I have a friend and neighbor named Andy who manages almost daily to fill me with the rankest of jealousy. It’s not so much because he’s tall, handsome, and socially adept—as these are traits that lie safely beyond my reach. Rather, it’s because he boasts an astonishing repertoire of useful skills—and each week, it seems, he picks up a new one that I’ve never even heard of. I might swing past Andy’s place to fetch a pair of boots he’s volunteered to resole for me, and there he is in his basement, squinting behind a jeweler’s loupe, having decided that—really—any man worth his salt can facet his own rubies.
Where my friend really shines is in the field of home improvement and repair. Last year he added an insulated mudroom to his 3-bedroom house in downtown Gloucester. Which is to say, he planned and executed each stage of construction, from pouring the concrete foundation to installing reclaimed brass hooks for the tiny pastel coats of his daughters. One day when I’d stopped by to admire his progress, Andy said, “Since you’re here, can you help me out with something?” For a moment I got excited, believing I’d been called upon to survey blueprints and grunt in manly contemplation. But he just pointed to a thick wooden post and explained with great precision: “I need to move that over there.” Long ago Andy realized that, for the sake of everyone involved, I should be treated like a common draft animal.
I try to compensate for my total ineptitude around the house by keeping every surface perfectly spotless. I approach tasks like sponging the baseboards with the intensity of a SEAL team maneuver, and my wife must warn me not to get overzealous with my scrubbing, lest I dislodge a fixture or furnishing I’m incapable of repairing. Indeed, for a few weeks now, a loose hinge has turned one of our toilet seats into a magician’s trapdoor. But I can patiently await someone like Andy to come and fix it, confident that when guests do plunge into the bowl, their bottoms emerge as clean and uncorrupted as a hand from a baptismal font.
Our recent guests have included two spry retirees from Virginia: my mother and father. They are good and low-maintenance people. But their annual visits last a week—and thus occasion special preparations, such as stocking the liquor cabinet and stashing the knives in hard-to-reach places. This being their first summer stay in our new apartment, I decided to go all out with the cleaning. In particular, I would spruce up the outdoor spaces, where someone might want to adjourn, cocktail in hand, in the aftermath of this or that disastrous political discussion.
One of the biggest tasks would be the roof. It’s a large square of composite decking that—like other high points in Gloucester—functions as a roost-cum-bombing range for the local seagulls. Exacerbating our situation is the nearby Cape Ann Museum, a permanent gull encampment whose shit-slick gables should be negotiated only with crampons and an industrial respirator. Notwithstanding the birds’ filth and noise, I felt we had settled into a peaceful détente. Every week or so, as splatters gradually rendered the deck uninhabitable, I would haul buckets of soapy water through a narrow hatch and scour the hot planks with a brush resembling a scalped hedgehog. It isn’t such a bad job. There’s always a breeze, and the views of the inner harbor are fine. Moreover, by studying the deposits for variations in color, texture, and viscosity, I’d become something of a pioneer in the field of seagull digestion. For instance, there seems to be a species of clam that sours the colon of an average gull, yielding an ochre custard that, when left to bake in the August sun, must be pried off with a putty knife.
On the evening before my parents’ arrival, I had completed this task. And as I arranged new flowerpots and admired the immaculate surface, the cries of the gulls overhead sounded comforting, almost melodic. But the next morning, when I cracked the roof hatch with a watering pail in hand, I heard a different sort of cry: keening, insistent, and very close. I pulled myself onto the deck and turned to see a runty, gray gull standing and squawking amid a tract of unholy foulness. It was as though the visionaries at Shoney’s had developed a new type of seafood restaurant—call it an ‘all-you-can-shit buffet’—in which drums of laxative aioli invite patrons to dine and crap in the same booth.
I lurched toward the gull, crunching discarded clamshells and calling him dreadful and illogical things. Whatever vices the creature might have engaged in during his life, it seems unlikely that he was, in any meaningful sense, a “cocksucker.” Despite my abuse, he just sidled away into a corner, leaving a set of dainty white footprints. On cue, a massive gull swooped down and perched behind him on the rail, clutching in her beak the butt of a shopworn baguette. This, I realized now, was the mother—and the gray fellow her spawn, no longer a chick but not yet old enough to ravage trash bags on his own. I broke into a fit of stomping and clapping, like a participant in some kind of disturbed hoedown. But it took three blundering charges to stir the mother from her roost and chase the juvenile into clumsy flight.
With my parents speeding down the Mass Pike, I had no other choice but to drop everything and clean the deck once again. Brushing away dismembered crabs, I was reminded of my own adolescence—in particular, the squalor of my bedroom and my mother’s efforts to coax a growth spurt by purchasing endless quantities of frozen buffalo wings from Costco. I was sure that if I looked hard enough I would find, under a loose piece of decking, a collection of beak-and-plumage magazines: “Gulls Gone Wild” or perhaps something kinkier.
Other chores beckoned. And I moved into high gear—not considering for even a moment that, with their squat discovered, mother and son would return. But sure enough, thirty minutes later we were locked in our second faceoff, and neither bird was any more inclined to budge. This chutzpah, I realized, was my biggest sticking point with the pair. I’ve been forced to dwell alongside other pests—most notably, in Houston, Texas, where the American cockroach can reach the size of an Almond Joy. On one occasion, I found such a specimen on my kitchen counter, standing astride a scrap of endive. It was large enough that I could see its neck articulate and hear its jaws work, like a small, clean-shaven yak. Still, when I flipped the light on, the roach skittered away, aware on some level of its trespass. These seagulls, on the other hand, acted like the roof deck’s rightful occupants. Sure, when our monthly budget gets tight, a sublease sounds like a good idea. But I would draw the line at a ravenous and incontinent gull, no matter the size of the security deposit.
After I’d shooed the birds once again, I realized I needed a plan for ongoing deterrence. My first idea, a blazing palisade of tiki torches, seemed reasonable enough—but I was running out of time. What do people use to scare away birds? As I looked down at Andy’s house, just next door, I knew he’d have the perfect answer—probably an eco-friendly tincture of herbs he could grind by mortar and pestle in the corner of his basement that doubles as an apothecary shop.
As I brooded on my friend’s sweeping competence, I was suddenly reminded of a lark he had orchestrated last summer, a prank that enlisted his mastery of a zoom lens. It’s a cliché, really. One minute, I’m hiking with four guys to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and the next I’m in a photo shoot, wearing only a wooden sign the National Park Service had installed for nobler purposes. “Sensitive Area,” it read. “Keep Out.” Perhaps it goes without saying that some Irish whiskey was involved. But honestly, even if I had been sober, I never would have imagined that my friends would pay to have the best shot enlarged and turned into a life-sized cardboard cut-out of startling clarity.
This semi-nude doppelganger was unveiled a few months later, when the hiking party reassembled for a wedding in Maine. Specifically, it was placed in the shadowy hall opposite the room where my wife and I were sleeping. So that at 2AM, when she slipped out to use the toilet, she believed she was in the throes of a complete psychological breakdown. During the rest of the weekend, Fake Adam (or, “Fadam,” as he was dubbed) found his way into a variety of other compromising situations. Truly, I cannot overstate how unsettling it is to discover, as you rub your sleepy eyes and peel back the shower curtain, a second undressed version of yourself—this one not clutching a bar of Irish Spring.
Keeping my friends’ creativity and irresponsibility in mind, I thought it critical that Fadam not fall into the wrong hands. So after the wedding he rode home without complaint in the trunk of our Honda. Later, while wrestling him into the back of our walk-in closet, I caught my wife looking at us rather dubiously. “What?” I said. And in a rare moment of foresight: “You never know when a fellow like him might come in handy.”
As far as scarecrows go, what Fadam lacked in three-dimensionality, he more than made up for with verisimilitude. Honestly, if you think about those classic, straw-filled effigies—with their floppy hats and ill-defined faces—it’s a wonder that farmers succeed in harvesting any corn at all. Still, to be effective, Fadam needed to establish a sustained and credible presence on the roof. Thus, I had to position and secure the cardboard so that an errant gust of wind wouldn’t catch him broadside, flinging him into the middle of the street—or a child’s backyard birthday party. This was accomplished by means of a phone cord the previous tenants had abandoned. Wrapped and strapped to a black metal chimney at the center of the deck, Fadam looked to the human eye like an actor in a gay bondage flick. Someone who, minutes before, had rung a doorbell—then asked the eager conclave if they’d ordered one hot Italian grinder. But evidently the pair of gulls saw him differently, and they kept a wide berth.
On the second morning of my parents’ stay, I was enjoying a quiet moment on the deck when I heard someone padding up the stairs to join me. Naturally, it was my mother who popped through the hatch, bringing along a glass of V8 and her broad streak of conservatism. I watched her eyes settle on Fadam, who had the decency to present his plain cardboard back.
“What’s that?” she asked, with the bright innocence of her Midwestern upbringing.
Taking a deep breath, I introduced her to my twin—then diverted her attention with a clarification of Fadam’s purpose. This, I supposed, was less than self-evident.
My mother’s eyes got very wide. And I braced for a tart assessment of my scheme—which, after all, carried a non-zero chance of landing me on the state registry for sex offenders.
But all at once, she broke into a smile. “My boy,” she said. “Always so clever—and handy.” Despite their striking inaccuracy, I received these scraps of praise like some other son might welcome week-old bread—or a regurgitated clam.
In return, I offered my mom a chair whose sightline was G-rated.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” she said, shrugging and sitting across from Fadam. “How many times did I change your underpants?”
Far above, the diaper-less gulls wheeled and cried out. I wondered where the pair of interlopers was now, and suddenly I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about my anti-bird crusade. After all, it was just instinct that had brought them to our roof, a mother’s desire to protect her young from all those taller, handsomer gulls with more practical skills.
I hoisted my coffee mug in my mom’s direction, but she seemed lost in a lingering appraisal of the harbor. Or maybe, twenty years later, she was registering—in the ample curve of my flounder-white thighs—that all those frozen wings hadn’t gone to waste. It didn’t matter. I proposed a wordless toast to the dedication of parents everywhere—without whom we might not have learned much of anything. Without whom we might still be squawking in our own shit.