Gordon strode to the van, dropped to his knees and thrust his head under the passenger side, as good a place to hide as any. A pigeon scrabbled from the front tire near Gordon’s head to the exact center of the vehicle and trembled there, one wing drooping, just beyond the red polished tips of the woman’s outstretched fingers. Her face was clenched with the effort of reaching, her lips pulled back from a set of strong white teeth. The grimace gave her face a rubbery look that both simplified and exaggerated her expression, like a cartoon.
“God! Would you help? Come on!”
Gordon shot an arm toward the bird. The pigeon turned in a circle in its safety zone between the thrusting hands, ignoring Gordon’s “Here birdy, birdy,” which he dropped after the first silly utterance. And when Gordon, giving up on his interview clothes, scooted further under the car, the bird strutted, head bobbing, to the rear.
“Stay there!” the woman commanded.
“Are you talking to me?” Gordon asked.
“Who else?” she said, crawling with surprising speed to the back of the van.
What was needed were two more people, Gordon thought. Or a pole. Or maybe he should leave.
“Okay now,” the woman was saying. “I’m gonna clap my hands and scare him toward you.”
“You need a pole, or a yardstick. Something to herd him with,” Gordon put in, his suggestion striking him as a good one, and stirring the memory of being in a hidden place with pals—in a bush, in a tree house—and working on a project grownups were blind to. The festive energy of a shared mission that seemed not only worthwhile but absolutely possible. The hurried pileup of plans; the things needed so simple—a piece of chalk, a rope, some scrap lumber. A cardboard box.
“Yes! A pole. That’s the ticket!” the woman agreed.
“And a box,” Gordon put in.
“Good! You’re an optimist.”
“I’ll be right back,” Gordon said.
Gordon was up and brushing himself off.
The bells tinkled and the denim lady looked up. She eyed Gordon’s filthy shirt with concern. “Is your wife all right?”
“My wife? Sure. Listen, I need a couple of things, kind of quick.” He looked around helplessly at the cards and Mylar balloons. “Have you got an empty box and maybe a mop or something I could borrow? A yardstick? Or anything long and pokey?”
“Long and pokey?” The woman repeated slowly.
“Like these.” Gordon spotted a group of gag road signs on short stands next to the door. “How much are these?” he said, grabbing one that said Slow, Adults at Play and another, an arrow that declared This Way to the Party!
The woman scanned one, then lifted a dented photo box (“Vacation Snapz”) from the floor and set it on the counter. “If you can wait, I’ll look in back for a yardstick,” she offered cautiously.
“Thanks but we’re in a hurry.” He drummed his fingers on the counter, watching the bracelets on the woman’s arms slide up and down as she rang up the bill, his heart racing as if he were in danger of missing a flight.
He laid his money on the counter and rushed outside just as the pigeon strutted out from under the driver’s side of the van, dragging its wing. “Bastard!” came a cry from beneath the van.
The bird disappeared under a Jeep in the next parking space. It was managing well enough, Gordon realized with a twinge of disappointment. There were probably enough Dorito crumbs in this parking lot to keep the bird alive for years if he kept to the underside of cars. There were no predators here. Gordon clutched his signs and felt a regret too strong for the occasion.
A teenage girl, glued to the side of a gangly boy, their fingers hooked in each other’s belt loops, strolled dreamily down the sidewalk. Their sleepy eyes passed over the signs Gordon held, following the party arrow, which happened to be pointing to the rump, which at the moment was backing up. They looked at each other and popped their mouths open in delight.
Gordon felt himself flush, but with it came a surge of energy. He strode toward the Jeep with his signs, calling to his emerging partner. “He’s over here!”
Curious eyes followed him. The boy was leaning against a post now, the girl clasped in front of him, ready for the show.
The woman was up and huffing toward Gordon and the Jeep. She was large and striking and radiant with resolve. Gordon was overwhelmed by the sight of her—her taut skin touched with perfectly placed rosiness, her determined, dark-lashed eyes. He hadn’t expected beauty, but there it was. A rocking glimpse of it before it dropped out of sight again.
Gordon felt his chest expanding with bubbles of energy—a tingling pressure he hadn’t felt in so long he almost wondered if he were having some kind of medical episode. More urgent was his desire to hang on to the sensation.
“How ‘bout a little help over here?” he called to the teens.
They turned and consulted each other with raised eyebrows, then shrugged and sauntered slowly to the Jeep.
“Injured bird,” Gordon said, handing out the signs. “We want to encourage him toward the driver’s side.” It seemed the woman’s bird somehow and that was the side she was thrusting her arms under, clucking encouragingly.
The teens’ jeans were straight and narrow. They lowered themselves to the ground like arthritic seniors and lay flat on their stomachs, one at the front and one at the back of the Jeep.
At home later Gordon would recall the sight of their young faces squinting in the darkness under the Jeep, intent on their common goal; the woman’s trembling chins and panting breath; the pigeon iridescent, its beak slightly open. How the bird finally strutted and fluttered and hopped over the prodding arrow and at last came close enough for Gordon to put his large dry hand on its back, pressing the bird gently to the ground and sliding his other hand carefully under its warm, beating belly.
He recalled the shock of how light it was as he lifted it, its rough, weird feet clawing harmlessly against his skin. How the woman had put her dimpled hand on the bird’s back for just a moment while Gordon held him against his shirt. “Ah ha!’ she had said. And how the boy had lifted a finger, signaling them to wait, and pulled out a pocketknife to cut air holes in the box before he and the girl resumed their intimate stroll. And Gordon, how he’d escorted the woman to her car, carrying the box and placing it on the seat of her yellow Bug.
When Gordon reached his apartment, that first-day-of-school feeling of crisp possibility hadn’t yet deserted him. He looked at his bored son on the couch and his wife shelling walnuts at the kitchen table and at that moment life seemed fine, and as simple as it ever would.