Pigeons – By Richard Risemberg



“Look at that scruffy bum, thinking he’s so sexy—hah!” Ellie gestured with her jaw. A fat male pigeon puffed and strutted on the brickwork of the light rail platform, dancing around an indifferent female who was doing her best to ignore him. He kept bumbling up to her as she pecked at crumbs dropped by waiting passengers. Some folks picked crumbs from their pastries or sandwiches and threw them towards the birds. It was against the rules to eat on the platform, but no one gave a damn about the rules, including the two bored cops who leaned against the railing at the far end, talking about football. The female pigeon kept edging away from the blustering male, who continued to lunge towards her while bulging his throat feathers impressively. Every time he came close, she whirled away, and devoted her attention to the cracks in the pavement, where the best crumbs might be hiding.

Carl laughed. “I guess I wasn’t much better, when I was courting you.”

“Hah! You were worse. But at least you did pay for dinner, when we went out.”

“Every species has its rituals,” he said.

“We’re all prisoners of evolution. It’s just hopeless. Don’t think I didn’t notice how you straightened your back when that cute little thing walked by with her boobs hanging half out.”

“And you arched your back to push out your own boobs when that gym rat strutted by wearing his oversized wifebeater.”

“I did not!”

“You most certainly did, whether you noticed it yourself or not. As you pointed out just now, I am attentive to boob configurations, can’t help it. Prisoner of evolution, as you said.”

“That was an explanation, not an excuse.”

“It’s not true anyway—the prisoners part—or we’d be trudging through some ghastly canyon in the rain, carrying a dead deer, instead of waiting for the train to Pasadena to eat at an overpriced diner you read about online.”

“That’s surface stuff, all of it…this.” She waved her arm to encompass the platform, the passengers milling about quietly, the entire city.”Underneath, we’re as bad as the pigeons.”

There was a flutter of wings as the female pigeon lifted into the air and flew to roost on a wire. The male pigeon settled his feathers, looked around for a moment, and redirected his energies to pecking for food. Another one joined him. “Hah!” Ellie said. “If pigeons had beer, they’d be sharing one now. You men are all alike.”

“Hah, yourself. If we were really all alike, you’d have married Andy.”

“Oh, god, no, never!” She faked a shudder. “Andy was in love with his Rolex and his car, anyway. I was just a decoration for his Porsche.”

“Still, you got to ride in a Porsche.”

“And listen to his recent life history fifty times. He bored me out of my mind. Besides, it turned out he was gay.”

“He was gay? You never mentioned that. Why’d he date you then?”

“Okay, bisexual. But girls were a second choice. ‘I’m number two’ is not my war cry.”


“Or just sensible.”

“Yet here you are with me, Sensible Girl.”

“You don’t bore me. At least not too often.”

The train came up, quacking its horn, and they shuffled on with the rest of the waiting passengers. Carl rushed ahead and claimed a pair of seats by a window. “You first, milady.”

“Thank you, kind sir.”

They settled in. The train glided out of the station, past the Amtrak yards and the blocky beige towers of the jail with its slit-like windows. Then it lifted into the air on the S-shaped bridge to Chinatown. A moment later, Carl point past her out the window. “Maybe the last factory in L.A.” They passed over a large corrugated-metal shed that covered half a city block. It was surrounded by stacks of metal in all manner of shapes, in heaps or on wooden pallets, all dull gray in the sun. “During the week there’s always a plume of white steam shooting out of that thing on the roof. It’s hard to believe that someone actually makes something so close to Downtown. I mean, real things, like the parts to this train.”

“This train was made in Japan.”

“I said like this train, not this train itself. And anyway, I meant instead of just skimming money as it goes from left hand to right. Like what your Andy did.”

“He’s not my Andy. He never was. He belonged to his Rolex.” The train pulled into the Chinatown station, where all the tourists got off. “You aren’t jealous of a gay guy ten years after the fact, are you?”

“I’m always jealous. You know that. I don’t deserve you.”

“Oh yes you do. You haven’t been punished enough yet, so you’re stuck with me. Till you are cleansed of your sins.”

“I’ll just keep sinning, then.” He put on a theatrical leer.

She giggled. “We’re married, so that isn’t sinning.”

“Depends on who you ask. We’ve managed not to have kids.”

“That’s right, you’re Catholic. Sort of.More kids in this world…that might be a sin in itself. I love this train, but I hate it when it goes past the jail….”

“You’re a public defender. You don’t see the best of life.”

“Two of my clients are in there now. I couldn’t save them.”

“What did they do? I know you can’t tell me when you’re on a case, but now….”

“The usual thing. They were born black in a shitty neighborhood, they were passed through school to keep the numbers up, but no one bothered to teach them much. Then they found friends on the street, folks who cared about them, and they did stupid things out of loyalty. Half your family’s Sicilian; you know how it can be.”

“My family’s devoted to pizza-making.”

“Not every branch of it. You’ve told me stories where you wouldn’t name names….” She turned in her seat. “A hundred years ago you couldn’t have married me without causing all kinds of fuss. Because you wouldn’t have been ‘white enough’.”

“You’re Jewish, you wouldn’t have been ‘white enough’ either. We would have gotten away with it.”

“At city hall, maybe. Not with our families. My grandpa was against you as it was, but he got outvoted.”

“Didn’t your vote count? I didn’t realize I was running a campaign.”

“As far as I was concerned, only my vote counted. But I’m glad I can still talk to my folks. They came to the wedding.”

“Even your grandpa. And he started talking to me after a while.”

“Typical loudmouthed Jew. He’s gotta talk to people. Maybe that’s why so many of us get interested in Zen, to learn how to shut up.”

“Yeah, you go to Zen practice, then you come home and talk about it.”

“If we didn’t talk, we wouldn’t be human. It’s all talking, isn’t it? Not just mouth talking: books, art, all that stuff. It’s what we do.”

“When we aren’t killing each other.”

“Yeah, we sure do that too.” She turned to look out the window. Little clapboard houses flashed past as the train sped through a valley between low hills. Trees leaned over shingle roofs that should have been replaced years before, and old cars slouched on the streets in front of overgrown yards. Then, only a few minutes later, it stopped at a station by a quaint-looking street of tidy brick storefronts housing cafés, dress shops, and a yoga parlor. Ellie turned to her husband: “Let’s get out here, Carlo. I’ve changed my mind, I wanna explore a bit. We can always get on another train with the free transfer thingy.” Carl got up and rushed to hold the door open if he had to. It was against the rules but everyone of course did it. Ellie grabbed her bag and sauntered out. The doors whooshed shut behind them, and the train rumbled off. Although the station was at the intersection of two streets, it was quiet on the platform. Green leaves wobbled in the sunlight over the platform roof. They could hear a bird singing somewhere. Ellie took a deep breath. “Nice! How come we’ve never stopped here before?”

“We plan things too much. We’ve come through here a dozen times—on the way to someplace else.” He took a deep breath of his own. “Let’s walk around and look at houses first. I’m getting hungry but I’m not hungry yet.”

“Which way?” she said.

“Doesn’t matter much, does it? Just leave a trail of breadcrumbs.”

She laughed and took his hand. They crossed the street from the light rail station and ambled along the sidewalk. In the angle between the tracks and a tidy brick coffeehouse there were two picnic tables under a scatter of café umbrellas hawking an Italian coffee brand. A sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of the coffeehouse advertised expensive milkshakes with various probiotic options. “Ooh, too hip for me,” Ellie said. “The street looks almost like something from the Fifties, but the prices are next year’s. I’m not in the mood for milkshakes anyway.”

They strolled on, past a tiny wine shop barely twelve feet wide and an equally tiny storefront selling children’s clothing. “I’d hate to guess what a onesie would cost here. Probably more than birthing the damn child.”

“I guess this is a ‘not-in-Kansas-anymore’ moment, isn’t it? Maybe we’re out of our league in this town.”

“They’ve gotta have someplace where poor folks like us can eat.”

“Hey, we’re not really poor. You know plenty of real poor folks, and you know we’re not poor.”

“Well, in this town we seem to be. Let’s see where everyone lives.” There was a tree-lined square to the south, so they crossed the street and went to it, passing a Mission-style administration building of some sort on the way. A large, empty parking lot bordered the building, looking pale and hot despite the late hour. It was a relief to get to the square. There was an ornate old-fashioned library building there. People went in and out the door in ones and twos, mostly old folks and young mothers urging toddlers along. Gigantic trees shaded everything. “This is nice!” she said. “I wonder if it’s one of those Carnegie libraries. It’s so…comfortable looking. I want to see inside….”

“But I’m hungry for dinner, not enlightenment, right now.”

“We’ll eat, don’t worry. We would just be arriving in Pasadena if we’d stayed on the train. Let’s enjoy. But yeah, we can skip browsing the stacks.”

They walked past the library and down a street lined with leafy trees. Narrow, two-story houses sat primly behind careful little gardens. “They’re all painted in shades of gray and green, nothing too bright or too dull,” she said. “Everything fits together so well here.” A cat on a porch gazed at them through half-closed eyes. An old bicycle leaned against the side of a house, halfway up the driveway, unlocked. They walked the length of the block and came back along another street. “Each house is different, but they all fit together,” she said.

“Yeah, no master planning. Just people building stuff that fits in. And no one trying to show off with a Rolex house. Nice, isn’t it?”

“Very nice. I could live here. I like that it’s quiet but not silent. I mean visually too. And the houses…they speak to me. Quietly. New houses, it’s like they shout. ‘Me, me, me’ all the time. Or they don’t say anything. Catatonic. This is nice. Could be enough to drive me to a law firm, so we could afford it here.”

“Sure. And so far I haven’t seen a real Italian restaurant. Maybe…. A nice little red-brick place with cloth napkins. I got some cousins that need a job. Could work out. Which reminds me…let’s find a place to eat. It’s getting dark anyway.”

As they approached the light rail station they saw a French restaurant almost by the tracks. They studied the menu posted in a display box by the door. “Looks good,” she said. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re going to eat, at last.”

She took his hand again and they went in. There was a patio in the back, surrounded by shrubbery and small trees, and they asked the host to seat them there. Bread appeared on the table, smelling warm and comfortable, and the wine they’d asked for accompanied the menus. Ellie lifted her glass: “To this quaint little town, whatever it’s called, which appears to have banished conflict.” They clinked, sipped, and sighed. “It’s a long way from the criminal courts building,” she said.

“Fifteen minutes on the train.”

“Fifty years in fifteen minutes. I feel like we’re in a picture-book version of America. There oughta be a dog named Spot somewhere.”

Carl tore a piece of bread off and chewed it blankly, then sipped the wine again. “Good bread,” he said. “I wonder if they have a local bakery.”

“We can walk around some more after we eat.” A deep chortling sound caught her attention: “Oh, look, they’re back…those pigeons.” A fat male was again ruffling his throat feathers at a bored-looking female, in a corner of the patio.

“Can’t be the same ones.”

“Of course not. Just proves that you men really are all alike.” The male strutted and cooed, while the female pecked for crumbs. Carl tore a few shreds from the baguette and tossed them towards the birds. The male immediately pushed the female aside and began pecking at them.

“Selfish brute,” Ellie said. The female bird followed in the male’s wake, picking at the crumbs he had missed. “I hope she chooses someone else.”

There was a sudden blur of gray, and the female rose flapping into the air. A sturdy, green-eyed cat held the male bird limp in its jaws, then turned and disappeared silently into the bushes. Ellie tensed up. “Did you see that? Oh my god….”

“Well,” Carl said. “I guess no one expected that. Might work out for her, though.”

“I…I…. And I was going to order squab, too. It’s on the menu.”

“Might be real fresh,” he ventured. “Maybe it’s a trained cat.”

Ellie pretended to slap at him. “I guess no place is safe, “she said. “Even this picture-book village.”

“You of all people should know that life is tough. Even if it isn’t for us.”

“I don’t need to be reminded every second….” The waiter glided up to them. “He’ll order first,” she said.”I’m still looking.”

Carl straightened up in his chair. The waiter stared at him blank-eyed, hovering over his order pad. “And what will it be for you, sir?”

“I’ll have the squab,” he said.


About the Author

Richard Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in edited publications including the Los Angeles Downtown News, the Los Angeles Business Journal, Momentum, and, on the literary side, Snowy Egret, Juxta, Terrain, Empty Mirror, Switchblade, Mystery Tribune, Ginosko Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Front Porch Review, Ornery Quarterly, Fiction on the Web UK, American Writers Review, Bangalore Review, Short Edition, The Thieving Magpie, The Metaworker, 34th Parallel, Rumble Fish, Rock and a Hard Place, Potato Soup Journal, and the Maple Tree Literary Supplement with pieces currently slated to appear soon in North Dakota Review, Edify, Fear of Monkeys, Down & Out, Here Comes Everyone, Lamplit Underground, r.kv.r.y., Wood Coin magazine, and Mondays Are Murder by Akashic Books.