February 28, 2015


 Nancy Lane lives in Portland, Oregon and frequently participates in a women’s writing group, “Tuesday Morning Writers.” Nancy writes short fiction and essays, focusing on good people and positive themes. 

Another story written by Nancy, "Tales Of Meander" appears in the February 2015 issue of IVJ.


As the Crows Fly

“Miss, Miss,” I turned to see if somebody was addressing me. An old man waved his hand as he looked my way.
           “You just missed the bus. The next Blue Line bus won’t come for twenty minutes. You might as well sit here out of the breeze.”
I had seen the bus pull away just as the bus I was on approached the corner. The Blue Line driver usually waits for connecting Green Line passengers. Maybe it was a new driver that day. Leaves and debris swirled around the bus stop pole. There was no bus shelter at the corner.
The early November air, refreshing as it felt, clawed chillingly at my face and hands. The old man sat on a bench, part of the shopping center landscape where a patio wall blocked the wind. A busy Starbucks dominated that end of the building. Customers lined up inside. I noticed the man behind the counter, exceptionally tall with dark, curly hair.
“Have a seat, Miss.” The old man gestured toward the opposite end of the bench, moving his backpack closer to leave more room for me. “The wind just picked up in the last ten minutes.”
“Thank you,” I said as I sat down, mindful of his personal space as well as my own. I thought to myself how wind had driven me unexpectedly to this bench occupied by a backpack emblazoned with the OSU Beavers insignia and an old man with tattered remnants of chiseled good looks, deep blue pools for eyes, a cleft chin, and a full head of thick hair, like a young man’s but white as a snowy egret. I wondered what men carry in their backpacks.
“Are you waiting for a bus?” I asked.  I thought he may be waiting for the Blue Line in the opposite direction, but then he should wait for it across the street.
“No. I’m retired,” he said. “I moved in with my daughter a couple months ago. I pass the time here ‘til evening because my daughter is at work. I like sitting here. Brody, the Starbucks manager, is my friend. He comes out on breaks, we talk. Such a nice young man. I wanted to introduce him to my daughter, but he told me he already had a girlfriend.”
I smiled, not knowing what to say, always feeling awkward with strangers. After a short pause the old man continued. I felt relieved he would carry the conversation.
“I cook dinner for us. Laura stops each night at the grocery store and gets our dinner. We eat big or small depending on her tips. One night we had steaks. I cooked them perfectly. One week business was slow, and we had top ramen all week.” He looked down. I thought maybe he felt embarrassed to admit the meager meals.
“Where does your daughter work?” A good conversational question I thought.
“She works at the café in the mall, a six hour shift. The boss won’t give her full-time. So at the end of her waitress shift, she works four hours at a kiosk selling phone cases. Not such great work for a woman with a degree in International Logistics.” He shook his head.
“Times are tough.” I said.  “The economy is so bad. I’ve read how educated people can’t get work in their field of study.”
“International Logistics, it seemed right at the time,” he offered. “My daughter stopped in after classes – that’s when we lived apart. We drank coffee at my kitchen table, and she explained what the professors said. The economy and national security - so intertwined.” The old man put his hands together and interlaced his fingers. He continued, “Our personal lives a microcosm of the nation, and the world too. I didn’t understand everything Laura studied. But I do know ‘bout economics and security. In desperate times, no one can feel safe.”
He regarded my reaction, which was no reaction. Small talk is supposed to be small, with little handles for us to grab and chime in with an appropriate, but light response. I had nothing to offer.
A crow cawed above our heads, as if announcing he was on his way somewhere. “Do you know where the crows go at night?” the old man asked me.
Now that’s small talk I thought. “I never see them at night, or any birds. I assume they all roost in trees at night.” I smiled, appreciative of uncomplicated discussion. He was looking up at the sky as many crows flew over, a few here and there and lone crows, all headed in the same general direction.
“I’ve never seen any birds in trees at night. Have you?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t. They must stay well hidden,” I offered.
“I think you are right. I’ve read that crows roost in large numbers for safety. But they don’t roost in just any tree. They congregate in areas, and then an hour or two before dark they all travel to the one big spot where they feel safe from predators, you know - owls and people. The roosting trees would be away from people, but not out of town. It’s warmer in town than in outlying areas and probably safer too because of laws against shooting in the city.”
“Do the crows know all that?” I asked, truly inquisitive.
“I’ve read crows are smart, and studies have shown over time they’ve chosen to roost in urban areas.” He nodded with an air of authority as he spoke.
I looked at my watch and at the bus stop where a few riders had congregated. I didn’t expect the bus for another ten minutes, but I glanced over just in case it was near. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I continued our crow discourse. “I have seen that congregating behavior you mentioned, and yes, they do seem to pick a time near dusk to all head in one direction.”
“Yep, the crows and the homeless people all start moving right about this time. I watch them before I leave here. The homeless find safety at night by staying out of sight, away from hooligans who might harm them and police who might harass them.” The old man seemed antsy, looking over his shoulder into the Starbucks store where the store manager seemed busier than ever, with so many customers in line and only one other employee helping him get out the lattes and brewed coffee, coffee cakes and scones.
The old man had made a switch. We had been talking about crows. Now he had mentioned homeless people. His blue eyes suddenly seemed paler, almost gray. Must be the diminishing sunlight I thought. He continued, “You might think you can tell a homeless person, maybe by his clothes or by his dirty hair or beard. But the real way to spot the homeless is to look at who is moving along with others at this time. Go ahead - look at who’s moving right now.” He swept his hand out, palm open, to indicate the scene in front of us: the sidewalk near us, the street with pedestrians crossing, the sidewalk on the other side of the street, the street corner.
I looked and saw: a young man with a worn backpack, his jeans frayed at the bottom where they overlapped his sneaker-styled shoes; an old man with long hair and beard, wearing stained sweat pants and a plaid shirt too large for his diminutive frame; a middle-aged couple, he with a backpack burdened with heavy, unseen possessions and she with a small, bulging tote, the kind people take to the grocery store to save trees and keep plastic bags out of the landfills. All these obviously homeless souls moved as one, like ferrous particles pulled by an unseen magnet.
Then I stared in disbelief. It was as if I watched a special effects movie scene in which most people remained in place while others moved in slow motion, quiet desperation etched in their expression and body language. Some looked like anyone or everyone, except they projected dashed hope and moved in sync with others in the nightly roosting ritual.
I turned back toward the old man; but he was not there, and his backpack was gone. I looked up and down the street, both sides of the intersection and into the large windows of Starbucks. I felt certain I would pick out his snowcap hair among those in motion. But I didn’t see the old man. The crowd at Starbucks had diminished. People sat at the tables, but there was no line at the counter.
The Starbucks manager, in corporate-green apron, came hurrying out with a brown paper sack. “Ma’am, I saw you talking with Jesse. Where did he go?” the young manager asked as he looked in all directions.
“I don’t know. He disappeared quickly. He must have hurried home to cook dinner for his daughter,” I replied.
“Please, Ma’am, come inside. Have a coffee or latte on me, and I’ll tell you about Jesse,” coaxed the young manager.
The Blue Line bus was pulling in where queued passengers waited, likely anxious to get home after work or school this brisk November evening as the sky darkened slowly. I could linger here another twenty minutes because no one waited for me at home. “Thank you. Black coffee would be fine,” I replied.
Brody introduced himself, and I told him my name. We sat at a corner table as the evening assistant, just starting her shift, relieved Brody behind the counter. The hot coffee he pushed toward me was steaming. I was happy to wait for the coffee to cool while Brody enlightened me about his friend Jesse.
“Jesse doesn’t have a daughter any more. She was killed.”
“He told me he was going home to cook her dinner,” I said, wondering why the old man had lied.
“He still speaks as if she’s alive. She died two weeks ago. Jesse’s still trying to accept what happened. It’s really hard for him.”   
“How did she die?”
“You saw on the news about the shooting in the mall – three killed and many wounded. Jesse’s daughter was shot dead. He went home that afternoon and found a note from the police on the apartment door. They asked him to come to the police station. That’s where they told him what had happened.”
“How sad,” I remarked. “I remember the shooting. My workplace is near the mall. I heard sirens all that afternoon. Jesse must feel so lonely now without his daughter.”
“That’s not the end of the tragedy,” Brody added.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Jesse moved in with his daughter about two months ago because he lost his pension,” Brody replied. “He had worked many years for a county in California as a maintenance supervisor. He didn’t pay into Social Security. He paid into the pension for county employees. The county went broke and filed bankruptcy. Jesse stopped getting his check. He had little money saved after he paid his late wife’s medical bills. He gave what he had left to Laura so she could pay off student loans. They lived month to month on what she made at the mall. The rent came due after Laura died, and Jesse had no money.”
“What’s he going to do?” I asked.
“Well, he’s homeless now,” Brody explained. “Tonight’s his second night outside. Yesterday when he told me he had to get out of the apartment, I called my girlfriend and asked her to bring over my old backpack so he could take a few belongings and maybe some mementoes of Laura from the apartment.”
“Do you think he will find a job?” I asked.
Brody looked a bit taken aback at my question. I wished immediately I hadn’t asked.
“The man is seventy-six. He’s been out of the workforce for over ten years. No one is going to hire him,” Brody explained quietly and then continued, “Yesterday I gave him one of the lunch sandwiches to take with him. I packed two tonight, so I’m disappointed he left without them.”
“May I take the sandwiches with me?” I asked. Brody looked puzzled by my request. “No, I don’t mean for me. When I get off the bus near work each morning I see a girl standing with a sign. It says she’s hungry. People always say don’t give money to the homeless, that it’s better to give to charities that help the homeless. I would like to give her your sandwiches tomorrow morning.”
“Sure, take them,” Brody smiled in agreement.
I gave the sandwiches to the girl the next morning, and for two weeks I packed a bag for her each day. Then she stopped showing up. November was winding toward Thanksgiving. Frost and sometimes ice crackled underfoot as I stepped out of the bus in the morning. The days were shorter, dark and cold until late in the morning and dark and cold earlier in the afternoon as well. Compressed days compromised the balance between foraging for survival (economics) and roosting for safety (security). Perhaps the hungry girl panhandled at a later hour, after the sluggish sun slowly warmed away icy sidewalk surfaces.
Each day as I passed Starbucks when making my bus connection, I looked for Jesse and didn’t see him. I stopped in and talked to Brody one day. He confirmed Jesse had not returned. He said he heard the police had raided a homeless camp by the library and had taken away all tents, sleeping bags, and blankets the homeless were using.
November winds undress the trees and sweep away all that is vibrant, scouring down to the land’s dormant base. November winds sweep most of us into our homes where we keep the heater turned on or a log aflame in the fireplace. Workday people turn up their collars and hurry from bus stop to building in the morning and from building to bus stop at that scurry time of day, when crows struggle against the wind to fly their courses.
In the hazy glow of weak sunlight at lunch hour, I sit at my desk in my second floor downtown office and watch out the window while I eat a sandwich or bowl of top ramen heated in the microwave. I watch the crows as they forage for survival. In the dark days of shortened possibilities, they dive to pluck the eyes of a freshly flattened squirrel in the road or to pick apart a discarded fast food bag at the curb and pull out a last French fried potato. And too, I watch the homeless reach into trash receptacles to retrieve something half eaten and thrown away.
November winds assemble ad hoc collections. Discarded papers partner in a frenzied dance with leaves, twigs, bottle caps, and plastic bags.  Somewhere an old man with tattered remnants of chiseled good looks travels with broken dreams, a college backpack, and memories of a daughter who loved him and whom he loved. I’ve added Jesse to my prayer list. Each night I ask God to help Jesse and keep him safe.
~Nancy Lane

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