as in hell—just about swallow a bird whole. It’s like surgery getting them out. Hence—” I held out my hand.
He regarded me once more, then went inside. He left the door standing open, and I could see my bird bones being classified on a metal table. They looked yellow in contrast to the stainless steel. We’d find no answers in those bones, I guessed, and the bird in my ribs started flying loops as if to tell me my guess was right. Then the researcher was back, holding a scalpel to me handle first.
“You loan this blade in service to your fellow man,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said, shutting and bolting the lab door in my face.
Most days I would have thought about reporting his multiple safety violations, or dwelt on his rudeness, but today I wasn’t in a petty mood. Driving home, my bird-heart was expanding to see the beauty in all things. The ripples of heat on the road ahead of me like the ocean. The brake lights flashing on and off in traffic as if choreographed. The palpitations of a doomed man.
I got home and found my own door unlocked, yet another violation of safety rules. I stepped inside and knew at once that Camille had left me. There were no signs, per se, just a tremendous emptiness that one feels when stepping into a deserted house. But of course it didn’t matter. Actually I was glad she wouldn’t have to witness what was coming next.
I’d brought an orange bag inside with me. I went upstairs and turned on the bathroom tap and took off my shirt. Looking at myself in the mirror, at the distinct tan lines ending at my neck and biceps, at the scalpel in my hand. I cut the air over my chest, trying to visualize the incisions that would get the bird out. My reflection blurred through the tears in my eyes. I breathed deep, telling myself I had to, for the sake of humankind. But how unfortunate that my every good deed be eclipsed for the sake of a lost bird.
I opened the window for fresh air, and, as I stood there looking out over the tops of the young trees in our neighborhood, my bird-heart leaped with joy. The greenery washed back and forth in the breeze like foam on a sea, and I was led out the window to squat at the edge of my roof, my toes in the rain gutter, my hands folded up close to my body. What a pretty world we’ve made, so full of perches, growing toward the sky. And what a shame that it’s all going to come tumbling down.
John Carr Walker grew up on a raisin farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and now lives in Saint Helens, Oregon, where there’s not a vineyard for miles. His writing has appeared in StringTown, Slow Trains, Prick of the Spindle, The Writer's Dojo, Eclectica, Small Doggies, and elsewhere. He's the editor and founder of the literary magazine TRACHODON.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Bellow, Roth, Updike—I think anyone with an interest in realist fiction can’t really escape being influenced by that trio. I also love Roddy Doyle, Tim Winton, Barry Hannah, Michael Ondaatje, Larry Watson, Rick DeMarinis . . . My favorite thing is discovering a new writer who knocks my socks off. I’d rather find someone new to add to my list of influences than read a writer’s whole list.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Under the covers.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: David Tennant. What fat American wouldn’t want to be played by a twiggy Scot?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve recently completed a collection of short stories, so I’m working at collecting rejections. And I’m at work on a novel about an Okie and a Japanese family in WWII-era San Joaquin Valley.