He was hardly even listening. “Huh,” he’d say, “that’s interesting,” and then his gaze would drift off and he’d take another swig of beer.
“What’s up with you?” I said. “Are you still pissed at me?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” He was about to explain but waved it away. “Ahh, it’s stupid.”
“Dad. Come on.”
“It’s just … this guy who showed up a couple days ago. Another birder.”
“Someone you know?”
He shook his head. “Never seen him before. At first I thought he was just some part-time enthusiast yahoo, but he keeps coming back to the same sites, the same nesting grounds, taking notes. He definitely knows what he’s doing. Then today I saw him with a banding cage and a pair of Predators, so I know he’s a pro.”
“Binoculars. Real serious glass.” He’d wadded up his paper placemat and resmoothed it three times now, a nervous habit. “It’s just that I thought I had the scoop on this bird population, you know? I really wanted this book to be something special.”
“And then this asshole comes along.”
“I mean, this no-good sonofabitch.”
He laughed. “Thank you, son, that’ll do.”
“It will be special,” I said reassuringly.
He shrugged. “I dunno. Hope so.” But he didn’t sound too certain.
I knew exactly what was about to happen. It was part of this pathetic cycle my dad was caught in. He’d get really passionate about some project, talk about it nonstop for months. Then, inevitably, some tiny problem would crop up and throw sand in the gears, and instead of dealing with it he’d let it completely overwhelm him. The next thing you knew, the project would be off and he’d be on to the next one, and the cycle would start again. He got discouraged too easily. It was the reason why he had a dozen unfinished manuscripts locked in his desk, and why the bird store he tried to open with Aunt Susie never got off the ground, and why he had a bachelor’s degree in Asian languages but had never been to Asia. He was forty-six years old and still trying to find himself, still trying to prove he didn’t need my mother’s money.
What he really needed was a pep talk that I didn’t feel at all qualified to give, so instead I tried to subtly change the subject. “Where’s this interloper staying?” I asked. “I thought we had the only rooms in town.”
“I assume he’s camping,” my dad replied.
“In this weather?”
“It’s kind of a hardcore ornithology-geek thing. Roughing it gets you closer to your subjects, both physically and psychologically. Achievement through adversity and all that.”
I laughed. “Then why aren’t you out there?” I said, then immediately wished I hadn’t.
“Same reason my book probably won’t happen. There’s always someone more dedicated than I am.”
I shifted awkwardly in my chair. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant was—”
“Ssh!” My dad stiffened, glancing furtively toward the door. “Look quick but don’t make it obvious. He just walked in.”
I shielded my face with the menu and peeked over the top. A scruffy-looking bearded guy stood in the doorway, stamping water from his boots. He wore a rain hat and dark glasses and what appeared to be several jackets layered on top of one another, which made him look both fat and vaguely transient.
“I love the homeless Santa Claus thing he’s got going,” I whispered. “Not an easy look to pull off. Very next-season.”
He ignored me. The man bellied up to the bar, and conversations around him quieted a notch or two. Kev asked what he’d like and the man said something and Kev disappeared into the kitchen. He stared straight ahead as he waited, and a minute later Kev came back and handed the guy a doggie bag. He took it, dropped some bills on the bar, and went to the door. Before leaving, he turned to slowly scan the room. Then, after a long moment, he left.
“What’d he order?” my dad shouted when the door had swung shut.
“Coupla steaks,” Kev replied. “Said he didn’t care how they were cooked, so he got ’em ten-seconds-a-side rare. No complaints.”
People began to mutter and speculate, the volume of their conversations rising again.
“Raw steak,” I said to my father. “You gotta admit, even for an ornithologist that’s a little weird.”
“Maybe he’s a raw foodist,” Dad replied.
“Yeah, right. Or maybe he got tired of feasting on the blood of lambs.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “The man obviously has a camp stove. He probably just prefers to cook out in the open.”
“In the rain? And why are you defending him, anyway? I thought he was your archnemesis.”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” he said, “but it would be nice if you didn’t make fun of me.” And he stood up to go to the bar.
* * *
A few hours later my dad stumbled upstairs, reeking of alcohol, and flopped into his bed. He was asleep instantly, ripping out monster snores. I grabbed a coat and set out to meet Emma, no sneaking necessary.
The streets were deserted and so quiet you could almost hear the dew fall. Clouds stretched thinly across the sky, with just enough moonlight glowing through to light my way. As I crested the ridge, a prickly feeling crept over me, and I looked around to see a man watching me from a distant outcropping. He had his hands raised to his face and his elbows splayed out like he was looking through binoculars. The first thing I thought was damn it, I’m caught, assuming it was one of the sheep farmers out on watch, playing detective. But if so, why wasn’t he coming over to confront me? Instead he just stood and watched, and I watched back.
Finally I figured if I’m caught, I’m caught, because whether I went back now or kept going, one way or another word of my late-night excursion would circle back to my dad. So I raised my arm in a one-fingered salute and descended into the chilly fog.
Coming out of the cairn, it looked like the clouds had been peeled back and the moon pumped up like a big, yellow balloon, so bright I almost had to squint. A few minutes later Emma came wading through the bog, apologizing and talking a mile a minute.
“Sorry I’m late. It took ages for everyone to get to bed! Then on my way out I stumbled over Hugh and Fiona snogging each other’s faces off in the garden. But don’t worry. They promised not to tell if I didn’t.”