Friday, February 13, 2015

The Birds are Disappearing - Part I

By Bettyann Moore

It’s up to me, I guess, to tell the real story, to set the record straight as the Senator used to say, only when he said it, one could be sure it was all kinds of skewed. I didn’t know that at first, of course. This wide-eyed poli-sci major fresh out of college and tapped for the position of administrative assistant to Senator R_______ of the great State of M_______ would have been happy just shining his shoes. Looking back, being the Official Shiner of Shoes would have been a blessing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story really begins about the time the Senator’s great-great-great grandfather chased off his first indigenous family from the land he’d claimed for himself. We’ve only recently come to know that that was when nii'ehihi' hoohookeeno' – roughly, “Little Crazy Bird” – disappeared from North American skies. They were the first and nobody missed them, at least not among the pale angry hordes that swept across the country. They were too busy shooting up things.

A tiny segment of an Arapaho tribe still greets each morning with a prayer to return nii'ehihi' hoohookeeno' back to them.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years.

John Audubon’s Birds of America took the world by storm. Its delightful paintings of birds, a couple of dozen of which no one had ever before identified, captured the attention of a small, but fervent group of people who we now know as “birders.” Or did, anyway. The fact that Audubon, for the most part, created that famous tome by killing, stuffing and mounting its subjects only proved controversial to some. Nonetheless, by the time the Senator and I were meeting for the first time on the Capitol steps, several hundred of the species’ Audubon immortalized were gone, missing in action, presumed extinct.

Again, no one seemed to notice, or care.

“I’m going to be President one day, boy, and you’ll be there to see – to make – it happen.”

Those were the first words the Senator, gripping my hand and slapping me on the back, said to me that day. Heady words that created a jumble of images in my head … me, standing behind him as he held his hand on the Bible … me at his right hand as he negotiated a treaty … me sleeping in my own room in the White House, forever to be known as the Mueller Room. I said I was young, and with that, a tad stupid. I would, by golly, make my mark on the world. And that, heaven help me, that was true.

The “Let’s Destroy the National Parks” bill, that was mine. Of course we didn’t call it that. The Senator introduced it to Congress as the Land of the Free Act and it passed in both houses by whopping margins. The unfortunate accident in Northwest Petroleum Park (formerly known as Yellowstone) and that little incident in Reddi-State Battery Park (Rocky Mountain National Park) didn’t get things off to a good start, but I did get a hefty raise from the Senator when he learned that I’d built a corporate liability clause into the law.

Also ours was the Wetlands Rediscovery Act. Filling in all those oozing, mosquito-filled marshes and swamps seemed like a great idea at the time and opposition to it amounted to just a handful of what the Senator and the rest of Congress called dirty hippie terrorists. They didn’t stand a chance against the builders and developers chomping at the bit to erect malls and million dollar houses. Of course not.

By then at least 200 species of birds had simply vanished, not to mention a host of other creeping, crawling and swimming creatures. It was the birds, though, that brought things to a grinding halt. We have Ethel Oddstetter to thank for that.

I hardly noticed her sitting outside the Senator’s office – my office – that morning. I did make a note to have a talk with security about letting in homeless people, but she looked harmless enough. I was only slightly alarmed when she shuffled in the door right behind me.

Why is it that the older the woman, the larger the purse? The thing she had clutched to her chest could have held two small children and their lunches. Or, you know, an Uzi or something. I got behind the secretary’s desk without appearing to be running. The secretary was late again, but I knew there was a panic button beneath the desk. Just in case.

It was at least 90 degrees outside but Mrs. Oddstetter was wearing a long wool skirt, held tight with a pink diaper pin at the waist, striped wool socks inside scuffed shitkickers laced with multicolored, unmatched shoestrings, a thermal long-sleeved shirt under not one, but two sweaters, one long and red, the other short and blue. She had on a filthy pair of gloves whose fingertips had been cut off. Atop all this she wore a pristine pith helmet. She gave off a swampy, musty odor. She was, in short, pretty scary.

“Uh, may I help you?” I asked, wishing the damn secretary would get there. “The city food bank is just a couple of blocks from here ...”

She snorted. She out and out snorted at that. Then she threw her head back and laughed. I was obviously dealing with a crazy person. I inched my toe toward the button on the floor. At the same time, Mrs. Oddstetter slapped her hand on the desk, causing me to back up a pace, toward the inner office. As she leaned over the desk I saw that she had a visitor’s pass dangling from a lanyard around her neck. An official family visitor’s pass. The kind that only I, or the Senator, can issue. I certainly hadn’t issued it. She was no relative of mine.

“I wish, you arrogant-without-resume’ cretin, to have an audience with the Senator.” She spoke in the carefully modulated, educated tones of an Ivy Leaguer. She spoke like I do. Her extremely green eyes glared at me behind bi-focals. It was the look I’ve seen on the faces of CEOs who wear Armani and $500 loafers.

I regrouped.

“Well, Ms … I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

She held out the pass from her neck.

“It’s Mrs. Ethel Oddstetter,” she said, a bit snottily I thought. “And I already know who you are, you’re that weenie assistant who’s been riding my great-nephew’s coattails for ten years.”

“Yes, I mean, no … I mean, yes, I’m Prescott Mueller, the Senator’s administrative secretary. You’re the Senator’s great-aunt?” I couldn’t have been more surprised.

“On his mother’s side,” she said, backing up a bit and settling into a chair. “I’m here to see Tom-Tom about the birds.”

I couldn’t help it, I coughed into my fist to keep from laughing. Tom-Tom!

Making a quick recovery in this business is essential. “The birds?” I asked. “What about the birds? Which birds?”

Just then Diego, the secretary, breezed in already apologizing for being late. He stopped short when he got a load of Mrs. Oddstetter.

“Oh, um, my,” he stammered. He, too, made a quick recovery and came round to the other side of the desk, practically knocking me over. He flipped open a leather-bound book on the desk and scanned it. “Mrs. Oddstetter I presume?” he said, all formal and polite.

“Indeed,” Oddstetter said, nodding regally.

“Welcome, welcome,” Diego said. He looked down at the book again. “We have you scheduled for a tour of the capitol, a meeting with the head of our science committee and lunch with the Senator. I hope that suits you.”

I was getting peeved. Being out of the loop made me very anxious.

“That, young man, suits me not a whit,” Oddstetter said. “I’m here to see the Senator and the Senator I shall see. Now.”

And, wouldn’t you know it, the Senator’s head pops into the doorway behind his great-aunt’s chair. His eyes I can only describe as horrified. As he backed quietly away, he waved his hands frantically. I’d seen the gesture before. It meant get rid of them. Don’t let them know I’m here. Do whatever it takes. He disappeared just as Oddstetter turned to look behind her. I swear I could actually hear ol’ Tom-Tom running down the hallowed halls.

“Oh!” I said, drawing her attention away from the door. I reached into my inside pocket and pulled out my phone and looked down. “It’s the Senator,” I lied, “perhaps he’s been delayed.”

For a good ten minutes I paced and pretended that I was talking to him.

“Oh dear,” I said. “Yes, yes, I can see how important that would be … oh, definitely … I’ll get on that right away, sir … oh, I’m sure she’ll understand … national importance and all … I’ll be sure to do that.” I hit the End button and made a sad face at the Senator’s great-aunt. She wasn’t having it.

She waved her hand to shush me before I could even speak.

“Bull hockey,” she said. “Whatever it is you were going to say is all bull hockey.”

“Now Mrs. Oddstetter ...” Diego had swiveled his chair around and I could see him trying to keep a straight face.

“That’s one of the oldest tricks in the books,” the old lady said. “Tom-Tom perfected that back in high school when he tried to wheedle out of homework.”

The name Tom-Tom did it. Diego guffawed. The old biddy’s eyes lit up. I think she was enjoying herself. There was no getting around it. I held my hands up in surrender.

“Busted,” I said. I came around the other side of the desk and perched on the corner near her chair. “I could get fired for telling you this,” I said, leaning toward her, “but Tothe Senator had a wee bit too much bubbly last night at the reception for the Chancellor and he, well, he overslept.” I sat back.

“Now that I believe,” Oddstetter said. “The boy always liked his booze and sleep.”
Diego cleared his throat and got up to start a pot of coffee.

“So, what’s the plan then, Mr. Administrative Secretary?” She adjusted her helmet and pulled her satchel, handbag, whatever it was, closer to her chest.

My mind raced with all the appointments I had that day, the calls, the visits, the school groups ….

“The plan is for Diego here to clear my morning schedule,” I said, enjoying how rigid Diego’s back got, “then taking you to the commissary where I will listen to all you have to say about the whales ...”

“Birds,” she interrupted. “It’s birds, not whales, though they’re in trouble too.”

“Right, birds. You’ll tell me all about them over a nice meal – I promise to take copious notes for the Senator – and we’ll discuss our options.”

“I can’t be eating any beans or macaroni and cheese slapped on a tray,” she said. “My heart.”

It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. “I assure you,” I said, rising and holding out my hand to help her get up, “that there will be no beans or mac and cheese. This is the private Senate commissary where you can have whatever you wish.” Tom-Tom was going to owe me big for this one.

Our repast proved … interesting … and it took the better part of a day. It turned into a meal, a walk on the Mall and coffee besides. The woman’s satchel held every single record she’d been keeping for well over 50 years. With each of her revelations, I, being who I am, couldn’t help but envision leverages with the Senator, with corporations, wherever I could find them. I’m the Senator’s creation. So sue me.

Arriving at the office early the next day, I was pleased to see Diego, looking dapper as always, already at his desk, and coffee brewing in the corner.

“He’s waiting for you,” was Diego’s greeting.

“Who? The Senator? Already?” It was unprecedented for the old man to be there before me. Will wonders never cease. I grabbed a cup of java, passed through my office just long enough to grab my notes, and headed into the inner sanctum.

“Good morning, Sir,” I said, then stopped. He wasn’t alone. One of my least favorite people, Leela Cantrell, was sitting on a corner of the Senator’s desk, her long legs crossed and one of her shoes dangling from a toe. She and the Senator jumped to their feet like I’d caught them making out or something.

“Prescott, my boy!” the Senator boomed. “Come, sit, sit! This is an auspicious day, the day we’ve been waiting for! You know Ms. Cantrell, of course, and I’m pretty sure you know the reason she’s here.”

I shook hands with Leela, who had the preternaturally white teeth of someone who went with the Gleam choice at her last teeth whitening. Yeah, I knew why she was there. I just thought it was a bit early for one of the handlers to make their appearance. And, once again, I was out of the loop, which peeved me to no end.

“Prescott,” she said, this time settling into the chair next to mine, “there are exciting times ahead.”

“Hm,” I allowed. “There is, of course, a number of things that should be addressed first ...”

The Senator flapped his hands. “Not to worry, not to worry, Mr. Right-Hand Man,” he said. “It’s early days. But the waters, the waters, they must be tested.”

He must have seen the sour look on my face and the glance I’d given to Leela.

“Er, yes, we do have a lot to cover,” the Senator said. “Leeuh, Ms. Cantrell was just leaving.”

Leela sprang to her feet and air-kissed the Senator. “I’ll have a courier drop off a copy of S.130.IS with your secretary,” she said. “It’s your ace, trust us.” She fluttered a hand in my direction and strode out of the room.

Once the door was shut behind her, I said, “Isn’t it a bit early to think about the presidential bid, Sir? And what’s S.130.IS? I’m not familiar with that bill. It obviously hasn’t been introduced. Who wrote it?” God, I hated being uninformed.

The Senator shuffled some paper on his desk. “Son, it’s never too early these days. Leela and her people are exceptional handlers. And don’t get your tighty whities in a twist over the bill; I’m just taking a look at it.” He straightened his tie. “FamilyFirst! wrote it,” he mumbled.

“FamilyFirst!?” I cried. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Those fringe lunatics? Don’t tell me, it’s the Liberty to Lynch Act? The Relieve Homos of Life Act? The Virginity Preservation Act?” I couldn’t help it, those nuts set me off every time. They were bringing the party down.

“No, no, nothing quite that severe,” the Senator said, though he was blushing. “You and I, we’ll go over it together, not to worry. You’re still my right-hand man. I need you around to keep me honest.”

It was a bone and I took it, for the time being. No one, after all, could keep Tom-Tom honest except Tom-Tom.

“Well, congratulations,” I said, knowing that the handlers didn’t just show up for no reason. Whoever they worked for – and no one knew who that was – always backed winners. “In the meantime, we need to talk about your great-aunt, and birds.”

“Think about it, Son,” he said, clasping his hands behind his head and leaning back in his chair, “lil ‘ol me, from the back hills of the great state of M ______, president of these here United States.” He always lapsed into southern-speak when talking about the presidency. He wasn’t Southern by a long shot, and he obviously wasn’t listening.

“Sir,” I tried again, “this bird situation. Your great-aunt is on to something. I think it could have major repercussions insofar as the presidency is concerned.” I used both barrels. It worked. He snapped his chair forward and got into listening position, but with reluctance, I could tell. He sighed.

“Old Aunt Ethel,” he said, rolling his eyes, “what’s the old battleaxe up to now? Birds, you say? What about ‘em? And what’s it got to do with bein’ president?”

While I had his limited attention, I outlined the situation: The birds were disappearing, presumably extinct. Only a handful of species could now be found in the Northern hemisphere. Insect populations were increasing and resistant to all poisons thus tried, but the birds that were left wouldn’t touch them. His great-aunt and her cronies were blaming his party and threatening to back the opposition.

“Preposterous,” the Senator muttered. “All of it. Why, I see and hear birds every day!” He stood up abruptly and went to the window and peaked through the blinds, then pulled them open. “See?” he said, pointing to a tree. “There’s one of those red birds with the funny hair-do. It’s out there every day singing away.”

“They’re called cardinals,” I said. “Every day?” I asked. There was something a bit off about the bird, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “Hmmm,” was all I said.

The Senator let the blinds snap shut and went back to his desk. He was getting revved up, I could tell.

“And another thing,” he said, “wouldn’t all those bird mucky-mucks at universities, those orthropodists, have noticed and said something by now? Huh?”

“The Education Reclamation Act, remember?” I said. “And it’s ornithologists. Most colleges and universities eliminated those departments in favor of maintaining their sports programs.”

The Senator frowned, then brightened. “I haven’t seen one thing on the Internet about this,” he said. “Old farts like my great-aunt who spend their time wandering around with binoculars would surely have created a buzz.”

I tried to keep incredulity off my face. “The Internet Protection Bill?” I reminded him. “The Senior Liberty Act? Most ‘old farts’ have come out of retirement to go back to work and don’t have the time, or the money, to use the Internet. Not many do.”

“Well, gosh,” was all Tom-Tom could come up with. Then I gave him the really bad news.

“Your Aunt Ethel also told me that there are just four bald eagles left in the all of North America.”

That got his attention.

“What? Just four eagles? Why, that’s downright un-American! Where are they? Can we round ‘em up and cage ‘em or something? Bring ‘em to the capital?”

This, this, was why I made six figures.

“Er, no Sir, I don’t think that would work. As for where they are … they’re not in your state. They’re in, well, the state of your most likely opponent for the presidential race. If the media are correct about who that person is, of course.”

He hadn’t looked so shocked since I had to tell him that his Cadillac was made in China. He leaned back in his chair, making the pouty face he was famous for. I, of course, had been adding the whole presidential bid to the pot and stirring.

“I still have some research to do,” I said, “but I think it’s just possible we could make this work for us.” His eyes lit up and he scooted his chair forward.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said eagerly.

“Not possible, yet,” I demurred, causing him to pout once more. “We’ll talk in a couple of days.” I stood up and went to the door. I have to admit it gave me a little thrill to leave him hanging that way. The District thrived on the Power Game and I, quite frankly, was good at the game.

Diego’s pencil-thin mustache was quivering and he clutched a handkerchief in hand.

“A courier just left this, this, thing,” he said, pushing a folder toward me. He dabbed at the corner of one eye.

Ah, the proposed bill, I thought, it must be a doozy. I flipped open the cover and scanned it.

“How can he do that?” Diego wailed.

I slapped the cover shut, surprised, but not overly. The handlers have always had an agenda. I did my best to reassure Diego that it would never see the light of day and hurried off.

It was time to see Larry.

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