by John W. Steele
part 1 of 2
Leonard was in the seventh grade when he first learned about them and realized how they did things.
It was a bright cheery morning in early spring and the dogwoods were in bloom. He was getting ready for school and he’d spent ten minutes scrutinizing his image in the bathroom mirror. Every hair on his head was smothered with Brylcream and his crew cut was styled to perfection. The hairs above his forehead stood erect like the teeth of his black rubber comb. Each edge and corner of his impeccable butch-crew was square and sharp like the lid of a shoebox.
As he stared in the mirror, he thought about Joanne and the dirty joke about the two monkeys he was going to tell her when he met her in the schoolyard. He fantasized about how it might feel to touch the shining braids in her flaxen hair or kiss the lustrous cherry tint of her lips. He pressed his hips against the vanity and pretended that he was alone with her and had her cornered in the gym.
“Leonard! You best get going or you’re going to be late for school. Get a move on, son,” his mother said.
He raced down the stairs from the second floor apartment and entered the street. The sky was as blue as turquoise and Leonard whistled a tune as he headed for the brick building named after the dead president. When he reached the intersection, a patrol boy wearing a white belt with a red badge held out his arm with authority and said, “Wait on the corner until the traffic passes.”
On the other side of the street, Joanne stood behind the fence. She was alone and the curved symmetrical lines of her figure smoldered in his mind. When she saw Leonard, she waved. A wild smile formed on Leonard’s face and he waved back. That’s when it happened, the first assault in what was destined to be an endless crusade.
Splat! From out of nowhere Leonard felt a cool dribble collide with the top of his head. He raised his hand and lightly touched the wet spot. When he looked at his fingers, they were covered with a slimy green-brown fluid, like diarrhea. Leonard glared up at the telephone line and saw a fat pigeon sitting on the wire. The pigeon balanced itself effortlessly on the thin cable and cooed with arrogance.
“I’ll kill you!” Leonard cried. He picked up a rock and hurled it at the bird. But the blue pigeon with the striped wings only cooed louder, as if it was mocking him. Leonard’s face contorted and he reached down for another stone. He drew back his arm, and the pigeon sailed away. Another drip of vile dung oozed from the creature as it flew gracefully down the street.
The red-haired patrol boy yelled, “Hey! No throwing stones near the school. We go by the rules! I’m going to have to write you up. What’s your name?” The towhead pulled a yellow pad from his back pocket and filled out a report. When Leonard looked over at the schoolyard again, Joanne was gone.
* * *
The following weekend Leonard went to the Army & Navy store and bought a wooden slingshot. It had a blue and red decal of Superman etched on the stock and the handle was coated with black neoprene. Leonard stretched the gum rubber bands and snapped the ammo pouch. He liked the feeling of power the weapon gave him and the thought of revenge burned in his mind.
That afternoon he followed the cinder-strewn trail that ran along the railroad tracks until he arrived at the huge steel viaduct on Water Street. He stood beneath the bridge and gazed up at the girders. His mind wandered back to a time a few years earlier before his dad went away and he remembered how his dad used to take him swimming at the community pool. They’d park the station wagon in the huge parking lot near the bridge and take the shortcut to the pool that ran across the railroad tracks.
The asphalt beneath the viaduct was splattered with ivory colored bird dung and the pigeons cooed defiantly from the cubicles in the bridge.
“Why are those birds up there,” Leonard asked his Father.
“Because that’s where they live,” his old man said.
But Leonard knew now it was a stupid kid question, the kind of question only a weakling would ask; a weakling nobody would ever want.
He was a man now and a man does what needs to be done. To be a man you have to kill. Leonard finally understood what it meant to be counted, and how a man without the guts to do the right thing is just a queer, a stinking rotten queer. He hated himself because he drove his Dad away and he knew, if he had been the kind of man his Dad could have been proud of, his Father never would have abandoned him.
Leonard chewed the inside of his lower lip and stared up at the girders, a man stands up to the pain and, when he identifies the enemy, he kills it.
He reached down and scooped a few pebbles in the gravel and stuffed them in the pocket of his dungarees. Leonard peered out from behind the towering concrete pillar and focused on the girder. Like a wish come true, a pigeon appeared on the shoulder of the beam. Its feathers were filthy white and its head bobbed as it walked.
A scowl formed on Leonard’s face and he took aim. He unlocked his fingers and the tense rubber bands contracted with a snap. The stone hissed through the air but it was slow and clumsy; the pebble formed an arc and veered off to the left of the target.
After a number of misses, Leonard grew filled with an angry sense of frustration. The awkward stones just weren’t accurate enough. He ran as fast as he could back to the Army store and barged through the door. A skinny clerk stood folding clothes beneath a dim pulsating fluorescent light. Leonard panted and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. He charged up to the man and blurted out, “I need some ammo for my slingshot, mister, something with enough moxie to penetrate a tin can.”
The thin man peered out from behind his heavy black-rimmed glasses. He wore a red bow tie and his neck was raw where he’d cut himself shaving. The oversized collar of his white shirt was dotted with spots of blood and his Adams apple bulged from his throat like a chestnut. Without missing a beat, the man nodded at a display case parked near the wall. “We keep our air gun stuff over there with the Boy Scout paraphernalia.”
Leonard wandered over to the lighted case and looked through the plate glass window. His eyes fixed on a red plastic container. The canister had an image of a white giant painted on its surface. “Let me see those,” Leonard said.
The clerk slid the door open and handed him the tube. Leonard held it up to the light and stared at the logo. The giant had a smile on its face. In one hand it carried a sword and in the other hand it held a flag. Houses lay crushed beneath the titan’s feet and a trail of destruction followed in its wake. Above the giant’s head was inscribed, There’s nothing to fear but the White Giant. The slogan burned deep in Leonard’s mind.
He unscrewed the lid and poured a few of the pellets in his hand. They were chromed and shiny. He rolled the shot between his thumb and forefinger. Leonard liked the smooth hefty feel of the pellets and he knew he’d found the answer to his problem.
It was beginning to get dark when he arrived back at the overpass. He could hear the pigeons coo as they roosted for the evening. Leonard loaded three of the steel bearings into the ammo pouch and waited.
As he stalked the birds he remembered a conversation he had with his Uncle Rudolph long ago. Rudolph was a drunk and wore a leather eye patch over his left eye. He told Leonard that a crow pecked his eye out when he was a baby. Leonard remembered how Rudolph lifted the patch and showed him the gaping crater of raw meat that filled the eye socket. He gazed at the gouge in the man’s head and marveled that such evil as crows existed.
From out of nowhere a bird appeared and strutted proudly along the beam like an avian big shot. Leonard held his breath and drew back his arm. He imagined the pellets piercing the bird and killing it. He loosed the ammo pouch and the shot whispered through the air. The pellets slapped when they struck the target. The sound reminded him of when he used to play catch with his father. The baseball smacked into the glove and the sound was sharp and intense. Leonard knew it was the sound of victory.
The bag of feathers fell from the beam and landed on the ground with a thud. The pigeon lay dazed and wounded on the tracks. Leonard approached the broken bird, stared down at it, and frowned. You’re good for nothing. He raised his black sneaker and stomped down hard on the pigeon’s head. The bird’s skull made a sound like wrinkled cellophane when he crushed it on the tie.
A rush flowed through his body and it felt just like the time he beat up Buzzy Whaler. Buzzy was jovial, harmless, and as weak as piss. Leonard didn’t like Buzzy’s glasses or his rosy cheeks. He didn’t like the roll of blubber around his waist or the fact that “the Buzz” had so many friends.
Leonard waited by the underpass; he knew Buzzy went home that way every day after school. The fat boy hummed a tune as he approached the tunnel. Leonard tackled Buzzy from behind and gripped him in a headlock. He squeezed Buzzy’s neck until his face was as red as a beet, and then punched him hard in the center of the puss. Blood spurted like a geyser from Buzzy’s nose. It was great.
Leonard looked down at the dead bird and for a moment, he soared beyond the confines of his broken world. He was hooked. Nothing could compare to the thrill he just experienced. That summer he spent all his free time ridding the viaduct of pigeons.
* * *
When Leonard turned sixteen, he got his hunting license. He believed more than ever he was correct about his opinion of birds in general. Why would they issue a license to kill them if they weren’t evil? Though he still hated pigeons more than anything, he started hunting crows. In his spare time, he sat in the cornfields with a crow call and a shotgun. He’d lure the crows in, one caw at a time. On a good day, he killed a dozen.
One beautiful day in autumn, Leonard wandered through the forest, hunting for birds. He entered a magnificent red, orange, and yellow ravine bursting with color in the vibrant golden sun. He’d become an expert stalker always alert and diligent, and he knew at any moment a bird could appear.
He snuck along a creek bed and noticed an unnatural shape perched high in a towering oak tree. Leonard froze in his tracks and his world stopped spinning. He held his breath and raised his weapon in a slow, measured motion. The gun was part of him, it was him.
The mighty blast of the shotgun thundered through the mountains and echoed in the distance for a long time. From the treetop, a ball of flesh and feathers tumbled from the branches and sailed downward. One of the bird’s wings fluttered in a futile attempt to recapture its fleeting existence. The creature collided on the earth with a thud.
Leonard approached the owl and admired his kill. The bird was large and well formed. Its checkered black and tan plumage was sharp and defined like an abstract work of art. The bird’s wild yellow eyes burned with primal intensity and were as big as silver dollars. Leonard stared into the creature’s eyes. You’re a breeder, the worst of the scum. Kill the breeders and the little ones die with em. He placed the barrel of his gun to the owl’s head and pulled the trigger.
* * *
When Leonard was thirty, he married Marie Watson. Marie was a simple girl, very shy and reclusive. She had a lisp and had attended a special school. Like Leonard, Marie didn’t care much for people and she and Leonard were quite compatible. They bought a dilapidated farmhouse on fifty acres and lived “out a ways.” Marie worked the night shift at the cannery and Leonard found a job as a custodian at a nursing home.
Their only neighbor was an old widower named Milton Hawley who lived on the other side of the road. Milton was a gentle soul and had a long white beard. He kept a flock of chickens for company. Sometimes, he’d sit on the porch of his trailer, play his banjo, and sing to the birds. The old man waved to Leonard when he saw him, but Leonard hated the old man and the chickens. He believed the old man was evil. Anyone who harbors the enemy, is the enemy.
One day after work, Leonard came home and discovered Marie had bought a green Cockatiel for a pet. He stared at the tiny creature singing sweetly in its cage.
A burning rage ignited in his head and he bit his tongue. “What’s the bird doing here, Marie?” he said dryly.
“I just wanted some company while you’re at work, honey. His name is Cecil. Do you like him, honey?”
Leonard stared out the window at the tree line. “Birds carry viruses and disease. Their name is legion.”
“Oh, he won’t be any trouble, honey. Just a little food and water is all he needs. I like the way he sings to me.”
Leonard glared at the bird and the bird glared back, its eyes unblinking and evil. The thought of having a demon like the green bird in the house troubled Leonard, but Marie had wanted a pet for a long time and he knew what to do.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by John W. Steele