Under the Bandstand
by Walter Kwiatkowski
Ranger recruit Tim Andrews watched the weathered old woman reach into her small paper bag and pull out a fistful of seeds, which she dispersed across the pavement with a wave of her wrinkled hand. The pigeons cooed and, not being picky, made their way to the free offering.
Gently humming a recognizable tune, the old woman watched them, a smile chasing away the wrinkles that surrounded her mouth. She picked up her bag from a bench that had seen better years. The sun was preparing for bed and a stiff breeze came in off the lake and grabbed her by the shoulders. She shivered and started for home. Hovering just over her head, an official-looking sign with big black letters reading NO FEEDING THE BIRDS hung from the park water fountain.
“Any questions?” said Leo, the senior park ranger. He eyed the young ranger standing next to him. He sure was a baby-faced newbie, fresh off the assembly line. He had arrived, as instructed, for the evening shift. It started at five and ended at midnight.
Leo met him at the gate, and the first thing he did was show the newbie around. It wasn’t really a big park, but the woods were thick and it was easy for the uninitiated to get lost. Leo took him through the woods and made him take pictures of certain important waypoints in case he had to enter the woods on his first night on the job.
The bigwigs back at Parks and Recreation wanted the rookie to have an easy first week, so they penciled him in for the evening shift. Most of the time, nothing really serious happened on this shift.
“How strict should I be with the rules?”
Leo shrugged. “Depends on how much work you wanna do. In this job, there are three rules you can never break. One, do what you’re supposed to do. Do what I tell you to do and, three, don’t piss me off. Everything else is up to you.”
He pointed to the sign on the fountain. “That’s a good example,” said Leo. “Right under those words it says that feeding birds and others makes the animals dependant on human handouts.” He put his arm around the young recruit. “As well, rats like to eat the seeds, and they get a little uppity, thinking they’re entitled to munch on other things like birds’ eggs. Since there ain’t anything to kill the buggers, they get big and fat.”
“What about that old woman we saw a few minutes ago?”
“She comes twice a day, every day, to throw seeds at the birds. She knows she’s not supposed to do it, but it makes her happy. Her husband died years ago, and she gets kinda lonely. Now, I could follow the rules to a tee. Go back to the office and call the cops. Have them come here and escort the old woman out of the park. What good would it do? She’d be back the next day with her bag of seeds.”
The young man’s mind drifted to a park similar to this: he and his wife pushing their daughter on one of the swings and throwing pieces of bread to the crows and seagulls.
“Sometimes they even like to take a taste of one of the bums sleeping in the park bushes.”
That brought Andrews back to reality. He looked at the old woman. “Wasn’t this place a dump, thirty maybe forty years ago?”
The large senior ranger nodded and gave a little chuckle.
“Most history books won’t give you that information, but yeah. Some kind of dump for orphan chemicals no longer useful to the military. Then around the late sixties, some hippies got together and turned it into a park.”
“There’s a hefty fine, isn’t there?”
The older ranger stared at the rookie and thought: Hefty? He probably spends his free time reading the dictionary. He nodded. “Yep, almost a hundred bucks.”
“What should I do in those cases?”
“That’s entirely up to you. I mean, what’s the point. Little kids wanna feed the birds. Old people wanna feed the birds. They’re gonna do it anyway. They’ll just wait until you’re out of sight.”
The recruit nodded. Something flashed by them and darted into the foliage on the side of the road. Something big. He caught sight of it out of the corner of his eye.
“What was that?” he said turning his head.
“That black streak?” The senior ranger chuckled. “A raccoon probably. They wanna sink their chops into one or more of those pigeons.”
Andrews looked over at the bushes. There was a rustling under some of the foliage. The raccoon seemed to have caught something.
“I wouldn’t worry about the raccoons, son. The only workout you’re gonna get in this job is there.” He pointed to a line of bushes. “Two or three times a day I have to go up there and scatter all the bums. They used to set up camp up there in the bushes almost as soon as the park closed, but after one of them was mauled to death, they moved.”
“That’s what the papers said. Devoured is a better word. Probably a black bear. After that, they stayed away from the bushes.”
“Where’d they go?”
“They’re still here. They sometimes sleep under the bandstand,” Leo said, walking a little ahead of the young recruit, then signaling him to follow.
Tat-tat-tat-tat. Sounds followed by a black blur and rustling foliage again. This time the rustling moved like a small wave all the way up the hill.
“Why doesn’t the Ministry do anything?”
“About the bums?”
“No, the raccoons.”
“You know how much it costs to get rid of all those mice, rats and raccoons?”
Andrews shook his head.
“Hundreds, sometimes thousands. Once they settle in they’re like weeds. A few years ago, I worked at St. James Park. That’s near the zoo. Thirty seconds after I stepped foot in the park I saw four rats. Caught fifteen of them in two days.”
Leo nodded. “And they just eat, shit and breed.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if I saw one.”
The older man laughed. “They keep the bums out of the bushes. Like I said, they’re the biggest workout.”
Andrews looked up and back over at the old woman, who hadn’t left and was throwing more seeds at the birds.
“Should I tell her stop?”
The ranger stuck his stubby thumbs into the belt hoops of his pants.
“Nah. We’ll do our rounds and come back. If she’s still here, then we’ll ask her to move on. There are more important things to do.”
“Those bums I told you about,” Leo said, “that’s where they go now.”
He pointed to an octagonal-shaped bandstand near the bushes. “Every day a couple of them crawl under the bandstand there and sleep until nighttime.”
“Really? Why would they do that?”
“Out in the open, they’re vulnerable to other bums who want to rob them or steal their shopping carts. Or screwed-up teenagers want to have some sick fun with them.”
“How do they get under there?”
“They ripped up a big hole in the back. We boarded it up, but they pull the boards apart again every morning. So the first thing I do is move the boards and show them my flashlight. Shine it in their eyes. They’ll curse and swear, but if you do it several times, they will get up and move on.”
“You do this every morning morning?”
Seeing the young man breathe out in relief, he added, “You’re on, tonight.” Leo slipped his flashlight into the recruit’s hand. “Call it an initiation.” He took a pack of cigarettes out of the top pocket of his jacket and pulled out a smoke. Leo gave him a wave. “Let’s do the hourly rounds first. You can worry about the bandshell after I go home.”
They turned and started down the path.
* * *
The bandstand had small stone steps leading up to the stage. Eight thin iron rods held up an oriental-style roof with a pointed top. Andrews clutched the Stremlight HL4 flashlight with a sweaty hand and walked around to the back and, sure enough, he saw several loose boards. The boards had been ripped away like Leo had said, leaving a gaping hole.
Andrews came over and pulled away more of the loose boards and stuck the flashlight into the hole. The flashlight cut into the darkness but didn’t illuminate much of the belly of the bandstand. His eyes picked up something that looked like a sleeping bag.
“Hey, guys. I’m Park Ranger Andrews. You can’t stay here so I have to ask you to leave.”
No answer. He flashed the light again. Same result. He peeled another board away and then stepped into the hole. He had to place one leg in first, then bend and slipped his torso through, dragging the other leg in after him. Now on his hands and knees, it was a tight fit.
He inched forward with his elbows, slowly moving forward. The flashlight was cradled in his armpit, between his side and his arm. The light of the flashlight revealed more of the sleeping bag. He pulled himself towards it thinking, Maybe he’s sick or, worse, dead. He could make out a body in the bag, an arm and a hand hanging out.
He stopped. A sudden breath caught and hardened in his throat. Several fingers on the hand were missing. Not missing. They were actually stubs and looked like they had been gnawed. Blood was oozing from where the fingers had been. A stale smell of copper filled his nostrils. It made his stomach queasy and he wanted to puke.
He tried to turn around but couldn’t. He felt something hairy rub against his leg. He froze. He aimed the flashlight again and moved it left, horizontally, following the sleeping bag. A grizzled greying beard with blood. Two red orbs suddenly appeared like headlights. He moved the light in their direction. Small, black, beady eyes peered at him, and long whiskers twitched, dripping blood into the cavity where the tramp’s forehead used to be.
He stifled a scream as the flashlight illuminated a rat the size of a doormat. He tried to turn over, this time with a force caused by fear. He pushed his elbows into the ground and pulled himself forward. Several squeaks that sounded like metal fingers scratching a blackboard followed a myriad of tat-tat-tat’s.
He lifted his head slightly and saw that the hole was only a foot or so away. If he could just maneuver his one arm forward, he could grab one of the boards. A sudden pain filled his calf. He cried out. It felt like the dog that had bitten him when he was a kid delivering newspapers. He groaned when a set of blade-like teeth clamped down on his wrist, forcing him to let go of the flashlight. He heard its metal clink against the ground as it rolled to a stop.
Another set of teeth grabbed the ankle of his other foot. He was being dragged away from the hole. Dirt and grass and rodent shit filled his mouth. He wanted to scream. He needed to. But he couldn’t force any words out. Something big jumped onto his back. He tried to turn, and a set of teeth chomped down on the back of his head. An image of his daughter feeding the birds swirled around in his head just before the teeth caved in his skull.
Copyright © 2019 by Walter Kwiatkowski