Errands- Wanamaker, Barbara

Barbara Wanamaker

It’s another morning, same as the rest.  After showering and dressing, I pad downstairs, tripping over the dog twice in her urgency to get to the backdoor.  While the inside door unlocks smoothly, the dead bolt on the screen door fights me as always. When it finally surrenders, the door pops open and the dog charges down the stoop laying claim to her backyard domain: scattering squirrels and sparrows in her zeal.

Sparrows—I love watching them grow, watching their families each spring inside the little weathered birdhouse whose perch fell off years ago.  Through its yawning void, generations of chicks have fled their nest only to perch on the wire swaying over the driveway.  This is when my frustration with these petit brown birds begins.

A sharp whistle recalls the dog, and she skids down the tiled hallway coming to a stop before her biscuit bin.  I toss her a biscuit which she catches mid-air, grab my keys and bag and close the heavy oak door behind me.  Fiddling with the ancient lock as only I know how, the bar slides into place and down the steps I go.

The mail arrives early today; the familiar red, white and blue truck with its steering wheel on the right, sits patiently like a loyal retriever awaiting the return of the master.  A UPS van is parked two houses down.  Maybe the Hadleys are getting a package; probably another uniform or box of musket balls; Joe is always doing a re-enactment somewhere.  It’s hard to see the driver against his vehicle.  The same mulch brown blends together.

I spot those damn sparrows perching on the wire slung overhead and see that their droppings are splattering the driveway, making a mess.  I’m glad my car is pulled way up and no longer a target for them.

Opening the car door, I feel the heat-blast pour out; the ebony interior sucks the warmth from the sun.  Going from a comfortable seventy-five degrees outside, it feels like one hundred plus inside the car. I can barely breathe or touch the searing steering wheel. Turning the key, air on max, I shift into reverse and pull out into the street, driving the familiar route to the local stores.

I steer into the Pathmark strip mall.  Everyone still calls it “Pathmark” even though the store is long gone and has been replaced by the Regal Cinemas.  I park near Hallmark.  The windows boast “gifts for grad” alongside wedding novelties—it is May, the time of the year for mortar boards and brides.  People at the post office are busy as always entering and exiting, carrying fistfuls of IRS notices, pleas for money and boxes of more effluvia.  The ones having a passport picture taken always stand out – men in button shirts with ties strangling their necks and women wearing many jewels.  The guys have their hair all slicked down and the women look like they just stepped out of Coiffure d’Elegance.  Somehow, the post office seems out of place here between Fashion Bug and Sleepy’s.  I liked it better when we had to go to Main Street, to the large brick building with the plaque that boasts a dedication by Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

Vehicles crawl along, one behind another, in line for an empty spot to stash themselves, mostly all new luxury cars—hardly a beater in the parade.  The drivers, leaning forward on the lookout, are scarcely aware of what planet they are on, or what day it is and certainly pay no attention to pedestrians attempting to cross in front of them.

I tarry in my car watching all the activity around me, gathering strength to join in the fray. Teenage boys with skateboards and snarky grins are skimming in and around shoppers, their wheels scratching the concrete sidewalk, scraping along until for a few flighty seconds when they take off, the sound abruptly stops.  The short silence always ends with the thud of a successful landing or a groan from the one that didn’t quite make it.  Shoppers, some juggling packages, walk close to the store fronts to avoid colliding with the kids rolling along in flat, low-top sneakers, really baggy shorts and Tony Hawk T-shirts.  Others are preoccupied and oblivious, like the guy scratching his instant lotto as he walks with his Yankees cap facing backward.  His pot belly keeps rhythmic time with his heavy steps, and the skills of the teenagers are the only thing keeping him from getting hurt.

The black and white police car— number four—idles at the end of the stores, in front of the pizza parlor where we don’t go anymore after the roaches scurried across the counter the last time we were there and the owner nonchalantly brushed them away. I recall how my four daughters were the right height fifteen years earlier to see those roaches run just past their noses.  They all jumped a step back simultaneously while I held my son, oblivious, in my arms.  The cop, sitting behind the wheel of the car, is on his cell phone engaged in a heated discussion, the sun glinting off the metal case holding his ticket pad on the seat beside him.

I turn off my car and sit for a moment longer, watching a harried young mother, hair pulled carelessly into a crooked ponytail and still needing to lose some baby weight, fight with the car seat buckles while dodging her toddler’s grabbing hands as she struggles to get him into his car seat.   Puffing air and wiping away tears of sweat trickling over her temples, she starts to gather up the stroller and packages to store away in the back of her SUV.  Parked next to her is a battered gray sedan, its sole passenger a large mutt sticking its nose out the crack of the window to breathe air and then pulling back to bark in frustration. I think giving him a present of water and a dog biscuit would be nice, but unfortunately, I have neither.

Gathering my thoughts, I focus in on my grandson’s communion and this evening’s dinner.  I can’t forget the Marsala wine.  Chicken Marsala is another blah chicken-and-mushroom dish without the wine—that smooth, sherry-like flavor makes all the difference.  And what am I going to wear tomorrow?  The only decent dress I have in my closet has long sleeves.  I just know it’s going to be hot in the church.  I guess I have to look for something.  I’m not a fan of Fashion Bug and Marshall’s hardly ever carries anything in my size.  But I really don’t want to go to the mall.  Maybe between the two, I can come up with something respectable.   Oh, and I can’t forget the card.  I need a card to tape onto the gift for my grandson.  So, that’s three things I need:  something to wear, the wine and a card.

The McDonald’s in the front of the parking lot is making the air redolent with used fryer oil while the ground surrounding the building is littered with mangled french fries and half-chewed burgers and buns—gifts for the sparrows and gulls living nearby.  As I exit the car and lock the door, I sense something large flying above the parking lot to my left.  I glance up and freeze, transfixed by what I see.

These are different birds.  Larger than sparrows, smaller than gulls, they come together to form a flock that must be hundreds strong, but from below it seems like a thousand.  Their color suggests night: smooth black crown and chest, and the feathers on their wings are a mottled iridescent blue-black with specks of a golden brown.  Their most striking feature is the beak, bright yellow and just slightly longer than expected.

They fly in circles, moving as one, and then swoop low and fly high, flying as if in a controlled frenzy, flying like they are being held at the end of a kite string in a child’s hand, riding the breeze as only birds were created to do.  Their movements center between where I stand and the McDonald’s.  They make no sound as if they need their total concentration for the maneuvers they perform.   Around and around, up and down, never breaking formation, catching the updrafts of breeze effortlessly, winging to the right and then to the left and as they turn,  they are visible only as a long line, like the slash of a black Sharpie, slicing open the sky to reveal stars, planets, heaven.

I cannot move.  I cannot stop watching them.  Minutes pass as I wait for this show to end, but it doesn’t.  As people walk and drive around me, I am the only one with my eyes toward the sky.  Part of me wants to shout “Look up!” to bring them out of their reverie and into mine.  I feel I am being presented with a marvelous gift from God, that I need to share this gift with the shoppers, skateboarders, that cop, with the mother who could then show her baby.

Time seems to slow all around me except for the birds.  Their aerobatics continue, I can almost feel them laughing as they enjoy their playtime.  I want to laugh back, to clap my hands like a delighted child, yet I am not a child but an adult with errands to run and responsibilities to fulfill. When did that happen?  I make a promise to myself to play more, to get on the ground and roll down the hill with my grandson, to play catch with him, to ride bikes with him before each of us declares we are too old to play.  As I walk away, I snatch glimpses of the birds whenever I am able.  I recognize they are simply enjoying a few moments using the gifts they are born with: the ability to flap their wings and stay airborne, the ability to tune into each other and move as one, the ability to set aside their instincts to continually hunt for food so they can swoop and soar.  And then I realize:  God even gives the birds time to play.


  1. I like this. It’s full of life, vividly experienced, and clearly told.

  2. Barbara,
    What I love most about this story is the reality of which you remind the readers. Beauty exists in every moment of our lives. There are times we get overwhelmed or overworked and can easily forget about the simple joys, but they are always around us. Just like the birds were flying above you. This is a vivid, lively reminder. Lovely writing. Thank you for sharing this with us.


  1. Spry is Live! (some favorites from the first issue of a new online journal.) « The Garret - [...] Cisco Covino is responsible for the ‘zine’s graphic design. Elizabeth Hilts and Barbara Wannamaker submitted essays which were accepted…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.