Diana Wallis Taylor is retired and writing full time. She's published poetry, magazine and newspaper articles. Journey to the Well biblical Fiction, was picked up by Revell in 12/07 and published June 2009. Her second book, Martha will publish in June of 2011 (Revell). She's taught writing and poetry workshops, serves on the Board of the San Diego Christian Writer's Guild, and the Board of her church and sings on the worship team. She lives in San Diego with her husband Frank and dog Chessie. "Phipps and the Jay" won the short story division at the San Diego Book Awards, May 2009. She's doing a third book for Revell, due out in summer of 2012 on Mary Magdalene.
Phipps didn’t mind the sparrows. They asked little of him as he scattered a few crumbs and peanuts. Their twittering wasn’t hard on his ears, for he liked the peace and quiet of the small house he occupied on the back of his daughter’s property.
A large Stellar’s Jay sailed into Phipps’s peaceful patio one day, announcing his arrival with a few well-chosen squawks. The bird had a game leg that he tucked up under his wing when he wasn’t hopping around bothering the sparrows. A seasoned veteran of many fights, he held the other birds at a respectful distance. Phipps named him Old Crip.
Phipps and the crippled bird had one thing in common, they each had a crippled leg. A childhood bout with polio had afflicted Phipps’s right leg. At times he found it difficult to walk, for the right foot would fold on him. He reluctantly used a brace and walker.
The real trouble began when Phipps decided he was tired of having the jay disturb his morning ritual. Phipps liked to read his paper in peace, fortified with a cup his “Texas Brew,” which for the uninitiated he called coffee.
Each time he complained the coffee wasn’t strong enough, his housekeeper, Mrs. Beal, was tempted to mention that he seemed to use only a little of the brew to flavor his cream and sugar. It still bewildered her that he knew exactly when she attempted to skimp on the measures of coffee.
“What are you making, woman,” he’d grumble, “tea?”
He wasn’t going to tolerate his morning disturbed by an upstart intruder in feathers.
Old Crip had acquired the uncanny ability to sense just the moment when Phipps settled in his big tilt-back chair with his coffee and paper. The bird carried on with enough noise to wake the dead, which Phipps ignored as long as he could. Then muttering under his breath, he struggled out of his chair, grabbed his walker, and shuffled to the backdoor.
“Shoo, you noisy, feathered free-loader,” he shouted, waving one hand. “Shoo!”
The other birds scattered into nearby trees, but Old Crip stayed put, giving Phipps “what for” right back until Phipps reached for the pebbles. As they sailed over the bird’s head, he gave one last squawk and flew into the big lemon tree.
“Never you mind, you old pirate. Go haunt somebody else’s backyard and leave me be!” Phipps shook his fist at the recalcitrant bird who finally flew off to another yard.
“Horsefeathers, coffee’s cold again.” Phipps shuffled his way back to his chair, pleased with the mistaken impression that he’d won the battle.
Yet, day after day the pattern repeated, Phipps settling into his chair, the jay appearing, and the ensuing battle of wits between old man and feathered foe. Old Crip gave Phipps a real run for his money, his resiliency feeding Phipps’s determination.
In time, everyone knew their parts: Mrs. Beal prepared the coffee and handed Phipps his paper while he sat gripping the arms of his chair, waiting for Old Crip to come on with his opening salvo.
Then, one day, the inevitable happened. A neighbor’s cat, the Anderson’s big orange tabby, detoured from her usual route to investigate the noise and was no doubt pleased to find the impudent jay hopping and squawking in the middle of the patio.
Phipps shuffled toward the backdoor, muttering to himself as usual, ready to do battle, when he heard one last, loud squawk, followed by an odd silence. He paused, waiting for Old Crip to cut loose again, but there wasn’t a sound. Puzzled, Phipps opened the door and looked out just in time to see a fluffy orange tail disappear over the block wall. In the center of the patio, like a silent epitaph, lay a single blue feather.
Phipps’s eyes widened. “She got him!” He was almost euphoric. “Well, well, well, looks like you got your come-uppance, you poor excuse for a bird!”
Returning to his chair with the spring of victory in his step, Phipps took great care settling down with his paper. He sipped his coffee with savoir faire and studied the news.
Mrs. Beal gave him a baleful look and murmured something about the poor thing meeting an undeserved end, but conceded it was nice to have some peace and quiet again. At least Mr. Phipps would not be bothered by the blue jay anymore.
The day wore on as Phipps snorted and shifted in his chair, rattling his newspaper a bit more than usual.
“He had it coming, you know.”
“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Beal.
“That’ll teach him to make a fool pest out of himself. Yes, sir.”
Mrs. Beal cocked one eyebrow and looked at him over the counter.
He started to make another comment but avoided her eyes and buried his nose in the paper.
By afternoon he’d misplaced his glasses three times, verbally bit the head off a door-to-door salesman, and that evening stubbed his toe getting ready for bed. He didn’t mention the jay.
When Phipps slept, the walls reverberated as he snored his way through a lengthy repertoire. Mrs. Beal threatened from time to time to turn off the monitor so she could get a good night’s sleep. This evening, not hearing the usual sounds, she went to check on him. Phipps was moving restlessly and muttering something in his sleep about boulders and giant birds.
“Don’t drop it! Get that bird away!” He called out fitfully.
She listened a moment and then returned to her room. Later, Mrs. Beal heard his cry for help on the monitor and dashed in just as he awoke in a cold sweat. She asked him if he was all right, but he just looked sheepish and lay back down to go to sleep. He put on a good show, but she could tell by the way he lay that he was not asleep. Shaking her head, she left him alone.
The next morning, the now unhindered flock of sparrows twittered. Phipps stared morosely out the window. If he saw Mrs. Beal watching him, he would busy himself with his paper. Once she caught him peeking over the top of his paper toward the patio, a wistful look on his face. He finally got out of his chair and with the walker, shuffled his way to the kitchen door.
“Think I’ll get rid of the last of those peanuts. Probably stale anyway.”
Mrs. Beal went on washing dishes. He got the bag and broke open a few shells, tossing the fragments of peanuts on the flagstone. He watched the sparrows for a few moments, sighed heavily, and came back in, put the small sack of peanuts on the counter, then returned to his chair.
“Blamed bird should have been more careful. So busy hopping around makin’ a fool of himself he couldn’t see an elephant if it sat next to him.”
He didn’t look Mrs. Beal in the eye, but knew she was observing him over the rims of her glasses. As the morning wore on, Phipps continued his muttered tirade. It began to include a few chosen words on people’s cats invading other people’s yards. Then what someone should tell the Andersons in regards to their blame cat.
“Trespassing in my yard and killing innocent birds, that’s what. They probably don’t feed the fool animal enough.”
He worked himself into a snit. Then he started talking about storming over to the Andersons, ignoring the look of alarm on Mrs. Beal’s face. To her chagrin, he came up with a better idea. He’d just call them up and give them a piece of his mind. He grabbed the phone book.
“Now what was Anderson’s first name? Alfred, no, Albert? Horsefeathers. They’ve lived here for ten years. I should be able to remember the name.”
He ran his finger down the page of Andersons, looking for his street as Mrs. Beal sputtered. Then, suddenly, there was a loud, familiar sound from the patio.
Phipps and Mrs. Beal listened in disbelief. There was no mistaking who was making all the noise. The phone book hit the floor and coffee sloshed over the table as he hastily set his cup down. Phipps heaved himself out of his chair, grabbed his walker, and pushed it to the backdoor as fast as his game foot would allow.
Mrs. Beal stared at him then at the spilt coffee. She hadn’t seen him move that fast since she’d come to work there.
He opened the door cautiously and peered out. There, hopping about on his one good leg was Old Crip, up to his usual antics—scattering sparrows. When Phipps appeared, the bird stopped and cocked his head. Then he hopped closer than he’d dared before. The two old adversaries eyed each other for a long moment.
“Aawwkk?” challenged Old Crip.
“Sunshine’s a little bright this morning.” Phipps wiped his eyes on his hanky and blinked a few times. “You moth-eaten excuse for a bird, you just couldn’t stay away from a free hand-out, could you?”
Old Crip hopped a little closer, and Phipps saw that one of his tail feathers was missing.
Phipps grinned, nodded his head, and reached inside the doorway for the small sack of peanuts.