I sat across his desk from him as he used his soldering gun to burn texture onto wood. It had changed drastically from the previous day. It had been a rough-cut hunk of white oak, a piece he’d scavenged after lightning killed the eighty-year old tree. After ten hours of carving, gouging and sanding, the hunk took on the form of a small bird. Today, he added the feathers.
He wore two sets of glasses - his usual pair and his bifocals. He peered through both sets, studying his work. Next to the soldering gun, he had a small gouge, and in a piece of soft pine, he had stuck the legs. They were made of copper wire that he meticulously cut, twisted, and etched until every crease of “flesh” and the curves of the tiny claws were just so. He made everything but the eyes. Those, he ordered from a ceramic eye company.
He spared the book on his desk a look, making sure that the layering was coming along as it should.
“I’m glad you decide to stay another year,” I said.
“My wife wants me to retire so we can take cruises,” he said. “I suppose I can carve just as well on a boat deck as in this office.”
“At least she won’t make you give that up.”
“Oh no. She knows a cash cow when she sees one.” He shook his head, his brow drawn down. “I used to make all sorts of things and just give them away, and one day she put her foot down and said I should make money off them. It’s in her blood; she can’t help it.” His wife was Vietnamese. He made so much off his carvings that he had to get a business license and report his income to the IRS. ”I think it was when I made a violin for one of the doctor’s children that she insisted I charge for it.”
I blinked deliberately. “You made a violin?”
“Yes. I’m going to make a guitar for him,” he gestured to the office next door, “out of the same tree this came from,” he waved the bird. ”It’s his tree, so I’ll give him a discount.”
I shook my head. “So, what are you feathering today?”
“A youth grosbeak.”
He leaned forward and let me take the bird while he turned the book around for me to see. One side of the feathering was complete, and I could see exactly how the bird would look once he painted it. He would spend a day layering, dabbing, and washing color over the body until it was perfect. Then, he would paint the legs, pop them in, and add the eyes. When he finished, it would look as though a real grosbeak was perched on his pine block - a perfect replica. It would go for $200, easily.
“May I look?” I asked, pointing at the book.
“Sure,” he said, taking the bird from me and sliding the book over the desk. The motion sent a spill of curlicues over the edge of the desk. “I suppose I’ll be chided for that,” he murmured as he looked down at the mess.
“Well, you have to do something to pass the time until the whistle blows.”
That made him smile. He liked to compare the job to something blue collar. He’d been in it for over twenty years but only recently felt pressure to stay in his office a required number of hours every day. It was just another reason to call it quits.
“We punch our time cards like the sheepdog and coyote,” he said.
When we weren’t working, he carved and I read, or we sat together and talked. One day we sat outside and watched as a hawk tried to pluck a squirrel from the side of a pine tree. I was rapt as I watched the tree rat wait until the last possible moment to scoot around the tree, just out of the hawk’s grasp. The raptor would squawk, fly back, adjust, and fly in again. We stood watching for so long that we grew bored and went back in the building.
Now, it was too cold to stand outside comfortably.
“I saw a crow dead on the side of the road on my way in this morning,” he said. “Strange business. Crows are too intelligent to get killed in the road.”
I looked up from his book on North American bird species. “I saw something on Discovery about how crows in some city or another would drop nuts into crosswalks and let cars run over them. They watched for when the people would cross and knew they would be safe to retrieve the nuts.”
“It’s nice to have someone that enjoys learning around this place.” He grinned at me, and I chuckled. We were, after all, in a building on a college campus. ”What are you looking for?”
“A particular type of black bird,” I said, turning the book around to him.
“Did it have a breast of burnt orange and a light yellow beak?”
“No, its breast was cream.”
“Oh, then it was a regular blackbird and not an oriole. Did you kill it?”
“No,” I said, stunned.
“Pity,” he said, picking up the soldering gun. A curl of smoke and the scent of charring wood filled the office. “Terrible birds, blackbirds. They rob bluebird nests. Did you know?” I shook my head when he looked up at me. He nodded. “They aren’t native. Some moron thought it was a brilliant idea to bring to America every bird Shakespeare mentioned in a play or poem. They call them starlings, trying to give a trashy bird a better name. Kill every one that you can.”