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32—Thonk and Splat

Ah, the advantages of small-town life. On the third morning of the rest of my life, I returned home from registering myself and my pickup at the DMV—all accomplished in less time than it would have taken me to stand in line back in Vegas. The cats were happily exploring the apartment and comfortable enough to ignore my return. With lunch in mind, I went to the refrigerator. 

The thwuup of the refrigerator door opening was followed without pause by a thonk, a hiss, a wail, and the tiny gallop of cat paws. “kwawk,” said the bird, announcing his presence at the big middle window.

Photo by Walt Van Campen
“We’re just ignoring him,” I reminded the cats.
The bird opened his beak wide and screeched.
cd hissed from the back of the sofa in the middle of the living room.
MITTS was nowhere to be seen.

I laid two slices of bread on a plate and opened the cheese. 
The bird padded to the kitchen window and stood, shfting back and forth on his splattlly pink feet in waif-like anticipation.

I stepped into the living room on the pretense of getting the newspaper to read at lunch. 
The bird raced back to the living room window as if on a desperate mission.

I returned to the kitchen counter and began cutting up an apple and some cheese.
The bird, head and beak stretched forward, jetted back to the kitchen window, skidded to a stop, and retracted his neck into his orphan-of-the-sea pose.

I set my plate on the table next to the window.
“kwiwk,” simpered the bird.

“This Dickensian act of yours,” I said, my face to the glass, “it’s so derivative.” 

The bird began screeching, setting off the thumping in my ear that such sounds always triggered.
Impervious, I lifted some bread and cheese to my lips. 
The bird took hold of the aluminum window casing with his beak and yanked. My stomach tightened.

31—Subverting the Dominant Paradigm

On the second day of the rest of my life, I awoke to another sunny and teal-blue-ocean day in Paradise. Or so it seemed for the first ten minutes.

The cats had followed me into the kitchen in the far front corner of the main living area. I’d filled their bowls and was waiting for my coffee to finish perking when we were distracted by a dull thonk. 

The bird had come in for a landing on the tar roof.

"kwawk  kwawk  kwawk," he said as he wadded to the large center window and peered in like someone expected for brunch. Seeing me at the stove, he dashed like a duckpin on legs to the kitchen window. 

“Just ignore him,” I told the cats.
They continued eating but warily.

“kwawk kwawk   KWAWK,” called the bird. 
Receiving no acknowledgement, he tapped on the window.

MITTS retreated to the back room. cd fluffed up and hissed. 
Refusing to make eye contact with the interloper, I poured myself a cup of coffee, then added a bit of milk. As I returned to the bedroom, coffee in hand, the bird raced across the roof alongside me. 

“KWWAAAK,” I heard as I slipped under the covers. Then, silence. Just as I relaxed, several more plaintive kwaaawks wafted in through the open window. Unmoved, I let the steam of freshly brewed coffee warm my face. 
As the distress call continued, the cats grew agitated. 

“We’ll just let the baby cry it out,” I assured them. “He’ll eventually give up,” I assured myself.
Setting my coffee on the bed stand, I opened the book I’d picked up the day before at Rainy Day Books—The Great Blue Heron by Hayward Allen, a beautifully illustrated description of the life and temperament the bird I’d chosen as my spirit guide in this new life . . . jab   jab   jab . . .  

Let him break through the damned glass, I thought. I'm not budging. 

30—Will It Be Love in a Pita Pocket or Screens?

May 21, 1999—the first morning in my new apartment. And what a great apartment it was—three small but conveniently arranged mahogany-paneled rooms with a wall of windows looking out from the main living area over Netarts Bay at the Pacific. The sky was blue, the ocean calm, the air brisk and alive. And at the foot of my hill, there was Heron gliding through the shallows.  

MITTS had finally come out from the back bedroom to join cd on the window sill where they sat chittering at the swallows darting past the tar roof that jutted out over the apartment below us.  

My landlord Chuck was a round-faced affable man who’d brought me dinner the night before and moved in some furniture from the adjacent apartment until mine arrived. He’d even agreed to find some screens for my windows. All I had to do was promise not to feed the gulls. Gulls, he explained, had pecked right through every screen he’d ever installed in this apartment. Well, one gull in particular—the one that when Chuck’s mother lived downstairs and opened her patio door, would walk right in and help himself to the cat food. 

“White trash of the bird world,” my neighbor Buzz warned me. “They might soar like angels, but the city dump is their smorgasbord.”

Looking forward to the flow of salt air through my apartment, I went into the back bedroom to unpack. Hearing a knock, I headed out through the living area to the door. “Must be opportunity,” I said to the cats who’d ensconced themselves on the bed. Opening the door, I saw only the long narrow hallway leading to the carport. Puzzled, I returned to unpacking. 
Again, a knock. This time the cats went with me. Still, no one. What the hell?
As we headed back through the living room, there was a third knock. But not from the door. From the wall of windows. Mitts yowled and fled. cd leaped onto the back of the sofa and hissed, tail up and fur on end. Oh my God—

Standing on the tar roof was a seagull peering in through the large middle pane. From a distance, gulls had always looked, well, small. And cute. But this bird was over a foot tall. And there was nothing cute about the way he began attacking the window with his big yellow beak as if the thermal pane were an obstinate crab.

"Shoo!" I cried and waved my arms.
cd retreated.
jab Jab JAB went the bird. 

Fearing the glass might shatter, I stood between fight and flight, somewhere in the vicinity of Code Blue. 
But then having gotten my attention, the bird stepped back and began chatting me up. “kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.

And gee, he was cute, all freshly white with those cadet gray wings and that sunny yellow beak. When I approached the window, he side-skittished back to the edge of the roof on his oh so adorable rickety-spindly pink legs with their nubby knees and splattily-flat rosy pink feet. “kwawk,” he said, with a cute little tilt of his head.

White trash of the bird world—no way.

The bag of stale pita bread on the kitchen counter caught my eye. 

The bird just stood, drawing his head in oh so shyly between his cute birdie shoulders. 

What harm could there possibly be in sharing a crust with one of God’s creatures?
So I tore up a slice of the bread, slid open the window, and then placing my heart in a small piece of pita pocket tossed it onto the roof, along with the rest of the crusty crusts. 
Within seconds, out of nowhere, a swarm of gulls descended on the roof, flapping and squawking over the free lunch. I slammed shut the window and gaped at the frenzy which made junior high school cafeteria duty seem like a teddy-bears’ picinic. 

Suddenly at the center of the fray, one bird let out a shriek and then, wings spread wide, began running and screeching back and forth from one end of the roof to the other. Within seconds, he’d cleared the tar and was swaggering back toward me, his wings bent slightly outward as if he’d just holstered his pistols. 

“kwawk  kwawk  kwawk,” he said.
It was my adorable one!
My heart quickened. 

Another pita pocket in hand, I started toward the window where he was waiting for me, or so I thought until he hooked his beak onto the aluminum window casing and bracing those spindly pink legs at a determined angle, began to yank. When the metal refused to give, he pecked the roof clean of crumbs then flew to the top of the telephone pole just beyond the motel next door. There, he assumed the statuesque pose for which gulls are famous. 

Pita pocket in hand, I knew I could get him back. 
But clearly, all that little con wanted was the bread.
There was a knock. This time at the door. It was Chuck with the screens.


To: Friends and Family
Subject: Shrink-Wrapped

May 19, 1999: The cats and I are now at a Motel 6 in Eugene, Oregon. We’ve got just three more hours to Netarts, but the cats got edgy so I decided to stop. Also, I thought I might use the time to sort out all the emotions surrounding the move. Although I must say that apart from the kaleidoscope of anxieties, Moving Day went smoothly. 
I’d spent the last few months eliminating nonessentials. So in addition to my bed, desk, sofa, recliner chair, and some shelves and a filing cabinet, I’d pared down my possessions to a small stack of boxes in the corner of my apartment. As I sat waiting for the movers, I fretted over the money I could have saved over the years by not aspiring to a larger life. 

The last fourteen weeks have been difficult and strange. When I returned to Las Vegas on Groundhog Day, I sat in the supermarket parking lot watching shoppers slap across the pavement in their flip-flops. Smog coated my eyeballs and clogged my sinuses. I longed for the clean ocean air and even missed the wind and horizontal bullets of rain. Inside the market, coins clattered out of the slot machines lining the front wall. And I thought of how T. S. Eliot’s magi felt after returning home following the holy birth—“no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”

I’d left Netarts with Heron alive inside me, right there at the center with my heart and lungs, that gray and indigo stillness at the edge of the silvery peach water at twilight. By March, Heron had become a memory, an image I held in my thoughts. By mid April, the memory had turned into a bird I pictured in a distant place.

It was also about this time that I became alarmed that the owner of the cabin was not sending me the two-year lease as promised. On May 2nd, his wife called. They were getting a divorce and selling the house. In a panic, I phoned the rental agent who’d set me up in the house. She called back with news that the apartment, just two houses north of the house, was still available. I’d looked at the place and thought it fine but preferred the house. Now, with moving day set for May 18, I was stuck. I called Chuck, the landlord, made a deal, and decided the outcome was a blessing I had yet to understand.

Around ten on Moving Day, a van, the size of a high-roof boxcar, arrived.

Vinny, the mover, was a short square man. He surveyed my load. “Good job boxing. Piece of cake,” he observed, his muscles bulging with an eagerness to begin lifting and hauling.

“So what happens if the van can’t make it down my street?” I asked. “I mean, we’re talking a back-alley-small street.”
“We just rent a truck and bring it in,” Vinny said.

The cats tucked away in the bathroom began wailing and scratching the door.
“What if there’s no truck rental available?” I asked, my stress mounting. 
“Can I make a call?” Vinny asked as he began pushing the buttons on my phone. 
“I think I bought some sort of insurance for this type of emergen...,” I was saying when an African-American man in a wildly flowered shirt of many colors wandered through the door with a gigantic roll of plastic wrap. 

“Hi-ya,” he greeted us in a Carribean lilt. “Name ees Richmond,” he added with a big half-moon smile.
“You're late,” Vinny snapped.
Richmond shrugged, peeled open the plastic rap, and began shrink-wrapping my sofa. 
I recalled the dire warnings of Dr. Helen Caldicott who’d come to Las Vegas to lecture on nuclear disaster but spent more time on the threat of carcinogens leaching from plastic wrap into our muffins.

“Yeah,” Vinny was saying into the phone. “I’m over here at the partial. She says there might not be no truck rental in . . .” he extended his arm, drew back his head, and squinted at the moving orders.
“Knee-tarts,” I said.
“How far’s Astoria?” he asked me.
“Seventy miles,” I told him. 
Vinny rolled his eyes and repeated the number into the phone and waited. “Yeah, you do that,” he muttered then slammed down the phone. "New dispatcher can’t tell her elbow from a destination rental,” he said.

Richmond stood over my recliner scratching his head. “The back come off this nice chair?” he asked.
“Not that I know of,” I replied as he grabbed the back of the recliner by its sides, then jerked it upward and off. 
“Yah, man,” he said.

Anxiety swarmed over me like ants. Who were these men dismantling my life? And what had possessed me to move?

“I can see you upset, little lady,” Richmond said. “You go in the bedroom. Sit. Breathe slow and deep. We take care everything real good.”

In the bedroom, I lay down on the bed and for first time in five years felt myself falling irretrievably into the full grief of everything I’d lost. I was saved by the ringing of the phone. Dispatch. Yes, there was a truck-rental facility in Tillamook, I reported to Vinny as he and Richmond lifted the sofa out the door as if it were a balloon.

Several hours later, I watched the van disappear with all but my most essential and valuable possessions, which I then packed in the back of my truck. Being what Vinny called a “partial” meant that my belongings were part of two larger, more lucrative loads so that I’ll be the last delivery, in about three weeks, if I got lucky. 

Finally able to let the cats out of the bathroom, I understood their terror as they ran about in search of the familiar and found only bare walls. There was nowhere to hide. The place was spotless. Sterile and impersonal. For all the turmoil, we lived easy. For all the struggle, I’d left no mark. 

All evening friends called with their goodbyes and best wishes. My voice echoed off the walls of the empty apartment. My favorite Buddha Delight take-out now seemed flavorless.

Around eleven, the cats and I burrowed into my sleeping bag. At two, I realized I was not going to sleep and decided to stave off anxiety by leaving. The cats, seeming to understand, walked into their carriers. By three, we’d begun our gradual ascent up 95 North. The town of cards glittered for a time in the rearview mirror like a fallen galaxy. Then the lights blurred into a small shimming amber light that vanished abruptly into the night. The high beams of my pickup streaked through the shadows lining the road like the set in a dark theater. 

Perhaps I’m dead, I thought, sent off in my old truck Egyptian-style with my beloved cats, all my favorite possessions tied up in the blue tarp for my next life. As I sped through the night with the stars, I wished I’d spent more time learning their names.

Daylight convinced me I'm alive. And the drive through the desert to Reno was heart-wrenchingly beautiful because I know that while something has called me to the Oregon coast, the desert will always be my spiritual home.
Here, now, at the Motel 6 in Eugene where I am neither here nor there, I am now asking myself if feeling “called” is just my rationalization for dipping into my retirement savings to make such a drastic move with so little thought.

Or might there really be such a thing as destiny?