A woman on the phone congratulated him and said he could choose between two prizes: a half-crate of blood oranges imported from Spain or a common Brown Pelican.
Oranges? he said, his voice rising.
Two kilos, replied the woman.
A pelican? he asked.
You have two days to decide, said the woman, before we give the prize to someone else. She repeated the number showing on his caller ID and then added a four-digit extension. She repeated the four-digit extension. She repeated that he had forty-eight hours to reply. She then thanked him for entering the contest and hung up.
Blood oranges or a pelican?
An orange had been a special treat when he was a child: the pulp both tangy and sweet, citrusy; the color of the rind not orange exactly, but yellowish and tactile. He would squeeze and knead the orange until it was the consistency of a firm water balloon and then punch a small hole with the fingernail file of his army knife and suck out as much of the juice as he could, leaving the flesh rent and stringy as plastic wrap removed from packaged meat. He would then tear the husk in two and nail the rutty cups to a stump for the birds (despite his mother’s rebuke for wasting good food).
But it was during his junior year abroad, when he happened upon a Carnivale celebration in a remote village of Wallonia, that he’d been struck in the head by a orange thrown with such velocity he’d collapsed to the street, where the paving bricks were sticky with sap-like juice that smelled of honeysuckle and the spew of beer.
But a pelican? He googled them. At the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, he learned that Brown Pelicans feed by plunging into the water, stunning small fish with the impact of their large bodies and scooping them up in their expandable throat pouches. When not foraging, pelicans stand around fishing docks, jetties, and beaches or cruise the shoreline. In flight, lines of pelicans glide on their broad wings, often surfing updrafts along wave faces or cliffs. Their wingbeats are slow, deep, and powerful.
Perhaps, he thought, the phone call had been serendipitous, for the neighbor’s koi pond had become overcrowded and was beginning to smell.
The Brown Pelican is a comically elegant bird, he read aloud, with an oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Cartoonish, then, and thereby entertaining.
In the end, he chose the more practical of the two.