By 10:17, Cort Hayden had run out of ways to procrastinate. He had paid his overdue bills, returned a few phone calls, watched CNN from one commercial break to another.
He spun around in his chair and eyed the string of luminous green words on his computer screen: Union National Bank. A Friendly Place To Put Your Money.
Only two months before, he had been a creative director at a Manhattan advertising agency, where his campaign for a BMW dealership had won him a shelf of chunky trophies and a job paying more than he felt he was worth. Six weeks later, his suspicions were confirmed.
Now he was freelancing out of his one bedroom apartment on East 86th Street. He missed the arguments over craft, the recording sessions, the office peccadilloes.
Cort riffled through his datebook to check the deadline of the Union National assignment. He found his notation and clapped the book shut. He still had a day to come up with a theme-line that was, in the words of the client, "bankerly yet approachable."
Cort peered at the screen once again. The words hadn't improved since the last time he had looked at them. They seemed approachable enough. But bankerly?
He still had twenty-four hours.
He shucked off the expensive chronograph watch he had bought the day after taking his former high-paying job and laid it on the desk blotter. It was part of a little pact he sometimes made with himself: if he buckled down for fifteen minutes he could look out the window for one minute. Lately, he found himself relying more and more on such tricks to get him through assignments.
Cort waited until the second hand swept across the twelve o'clock mark, then began batting out words on the keyboard, hoping to punch in the combination that would reveal the soul of the Union National Bank, a savings and loan that had somehow survived the late Eighties.
Union National...A Safe Place To Put Your Money...Where Your Dough Always Rises...The Fort Knox For The Rest Of Us...
At seven minutes, thirty-three seconds, he became aware of something at the open window, a stirring of light and shadow. When he glanced over, whatever had been there drifted just out of sight, as though made of smoke.
Cort returned his attention to the computer.
Union National...A Real Banker's Bank...We'll Treat You Like A Million Bucks...
The shape was back at the window a moment later; Cort could see it settle itself there out of the corner of his eye. He slowly swiveled his head around, careful not to frighten what he had already begun to think of as a sentient being.
There was a bird on the ledge--a crow or something--blue-black, iridescent; its feathers glistened like motor oil in the morning light.
The ledge was a favorite roost for pigeons, a place where they squabbled over God-knows-what, oblivious to the world beyond the windowpanes; the crow, however, was peering intently through the glass, as if scrutinizing the contents of Cort's bedroom.
The crow moved its head jerkily, cawed twice, then dipped its bill to peck at something at its feet. When it raised its head, there was something flickering in its bill.
Cort eased himself off his chair and took a slow step toward the window. He found himself talking in soothing tones: "What've you got there, sport? Hmmm? Something pretty?"
He was quiet when he saw the diamond ring. The thing was just wobbling there in the bird's beak like a piece of rock candy. The whole episode was like a headline from the Post. Crow Feathers Man's Nest.
Cort tried to muster some of the relaxation techniques he'd learned on a holistic retreat in the Catskills with his old creative department. The agency had paid a small fortune to a yogi named Raj-Bernie, who had taught them the Seven Chakras. Now Cort was hard-pressed to recall even the basics of deep-breathing. He tried briefly to center his life-energy--what Raj-Bernie had called prana--then realized it was pointless. The important thing was to avoid frightening the bird.
It was still perched on the ledge, watching with obsidian eyes as Cort recommenced his slow-motion advance.
"Nice and easy, sport," he crooned. "Just hang on to your shiny toy."
The crow cocked its head, dropping the ring on the ledge.
Cort closed his eyes, sipped a breath through clenched teeth. When he opened his eyes, the crow was flaunting the ring again.
"Not smart, sport," Cort said, taking another step. Everything--the open window, the crow, the diamond ring--was all just five feet away.
The question was what to do next. He had heard somewhere that crows were fond of bright objects. They were gatherers, collectors, thieves. Of course--he would appeal to the bird's natural greed--try to distract it, get it to part with the ring.
Cort backed away to his dresser and opened his sock drawer, all without taking his eyes off the crow. He groped around until he came up with a tie-bar that his grandmother had given him for his graduation from St. Bernard's. This would be the only time he had ever used it. He stripped the laces from an old pair of wing-tips, knotted them together, then fastened the tie-bar to the end of them.
Once more, Cort padded slowly toward the crow, which had been amusing itself by alternately dropping and retrieving the ring.
Cort dangled the tie-bar just inside the open window, letting it sway appealingly from the shoelaces. "What do you say? Fourteen karat gold. You want to trade?"
The crow fluttered its wings, let go of the ring, and cawed four times.
Cort jiggled the tie-bar and said, "You like that, hunh, sport?"
The crow hopped closer to perch on the windowsill, following the movements of the tie-bar with its eyes.
Cort took a step backward, hoping to draw the bird into the room, then make a decisive sweep around the left to grab the ring on the ledge. He seemed to recall a similar maneuver from the Civil War series on PBS. It was either A.P. Hill at Antietam or J.E.B Stuart at Chancellorsville.
"Come on," Cort said, jiggling the tie-bar. "You know you want it."
The crow squawked, dipped its tail, then flapped its wings like a collapsing umbrella.
The phone on the nightstand twittered a moment later, sounding three times before the answering machine clicked in.
"Hey, uh, Cort--Jerry here...It's like eleven, and I was kind of hoping you would have faxed me some stuff on Union National...Their marketing guy's left me four messages already. I'm not about to call him back until you can give me an ETA...The clock's ticking, buddy. Don't screw me..."
The crow hopped back to the ledge, snapped up the ring in its bill as the answering machine beeped once more; then it flapped its wings and lofted out of sight.
Cort leaped to the window and eased himself out onto the ledge. A compact shadow corkscrewed over the street, looping around a dying gingko tree before settling onto an upper branch. The crow cawed twice. Cort thought he could see a faint wink of light in the fan-shaped leaves. When he looked up, he saw an old woman scowling at him from an apartment across the street. He blew her a kiss and crabbed his way back into the bedroom.
When Cort stepped out on the street, the crow was still in the gingko tree; the ring twinkled in the bird's bill like a Christmas tree light.
Cort saw that there was no one else on the street at that moment, nothing to come between him and what he already thought of as his. He strolled toward the crow at a deliberate pace, whistling faintly through his teeth. He found himself trying out snatches of bird song--bobwhite quail and whippoorwill--in an effort to put the crow at ease.
The crow cocked its head at the sounds and dropped to a lower branch.
"Fancy meeting you here, sport," Cort said, pressing forward with slow, gliding steps. "Bet you're getting tired, carrying that rock around. How about letting your friend Cort here help with the load for a while?"
The crow blinked sleepily and puffed out its breast.
Cort continued his seduction until the crow was no more than an arm's length away. "That's it," Cort said. "Just shut your eyes and let it go. I'll take care of the rest."
The bird shut its eyes for five seconds straight. Cort reached out with his hand, his fingers pinched together as though offering a morsel of food.
"Polly want a cracker?" he teased idiotically.
The crow flew at him with clapping wings. Cort felt it pass over his head like a whisk broom. He turned to watch it flap toward the traffic on York Avenue, the words as the crow flies rising on his tongue. He trotted after it, then broke into a heart-thumping run. He lost sight of the bird at the intersection, then picked up its unveering flight path up York. From this distance, it was impossible to tell if it still had the ring.
Cort continued the northward chase up York Avenue, crossing at Dont Walk signs, leaping across streams of cabs and bike messengers. The crow flitted toward the river on East 90th Street.
Cort caught up with his quarry near the entrance to Carl Schurz Park. The crow was pecking fiercely at the remains of a hot dog bun in front of a bench occupied by an old man wearing a guayabera shirt and army fatigue trousers. The man was cleaning his ears with a key on a ring chained to his belt; the diamond flared bluish-white in the dirt, of no more interest to him than a broken bottle shard.
Cort took up a position at the far end of the bench and forced himself to keep from gawking at the spangle at his feet. There was no point in rushing things. One finds the treasures of life in the rhythm of life is how Raj-Bernie had put it.
For the next hour, the rhythm of life on the park bench was marked by the metronomic pecking of the crow as the old man tossed it scraps of white bread from a supply he kept in the cargo pockets of his fatigues.
At one point, the old man looked over at Cort and said, “Always thought this was a rye bread town, but the birds like the Wonderbread. Go figure.”
“Builds strong bodies twelve ways,” Cort said, forcing a vague smile. He had no idea why he said it.
But the old man was already nodding and saying, “That’s right. Sure, that was the slogan: Wonderbread builds strong bodies twelve ways. How’d you remember that?”
“I’m in the business.”
“You make bread?”
“I meant the ad business.”
“You’re kidding--you’re one of those guys who comes up with slogans and stuff, television commercials?” The crow fluttered into the bushes after a crust that the old man had thrown too far.
“Yeah, I’m one of those guys,” Cort said. “Actually, it’s not that exciting.” He slyly lowered his glance to check on the ring; it sat there next to a bit of crushed stryofoam, mocking him.
The old man scooted closer and slapped Cort playfully on the arm. “Come on, you’re being too modest. I’ll bet those companies pay you a bundle. So what the hell are you’re doing sitting here with an old man?”
“I like to get away from my desk sometimes. Helps me think.”
“You mean I’m here feeding the birds and you’re thinking up a slogan for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or something? What are you working on? Just give me a hint.”
Cort was about to make something up, but the crow was back; the flow of bread had stopped and the ring was of great interest to it again.
“I think your friend’s still hungry,” Cort said.
“Yeah, well, he’s out of luck.” The old man patted his empty pockets and laughed. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Cort dug for his wallet and said, “Hey, I didn’t have any lunch, did you? Here’s ten bucks--how about getting us a couple of hot dogs? And maybe some chips? I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind.”
The old man’s frown bent into a smile. “I’ll bet you just had a brainstorm,” he said. “That’s how it happens, right? One minute you’re on the can or something and
“Please,” Cort said, “I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”
“Hey, whatever the professor says.” The old man pushed up from the bench. “You like everything on it?”
“Oh, mustard. Thanks.”
“Coming right up.”
[To be continued]