“Stories”

A Vulture’s Daydream.

Monday, December 9th, 2013

The trail hand was complaining about bad cards. Doc ignored him, and dealt the man another losing hand.

It was hot in the airless saloon. Doc was shining with sweat, and coughed into a handkerchief.

As Doc reached for the money in the center of the table, the trail hand suggested the deal had been less than fair. Everyone got quiet.

Both men rose from their chairs. Time stood still, and so did they. Head to head. Eye to eye.

Doc coughed. The trail hand didn’t care about the spray of fevered breath. He cared about Doc’s gun hand.

Doc said, “Sir, I am too unwell to draw at this time.” Backing away, palms open, he added, “Take the pot.” Doc turned, and disappeared through swinging doors into the Arizona night.

Weeks later, back on the open range, the trail hand watched a Turkey Vulture circling him at end of day as he rode.

The vulture and a nagging cough had been recent acquisitions.

The trail hand, chilled and sweating, spit a bloody slime onto a nearby rock. The blood turned from red to black in the setting sun.

Doc Holiday never knew about the blackness on the rock, or that he’d earned himself another sort of notch.

Pine Marten

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

I saw a Pine Marten. Mac thought I was talking about a bird. He’s no birder. It’s not a bird, but a big weasel. You don’t see it most places. It made my day.

We were a thousand miles from a city, a hundred miles from a real town. Every once in a while you’ve got to get into the backwoods. For the birds, and for other animals.

We’d seen Pileated Woodpeckers and Bald Eagles. There were porcupines and coyotes. I’d been hoping for a bear. Mac wasn’t hoping for anything except time away from his job and his wife.

After dark, we went into a roadhouse. It had beer signs and a stuffed bear over the bar, posed to look fierce, but looking instead like a young bear shot for no reason.

We had a few beers. We didn’t look different from the locals, but we stood out. Here, everyone knows everyone. They know if they don’t know you.

A pale, plump girl tended bar. She asked if “you boys was up here fishin’.”

Mac said we were watching birds. He’s feisty Irish. Even though it was true, what he said, he knew it didn’t fit here. I guess I mumbled something about looking for bears, if there were any that hadn’t been shot young.

We drank and thought about burgers, but no menu was offered. A table of four guys might’ve been staring. Big guys, with sawdust on their jeans.

Mac and I grew up in Chicago. We knew when the air had a charge we didn’t like. We paid the pale bartender.

As we drove out of the gravel parking lot, those four guys came through the door. They went to a car. Could’ve been they were just calling it a night.

Mac and I said nothing. I drove up the 2-lane. The forest was heavy on both sides. In my rear-view, headlights shone. They’d come out of the roadhouse lot, heading toward us.

I got it up to about fifty, and was interested in what might appear in our lights. Sometimes we’d see a coyote on the road this time of night. Might be a wolf, but wolves don’t travel alone.

I’d been hoping to see a real bear on this trip. Not a stuffed one. That would’ve been a jackpot, even topping the Pine Marten.

Mac popped a beer from the cooler we kept in the back and relaxed. No radio up here, or we’d have tuned in some rock.

Two headlights, like eyes in the distance, hung behind us.

After a while, the road curved into a hairpin switchback and the rear view mirror went dark. We were out of the line of sight of any car that was behind us, and we’d be that way for a bit.

I sped up, as I reached behind me for a beer.

A logging road appeared on the left and I cut the wheel, getting onto it fast, popping open my beer with one hand. I made a 3-point turn in there, then headed back to the 2-lane and went in the opposite direction from where we’d come

“Pine Marten,” I said. “That was a first.”

“Kinda bird, right?” Mac tipped his beer and smiled. A guy who cares nothing for bird names or rare weasels.

Mac sipped his beer and looked tired. It had been a long day. We were ready to get back to the fish camp where we’d rented a couple of cabins.

I had ticks to peel off my ankles. I had to phone my wife in the city and tell her all was cool, I’d seen Pileated Woodpeckers and a Pine Marten. She’d think the marten was a bird, but I was too tired to care.

We rounded the hairpin curve, and saw the car coming at a good clip. Its two headlights heading up the road. Our two going down it now. Just cars driving in opposite directions.

They sped past. Maybe they were looking for red taillights up ahead. Maybe not. Mac and I drank our beers, and didn’t give a shit.

~     ~     ~     ~

Cowboys and Birdwatchers (Continued)

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Our last story, “Cowboys and Birdwatchers” on Sunday, October 16, had a cliffhanger ending. If you haven’t read it, you might want to scroll down to the post below this one, and take a look. It sets up everything that’s about to happen.

As we pick up where we left off, Hawke’s pretty girlfriend, the pacifist vegetarian Josie, leaves the saloon with a backpack that may or may not have contained a Colt forty-four. It was the wild west, after all, and such a thing was possible…

~ ~ ~

Cowboys and Birdwatchers, Part Two…

…Hawke was steps behind Josie when the man with the bushy mustache snatched the pack from her.

She held onto its strap, and pulled back. The man yanked hard, knocking Josie off balance, then tried to stop her fall by grabbing a fistful of her shirt. It ripped, buttons tearing.

She hit the ground. He got the pack.

Hawke moved toward the man, but Josie sprang up and clamped herself to his arm. Mustache looked in the bag and said, “Never was no gun!”

Josie surprised everyone by shouting, “Hah!”

Mustache spit on the ground and studied it as though something from a miner’s lung might tell him what to do. He flung the pack at Hawke, who caught it one-handed.

Mustache reached for his sidearm, in no hurry, relishing the moment.

Hawke moved Josie aside and pushed his free hand into the birdwatcher’s vest, getting a grip on his hidden pistol, but he couldn’t draw. It was tangled in the flapped pocket.

Hawke pushed the gun forward, stretching his vest toward the man. “Don’t make me shoot,” he said.

Mustache smiled and said, “I won’t be deceived twice.” He tightened his fingers around the handle of his revolver.

Hawke had been denied a steak dinner. He was hungry. His girlfriend had been thrown to the ground and had her shirt ripped open.

And this man was about to pull a gun. Hawke aimed low, as a warning. “BLAM!”

The explosion shocked a Crow from a nearby tree where it kept an eye on trash behind the saloon. Hawke noticed this bird. Even New Yorkers know that Crows can be symbols of the dark side of life.

Hawke’s birdwatcher’s vest was blown open and set afire by the shot. He tossed it away. The bullet had flown dangerously high and nicked the man’s ear, which bled quickly.

Now Hawke remembered that he’d been warned in the gun shop about kickback making a shot rise. Mustache froze. With the vest gone, Hawke easily brought out the Colt.

He pulled the trigger again, this time aiming well to the side. “BLAM!”

His second bullet hit the barrel wagon, and lamp oil spurted, splashing the ground. Mustache, ignoring his own pistol, jumped behind the wagon.

Hawke heard a whoop from inside, sounding like derby lady. The smell of gunsmoke mixed with raw lamp oil. Josie pulled Hawke toward their horses, yelling, “Stop!”

They mounted, spurred, and galloped. There was a cough behind them as pooling lamp oil touched flame, and Hawke remembered his burning vest.

In the saddle, he opened the pack, and dropped in the gun. It clanked against the telescope.

The air was cooling and light was failing as they retraced that morning’s switchbacks. It was a difficult trail, hard for others to follow.

At the rocky stream where they’d seen Dippers earlier, a Great Blue Heron stood tall and unmoving. Hawke admired this solitary hunter for its lack of interest in them.

Josie reined back, and their horses came to a stop. They were alone. No hoofbeats in the distance. Only the sound of moving water, the squeak of saddles.

Nodding her head, Josie said, “You did have a gun.”

Her hair was wild from having hit the ground. She ignored her ripped shirt as it flapped, a sight Hawke didn’t ignore.

“Well,” Hawke began, but wasn’t sure where to go.

She said, “Someone could’ve been shot.” Hawke thought: right or wrong, this girl won’t have anything to do with a man who shoots at someone.

“I’ll toss it in that river, Josie, just watch me,” he said.

She squinted, and cocked her head. Her loose hair shook.

He hefted the backpack off the saddle horn, dismounted and jogged downhill to the water’s edge.

Josie remained in the saddle, silhouetted against the west, watching him. She called out, but he couldn’t catch her words over the sound of his boots skidding on the stony slope.

The smell of water was strong. Currents in the stream sparked orange from the setting sun.

Hawke remembered the way Mustache dove behind the wagon. He mouthed a silent “Bang!” Then reached into the pack, got his hand around the familiar grip, and threw.

It was a low toss, invisible to Josie. But there was the splash of metal hitting water, loud in the fading light.

As Hawked climbed back, she said, “You threw the spyglass in, didn’t you?”

She was right. “Jeez, Josie,” he said. “How’d you know?” She jumped to the ground, and came to meet him.

Hawke added, “Now I got to get another one if we’re going to look for eagles.” Josie, smiling, eyes flashing, kept coming.

“But first thing we’re going to do,” Hawke said, “is ride to Granby and get a steak.”

“Well,” she said, “Maybe not the first thing….”

~ ~ ~

As Hawke and Josie ride off in the setting sun, we know Hawke’s going to get a couple of things that night, including a steak.

Josie will order steak, too, having a rebirth after their adventure, and giving up vegetarianism. This same change of heart will cause her to soon abandon Hawke and head further west for excitement.

She’ll join a theater troupe, and in Tombstone will hook up with Wyatt Earp. They’ll become lifelong partners. Her story’s kind of true; look it up.

Hawke, on the other hand is pure fiction. He’ll probably fade into the background of our imaginations and not be heard from again, but you never know.

The man with the frowning mustache will go on frowning, minus an ear lobe. The Crow will return to its tree above the old saloon. Dippers will always amaze us by walking underwater in Colorado’s running mountain streams.

The Great Blue Heron has fish, frogs and snakes on his mind, and still doesn’t give a damn about anything people do, whether they’re real or made up.

~ ~ ~



Cowboys and Birdwatchers.

Sunday, October 16th, 2011


Because he was lean, Hawke didn’t look like he cared much about food. But he was a meat eater, true to his name. And he wanted a steak. This, in spite of his new girlfriend and bird-watching companion, a sweet vegetarian named Josie.

It was the 1870s, and still wild in the new state called Colorado. Hawke, recently arrived from New York, liked it that way.

He and Josie had spent the day skinny-dipping in mountain streams while looking for odd birds called Dippers. They’d seen only a few.

He’d brought a telescope, but that worked better for eagles than Dippers. So far, it had only revealed one. A Bald Eagle, not as big as a Golden, but worth seeing.

(Josephine was “Josie” Marcus, a San Francisco actress and department store heiress who would in a week’s time move on to Tombstone, Arizona where she’d meet Wyatt Earp and live out her days with him).

Hawke and Josie had eaten apples around noon, and little else. Now, with the sun reddening, they walked their tired horses up to a promising saloon. A sign out front advertised food, and this excited a hungry Hawke. They went in.

Tables were empty, but the bar was crowded. It was Saturday, so miners and ranch hands were drinking their pay envelopes. A muscular woman in a beat-up derby was pouring.

Hawke, with meat on his mind, pushed toward the bar. He jostled a man who had a bushy mustache in the shape of a frown. Such impersonal body contact was part of Hawke’s big city background, and meant little. He called to the bartender, “Ma’am, could we get a couple of steaks?”

“Sitcher selves,” she said. He and Josie found a table that Hawke tapped on impatiently. Josie’s healthy figure made itself evident in a faded denim shirt as she leaned forward. Hawke felt someone approach. As he’d tell the story later–it weren’t no lady in a derby.

The man with the mustache sat next to Josie. Hawke remembered pushing past him at the bar, and got a prickly feeling reminiscent of youthful skirmishes in Hell’s Kitchen. Mustache spoke: “You up from Denver?” Hawke patted the canvas pack and said, “Been enjoyin’ your country, glassin’ rare birds.” The drawl was an inside joke.

“He likes to push,” the man said to Josie, as his elbow touched her in the spot Hawke had recently been admiring. “Hate to think he pushes you.” Josie flinched. The man looked at Hawke. “Son, push your way on home.”  To Josie he said, “Honey, you stay.”

“I see.” Hawke said with a shrug, and moved as though to rise. Josie’s eyes widened. Hawke opened the top of the pack and slipped his hand in, feeling a familiar metal shape.

He had no experience with guns until he’d bought this one after coming west. In New York, he’d known brass knuckles. He avoided mentioning the gun to Josie since she was a vegetarian with outspoken pacifist sensitivities. This revolver, etched with the adventuresome word, Colt, was no pacifist.

Hawke didn’t want to miss out on a steak. Didn’t want Josie frightened. Didn’t want his skinny-dipping, bird-watching pretty partner rubbed up against. He cocked the hammer, inside the canvas pack. “Click.”

“I have a forty-four aimed at your heart.”

It was aimed at the man’s shoulder, due to an inborn moral qualm, but the threat was believable and so were Hawke’s eyes and intentions. Mustache swallowed. Hawke said, “Leave us.” The man bounded up and out.

Hawke uncocked. “You all right?” he asked Josie. She blinked at the ceiling, not wanting to show a tear of fear. Then said, “No. I thought I knew you. You have a gun?

“You heard a click. Couldn’t it have been the spyglass? Me tapping the lens cap?” Hawke put his hand in the bag and snapped the telescope’s cap. “Click.”

She said, “It was a bluff?”

“What’ll it be?” The proprietress was there. Instead of ordering, Josie asked for directions to the washbasin, then added, “Sorry, we’re going to change our minds.” Hawke thought, No!

“Suit cherselves. You can wash out back, hon.”

Hawke thought, there’s that little cantina outside Granby that serves steak and tortillas…Then he was struck with the certainty that Josie would look in the pack when she returned. He slipped the revolver into his birdwatcher’s vest. This flap-pocketed garment was a gift from Josie, and he wore it mainly to please her.

She returned, face washed, wet and smiling. Sure enough, she took the pack and walked out. He lagged, letting her have her fun. She had no chance to examine its contents, though, because Mustache was waiting.

“That pack’s got to be heavy for a little lady.”

~ ~ ~

TO BE CONTINUED…

mustache

Hawks and dogs.

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Birding with friends can be okay. But birding alone, or with your dog, is better.

The dog can be quiet, and when you stop to watch something, he watches, too. He’s glad to be on the trail with you.

If you don’t have a dog anymore, you still hike, and maybe you think about him when something interesting happens.

Today, a camouflaged Cooper’s Hawk dropped out of a tree where it had been hiding like a mountain lion. It tried to snap up a late-season Eastern Kingbird, and almost did.

Then another Cooper’s Hawk, more unexpected than the first, flew in from the side to steal the meal.

These are solitary birds, two-fisted birdwatchers, themselves. But during migration they cross paths.

The two hungry hawks engaged in quick aerial combat. Feathers flew. A dogfight. My dog would’ve liked that. Would’ve been good to see it together.

That triggers the memory of another dog who made a pretty good companion. Second best thing about this other dog’s story is that it’s true.

What’s the first best thing? We’ll get to that in a moment.

The dog was a Skye Terrier named Bobby, and he lived in Edinburgh, Scotland during the 1870s.

He accompanied a night watchman, John Gray, on his rounds. The two became great companions.

One day, John Gray died. Bobby went to the man’s burial service, then stayed. Through all weather, he didn’t leave the graveyard. Neighborly Scots left scraps of food, and the dog became well-known.

As Europeans will do, they built a statue honoring him. But dogs don’t care about statues. They care about you. Something to think about when you’re hiking with your dog.

How long did Bobby stay by John Gray’s grave? That’s the best part. He stayed until his own death, 14 years later.

Rare birds.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I saw a Phainopepla in the morning, and in the evening I saw a cowboy pour shots of whiskey into his ear. More about the Phainopepla in a moment.

That night I’d gone to a roadhouse. This was near Sedona, where a new age vortex was said to be strong, so maybe this all happened in some kind of alternate reality.

A shaky guy dressed in black joined me at the bar. He introduced himself as Chuck, and asked if I’d stand him to a shot.

While I was thinking of how to say no to this oddly worded question, he set his black hat on the bar, grabbed my shot, and threw it down his ear.

He tilted to keep the booze in, then slapped his head. Dirty hair sprung like a bunch of springs being unsprung.

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I ordered two more shots. And two beers. This time, I was buying for both of us.

I downed my whiskey the usual way, and Chuck threw his into his ear again.

I drank half my draft, and he poured a bit of his beer into the same ear. A chaser, although some quickly foamed out and ran down his neck.

“I shot a coyote,” Chuck said. “That’s the problem.”

I still didn’t have a reply for this guy, but I looked at him, and I guess I looked interested. So he went on.

“I took a strip of its fur, wrapped it in a band of leather and figured I’d wear it in my hair. Saw an Indian do that. And I liked it.”

“Okay,” I said. “I get it.”

The guy had wanted some decoration. We were in a vortex in a flaky part of the west. He did have an aging hippie style. Made sense, I guess.

“Okay…” I said again, using that great all-purpose All American word to invite him to continue.

“Turns out I got mange from it. Mange is mites, you know?”

I did know. I know a lot of weird things, whether I’m near Sedona or not. I nodded.

Chuck went on, “Nobody gets it in their ear, but I did. Doctors can’t cure it. Alcohol stops my itch. So there you go,” he said. And tossed another shot into the side of his head.

He burped.

I’m pretty sure the sound of it didn’t come from his ear. But, by that time, my boilermaker had hit home. Maybe I did hear an ear-burp.

But I was going to tell you about that Phainopepla, right?

~     ~     ~    ~     ~

From “Great Pretenders.” A 2nd excerpt.

Monday, July 19th, 2010

The first excerpt from Great Pretenders has been on this site for a while, and gets a number of readers. We’ve been asked, “What’s the book about? Where’s the rest?”

Two-Fisted Birdwatcher figures you don’t want to wade through lots of words. That’s why there’s been just one excerpt. But, maybe it’s time for another. A new one appears below.

These are from a novel in progress. A name change is under consideration.  Perhaps, it should be called “The-Two Fisted Birdwatcher.”  Or “Adventures of a Two-Fisted Birdwatcher.” Let us know what you think of that.

It’s about a business geek named Ben Franklin who drops out of the wilds of big city office life and drifts into the wilds of the American west, where he has an adventure.

There’s a lost girl to find. There are birds. Bad guys. Other girls. Guns, arrows, bears, chases, beer-drinking, more birds, fighting, and did we say other girls? Plus deep thoughts, even a little redemption.

Someday this novel might make it to a bookstore. Meanwhile, here’s a second excerpt. Hope you enjoy it.

West Beckwith Mountain 2

From Chapter 45…

Ben had stretched the truth a little, an occupational habit, by letting Archie assume he was an experienced rider.  Truth was, he’d ridden as a kid, but only on dispirited day camp horses, dragging their tired butts along the level bridle paths of suburban Chicago.

Strawberry was different, moving with the responsiveness of a sports car.  The horse seemed to dislike trotting as much as any sensible rider does, and had just two speeds.  Walk or gallop.

After the initial whip-lashing surge, the galloping would smooth into an undulating rush through slapping grasses and overhanging leaves.  Ben felt like yelling out, as though on a roller coaster, but there seemed a need to maintain dignity in the quiet mountains, especially in front of the horse…

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Strawberry moved deliberately, picking his way over slippery stone while Ben, a helpless passenger no longer feeling he was in the driver’s seat, let the reins rest in his hand against the front of the saddle and gave himself up to the pitch and sway, enjoying the sharp scent of evergreen, the squeak of leather from a hundred complicated connections in and around the saddle, the scrape of metal-shod hooves on grit.

His was a sunny trail this morning, and he nodded his head, going with the motion, as in agreement that this was just a kind of perk, part of doing a job well.  If he twisted around in the saddle, he could make out the red dust road behind him that wound back toward the ranch.  In the distance, white smoke was rising from what must be the barbecue fire.  He wouldn’t really be on his own until he topped the rise and got it between him and this outpost of civilization.

The idea of being cut off plunked a chord somewhere under Ben’s heart, and adrenaline flushed from it, filling his chest with nervous heat, making his pulse flutter, the thin air becoming suffocating.  He was reminded of the feeling he’d had, lost and crazy when separated from the girl that day in the woods.  No way, not this time.  He had the stalwart Strawberry for company.  And all the comforts of home.  You can’t be lost when carrying food, clothes, shelter, fire, water, map, compass, even a radio beacon if needed…

This calmed him.  Only trouble now was that a surprising sadness inched its way forward, caused by the very insight he’d just found reassuring.  The well-packed animal was indeed now house and home.  It was his only true address in the world, having left the city with bridges burned.  What was to become of him?

A bird flew in front of the horse and alit on a trailside branch, unconcerned with Ben’s problems or proximity, not having been conditioned to fear horses or anything growing out of a horse’s back.  It had a deep red body, sharply delineated black wings and tail.  This bird didn’t belong here.  Ben recognized it as an Easterner, like him. And this distracted him from nerves, funk and self-pity.  Ben and the bird looked eye to eye as he passed, two strangers in these parts.  A wordless moment of something like kinship.

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When Ben turned his attention back to the trail, he saw it had topped out.  They were in a clearing, under a big sky.  The horse blew a snotty Bronx cheer to announce his arrival, a raspberry from Strawberry, and dropped his head to feed on knee-high grass, sending up clouds of tiny flies which attacked horse and rider with enthusiasm, excited as insects will be by sweat and blood.

Ben dismounted.  He’d only been in the saddle an hour, but his legs were feeling funny, as after ice skating.  He tied the reins to a sapling, ignoring traces of the recent nervous buzz resonating somewhere inside.

He opened one of the overstuffed saddlebags and had the faint impression of himself as a kid, unwrapping presents.  The Jack Daniel’s bottle still carried morning coolness.  He twisted the cap, breaking the seal with a satisfying snap and took a long swallow, enjoying how it bit back. He replaced the bottle, and it clanked against the wrapped-up revolver.

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Behind him stood the tightness of trees they’d ridden through.  Ahead, the meadow sloped into a V-shaped landform that reminded him of a woman’s inviting legs.  It was well grown there with summer’s healthy vegetation, making the comparison (coaxed along by the healthy swig of Jack Daniels) all the more inviting.

The horizon lay green and rolling, with hazy mountains hovering above, seemingly unconnected, floating like clouds.  The ad guy in him couldn’t help thinking…fade in music from Magnificent Seven…it builds, swells…but Ben shook the guy off.  This was too good for theme songs.  Too big to need help.

He went back to the saddlebag, this time pulling free the gun belt and its loaded holster.  He buckled it on, enjoying the weight of it.  He adjusted his hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, untied the horse and swung into the saddle.  Ben didn’t look back again.  He touched his heels to Strawberry’s sides and lit out across the meadow at a gallop, the old Stetson tipped forward, his long hair flying out from under it, the six-shooter hefty on his hip, good whiskey hot in his blood.

“Bustard!”

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’ve never been a two-fisted conversationalist, especially around people I don’t know well.

When I was in my teens I somehow acquired a pretty girlfriend. I was invited to dinner at her home. She and I, her mom and dad, a younger brother and two elderly grandparents, a table full. All strangers, except for my girlfriend.

My discomfort was huge, and things just got worse when I found that I had nothing to say to anyone about anything. My silence eventually reinforced itself. I figured after having gone for a long time without joining the conversation, if I ever did jump in, then whatever I said had better be good. But I had nothing.

My girlfriend was looking askance at me. As it turns out, the only word I uttered at the table that night was “bustard.” That and nothing more.

The Bustard is a tallish bird of the crane family found in Northern Africa, Southern Europe and Eurasia. Most ordinary Americans have never heard of it. But birds, hey, now that was a subject I could talk about. And the grandmother gave me my opening.

She and the grandfather had recently returned from an overseas trip and were talking about unusual birds they noticed, birds we don’t see here. They described a bird in some detail that interested them because it had a funny name. It was tan, with a long neck and black and white tail feathers. But they couldn’t recall the funny name.

I blurted out, “Bustard!” Everyone looked at me.

Feeling pretty good about myself for the first time that night, I was about to explain that this is the name of a bird in that region fitting her description.

I had planned to tell these people that I was somewhat of a bird geek, a self-deprecating phrase that would make me likable, I hoped. This was to be the conversational icebreaker I needed. It would also make me look smart. My girlfriend would be proud. The table talk would proceed and I’d join in, salvaging the evening.

The grandmother paused after giving me a strange look. Everyone at the table gave me a strange look. Then the grandmother continued, calmly saying to the others, “Oh, I remember the bird’s name: Hoopoe, that’s what the guide called it.” And she turned to her husband for confirmation, “Wasn’t that right, dear? Hoopoe. Remember it now?”

The husband nodded, his mouth full of mashed potatoes, not really caring. Although out of the corner of his eye, he was still looking at me. I never explained. In any case, my identification had been wrong, so claiming to be knowledgeable about birds wouldn’t have made sense. I didn’t say anything else that night except maybe, goodbye.

Which is pretty much what my girlfriend said to me a few days later.

"Good bye."

“Good bye.”

“Suckin’ Sap!”

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The idea of renaming the birds of America isn’t mine. It’s Jim Harrison’s. He mentions it in early writings and makes it a theme in his 2008 novel, The English Major. I wish the idea had been mine. It’s always felt weird to tell people I saw a Peewee or Coot.

I never mind saying that I saw a Raven or Nighthawk, but of course the Titmouse causes a double-take from my non-birdwatching buddies, as discussed in the story “Tits” posted elsewhere on this site.

"Did someone say Rufus-Sided Towhee?"

"Did someone say Rufous-Sided Towhee?"

Some bird names, while slightly eccentric, are oddly likable. There’s the Rufous-Sided Towhee (often called the Eastern Towhee). In a crowded bar, a two-fisted birdwatcher we know once blurted, “Hey, there’s a Rufous-Sided Towhee in the beer garden!” A pretty girl who hadn’t paid attention earlier came over, wanting to know this interesting guy.

"What do YOU know about birds?"

"What do YOU know about birds?"

But the best commentary about bird names comes from Art Carney in a conversation with Jackie Gleason in an old “Honeymooners” episode. Black & white TV from the 1950s lives on. The old is new again, thanks to cable channels and vintage DVDs.

Carney’s character Ed Norton tells bus driver buddy Ralph Kramden, played by the two-fisted Gleason, that he was bird watching in Central Park. Ralph, always exasperated with Norton says, “Now what do YOU know about birds?” Norton replies, “Well, I saw a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.”

Kramden, smirking, says, “And HOW do know that?” With perfect comic timing, Norton one-ups Ralphie-boy as usual: “Cuz it had a yellow belly. And it was suckin’ sap!”

Tits

Monday, June 15th, 2009

My dad and I were going to a White Sox game. Not just a Chicago thing to do. But a south-side Chicago thing to do. A two fisted thing. I’m ten or eleven years old. Happy to be going to see some baseball, get some hot dogs, hang out with my dad.

Then as we’re waiting for a light on a tree-lined street I see a tufted titmouse in a tree. I never saw one ‘til then. And I say, hey, a titmouse.

My dad thinks all birds are called birds. Period. Maybe some are called chickens or turkeys, and I guess he’d know an eagle on a quarter, but he doesn’t get into it more than that.

“A what mouse?” He says.

I’d recently studied birds in school so I knew the different kinds and knew this was a tufted titmouse. A little chickadee with a crest on its head. Don’t ask me why, but I remembered it and thought it was cool to see one.

That day was the beginning of my being teased about birds.

Sure, I liked making my dad laugh. It wasn’t easy. What could a little kid say that was funny enough to make a grown-up laugh? But this did it.

Titmouse. He laughed a belly laugh on that car trip. And later telling this to family and friends: “Hey, we saw a titmouse today.” Laugh, laugh.

Then whenever I went hiking in woods or on vacations to nature-heavy resorts like Starved Rock State Park, I’d get: hey, going to look for some tit-mice, are you?

tuftedtitmouse

As a kid this embarrassed me. I knew full well what tits were, the kind guys talked about in schoolyards. The kind I really wanted to see.  But that wasn’t a family subject, tits.

I guess his derision of my interest in tits, the bird names, contributed to my becoming a little defensive about bird watching. Hence, the whole two-fisted thing which might be a bit of an over-compensation for feeling like a bird nerd as a kid. Well, so be it.

In America we have the tufted titmouse and maybe one other kind, a western titmouse. But in England and Europe they have birds just plainly called tits.

There’s the blue tit and others like that. Also, let’s not forget the great tit. I looked for this bird on a trip to Europe. So I could come back from a hike and say, “Saw a couple of great tits today.” But I didn’t see them and couldn’t say that.

Now, let’s not forget that there are also birds named boobies. Blue-footed booby, red-footed, etc. Tits and boobies. Is this a great hobby for guys or what?

By the way, the team playing the White Sox that day? The Baltimore Orioles. On the south side of Chicago those words had only one definition, even to me. Freakin’ ball players.

Excerpt from the novel “Great Pretenders”

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

From Chapter Two 

….the  young blonde woman was standing above a pretty little creek in a remote part of the Rockies.  The clear water moving over red-brown stones was deep and cool.  It looked to her like iced tea.

Being far from the trail, she assumed she was alone.  But young blonde women are a suspicious lot when it comes to getting undressed, so she double-checked, squinting behind her, scanning the hills, then across the creek into the pines.  Seeing no sign of anyone else, she took off her sweaty hiking clothes.  The cool air against her skin made a welcome change.

womanswimming

...being far from the trail, she assumed she was alone.

Down by the water’s edge the smell of damp stone was strong, overpowering the pine smell that had been with her all day, especially in the early morning before sunshine heated and thinned the air.

A nagging sense of insecurity.

She hesitated, then jogged back to her belongings.  She knelt over an open backpack, rooting around, her loose hair falling forward.  With one hand she flicked it back, laying it over a bare shoulder, and with her other she withdrew a sheathed hunting knife which hung heavily from a weathered, leather belt.

She buckled this on and returned to the creek, now primitively armed, anticipating the pleasures of a swim.  She waded in until the moving water touched the junction of her legs, dampening blondish curls there, turning them dark.  She took a deep breath and dove in against the current, swimming below the surface, kicking, arms forward.  She broke the surface, stood and tossed her head back, her long hair throwing off an arc of silver spray.

Refreshed, now needing warmth, she waded to the other side, to a flatrock overhang sitting above the water in dry sunlight.  In the distant hills, the man with binoculars watched.  It was his lucky day.  The girl lay naked on the warm rock.  Eyes closed.  Skin and hair drying quickly in the mountain sun.  There was only the steady sound of moving water and the occasional breeze quivering the aspens, making their leaves crackle softly.

She stretched, a lioness at midday.  Then a speck of red streaked overhead, crossing the creek into the pines behind her.  She turned.  A cardinal?  Rare for this altitude.  Not found in the mountains.  The girl happened to be a student of such avian esoterica and became interested, no, not just interested, intrigued…

She stood, looking again for hot red against forest green.  Nothing.  Then a flash as the bird flew to another tree.  Red with black.  “A scarlet tanager?” she said aloud, to no one (as far as she knew), and walked off her warm rock, away from the creek toward the trees to get a closer look.

 

...a species not of these mountains

...a species not of these mountains

 

The bird flew to another perch and the girl followed, jogging naked on the stony ground, climbing above the bank now, entering the woods, eyes on the bird.  It swooped away and down, disappearing behind a rocky outcrop.  The girl moved quickly, making use of this temporary screen to shorten the distance without the bird seeing her.  The sheathed knife flapped against her naked buttock as she ran, an encouraging pat, pat.

She peeked around the rock.  Nothing.  She scanned the trees but the bird was gone.  She thought it could have been an Eastern bird, a species not of these mountains.  It would have been an important sighting, but the bird didn’t sit still long enough for her to confirm it.  She turned, walking back quickly to her place by the creek.

The distance back seemed greater than the distance away.  She had no thought of time when following the bird.  Suddenly, she felt unsure.  Was it this far?  The creek had to be just through the trees ahead, and she ran toward them, feeling chilled.  She got to the trees and saw nothing beyond but more trees.  She stopped, heart pounding, knowing she was lost.

The Ferruginous Hawk

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Dad had already left, and I was just finishing my breakfast when Grandfather came into the kitchen, pulled out a chair and sat. Right on time again. Funny how an old man keeps such a regular schedule.

As he always does at this time, he pushed the book toward me and said, “Pick a good one today.”

Mom set a plate of food down and said, “Eat your breakfast, Grandfather.”

I looked at her. Mom in the morning. Her rollers. Her impassive voice. So flat, so mechanical. I thought, funny that she always calls him Grandfather. He’s my grandfather. It was just her way.

“Pick a good one,” Grandfather said.

It was a beat-up and well used old bird book. He knew all the birds in it by heart. As was our little custom, I closed my eyes, flipped through the pages and poked my finger suddenly down onto one.

We both looked to see what bird I picked for him.

“Ferruginous Hawk?” he said.

“First time I ever gave you that one.”

“A challenge, all right,” he said.

“Eat your breakfast, Grandfather,” Mom said.

*

When my grandfather was my age, he liked the birds, and knew their names. Since he retired, he’d taken up bird watching again. It got him out of the house so Mom could do her work during the day.

To make it interesting for him, one morning long ago, I kiddingly picked a bird at random from the old book and said, “See if you can spot this guy.”

Every day after that we played the same game. Evenings at dinner, I’d ask him how he did, and he’d lie, “No problem, kiddo. Just gotta know where to look.”

Mom would say, “Eat your dinner,” to both of us.

*

That evening, on the day I’d given him “Ferruginous Hawk,” Grandfather didn’t come back. When Dad came home from work, we went to look.

“Damn foolish, this bird thing of his,” Dad said. And I could see he was worried more than mad.

Grandfather’s tracks were easy to follow, and they went on for more than a mile. When we found him, he was barely alive.

He was lying bareheaded on the ground, his face awfully gray, his breath shallow and raspy.

“I saw one,” he said to me, his excitement plainly there under the weakness.

“Let’s get him back,” Dad said. We collected Grandfather’s things, got him up and breathing better, and led him home.

“I saw one,” he said again.

We were still feeling worried and serious, so I didn’t say anything back. I was tempted to say, “Ferruginous Hawk?”

It could wait.

*

Once inside, Grandfather’s breathing became completely normal, and his strength returned. He went directly to the kitchen table, sat, and began leafing through his bird book, looking at it harder than I’d ever seen him look at it before.

Dad sat and said, “Pop, this bird thing, it’s gone too far. You’ve got to stop.”

Grandfather didn’t even look at him, but just kept studying the book, turning its pages and looking at them one by one.

“Pop?”

“Shhhh.”

“Eat your dinner, Grandfather,” Mom said.

Then Grandfather closed the book and put it down gently on the table.

“I saw one,” he said to me, and smiled. But it wasn’t his usual smile.

I didn’t know what to say now.

Dad said, “Saw one what?”

Mom said, “Eat your dinner, Grandfather.”

Grandfather threw the bird book at Mom then, and when it hit, it hit hard, exploding, and all those brittle old pages flew around the room, scattering themselves over the floor.

Grandfather stood, and in one smooth movement, surprising for an old man, kicked Mom in the side hard enough to knock her off her rollers.

She fell onto her side with a clang. Sparks flared under her. And the room smelled of hot ozone.

“Eat your breakfast, Grandfather,” Mom said, her voice flat. Then she said it again, and Dad had to get up and switch her off.

*

“What’s gotten into you, Pop! First you practically kill yourself, going around without your air helmet. Then you break the robot!”

“I saw one.”

“One what?” Dad screamed.

“One bird.”

“There aren’t any birds, Dad. Not for at least fifty years!”

“What kind was it, Grandfather?” I said.

Dad said, “Stay out of this, son.”

Grandfather looked at me and laughed. “It wasn’t no Ferruginous Hawk, I’ll tell you that much.”

Toad guy

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

A bunch of guys are hiking near a woodland river. Enjoying the wild, shooting the bull, being guys.

One sees a toad.

“Yo, a toad. Let’s grab it.”

They kneel over this warty creature who looks at them with prehistoric contempt. The toad knows he can jump if they get too close. One guy reaches. The toad jumps.

This sudden movement tweaks an inborn danger response, and the guy recoils in shock. He’s embarrassed by this, an affront to his bravery.

Then, a second guy pushes forward and scoops up the toad before it can even think of jumping again. The toad is surprised by this scoop because it came with no hesitation, pure speed.

Now the toad’s cupped in two strong fists, being stroked and studied.

The toad’s not the only one who’s surprised. The other guys are, too, because the toad’s picker-upper was a young woman. Skinny, pretty, with messy blonde hair.

Once again, we have to admit: sometimes a girl can be a two-fisted guy.

toadguy1