K. Marvin Bruce
“The Canada goose poses a severe nuisance to our beloved university and community,” Professor Allan shouts with specks of spittle backlit off the intense lumens of the projection screen. “Breck University has a proud tradition of a well-groomed campus where one should not be concerned about watching one’s feet. Their droppings are not only unsightly, but also unsanitary. They form a disease vector and should be strictly controlled.” He is pounding the podium now, in the reflected light of the two-story goose projected behind him.
“Do you mean murdered?” a long-haired, bearded student objects.
“Controlled,” the vexed professor retorts.
“You want to assassinate geese?” a coed with bouncy yellow hair asks. “Last semester a goose had her nest under a tree on campus, and when she couldn’t leave her eggs we brought her water and breadsticks from Sbarro. Now you want us to kill her babies?”
“Listen! The Canada goose has become acculturated — too used to human beings. This is not good for the geese nor is it beneficial to us. Nature works best when species are kept in balance.” Professor Allan is sweating now in the hot light of the projector, a huge goose foot covering his whole face.
“We learn to seek mutually profitable solutions to international relations in poli sci, and you are suggesting we kill off another species in a preemptive strike! Like she said,” the young man indicates the blonde with an approving smile, “we went out of our way to help mother goose last year and this semester you want to slaughter her goslings.”
“Besides, the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918 classifies them as a protected species,” another student interjects. The remarks are coming on fast now. Professor Allan looks like he ate something bad for lunch.
And so it goes on for some time. Public lecture series may not receive Academy Award nominations, but one of the few perks in the life of an adjunct instructor is the free entertainment. Then it is off to the classroom again.
“How many hours a week do you spend driving?” Dr. Patel asks me, his coppery-brown skin emphasizing the whiteness of his curious eyes. We exchange war stories whenever we cross paths in the classroom. He’s packing up his laptop, while I’m setting mine up.
“About ten this semester,” I reply. I always look forward to our conspiratorial conversation between classes. It makes me feel like I’m in a private faculty meeting. A professor who actually teaches is also an endangered species. He’s off at five p.m., but I’m just getting started.
“That’s too much,” he shakes his head. “The university can’t survive without adjuncts. When I was a student there was no such position.”
“It must be one of those job descriptions that pops up like a musty-smelling toadstool in the shadow of a long recession,” I muse. Smithing words amuses me. Free entertainment. But words get me into trouble too. And gestures.
This semester I’m double-dipping at Breck and Greathouse State. The campuses are a mere seventy miles apart, and my Beetle gets reasonable mileage. I need to get that sound from the rear of the car checked out, however. Adjunct life requires a healthy set of wheels above all else.
This evening my meal on wheels is supper on the way to Breck. I got a good start, so I’ll have the luxury of eating after I’ve parked on campus.
Breck University offers ample parking for adjuncts. The administration long ago realized that if we part-timers refused to do our teaching-for-treats tricks they’d be up a very famous creek with no means of locomotion.
The final brown leaves have fled the dying trees. The Canada geese we’d been lectured about — the pigeons of the new millennium — are everywhere. Vast flocks of them cross the skies just about all year long as the late winter flank heading south wings past the early summer flank flying north. Thousands of birds.
I snag a parking spot facing the surreal green of outer campus. The lush lawn looks like the Garden of Eden. As I pull up the handbrake with its familiar ratcheting noise, I notice a single Canada goose. It stands stock-still maybe a dozen feet in front of my bumper. Numbers aren’t my strong suit, but this bird looks disproportionately large to me.
I know that geese can reach fourteen pounds and have strong wings and uncompromising beaks — I paid attention to the public lecture. This one seems larger by at least one or two orders of magnitude. Unnerved when its tar-black eye fixes its unblinking gaze on me, I’m now glad the windows are rolled up.
I finger-wrestle my textured-soy sandwich from its fold-lock-top baggie — cheaper than ziplocks — and take a contemplative bite. The huge goose turns its beak my way, meaning that it is looking off to its sides, not at me. Illogical relief floods in. From this front angle I notice that it has distinctive white stripe down the center of its black face. Despite my lack of formal science training, I have always been a careful observer of nature. I notice things.
Canada geese thrive on their anonymity. Prey animals rely on natural uniformity to confuse predators. Since we’ve wiped out the wolves and cougars that would have kept goose populations down, we have opened a new lease on overpopulation to our feathered friends, and mutants can survive. Stand out even. As it steps nearer my bug, I involuntarily flinch, but I notice that the stripe forms a rough cross shape. Great. A Christian goose.
He moves slowly. Automatically I think “he,” but I am clueless how to tell the difference. It must be his size. Guys and size; it’s a tired trope, but somehow appropriate in this case. After taking a solemn step closer, he stops and turns his Bible-black eye on me again. Perhaps he wants my sandwich — birds are always looking for handouts. My imagination begins to run wild. A goose this large poking his head inside my car window — and what would it try to grab after that? My supper is on my lap. That’s not where I want him looking.
I impotently fling out my arms in the universal shooing gesture. Undeterred, the goose continues its slow approach, not ducking his head to nibble at the grass, the way geese generally do. I sense menace in this animal, affirmed by its peculiar behavior. Sure, Canada geese are habituated, but they’re generally herbivores, so what’s the problem? I shove the last of my sandwich into my mouth and decide to skip the chips. Lays. No one can eat just one. Might push my uninvited companion over the edge.
Taking his time, the fowl stops and turns his coal-black eye toward me once again. A goose that stares.
He is now at my front bumper. His head seems to be on a level with mine. It is a very large head. Suddenly he gives an exploratory peck at the hood of my car. Startled by the swift movement, I drop my pear onto the dirty floorboards. A single sandwich won’t hold me until nine o’clock when class is over, so I duck down and feel around in the antiquarian, accumulated floor grit until my fingers close around the errant fruit. A Bosc pear. My favorite dessert. Pears taste like lilies smell.
Wriggling like an aged Mummenschanz, I wedge back into a sitting position to find the goose standing at the passenger window, its unwholesome black eye regarding me with a sinister aspect. The fact that the bird is so large is itself enough to unsettle me, but this unnatural behavior is growing intense. Whatever happened to the healthy, innate fear of humans? Our hard-won superiority? A jittery shudder has settled between my shoulder blades. Glancing around, I see no one else in this remote parking lot. I tap the subdued, meeping horn to shoo the bird away, but in response he brays a strident honk, as if challenging my little car to a duel, waggling his head up and down in a fencer’s riposte.
I worry that I will be late for class. My overstuffed canvas briefcase sits contentedly on the passenger seat. It is heavy and unwieldy; so heavy that I have to buckle it in to get the idiot light to go off. Usually I have to climb out first and draw it out through the passenger door. Attempting to pull it over me and then dislodging us both from between the driver’s seat and steering wheel is a clown’s routine that sometimes lands me on my indignant backside outside. Pratfalls are fine and good, but only if there are no students to see them. Or geese.
Adjuncts have to carry their environment with them. We’re worse than infants in that regard. At least I don’t have to haul my projector to Breck this semester. The classrooms are smart. Smarter than me, most of the time. The laptop, however, goes wherever I do, my backup brain. I can’t teach class without it.
Gray clouds have started to creep over the late afternoon sun. The sudden lack of light reminds me of the Cardinal Fowler incident. I forcefully thrust the thought from my head — I’ve got to get past this transgressive goose and into my classroom.
The goose is at my right rear quarter-panel now, pecking belligerently at my tire. I’m glad it has a rounded beak rather than a pointed one. I decide to make a bold stand. Reassert human superiority. Grasping my briefcase, I slip my left fingers through the door release, take a breath and count to three. In an acrobatic roll, I tug the fat briefcase after me and land on my feet facing the rear of my Beetle. Elated at my stylish escape, I shove the door closed and back away, pressing the remote door lock. The huge goose has wandered to the driver’s side, his head high enough to drive the car. His manner is aggressive and wild, and I really don’t know what damage a mad goose can do.
As I back off, I realize with a sinking feeling that I forgot to place my hangtag on the rearview mirror. Although generous with parking, Breck University is equally generous with parking tickets. It is the most unforgiving university in the state. With my meager salary we really can’t afford unexpected fines. The goose fans his massive wings next to the driver’s door and hisses angrily. I continue to back away, wondering how I will explain this to Britta when I get home. She’s not afraid of anything. Except poverty.
Darkness has settled over campus by the time my classes are over. I had to stifle several yawns during my own lectures, drawing them out to expanded vowels so as not to encourage student desertion or imitation. I try to keep them as interested as Eliot will allow. The goose nearly forgotten, I see from a distance that my car is unguarded. Ticketed, but goose-free. I climb in and fire her up. That peculiar rattling in the back begins as I shove the Beetle into reverse and creep out of my spot. A glance toward the front to ensure myself of clearance from the next car and I see with a shudder a huge goose nested down in the unmown grass near an ornamental tree, its black eye firmly on me.
I decide not to tell Britta about the goose. She already believes me half insane after the Cardinal Fowler episode. I’ll take the blame for the ticket. “Sorry about the expense, I just spaced as I went off to class.”
“We’ll make do,” she frowns looking at the offending paper. She’s had to take on a thankless full-time job at Wal-Mart to cope with the rent. “Just try to be more careful.”
“That’s the first and last time it will happen,” I assure her. “I never waste money.”
“What about the noise you said the car was making? Shouldn’t you take it to the dealer?”
“Dealers charge too much. There’s a sign in the service office declaring that ‘auto technicians’ now charge $120 per hour! That doesn’t include diagnostics and parts. There’s a guy out on Lovecraft Drive that works on VW’s. I’ll give him a call.”
“I liked Beetles better when the engine was in the back. I love that putt-putt sound they made. Who ever heard of a Beetle with a trunk in the rear?”
“Well, that’s the way they make them now. And only a specialist can fix them. Regular garage can’t even change the headlights. I’ll give Henry Proctor’s a call tomorrow.”
“After Greathouse,” she reminds me. Not a bad idea; with different schools on different days, I sometimes forget.
“After Greathouse,” I confirm. Tomorrow is my long commute.
We’re lying in bed, each lost in our own thoughts. I never promised Britta the moon, but I thought I might have something better than this to offer. Who plans on ending up as an adjunct instructor? Loving literature is a crime against society. In the darkness outside I hear the flapping of massive wings and a powerful honking in the night.
This morning I am groggy, but I get a good start. I kiss Britta goodbye and step into the lingering darkness. Dawn breaks on a gray morning by the time I reach Greathouse.
Grebe Lot is already filling up, but there’s a spot over there at the tree-line. Thankful for small mercies, I quickly pull into the last space. Before I forget, I fish out the correct hangtag and slip it over the rear-view mirror stem. Legal this time. About to pop open the door, I do a double-take through the windshield. A Canada goose by the trees. A large Canada goose. “Nah,” I assure myself. “Impossible. It must be just another big goose.” I look around with the sinking feeling that so close to class time, no one is lingering around the lot. The other cars are empty. A strange silence pervades this vehicular wasteland. Not a breath of wind. The clouds are oppressively low.
The goose is in profile, and I quickly reason that I’d just never noticed how large geese could be, close up. The solitary fowl begins to waddle nearer my car. Its face turns straight toward me — that white cross is evident, even from this distance. The goose has followed me? Impossible! Nevertheless, the thought of this bird waiting outside our apartment all night is distinctly unsettling. Not to mention the thought of the mess.
Birds are excellent navigators, I’m sure, but from Breck to Greathouse? Why these two universities? Why on the days I teach at them? Why specifically in front of my car? The coincidence races beyond uncanny into threatening. The look in its avian eye is malevolent as it slowly stalks toward the Beetle.
The passenger seat is shared by my heavy briefcase and bulky projector bag. I need both for class this morning, and if I hesitate, I will be late. The fiendish goose is definitely approaching my car. I decide to run for it; the goose didn’t follow me last night. Fumbling the keys out of the ignition, I swing the door open as quickly as I can and scramble out, grazing the top of my head on the door-frame. A second later the rasping pain hits, but I shove the door shut and round the trunk, eager to open the passenger’s door between this crazed goose and me. Smoothing my rumpled hair, soothing the slow ache, I snatch the straps for briefcase and projector, and haul out the ponderous bags, careful not to bump the car next to me. I slam the door and am relieved to see the goose is not behind it. I turn to cross the lot. A flash of lightning. An ominous peal of thunder. A black, webbed footsteps from behind the trunk, followed by a large, black head on a snaky neck. Opening its beak wide, the lone goose releases a terrible din above the echoing thunder.
I back away to the front of the car and duck down to slip furtively along the front line of vehicles, out of his line of sight. At the edge of the lot, I continue my crouch, waddling like a proverbial penguin with the projector in one hand and briefcase in the other. Infernal honking punctuates the strange silence. Innocent bird calls to any but me. A cold rain begins to fall, drowning out the sound of its beak pecking at my weathered finish.
My lecture on Wuthering Heights emphasizes the ghostly a little too much this dank morning. The spirit of Cathy seems to be covered in down in my mind.
After class, I walk to Ecology and Natural Resources. Science buildings feel like an alien universe to those of us in the humanities. Steinen Hall smells like chemicals when you step inside. Serious and potentially lethal. What goes on here can impact lives in immediate and direct ways, deconstructionism be damned.
I’m not sure who it is I’m looking for. A faculty member who’s in his office, I guess. On the third floor I find crowded signs indicating I’ve crossed into Ecology. A door stands open to my left. Dr. Altamira, the sign announces. Tentatively I knock on the doorframe.
“Come in,” a female voice startles me. I’m no sexist, but I always think of scientists as men.
“Dr. Altamira?” I ask, submissive. Scientists intimidate me. Actually, anyone who has a full-time position earns my awe. They must know something I don’t.
“Yes. Can I help you?” A middle-aged woman, unexpectedly attractive, looks at me from over the top of a cheap Dell monitor. The drunken E canted upward on the back looks juvenile and superfluous in this heady environment.
“Maybe. I’m actually an adjunct with the English Department.” I introduce myself and explain I have a question about animal behavior.
“I might be able to answer some of your questions. The real specialist on marine fowl is Dr. Tannenbaum, but I have studied animal behavior over the years.” Her eyes are deep brown and curious. Her hair is black and thick, pulled into a ponytail that hangs back over her white lab coat, making her look like a coed. I am thinking how fun it might be if I were a specimen to be studied.
“Have geese been known to follow a person?”
“Do you mean imprinting? Like in the film, The Man Who Walked with Geese? Like most animal young, geese are susceptible to imprinting. They will follow a person if they believe that human to be their protector. Do you have a nest in your yard?” The question pierces me with a sudden, inexplicable fear.
“No, no. Nothing like that. I was wondering if adult geese sometimes just follow people.”
“They are thoroughly habituated. It doesn’t help that people feed them — a frequent problem on college campuses. Geese can eventually become quite aggressive.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
“How dangerous are they?”
“They can pinch pretty hard when they bite. Their wings are powerful, but they require them to fly. I’ve never read of a goose risking flight to get a few table scrapes or a Twinkie.” She winks at me. “They don’t carry concealed weapons.”
I laugh off her joke at my own expense. “Would an adult goose ever target a specific individual?”
Dr. Altamira lets out a genuine chortle. “It is about as likely for one of them to recognize one of us as it would be for one of us to recognize one of them. They do not have the upper-level brain functionality to distinguish individual humans. We all look alike to them. We’re walking food banks.”
Knowing I’ll regret it, I press on. “Could they be trained to attack someone?” I am a twelve-year-old boy with a crush on his teacher, but who hasn’t read his homework.
“Goose assassins?” Her stunned face, beautiful and intelligent, breaks slowly into a smile. A smile that quickly turns strained. She’s probably trying to remember the number for campus security. Just like at the Cardinal Fowler episode. I thank her for her time and slink out with my dignity between my legs. I try to convince myself. I am not being stalked by a bird.
The long drive home has become so familiar as to be annoying. The same stretch of highway with the same innocuous interstate scenery. I occasionally lean forward and glance through the smeary windshield into the sky above me, wondering if I’m being followed. More worrisome at that moment is the unexplained rattling that comes from the back. What if I break down fifty miles from home? I make a mental note to call the mechanic out on Lovecraft Drive as soon as I get home.
“How about four p.m. Friday?” he asks. “I should be able to get it done by six.”
Tomorrow’s my Breck day, so it must be Tuesday or Thursday. I’ve been there already this week, so tomorrow is Thursday. “You can’t get it done tomorrow?”
“Not if you need it back by five. Sorry, but I’m swamped at the moment.”
“That’s okay. Friday at four, then.”
Night begins to settle in. I can’t relax until Britta is home, so I nervously begin to pull some supper together. For some reason an omelet sounds good. I pull out the textured cardboard egg carton. The sun has dipped below the garage roof to the west, casting an ominous shadow across the drive. The architect designed this house with its detached garage modeled on an old-fashioned carriage house.
That eerie span between house and garage casts an unhealthy aspect over the back yard. Maybe it’s the diseased look of the gnarled trees, or the many shadowy places that would easily shield an intruder from view. Maybe it’s gothic defiance of the antiquated garage design or the sickly grass that overhangs the edges of the gravel drive. When I have to pull the car in at night, I always feel eyes on me.
I pull out a green pepper and onion. I think I hear a flock of geese honking as they fly north over the house. The sound sends a shiver down my spine as I pull open the knife drawer and search for an implement really too big for the vegetables before me. The ticking of the clock is too loud. I glance at it. After seven already. I crack the first egg. A loud flapping of wings pulls my gaze back to the window. Nothing. I stare into air as gray as the ocean, deeply shadowed with irregular patches of blackness. What’s that sound?
The familiar grumble of the Falcon motor. Relief floods over me. I realize that I’ve been sweating, despite the chilly evening. Anxiously I watch in the twilight as Britta pulls the car in and laboriously makes several k-turns to get it facing the right direction to leave the next morning. Unaware of what’s been happening, she swings the door wide open, not seeing the huge goose that suddenly darts its head from the open garage door. I shout, but the storm windows are already down, insulating the sound.
I snatch up the large knife and head to the back door, pure emotion, no thought of consequences. I turn the brass knob and swing it wide. “Britta!” She’s fumbling in her purse for her keys.
“It’s good to see you too,” she responds, ironically eyeing the knife I have before me. I lean over to kiss her and pull her inside.
“I was just getting some supper ready.”
She pulls off her coat. She wears Wal-Mart casual. “How was your day?”
“Typical Greathouse day,” I prevaricate. “Lots of driving, sleepy students, lots more driving. How about yours?” I turn back to the kitchen. Wal-Mart is a place of no interest. To either of us.
“For a job in an evil corporation, about as to be expected.” I hear her shoes hit the floor in the bedroom. I’m looking at the garage out the window now in the growing gloom. Britta didn’t mention the goose at all. Am I imagining this? I think I see movement in the shadows.
Brit shuffles in with slippered feet. “You should pull the shades when it’s dark out. It gives me the creeps thinking anyone can see us and we can’t see them.” She twists the drum in her delicate fingers. I don’t take time to appreciate her charms any more.
I turn back to the eggs. I crack another one and I think I hear furious flapping wings. “Did you hear that?” I ask.
Brit is shuffling through the mail. Mostly bills. “Hear what? That gust of wind? Boy, are you jumpy tonight.”
Crack. Flap, flap, flap! Crack. Flap, flap, flap! I’m not imagining this! The Christian goose objects to the kinds of services offered in this establishment. Just like the Catholics outside an abortion clinic.
Catholics make me think of Cardinal Fowler. His visit to Breck University to bless the opening of the Catholic Studies Center was a huge affair. Media from all over the city — the state even — were there. Hundreds of folding chairs set in theological precision on the quad faced a temporary stage erected for the occasion. Festive bunting hung lugubriously from the monkey bridge. In the center the Papal flag was unfurled. A large, very serious crucifix had been affixed to the back wall of the platform, as if they were expecting a flock of vampires. The Vatican seal graced the front of the podium. Dignitaries from other churches, as well as the government, were milling about importantly. I spied my fellow adjunct, Homer Evilsizer, near the front of the crowd. He teaches part-time in the religion department. We had a running bet for which department could draw the largest crowd that year: English or Religion. This event proves I owe Homer a beer.
Every Catholic priest in a hundred-mile radius must have been there — such a sea of black! The crowd was on its feet when the bright scarlet of the Cardinal’s robe flashed in the sunshine. Homer turned from his front row seat and gave me a wanton wink. Without thinking I flipped him the bird. A hush fell over the crowd. I felt eyes. Thousands of them. In the silence I could hear the shutters and sliders of the cameras. My upraised arm with middle finger extended, I had intended toward Homer, seems to be aimed at the Cardinal on stage. Homer is doubled over with laughter. I am redder than the prelate’s robes.
Dr. Brad Berry, the head of the English department, had never noticed me before. Now there I was in his office. My own private Inquisition. “You flipped off the fucking Cardinal!” Subtly is obviously not his strong suit.
“Again, I’m sorry! It wasn’t aimed at him. It was a private joke between me and a guy in the front row. I’ll apologize to the Pope, if it’ll make you happy.”
“Who’s the guy in the front row? Who were you ‘aiming at’?” The air quotations feel forced and unnatural coming from a department chair.
“I don’t want to get anyone else into trouble, as I explained before. It’s bad enough that I’m in this mess without dragging someone else in.” Homer owes me big-time for this.
“The Diocese is furious! You know, I had a letter demanding your resignation signed by three monsignors, two cardinals — ”
“And a partridge in a pear tree?” I shouldn’t have said that.
“This is serious! The university has explained that you’re only an adjunct, not officially part of the staff, but I think the church is still fuming. Watch the jokes — private or not!”
Even thinking about it still makes me flush. I feel a new bath of sweat.
“You want me to chop the veggies?” I jump. Brit scrutinizes me. “I don’t trust you with a knife this evening.”
I need to tell her. I feel the urging in my chest. She’ll think me crazy, but I can’t let this goose go after her with no warning. “Honey, I thought you should know…”
I’m beating the eggs now. Am I the only one hearing those great wings flap? “Yes? What is it?” Her voice lilts with juvenile humor, feigning impatience. Her slender fingers handle the knife adeptly, mumblety-peg on the cutting board.
Tell her! My heart is beating ragged. Tell her! “I…I couldn’t get an appointment for the Beetle before Friday.” Everyone already supposes me to be crazy. I can’t give any more reasons. I sigh. When did I stop being honest with her?
That night I hear honking emanating from the gothic garage yards away from our house.
On the shorter drive to Breck I decide that I’ll use a different parking lot. I’ve learned that geese are animals of habit. If I park beside Jay Hall, I won’t even walk near the lot where I saw the goose on Tuesday. Jay Hall is in the middle of campus, so there will be other people around. If I’m confronted, I can call for help.
“Do you want to hear something amusing?” Dr. Patel asks, rolling up the cord to his laptop as I pull mine out. I nod, desperate for a joke. “Some of the grad students in the sociology department are saying the Catholic Church has hired a hitman for someone who offended the diocese. Is not that a scream?” he asks with his perfect diction, articulating every syllable. “The Catholic Church hiring assassins! What do they think this is? The Middle Ages?”
My smile is strained. “Religion leads people to some pretty bizarre behavior,” I muse. The joke doesn’t make me feel any better.
My Breck classes end at nine p.m. That’s just when most university students are beginning to awake, but they aren’t to be found on central campus. Some stragglers hurrying back from their classes, but otherwise, long stretches of rustic campus paths cloistered in shadows lie between my car and me. In the dark with occasional sickly yellow sodium vapor light diffused on my path, I feel vulnerable. Taking a deep breath, I continue toward Jay Hall, knowing that my nemesis is out there, somewhere, unseen.
Passing by the gothic recesses of DeKoven Hall, I hear a honk. I stop, listening intently. No, it was just a truck horn. Sound travels from the highway on cloudy nights. Is that a footstep behind me? It sounds like a rubber boot. A swim fin slapping the pavement. I quicken my pace. There is the car, bathed to a peach color under the baleful light-post. No other cars nearby. I dash for it, hearing flapping sounds all around me. I fish the key fob from my jacket pocket. Where’s the damn unlock button? I can’t see and accidentally jab the red panic button. The Beetle winks and beeps comically. I slide my thumb over the fob until I feel another button. Unlock! I dive in the car to see the goose, lurking in the stygian shadows outside the cone of light from the lamp-post. His white cross blazes into my memory a detail from Dr. Patel’s conversation. A Catholic hitman. The Christian goose? Preposterous!
The huge bird makes no move, just skulks in the umbrous darkness. He knows where I live. A sudden panic wells up like nausea, I plunge the key in and twist. The goose just stares wickedly.
Poe had his raven. Coleridge had his albatross. I’ve got a fucking goose.
Friday, my early drive to Greathouse State begins groggily. Halfway to campus I realize I forgot to bring my projector. The kids will just have to learn about Jane Eyre without any illustrations.
The rattling from the backseat is louder than ever, as if something is about to burst out in a shower of sparks and shrapnel. The metal-on-metal sound makes my teeth grind together. I just have to make it to the garage at four o’clock today.
I decide to park as far from the tree-line as possible. It is a clear, sunny morning but I’ll take no chances. I know that goose is out there.
But not being able to see him makes it worse. I crank the bug into reverse and creep toward the same spot as Wednesday, just by the trees. Creatures of habit. I am alone in the lot. The goose is nestled in the shade of the trees. He knows I see him — he’s staring right at me. We are well acquainted now, mortal enemies with a mutual respect. I am learning the rules of engagement. He just watches as I step out of the car and back my way toward campus. I have the length of a football field to cover. The goose rises. How long will I run from this bird? Another car pulls lazily into the lot. Not in any hurry, my nemesis saunters back into the shade. He knows my every move.
My Jane Eyre lecture is always one of my favorites. This morning, however, in my mind Pilot has sprouted wings, and the burnt Edward Rochester honks rather than speaks.
Low clouds have colored in the October sky and a cool wind has begun to blow. I have a map to Henry Proctor’s VW Garage open on the passenger seat. I’ve only ever driven past Lovecraft Drive before; it is out on the west end of town. I make the left turn and begin watching for something that looks like a garage. A few lonely houses stand here, unkempt and dilapidated. Some look abandoned. Tattered white curtains hang dejectedly like suicidal ghosts in vacant windows. An empty swing-seat blows fitfully on its corroded chains in the listless breeze. Bits of undefined paper and old glass bottles litter the overgrown lawns. The gray clouds press lower. Not a soul to be seen. After only two rundown blocks, even the weary houses exhaust themselves and the sensation of being watched crawls up my back.
An oppressive feeling settles in — maybe this isn’t a good idea after all. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and take the Beetle to the more expensive dealership in town. The road is neglected and I hit unexpected potholes with a sickening thud.
I am about to turn back when I spot the garage, perhaps another half mile, off on the left. It looks like an oasis to me. Carefully avoiding the sudden drops in the road where the tired asphalt is cracked and sore, I finally reach the garage. The large folding doors are down, probably against the chilly wind. A couple of very rusty Volkswagens are parked at odd angles on the broken pavement like huge, corroded warts.
Not wanting to prolong my stay in this godforsaken place, I hastily fling open the driver’s door and pull my jacket tight as I head to the office. An offensively loud honking erupts behind me. I freeze. The wind chafes with its icy breath, spitefully gusting against my exposed skin. I don’t dare turn around…
I must turn around.
Very large Canada goose. White cross on its implacable face. His scheming black eye locks onto mine. Despite my education I finally have to admit that this is not an ordinary animal. It has followed me since class on Tuesday, and now, in this derelict stretch of road, I have come to face it alone. The showdown.
The goose steps closer, and I think I see pure hatred in its avian eye. My car is closer than the garage. I begin to back toward it. Grit blows in the desultory wind, striking me full in the face. The goose increases his speed. “Hey!” I shout, hoping to get the proprietor’s attention. “Help!” My cries enrage the huge animal; it opens its large beak in a fearsome hiss. At this distance I see that the edge of the rounded beak is serrated for snapping tough, weedy stems. Its enormous head reaches to my chest.
I don’t want to turn my back on it, but in a panic I do. I dash to my car and it is on me in an instant. I feel the fierce beat of its heavy wings as tiny bits of down get caught in the icy breeze and fly crazily away like insane snowflakes. I smell his fishy breath.
My fingers fumble with the latch as I see that head racing toward me, white cross flashing like a crusader’s shield, black beak open and hissing. I am pummeled by his massive wings as I jerk the door open. Maybe I can slam its snaky neck in the door — decapitate the monster!
His head bobs and thrusts like lightning. Its hideous hissing is deafening, and the beating of its wings disorients me. I try to slam the door on him, but he is surprisingly strong. The massive head wedges behind me, his Herculean neck flings me tumbling onto the pavement.
Stunned, I watch as the huge bird ducks his head into the backseat of my car. With a speed and frenzy I wouldn’t have believed possible, his beak flings foam from the back seat, spongy and gray, out onto the desolate pavement where the wind whisks it away.
A grotesque honk blasts from the beast as his head jets into the rocking car and emerges swiftly with an angry, saber-rattling Saracen assassin struggling in his enormous beak. The man is tiny, the bird massive. In shock, I gaze as the aquiline head flicks the impassioned Bedouin fiercely from side-to-side, whiplashing the raging mercenary into submission.
Fixing an eye as black as space upon me, he beckons me to look. I observe the subdued saboteur. I have finally come to face the hitman of rumor. It was all true. Taking a great leaping bounce toward me with a flap of his incredible wings, the goose hops over my supine body and climbs rapidly. He disappears into the clouds, assassin firmly in his beak.
A cheery bell rings as the office door swings open. “Are you alright?” a man wiping his hands on an oily rag asks. I’m guessing it must be Henry.
“Yeah, I just tripped getting out of my car.” I stand, trying to recoup a little dignity.
“Back seat’s a little torn up,” he says, poking his head into the bug. “I got a junker the same year out back. Take me an hour to swap the seats. That could be the source of your rattling noise right there.”
I stand silently and nod, my eyes searching the gray skies above the mechanic’s head as a final gust of wind buffets past and an unexpected calm settles in the autumnal air.
That night I drive to Breck University, although I don’t have any classes. I sit next to the decorative catchment pond on campus and share my sack supper with the geese.
K. MARVIN BRUCE makes a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University and Montclair State University in New Jersey. He has published fiction in Jersey Devil Press and Danse Macabre.