“The Saving Grace of Guineas,” by Hugh Burgess

Jan 11th, 2012 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

It was quite a wedding, Aunt Tilley being fifty-three and as independent as a horned owl although that’s the wrong bird for this story because the whole day revolved around guinea hens, especially Maud, about whom later. They couldn’t find a church that would accept the guinea hens—there were six of them—as part of the ceremony, even when Tilley explained that each bird would be wrapped in bridal lace to protect the carpeting. Yes, they said, but what if one gets away and flies up into the croft and sets there, surely some poop will fall and all that.  So they used the old bandstand next to the skate park beside the Y and that was fine, with the wedding party up in the middle and the guinea hens being carried by the bridesmaids and the Unitarian minister losing his place every time a hen let out a squawk.  Tilley was all smiles. Malcolm had trimmed his beard and spoke his vows in a Sean Connery rumble.  We all sat around the perimeter on lawn chairs, just kind of laughing, all of us remembering bits and pieces of how Tilley and Malcolm got together, both after years of failed commerce in the romance arena.

Tilley was flying out of Portland (she thought) on a Sunday evening to visit her niece in Annapolis and got through Security before a yellow sign saying ATC Delay popped onto the message board. She settled down next to a lady from Skowhegan who was headed for Washington, and the two of them were comparing nieces–and worrying whether the T in ATC could mean Terrorist— when the loud speaker announced that Flight 265 to BWI was being held up by weather over the Chesapeake Bay. Clearance was expected within the hour.  Soon lines formed at the departure desk, and the loud speaker issued bulletins at regular intervals, like parts on an assembly line: Boarding was expected at 8:30, then 9:30, then 10:30. Then came news that the plane for Flight 265 was still in Baltimore and was to arrive the next morning, which rather quickly changed to “We are so sorry but the plane has been diverted to a different terminal.”  Nor was there any other plane available—however, for those passengers who had not already retrieved their baggage in the Lower Concourse at Desk 7, a charter bus was coming from Kittery and leaving the jetport for BWI at 10:00 in the morning.   And incidentally, special rates for Distressed Passengers were available at each of the airport’s hotels… but  oops, the late news is that all those hotels are full and the taxi service to other local hostelries at this hour is limited. Moreover persons trying to remove the arm rests from the bench seats so they could stretch out for a nap are to desist because they are in violation of security regulations, and would the person who left his L. L. Bean loafers and underwear in a bin at the Security Area report to the Courtesy  Desk located in the Mezzanine next to the fish tank near the Sushi Corner, which—before anyone asks—has no official connection to the fish tank, and—we are truly sorry about this—the bus scheduled for tomorrow morning has caught fire on the Turnpike below Biddeford and all planes leaving the jetport for the next three days are already booked solid  so ticket refunds are being issued in the baggage area by the young man in the red jacket leaning forward on his hands, head down, weeping, and saying “I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know what to do.”  His computer has crashed. We appreciate your patience.  And…this is our last announcement, National Car Rental, located in the underground garage across from the main entrance, reports that it has five vehicles left on its lot….

Of course the story got a little garbled in its various tellings, but it’s clear that Beanie jumped up at the mention of the rental cars and headed for the National Rental desk with Tilley right behind her.  Luck was all on their side.  The genial man at the National counter found them a vehicle and a motel room (“the last one!”) at the Portsmouth Circle.  Suddenly everything was smooth a silk. An hour’s ride, a midnight check-in, a cozy room, and then a 7:00 breakfast had them heading south at 75 MPH in a new Chevy Malibu whose dash board wizardry signaled a gateway to a whole new world. They were in GPS heaven and a definite Thelma and Louise dynamic was in play.  Traffic was light. The bright fall day opened before them like waves of surf rolling across a soft sunny beach.  Then all that changed below Exit 11 on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Brake lights flashed, and after an hour of creepy crawly frustration, everything stopped.  “You know,” said Beanie. “I’ve had enough of this. I got a cousin west of Philly, outside of Willow Grove.”  The upshot was a zigzag tour of northerly Pennsylvania and arrival at Cousin Malcolm’s place, set back in a wooded area behind a neighborhood strip mall of the Dollar Store variety.

Malcolm was swinging an axe when they drove into his yard, his long white beard moving from side to side with each stroke. “That’s some beard,” said Tilley. “Just the beginning,” said Beanie. Malcolm was happy enough to see Beanie and courteous to Tilley, but he was in Day Two of a clean up after a flash flood, made evident by the washed out flowerbeds, the trench alongside the road, the tree roots sticking up in the air, and the wooden outbuilding half off its cinder block foundation.  He wasn’t really up for visitors but, yes, he could use the help, and by the way did either of them know anything about guinea hens?  They didn’t.  Well, the hens were lost.  Disappeared in the storm.  Blew away apparently. Maybe they could hunt for them.  Why, sure.  Anything to help.

Well, in the event, they found the guineas, at first just five of them, at the strip mall a mile and a half down the road.  On the third morning of their stay, Beanie had gone to Safeway for  frozen waffles and yogurt and on the way back she noticed some odd lumps resting on the bikes set up for sale on the sidewalk outside the bike shop and thought she saw one lump move.  Back at Malcolm’s, she said, “They looked something like dirty chickens sitting on the handle bars.” Malcolm jumped and shouted, “My God, they’re admiring themselves in the plate glass window.”  And right he was; there they were, bobbing and weaving and uttering little raspy cries in an iambic pentameter that would have done Shakespeare proud.  Calling them by name and scooping them up into kennel cages, Malcolm was at first beside himself with joy.  Then he stopped short, starring, and said, “But where’s Maud?”

“Who’s Maud?” asked Tilley.

“Maud,” he yelled. “Maud.  Maud.  You know, Maud!”  He was spinning in circles by now, looking under the bicycles.  Beanie whispered she thought Maud must be a guinea hen of some import.

“MAUD!” he yelled again.  From behind them then came an odd sound.  It had an extra dimension to it, like an echo, and a clear iambic cadence, and it seemed to form the words buck wheat buck wheat. Still, there was nothing there, just the sound, which was eerie to say the least. It was Beanie who said, “I think it’s coming from down there’ and she pointed to the storm drain set in against the curb of the sidewalk.  Malcolm jumped down, fell to his knees, and said, “My God, Maud, is that you? How in the name of Euripides did you get down there?”  (Among other things Malcolm was a Greek scholar with several monographs published on the Achilles’ attention deficit disorder.  He also had a PhD in bio-chemistry and was at one time a leading scientist in the nerve gas program at Fort Detrick, an experience he now abhors.)  Clearly exasperated, Malcolm told Maud she was too accomplished a bird to let herself simply be washed down a storm drain in something as simple as a flash flood. How could she let that happen?  Beanie and Tillie, on the other hand, were giving Maud high marks for finding a safe spot.  She was, in fact, sitting off to one side below the grate on a ledge of some sort. In any case, Malcolm and Maud spent several minutes yelling back and forth at each other, until Beanie, ever the practical one, asked, “Are we going to get her out?”

Much fussing ensued.  Using broken branches and a torn roofing liner, they covered the hole beneath Maud so she wouldn’t fall through,  then tried to lift her out through the hole in the side of the curb. Malcolm could reach the bird with one hand around her neck but he could not pull or roll her back up through the opening.  Either she squirmed too much, or she had taken a fancy twist on the way down and that twist could not be replicated in reverse. She was not silent during these efforts, and Malcolm got a nasty puncture wound on his arm. Tilley went for hydrogen peroxide and a first aid kit at the Dollar Store.

In the parking lot an hour later was a backhoe, several lengths of chain, a pyramid formation of wooden blocks set up as a fulcrum, eight men, three women,  numerous children, a furious bike shop owner, a county supervisor of some description, and a state trooper.  There was a fundamental Constitutional question to be settled, namely: does a tax-paying citizen have an inalienable right to lift, with the help of friends and neighbors, a publically owned grate cover off the top of a storm drain in order to save a bird whose function in the universe is to eat ticks and flower-devouring bugs  so that said flowers can be brought to market without the use of environmentally savage chemicals–not to mention the added benefit of discouraging  Lyme disease throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The state trooper took about fifteen minutes of this talk and left, saying, “When I come back from filling my speed-trap quota, I don’t want to find any of you here.”   Maud was released in minutes.

There’s not much more to tell.  Malcolm and Tilley are in all manner of ways complete opposites.  He is bumptious, sloppy, affectionate, opinionated, and of an uneven temper, except where Tilley is concerned.  Tilley is neat, orderly, precise, dignified, and restrained in her expression of admiration or affection for others, except where Malcolm is concerned.  He told her, some weeks into their mutual attachment, that she had saved him from becoming too attached to Maud, whom he had been teaching how to respond to the phrase “Lucky Strike” by first dropping one wing as though she were crippled and then rolling over and to play dead.  Tilley smiled.  She knew she needed something tender and something a bit crazy.


Hugh Burgess lives in Maryland, which seems to foster his odd fascination with fake nonfiction as a vehicle for humor.

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