The birds’ white shit, flung down from an electrical cable, had blotted out the three feet tall lettering that once read “Pete’s.”
His business had suffered enough. The locals barely paid Pete any mind — or money. How would a traveler, an outsider, find his tiny corner diner now, with its sign completely eradicated by birds?
Linda, one of the regulars, first told him about the sign. Daily, the raspy, desiccated woman angled for free caffeine or nicotine. She would wait at the small counter to see if he’d charge her for a cup. If he did, she would grumble and croak, “Spot me a smoke then?” To get rid of her, he would dispense a cigarette, and she would hobble outside, victorious.
One day, she had come back in to announce, “Your sign’s out.”
“What do you mean, the sign’s out?” asked Pete. “It’s not electric.”
“The birds whitewashed it,” said Linda. She trailed off, noticing him handling his Marlboro pack. “Say . . .” she said, licking her chops, anticipating another freebie.
Curiosity led Pete out the door before she could finish the thought. She limped outside to join him. They stood by the building, under the soiled sign. Pete glared at the row of a hundred birds, none of whom knew Leonard Cohen. Linda asked carefully, “Bum a cigarette?”
Without looking, Pete shook out two cigarettes. He lit his and hers. After a prolonged silence, he made her jump by yelling, “Goddamned birds!”
Pete could not tell a swallow from a sparrow. He had know idea what he was looking at as he fumed and squinted, hands on hips on the dusty sidewalk. Pigeons may have participated, too. He hated them even more.
“No respect,” said Linda. Her cancer voice sounded like ripping bed sheets. Her scissoring fingers put the entire cigarette filter into her mouth. She made a mmm sound while she exhaled.
Pete lowered his gaze to her. He seemed surprised to see her. Often, he was surprised to see her alive at all. One day her ruined body would realize she was dead, and that would be that.
He grunted and bent to survey the pavement. With a cigarette held fast by his lips, and smoke billowing into his watery eyes, he gathered a handful of good-sized gravel and rocks. He stood, wiping his tears with his hairy wrist. He cradled the ammunition in the crook of his elbow, like a little league coach throwing batting practice.