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Hardened bread crumbs burst into fine white powder, sprinkling to the ground. Seeds crack under the weight of jaws clinching, and in an imperfect circle the birds gather round the old man and strut mechanically, their fat necks jerking. They welcome him as if he is one of their own, and he in turn accepts their embrace, and feeds them grain as everyday, assuredly white proso millet and milo for the dark-eyed junco.

The sky is layered pink then orange then blue with clouds of white cotton and gray mastheads splotched throughout. A slight chill fills the air like a cold hand on the back of one’s neck unexpectedly but is otherwise refreshing and silky as it passes from the nostrils to the lungs and presses against the gut.

Crouched, the old black man talks to the birds in low whispers as if they are his children. The birds of variegated species listen attentively, cocking their heads momentarily at his voice and scoop with their stout beaks into the ground seeds threaded underneath blades of grass still wet with dew and they mash the seeds near into dust, and the wet, green blades turn white with chalk.

Laggardly, the old black man rises from his crouched position in Washington Park and stands as erect as the arthritis buried deep in his joints will allow. Muscle, bone, and tendon like toothed pinions within a three wheel skeleton clock turn slowly but surely, never faltering though their movement so supine you are certain will one day just stop, the hand of the clock ceasing, time standing still. The body no more.

He stands upright and looks over his shoulder in my direction. Even from afar, I see the crow’s feet carved into his skin on the sides of each eye, brown and deep. His eyelid hangs droopily, weighted down by age and gravity, the skin loose. His eyebrows scrunch almost touching, three wrinkles to each side of the center of his brow, as he tries to make out the other figure in the park.

I had, for about a week now, been coming to the park each day around 4:00 PM to sit and watch the old man. I watched the way the birds greeted him each day, welcoming him as if he were one of their own, birds of one feather.

The old black man spots me. His arm shoots into the air, waving. I wave back. And he turns around and again reaches into his pocket scooping seed out for the birds and they flutter around his body, wings spread then tight against their bodies.

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Jeffrey Pillow JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

23 Responses to “Birds of One Feather”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    What a beautiful character picture you have drawn for us, Jeffrey.
    I can see him perfectly.

    • While I was taking a Modern Painters and Writers seminar at the University of Virginia, we studied a little Gertrude Stein. Stein, as you may know, did literary portraits of her artist friends. You could say, and be correct, I was inspired by this type of writing. Thank you for reading, Irene. I always enjoy your comments.

  2. Judy Prince says:

    Your synchronising the birds with the one who feeds them is beautifully visual, Jeffrey. I let your descriptions flow through my reading mind, and the entire tableux felt present, physically present, before me.

    • That is the response I was hoping for, Judy – a complete and intimate visual for the reader. When I used to watch this older fellow in the park, I often thought how he was like a character in a book — the way he moved, his physical features, the way the birds reacted to his presence. I watched him for a few weeks and then, all of a sudden, he never returned, which sort of made his mystery to me, then and even now, ever the more stronger.

  3. This was a stunning piece, Jeffrey. That fourth paragraph really got me. Especially as it neared it’s way toward the end. “…The body no more.”

    A lyrical and visual beauty, for sure, my friend.

    • Thank you Rich. Coming from you, somehow who can string together only a couple of words to form a sentence with great impact and raw, powerful emotion, I will gladly accept your compliments. The fourth paragraph is also my favorite in the litter.

  4. Jordan Ancel says:

    Beautifully written. You’ve painted such a vivd picture. I can clearly see this man and his surroundings, almost as if I were there watching.

    Lovely.

    • As I was saying to Judy above, the man in the park, I always felt, appeared as if a character from a story right out the pages. As a people watcher, I find it to be the simple moments in life the most beautiful to write about. Thank you for reading.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Gorgeous descriptions, Jeffrey. So tenderly thought out and well written. I echo Jordan above -lovely.

    • Thank you Zara. This is one of my favorite pieces because I can, I’ll be the first to admit, be a little bit longwinded at times (particularly with my replies). But this is short and says a lot with a little. I felt I captured the man and what I wanted to say as best I could.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    Bam. Right there, Jeffrey. Vivid is the name of the game on this one.

    Is it just me, or do you also get a kick out of that kind of silent communion with strangers?

    • Not just you, Simon. I too get a kick out of that kind of silent communion with strangers. Silent communion it is. That’s a great way to describe it. Can I steal that phrase? I see a future book title: Silent Communion with Strangers by Jeffrey Pillow. I’ll give you credit on the first page.

      Part of what attracted me to my wife was her people watching hobby. It can be Saturday morning and I’ll say, “Put on your shoes. We’re going out in public. I need to watch some people.”

      Then I’ll grab a note tablet and ink pen, sometimes my mini tape recorder, and we’re off.

      While I was still in school at UVA, I used to do this type of writing more frequently — interviewing the homeless, people who talked to themselves, and anyone and everyone who looked eccentric. I have a notebook full of this. That’s where I pulled this story.

      It has always been a goal of mine to travel cross country by train interviewing strangers and then compile it in a book… and, like I said, Silent Communion with Strangers would be a perfect title.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Jeffrey—-what a marvelous thing to do (grab a pen and notebook and go out to people-watch)!

        Re your book—-go for it! When Studs Terkel’s _Working_ came out, it was glorious to read about Real People for a change. I haven’t read his _Conversations with America_; have you?

        But Simon’s brill idea for your book’s title won’t work if you interview folks! You can just drop the “Silent” in the title.

        • True, I am a dunce. No interviews. Just people watching then and overhearing others conversing, which, I might add, is my favorite thing to do on a train. Pop in the earbuds to my iPod, put it on mute, open up a book, and pretend I’m reading and listening to music while secretly listening to what the guys behind me are talking about.

          Haven’t read that book by Studs. The guy has always seriously interested me though. Quite the unique fellow. A legend.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Hey, Jeffrey, quit calling yourself a dunce! I get angry with folk who mess with my friends!

          What a creative trick to do with the muted iPod and opened book hee hee.

          Wonderful word pictures and revelations of characters and circumstances have been forming in your stash. I look forward to your book.

  7. Greg Olear says:

    I like this a lot, Jeffro. Well done.

    • I’m glad, Greg. If I can only figure out a way to multiply this type of succinct writing by about 100 times then I’ll be well on my way to completing my first novel. My goal here at TNB is to be in the presence of folks like yourself, Brad, Duke, Jonathan, and others, and to soak up all of your words of wisdom like a sponge.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    A poem!

    I particularly love the linking of the crow’s feet with the birds the man feeds, as well as the word “laggardly.”

    Of course, I know Washington Park well. I played baseball there when I was a kid.

    • Ah, you caught me Duke.

      This originally was a prose poem but since I don’t have access to the poetry section, I molded it back into paragraphs.

      Crow’s feet, yes. Symbolism of the old and a particular bird. An old bird. I’ve always been fascinated by the wrinkles on the face of the elderly. This, I believe, originates with the “turkey neck”/loose skin under the chin of an elderly neighbor I had as a child, which I wrote a story about as well: “The Lady Next Door.” Maybe I’ll post it on TNB one day. A bit sentimental I guess you could say. First story I ever wrote actually.

      re Washington Park: Great place to go. I thought maybe you knew it. It’s confirmed. Thankfully it doesn’t seem destined to have the same future status as McIntire Park. Trying to build a road through McIntire.

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Jeffrey,

    I like to read your stuff, but I don’t read politics.
    I exempted your latest one, since it only referred tangentially to politics,
    but I’m pretty stubborn,
    so don’t expect comments from me on your political pieces.
    I do this with everyone, don’t feel singled out.

    • No problemo. I completely understand. Just trying to have a little fun with my latest since politics can sometimes be too intense. Figured it could serve as a little comic relief.

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