An egret is a tall, thin bird with beautifully stark white feathers. It has a long elegant neck that snakes from its chest out to its short sharp beak. The egret wades in murky water, tall, stiff as can be, waiting. When the shadows change or the soil shifts it springs its neck into the water like a thing set on a trigger. It happens so fast that it seems impossible there are still fish in the world.
They are nervous birds, afraid to move and afraid of movement. They’re thoughtful and precise and soft to the touch. If you’re slow and careful you can get close but it takes patience and practice. They live in the pond behind my house, make horrible noise and I hate them.
I meet Rich for coffee on Saturdays. He’s in his fifties, wears a fedora with a floral print band and today he is wearing a purple t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He gets a coffee and two bagels and eats them loudly, staring straight ahead until I sit down across from him and he comes to life and talks until I can’t take it anymore.
He has a rose tattoo on his left bicep, both are large. He’s a strong man, seems formidable. He says that he was in the Navy when he shows me the tattoo. He shouts it. I have no way of disproving that but it feels untrue. He’s about 55, smack in the sweet spot for avoiding our wars: too young for Vietnam, too old for the Middle East. He never references any battles, boats, water, or shore birds and how to kill them, only “I was in the Navy!” As a way to add validity to something he’d been yelling about.
He talks through his food, eats quickly, chews loudly and doesn’t stop talking. It’s possible he only talks to me, on Saturdays and then no one else at all, ever. I’ve never seen him talk to anyone else. Even the waitress has his order memorized and brings it to his table automatically and immediately. She moves like a delicate, frightened thing and tries to stay out of his line of sight and just sort of stabs the plate onto the table before he turns around. She is distracting.
Rich likes dogs. He gets distracted when they walk by the coffee shop window, any sort of movement grabs his attention, but he likes animals.
An egret’s call is a primal friction. A stone violin that produces a jagged, uneven and violent sound. Beautiful birds, unique and strange but ultimately, murderous birds that won’t let me sleep. I wake from dreams where I am covered in feathers and I am making that horrible noise, I am trying to call the foxes.
“I can’t believe all this weather we’re having!” He says it through a bagel, and gestures out to the sunny afternoon light without looking. I know what he means, even if he doesn’t mean it this way.There is only ever weather, it is a constant shifting change to deal with everyday, all day. I get fixated, like Rich does, and staring at the birds calms me down. Helps me focus.
Maybe I should get something more ordinary to stare at, like a TV to make me normal or a fish tank to generate self loathing or a cat to do both. Something. I should get something to worry over instead of finding out what egrets are allergic to then feeding them that thing. But I haven’t found that something yet. Rich helps.
“Fucking weather like this all the time, right?” I know. “You think they’d do something about all the things they’re doing and then we’d really be fucked, you know?” I know. He’s yelling. A booming and deep voice that he can work up into a high shriek you could hear for miles. I grind my teeth through it but I know.
Every Saturday he gets worked up until he slams his big fist down and the waitress tells him to calm down, but he doesn’t. Once, she ran out of patience and threw a glass of water in his face he laughed like he was being tickled, uncontrollably, in fits, doubled over. It made me love them both.
Rich wears sandals, the backless kind and flops around in them slowly. He moves slow and deliberate, hunched over forward holding his arms almost behind himself for counter weight. I like to imagine the shadow that would shift and silt he would disturb if he plodded along the bottom of my pond.
When we are done, I’ve had three cups of coffee and he’s had five. I’ve said eleven words, all included in some variation of “I know what you mean,” but I didn’t always. We all just make noise.
Our relationship is his fault and his responsibility. I was having coffee at the table nearest my nervous waitress, watching her work so efficiently, so quickly, so delicately and he sat down at my table and ate at me. That’s all. He just sat and my eyes shifted focus from the counter beyond his skull to his impossible face.
He is grotesque. His nose is most of his head. He’s covered over in scars and knots and bumps like a retired a boxer. His ears are different sizes and one has a chunk out of it like a stray dog. His teeth are perfect white and it hurts my head to think about them for too long. How could you sustain that much damage and not put one tooth out of place? I thought at first they were dentures, but the way he powers through bagels. He tears quick little pieces, chews with his mouth open, unblinking.
He’s a horrible miracle. In all the possible configurations of our genetics, at some point someone had to look like this, it just wound up being Rich. At least he had enough good fortune to be crazy. If he were sane it’d be harder for him to look that way. I can’t take my eyes off him.
“I have dreams about your teeth.” I confess as we leave the coffee shop.
“Jesus Christ himself. It’s all happening right in front of us.” We’re walking past a bus stop as a bus arrives and Rich gets on without saying anything to me, like we were always walking him to the bus. The doors close and I watch him walk down the aisle as the bus pulls away and Rich is seemingly walking in place, suspended in the air in front of me behind the gritty shimmer of the bus windows. I can feel my neck get tense and my eyes get wide, but he reaches the back row, and the bus escapes my gravity.
That is a typical Saturday.
I spend most of my Sundays standing absolutely still with suet in my outstretched hands, wading waist deep in pond water, wondering if Rich ever learned to swim.
Dan Sanders is a writer of short fiction, essays and vending machine repair guides. He is currently working on a novel about Heaven, Hell and Northeast Philadelphia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Okay Donkey, Bridge Eight and wherever fine vending equipment is sold.