On the wing

NOTHING I have ever encountered seems to me more out of place than the sea gulls at my shopping center. Gulls belong -- isn't it obvious? -- at the sea wheeling in the wind and making tracks in the sand for me to brush my toes across. What are they doing calling to me from a lamppost next to Zayre's? They come there by the dozens, perching on the posts and diving to the spots between the sedans and pickup trucks for some ghastly and delicious tidbits.

Hybla Valley is an area on Route 1 some few miles south of Alexandria, Va., typical suburban sprawl. Though we have Alexandria addresses, we are really a part of Fairfax County and do not vote in the city of Alexandria. Perhaps we should not feel so superior to the gulls when it comes to knowing which way is home.

They know better than I that they are only a short flight to the Potomac and the sea. I am the grounded one living my myopic and compartmentalized life. Home is home, the market is the market, the river is the river, the sea is the sea.

Having grown up in a thoroughly landlocked part of the Midwest, I want sea gulls where abundant water is at least in sight -- and nothing more exotic than a few sparrows at the grocery.

I am always amazed to see the gulls, in much the same way that my father, coming home from his office years ago, was surprised to see ahead of him in the street a goodly number of elephants. They were being marched from the train station to the new circus grounds near our house. It became a yearly event that he tried to forget each time, so he could be annually surprised and delighted and somehow restored by the sight.

Just so, I am not prepared to go about the chore of marketing and get as my reward the freeing and beckoning cry of a sea gull. My gaze is lifted from the deteriorating asphalt and general slop of the parking lot to the sky.

``Keep those eyes up,'' comes the cry. ``Keep those eyes up.''

What the shopping center looks like from the bird's view, I of course have no idea. Hybla Valley is part of the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax County that is being considerably improved. My particular center has been cosmetized, and one of the supermarkets bought by a local name that definitely implies a constant supply of red peppers and sugar peas.

``Pardon our dust,'' says a sign on the electric IN door of the market, ``while we are upgrading.''

Still it pleases me that as long as people continue to throw enough junk on the parking lot for the gulls to fight over, the birds do not care under whose name the center's wares are sold.

Several years ago in Lucerne, Switzerland, I gathered up the rest of the breakfast rolls and went alone from the hotel to the edge of what sufficed for me, at least, to be a sea-sized lake.

The sky was the same mixture of gold and pink that inspired Homer's ``rosy-fingered dawn,'' about all I remember from that part of a classical education. Still it was enough to invoke one of those mystical and timeless moments when we decide life has been worthwhile.

I tore the bread in bits and threw them into sparkling air where they were caught by the myriad hovering gulls, their bodies turned to pulsating pearls and opals.

So it was that lately I nodded a silent acknowledgement to the ``Pardon our dust'' sign and included in my grocery cart a little sack of soft rolls from a bin. I had parked the car near where at least 50 gulls were holding a conference of some sort.

Back outside I got out the rolls and hoped the personnel of a fire truck parked nearby resting on its oars, so to speak, would not notice and wonder what that woman was up to.

It would not do just to toss a few crumbs on the lot. I had to throw them up to see if I could repeat what happened on the lake.

It may not have been Lake Lucerne, but it was not bad. These gulls grabbed the bread on the wing just as their cousins had.

I was covered by a dome of sea gulls, and for a moment or two, my eyes to the sky, all I saw was sunlight and those beautiful white wings -- no supermarket, no fast food, no plastic, no asphalt. I went home smiling.

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