Grenville: Owl In Flight
What had triggered that departure after two weeks of exhibiting behaviors that had indicated at first the owl was staking out its territory? There was only one conclusion: The owl wouldn’t stay where it couldn’t find a mate. But why had the owl come in the first place? Had the bird been sick or injured in some way undetectable by observation? And what of the choice of the old rowboat upturned on Esther’s back lawn? The gleaming aluminum was highly visible from the air, but why roost on it for so long?
Evan turned the questions around in his mind, keeping his thoughts in scientific observation-mode instead of drifting into anthropomorphism and thinking of the owl as “Oliver, which Esther had named it. This was a wild creature: sophisticated, territorial. Like all birds, it individualized during mating season, then melded into a larger organism known as a flock. A parliament. Evan smiled to himself, remembering the name for a group of owls. Brood of hens, siege of herons, cast of hawks, gaggle of geese, parliament of owls.
His coffee cooled in the heavy ceramic cup, white with a faded red stripe around the rim. The edge of a bun, where the cheddar from his cheeseburger had oozed and burned a little, recalled the lunch he’d just finished after a morning in the field observing nesting bald eagles along the Raquette River.
Birgitta said she ate mostly rice and beans—cheap and healthy, and in keeping with the local population who could not afford animal protein on a regular basis. Evan thumbed through his phone for the Birgitta folder where he saved all her emails and found the one where she’d mentioned her new dietary habits. “For me, it’s no bother. But the Americans here miss their burgers…” She’d meant nothing personal; she wasn’t even talking about him. But Evan couldn’t help but feel another divide between them.
At Dartmouth, six years ago, their differences had seemed exotic, but easily bridged by their shared college experience. Birgitta was smart, funny, beautiful, and Swedish, with an accent he could listen to all day. Birgitta had said she liked his dark eyes and olive complexion that recalled Mediterranean ancestors on his mother’s side, and the broad face and cheekbones that were carved out of eastern European stock on his father’s. “A map of Europe,” she used to tease him.
But they’d been only twenty when they’d met; theirs was a college romance. When, by chance, they both ended up in Boston a year after graduation, Evan had convinced himself this was it. A year and a half later, Birgitta was practically living in his place. Then Guatemala.
Evan shook his head, still stung by her willingness to end their relationship just as they (or at least he) and everyone else saw them as a couple. Birgitta’s studies were finishing and working on global public health from Boston felt too distant, ineffectual. The project in Guatemala was perfect for her. But that wasn’t the only reason: she’d pointed to her sister and now-former brother-in-law, her parents—all divorced. “Things are impermanent. People change, move on. If that should happen to us, I would rather leave now, while it’s still good.” She’d said it so matter-of-factly Evans hated her for a moment. The last week had been brutal, constantly together while counting down the days until she left for Guatemala. They’d both cried.
With Birgitta gone, Evan left Boston and took a job in the Adirondacks doing bird population studies for New York State. Then two months ago, early on a February morning and eight months since he’d last seen Birgitta, Evan sat in the Fish & Wildlife truck, freezing his backside off. He missed Birgitta so badly his ribs ached and emailed a demand to see her, disguised as a request. It carried every bit of desperation he felt, made all the worse when four days went by before she answered. Evan re-read it now on his phone: “We are so far apart. I think it’s better we don’t try to continue something that cannot happen now. XO Birgitta.”
He’d backed off, stopped emailing and texting, accepted the silence and distance. Then the owl.
Seeing the bird sitting on that old rowboat, he’d taken a picture and texted it to Birgitta with the caption: “My new colleague. His name is Oliver.” She’d replied twelve minutes later.
Two weeks of studying Oliver, mostly on his own time, gave him a reason to keep texting Birgitta photos and sending her longer emails about the owl. He told her about Esther Crocker who had called about the owl, and that woman from the motel, Louisa Pherson, whom he regarded as a little crazy. Once, Louisa spotted Evan in a field and nearly got herself run over when she made a mad dash in front of a logging truck to reach him. Louisa had pelted him with questions about the local owl population and what she could do to attract them to her property. It had taken a lot to keep from laughing when she asked with complete sincerity, “Should I buy an old rowboat, like in Esther’s yard? Do they like to sit on them?”
“Owl envy,” he’d written to Birgitta.
“I would want one, too,” she’d written back. “Who wouldn’t want an owl for company?”
Re-rereading their exchange now, imagining Birgitta’s voice, Evan leaned forward, his forehead nearly touching the soft patina of the Formica counter.
“You fallin’ asleep?” a man asked loudly as he sat down on the next stool. It was that mailman; Evan couldn’t remember his name.
“Coffee, Jimmy?” The waitress held up the pot.
“Martini, dry—two olives. What’d James Bond say—shaken not stirred?”
The waitress filled his cup and left two creamers beside the saucer. “You find a martini like that around here, make sure you order two.”
Evan looked down the long row of stools at a gap of six empty places before the next cluster of people at the other end of the counter. Why did this guy have to sit here?
“Got a question for you.” The mailman launched into a series of queries about fishing regulations.
“I’m a bird population specialist,” Evan said a few times, but fish or fowl didn’t seem to make a difference to Jimmy, who kept talking about perch, trout, and small-mouth bass.
“Here’s a question you probably can’t answer—a real stumper.” Jimmy grinned at him. Evan braced himself; this guy was never going to leave.
“Know why they call this place Grenville?”
Jimmy Rivers loved telling the story from details carefully researched over the years. Two billion years ago, what had been a sea bottom located near the Equator shifted northward and collided with a land mass known as Laurentia. The impact built a long chain of mountains like a backbone running north to south. “The Grenville Orogeny,” Jimmy said, pronouncing it proudly.
The original Grenville Mountains wore away with time, and the land masses kept shifting. Then the whole area was covered by a shallow sea. Fossils of trilobites that once inhabited the sea can still be found—Jimmy even had a few specimens embedded in rocks he’d picked up on hikes when he was younger. More upheavals created more mountains, and ice ages carved and gouged the land; melting glaciers turned craters into lakes.
“That’s what made the mountains and lakes around here,” Jimmy concluded.
“Uh-huh. I know about the Grenville Orogeny,” Evan said.
So Mister Fish & Game here had been indulging him, Jimmy thought sourly. But he wasn’t done with his lecture yet. “But you don’t know why this town is called Grenville.”
Evan shook his head.
“A misprint,” Jimmy said. “The oldest maps called the original settlement Grandville, which is ‘big town’ in French. That’s pretty funny, since there were probably only two cabins and a trading post back then. Somewhere along the line the ‘d’ got dropped and it was Granville. Then the maps made in the late 1800s changed the ‘a’ to an ‘e,’ and it became Grenville. When the town incorporated, that’s was the name. Maybe it was because of the Grenville Orogeny. Or maybe somebody got a grease spot on the old map and copied it wrong. But that’s the story.” Jimmy wrapped his hand around his coffee cup and took a satisfied sip. “I’ll bet they didn’t teach you that at Dartmouth.”
“That’s interesting,” Evan said.
Jimmy was about to finish his coffee and leave when Evan leaned over toward him, his smartphone in his hand. “You remember the owl?” Evan moved his thumb along the bottom of the screen, advancing through a dozen or more photos.
“You sure got a lot of them. You doing a big report?” Jimmy asked.
Evan shook his head. “No. Friend of mine liked to see the owl. She’d never seen one before.”
“Where is she?” he asked.
No reply, and then. “Guatemala.”
Evan’s pause wasn’t lost on Jimmy. “She’s a long way away.”
Jimmy waited, but Evan didn’t say anymore.
Jimmy’s little white postal Jeep was parked in a diagonal space outside Dolph’s, empty spaces on either side of it. Come Memorial Day, every spot on the street would be taken with some double-parking besides. The locals grumbled and complained every year. It had always been that way, townies versus summer people who came to the Adirondack Mountains from Memorial Day through Labor Day. A lot of the locals resented the outsiders with their nicer cars and enough money to live one place and play in another. But Jimmy never minded. The town would curl up and die without seasonal tourism, and if that ski resort project ever got going on old Plummer, they’ll have more year-round business, too. Frank Pherson was counting on that, which is why he’s been fixing up Pine Breezes Motel, and he wasn’t the only one.
Getting in his Jeep, Jimmy started the engine but didn’t move right away. His route was finished, and he was in no hurry. The air from the heater warmed to a blast; Jimmy turned it down but didn’t back out of his space. A little edge of old sadness poked at him and had him hooked before he could escape the barb.
Thirty years ago, Jimmy had graduated from the central high school and gone to work doing construction for his uncle, who built or repaired much of everything around town. Being a nephew, Jimmy had been guaranteed a job, but had to work to keep it. The physical labor hardened his muscles and the sun bleached his brown hair into blond streaks. On Friday nights he and his buddies went to Tootsie’s, the little joint on the edge of town where there was a band on the weekends in summer. The bar was packed, and the crowd spilled out onto the back deck. The townies and summer people rarely mixed except at Tootsie’s, which served fried lake-caught perch and offered decent music and a busy bar. The summer girls usually turned their noses up at the town boys; but the local girls were more than happy to dump their townie boyfriends and chase the out-of-towners with their fancy cars.
One Friday night, he pulled into Tootsie’s in his beat-up pickup, in a pair of skinny jeans and Ramones t-shirt, his hair long enough to brush his collar. The bar was four deep—old Marge Renders, who owned Tootsie’s must have made a fortune. He threaded his arm through a gap in the crowd to wave a five-dollar bill in the direction of the bartender to snag a Molson. And there she was, Ellen Valerie Frobisher. Ellie was a year older, a junior at Sarah Lawrence, which he hadn’t even known was a college. She was beautiful and, when he asked her to dance, she said yes.
He still couldn’t believe that they’d actually dated for four weeks. He’d met her parents a couple of times: her father, who’d called him Jim, and her mother, who’d murmured “Oh, Ellie” with what sounded like amusement when he was supposed to be out of earshot. He’d been so proud when Ellie held his hand as they walked through Grenville. Ellie did most of the talking, about people he didn’t know and places he’d never heard about. When she’d said, “Daddy loves brunch at the Tavern on the Green,” he’d replied that Dolph’s Diner made great pancakes. He could still see her sun-freckled nose wrinkling as she giggled and explained that it wasn’t really about the food—it was the atmosphere. “Like having a plateful of Central Park.”
Eleven years later, at the age of thirty and on his honeymoon to New York City with Glynda, who’d grown up in Grenville same as him, he’d booked them a table for brunch at Tavern on the Green. As he ate a thirty-dollar plate of fancy eggs, he finally figured it out: bragging rights. That’s why people ate at places like this, so they could tell other people about it.
But walking down the sidewalk in Grenville, that summer of 1977 when he was a sunburned nineteen-year-old who bore, in Ellie’s eyes, a little resemblance to Jim Morrison from The Doors, he hadn’t known any of that. Back then, he knew how to put up sheetrock and tear off a roof; how to level lintels in a sagging house. He knew how to make things sturdy and good again. But he didn’t know about girls like Ellie.
Then Ellie was gone, back to college. Two or three letters came, and then none. The following summer, he saw her parents on the street, but Ellie wasn’t with them. “In Europe this summer,” her mother had said, like it was some kind of secret code.
The parents’ cottage sold two years later and changed hands a few more times after that, as vacation property in the Adirondacks often did; still, he looked for her. Five years ago, an internet search turned up her father’s obituary in The New York Times (the old guy had become quite a big shot), and Ellie was listed among the survivors in the way they mention married daughters: Ellen (James) Cunningham. That had given him an oversized satisfaction, that she’d married someone also named James. Did she ever call her husband Jimmy, perhaps thinking of him, even for a moment?
Just then a car pulled in beside him, a familiar man gave him a quick wave. Jimmy touched the bill of his cap in salute. He called his wife on his cellphone; Glynda answered on the second ring.
“You need anything at the IGA?” Jimmy asked his wife.
“Can’t think of anything,” she said. “I’m making chicken potpies.”
“Sounds good,” he said, thinking of the flaky crust and the creamy gravy with chunks of chicken and diced vegetables.
As he backed out of the space, he saw Evan leaving the diner. Jimmy pulled into the space again, lowered the window, and yelled. Halfway up the block, Evan stopped and looked around. Jimmy beeped the horn. Evan walked toward the Jeep.
“You like potpie?” Jimmy asked him. “My wife makes the best. Come for supper tonight. I wanna see some more of those owl pictures.” Jimmy paused, reading the surprise on the young man’s face. “And maybe you can tell me a little about that friend of yours in Guatemala.”
When Evan’s eyebrows drew together, Jimmy knew it was none of his damn business, and that’s probably what Evan was thinking right now. “Gotta talk to someone about it,” Jimmy said. “Come about five-thirty. Earlier, if you like.”
Evan followed the directions: out the main route through Grenville, then taking the third left, and following that road about four miles to just before the T-stop. The odometer marked the distance and still no T-stop, convincing Evan he was on the wrong road or maybe, as he’d been telling himself, this was a stupid idea. Then the road curved and there was the T-stop. On the left, stood a house with every light on.
A plump woman in a red turtleneck and dark slacks, wearing a green bibbed apron stamped with “Bless the Cook,” introduced herself as Glynda Rivers. She took his jacket, explained that dinner would be in about a half hour, and scurried toward the kitchen for a plate of deviled eggs. She offered Evan beer, wine, or soda.
“I’m good for now, thanks.” Evan stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked around the room: dark paneling, bright area rugs. Rustic, but nice.
Jimmy appeared in the living room and beckoned him to follow. “Come see my project.” Glynda led the way carrying the deviled eggs, and left the plate on an end table before returning to the kitchen.
A wall of windows showed a darkening silhouette of the Adirondacks. Only after they appreciated the view did Jimmy turn on the lights. Evan sat down slowly in the big armchair that faced a fireplace where a good hardwood blaze crackled and popped.
“Built this room for myself after the kids were grown and out of the house. My son went to MIT. Daughter when to Syracuse U. Smart like their mother. House was so empty after they left, I had to do something. Glynda got a new kitchen and I built this—my sanctuary.”
Evan nodded, relaxing for the first time since he’d arrived. This spacious room was so different from his cramped upstairs apartment in town. He’d rented it because it was cheap, intending to save as much money as possible so he could take a year off and travel—a plan that always included Guatemala.
“Beer?” Jimmy asked. “Or you a wine guy?”
“Either.” Evan tried to make out the last of the view before it faded.
Jimmy left momentarily and returned with a beer for each of them. “Watched a family of foxes all last spring. Sometimes I just sit and contemplate the rocks. Plummer is about two miles from here as the crow flies. I got a boulder in the back that I swear rolled down from the peak.”
“This is great,” Evan said. “I always wondered if people paid attention—” He stopped himself, not wanting to sound rude.
“You think we can’t see the forest for the trees?” Jimmy grinned. “Yeah, there are some like that. Then we get our occasional tree huggers who try to politicize everything. But the rest of us know how good we have it here. Esther’s like that, did you notice? She composts and won’t even spray the aphids on the roses because she’s afraid of hurting something. Not that she’ll talk about it or put it on a bumper sticker.”
Evan sat back, drank from the beer bottle, not bothering with the glass.
“Didn’t always think like this, of course. Comes with age and perspective. But you spend enough time in these mountains you can’t help but think about the deeper things—who you are, what you want, why you’re here.”
Evan started to speak, but his voice caught. He cleared his throat roughly.
Jimmy leaned forward from the armchair near his. “Why don’t you tell me about Guatemala—can’t keep it all in.”
They talked until Glynda called them to dinner, saying she hated to interrupt, but she’d taken the potpies out a half-hour ago and they’d cooled to the perfect temperature. Jimmy kept up the conversation over dinner, filling his wife in with a minimum of details. “Evan here is in love with a girl from college who moved to Guatemala.”
“Oh, so far away.” Glynda reached over and patted his arm.
“You guys aren’t going to say anything,” Evan protested.
Jimmy made a face. “The lip is zipped. Being a mailman, I keep my mouth shut about people’s business—the envelopes that come stamped second and third notice, the big manila ones from out-of-town law firms that mean divorce or bankruptcy. Worst are the ‘return-to-senders,’ especially when the addressee has the same last name as the sender. That means somebody lost track of a family member. But I never tell nobody nothing, and I ain’t about to start now.”
Evan looked down at his lap. “Sorry. I’m an outsider—big city guy counting birds in the mountains. People probably get a little curious about me.” He thought of Louisa Pherson; not all her questions were about owls. She wanted to know about him and his job, too.
“Everybody’s an outsider—that’s the thing you learn when you get older,” Jimmy interjected. “Nobody is 100 percent comfortable with where they are. Oh, hell, I suppose some folks are oblivious. But a lot of people wish they were someplace else.”
In his peripheral vision, Evan saw Glynda shift in her chair. “You did okay here, Jimmy,” she murmured.
“I’m just saying that feeling out of place isn’t such a bad thing,” Jimmy replied. “If you feel too comfortable, you don’t grow. You stay the same and then you’re as good as dead.”
Suddenly tired, his head aching a little, Evan didn’t know what to say other than to agree with Jimmy.
“You two want coffee?” Glynda asked.
“We’ll take it in my sanctuary,” Jimmy winked at her. “Make it decaf, though, okay?”
“Of course,” Glynda said. “When did I ever make real coffee past four o’clock?”
Evan gathered a few of the plates and, despite Glynda’s protest, carried them into the kitchen. “Go on, I got this,” she told him.
“But you should join us,” Evan said.
Glynda shook her head. “Jimmy’s having a real good time. He doesn’t get to talk like this very much.”
Evan carried two mugs of decaf to where Jimmy sat by the fireplace.
Glynda took her time in the kitchen, knowing Jimmy would hold court for at least another hour. She cut herself a huge wedge of potpie, cooled to lukewarm, but the gravy still runny. She sat at the kitchen table and ate quickly, too fast to really enjoy it. She just wanted the warmth and substance inside her gut, filling up the gnawing hole that had opened up the summer she started dating Jimmy and heard his casual comments about Ellie. When they finally got married in 1988—she’d been twenty-eight and he was thirty—Jimmy insisted on going to New York City for their honeymoon, even though she’d wanted to go to Canada. He’d taken them to Tavern on the Green, probably forgetting that he’d told her the story of how Ellie had said it was her father’s favorite place. She’d eaten like her food was full of gravel, trying not to notice how Jimmy’s eyes swept around the dining room, again and again, looking for her.
She and Jimmy had thirty years together now, most of them good. Their children were healthy and happy, both successful. But she lived with a ghost who’d changed Jimmy forty years ago, when he was a nineteen-year-old and would have given anything to up and leave Grenville. Jimmy stayed, but Grenville never really fit him anymore.
She’d been the consolation prize, Glynda told herself yet again, which is why Jimmy had waited so long to propose. Didn’t matter that she’d been pretty when she was young or that she always loved Jimmy. She wasn’t Ellie.
Glynda ran her fork around the plate, gathering up the last of the crumbs, and licked the tines.
It was well after eleven when Evan got up, sleepy from the fire, afraid that if he stayed any longer he’d start dozing. Jimmy had done most of the talking after dinner, more stories about growing up in Grenville and the young woman he’d met one summer. “I couldn’t do nothin’ about it. I couldn’t go to New York City any more than I could live on the moon. But you can go anywhere,” Jimmy told him. “Don’t be a damn fool. If you love that girl in Guatemala, tell her how you feel. If she still says you shouldn’t come to see her, then you’ll have your answer. But don’t spend a lifetime wondering what you might have done.”
As Evan got ready to leave, Glynda came out of the kitchen to say good-bye. He thanked her for dinner and promised twice that he’d come again.
A light fog rose from the sodden ground. The headlights illuminated only a few feet, forcing Evan to drive the unfamiliar road slowly. Finally back at his apartment, Evan shed his shoes and jeans and fell asleep half-dressed. When he awoke seven hours later, a text from Birgitta awaited him: a photo of an osprey in flight that she’d taken while hiking with colleagues the day before. He noticed the word: colleagues. Not friends or anyone mentioned by name that might hint at a relationship.
Evan got up, used the bathroom, and brewed a single cup of coffee before sitting on his bed to re-read the text and study the photo. He thought of what Jimmy told him, the urgency in the older man’s voice. Evan thumbed a reply, honest and direct, but without expectation of how Birgitta might react.
Then he took a shower, letting the water run from hot to lukewarm. When he emerged, he noticed the phone screen illuminated by a rectangle of text. Evan picked it up, read the message, and smiled as he sent a reply. “Great. I’ll let you know the arrangements. XO”
Before putting down the phone, Evan looked at the osprey, with its hawk-like features and wide wingspan typical of birds of prey. He thumbed to his last photo of Oliver, on the day the owl took off. He’d get it framed, a gift for Birgitta: owl in flight.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction.com. Tricia received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Copyright Robert Koutny