Florence is a goose. I think of her as my goose although I don’t own her. She belongs to me in my imagination, although she is a real flesh and blood and feathers goose. She lives in the park a block away, where there is a pond. It is called West Lake Park. When is a pond a lake? When you call it one. I met Florence when I was walking my dog, Esme, an Airedale. Esme is a wonderful dog with great high spirits. In fact, we called her “Christmas-every-day” Esme, when she was a puppy, because she acted like it was Christmas every day and all the presents were for her.
Esme didn’t bother Florence. Her name was Florence, I was soon to find out. I warned Esme to stand aside when Florence approached. Florence hissed in that expiration of breath that geese do when they want to make a threatening sound. It was the first sound I imitated when I talked to Florence. I hissed back at her. She liked that. I saw her coming. It was clear she was heading for me and was going to introduce herself. I braced myself for my encounter with a goose. It was perfectly clear that she was going to talk to me. It was an odd experience, understanding everything Florence said, including her name. She marched right up to me and said, “Haaaaaaaaaa.” I heard: “My name is Florence Nightingale…”
What a name for a goose. She was demanding and authoritative, knowing exactly what she wanted me to do. I understood her perfectly.
She asked me to kneel down. I did. Then she asked me to pet her. I did. She asked me to pet her back. I did. She asked me to pet her neck. I did.
“Now stroke it,” she said. Then she did a wonderful little ballet with her neck, snaking it about in a sinuous movement of graceful charm. I told her how beautiful she was. She asked me to tell her how beautiful she was and I was glad to oblige. I said: “Oh, Florence, you are sooo beautiful! Oh, how beautiful you are! You are the most beautiful goose in the world; what a beautiful goose you are.”
She was very pleased.
“You can call me Flo,” she said.
After I kneeled down and petted her, Flo backed up into my lap. This was unnerving. Here was a goose backing up into my lap in a clumsy but determined way and I didn’t for the life of me know what was going to happen next.
She said: “Pick me up.” She wanted me to walk around with her in my arms. I was reluctant. We had just met. I thought to myself: “I don’t even kiss geese on the first date.” I didn’t want to pick her up. I was afraid to pick her up. I thought she might poke me with her beak. Her beak was hard and orange and too close to my face for comfort.
Once my daughter, Jessica, had a pet chicken. A little red hen. She pecked Jessica’s eye, because she thought it was a bug. Her vision was not impaired, but her eye was red for a while. My friend, Page Smith, keeps lots of chickens and was pecked in the eye by a chicken that used to ride around on his shoulder. His eye was red for a long time. So I didn’t pick up Flo even though she wasn’t a chicken. I enjoyed stroking her. I enjoyed talking to her. It was the first time I had talked to a goose. One time I had talked to a duck. My wife and my daughter and I were vacationing in northern Wisconsin. We were lying on the grass out on our point next to the lake. A duck flew down out of the sky and landed near us and walked over to us like a new found friend. The duck never told us its name, but squawked away in the most entertaining manner, obviously enjoying our company. It walked around us cheerily for what seemed like hours telling us things.
I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to extend our hospitality to the duck beyond our encounter on the grass.
Finally, I said: “Would you like to see the house?” The duck seemed pleased beyond measure.
“Would I?”, the duck said. “You betcha!”
We walked the duck across the grass and up to the house. We went up the steps of the back porch and entered the kitchen.
“Oh, so this is the kitchen,” said the duck, or something to that effect.
“Yes,” I said,
“this is where we cook and have most of our meals, although we also have a dining room.”
“A dining room?” The duck seemed strangely impressed and intrigued; this was all news to a duck. We walked the duck into the front room. I pointed out the art work and told the duck the artists were friends of ours. The duck liked the artwork. Then we walked the duck out onto the back porch. The duck said “Thank You.” She enjoyed the visit and our hospitality. She said goodby and flew away.
We loved the visit from that duck, as though some boundary had been crossed in a unique event of human being and bird meeting on common ground. We named the duck Greta. Florence reminded me of that duck. Canadian geese once flew overhead. When I first heard the sound, I thought it was cars honking at a drive-in movie. How could they build a drive-in movie in the cranberry bog without our knowing it? Overnight! And why are they all honking their horns-because they want the movie to start? But it was in the middle of the day. Then I looked up. They flew so slowly. Honking all the time. It was slow motion. They were so huge, lumbering along in the sky in their fine v-formations. They were black and white. Florence was snow white. It was like petting smooth snow. Smoothing out snow. Not a ruffled feather. Smoothing out the relations between human beings and geese. Me and Flo. Florence was worried about the plight of the homeless in Santa Cruz. The year was 1985 and Jane Imler had gone on a fast to the death to call for the opening of a public shelter for the homeless. The City Council refused to act in her behalf. She was going to starve to death. I had been thinking about the homeless when Florence walked up to me.
“You’re worried about the homeless, aren’t you?” she said.
“Yes,” I answered. I thought, “This goose can read my mind.” And then she made her proposal. Florence said
“Well, why don’t you invite the homeless up here to the park? They can sleep here overnight and you can pick me up and carry me under your arm and we’ll go around and wish everyone a “Goodnight” and tuck them in.”
Florence said “Go ahead! It can be you. You can do it. Just stick your neck out!” As she said that, she did a beautiful ballet movement with her neck to show…