Stories and photographs by Jim Hamerlinck©2009, 2010, 2011

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bird Watching

Dove, South Lake Union, 2010

"You need a hobby, Ken."

They sat across the table from one another but may as well have been a hundred miles apart.

This was Gwen's idea, this Saturday morning breakfast at the cute little diner with the '50's decor on Leary Way that young couples swarmed to on weekends to feed hangovers and commiserate about the previous night's debauchery.

They had arrived early and were seated immediately, but the place was filling up fast and getting noisy. "We have no business being here," mumbled Ken between sips of water.

"What did you say?" asked Gwen.

"Nothing," said Ken, gazing at the young people outside in the drizzle waiting for a table, mingling in small groups, drinking coffee, laughing.

Ken had worked as a laborer in the shipbuilding industry for over forty years. Still relatively young at 62, he hadn't really considered retirement until he suffered a debilitating back injury when he was struck by a steel beam as he was welding a sub-assemblage on an oil tanker. He didn't have the skills or desire to move into an office position and so, with little fanfare, he stepped away from his life's work and retired to his modest Ballard home. He figured that he would find plenty of things to do around the house to keep himself occupied, that he wouldn't miss the early mornings and the long hours of dirty, strenuous, demanding work.

But if there was ever a man who was defined by his work, it was Ken. He was not prepared for the idle time retirement granted.

Gwen began rummaging through her purse. "I have something I want to show you," she said, as the waitress set two large plates of pancakes, eggs and sausages in front of them.

"Thank you, Miss" said Ken.

"I'll re-fill your coffee in a minute," the waitress replied pleasantly, but obviously harried.

Gwen slid a pamphlet across the table.

"What's this?" asked Ken.

"Kathy at the salon told me that her brother...Rick?...or Eric?...I can't remember...Anyway, her brother went on this bird watching tour at Discovery Park and--"

Ken slid the pamphlet back to his wife without looking at it. "I don't need or want a hobby, Gwen."

Gwen took a bite of her sausage. "Ken," she chewed, "they meet once or twice a month on Saturday morning. There's all kinds of people there. Students. Seniors. Beginners. Kathy said that--"

"Pass me the salt," snapped Ken. "Gwen. I don't like birds. I don't care about birds. What makes you think I would be interested in that?"

Gwen set down her fork and wiped her lips, then picked up the pamphlet and read out loud from it:

With five expert birdwatchers from Seattle Audubon, participants will split up into small groups of varying ability. Three educational outreach specialists will be on-hand to guide families through a children’s scavenger hunt--

The waitress returned with a fresh pot of coffee and re-filled their cups. "How is everything?" she asked.

Ken looked at Gwen who was intently studying the pamphlet. "Fine," he replied. "Thank you."

"I think you should at least consider it, Ken. If nothing else it would be good exercise, get you out of the house" said Gwen, as she resumed eating her sausage, now cold.

Ken said very little throughout the rest of the meal. He could tell Gwen was upset with him. As the commotion and volume rose around them, he fought off the desire to finish quickly and go home. He tried concentrating on the flavor and texture of his pancakes ("Slow down, Ken... taste your food," Gwen constantly reminded him) but it was no use. He set his knife and fork to the side. Then he said, to no one in particular, "Well, that was good."

He twisted the cap tight on the ketchup bottle, then picked up the empty white syrup cups scattered on the table and carefully set them along the edge of his plate. He watched Gwen, who was lost in thought, finish her poached eggs.

"Are you ready, Honey?" Ken asked his wife. She took a last sip of coffee and nodded yes, before tucking the pamphlet back into her purse.

He left a twenty on the table, then helped Gwen with her coat. He took her hand and they made their way through the clatter of happy diners and out onto Leary Way. The sun had come out and was reflecting sharply off the wet asphalt. The cars racing by sounded especially loud.

As the couple walked home in silence, a flock of chickadees flew overhead and disappeared into a Japanese Thundercloud Plumb tree, aglow in its early March splendor, the pinkish-white blossoms dewey and glistening. In an instant another larger group of birds, house finches and sparrows, perhaps, joined the chickadees and now the tree was bursting with color and cacophony. Gwen stopped to take in the spectacle as Ken, head down, trudged on, oblivious.

When he finally became aware of his wife's absence, Ken turned and saw Gwen, half a block behind him, staring up at the tree.

"What's wrong?!" he yelled.

Starlings, Greenwood, 2010

© Jim Hamerlinck.All Rights Reserved.

  • “There's nothing to be gained from passive observance, the simple documenting of conditions, because, at its core, it sets a bad example. Every time something is observed and not fixed, or when one has a chance to give in some way and does not, there is a lie being told, the same lie we all know by heart but which needn't be reiterated.” Dave Eggers