Veritas vincit  
Penniless Press... the inexhaustible voice

The Scavanger

by Sheila O'Brien

The twilight hour of one autumn day found five men sitting around a graffiti gashed oak table in a dank little strip club at the outskirts of a small town. They had carpooled back to the town that they had spent most of their lives in for the wedding of an old school friend. They were anxious about returning home because they had not been there for so long, and when they passed the pink neon lights, they unanimously decided to wander into the place for a drink or two before settling into a hotel for the night.

Once they were liquored up, they became giddy and talkative and began telling stories set in their old town. The men, without words, understood the necessity of the town being at the centre of their stories, but the way in which each man decided to expose the town was his own. Steve told about a dynamite woman that he had had beneath the bridge at Cherry Blossom Park, Mike regaled the group with short tales about his various childhood delinquencies, and Fred talked about the pranks that he and his teammates had pulled back in his hockey days.

By the time Cary's turn had come around the gang was awfully boisterous and loud. He knew that his story would quiet them down, because Cary was famous for telling long-winded but fetching whoppers.

"Okay guys, here's a good one!"

Fred lit a cigarette, the others took slow sips of their pints, their features made ragged by the dingy light and temporarily darkened by the shadow of the waitress who was always moving drinks overtop of the crowd.

"The summer after my first wife left was a wonderful season for me although, weather-wise, it turned out to be one of the coldest summers in eighty years. The old folks don't croak quite as easily in chilly temperatures, so for that reason my insurance business hadn't cashed out anyone in a month. So, thanks to the prolonged lives of the seniors, I was numbering my own days with steak and potato dinners, wine and whisky, and a cigar on the patio for dessert.

I bought a bungalow on Hazel Street for a song. The guy who lived there before me croaked unexpectedly. I don't know what of. He didn't have insurance. The bungalow was designed after a Dutch cottage and sat atop a hill that reached up from downtown. It was surrounded by an overgrown geranium garden and a neat little yard, as were most of the houses on the street. And, since the neighbourhood was so peaceful, I had the privilege of relaxing outdoors in my terrycloth bathrobe, underneath which I wore nothing.

That spring I took up the rather peculiar hobby of bird calling. After my wife left, the resulting cessation of her constant nagging provided me with much more time for inner meditation. I remembered much that had happened in my boyhood and found that I had retained a wide range of the birdcalls that I had learned as a young Cub Scout. So as a pastime, I busied myself with identifying and mocking the birds singing in the high elm trees. But by the beginning of June I had grown tired with my audience of birds because they never acknowledged my attempts at conversation. So, because of my nearly perverted loneliness, I took up the slightly less enchanting pastime of calling at women.

Much to my advantage, my house was just down the street from the art school. You know, Hazel Street Academy. Women streamed like liquid down the street after classes, giggling past my porch, the unknowing subjects of a show. I was overcome with an erotic tingling each time I was able to turn the head of a blonde with a robin call or a brunette with an egret's song. But there was this one dark haired devil that wouldn't flinch at the most laboured of my screeches. For her I sang the sparrows' plaintive crow followed by the two husky chortles and the hawks' two syllabled scream. I tried them all, night after night, but none would work on my prey. Because of her resistance, she became the one I wanted the most. You know how it is. I stopped calling at the other women and spent all of my voice on her.

At the agency in the daytime, I sat constructing pathetic origami birds out of the paper I was supposed to filing, all the while waiting for the phone to ring informing me of a death I was gong to have to fund. The phone calls never came. When I returned to my bungalow in the evenings after purchasing expensive meats from the butcher, I leafed through bird books and practiced some new calls to impress the dark haired girl in the evenings. After two weeks, I had exhausted all of the choices of birds with appealing cries, and thought I was going to have to resort to the appalling guttural noises of the ibises or the warblers—that is—until I stumbled across the falcon: 'Twee heeee heeeeeeeeee.'

When she heard my high trilling call that evening, she finally whipped her head around to look at me, and I was temporarily sated. I was stunned when she, stork-like, strode up the stairs to me on the veranda and kneeled in front of my very chair. Wordless. I examined her face as the smoke from my cigar greyed her black hair. For a brief moment her eyes lingered at my crotch, and I knew she had caught sight of my exposed penis between the folds of my robe, but I pretended not to notice. Her eyes met mine and moved into little slits and she spoke accusingly.

'Why?' She asked. 'Why? Every night.'

So I told her. I told her that I thought she was beautiful, although she was rather odd looking with big purplish eyes and stains of freckle on her cheeks. I told her that I was a lonely, divorced insurance salesman, who hadn't had to cash out on a funeral in months, and that I was just trying to have some innocent fun now that my wife had left me. I told her all sorts of things, my tongue loosened by the whiskey, and she listened while her eyes blinked and sparkled with the last of the light on the horizon. While I talked, a breeze came up and pelted her white face with red and pink geranium petals, and I felt deeply for her innocence and defiance, but was not in love.

So, she stopped at my stoop every evening for the rest of the summer. Mostly I would entertain her because she was painfully quiet and expectant. I brought my old guitar out and she hummed along to awful renditions of some folk songs I remembered from the sixties. If I was not in the mood to play, I brought out my tape player and we listened to music in silence, sometimes Wagner, sometimes Vivaldi. We ate cheese and crackers, ice cream. On Fridays she brought wine. She smoked away her cigarettes and I puffed a pipe. We didn't speak much because we had nothing to say. June and July were calm months for us: the silent partners.

I fell in love with her on a Tuesday in the first week of August. By then the nights had begun to sting our legs with frost, and I had had to lounge in pants and a sweater instead of my robe. We drank tea then at night instead of wine so that we could keep warm. That cold summer was dying and just as the last of another golden August day had slipped away, she opened her rusty mouth and told me a story.

'I once knew a man quite like you. His name was Sean and he had long hair that I used to comb out for him before bed. We met on the passenger train to the city, and after we had talked for a while, we realized that we were both from this village and that we lived very close to one another. He hadn't forgotten me by the time we'd returned from the city so he telephoned me and invited me over to this very bungalow, and after that evening we spent the rest of the summer together. In the afternoons I would put a red and white striped bathing suit on underneath my clothes, and he would change into his swimming trunks and we would walk to the quarry at the edge of town for a swim. He called me an ugly duckling, but kissed me and touched me underneath that tepid quarry water like I was a swan. That summer was the hottest one on record, and by the end of each of its days we could be found at the edge of the quarry on beach towels, the two of us staring into the grey misted horizon longing for the next day so that we could spend it together.

In the evening and throughout the night, he and I would sit here on this stoop, much like you and I have done this year, but with more talk. He said that my face was beautiful by the moonlight, which is one of the worst insults a woman can hear. He told me of all the countries in the world, although he had never left this one. He told me what the sun setting in Japan looked like, even though he had only seen the sun rise over wheat fields in this valley. He told me stories of his youth and about the animals he kept on his farm. He told me what an animal sounds like when it dies, about the smell of slaughter, and about the birds that flock to the carrion of dead cows, pecking at each other furiously so that they might taste just one more morsel of death.

A falcon is a scavenger. You probably thought it was some powerful majestic creature, but it is a scavenger. When it makes that call that you sang to me to catch my attention in June, it is signifying to the other falcons that it has found something dead that they might all feed upon.'

At this point she began to cough like an elderly man with emphysema and in a fit of twitches she dropped her cigarette to the thin layer of astroturf on the veranda. When she had finished her choking she looked at me with glazed, strained eyes, and I took her up into my arms and carried her to my bed. And well, you know what happened next."

Cary stopped his story at this abrupt moment, and his friends looked at him with dark searching eyes. They wanted to hear the details of the sex that he had had with the woman but they knew from experience that he wasn't the type to kiss and tell.

"So, then what?' said one of the men.

"Well, she left the next morning and I never saw her again. She must have been riddled with cancer then though; she died from it a year later. I'm glad I didn't sell her a plan."


Other works by Sheila O'Brien:

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©2006 Penniless Press