I was minding my own business when the first crow attacked. It swooped down like a precision drone and clawed me right where my receding hairline begins. It wasn’t exactly a gash, but the crow drew first blood.
I can tell you from experience now that when a crow is coming for you, there’s really nothing you can do but run. I mean, you could stand there and try to look brave. You could shake your fists in the air. You could look for a projectile to throw at it. But your only viable option is to duck and run for cover. And that’s what I did.
I ran like a banshee straight down Draper Avenue. I was on the very street I lived on, which made this all the more humiliating. My street was lined with beautiful, old elm trees that rose high above the telephone lines. But on this day, it turned into a gauntlet through hell for me. The crow circled and hit me again, clawing at my head. I flailed at it. I shouted like an imbecile. I ran my ass off. I passed the Bishop’s school, the Tennis Club of La Jolla, and then the Museum of Modern Art until I finally got to the safety of the beach.
Crows don’t like the beach. It’s the domain of seagulls and pelicans. Crows hide in the trees and secretly plan their attacks, or they line up on telephone wires and show you their numbers to intimidate you.
While people frolicked in the surf, I assessed the damage. My hair was clotted with blood, but the cut didn’t look too bad in the selfies I took with my phone. I washed the blood out with seawater the best I could without dunking my whole head in the ocean.
I called my dad. “I just got attacked by a crow,” I said, still breathing heavy from the run.
“Figures,” he said. “It’s just like the blue jays.”
This was a reference to another bird attack from my childhood. I was rolling down my driveway trying out a friend’s new skateboard when a blue jay dive-bombed me and scored my head. I wiped out and the skateboard flew into the street where it was run over by a bus. “You ass!” my friend, Ricky, said, and then the blue jay swooped down again and clawed my shoulder.
“It’s like the blue jay attack redux – 30 years later,” I said.
“Your mother would love this one,” he said.
My mother would not have loved this one. She would have hated it, but she possessed the empathy that my father was devoid of. She at least would have asked, “Are you okay?”
She died three years ago. Fluke thing – bacterial meningitis. I talked to her on a Wednesday and she was fine. There was no indication anything was even wrong. Monday morning my father called to tell me she was intensive care – the first I’d heard of anything. Two hours later it was game over. I got on a redeye flight from California to fly home to Massachusetts, writing the eulogy on the plane, remembering that the last conversation I had with her was about my stupid teeth.
My dentist had died and his daughter took over his business, but I didn’t trust her. She told me I had a cavity. This would be the first ever in thirty-nine years. I thought it was a load of crap. I thought she was just taking me for a ride.
“Well,” my mother said, “You nearly made it to forty with no cavities. That’s a pretty good run. Maybe you should just get the filling.”
That was the last conversation I had with her. I guess you can never know that a conversation with someone will be your last. You can’t possible think of something profound to say to someone every time you speak with them. You can’t tell them you love them and what they meant to you every time, just in case you never speak to them again. But I have to live with the inanity of our last conversation for the rest of my life.
Worse, the new dentist – Dr. Maddie was her name – turned out to be totally incompetent. She said it was just a surface cavity. She wouldn’t even have to give me Novocain. Well, she screwed it up. My tooth, which was in no pain previously, was killing me after the filling. I had to chew on the other side of my mouth for weeks. She tried replacing the filling and screwed that up, too. I ended up having to go get a root canal from someone else. And let me tell you, you don’t want to get a root canal in the months after your mother dies. Freaking dentists.
* * *
The crow attack weighed on my mind. I like animals, but I have had my problems with them. Birds and dogs seem to be the worst. Two Dobermans have attacked me on two different occasions. A Beagle bit me in the ass. And when I was courting my fifth grade girlfriend, her Pomeranian chased me while I was on my bike and bit me in the leg.
The fifth dog bite came three days after the first crow attack.
I was jogging – if you an call it that at my slow, out-of-shape pace – home from the gym when I saw Chihuahua mutt standing directly in my path in the middle of the sidewalk.
I didn’t want to freak the dog out, so I stopped running. An old woman – she must have been like eighty – was walking the dog. She held onto its leash while she picked up some poop with a plastic bag. I stepped onto the grass to walk around the dog, giving it plenty of space.
She didn’t even a bark. There was just a quick snarl, and a single bite – a puncture wound from one tooth that went deep into my calf. I let out a pretty big F-bomb and nearly gave the old woman a heart attack.
“Your dog bit me!” I said with outrage.
Then, as if I were living in an Inspector Clouseau movie, she said to me with a straight face: “That’s not my dog.”
“What do you mean that’s not your dog?” I said.
“She’s my neighbor’s. I just walk her.”
“Great,” I said sarcastically.
“But I am sorry,” she said. “Let’s go up to my neighbor’s apartment and see if she has some hydrogen peroxide and Band-Aids.”
This was probably how Jeffery Dalmer lured unsuspecting victims into his house. But she was an old woman. I was pretty sure I could take her, and I was bleeding in the street. I decided to take my chances and follow her inside.
We went up a long, slow elevator and then took a long, slow walk to the dog owner’s apartment. She opened the door and welcomed me inside.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, leaving me in the kitchen. She went and rummaged around in the bathroom. Cabinets opened and closed. Doors slammed. Something dropped on the floor. I grabbed some paper towels to clean up the blood. The dog eyed me warily from the living room and I wondered if she was thinking about coming back for another piece of me.
In the bathroom, the old woman got on the phone with the dog owner.
“Hi,” she said. “Princess is fine, just fine, but she bit a man and he is bleeding in your kitchen right now. Do you have any gauze or a first-aid kit?”
She returned with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. “This is all she has,” she said.
I balled up some paper towels, poured the hydrogen peroxide on them, cleaned the wound, and put direct pressure on it to try to stop the bleeding. The old woman put the owner on speakerphone. “I’m so sorry this happened,” the owner said. “She’s never bit anyone before. If you have any medical bills, I’ll pay for them.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. I just need to stop the bleeding. It’s pretty deep into my calf.”
“Anything you need, let me know,” the owner said.
The dog walker hung up and said, “She’ll take care of it. She’s a dentist.”
“A dentist, eh?” I said. Then I looked up and saw some pictures of the dog owner on the refrigerator. Not only was she a dentist, she was the dentist – my incompetent ex-dentist, who ruined my tooth, who I wasted the last conversation with my mother on. And I know this is not true – I’m a rational human being – but somehow I equated my mom’s death with this dentist, as if she were the cause of it.
I had fired this Dr. Maddie with extreme prejudice, ranting over the phone with her as she gave me the referral to the root canal guy. “You ruined my tooth!” I said with such animosity that I might as well have said, “You ruined my life and killed my mother, too!”
Suddenly, I felt like I was in the house of a killer after all. “I need to get out of here,” I said.
“Well, take the hydrogen peroxide with you,” the dog walker said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“And here’s the doctor’s number,” she said, handing me a Post-It Note.
I took the number, the hydrogen peroxide, and about ten more paper towels. Then I limped down the long hallway to the elevator. I took the slow ride down to the first floor and when I finally made it outside I took a deep breath of fresh air and tried to calm down.
I sent my father a text: “Just got bit by a dog.”
“Another one?” he replied.
* * *
I didn’t think the bite was going to be a big deal, but by the next afternoon it was looking infected. So, I went in to my idiot doctor, who was not much better than the dentist. If I go in there and I’m sick but not looking sick enough he says, “Well, you can’t be that sick, can you? You dressed yourself, shaved even, and drove all the way down here. I think you’re fine.”
I have to put on a performance when I’m in there to get medication from him. I show up in sweats and a ripped t-shirt. I crank up my cough. I slouch. I pretend I can barely speak. But there was no acting needed this time.
“Dog bite?” he said. “This doesn’t look good. Pit bull?”
“Well, it was a mixed breed.”
“So, it’s other half was vicious?”
A tetanus shot, a prescription for antibiotics, and $175 later, I was out of there.
“Would you please give me two copies of the receipt,” I asked the woman at the front desk. “I need a dentist to reimburse me.”
* * *
Two days later I was walking a lot better. I left my house on foot to go meet friends for happy hour. I intended to take the same route I always do – straight down Draper past the Bishop’s School toward the Museum of Modern Art. I was about to walk underneath the canopy of trees but when I looked up I saw it – a crow bearing down me. He sat on a branch, watching me, on guard like a sentry.
In hindsight, I now realize it was likely protecting a nest. I understand that now. It was nesting season. It wasn’t personal, was it? Crows apparently are pretty smart. They can recognize faces. And they can communicate with one another and warn each other of predators and interlopers. I had no way of knowing if this crow was the same crow that had already attacked me or if this was a different crow that was simply in the know and I had been marked for death. Regardless, I wasn’t taking any chances. I literally bowed before the crow, giving him his due. Then I flipped the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. I had worn the sweatshirt not only because it was chilly, but because I wanted to be prepared if I did run into the crows again.
I walked backwards away from the three. The crow squawked at me and I quietly backed away, making it clear that I was not going to cross into his territory. When I got far enough away, I turned and picked up the pace, walking past the old post office annex, which was on the other route to take into town.
The crow wasn’t buying it, though. He followed me and swooped down and clawed at my head. If I weren’t so terrified I might have gloated in the fact that he couldn’t scratch me because I had the hood over my face. I was smarter than him. I was better than him. But in reality, I was running from him.
On the next block he got me again. Now people were starting to notice. It wasn’t like I was the only one on the street. Other people were out for their evening strolls, going to dinner, doing what normal people not under duress do. A couple of them even pointed at me – the madman running down the street with his hood pulled over his head, being chased by a crow.
“Look at that!” someone said as the crow came at me a third time.
Yeah, look at that. Why wasn’t anyone else getting attacked? I wondered. Why the vendetta against me?
I ran all the way to the bar where I was supposed to meet my friends and was wheezing when I got there, angry that I wasn’t in better shape. But I had bigger problems on my hands. The crows knew who I was. They lived on my block. And they were out to get me.
I texted my father: “Another crow attack.”
“Same crow or different one?” he said.
“How would I know?”
* * *
The infection from the dog bite didn’t go away. I had to go back to the doctor’s office. This time I got the nurse practitioner. “The doctor didn’t give you enough antibiotics,” she said. “Sometimes he doesn’t.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “He rations drugs.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to give you more or the infection is not going to go away.”
“Hit me up,” I said. “The dentist – the dog owner – is paying for it. Throw in some pain medication. Maybe a prescription for Lipitor. A new asthma inhaler. What’s the most expensive drug you can think of?”
* * *
When all was said and done, I had managed to spend over $350 getting the dog bite taken care of, not including the Imodium after all the antibiotics whacked out my stomach. I fastidiously arranged the receipts in chronological order and placed them neatly in an envelop for the dentist. I called her three times trying to arrange a time to bring the receipts over, but she didn’t return my calls so on a Saturday afternoon I decided to just walk them over, hoping she would be home. If she wasn’t, I could go to her office on Monday, but I preferred not to embarrass her in front of her unwitting patients.
I thought about driving over there, but it was only four blocks. I was not going to let the crows hold me hostage in my own neighorhood. I was going to prepare for battle. I had an old army helmet and a BB gun that looked like a 9mm pistol. I was ready to retaliate. I loaded the gun, strapped the helmet on and went out into the street looking like one of the few resident homeless people we had in La Jolla. I’d kicked a wino off my lawn from time to time. The most prominent one, though, was a linebacker-sized cross dresser named Shawn, or Shawna, depending on the day. He walked up and down the beach corridor in La Jolla most days, cursing to himself like he had Tourette’s. But when he saw me wearing this get-up, he quieted down and crossed the street to avoid me.
I marched straight down crow alley, practically daring them to come at me. When I reached the sentry standing at his post on that branch, he cawed and alerted the others to my presence. I raised the BB gun and fired. I missed the crow by at least two feet, but it squawked and flew off. Then two more came at me, one clawing futilely at my helmet, another gouging my shoulder. I cocked the gun again and fired it into the sky uselessly. It wasn’t like I was a good shot or had an automatic weapon. There was no way I was going to shoot them out of the sky as they circled and brought in reinforcements. There was only one thing left to do: run.
I bolted down the street, holding my helmet on my head with one hand, swinging the pistol in the other. I looked like a psychotic nutcase and could only be thankful there weren’t many people on the street. I ran all the way to the dentist’s apartment building, stepped inside, and slammed the door behind me, peering through the glass to see that the crows had followed me and perched themselves on a phone line right in font of the building, waiting.
I had no patience for the slow elevator and ran up the six flights of stairs. By time I got to the dentist’s apartment I was a sweaty, wheezing mess.
I rapped on her door with the pistol.
There was no answer, but the dog started barking so I was pretty sure she was there. I rapped again, harder this time. An old man opened his door down the hall, stuck his head out, and then quickly went back inside his apartment.
“What is it? I am about to call the police!” I heard the dentist say from the other side of the door.
“What?!” I said. “No, don’t call the police. I’m just here for retribution – I mean, restitution. I’m the guy with the dog bite. I have some receipts for you.”
I took the helmet off and tried to put on a pleasing smile in front of the peephole.
“I recognize you,” she said. “You were one of my patients.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I was a patient.”
“Your name is James.”
“Yes, Jim. I go by Jim.”
“Why do you have a gun?!” she said, her voice growing louder now. “Did you come here to shoot my dog?! I told you, she’s never bitten anyone before. It was an accident!”
“What? No, no. I’m not going to hurt the dog. I just want to get reimbursed, lady. I mean, doctor. I just have receipts for you.”
“Why do you look like you’re going to assault me?”
I put the pistol and helmet on the floor and held my hands up in the air as if I were under arrest.
“It’s not a real gun. It’s just a BB gun. It was for self-defense. I’ve been getting attacked by crows.”
“Attacked by what?”
“Crows. Black birds? Kind of raven-like. They’ve turned into real birds of prey around here. Have you not had any problems with the crows? Am I the only one getting attacked by the crows?!”
“What are you talking about?” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to drop off these receipts.”
She opened the door few inches but kept the chain latched. I held the receipts out for her but she did not reach for them. The dog had stopped barking and the place was unnervingly quiet.
She looked disheveled, maybe a little rattled. Understandable, I guess. I looked like a lunatic.
“Why did you stop seeing me?” she said.
For a second I thought she was crazier than I was and mistook me for an ex-boyfriend.
“Why did you stop coming to my office?” she said.
I pondered this question for a few seconds before answering. I wanted to let her have it. I wanted to tell she was an incompetent fool, that she had ruined my tooth and somehow contributed to my mom’s death. But she looked so pathetic standing there in her sweatpants and a frumpy t-shirt. She didn’t look like a dentist anymore. She looked like one of the homeless people I kicked off my lawn.
“I don’t know,” I said. “My mom died. I had a root canal. I was having a tough time. I just stopped going to dentists altogether. It wasn’t a priority, you know?”
She took a deep breath as if she were trying to compose herself. Then she shut the door, unlatched it, and opened it again.
“Come in,” she said.
I didn’t want to go in. I didn’t want any part of this. I just wanted to drop off the receipts and get out of there. But once she opened the door there was no way out of it. I walked inside and stood in her kitchen. The blinds were pulled, and the apartment was hot and moist like a greenhouse minus the light. It was more like a cave. The building was old, probably built in the ‘70s, and her unit needed to be updated badly. It was not the apartment of a successful dentist.
“Your mom died?” she said. “I’m sorry. How did it happen?”
“It was a fluke thing. Bacterial meningitis. She was fine on a Wednesday when I spoke to her. Then she was dead by Monday. She was only fifty-nine.”
“That’s terrible,” she said while the dog lay in the corner, quietly eyeing me. “I can’t even imagine that,” she said. “My father – you knew him, of course – he was sick for a long time before it was over. We had time to say our goodbyes and put his affairs in order. It’s never good to see someone go, but it was a godsend to have that time with him, to prepare. I was so thankful.”
Now, I’m not exactly saying that I wanted to bludgeon her. I don’t think there’s a good way to die, especially when it’s too early. I know I should not begrudge her having some final months with her father, knowing the end was coming, but I did. The more she droned on about it, the more enraged I became.
“Your mom, that’s a tragedy,” she said. “That’s worse…”
I cut her off.
“You know, it was okay, though,” I said. “I had the most wonderful conversation with her the last time I spoke with her. I told her how much I loved her, and how she had given me such a passion for the ocean and the beach. That’s why I live here now. It was something she always wanted to do, and then something I always wanted to do. When I was a kid, we would go to Cape Cod every summer. We used to pick seashells off the beach. The scallop shells were our favorite. They were so unique and had so many different colors. We’d walk together trying to find unblemished ones. She’d find one, rinse the sand off it and put it in the bucket I carried. ‘That one’s for you, Jimmy,’ she said. ‘For safekeeping.’ But they all were for me. She gave everything to me. I wanted her to know that I knew that. So I told her the last time I spoke to her. At least she knew.”
“She was lucky to have a son like you, who understood his mom’s gifts like that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
Much to my chagrin, I had teared up during this soliloquy. I’m not a crier. I don’t know where that even came from. I was a little humiliated to be crying in front of the stupid dentist with Cujo the Chihuahua watching the whole scene. She handed me a dishtowel and I wiped my face.
“She knew,” I said. “I know she knew.”
“I’m sure she did,” the dentist said.
We stood there staring at each other awkwardly. I kneaded the dishtowel in my hands for a few seconds, then handed it back to her.
“How’s your tooth?” she said.
“Better,” I said. “Much better.”
“Let me write you a check,” she said.
She grabbed the receipts and went back into the bedroom, leaving me there alone with the mutant Chihuahua watching me like a crow. I felt defenseless without my army helmet and BB gun, like the mutt could see right through me. But she put her head down, her eyes weakened, and then she dozed off with a gentle snore, shaking intermittently in her sleep.
Finally, the dentist came back into the kitchen. “Here,” she said, handing me a check. “If you need anything else, just let me know.”
“No, I’m good,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’m good.”
I took the slow elevator down to the bottom floor of the dentist’s apartment building, preparing to face the crows outside. There was no defense against them. I stopped in the trash room on the way out and dumped the helmet and the BB gun. After the moment I’d just had crying in front of the dentist, no amount of body armor was going to protect me. I was exposed as I ever was going to be. “Come and get me,” I said as I swung open the door and walked out into the street.
But the crows were gone from the telephone wire. The street was eerily silent. I stood looking up into the trees for a long while, wondering what was going on. A car drove by blaring some loud music and finally snapped me out of it.
I began to walk home and sent my father a text: “Another crow attack today,” I said.
“Hopefully that’s the last one,” he replied.
Bob Bobala has an M.F.A. in fiction writing and used to teach creative writing at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth at Dickinson College. He also suffered a rich corporate life as the former editor in chief of The Motley Fool and editorial director of TurboTax. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Northwest WorldTraveler, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Portland Review, among other publications. When he’s not getting attacked by birds or dogs, he enjoys playing guitar, traveling cross country, and exploring the American West.