By: Leon Kortenkamp
Pigeons and Prognostications in the Time of the Virus
They toss breadcrumbs like gods dispensing blessings from on high. The pigeons dart after each carefully placed crumb, the lucky ones running up the sidewalk or onto the grass to eat their pickings where the others can’t snatch it away.
“There’s our Wingman coming your way,” Wally says. “Give him a big crumb. Poor bastard, going through life with a bad wing. I think he counts on us to keep him alive.”
“You know, Ben, what if there weren’t no pigeons? What would we feed every morning if there weren’t no pigeons?”
“There will always be pigeons. Long after we’re gone there will still be pigeons.”
“I’m not so sure about that – if we didn’t feed them where would they be?”
Wally tosses a breadcrumb to the far side of the sidewalk. “What do you think about this coroner virus thing,” he asks?
“Yeah, the thing everybody is talking about on TV.”
“I hear it’s pretty nasty.”
“Nasty? It’s killing people all over the world, and now it’s here. It kills mostly old people. That’s us, Ben.”
A chilly breeze blows across the street and into the park, and Wally pulls down the brim of his hat and draws his coat tighter across his chest. A flier caught in the wind dances through the pigeons, and Ben stops it under his foot. A free chamber concert – in three days. He folds it and puts it in his coat pocket. “You’re right,” he says. “What’s going on in Italy is frightening.”
“Yeah, I’m worried about it. I think it’s coming; so does Julie. People get ah…ah…ammonia, and die.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“It’s a new kind of pneumonia. And the doctors don’t have any drugs for it.”
“Yeah, I heard that. Did you see the pictures of it on TV? Little gray balls with red protrusions poking out all around.” Wally touches his fingertips together, his hands suggesting the shape of a ball. “I think it’s the red protrusions that get you.”
“Could be those protrusions,” Ben agrees, savoring the word with a furtive glance up the sidewalk.
“Well, I’m going to watch out for it,” Wally says, throwing his last crumb in the midst of the pigeons, causing a major wing-flapping commotion. “They say if you keep your distance from anybody who has it, you probably won’t get it. They’re talking about shutting down the whole city to keep it from spreading. Closing restaurants, stores and even churches. You know when they start closing churches things are bad.”
“Well, if the coronavirus doesn’t get you something else will.”
“What do you mean by that?” Wally asks, pulling his coat collar tighter around his neck.
“Nothing. You got any more bread?”
“No, I’m out. Didn’t you bring any?”
The pigeons push in close, pecking at the sidewalk near Ben’s feet and doing quick little spins in place to get his attention.
“No. I had some slices put aside, but I forgot to bring them.”
“Where would you be without me?” Wally asks. “Where would the pigeons be without me?”
“We’d all be out of luck without you,” Ben says, pushing off the bench, stretching and twisting from side to side. “What do you say we head over to Sandy’s for a hot cup of coffee?”
“Good idea…Before they close her down,” Wally says, tugging the brim of his hat.
“God, don’t even say that.”
Their footfalls on the sidewalk set an unsteady cadence for the entourage of pigeons following them, pecking at the sidewalk and hoping to extend the feeding time.
“It’s coming, Ben. Life in the city is going to get rough. Last night, Julie and I were talking about getting out before things get really bad. I told her we should cash it all in and buy a coffee plantation somewhere. Coffee plants, fresh air, no coroner virus, parrots flying around. No more catching buses, no more ambulance sirens in the night. Think of it. That would be the life.”
“Not for me,” Ben says. “Sounds too much like work. I like Sandy’s. You walk in, sit down, and she pours you a hot cup of coffee. That’s the full extent of my fantasies about coffee.”
“You have no imagination.”
“Could be. But believe me, you don’t really want to run a coffee plantation in a third world country.” There’s an edge to Ben’s voice. “What you want is serenity, and you think you would find it on the slopes of a coffee plantation…Walk in the park. Feed the pigeons. Be good to Julie. Have a cup of coffee at Sandy’s. Take a nap. Read the funnies in the Times. Have a glass of wine with dinner, go to temple if you are worried about something and get a good night’s sleep. There’s serenity.”
“I don’t know,” Wally shakes his head. “Sometimes I want something more…something bigger.”
“Most of the time bigger is an illusion,” Ben says. “A lot of marketing hype, and ego candy. Whether it’s here in the City or on a coffee plantation in the heart of nowhere…it’s doing worthwhile little things to help other people that counts. My time in the Peace Corps taught me that…Sometimes generous people get together, and a lot of worthwhile little things cluster up to amount to something bigger, and that’s good. But in the end, it’s still about people doing worthwhile little things on their own or together. That’s what it’s all about.”
“Maybe,” Wally says in stilted concession. “I’m probably too old to start something new anyway. So, are you just going to stay here when the virus comes to the neighborhood? It’s coming you know.”
“I don’t have any place else to go,” Ben says, studying the familiar sidewalk passing under their feet. “Besides, if I did go somewhere, you would be on your own looking after the pigeons?”
“Yeah… I guess you’re right…I’ll ask Sandy if she has any slices of old bread we can give them on our way back.”
“Good idea…Worthwhile little things, Wally.”
Leon Kortenkamp is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and artist who lives with his wife, Ginny, in Belmont, California. He was drafted into service in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. Following his military tour of duty, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
His work has been exhibited, published and collected throughout the United States and around the world. Recent writing includes short fiction illustrated with brushed-plate monotypes or photographs.
He grew up in rural Iowa, and memories of those formative years are often reflected in his work. It is from this perspective that he examines the vicissitudes of contemporary urban life.
He is a professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, an environmental activist, an advocate for honesty and justice in politics, and a lifelong supporter of the humanitarian aid work of Doctors Without Borders and Catholic Relief Services around the world.