Friday, November 25, 2005

Sunday calls and dilemmas, or, opposing urgencies between a birder and his wife

On what well might have been the last really warm day of autumn, a Sunday morning, with sunlight spilling over the barren trees bordering Juganine Creek, shortly after we’d finished eating breakfast and were settling down to another cup of coffee, the telephone rang.

Rarely welcome is a call so early on a Sunday morning. Lori and I stared at each other. I frowned deeply.

“It’s for you,” she said.

“I think it’s for you,” I countered.

It rang again.

Lately we’ve been going so many directions on our various and sundry projects that we realized we were working seven days a week. After some discussion, we agreed to hold Sunday as an inviolate day of rest. Since only three weekends had passed since initiating the plan, it was too early to tell whether we could stick to it. But at least it was a start.

The phone rang a third time. We watched each other. I was a bit more ambivalent about the ringing and could easily have let the answering machine take a message. Women, however, are by their very natures disposed to grab the infernal device at the first shudder of a ring, as if it were a matter of life and death. This is something that has long puzzled men.

Still, for it to ring this early, on a Sunday, was cause for worry. Given the opportunity, the mind will summon forth a multitude of disasters, tragedies, crises and woes only tenuously connected to reality. And yet that connection, tenuous though it be, binds one’s fears of inevitable loss to a suddenly uncertain present.

Of course, it could also be someone wanting us to meet them at the shop, or asking a favor, or an invitation to an event we’d somehow forgotten about, whether through an actual lapse in brain synapses or a Freudian slip.

The phone rang again.

We have our answering machine set to pick up on the fifth ring. This means that if we intend on filtering the call—the coward’s method of hiding—we have four long rings and their concomitant pregnant pauses to wonder who it is on the other end. Sometimes the suspension is comically palpable.

I wasn’t surprised when Lori lunged for the phone and grabbed it. My only surprise was in how long it took her to do so.

She spoke for a moment and then handed the phone to me. “It’s for you,” she said.

I hate it when that happens.

A woman’s voice informed me that the birds were back, their numbers having grown from five to eighteen.

“They’re there right now,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“I’ll be right out.”

We’d had a similar conversation the week before—not on a Sunday, but on a Friday. I was just walking out the door to go to work when Beth Warders called to tell me there were five large gray birds in her field, each about four feet tall and with red markings on their heads. Did I have any idea what they were?

I did. They were sandhill cranes, a species of bird that occasionally passes through the county but never when I was looking. And their exclusion was an ulcer on my county list. Within two minutes I had lined up someone to take my place and off I went, but by the time I arrived, around fifteen minutes later, they had disappeared.

She and her husband, Gary, met me at the end of their drive. He said the birds had flown south not two minutes before.

So here I was being handed a second chance. “Let’s go!” I shouted, grabbing for my binoculars and camera.

“Let me curl my hair,” she said.

I tried to say something but my mouth was locked open. In fact, my entire body was stunned to immobility while it waited for my brain to register the impact of her words. Hair? Curl? It was a form of concussion, bludgeoned by a shockwave of surprise that even thirty-some years of marriage could never have prepared me for.

“You look great,” I finally stammered, following her into the bathroom. She looked at her reflection and ran a comb through her hair. “There’s no time,” I implored.

“Please,” I begged.

She cooched one side of her head, and poofed her upper tresses, and fluffed the other side.
I said something else and we left.

There is no fast way to get to the Warders’ place. You go west out of Blue Rapids to the Fawn Creek School marker, turn north and follow the narrow dirt road as it winds, bends, dips, snakes, curves, and undulates for five miles. All the way, we watched the skies and the stubble fields for cranes. I wasn’t about to let them slip past this time. Lori pointed out how dirty the windshield was and how the wiper was in shreds. She alerted me to several soaring bald eagles, a mob of crows, and a harrier.

The Warders’ drive is a quarter-mile long and passes through wheat fields now ragged and sere. I could see Beth and Gary waiting for us, so I coasted in, trying not to flatten their dogs, one whom apparently had a death wish.

The birds had taken wing a few minutes before, Beth said. We probably couldn’t see them through the dirty windshield.

Sunday is almost here again, but this time if the phone rings I’m going to answer it. It may be a day of rest, but some things just won’t wait.

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