The Worker and The Hawk
The worker left his house before the sun was up and still it was dark as he cycled next to four lanes of traffic not yet jammed but busier than most people expected so early, most people except the worker, who was familiar with how the white lights made his shadow stretch and shrink before him, and the reds that marched like a miles-long line of glowing fire ants. The freeway was flat, and in the dawn and with no landmarks close by the shoulder it was difficult to tell how far he had gone. All the worker had were the little green signs that counted down by tenths of a mile, and these were easy to miss in the open space of transit. He needed to pass thirty green signs in order to reach the point at which he could leave the highway and progress a little further to the warehouse or the plant or the field where he sometimes picked the tough-skinned butternut this time of year—the destination changed from one day to the next, but they all were located in the same hard to reach species of place orphaned by the network of buses and trains that delivered the other workers to their destinations which did not vary. Butternuts had surprised him with how their awkward shape naturally made his hands form a cradle. It made them easy to toss; not fun, but easy to catch and manipulate, and on a good crew the worker could pick a whole row in thirty minutes. His muscles told him so with their ache, for he’d done it many times only yesterday because the farmer wanted his butternuts picked before the snow. The worker was allowed to take as many squash home as he wanted, but he couldn’t carry them on his bike, and so his daughters ate precut squash from the store despite the many hundreds and thousands that passed through his hands. His small backpack had space enough for a change of clothes, a necessity after sweating all day under the autumn sun followed by a freezing ride along the highway. The light had come up enough to illuminate a hawk waiting for roadkill perched on a post, the day’s first rosy shimmer caught in its breast feathers which the worker did not notice as he cycled by, straining against the very highest gear because it made the ride go faster. When the worker left that morning his two daughters were still asleep, and if he was lucky he’d return that evening just before they slept again—he’d kiss them goodnight and turn on the carousel nightlight that cast a rotating shadow play of birds and crescent moons, a gift from his mother-in-law, who he didn’t like but tolerated and gave secret thanks to when she sent checks for Christmas—but more often than not they were asleep again, and he would just look in on them, unable to tell their twin bodies apart tucked into the beds which they sometimes switched. It was lonely on the highway surrounded by speeding cars whose occupants he never saw, and the worker didn’t like to think about family as he biked because it only made him feel lonelier, a tiny cycling speck that most people forgot the moment they passed by, sparing him enough attention for the few seconds it took to make out his shape as human and ensure they didn’t hit him with their SUVs. Sometimes, though, he did get hit, not by cars but by garbage thrown from cars, wrappers from breakfast sandwiches purchased at drive-thru windows, styrofoam coffee cups and cigarette butts. He’d given up smoking when his daughters were born, but seeing the spinning fireworks of the cigarettes thrown from the window made him crave a smoke and the feeling of invincibility, sexiness, and nonchalance that came with it. He was smoking the first time he saw his wife, and though she didn’t care for the habit he still associated their early courtship with the smell. By the time the butts reached him there was no lingering scent, of course, though he tried to aim for them with his rubber tread and squelch any chance that an ember would ignite the drought-parched scrub. It was a task he took seriously. Who would do it if he wasn’t there every morning to extinguish the hypothetical fires of morning commuters? The worker liked to think that he had a counterpart who patrolled the highway when he wasn’t there, on the off hours and on every eighth day when he didn’t work, although he simultaneously pitied this other theoretical worker who had to bike the same loud and boring route as him. It was no way to get to work, he knew, but he also knew he had no choice, that this was the job he had right now and his wife needed the car to take the girls to school and to deliver herself to the various offices she cleaned. He sometimes envied her her role, no foreman or farm manager watching her move the mop bucket from stall to stall, no people at all, really, during the odd hours she cleaned the vacant offices, which he knew made her feel lonely because she told him, whispered sometimes when she thought he was asleep about how she wished she had someone to do the work with her and gossip about the bald men who scratched their balls oblivious to the presence of the cleaning women, or to roll their eyes at the way those with dirty shoes apologized as they walked across her clean floors. Another hawk stared at the worker in profile, one golden eye catching the morning sun. This hawk was far enough away from the first one so that it had a different stretch of highway to patrol for the freshest carcasses. Sometimes, if the worker was lucky or the day had been particularly long, one of the other workers would give him a ride home, toss his bike in the bed of a pickup and the worker would be grateful but wince every time the driver took a bump too hard and his bike jostled against the metal sides. Driving made the route feel much shorter than the hour and a half it took him to bike, but he couldn’t ask them to slow down because he knew the driver was already going out of his way to do this favor for him, quite possibly extending the amount of time before they got to see their own children, and so the worker kept quiet. Once, after a day picking pumpkins, the farmer had offered the worker a lift and the worker had accepted because his legs were aching after ten hours of bending and heaving the heavy orange gourds, and the whole way home the farmer had talked to him about cycling. The worker nodded in agreement now and then, but he could tell that the farmer was a man who biked recklessly, salmoning down steep hills and relishing the cold flush of the wind against his spandex-clad crotch, not worrying if he pulled a hamstring or bent a wheel because he had a car at home, the very car in which the worker was being ferried, and then he would feel bad for resenting the farmer who was doing him a favor. That farmer had been younger than most, with a thick head of sandy blond hair and a ready smile, but the worker still asked him to drop him off at a trailer that wasn’t home, just in case, because you never knew who was really on your side, especially among young farmers who enjoyed cycling on the rural backgrounds alone for hours at a time and with a car only every five miles or so. A third hawk, this one lucky and tearing at the flesh of a small rodent. The Worker’s wheel startled it into flight, but it only flew a short circle before returning, not so easily scared off from the fruit of its scavenging. This one was smaller than the others, which perhaps explained why it clung so stubbornly to its meager prey. Once, a neighbor knocked on the worker’s door and presented him with the hind quarter of a buck he’d scavenged from the side of the road, skinned and ruby-fleshed, and although he’d been a little confused at the pride with which his neighbor handed over the piece of roadkill, he understood that this man was proud of his find, as much as if he’d tracked and shot the deer himself, perhaps because he’d not wasted what the world had given him. The worker liked the neighbor who sometimes brought him deer parts, although he also sometimes left carcasses in the bed of his truck overnight which drew wild animals to their shared lawn. But that was the price one paid living in such a small community. Neighbors could be anybody, the worker suspected, they could, in fact, be the people who just threw their Wendy’s bag out the window. It was tough to tell if the bag was a projectile meant to hit him or if the wind, which was now picking up as the sun rose higher and winter sunk its teeth into November, caught the flimsy paper bag like a sail and it floated to collide with his front tire, giving the worker a jolt of adrenaline because he really couldn’t afford another bent wheel right now, but gratefully it crumpled beneath him, his tire exploding the half-drunk milkshake inside which spattered the hem of his jeans only a little. Relief laced with ire floated through the worker—he hoped he didn’t share a yard with any of these people driving by, throwing their fast-food remnants out of their windows, not bothering to stop and offer a ride to him who so clearly should not have been on this highway at this time of day when drivers were so sleepy and erratic, but the fact remained that it was the most direct route to where he needed to go to be paid that day, and he wondered how none of them could see that. Did they think he rode his bike on the crumbling shoulder for fun, or even worse, for exercise? That he wouldn’t rather be in his bed? All the mornings he rode this stretch of highway, not once had someone pulled over to offer him a lift or make sure he was okay. Although when the worker thought about it, he was glad for this, because he didn’t think he’d have the nerve to climb in one of these quiet electric vehicles with a stranger, because who knows where he’d take him. A hawk, perched high in a transformer, surveyed the traffic from his scaffolding. Behind the hawk, a line of poles marched off into the verdant green slice of hill. The worker was reminded of the covers of the fantasy books his wife liked to read. They often featured large birds of prey perched on the leather-clad wrists of aristocratic maidens or barbarians whose hair streamed behind them in the wind. The birds seemed to barely tolerate being tamed by their keepers, although he couldn’t be sure, and maybe their severe nature as predators just gave them a permanent scowl when really they were pleased to be there. The worker recalled a drive he’d taken with his oldest daughter, she five at the time, old enough to remember how much simpler life had been when they still had two cars to get from point A to point B, school to dance recitals, grocery stores to doctor’s appointments without the hustle and anxiety and loose change of bus stops in between. They had been following poor directions to a birthday party of one of the girl’s friends, when on the side of the road he spotted a fluttering struggling feathered body. The worker slowed and passed and pulled onto the shoulder before reversing, and then he and his daughter got out of the car to see what could be done. The hawk had creamy white breast feathers that looked streaked with lipstick, and one wing was bent at an awkward angle from the rest of its body, torqued until it was almost upside down and completely useless for flying. It must have been hit by a truck, the worker’s daughter said, surprising the worker with her pragmatism and level voice in the face of the creature’s pain and panting fear: the hawk’s pointed pink tongue was just visible inside its yellow beak agape and curved in a grimace that made the worker nervous. The worker took a towel from the back of the van and after several attempts succeeded in covering the hawk, which he bunded up and brought back to the car, telling his daughter to hold it tight, but not too tight. He thought he maybe shouldn’t have put her in such a situation, holding a feathered and fearful thing, but she took the bundle with such presence of mind and soon the bird was still in her small lap. He looked up the address of a wildlife rehab facility, a mishmash of outbuildings and strong smells not too far from where he biked slowly along the morning highway, and they drove there together, forgetting all about the birthday party the farther from town they got, the bird’s yellow talons digging into his daughter’s thighs, but she didn’t cry out, and in fact she seemed to be stroking the animal’s soft flight feathers where they peeked out from under the towel, but whether this soothed the bird or it was just in shock, he couldn’t tell. From his bike, the worker saw another hawk, and another hawk saw the worker. So evenly spaced were the birds of prey that it was as if they were monitoring his progress along the black top, making sure he kept good time. The worker saw the hawk he had rescued one more time after they left it behind with a gray-braided woman at the wildlife rehab. His job had finished early that day, it being too hot to finish picking the rest of the watermelon yellowing in the field, and so he’d begun the sweaty bike ride back home—by this point the minivan had disintegrated beyond drivability—when he thought to stop and check on their hawk, perhaps bring home a report to his daughter of the hawk’s miraculous recovery. Large dark patches of sweat dampened his shirt when he arrived, and he gulped from a large glass of ice water provided him by the woman with the long gray braid while she went to fetch the hawk. She returned with a bird on her arm which wore a close-fitting leather hood over its head. The hood sported a silly tassel on top, and only the hawk’s beak was visible, the same shocking yellow from before. It held one wing slightly askance, the only hint that this was the same hawk the worker and his daughter had scooped up off the road. The woman reassured him that the hood wasn’t kept on all the time, but it calmed the bird and made it easier to bring him out to practice flying, to learn how to use his wings again. From its talons dangled leather straps the woman called jessups, and these were wound around her wrist to prevent the hawk from flying away. He wasn’t ready yet, she explained, he needed more time for his wing to heal completely. At the sound of her voice the bird startled and tried to lift off but was yanked short by the straps and fell dangling and flapping from the woman’s arm. It swung like a feathered pendulum, upside down and struggling against gravity. As it hung there, blind and tied and flapping, the worker felt a little bad for having delivered it into this situation, and even though the woman seemed confident that its bondage was necessary for its healing, he still left feeling guilty, with several more miles to go before he reached home, where he didn’t tell his daughter about his visit to the hawk. Overhead, the worker glimpsed another hawk roseate in the brightening dawn, wings whole and working, gliding above the fast cars and scanning pavement for a tender meal. He strained to see if the bird favored one wing over the other, but he didn’t quite know what to look for, how a bird would limp in the air, or if it could. He returned his attention to the shoulder, where his path was clear of corpses, and eased the bike across the white line to his exit.