Ewen Macklin made a hole in the side of the bag of wild bird seed and put a plastic cup to it to catch what spilled. He filled six such cups and tipped the bag back so no more of the seed would flow. He put the cups into a little basket and headed toward the back door of his home.
Only a couple of years earlier he would have taken the new bag of bird seed outdoors and held it aloft as necessary to fill the feeders. But that time had passed and the cups and basket were a necessary compromise.
“Joy, joy, joy,” he told himself. Macklin was certain this was the last real joy in his life now that age and death had taken the others from him. Feeding the birds — and, by extension, the squirrels — that came to his yard was an unalloyed, unadulterated delight.
It wasn’t until he started back inside after his happy errand that he saw his neighbor, Jon Burtle, staring at him hatefully. His young son, Jon Jr., who was about nine years old, had an identical expression on his face. Macklin ignored them and went in. He had never engaged the family next door in conversation and they had returned the silence. The Burtles’ vile bumper stickers and the political campaign signs they permitted in their yard indicated there would be no meeting of the minds among neighbors, and that was the end of it.
Macklin watched the various flying and scampering creatures enjoy their breakfast. This was the best twenty minutes of the day.
Almost an hour later, Macklin heard shouting coming from next door. A cautious glance out the window confirmed it was the elder Burtle; his voice carried when he wasn’t yelling. He was arguing with a police officer, a thing Macklin had never considered wise. Burtle was leading the cop around the side of the house and into the back yard.
Macklin stepped out onto his back porch, remaining unseen in its shade.
“If I tell my boy to shoot the damn birds in our yard that’s what he’s gonna do,” Burtle argued. The cop responded quietly and Macklin couldn’t hear him.
“How can there be a law against doing whatever I want to in my own yard?” Burtle yelled. “This is my property! It doesn’t belong to the government and I can do anything I want to here.”
Macklin could see the officer point across the alley. He looked in that direction and saw Mrs. Pasocki talking with another cop. She was pointing first at the Burtle yard and then at her windows. Macklin gathered that a BB or pellet from the boy’s air rifle had gone farther than intended.
“Fine!” Burtle said. “I’ll pay for the damn window, but I have a right to do something about all these birds and squirrels on my property. If you want to do something useful, keep that old man next door from feeding them all the time. He brings them all into the neighborhood and when they’re done at his place they come over here.”
The officer spoke quietly again, and Macklin was sorry he could not hear that side of the conversation.
“What am I supposed to do? Put out poison, I guess.”
Macklin saw the cop shake his head.
“Let me get this straight,” Burtle growled. “He can feed all the birds and squirrels in the world, but I can’t shoot them or poison them when they’re in my yard. Is that how it is? The laws protect him but not me? He can do on his property but I can’t do on mine? This is communist!”
The cop didn’t respond to that; instead, he began writing up a citation. Macklin could see Burtle looking around wildly between the cop and Mrs. Pasocki and the bird feeders.
The officer finished writing and tore the sheet off and gave it to Burtle, who snatched it with ill grace. The cop started to turn to leave but decided to make one more point which Macklin still couldn’t hear. He saw the officer point to the bird feeders and shake his head: a warning, perhaps, against destroying them. Then the cop went back to the front of the house where his car was parked.
Macklin quietly slid back inside his home, leaving his neighbor to tear at his own hair and curse the fascist lawmakers who had forgotten that guns had made this a great nation.
Macklin looked down at his bag of bird seed, his plastic cups, and his basket. They were ready for use again the next morning.
“And I’ll just feed the birds and the squirrels and Burtle can lump it,” he declared to himself. “Every morning, day in and day out, and he can’t stop me.”
Then he frowned. He sat heavily on a chair as realization washed over him. He would, indeed, feed his little friends, but it would be to assert his right to feed them, to defy his neighbor.
His last joy…
“Gone,” he muttered.