By Lawrence Morgan
It wasn’t a demanding job. All he had to do was shoot off bottle-rockets to scare off the flocks of gulls and crows that scavenged the town dump. Otherwise they scattered trash into the adjacent neighborhoods, and people complained. There were no supervisors breathing down his neck and he liked the work.
He told me his first day at the dump was the toughest; he didn’t bring nearly enough KFC chicken for lunch, and there wasn’t any shade, either. He had to sit in his old Toyota with all the windows rolled down, and that let in the smell.
The gulls were the worst, in his opinion, but he admired them. They didn’t scare easy; even if the rocket whizzed right through their formation they simply swerved and shrieked before diving into a mound of some restaurant’s muck. At least the crows had the decency to stay unsettled for awhile, but it irked him that they did.
He wondered where the gulls came from, way out there in the desert. I’d never given it a thought, but I got to wondering, too. He had that effect on people.
We all knew he was wired a little tight. There was an edge to him, a kind of pinched look around the eyes that made you not want to find him behind you.
When birds started showing up dead, there was an investigation, and they brought him into the office. I was working the bulldozer at the time, pushing trash into ten-foot walls around the perimeter of the dump to make more room in the middle, and I saw him go in.
It’s not like nobody’d ever killed a bird before. The guy before him used a slingshot, and the guy before that even brought a pellet gun. No, that wasn’t it at all. Those birds were a pest, and if the SPCA hadn’t raised a fuss no one would have said a thing about it.
Problem is, there were way too many of them. No gulls, just crows. At the end of his shift you’d see dozens of them crumpled on the ground like little failed parachutes. He was altogether too accurate, and it made folks uneasy. Made them want to lock their doors at night, and this was never that kind of town.
He was in the office for maybe forty minutes, and when he came out he was pale as a cave fish. He got into his Toyota and drove off.
The dump caught fire at dawn the next morning, and all the ‘dozers and the like had to be evacuated. The fire department came out and hosed the place, but there were mounds of trash burning like oil wells, and they couldn’t put it out. The smoke was harsh, and drifted like a greasy fog with the wind. There was so much of it the school down the way was shut down and the kids sent home.
The only part that didn’t catch fire was the wet trash section, and he was right there in the middle of it at first light, shooting his rockets off into the smoke like mortars. There were no birds to scare off, but he blasted away regardless. When sparks began to rain down on him, he took a shovel and dug himself a trench in the muck, and hunkered up to his neck in it. I can’t imagine what it smelled like. The rockets kept going off like clockwork.
The police hollered through megaphones for him to come out, but he ignored them. One deputy put on a gas mask and dodged through the fires to get him, but before he’d made twenty yards, a bottle-rocket took him in the chest and scorched his shirt. He came out covered in soot-grime, shaking his head. The nylon threads in his shirt were melted to his skin, and they took him off in an ambulance.
I told the cops that I knew the rocketeer a little, and thought I could get to him in my bulldozer, and they said ok.
I cranked her up and off we went into the smoke. I could barely see the front end of the ‘dozer in the murk, but I knew my way around that dump. I felt like a UN blue-hat in some foreign land, driving over embers and derelict refrigerators on a mission of mercy.
When I got close I saw his head above the trench he’d carved in the sludge. He stared at me. His eyes were like little cherry tomatoes floating around in cups of buttermilk. He had a bucket full of KFC chicken next to him, and was chewing on a leg. He picked at a grey thread dangling from the meat and studied it, then looked back up at me.
“I damn sure must’ve ate a lot of chicken nerves,” he said, then fired a rocket at his feet.
That trench must have been packed full of rockets and dead birds. When it exploded, it shot him a good four feet into the sky in a cloud of crow feathers and smoke. He stuck his arms out sideways and flapped on the way down, but they didn’t slow him down any. He hit hard, like you might expect. I checked for a throat pulse but he was dead. That was the end of it.
I came to work the next Monday and there was a new guy on bird duty. He pointed to a flock of gulls clustered around the middle of the muck in wet trash and scratched his head.
“I can’t get those seagulls away from there,” the new guy said. “Looks like they found something they don’t want to give up.”
I watched one old gull pecking at a KFC box something fierce. It cocked an eye my way and I could swear it winked. I stayed away from wet trash forever after that.