The Fiction and Poetry of Jason Thibeault

The Old Man and the Bird

Ralph definitely had some sort of accent although if pressed neither he nor Samuel could have told you what it was. That might have been because Ralph was a seagull and didn’t hear much difference in the way he and other seagulls spoke, and Samuel didn’t have a frame of reference. But when Ralph spoke, there was something about the way he clipped certain words that made Samuel believe he was from somewhere specific despite having never had any other seagulls speak to him against which he could draw a comparison. Sometimes, Ralph was fond of saying to anyone who would listen, you just have to listen to your gut. Samuel’s gut was telling him that Ralph had an accent.

The first time Ralph had spoken, it hadn’t even taken Samuel by surprise that a bird was speaking to him. What had surprised him was that it was something new. The old man, long past the years where life did anything but take things away, had been coming to the same stretch of boardwalk by the ocean for two years and 13 days. Always at the same time too, 3:17 in the afternoon. And nothing new had happened to him for as long as he could remember. Ever since his son had left, it had seemed to him that the days and nights were the same, the weeks, months, and seasons just empty reminders.

And although he’d seen plenty of seagulls in the hour he’d spend standing and looking out at the ocean, rain or shine, he’d never taken much notice of the birds. Instead, he had focused on the roiling waves, especially during the winter months when, bundled in a thick gray wool trench coat, buttoned up to his neck, a hand-knitted scarf wrapped around his neck and lower face, stuffed into the jacket, the swell was more powerful and the cold, bitter air was filled with longing and regret. The birds, swirling and diving, fighting against the angry, chilling wind, squawking and hollering to one another, were just another aspect of the scenery for him, a dash of spice in an otherwise unremarkable dish that he forced himself to eat every day. Standing alone on the boardwalk, facing the turbulent waters, it felt to Samuel like he was out on the ocean, like Melville looking for his white whale or Hemingway searching for another marlin, alone in a little skiff or some type of aging, creaky fishing boat, begging the sea to throw him some good luck.

To those who might see him standing there, unmoving, stoic against the elements, he was a statue, molded in copper, by some artists whose hands were heavy with regret, and love, but now greened with age.

“How are you today, Mr. Samuel?”

Samuel didn’t even look at Ralph, knowing exactly where the bird was, off to his right a few feet, perched on the seawall curbing as if taunting the cold water.

“Every day is the same,” he said and then added quietly, “you don’t need to call me Mr. Samuel. My name is just Samuel.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Samuel.”

Samuel sighed and continued staring out into the distance as if he could will the ship to crest the horizon, trudging back to the pier where it would allow the passengers to disembark even though he knew that was never going to happen. A sudden gust of cold November wind forced him to duck his head a little and he dug his hands further into the coat pockets. In his right pocket, he fiddled with the old coin, long worn down from the countless days and months it had spent in his coat pocket. He remembered when his son, Patrick, had given it to him.

It’s an authentic Greek coin, Patrick had said after he’d walked down the gangplank and stepped onto the pier. I think it’s called a Dracma. Got it for you at a little shop outside the Colosseum in Rome.

Samuel recalled how he had grumbled a little that it had probably been expensive and that Patrick, tanned from his summer cruise to Italy, shouldn’t spend his money on such things. Something that he had told his son often, along with a lot of other advice that went unheeded such as “you don’t need to be away so much,” “you should spend more time with your family because life is short”, and ”

But it shouldn’t have surprised Samuel that Patrick wasn’t much for listening. He’d been that way all his life. He remembered when Patrick was nine and they had stood fishing on the pier as they had done many times. Samuel had always told him to brace himself against the railing and to hold the rod tightly so that he was prepared when the fish bit. But he’d never hooked a fish and even though Samuel gave him the same advice every single time, Patrick had at some point stopped listening because on that day, it wasn’t two minutes after casting that Patrick had hooked the fish of his life, a genuine whopper, maybe something five or six hundred pounds. And before Patrick could even cry out in surprised excitement, the fish yanked the rod out of his hands. It was a sharp memory as Samuel looked out into the ocean, glancing at the pier that Patrick had left on each cruise, and he shuddered, not from the cold as much as from what he remembered saying that time: “that was a really expensive fishing rod you just lost.”

“You would probably be warmer if you had a good coat of feathers,” Ralph said suddenly. “Not only do I have these wonderful white feathers on top, but I have another whole layer underneath. Down feathers, if I remember correctly. The white ones keep the weather off me, the down ones warm me up.”

Samuel, still starting at the pier as he drew his jacket around him tighter, didn’t respond.

“If you ask me, that’s what I’d recommend you humans do next.” Samuel could hear the bird pecking and scratching at something on the boardwalk in between words. “Get some feathers.”

“My coat does me just fine.”

“Oh, sure, I’m not suggesting it doesn’t. It’s just that not only would you be warm, but you could fly too. Have you ever flown, Mr. Samuel?”

Samuel didn’t have the heart or the patience to instruct a bird about how humans had invented great big flying machines that could fit hundreds of birds at one time and fly a thousand times as far, so he just sighed.

“I don’t really like to travel, it’s a waste of money. I have everything I have ever needed right here,” Samuel finally said perhaps a little more brusquely than he had intended. Another harsh and angry gust of wind blew along the boardwalk this time, forcing Samuel to turn to face Ralph, letting his back take the brunt of it. Although the jacket and the scarf, a gift from Patrick when he visited Ireland, took the brunt of it, sharp fingers of chill wormed their way between the fibers, up and under his black beanie, and seemingly into the very core of his being as if his heart could get any colder.

“That’s a shame, Mr. Samuel, an absolute shame. Traveling is the most glorious thing a bird can do. Why I have been up and down the coast. I have tasted clams pulled straight from the ocean a long way north, some of those things you call French Fries right over there on the pier, and a very delectable ham sandwich, taken right from a very unsuspecting little human, a short way to the south.”

Samuel almost smiled at how Ralph had learned to incorporate directions into his descriptions. When they had first started talking, Ralph would refer to distances as just “over there” or “up there” or “that way”. Samuel had given him the vocabulary to relate to directions and distances and now it was much easier to understand to where he was referring. Realizing that made Samuel also realize just how much Ralph talked about visiting different places. Just like Patrick.

“How long have we been friends, Mr. Samuel?”

“Not sure I would call us friends, Ralph, but I guess a couple of years.”

“Well, I consider us friends, Mr. Samuel, as I would anyone who treats me with respect and gives me treats to eat so many times during the year. You wouldn’t believe how many of you humans try to kick me when they walk by.”

Samuel’s mouth hooked into a brief smile, thinking about how often he’d shared his sandwich or other food when he’d come during the warmer months when, instead of standing, he’d sit on the edge of the seawall with his feet dangling over the water just like he and Patrick had done so many times.

“Okay if that’s how you see friendship then I guess we are friends.”

“And friends speak honestly to one another, do they not? This is something I learned from you Mr. Samuel.”

Samuel thought about it for a moment about how, on that day, 2 years and 13 days ago, when Patrick had walked up the gangplank and hadn’t looked back, he hadn’t been truthful. He hadn’t said all the things he had wanted to say, that he’d needed to say, and had, instead, only stuffed his hands into his coat pockets, the thumb and first finger of his right hand immediately rubbing the old Greek coin, and whispered, “I told you, I don’t like to travel.”

“Yes, Ralph, I did tell you that.”

“Then I want to be honest, as a friend, is all.”

Samuel didn’t respond and, when Ralph didn’t say anything more, turned to look at the bird and then crouched down to give Ralph his undivided attention.

The bird seemed to take a deep breath, if that was something that birds could do, and then blurted out, “He’s not coming back. Whoever you’ve been waiting for all this time isn’t coming back.”

The abruptness of what Ralph said caught Samuel by surprise making him suddenly aware of the lump in his throat, the one that had been there for two years and 13 days. He had seen plenty of ships come into the harbor, send their little boats to the pier so the people could enjoy the boardwalk, play games, win prizes, snack on hotdogs, and, of course, indulge in one or two funnel cakes sprinkled with powered sugar and twisted in love. But Patrick hadn’t been on any of them and deep down, Samuel knew he wouldn’t be.

He remembered the argument he’d had with Patrick about traveling, about living life, about how Samuel shouldn’t be stuck in his house for the rest of his life just because his wife died. But when Samuel implored his son not to go, got angry that he was just giving up and leaving, Patrick told him to get out. Samuel had thrown the golden Drachma at him, telling his son that if he couldn’t stay with him, especially after his mom was gone, especially when Samuel was all alone, then he didn’t want any reminders of his son at all. And then three weeks later he was gone. He hadn’t even bothered to pack for the trip. Everything was how he left it in the room, how he and his wife had left the room that day when Patrick went off to college. Everything but the coin. Despite searching the entire room, he hadn’t been able to find it.

It had only taken Samuel a few days to realize his mistake so he’d marched down to the pier and to the little house where people bought their cruise tickets and lined up on the day of departure. Angrier than he’d ever been, Samuel yelled at the port steward, demanded his name. He remembered it so clearly now, these two years and thirteen days later. Cha-Ren Alibi. “What? I don’t understand. Your name is Charon?” The steward had taken a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Cha-Ren,” he had said. “I’m from Yemen.” Samuel had mumbled something about too many foreigners and why couldn’t things go back to the way they were, when people had names he understood, and the steward’s face had hardened a little more. “Is there something I can do for you?” No matter how much Samuel wanted to forget that conversation, he remembered it like it was yesterday, which felt like such a long way off but kept nagging him as if it was only a few moments ago. “I just want my son back,” he had said. And that’s when the steward’s face suddenly softened and the pit in Samuel’s stomach grew as big as a black hole.

“I know,” Samuel finally whispered, just loud enough to escape the greedy, cold wind that had been snatching his words for two years and 13 days. “I just miss him so much.”

“Oh, I understand,” Ralph said as he hopped a couple of steps closer to Samuel. “I miss things all the time. Like those French fries. I only had them once but I miss them terribly.”

Samuel stared out into the gray horizon as the whitecaps rolled in endlessly, smashing against the seawall and, after being diminished, against the boardwalk too. He saw the swirling mess of the storm, the threatening clouds, and felt the uncertainty of whether if it would rain in an hour, or two, or never, and realized what Patrick had been telling him the whole hadn’t been about taking a trip with him on some cruise to some far off country.

“Where did you say those French fries were?” Samuel asked as he turned and look down at Ralph.

“They are just a little north, right up there. Oh Samuel, are you telling me that you want to share some French fries?” Ralph said as he bobbed up and down excitedly. “Oh that would be so wonderful, so wonderful.”

Samuel smiled a little bigger than before, most certainly bigger than he had for the past two years and 13 days.

“Yes, Ralph, I think it’s time I take a little trip. It’s what Patrick would have wanted. He loved those French fries, too.”