Thursday, May 13, 2010
To Really Kill a Mocking Bird
Upon arriving home from school, I would change from my white polo shirt and khaki pants into some number clad, brightly colored jersey and the next two hours were spent in the front yard in the heroic sports world of an underdeveloped kid with little coordination and a lot of imagination.
Summers, wearing a white Kansas City, George Brett jersey with the word Royals swathed across the front, with a light weight metal bat, I would hit baseballs from the red brick sidewalk that ran across the front of my family home across the street into our neighbor’s yard, desperate to resemble my favorite player.
Occasionally I would really get hold of a ball and send it flying but for the most part, I would pretend that my high bouncing, self-pitched slugs were game-winning RBI’s, barely screaming between third and short into the outfield. Perhaps I would pop up a sacrifice fly so high and short that I could drop my bat and in a few quick strides, catch the pop-up myself. I found forced gratification in this because in this scenario, I had the option of snagging the game winning out, or I could see myself as a martyr, having unselfishly hit game winning sacrifice fly allowing the runner on third to tag up and then score. The imagination was a great thing when you sucked at sports, as long as you were playing alone.
In winters bats and baseballs were traded out for footballs, and of all things I imagined myself as a place kicker, kicking a field goal in the final seconds of the Orange Bowl, or whatever Bowl the OU Sooners were playing in. A similar seasonal barter would take place during basketball season and then there were also filler activities. There was a roller hockey phase, skateboarding phase, and a bicycle phase where I envisioned myself as winning the Tour D’ France, certain that I was moving so fast that at times, people wouldn’t even see me coming, instead only feeling the debree stirring swoosh of my wake.
And then there was the BB gun….
While most men in Oklahoma shot birds, my dad looked at them. He was a bird watcher or if you want to go with the less passive and preferred title, he was a “birder.” Our backyard was adorned with a multitude of different birdfeeders. They varied in size and seed according to what birds were migrating at any given point in time and depending on the season there could be upwards of ten to fifteen species of colorful birds musically dining on millet or sunflower seeds just outside the kitchen window.
This hobby extended into the home of my grandparents, who also had a variety of birds in their backyard. Birdfeeders did not only attract beautiful birds like cardinals and goldfinch, but also less desirable, territorial birds with grand appetites like crows and even pests like the dreaded squirrel. Where as my dad would rue them but allow them all equal opportunity to dine, my grandparents took great joy in spending evenings with a single pump daisy bb gun trying to shoot these avian pirates from the perches of the feeders.
Because the daisy bb gun was a single pump, aside from a startle, it did little damage to the impenetrable feathers of the ominous crow nor did it do anything but anger the chatty squirrels who would seek temporary refuge then return to the tree-hanging dining tube. Upon learning that the animals weren’t actually injured, though reluctant at first, I began to take joy in popping a squirrel, each hit reminding me of that false heroic sense that came with cranking the tennis ball right through the shortstop’s legs, driving in two runs.
After so many lessons, the squirrels and crows spent less and less time on the feeders, disrupting my filler sport activity. That said, I had come to morbidly enjoy the masochistic past time and soon began to seek out these pests in the tree tops of the cedars and elms surrounding our backyard.
One cloudy afternoon, my eye on the high branches of the cedar in the back corner of the yard, I spotted movement. I hurriedly made my way as close to the tree as I could, barely making out the profile of a bird. I cocked the daisy, took aim and shot. My eyes traced the bb’s curved flight from the barrel of the gun straight into the neck of the bird in the tree but instead of angrily flying off like so many times before, the bird tumbled down a couple of branches, getting stuck halfway between the tree top and the ground.
“I got it,” I thought. Where once there had been a bird, now there was not. At first I was elated to made my first kill. I looked around eager to share, locking eyes with a sparrow and a couple of cardinals with whom my victim had so frequently dined.
Everyone I knew had killed things, I assured myself as the first pangs of regret began to fire up my spine. This would put me in a category of manhood that I had longed for. No more place kicking in the front yard of fantasies about shallow pop flies. This was touchdown stuff. This was as macho as a grand slam.
Eager to see my kill, I headed to the tree but couldn’t see it. The bird was too far up. Having dealt with balls stuck in trees a million times before, I did what I knew best. I got a football l and began to throw it at the branch where the bird rested. I hit it once and it fell only to get stuck again. After several more throws, I struck it directly and it tumbled down, bouncing from limb to limb until it thud lifelessly onto the cold winter floor.
I approached it victoriously but upon arrival noticed that it wasn't dead. It was something far worse than death. Much to the bird's disdain, it had mortally wounded. I watched, encouraging it's weak effort at life as it’s wing was still flapping in a hopeless effort to escape its slayer. Not only that but instead of a crow I had hit a mocking bird. Knowing exactly what Harper Lee felt about mocking birds, not to mention my father, I knew that such an atrocity would not be without consequence.
I began to panic as it opened its beak and let out an alien croak somewhere between a cry of pain and a perturbed squawk. Up and down it’s wings flapped as I sat there fumbling together an apology, praying that like the squirrels and crows I had hit so many times before, that it would get up and fly away. At first I thought it was looking me in the eye as though to say “Look what you’ve done,” but I followed it’s eye line up into the tree where I saw what I believed to be a nest. In the nest, I immediately assumed were eggs or worse, baby chicks whose mother was clipped by a sniper in cold blood as she prepared their dinner not unlike my own mother who I could see just twenty yards away cooking dinner for me, unaware of what I had done.
The bird’s wings wouldn’t stop flapping. The frigid steal of the bb gun pulsed in my hand like a friend who had betrayed me and the branches of the trees seemed to reach for me like spindly fleshless hands. This pleasant after-school expression in masculinity had resulted in eternal damnation and I was being waved to hell with each weak flap of the mocking bird’s wings. Ordered downward towards the excruciating magna of damnation with each dwindling croak.
Finally I covered the dying mother and copier of the cries of other birds with a shingle that had blown from our roof from a springtime storm. As I did my mother called me in for dinner. Wiping my eyes, a condemned man in the eyes of the avian gods, I made my way towards the house.
My dad sat at the kitchen table. “Saw a couple of woodpeckers in the backyard earlier today,” he told me. I acknowledged with an almost inaudible and disengaged grunt as my mom brought over my plate. Wheel of Fortune played on the television as I picked at the food my mother served me, praying that a vengeful chickadee didn’t shoot her through the kitchen window. “I’d like to solve the puzzle,” said a contestant on the television as I took a spoonful of rice. “To kill a mockingbird,” he correctly stated as the crowd erupted into applause. It least that is what I heard.
As Vanna White turned the last of the letters and the contestant celebrated his victory, I indifferently chewed the last piece of bird flesh off of the chicken leg I’d been served for dinner, discarded the bone and retired to my room for the evening guiltily pondering the life that I had taken. As I lay in bed, through the wind I could hear the bird's shallow breathing. I was sure of it. With nowhere to rest but within my own black self-loathing, I began to drift off until the next morning when the first, second and third birds began to sing, each bringing the hope that somehow the mockingbird had lived, but I knew that wouldn't happen.
The next day, I put on my George Brett jersey and spent the afternoon like so many days before swinging for the fences but settling for sacrifices, imagining my life not as my own but as someone more colorful, more graceful and more talented, waiting for my mom to call me in for dinner.