The Starbucks latte was shallow and weary, in a puddle at the bottom of a cardboard cup. He sidled it whichway, Saturday morning, at Central Park, on a bench avoided since the day a group of Portuguese women became a gaggle of geese before his eyes. He watched an elderly woman on the Great Lawn. She usually brought a Golden Retriever on the weekends, and tossed a chew rope for it to recoup. The dog reminded him of the retriever from the Milk-Bone biscuits’ advertisement, who was incidentally, originally “Rin Tin Tin.” Uneasy with the plash, the instructor from Marsh College rose unevenly, and opted to search for another latte near the East Mid-80’s, murmuring rhetorically, “New York is like a house,” and “Where’s the coffee machine?”
He found an elderly Irish-American man cradling a set of binoculars, and cloistering upon the Central Park bench on his return. He sat nonetheless in the same place, next to him, resisting both the urge to complain, or idly converse. The Irish was searching for an owl, he said, momentarily, reflecting agreeably, “Owls are uniquely private birds.” The man’s accent seemed more Germanic. He commented, without any prompting, “The owl’s ability to hear is advanced. They’re nocturnal, — probably the best reason people seem to believe owls are very easily-riled up, and far too reclusive. They’re just out at night. They sleep during the day, and hate to be woken. I’m just hoping to catch him now.”
The Marsh instructor nodded politely, like punctuation. “Really,” he concluded.
He had booked an afternoon flight for a brief escape to his double-wide in Florida. He would be joined by a friend, and colleague, Joe, for a dinner cruise of the Intercoastal Waterway the next day, Sunday, aboard a schooner, The Atlantic Princess. He decided to tell the Irish man at Central Park more about his owl, recalling it. “There was an owl who flew up behind me here. It was like he was going to pounce on the bench. He must have been the size of a Volkswagen.”
The man blinked, and nodded knowingly, then folded his arms. “Her. It sounds like her. Her nest is seventy feet up.”
The elderly man wore tan flannels, and a light jacket. His name was Sorbet. He was a recent immigrant from Ireland. “It’s easy for Americans to remember. Think of sherbet.” They talked occasionally about the owls, old movies, dogs, and trees near the Great Lawn.
The Coney Islander told the Irish man, “I saw Old Yeller this week for the first time,” and then opined, “What a terrible movie!”
Sorbet agreed, genially. “It was not at all uplifting to me. It was just dreadfully wrong to put him down. I suppose it was necessary, the dog supposedly had a disease. But the movie — why do it? The whole thing? Just dreadful.”
The college instructor said, “Exactly.”
“Born Free was a little better,” Sorbet said, brightening, adding, “But — “
“The lion does go away, but he comes back.”
Sorbet recalled, “Yes. He brings back all the little lions. That was better.”
The instructor surveyed the Park, and gazed behind the bench, precariously. “I don’t hear your owl,” he said. “It must be too late.”
The man remembered a story. Sorbet said, “There were trees like this, a bit overgrown, on a property in Bavaria.”
“Yes, Germany,” Sorbet said, smiling quickly. “They call the property, the houses and apartments, a ‘coron,’ a ‘kolonie.’”
“They don’t have subdivisions.”
“It’s similar to one,” said Sorbet. “The owner wanted to trim the branches of the trees in the lot where residents usually parked their automobiles. The canvas of the branches was much too large, and they were dropping pitch, and wild nuts on hoods of the vehicles. He knew a spotted owl who lived in the branches, but years, and years ago. He hadn’t seen or heard the owl in quite a while. He was unable to find the owl’s nest, and was sure he’d moved along. He had the tree surgeons trim the branches.”
Sorbet continued, “The tree line looked wonderful, and he admired the neat cut for the property, the extra room in the parking lot. But then — he hears this fierce, harrowing hoot, –terrible hoot, foreboding. It had been waiting for him somewhere in the tree line, as if the man should have known better; goodness, if it wasn’t the owl.”
“He was probably living in a tree cavity,” the instructor said. “Possibly under the ground, if was it was a burrowing owl. Some will use abandoned nests of other birds, hawks. They can live in a cavity of a tree, harder to see.”
The man nodded, “It had been living in the trees all of those years.”
The Coney Island instructor revved the eight cylinders of a glossy red Firebird, a rental, in the parking lot at a City Marina in Florida. He wheeled it in a circle, annoyed to be waiting for Joe on Sunday. He dialed Joe’s cell a dozen times; his calls were going to automatic messages. He drove out to the entrance for the fifth time, checking every quarter-hour, until he decided to stop counting the intervals; it had been an hour-fifteen. The check-in to board for the dinner cruise on The Atlantic Princess now loomed; all of the passengers would have to board shortly, or they’d be left ashore without a refund.
“One more time,” the Coney Islander said. He tooled the Pontiac over the intercoastal drawbridge, a beautiful, tree-lined, four-lane entryway to a half-mile road in the marina, and past a riverfront mall. The temperature was seventish, a perfect day, and it troubled him they might miss it.
They had toured the flea market circuit earlier Sunday morning along U.S. A-1A. Joe was diverted to tables with displays of vintage records, 45 RPM’s. He stopped near Joe at one table to look at samples of European tiles, grinning, a new maven of home renovation, and design on HGTV. He studied the label for a well-known tile, – an “azulejo,” – and he tried to pronounce. Joe piped, “ah–JEWEL-yo,” like “jewel.” He knew Joe said it wrong, but he didn’t correct him, avoiding the occupational hazard of having to be right. An “azulejo,” a Portuguese tile, is known for the detail painted upon the surface; many painters have used them as a special canvas to express fine art; it wouldn’t surprise him to find a likeness of just about anything, from Spanish landscapes to the Chauvet, the ancient, 30,0000 year old European cave.
He leaned next to Sorbet in Central Park, continuing to watch the woman and her dog, the Golden Retriever, on the Lawn. The Retriever seemed enamored by every instant of the regular exercise routine, and galloped ten or twenty yards to fetch his chew rope, grappled it into his mouth, and cantered return it at the lady’s feet. “Exercise makes him happy,” commented Sorbet. “Beautiful dog.” Their gaze at the retriever became an offing lull, somewhat surreal in the moment, with the warm breeze upon the Great Lawn; the broad, and peaceful smile of the retriever’s face, the innocence of the blissful pet, his gait, wide and great, as perfect as an Olympian, it mesmerized them to watch the canine easily span thirty yards of Central Park.
Sorbet, breaking the silence, observed, “He runs like a horse.”
The Coney Island instructor pondered the relative merit of roast beef and salmon, in the parking lot, on foot, fretting about the many times Joe had been a no-show in the past. The dinner cruise was worth it alone, he decided. And there were all the signs; usually a woman, in one place, or another, an unusual time, four in the afternoon; good weather. Joe met a professional womens’ basketball player Saturday night at the Deck, an oceanfront bar, and grill. And never any message, text, warning, or explanation, afterward; it was just one of his friend’s frustrating qualities. Joe was still young, and single. He expected people to accept it. The instructor snuffed a cigarette out in a standing ash tray at the boarding plank, glared facetiously at the stagnant lot, gave one last, heavy breath of frustration, and boarded the Atlantic Princess. “Alas,” he smiled. “Whatever.” The Intercoastal Waterway was the arroyo which separates the mainland of Florida and other states from the barrier islands, like Miami from Miami Beach. “Ahh,” he said, surveying the ship’s interior.
He emerged from the cabin, and put his hands on the railing of the deck to view the Intercoastal, with a last scowl for Joe, who was soon to be a landlubber. “Million dollar views,” he said, to a stranger nearby, and widened his arms. “And a million-dollar breeze. This is why people come to Florida.” The evenings in tropical Florida, once the sun ebbs, and the humidity wanes, a dewy, twilight breeze cools and dries in every direction, as if Mother Nature was home from the heat of the day.
The count for the Atlantic Princess tour was forty-one, which one of the mates told them to remember, “just in case”; they comprised natives, and tourists, who had stepped carefully over a temporary steel plank to deck of the ship; the schooner was a two-story boat, with a customized, downstairs’ restaurant, converted for daily jaunts of the St. John’s River. He was partially amused. He said under his breath at the deck rail, still staring at the lot, trying not to bother the busy crew, with the notion of his Marsh College friend trying a James Bond leap from the seashore, but content this was going to be a solo trip. He joined the passengers in the cabin, and chose a booth, with a table along the wall of windows which surrounded the first floor; the other tables were filling quickly; there was excitement about the tour, the nautical atmosphere, the cascading “tiki sound” of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and “What A Wonderful World.”
The steward watched the guests embark, and waited for any late arrivals like Joe before casting the ropes. He noticed a sea gull alight on the gate rail, followed by a half a dozen more gulls, enthralled as the gulls joined in a collective guffaw at the schooner, and the Intercoastal tourists, enclosed in the air-conditioned, first-floor cabin, ensconced with an “all-you-can-drink”Coca-Cola bar. They watched the loosening of the boat’s moorings, and felt the float of the ship, slowly in reverse, as the power of the motors elevated, and the river cruise began. It took a few minutes for the boat to right, away from the slip; and it seemed as if it was travelling backwards. He waited almost an hour for it to turn, which it never did, forgetting about it when another pointed, and nodded “aft” and “fore.” The second stage of the ship was framed with screens, open- air, and a cash bar. He was delighted to see the intercoastal from the waterway; the river was like a highway, or interstate; there were navigable paths, the water expanding twenty to forty feet below the hull. The Princess was not one of the corporate cruise ships, which sailed from the port of Canaveral; a pleasure boat, it resembled more of a large fishing boat, detailed, overhauled, and retrofitted for this type of voyage. He rested his arm on the back of the red padded booth, and inspected the breakaway seating, which concealed life preservers for everyone.
He examined the group, and gawked at the Intercoastal through windows of the first floor. The crowd of almost fifty included a tall woman with short, brown bangs set in curls; waiting, in the new reality of the river, she filled the bay with shouts until she was sure to be heard above the overloud muzak, and people’s nervous chatter, in the event it might be important; another squeezed a man’s shoulder, and poked another stranger, to acknowledge her presence, and swiftly made way to a table in the midst of the cabin, to begin a much-eschewed, group sing-a-long; a man in University of Minnesota Athletic Department shirt turned one way, and the other, and found no good reason not to flex his muscles.
The dinner service for the narrated excursion arrived within just a few minutes, much sooner than expected; roast prime rib, garlic potatoes, and grilled, green beans, was furnished on paper plates, with plastic utensils, which didn’t bother anyone, whatsoever; they marvelled it was one of the best available at any restaurant. The passengers warily digested the meal, eventually bringing happy jabber, and contentment to the deck, as guests freed themselves to see the water, and the rest of the ship. The captain used the intercom to mention points of interest along their Intercoastal course. “Look!” the woman with curly bangs hollered. “Is that a shark?”
A middle-aged man with meaty, inked forearms, outfitted in Bermuda garb, was ostensibly her husband, and he gently, but quickly pulled the woman away from the windows, and admonishing her cheerfully, “Molly.” The voice of the captain intervened to settle the matter, apart from a brief clamor, after waiting perhaps for all eyes on deck to see the fish. He then advised, mundanely, “And I see a dolphin has joined us at ten o’clock, on the starboard side.”
“It’s a dolphin, Molly,” said the husband said, incompletely under his breath.
Molly insisted, “Well, it could have been a shark. They look exactly alike.”
The college instructor compared the dolphin to a shark; the dolphin’s fin was similar; if the captain said it was a dolphin, then it was a dolphin. He watched numbly at the dolphins diving, and spiriting from the water meters away, racing the ship, and diving again. The captain called their attention to another attraction on the port side, this time an island, Sea Turtle Island, which was scarcely more than a jetty, with about enough room for a single sea turtle, a large rock surrounded by a narrow, sandy beach; they passed it, and other rock formations jutting from the waterway. The schooner passed below a number of superbridges, and river markers. He noticed wryly how, installed atop the piling of Marker #47, a solid post, almost like a telephone pole in the river, was a wooden pelican, sitting on the flat of the top, with probably with a restaurant too far away to see below the marker sign. He grinned, “everywhere is fair” to promote the mega Sunshine State. He saw another wooden pelican when the ship passed beneath the old drawbridge at Main Street, atop a piling near fenders for the bridge at Marker #29, and cast another grin; shocked, and a little surprised, he noticed the wooden beak of the pelican move just slightly to one side, and he strained to see it again, wondering if it might actually have been a live pelican. The scaffolding of the bridge in the built into the waterway was intended to guard the pillars of the structure, and to protect one ship from another; the waterway signs were painted bright, all-day orange, and they reminded ship captains, maybe unnecessarily, of the very secluded ways to the sea; one advised “Idle Speed,” or essentially to float, through the shallow channels; another, “No Wake.”
The Gallery Art Festival, or “The Gallery,” is held every year on a Sunday night in the fall, in a downtown block closed to traffic. The autumn festival is sponsored by the chamber of commerce for an inland town, also the county seat, during the first week of November after the County fair. Joe had never ventured to the County Fair, a New Yorker, but always went to the Gallery, to view the pageant works of color, and the panoply of a crowd. The temperature in Florida peaks in August, but may stay in three-figures well into November. The Gallery was scheduled by the chamber when it could be imagined the mercury may certainly broach the seventies by nightfall. The height of hurricane season, lately Labor Day in the Sunshine State, brought the heat index to a shout of 105; he noted how southerners needed air conditioning in the hot months, like northerners required heat in winter.
The enclave Gallery was more of a block party; vendor booths spanned a dozen of intersecting streets, and featured a national gathering of artists to display their work at a juried show; food vendors offered Floridian festival fare, seafood, chicken on a stick, a trove of barbecue; there were corn dogs, sausage, grilled onions, ice cream; “squeeze-to-please” lemonade; Kettle Corn; half-tents for Bud Light, of course; countless craft beers, with unknown names; booths housed everyone from Bath Fitter to candidates for public office; vendors travel agents; newspaper subscription sales teams; and there were several platforms for musicians, who performed blaring, glaring heavy metal, and rock-and-roll music, and soothing, tiki mnemonics to charm the festival-goers, even teetotalers, with more subtle beats, providing a backdrop of the fete at summer’s end.
It was a Sunday, and late in the day, it was close to five, the only day of the event; a time between day, and night, in a gray of air hinting drops of rain, encouraging the flasks, and wells of the Budweiser tent. Thousands of people attending the Gallery included a high number of sno’birds, who had lately arrived for the winter; the festival was free, and they gathered in clusters on the street in front of food vendors, and band platforms; the latter included one of the loud bands, which commenced a hazy trill of original compositions, a strange, but somehow not unpleasant departure from the other cover bands, sounds both familiar, and unfamiliar. An elderly man was seated at a table with his wife, in the shadowing light, under an EZ-Up tent, arranged as a mini-restaurant for the patrons, with chairs provided graciously by the show organizers, and a vendor. The elderly couple spoke faintly to one another; they were plainly in their eighties, and enjoying the sway of the throng. They wore clogs, and, despite that, the woman, his wife, who was very taken by the band, wanted to dance. The man frowned conspicuously, and he said no, and he was shaking his head, but in the band’s rhythm of a vague version of tropical reggae, relented, and conceded to take her hand. She politely obliged, with a broadening grin, and they rose, with a dose of drama, to begin a Jewish step dance.
The elderly pair clasped one hand deliberately over their head, and joined only at their finger tips; their feet pointed to one direction, and another; the dance deigned as a circle, one circle, and another circle, as it pleased them; they inspired the gathering with how each circle was slower, and it drew them closer, and closer, captivating them with the implied romance of an eighty-something couple, a clench, but never a clench, every step bending at the knee, and the couple separated all the while; only their finger tips would touch in the ring of the dance. One of the women in a nearby Gallery tent began a clap with admiration, and she was joined by the others, cheering, and watching the couple, as a cluster of twenty-five formed around them, trying to follow, and learn the steps of the elderly pair, applauding softly with the rhythm of the dance, and, possibly, with joy, each time the couple bowed, and rose to a step. The buoyant colors of a red-and-white balloon unveiled the inflatable Tube Man, which was arching, and waving high in the air, and to and fro, in a fleeting breeze of the sea, one day, in the fall. ◊
¤ JUKE BOX ¤
Theme: “Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance,” Loreena McKennitt | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-61,” a myopic vaile, (No. 61).
..… from “^; or, CARET,” III of III,
The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories, by Soda Tom,
[Complete Works, No. 01]. Copyright (C) 2017-20, ff.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom