Disturbed
creative nonfiction by Sheila McEntee

It is the perfect, late-summer evening: the sun has set and the light is soft, the air cool. It is the kind of evening that makes you glad, glad you went to the trouble to change clothes, put on lipstick, and venture from the soft sofa and the taut page-turner. 

As we arrive at the downtown plaza, center of our small West Virginia city, my friend and I congratulate ourselves for making the effort to attend this concert, featuring a local jazz ensemble. A rapt audience is gathered on the grass, ensconced in colorful folding chairs. Many are smiling as the music fills the plaza, tripping along like a cool river over its rocky bed.  

My friend and I have forgotten our chairs, but we find a couple of vacant ones tucked against a small, round table at the far end of the plaza. It seems we’ve got it all: a fine evening, wonderful music, and the perfect place to listen and chat. That is what we are doing when the man appears suddenly behind us. 

~

I am out for a walk just after dawn, taking spritely steps, my dog keeping pace beside me. In the cool, late-summer morning, I breathe deeply, anticipating the good day ahead.  As always, I’ve written a lengthy list of things to accomplish, which I recount as I walk: return emails, send invoices, pay mortgage, get groceries, and on and on.  

I pick up the pace as we approach the first hill and my heartbeat quickens.  Now, there is only the cool air and the sounds of soft soles meeting asphalt and dog tags clinking. 

Then, just as we crest the hill, I notice a small, dark mound by the side of the road. Coming closer, I can make out a bird. A robin. Its head rests on the curb. Though its eyes are open, it does not move as we approach. Then, when we are just a step away, it hops urgently from the road onto a neighbor’s gravel parking pad. It stops there, leaning its body to the right. 

I stop and watch the bird for a long moment. It looks unsteady. It does not fly away.

~

We hear no footfall. He is like a ghost, hovering just above our heads. We first hear his voice, but it is soft, and neither of us can make out his words. We turn, still seated, and look at him. His face is aged and grizzled, with several days’ growth of grey beard. His eyes are a soft, denim blue, and in them I see fear and confusion. 

At the corner of his left eye is a tattooed “X.” I glance down and see more tattoos near his left wrist, where his shirtsleeve ends too soon. His clothes are dirty. A grimy waist pack creates an elongated bulge half hidden by his shirt. 

When I stand to face him, I see a walker, the kind that converts to a seat, under which you can store things. On the seat, a hand-knitted, orange-and-yellow afghan lies crumpled. There is also a small, clear plastic bag, filled to capacity. I cannot see what’s inside it.

I look at the man and he looks at me beseechingly. And even though I did not hear what he said, I decide he is asking for money. This puts me in an old, familiar quandary, and I don’t know what to say. I fall on the first thing that occurs to me.
 
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” I tell him. I motion with my eyes to my friend, saying, “Let’s go.” 

~

For many moments the bird and I pause on the gravel, each in our own distress. My thoughts range to a notion I’ve considered, uncomfortably, in recent weeks: Have I become an automaton, early to rise and armed with a list, who relishes the deep satisfaction of a checked-off thing, and who is, ultimately, reluctant to be disturbed? 

I wonder if I am, perhaps, becoming like my father, who also kept a list and who became perturbed if we did not put the scissors back in the drawer, the cap back on the toothpaste, or the tool back in the garage. 

Then, my thoughts come back to the moment and I look at the bird, resting on the gravel. Its eyes are open. It still has not moved. I turn suddenly, tug on the leash, and go back home. 


I look at the man and say nothing. I feel somehow disoriented, like I’ve been shaken awake from a pleasant dream I did not want to end.  For many more moments, I say nothing.
    


At that moment the man speaks again, and when he does, the smell of alcohol mingles in the air with the music. This time, I hear him.

“I need help,” he says. “Can you call the police?”

Just 50 yards behind us is a police station. It sits adjacent to the downtown plaza.

“The police station is right there,” I tell him matter-of-factly, pointing with a sweep of my arm.

“I went and there’s nobody there,” he says. His pleading eyes search my face. 

I look at the police station and, incredibly, on this Saturday night, it is shuttered. There is only soft light behind the windows. No one goes in or comes out. 

I look at the man and say nothing. I feel somehow disoriented, like I’ve been shaken awake from a pleasant dream I did not want to end.  For many more moments, I say nothing.

“I’ve got cancer in my head,” the man says. “I need help.”

Just then, another concert-goer, a clean-cut, balding, 40-something man in crisp jeans and a green cotton shirt, steps up behind us and says, “Is there a problem here, ladies?”

~

In winter, robins travel in flocks of thousands. As the weather warms, we see them in our yards, hopping about, seeking worms and seeds in spring-damp soil. Indeed, they are common, and to wildlife watch groups, a species of “low concern.”  That is why, when I call the local veterinary hospital that treats wild birds and ask “Do you take injured robins?” I do not expect a  “yes.” Yet, the one I hear is so emphatic, I hang up quickly. I put an old towel in a box. I grab a pair of gloves.  

When I return to the neighbor’s parking pad, I see that the bird has moved only a few feet. I reach down gently for it, but it alludes me time and again, finally hopping across the street and into a deep patch of English ivy in front of a white picket fence. The bird sinks into the ivy and disappears. I can tell it is there only by the quivering of one tender, new leaf.

~

We tell the jeans-clad man that the old man needs help, but the police station is closed. The old man’s eyes meet those of the younger one and they trade puzzled looks.

“Could you use your cell phone to call someone?” the old man asks the young one in a soft rasp. “I need help.” 

For what feels like an eternity, we all stand speechless, uncertain what to do, until the younger man pulls his cell phone from his jeans pocket.

“Call 911?” I say, and he does. He tells the dispatcher that a homeless man who says he needs help is “harassing” two women on the plaza. I cringe at his word choice, though I know it is intended to illicit a quick response. The dispatcher says they will send someone. The young man says “thank you” and ends the call.

“They might come, but they won’t do nothin’,” he predicts. Meanwhile, the grizzled man sits down on his walker to wait. For many minutes we all wait, but after a time, my friend and I wander off, closer to the concert audience. We watch as the younger man bends to speak to the old man, then walks off, but not far. He is still waiting with him. 

A while later, a fire truck pulls up and three uniformed men get out, one with what looks like a medical bag. The younger man points, making sure they see the old man. 

My friend and I watch from a distance as the men on duty surround the old man. They speak to him, but not for long. Soon they climb back into the truck and are gone. They leave the old man where they found him. The younger man sees us and comes over.

“See, I told you they weren’t going to do nothin’,” he says. “I prayed with him. He says he doesn’t know his name. I gave him twenty dollars, even though he said he didn’t want it. What else can you do?”

~

Now morning traffic has picked up. I begin to doubt if I can capture the bird by myself. I go back home again and call a friend who lives around the corner. In minutes she is at my door. We slip on gloves and head up the street.  When we reach the ivy, we crouch down together. I point out the leaf that is now barely quivering.

My friend reaches down slowly and uncovers the bird. It lurches and flaps its wings, but her gentle grasp is firm. She lifts it up and places it into the box, quickly arranging the flaps so it cannot escape.

~

We watch as the old man pushes his walker up the accessible ramp to the police station door, where there is an overhang. Perhaps he will stay there the night, so that in the morning, someone will find him and help him.

From another set of chairs, my friend and I turn back to the music. The rest of the audience is oblivious to the plight of the old man. Children chase each other on the lawn, tumbling and laughing. A couple dances by, the man’s arm wrapped around the woman’s waist, their palms pressed gently together. In a moment he dips her and she points polished toes toward the sky.

My friend and I resume our conversation.

“You know, I donate to Covenant House every month,” I tell her. “I set up a direct withdrawal.” 

“Ah,” she says. She smiles and nods.

This is what I tell myself each time I see a man or woman (mostly it is a man) with deeply lined, leather-like skin, standing at an intersection, holding a creased, cardboard sign with scrawled black letters that read, “ANYTHING HELPS,” or “NEED $2.50 FOR BUS FARE,” or “HOMELESS. PLEASE HELP.” Each time, I hope I will not be the first car at the light, avoiding eye contact with a person whose misfortune has led him to stand at this intersection, staring into the distance, hoping to hear the soft whir of an opening window and then, to see an outstretched arm.  

Sometimes I think, this could happen to any of us. What if he were my son? Then I think, he is someone’s son.

Once I bought multiple Subway gift cards, each worth $10.  It would be a modest but filling meal, I thought. I gave one to a man with a sign. He looked at it curiously and then asked, “How much is on this?” I said, “The full amount.”

“God bless you,” he replied. I nodded, closed my window, and drove on, wondering if he’d try to sell the card. Tonight, the smell of the old man’s breath reminds me of why I resist handing cash to people with cardboard signs.

~

When I arrive at the veterinarian’s office, a technician gives me a form to fill out. She takes the box gently.

“Would you like this back?” she asks me.

“No,” I say, “But I’d take the towel, if it’s not a problem.” She says “not at all” and takes the bird to another room. 

A few minutes later she comes back with the towel. She looks at me softly. 

“I’m sorry,” she tells me. “When I opened the box, the bird was on its back. It died.”

“Already?” I gasp.

“I’m sorry,” she says again. She waits a moment before she adds, “Thanks for trying.”

I thank her and I leave, walking slowly to my car. I climb inside and sit for a long moment.  My friend and I had chatted a few minutes after capturing the robin. Had we sabotaged our own rescue? Or perhaps the bird’s injuries were just far deeper than we could see. 

After a time I put the towel down and drive home. When I get there, I eat my breakfast. I glance at my list. I boot up my computer and I get to work. 

~

At home, after the concert, I climb into bed. My dog follows me, curling himself snugly at the foot. I think about the old man lying on the concrete in front of the police station. I wonder if anyone will find him in the morning and help him—offer him a hot cup of coffee, a kind word.  I imagine him drifting into his day unmoored, like a neglected rowboat tossed by a storm, not knowing from one moment to the next what the tide will bring. As I lie awake, the few words I said to him—“I can’t help you”—haunt me.  After a long while, I fall asleep, considering life’s blessings and cruel turns, and what it means, for some, to be alone. 

Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor, and naturalist living in Charleston, West Virginia. Her essays have been featured in Stonecrop Review; The Brevity Blog; Woods Reader; A COVID 19 Anthology; and Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, among other publications, and also aired on West Virginia Public Radio. Sheila wrote for Wonderful West Virginia magazine for many years and from 2006 to 2014 was that publication’s editor. She was raised in Cheverly, Maryland, and Hingham, Massachusetts, but says she’s done a lot of growing up since moving to West Virginia in 1989.  Her first book of essays, Soul Friend: A Collection of Love Notes to the Natural World, is forthcoming from Blackwater Press in early 2025.