My First Short Story: The Blonde Bobby
I finished my Short Story writing class at UCLA in March. I’ve finally gotten around to editing it and publishing it on my blog. This is the first short story I’ve ever written, so please be gentle. Enjoy!
The Blonde Bobby
What if, like a soulmate, you have a soulcraft: one avocation, sport, art, hobby, at which you are exceptional. Something you were meant to do. And, like a soulmate, some people find their soulcraft with ease and others have to search and search.
This is what Charlie had pondered as he lay in bed. It bothered him greatly to think he might be the best at something he has yet to try. Would Mozart have been Mozart if his father were a banker instead of a composer? A clank from the kitchen jolted him from his thoughts. He tried to get up but was held down by the tautness of tucked sheets. His wife Luanne had made the bed with him in it, a punishment for oversleeping.
Charlie slid his reedy body out from under the cotton sheets. He stood still on the white oak floor. He lifted his arms over his head as he drew in a deep breath – he learned to be mindful of his breathing after taking three yoga classes at a studio that smelled like vinegar.
Charlie dressed. On his way out of the bedroom, he grabbed a pine green pair of binoculars from atop his dresser. The binoculars were guaranteed fog-proof, a must for the serious birdwatcher.
Charlie walked into the kitchen to the crackle of butter and minced garlic. He saw Luanne facing the stove; her wavy brown hair hung down the back of her dandelion yellow bathrobe. Her hips wide and her legs pale. He could smell fresh dill.
Luanne was beating eggs in a glass mixing bowl. She reminded him of his old jazz instructor, an eccentric teacher of his, who instructed him to scramble the eggs, baby when using wire brushes on the snare drum.
“I thought birdwatchers got up at the break of dawn,” Luanne said.
“It’s 9:30 AM.”
“I slept in.”
She let out a frank HA as she handed him a plate of scrambled eggs with fresh herbs and cream cheese. Charlie ate quickly. He wiped the butter and egg grease from his lips. Luanne eyed him suspiciously as he stood up from the table, binoculars dangling from his neck like space-age jewelry.
“I hope this hobby lasts longer than the last hobby. Watercolors, wood burning, cross-country skiing, the mellophone. I have a hard time keeping track,” she said.
“Wood burning was the last hobby. I bought the wrong wood and the fumes made me so dizzy I threw up,” Charlie replied.
“You’re becoming a dilettante. I’m not sure who you’re trying to impress. Is it me? If so, you don’t have to be good at bird watching to do that. Hell, you could take out the trash and I’d be swooning.”
Birdwatching at Shiawassee Park
Charlie had prepared the weekend before for what would be his first birdwatching jaunt. He had spent an overcast afternoon at the Plymouth Library reading birdwatching books such as, Beyond Binoculars: A Neophyte’s Guide to Birding, Birding Solo, and Birding with Others. He learned that every respectable birder should own a pair of field glasses over $200, a copy of Sheraton’s Guide of Birds, and a large bill khaki flap hat.
He learned the lingo. Dipped: a verb meaning to miss a high-priority bird. Pish: the call birders make to attract songbirds. Spark Bird: the bird that triggers your passion. Twitcher: a hardcore birder, one not afraid to risk it all to spot a lifer. Lifer: first time seeing a particular bird.
Feeling prepared, Charlie gathered his gear from his car. He walked from the concrete parking lot, past the freshly cut grass – purgatory between society and nature – ending at a wall of trees. He found a narrow path that cut through the woods.
On a park map covered in lichens, trails were marked in windy lines of red, yellow, purple, and green; crossed and tangled, like a plate of rainbow linguini. He chose the purple route for hikers, a three-mile loop that zig-zagged from the Walnut Picnic Area down to the pond.
Charlie walked past maple, birch, and oak trees that appeared to go on forever. Leaves crunched beneath his feet. As he approached the pond, faint calls of wood frogs started to well up like a chorus of drunks singing doo-wop. He heard chirps and chips and coo-coo-coos but did not see any birds. He worried that bird watching would become another hobby on Luanne’s list of his failures. She was right, after all, who was he trying to impress?
The pond smelled musty and sweet, like wet towels left in the washer too long. Panicky amphibians made tiny splashes along the water’s edge. He made his way down the short wooden pier on the pond. The water was smooth and still. So far, not so good, he thought. What he would give to spot a duck or a pigeon.
Charlie swung his binoculars to his eyes like a jail yard warden. He struggled to make sense of a world brought closer. The slightest movement of his hand resulted in quick and jerky images. The motions reminded him of sitting in the front row at the movies, which made him nauseous. He let the binoculars fall to his chest. A breeze gently lifted and set his thinning brown hair. He wondered if Luanne had noticed that he took the trash out this morning.
Two painted turtles warmed their blood on the corner of a park bench half submerged in the pond. He pulled a black field notebook and a pen from the pocket of his vest. In his notebook, he wrote two turtles under the Other column next to the Birds column.
Suddenly, two songbirds, each the size of a golf ball, landed on the wood rail about a foot away from his arm. He had a hard time distinguishing anything about them other than that they were tiny and coffee-colored. They chirped and chirped at each other; a heated argument. Charlie stood motionless, pen and notebook in hand. He made a phisshhh phissssh. The chirping stopped. Four beady eyes looked at him as if he had just interrupted something important. They chirped in agreement and soared off to somewhere private. He jotted in his notebook under the Birds column: Two-brown songbirds. To identify later.
Charlie decided to walk off the path into the thick of the woods. He stopped about two hundred meters off the trail. A shadow rippled through the patches of light on the ground. He looked up a tall birch tree. A branch swayed up and down like a jump rope. A bird about the size of a work boot perched on the bough. The bird looked down at him. Charlie quickly scribbled notes: A slate black crown, metallic gray feathers along back and wings. White breast. White rump, or is it blonde? I can hardly see. Short conical bill. Legs long and yellow as sweet corn in the summer.
The bird opened its beak and out came a bizarre song. The call started with a muffled clanking, like two nickels being struck together in someone’s fist, followed by a Day-Day, then what sounded like a robot saying the word See. Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tseee. Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tseee.
The bird was gone before he could lift his binoculars. Charlie paused for a moment to contemplate what had transpired. Was that a rare bird? Maybe he was a natural. Either that or he was a fool for writing such a detailed description of a gray bird. Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tseee rang in his head like an alarm clock.
Back on the trail, he crossed paths with two women walking side by side. The first thing he noticed was the binoculars hanging from their necks. The second thing he noticed was their hair; two flipped bob hairdos, one yellow and the other peach. The women stopped when they saw his binoculars.
Charlie decided to skip the pleasantries and get right to the birder talk: “Good morning, ladies. I just saw a good one. I pishhedddd, and suddenly a stunning lifer appeared. Being the twitcher that I am, I climbed a tree and, sure enough, a new spark bird.”
The women stared at him blankly for a moment before introducing themselves. Peach hair was named Linda and the one with yellow hair was named Dawn. He thought Peach Linda and Yellow Dawn sounded like bird names.
“We saw two Peter’s Pikers, a Blue Olly, and a dozen or so Chattanooga Towhees. What did you see?” Peach Linda Asked.
The question he had been dreading. Charlie realized that he didn’t know the names of any birds. He scanned his memory for fowl he studied the weekend before. Just one name, any name to prove to these women that he meant business. Suddenly, the flash of a stately bird appeared in his mind. One that got a full-page photo near the end of the book. His eyebrows raised when he remembered that the bird was blonde and gray. He couldn’t recall the bird’s name. The women stood still, arms crossed, poker-faced. He remembered. “I saw a Blonde Bobby.”
Yellow Dawn’s knees gave. She fell forward like a Baptist overcome by the Holy Ghost. Her friend saved her before she hit the ground. Peach Linda looked at him with interrogating eyes. She asked him if the bird had yellow legs. He assured them that it did.
Peach Linda’s knees buckled. The women comforted each other, then turned to Charlie. In unison, they said, “You saw a…Blonde Bobby.”
The women grabbed Charlie by the arms. Like two ushers at a play, they lead him down the path. Neither said a word. He could hear deep breathing and feel hearts beating.
They led him to the nature center next to the parking lot. A dusty payphone hung on the shadowed wall next to the women’s restroom. Yellow Dawn pulled a quarter from her pocket and slid it into the coin slot. She dialed a number that, to Charlie, seemed to be thirty units long. All three waited in silence as the phone rang.
In a low, hushed voice, Yellow Dawn said, “We have a code Bobby.” She nodded a few times, as if the person she was talking to were standing right there. She replied, “I understand.” She hung up the phone. After a pause, Yellow Dawn looked Charlie in the eyes and said, “We’d like you to come to our Birders of Wayne County Spring Chapter meeting this weekend. Word that you saw a Blonde Bobby will spread like wildfire. We are expecting record attendance.”
With all of the hobbies, sports, arts, and crafts Charlie had tried over the years, this was the reaction he was after. Visceral and physical. Mozart’s father Leopold wept the first time his young son wrote a melody. That’s what Charlie had been after his whole life. He wanted people to know of his talent; not learn about it over time, not be persuaded, but know. The sudden taste of celebrity quickly erased any doubts he had about actually seeing such a rare bird. He wanted instant recognition, like a viral video on Youtube. Was the bird’s bottom white or blonde? Who cares? Charlie was a natural and couldn’t be wrong.
Charlie looked at the wrinkled faces before him, both smiling with the adoration of a teen fan club. He replied, “It would be my pleasure. I can’t seem to recall, when was the last time someone spotted a Blonde Bobby?”
“Not since 1936,” Peach Linda replied.
Back at home, Charlie played the actions of the day off nonchalantly. He was confident. Why wouldn’t he be? He had seen one of rarest birds in North America on his first outing.
Luanne was proud of Charlie, yet she had seen this movie before. She fell asleep worrying about the fate of her husband.
Birders of Wayne County Spring Chapter Meeting
Charlie got to the All Saint Episcopal Church’s meeting room at 7:20 PM, ten minutes early. Plastic trays of sweaty cheeses, brownies, and pale celery greeted him at the sign-in table. Ten or so birders drifted around the room with paper plates in hand. Four rows of black folding chairs faced a wooden podium. From across the room, Peach Linda and Yellow Dawn pointed Charlie out to a short woman with gray hair. The mystery woman walked earnestly towards him.
“Our VIP has arrived. My name is Sue, Chairwoman of the Birding Board. We have record attendance tonight. I hope we don’t run out of chairs,” she said.
Charlie, now rosy from adoration, replied, “I can stand in the back.”
“Stand in the back? You’re tonight’s keynote speaker. We have a chair with your name on it.”
Charlie rocked nervously. He took a bite of celery. The doubts were creeping back into his mind. Even the crunching of crudité couldn’t drown them out.
The meeting moved along slowly. Sue talked about the newsletter, announced the date of the summer meeting, and reminded everyone to check for ticks after walking in tall grass. She then introduced Charlie as the night’s keynote.
Cheers filled the room as Charlie took the podium. A handful of attendees gave him a standing ovation. He calmed his admirers. He was feeling confident again. The roomed filled with smiles and starry eyes as he explained how this wasn’t the first time he’d seen such a rare bird. He went on and on about how every natural birder has a sixth sense. He didn’t just hear a rare bird; he felt its presence. Part of Charlie knew he was speaking nonsense, yet he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
Suddenly, a haunting sound reverberated from outside. It was an angry and agitated sound, like Frankenstein’s monster caught in a brushfire.
A shadow crept across the windows. The sound grew in volume as it approached the entrance doors. Silence. Everyone in the room watched the doors nervously. With a boom, the doors busted open. An extended leg covered in beige khaki pointed forward like a hunting dog at a frightened fox.
The leg belonged to a short man with white hair. His face was red and moist. The interloper pointed towards the podium and said, “You son of a bitch.”
Charlie looked at Sue, but then realized the man was talking to him.
“Can we help you?” Asked Charlie. He gripped the podium tight to show authority.
“You’ve never seen a Blonde Bobby in your life. You’re a charlatan. You’re a phony, and you’re busted.” Said the man.
He trooped to the podium like a sailor marching to “In the Navy”. He moved Charlie to the side with a stern swing of his hip.
“My name is Connie, and I’m the Chairman of the Board for the Westlake charter of Birders Across America. Yes, that means I drove two hours to call this man what he is: a liar.”
Connie looked Charlie up and down. He shook his head in disgust. “I did some sleuthing and discovered, via this man’s Facebook page, that he got his first pair of binoculars no more than a week ago.” A collective gasp rang from the audience.
Connie continued, “no one with a week of birdwatching could correctly identify a bird that hasn’t been seen in 82 years.”
Charlie stepped forward and said, “Maybe I’m a natural.”
Every face in the crowd looked back at him with angry eyes. Yellow Dawn and Peach Linda shook their heads as if they’d found out he swindled them of their retirement. Charlie explained that he did see a peculiar bird that morning, and perhaps he got the name wrong.
“Well, go on and describe what you saw,” Connie said, eyes squinted with suspicion.
From the black cap to the corn stalk legs to the Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tseee, Charlie made his case. He admitted that the rump may have been white, not blonde.
Connie was silent. He lifted his hand to his heart, as if he were going to drop dead then and there.
Throughout the room, whispers turned to a chorus. At first, it sounded like gibberish, until three words broke through from every mouth: The Gray Bobby.
Connie smiled like a man that had gone mad. A speck of spit shot out of his mouth as he spoke. “If what you say is true, then we have entered a new era of birdwatching. Yes, a Blonde Bobby is rare, but a Gray Bobby, one with a white rump, is legendary. You must take us to where you saw this bird.”
“What are the odds it will be in the same spot? You know, with wings and all it has a lot of options,” Charlie said.
Connie was stumped. Then, a tall man wearing glasses in the back row addressed the crowd.
“The Gray Bobby always returns to its favorite tree after breakfast. It’s a bird of habit. A real homebody. Or at least that’s what I read. No one has seen the bird since 1911.”
Connie wiped sweat from his brow with a yellowed handkerchief. “Tomorrow, we all see the Gray Bobby.”
Between flossing her teeth and rinsing with tea tree oil, Luanne asked Charlie how the meeting went.
She gave him her trademark “are you sure” look, the one that instantly made him doubt himself. He reassured her that the rump and the call matched that of a Gray Bobby. She could sense how much this meant to him.
That night, Luanne worried herself to sleep. What if he was wrong?
The Gray Bobby: A Homebody
Though Charlie had spotted the bird around 10:30 AM, the group insisted they get to the spot no later than 10. Charlie stood facing the tree with his back to the twenty or so birders that had congregated in various circles. He could hear faint whispers. There were doubts. Charlie doubted himself. The tree was bare, and the bough he had spotted the bird on now looked tenuous. He looked down at his watch and thought, “Thirty seconds until show time… or no-show time.”
Like ice water over his head, the cold sensation of feeling trapped seized Charlie. What if he didn’t have a soulcraft? A life destined for mediocrity. He could feel the crowd watching him instead of the tree. He closed his eyes.
With his world now dark, Charlie relied on his ears. The birders were silent. In the silence, Charlie planned his inevitable escape to the parking lot. Suddenly, fluttering wings sounded above his head. He opened his eyes. Two yellow bird legs like sweet corn in the summer perched on the branch. The Gray Bobby. At first, Charlie was expressionless, then a smile grew on his face. He really was a natural, he thought.
Connie pushed Charlie to the side. He slid to the base of the tree on his knees like a baseball player stealing third. The manic birder raised his arms in praise; his white chest hair broke from top of his shirt like a geriatric werewolf’s. Others followed Connie’s lead. The Gray Bobby looked on with dumb eyes.
Forty hands lifted binoculars. Oohhs and aahhs; the sign of the cross. It was as if they were watching the Pope bowl a perfect game. The rare bird cozied up in its nest and watched the revelers below. It must be a homebody to put up with these shenanigans, Charlie thought.
From out of sight, a forceful “Wait!” hushed the birders. The bespectacled man from the meeting cut through the crowd.
“Does that bird have a brown speck below its beak?” He asked, to no one in particular.
Connie examined with his binoculars and said, “Sure does.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s no Gray Bobby. That’s an Akron Angie. Still a homebody, but not rare at all,” the man with glasses said.
Many of the birders scribbled out the words Gray Bobby from their field notes. With shaky hands, they begrudgingly wrote Akron Angie. Dispirited, they walked back to the trail, heads hanging as low as their binoculars.
Connie patted Charlie on the back and said, “maybe birding is not for you. Have you tried any other hobbies?”
Charlie stood alone in the shadow of the birch tree. Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tsee. Tang-Tang-Day-Day-Tsee.
On his drive home, he thought of Luanne, his soulmate.