First week of August and Claire glances out the window of her bedroom and sees Frank Gomez, the Realtor, showing the for-sale (resale) singlewide that’s in back of her doublewide and a couple of spots over to a rangy man. A red pickup truck, low camper shell over the bed, and Frank’s Cadillac are parked in the singlewide’s parking space, 11 a.m. and about 85 degrees outside. Frank and the man are walking around the trailer. The man, who looks to be in his mid-60s, which coincidentally is Claire’s age, stops at the side of the trailer where a slab of concrete determines a patio, no awning, but it isn’t the patio that has the man’s attention. It’s the chain-link fence that’s about 15 feet away that he seems to be studying, or maybe it’s the undeveloped land beyond the chain-link fence.
Claire is stalled at her bedroom window. Perhaps this is because of boredom, as in nothing-to-do. Boredom, though, usually doesn’t cause her to look out the window. Boredom usually puts her in front of the TV, or, on inspiration, to going out birding. So maybe it’s that she’s interested in who might be moving into the vacant singlewide that the Rippens used to live in. Then again, maybe it’s the way the man walks and stands that has tweaked her interest, for he walks and stands with a slight forward pitch and he seems to have a habit of cocking his head to the side. When the man is done looking at that no-nothing field that sometimes attracts doves, two varieties that Claire has identified, the man and Frank go into the trailer.
Over the next couple of days Claire sees the man going in and out of the trailer with things—an overstuffed armchair, a brass floor lamp, and a number of boxes that look to contain small appliances, maybe kitchen furnishings, everything looking recently bought as opposed to things coming from a current or former residence. The “For Sale” sign is no longer in the window of the singlewide.
But then the man disappears, and after a couple of weeks with no activity at the singlewide, Claire presumes that the man is going to use the trailer as a part-time residence, not unusual, for there are others in the mobile home park who do that. Yet at the same time, for reasons she can only attribute to inklings based on extended observation from the discreet vantage point of her bedroom window, she somehow doubts that the man is going to use the trailer as a second house because he just didn’t have that moneyed look about him. But exactly what kind of look he had is kind of a mystery, because he didn’t seem to have any sort of “look,” other than “normal.” This, though, is reason for Claire to question her eyes and thoughts because in Claire’s estimation no one is normal nowadays. If anything, “normal” is a memory.
An entire month goes by, and then, the day after Labor Day, he resurfaces. This time, though, it looks like he’s really moving in. The tailgate of his pickup is down and the hatch of the camper shell is up, bed of the truck jammed full of cardboard boxes that are obviously in a recycle-mode.
And then Claire sees it, and of this she can’t believe her eyes, because she can’t believe that she could have missed such a thing on his previous visit. His pickup truck has California plates.
What strikes Claire, though, is that the man looks like he could be from anywhere, but in no way does he look like he’s from California, because people from California dress, and look, like they’ve just stepped out of a shower. This man, on the contrary, favors normal clothing—loose khakis, short-sleeved plaid shirts, sport shoes on his feet. A faded brown baseball cap is often on his head. He’s clean-shaven and when he lifts the cap to wipe sweet from his brow there is short russet hair that’s thinning to the extent of balding.
But then, for reasons Claire can’t account for, particularly in the face of such “normalcy” (clothing, hygiene, and grooming), a frightening notion takes hold, which further confuses things as if to mock Claire’s intelligence—My God, maybe he’s from Los Angeles!
Claire judges Los Angeles to be ten times worse than the Phoenix/Scottsdale/Tempe/Glendale/Avondale/Mesa (Valley of the Sun) monstrosity that ruined her family.
During the course of the next week there is no lack of activity at and about his singlewide. He has hand tools, electric and none-electric, that he uses on 2x4s and sheets of plywood. Claire sees a simple bed frame, coffee table, and a couple of side tables materialize on his diminutive patio before disappearing through the doorway of his trailer. No doubt, he is handy with a circular saw and a power drill.
Next, after rough-hewn furniture making, he tears down the three wooden steps that lead to the front door of his trailer, and tears down the small landing that’s in front of the front door as well. Claire was tempted to go out and caution him about scorpions and rattlesnakes and black widow spiders that can sometimes be found in such places, but she held her tongue out of what she considers Western courtesy, which is to leave your neighbors alone.
He then sets to work building an enlarged landing with three wooden steps on one side, width and depth of the steps wider and deeper than before, while on the other side of the landing he constructs a wheelchair ramp. To go along with all this, there are handrails that appear sturdy. Of course wheelchair ramps at the doors of trailers in the mobile home park are not a unique feature. Several trailers have them, but people living in those trailers need them. He, though, has two good legs, both of them long, albeit a little stiff and slow moving. Perhaps an invalid is going to move in with him. But of this idea, Claire doubts that it could be a wife because the man has no jewelry on any of his fingers. Actually, he sports no jewelry at all. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings, body piercing, tattoos—none are in evidence. He does wear glasses, though.
The only thing that hampers his work ethic during that week is the occasional thunderstorm.
In addition to construction projects, there is shopping, and not just for lumber and stain and anti-skid paint and hardware. Claire sees him haul a new mattress, plastic wrapping still on it, from the bed of his pickup, not a king- or queen-size mattress, but a single-body mattress, and if Claire’s reconnaissance serves her correctly there is no box spring.
Just after that first week, a red bicycle comes out of the bed of his truck, as well as a red wagon like a kid would have, but he doesn’t have any kids, leastwise none that are going to be living with him. This seems pretty clear.
Ten days into his moving-in/getting-situated regimen, things seem to settle down, but this proves short-lived. Claire sees him on his red bicycle, which has a wicker basket attached to the handlebars and a rack over the rear tire. On another occasion she sees him walk away from his trailer pulling the red wagon, and then, of all things, she sees him return several hours later with bungee cords holding down two bulging tote bags in the shallow bed of the wagon, a small Playmate cooler wedged in there as well. Perhaps he has gone grocery shopping. The wagon and the newly constructed wheelchair ramp get along just fine, loaded wagon pulled up the ramp to where it vanishes through the doorway of his singlewide.
And, if all this weren’t enough of a riddle, Claire next sees him with a can of spray paint spraying the frame and fenders of his bicycle, masking tape and newspapers employed to keep the paint from other areas of the bike, so instead of a red bicycle he now has a brown bicycle, which, as with the red wagon, can be wheeled up the wheelchair ramp and into his trailer. Neither the bicycle nor the red wagon remains outside at night. Of course anyone from California would be wary of thievery.
Claire has gotten into the habit of pulling a chair up to her bedroom window, and then to sit there with a cup of coffee. Strange, how this has cut into her TV time.
Around the middle of September, a mere two weeks after his permanent/move-in arrival, Claire notices two “For Sale” signs, one posted on the rear window of his pickup truck’s camper shell, the other on the side window of the camper shell. Maybe he wants to sell the camper shell. Three days later a couple of fellows with buzz cuts, probably military men, Fort Huachuca not far away, are at the truck along with the man, the three of them standing around and talking. The man puts his bicycle in the bed of the truck, camper shell hatch coming down, and the three of them leave, buzz-cut guys in their car, a Chevy Cruze, the man in his pickup truck. An hour and a half later the man returns on his bicycle, no pickup truck.
The no-pickup-truck slash no-motor-vehicle-of-any-kind status continues, day after day, but tucked into this timeframe is another gem of telling information. The day after the pickup truck disappeared, Claire sees the man sitting at his patio table at dusk with a pair of binoculars that are trained on the vacant land beyond the chain-link fence. Claire can’t tell what he’s looking at, but whatever it is he keeps looking at it. The light in Claire’s bedroom is off so as not to silhouette Claire’s image at the window even though the mini-blinds are down, but of course the blinds are louvered open. Despite the binoculars, Claire has difficulty believing the man’s a birder. Binoculars, after all, can be used for other things besides looking at birds. As of late, Claire has employed her pair at the window.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is a 40-mile-long swath along the San Pedro River, width of that swath roughly two miles with the river running lengthwise through it. Thus, a generous mile-plus band of protected land is on either side of the river. Inside the conservation area walking trails allow visitors to traverse the area with relative ease, numerous access points contributing to this. The San Pedro River, originating about ten miles south of the Riparian National Conservation Area in the Sierra Manzanal Mountains of Sonora, Mexico, is the last major free-flowing (undammed) river in the American Southwest. Two-thirds of the avian diversity in the United States spends time within this 40-mile stretch, both breeding and migratory birds. It is also home to footed animals, such as mountain lions, bobcats, javelina, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and so on. Wildflowers, blooming in the fall, make possible a butterfly population of hundreds of thousands, over 250 types.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area isn’t the only natural wonder in southeastern Arizona, for in the same locale there are Madrean Sky Islands, isolated mountains rising out of the Sonoran Desert. The San Pedro Riparian NCA runs between two of these sky islands, Huachuca (highest elevation: 9,466 feet) and the Mule Mountains (7,370 feet). Other sky islands in the area are the Chiricahua (9,759 feet) and the Santa Rita Mountains (9,453 feet). It is the range of altitude along with isolation that is cause for a remarkable variety and multiplicity of flora and fauna in these sky islands. At the base of the Huachuca Mountains, for example, the elevation is 3,934 feet, thus there is a difference of 5,532 feet between the base and the highest peak. Desert grassland is at the base of the slopes, while near the top it is a mixed conifer forest—Douglas-fir, quaking aspen, white fir (Canadian Life Zone).
Claire’s driving along and she spots him sitting at a picnic table, his bicycle leaning against the table. Bisbee’s Claire’s destination. She’s on Highway 90, main thoroughfare between Sierra Vista and Bisbee. The road is cutting through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Claire is no more than three or four miles from her mobile home park, which is situated on the eastern fringes of Sierra Vista, a town of roughly 44,000 people with amenities that include churches, shopping, and medical facilities.
The table he’s at is away from the road, but easily visible. Claire goes by at speed, but then something takes over and she eases up on the accelerator. A moment later she blurts out, “What the hell?” and pulls to the side of the road just shy of the bridge that traverses the San Pedro River. She waits for a couple of cars to pass and then makes a U-turn. Backtracking, she turns left off of Highway 90 onto the road for San Pedro House, an information center where a couple of hiking trails converge. In a parking lot, which has only two cars in it, she parks.
She gets out of the cab of her pickup truck and starts walking. He’s looking away from her and hasn’t noticed her. He’s looking toward the river, which isn’t far away. A pair of binoculars is on the table and so are a few other things, one of which is a thermos. He’s sipping from a plastic cup that obviously came from the top of the thermos.
A couple of Rufous hummingbirds zip by in front of him. He turns his head to follow their flight. The birds disappear. Butterflies are about. A mild bloom is on some plants.
Grit beneath Claire’s sport shoes crunches. As she approaches, he notices, probably the crunching sounds alerting him. He turns and looks at her. Suddenly, Claire feels self-conscious.
Claire’s not necessarily over-weight, but she’s big-boned and kind of squarish. He is taller than her. She already knows this, but she somehow feels bigger than him. They are probably about the same weight.
“Howdy,” he says, and even with only one word Claire distinguishes a relaxed, casual voice that’s kind of slow in its delivery, and with this Claire realizes that this is the first time she’s heard his voice, which kind of startles her, because she had imagined a different voice, a high-strung voice with a fast pace, and what went along with that voice were conversations midst various situations, but here, too, she had been deceived, for she had never imagined this situation.
In return, Claire says “Howdy” back to him and comes to the side of the table and stops. She wonders if he knows that they are neighbors, for he might have seen her driving by his singlewide. She has to take that route to leave the mobile home park.
“I saw you sitting here,” Claire says. “So…” She gestures toward the parking lot with a hand that is white and blunt, no nail polish, no manicure. “I stopped. I was… I was wondering what you’re doing. I mean, I think we’re neighbors.”
He grins, and it’s a crooked grin. “You mean in the mobile home park?”
“Oh,” he says. “Well, I just moved in about three weeks ago.”
“Yes,” she replies, and purposely stops herself from saying anything more.
He’s wearing glasses, which he always wears, and he’s got his faded brown baseball cap on his head, and he’s looking up at her with that aslant grin on his vertical face. Claire shifts her weight. She had noticed the crooked grin from her bedroom window, but now it strikes her as disturbingly prominent.
“My name’s Roy.”
This sits for a few moments. What next, yet to be determined.
“Are you a birder, Roy?”
But that’s all there is—a simple, dead-end “yes.”
Claire shifts her weight again. Roy continues to look at her, but fortunately his grin is diminishing. Claire glances at Roy’s bicycle, and says, “You know, I think I saw you on a red bicycle in the trailer park.”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “The bicycle was red. You see, I came down here to the river on the red bicycle and the hummingbirds kept coming up to it, the red attracting them, like maybe they thought it was food, a feeder or something. But of course it wasn’t food, and so I didn’t want the bicycle to be a false come-on, so I painted it dark brown and that solved the problem.” With this, he smiles, but the expression is only up on one side of his face.
“I guess you like a bicycle.”
“I do,” he says. “But it’s a little more than that. I sold my pickup truck, so now I don’t have a motor vehicle. I want to give that a try, you know, a no-motor-vehicle lifestyle.”
“You do, huh?”
“And I also got me a little wagon to haul groceries back from the supermarket to supplement the bicycle in the event of heavy loads or inclement weather or severe hemorrhoid problems, or even old age, any of which might reduce my bicycling capabilities.” He grins again.
“I’d offer you a cup of coffee, but I don’t have another cup.”
“I have a cup in my truck.” Claire gestures toward her pickup truck.
“If you get it, you can sit down and I’ll pour you a cup of coffee. It’s got milk and sugar in it, though.”
“Milk and sugar’s fine. I’ll get the cup.”
When she returns with the cup, she sits opposite him at the table, which puts her backside toward the river. Her cup is ceramic, an earthy tan color. He pours the cup full, coffee steaming.
“You know,” she says, “I think I might have noticed you at the Rippens’ trailer, the one their son was selling, what with Ron Rippen having died, and Martha having moved in with her son and his family in Phoenix.”
“Yes. My house was in escrow, so I came out here and looked around. Location was everything. The trailer wasn’t expensive. I put a deposit down to keep it while I had money transferred.”
Claire nods. “Well, ah, there’s a wheelchair ramp on that trailer now.”
“I built that.”
“Yes. But… You’re not in a wheelchair.”
“I built it for a couple of reasons. One, I might make friends with someone in a wheelchair or a walker, so then they can come over and visit. But also, maybe someday I’ll need a walker, or a wheelchair.”
Claire listens to how matter-of-factly he has put this. Roy lifts his cup and sips. Claire lifts her cup and sips.
“I’m supposedly on my way to Bisbee,” Claire says. “But I don’t really want to go. My son and his wife and two kids live there. I don’t enjoy seeing them.”
Roy says, “Oh.”
“Do you know where Bisbee is?”
“I’ve seen it on the map.”
“My son thought he was going to be an artist there, or a craftsperson or something like that. Going to make necklaces and bracelets, you know, string colorful beads on thin strips of leather. But of course the beads’ market was saturated, as everyone knew. So he winds up working as a bartender in a beer and wine establishment, a café-like place, which would have been okay if it weren’t for needing to support a family. His wife, Karen, works part-time at a bakery. In short, they can’t keep enough money in their checking account.”
“And then there’s my daughter who lives in Bullhead City and is working in a casino in Laughlin dealing cards. At least that’s what she was doing, last I heard. We haven’t spoken in a while.”
Roy raises his plastic cup and sips.
Claire can tell that Roy’s listening to her, and with this she realizes that it’s been a long time since she spoke to someone who listened. She lifts her cup and sips. The coffee’s flavor and aroma are noticeable, a dark roast.
“You see, when the kids were small, Jeff, my husband, who is deceased as of three years ago, said, ‘We’d better get out of Holbrook. Nothing’s moving here and that’s not going to change. Phoenix-Scottsdale area looks promising.’ Jeff had gotten his Realtor’s license two years before this prophetic statement… decision. In a sense, we hit it just right. I took some accounting classes at a junior college and we made money. But—we lost the kids. They were in school, and…” Claire raises a hand that hovers, before coming down.
“It seemed like overnight, we had no control of them. By junior high school, or what people call middle school now, they were gone, the boy first, then the girl, Matt and Charlene. When they got to high school we were like three different families, three entities. There was Jeff and I, and then there was Matt, and then Charlene. We had nothing in common, except maybe opening the refrigerator.”
Roy smiles at this, the refrigerator part. His smile, though, is no better than his grin, very crooked.
“I started looking at birds,” Claire picks up. “Of all things, I started watching birds, and little by little I realized that that was a relief.”
Claire is looking at Roy. Claire’s eyes are large and brown and they bulge slightly from their sockets. Her eyebrows are penciled on. Roy’s smile is gone.
“Birds are outdoors,” Claire says. “You can look at them from inside your house through a window of course, but for the most part you’re going to be outside looking at them. Birding is the fastest growing outdoor activity in the United States right now, and I can not only understand that, but sympathize with it.”
“It didn’t take long to discover this area, Sierra Vista and what’s nearby. If you have any kind of interest in birds, you’re going to hear about southeastern Arizona. It only took a couple of trips down here before Jeff and I bought the doublewide. When Jeff retired, we moved down here, permanent.”
Claire pauses. Roy waits.
“Jeff was getting into birds, too, but unfortunately he passed away. This was after we’d been here for a little over a year.”
They sip their coffees.
“So,” says Claire, “that’s my hard-luck story.” She grins, a wide expression on a wide face. No glasses, no earrings, no necklace. She doesn’t use much makeup, eyebrows and a little red on her lips, age manifesting itself in wrinkles.
“By the way,” Claire says, voice assuming an upbeat tone, “spot any interesting birds today?”
“Yes. I saw a vermilion flycatcher, a male. There could have been a female around, but it was the male I noticed. The bright red.”
“Of course. They’re pretty and they sound pretty. In the spring you can hear them, a beautiful sound. They’re mostly in Mexico, but you can find them here, no problem.”
“What I’d really like to see,” says Roy, “is an elegant trogon.”
“An elegant trogon? They’re not down here. They’re in the mountains, the sky islands.”
“I know. But what I’m hoping for is to maybe catch a stray on its way south for the winter.”
“Catch a stray?”
Claire sips her coffee.
“Hey, listen,” she says. “I’m thinking of going to Madera Canyon tomorrow. There should still be some trogons there. We can go together, and you can get your trogon. I’ll drive.”
“That’d be great. Thank you.”
Claire smiles, teeth slightly gapped.
“I’ll supply the lunch,” Roy says. “Where should we meet?”
“I’ll come by your trailer, where the Rippens used to be. Say around 9:30?”
“By the way, where are you from?”
Claire’s driving and Roy’s in the passenger seat, a Toyota Tacoma, regular cab, two doors. A camper shell, no higher than the cab, is over the bed of the truck.
“You see,” says Claire,” I don’t have to be fighting the wind with a simple camper shell like this.” She gestures toward in back of herself. “Nice and low and sleek.”
Roy, looking out the side window, nods.
They’re on Highway 82 and they’re headed for Highway 83 and on either side of the road dry grassland prevails, but with deceptive elevation, 5,000 feet, technically a high desert, and yet, as if to dispute the desert taxonomy, wine vineyards constitute a viable part of the local economy. Of cacti, there aren’t any.
Claire says, “Pretty good gas mileage for a pickup. It’s considered a compact. Four-cylinder engine, if you can believe that.”
Roy nods again, but then Claire looks over and Roy notices, so he looks at Claire and he says, “It seems like a new truck.”
With this between her teeth, Claire says, “It is! Bought it three months ago. Traded in my gas-guzzler for it.”
Claire’s view, as safety requires, returns to the roadway that has only a lone car now and then traveling in the opposite direction, a Tuesday, humidity imperceptible, air quality pristine, and the only thing in the sky besides birds is the sun. Roy kind of smiles in response to Claire’s enthusiasm.
“You’re sort of on the taciturn side, aren’t you?” Claire says, while looking at a stretch of straight blacktop. Roy’s view has returned to golden brown grass.
“I suppose that’s good,” Claire continues, “but that could be taken for arrogance sometimes, like maybe not having a car puts you a boot heel above people who do have cars, but that’s kind of a bullshit thing, because we wouldn’t be going to where we’re going right now without a motor vehicle, and what about ambulances and fire trucks and trucks delivering food to supermarkets, and things like that?”
They’re approaching the junction for Highway 83. Claire is slowing down. At the intersection, she’ll make a right turn. To continue on 82 would put them in Nogales. Roy has a road map on this lap.
Roy’s voice doesn’t take on any urgency as he responds, “Just because I sold my pickup truck with the idea of trying to live without a motor vehicle doesn’t mean I think other people should do that, and it doesn’t mean I think I’m better than other people.”
Roy’s looking at Claire. Clair has yellow hair that’s about eight inches long and somewhat unruly. To tame it, she employs bobby pins.
“I don’t have a motor vehicle now,” Roy says. “That’s all there is to it, nothing beyond that. You’re reading stuff into this, stuff you’ve cooked up.”
Claire is listening, for it seems a genuine response. Mustering a response of her own, she says, “I haven’t cooked up that we’re going to Madera Canyon in a motor vehicle.”
“Yeah,” says Roy, “that part’s true. Free and simple, that is correct. But you said you were thinking of going to Madera Canyon, and you offered to take me along. So what’s the harm in that?”
“Well, you wouldn’t be going unless there was a car involved,” Claire says, while completing a right turn onto Highway 83, which, like Highway 82, is traffic-free.
“That’s mostly right,” Roy says. “But if I were young, I could bicycle to Madera Canyon from the trailer park.”
“Yes, maybe you could. But—you’re not young.”
Hearing this, Roy grins. “And, ah… Didn’t I say ‘thank you’ for offering?”
Claire glances over, and there it is, that crooked grin of his, a pair of bifocals perched above it, bifocals with an obvious horizontal line determining upper and lower prescriptions. He could have invested a little more money and bought the kind that don’t have that line. In consideration of other people, this would have been less confusing to the eye, the viewer’s eye. As it is, the back-and-forth between upper and lower halves of the lenses, coupled with his aslant grin, sets his countenance off like a Picasso painting.
“I wasn’t even thinking of going to Madera Canyon until you mentioned it,” Roy adds, grin remaining.
Claire, looking at the road, says, “I mentioned it because you were sitting at a picnic table near the San Pedro River with the idea of catching an elegant trogon, ‘a stray,’ as you put it.”
Roy chuckles and Claire looks over, sounds of his chuckling pretty much like other people’s chuckling, but what greets her isn’t like other people’s chuckling. The chuckling sends Roy’s face more awry. Claire looks back at the road and wonders if it’d be a tad on the gauche side of the etiquette spectrum to ask him about his face. This, though, she doesn’t wonder about for too long.
“What happened to your face? Did you have a stroke or something?”
“I fell off a swing when I was four years old. A nerve got pinched. The left side of my face is paralyzed from my mouth to my eye. The right side is okay.”
Claire nods to indicate understanding and reflects how her question didn’t seem to bother him. She wonders if anything bothers him.
Entering Madera Canyon at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, and in keeping with the other sky islands in the area, there is desert grassland, which Roy looks at (Lower Sonoran Life Zone), mesquite, ocotillo, soaptree yucca dispersed among the grasses. They are headed up the canyon, and even from the cab of the pickup Roy sees birds, one of which is a bright red northern cardinal, a male, easily identified for its coloring and its pronounced crest. And then there is an airborne flock of western bluebirds, Claire naming the species as the flock flies parallel to the road. Hummingbirds, flicking about, appear as iridescent flashes.
Over 250 species of birds, 15 hummingbird species alone, frequent this canyon. The other sky islands in southeastern Arizona cater to a similar plethora of birds, but Madera Canyon is the most visitor-friendly, which makes it the most visited and documented, a mere 30 miles south of Tucson, a lot of it via an Interstate. During the summer Madera Canyon offers a respite from desert heat, a birder-friendly/family-friendly retreat.
Claire has told Roy that they are going to the end of the road, which will put them at the northern end of the canyon. From there they’ll start walking.
Elegant trogon: male—a foot long (head to terminus of tail feathers), short (but a little wide) yellow beak, head and back iridescent dark green, belly bright red, a thin white band around the chest between the iridescent green of the head and the red belly, top of tail feathers copper-colored; female—head and upper chest and back gray, white belly, light orange under-tail, topside of tail brown, distinct white mark trailing from the back of the eye, yellow beak.
The elegant trogon’s year-round range is Mexico, but its summer range just catches a piece of southeastern Arizona, and of that the sky islands furnish a welcoming environment at around 6,000 to 7,000 feet—pine-oak woodland (Apache pine, evergreen oak, Chihuahua pine, bunchgrass, point-leaf manzanita, and other interior chaparral). Elegant trogons eat insects and fruit, and they often eat in-flight. They are tree-dwelling birds that will perch for long periods. There sound resembles a wild turkey (ko-ah, ko-ah).
At the end of the road there is a parking lot where Claire parks her truck. From there they take the Carrie Nation Mine Trail.
They don’t hear any elegant trogons, autumn the wrong season for that, but within a mile after they start walking they begin to see elegant trogons. It is quiet. No one is around. Both Claire and Roy have binoculars at hand. Daypacks are on their backs.
Roy remarks, “It’s so easy to see them.”
Claire says, “It is, if you’re at the right place.”
Of course they spot, identify, and list in their respective notebooks other birds as well, such as American robins. But the main attraction, particularly for Roy, is the elegant trogon, perhaps because he had been set on seeing that specific bird. He says to Claire, as he’s noting it: “upright, calm, and dignified.”
After a couple of hours they walk back to the pickup truck and eat lunch at a picnic table, and even while eating they spot birds.
As arranged, Roy has brought lunch—cheddar cheese, jack cheese, olives, pickles, pita bread, fruit yogurt and plain yogurt, seedless grapes, pears, low-sodium crackers, Lorna Doone cookies, a thermos of hot coffee, and bottled water.
Claire asks, “Are you a vegetarian?”
“No. For dinner I have a piece of boneless chicken about the size of a golf ball that’s cooked in tomato sauce. The tomato sauce and the chicken get dropped on top of steamed vegetables. Before that I have a large fruit salad with a bit of olive oil on it.”
“Do you do anything wrong?”
“Most of my life was wrong.”
Claire leaves this alone.
They’ve finished their lunch for the most part and they’re sipping coffee and nibbling on Lorna Doone cookies, and Roy says, “Look at that.” Claire turns sideways and sees three wild turkeys, females, walking at the edge of the parking lot. Roy says, “I’ve never seen wild turkeys before.” Claire says, “Well, they’re here. There are feeders down below that they go to.” The birds seem remarkably tame, but of course no one’s around. The only car in the lot is Claire’s pickup truck.
Roy says, “I can add wild turkeys to my list.”
The birds strut off to disappear in shrubbery.
Claire says, “You left your computer and TV in Los Angeles, and now you don’t have a pickup truck. Don’t you think you’re carrying things a little too far?”
Roy says, “It isn’t an idealistic or utopian or moralistic thing. I’m not out to prove anything. I don’t have much money. Social Security and some savings in the bank. I was a housepainter slash handyman in Los Angeles. I didn’t get rich. I got by. When Medicare kicked in for me, I thought I could swing this retirement deal in Arizona if I downsized, you know, reduced my expenses—no private health insurance, no automobile insurance, no cable TV, no breakage insurance in case I dropped a can of paint on someone’s Persian carpet, no homeowner’s insurance, no sky-high property tax, no monstrous L.A. water bill, no maintenance on my pickup truck, no gasoline, and no computer or monitor or printer, one of which always seemed to brake down every year or two and then needed replacing.”
He pauses, and then says, “See what I’m talking about?”
“Also, I no longer have to worry about driving on those freeways in Southern California or about getting in an accident on one of those freeways.”
“Naturally, this downsizing project, coupled with moving into a mobile home in southeastern Arizona entails a lifestyle change.”
“I bet it does,” Claire concurs.
Roy takes a sip of coffee.
“I don’t know why, but little by little Los Angeles wasn’t making sense to me anymore, and neither was TV. The only thing I can attribute this to is age. But who knows? I thought it would go away, this feeling of amiss, but it didn’t. I was birding by then. It started in my backyard, but then I was going here and there, out in the field, and something started to incubate, a dream of sorts, a challenge, or maybe one last change. A final phase.”
He pauses to moisten his lips with his tongue, which hardly need moistening because he’s drinking coffee. Thus a habit, which Claire notes.
“It was two years before I was old enough for Medicare. But then I got it and that freed me from private health insurance, a huge expense. You see, I had to keep working in L.A. because that’s where my contacts were, clientele, people who’d call me needing something done, but the work was really wearing on me. I was in my 60s, but I had to keep working to pay for health insurance, and of course all the other things that my L.A. lifestyle consisted of, which was, at most, an average lifestyle. Lower middle-class, I would term it. When I got Medicare, I saw an opportunity.”
Claire nods slowly. Roy sips his coffee.
“But what I’m discovering and going through right now,” Roy says, “reminds me of when I quit drinking, or at least some aspects of that, for suddenly I have time on my hands. After I’ve eaten dinner, for example, the question is: What do I do now? And so I’m reading books, which I had started doing in L.A., but now it’s different. It’s a slower kind of reading. I reach for the dictionary more often. Also, I pick up a newspaper at that rack in front of that coffee shop on the highway and bring the paper back to my singlewide and read it at my breakfast nook while eating lunch or breakfast, and while glancing out the window at that vacant lot where weather resides, and where there are some doves, and where there are bats during twilight. I’ve even seen a couple of coyotes slipping through the brush. But anyway, the newspaper is the only news I’m getting right now. Strangely, I feel I can understand the news better. I can see it in a general way, and I understand that there is horrendous tragedy and circumstance in the world, and to be suffering from a mild dose of boredom and loneliness in southeastern Arizona is nothing short of a blessing.”
Claire is looking at him, looking at his mouth as it moves crookedly.
“I’ve started drawing and doing some watercolors. I’ve always wanted to give that a try.”
Roy brings a veined hand up to adjust his bifocals on his bony nose. The hand comes down.
“There is this back-an-forth,” Roy says, “with the birds and where they live and how I see that and how I feel about that and how I write about it in my notebook. I write in the field, and this is a ‘first writing,’ which is simple description. Hopefully I’ve identified the bird in a field guide, but sometimes I can’t locate it in the book until later. Time of day and weather and location are also noted. A ‘second writing’ occurs back home, which is now my singlewide, an idea, or sentiment, that I’m still getting used to. This ‘second writing’ usually takes place at night. It is a more reflective writing, and this is when my feelings and thoughts about what I saw enter in. Oddly, the next time, or times, when I see that bird I bring something to it, something from my writing and something from any reading or research I might have done. I can see the bird more clearly. I notice things—movement, sounds, food, dealings with other birds, maybe even nesting. It is an evolving program. It keeps changing, because I keep changing in how I see a particular bird, or terrain, or weather. A sense of deepening ensues.”
Claire nods slowly.
“And there’s something else,” Roy says, and pauses to moisten his lips with his tongue. His lips are chapped.
“There’s this thing about the West, the American West,” Roy says, “particularly the Southwest. I think the Southwest summons a legitimate awe, a genuine awe from most anyone who visits or spends time here. But this gets muddled with ideas and notions that have been strongly influence by television and movies, and by exaggerated cultural models that have been absorbed to the extent of belief. Thus, certain images are anticipated, and so a lot of western places, towns and so forth, have taken on a ‘theme park’ motif in an attempt to give people the West that they expect.
“But birds don’t do that. Looking at birds doesn’t do that. Looking at birds makes me think about them, and in thinking about them I have to think about where they are living and what they are eating and what their habits might be. I start with a bird, and it expands into something larger. This aspect of nature is not a theme park. It is not embellished with notions and beliefs gotten from cinema. Looking at a bird and what surrounds it is a direct experience that the viewer owns. In my case, and maybe in a lot of people’s cases, it didn’t take too much looking before I started seeing uniqueness, diversity, and beauty. Appreciation began.”
Claire is looking at his mouth close and how it then comes to rest, which brings peace to his face, alignments settling aright, pushing and shoving desisting.
Michael Onofrey’s stories have appeared in Arroyo, Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Road to NowhereandOther New Stories from the Southwest, Twisted Vine, and Weber: The Contemporary West, as well as in other journals and anthologies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz.