Better This Way

Written by L.L. Wohlwend

Grasses.jpg
Image: Grasses by Sharon Mollerus

 

     When we found the seagull, the fish hook was pierced clean through its bill—clamped shut, like someone had purposely sewn it through. It would starve, I thought, and then, No, it would need water first.

     That summer, we worked for the Parks and Rec Department, cleaning up litter along Park Point in Duluth. The cool, early mornings off Lake Superior smelled like old pines and fresh market fish. After a big public event, when trash was strewn for miles, we would get out of the city truck and set to working in a rhythm, not talking as we made our way down the beach, picking up litter. With the first fumbling rays of sun on our backs, we put plastic bottles and paper cups and cigarette butts into garbage bags, and I felt the morning in such a way that I understood it ought to feel like this every day—maybe in the way people did before there were streetlights and ringing phones.

     I saw the seagull first but waited to see if Jo would notice. It stood next to a loose pile of driftwood, the lake wind tugging on a feather. When she did, Jo gasped and threw down her picker and garbage bag.

     “Wait here,” she told me and ran back to the truck.

     I stepped toward the bird, testing to see if it would fly off, but it had already started to weaken. Instead it watched me, wondering if I’d pounce.

    Seagulls have the meanest eyes. With a meaty red ring around a bright yolky globe, they look angry all the time, even when adrift on a gentle wave. But this gull looked weary.

     “It’s okay,” I said, speaking low as Jo came running back, blue tarp flapping behind like her own set of wings. “She’s trying to help.”

     Jo put the tarp in my hands.

     “Me?”

     “Yeah, I’ll walk the bird toward you and you throw it.”

     “And then what?”

     “Then…” She shrugged. “We’ll figure it out.”

     She made a wide circle around the bird and I could see it was trying to keep tabs on both of us.

     “You ready?”

     I nodded, holding the tarp as wide as I could. It had been in the bed of the truck and smelled like rotten meat and overripe fruit. I knew I would smell like trash the rest of the day, and no matter how many times I scrubbed under my nails, I’d wonder if I’d left something behind. I wanted to forget the bird and move on, pretending I’d never seen it.

     “Now!” she yelled.

     I pitched forward, throwing the tarp.

    The bird easily flapped out of reach as the lake breeze caught the tarp and floated it softly to the sand.

     “Again,” she shouted. “From that angle.”

     Then, “Again.”

     But the bird was still too quick.

     After a few more tries, I dropped the tarp and checked the time. “Jo, come on.”

     “I’m not leaving,” she said. “Not yet.”

     I was about to protest—we couldn’t be late againI couldn’t lose another job—when I spotted an old man making his way toward us with an enormous fishing net slung over his shoulder. Jo turned as I nodded hello. He was stiff in the arms, bowlegged, and nearly lost his balance as he explained, pantomiming catching the bird with the net, that he could help.

     He swung the net a few times, the bird easily hopping out of the way. When he gasped for breath, I offered to help, but he looked at me as if I’d run off with his net. I would have laughed on a different morning.

     “Sure I can’t give it a try?” I asked.

     “Nah,” he muttered and took another wheezing swipe.

    “Come on, birdy,” he said. “Quit being difficult. It’s for your own good.” He fiddled with the net’s pole, sliding out another two feet of aluminum. “This will get him.”

     I looked at Jo and she shrugged.

     He pulled back his arm, taking aim, and right then I saw how this morning would end. We’d go back to the office for lunch, toss our bags of trash into the city dumpsters, barely make it in on time. We’d tell people about the gull, about our attempts to capture it. They’d laugh at my stench and jokingly make me sit a few feet away. Then Jo would get serious, maybe a little weepy, and they’d listen closely as she described the old man swinging his net wide, feeling the tension in the moment, knowing what would happen next, and I’d eat my sandwich all the while, like I never saw it coming.

     “Oh, God, wait!” Jo cried.

     The net came down with a hard thump.

     The man hurried over and pulled the dead gull from his net.

     “Better this way,” he said without meeting our eyes.

     Jo was silent.

   I went over to the gull. Its eyes were already soft, the weariness gone. I thought about leaving it by the driftwood but remembered the hook. Another animal might get caught. I wrapped it carefully in the tarp.

     “I think he did it on purpose,” Jo said, watching the man walk away.

     I nodded, handing her the tarp, and moved on down the beach.

 

featured in our spring 2019 issue

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