Swan Dive! Ch. 1: So You Want To Be a Bird?

For Sam Bennett the end of the world didn’t seem all that far away.

Standing on a wobbly left leg covered in mosquito bite scabs, he faced the smeared full length mirror he hauled from a Dumpster and leaned against the wall of his bedroom. Putting both thumbs under both arms, he began to flap his elbows in a slow methodical manner. Looking like a decrepit Qi Gong practitioner doing Chinese breathing and stretching exercises in a Shanghai park, he fluttered his arms until his breath came in spurts. Staring into the runny red eyes looking back, he envisioned himself lifting off, banking to the right then to the left as he glided over the gumball blue Gulf of Mexico.

“One day,” he said to the little man in the mirror. “One day.”

Sam Bennett wore an N95 mask his friend Ruby Arenas painted to look like a seagull beak. Coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 as Sam called the disease, concerned him as much as the avian flu.

Most people dismissed the danger. Even with thinking brains the size of a small bag of potatoes, as far as Sam was concerned, the real birdbrains knew less than other species. Humans couldn’t stay underwater like manatees. They couldn’t spray like skunks. They couldn’t climb trees like monkeys. Of course people could reason and talk, but in the big scheme of social disorder where did that get us? After assigning human brutes to the bottom of the universal pecking order, Sam respected all other varmints and animals of all shapes and sizes.

Mostly birds.

Because more than anything, before he died Sam wanted to fly. Not in an airplane or in one of those inflatable suits you wear to jump off the edge of a cliff. Not beneath a parachute. Not in a hang glider. Free. Free as a bird. Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Unless every living creature went extinct only the strong would survive. Like always, cockroaches would make it.

Lively Clearwater Beach bugs ran day and night up and down the hallway at the Spyglass Apartments where Sam lived in cramped dingy digs with a fried egg grease-spattered kitchen stove, a mildewed mattress on the floor covered with a purple tie-dyed sheet and a hair-ridden bathroom sink and toilet. Not easily rattled, Sam enjoyed the pests’ company, calling his skittish roommates palmetto bugs that some people called water bugs and most people called roaches. Call them what you want; after fighting the system and wondering how long he’d be able to hang on, Sam truly appreciated the creepy crawly critters’ ability to persevere.

Sam didn’t get excited even when the super insects crawled up the shower curtain or flew from the wallpaper like fighter jets. After serving several years in the Navy, mostly on an aircraft carrier, aeronautics intrigued Sam Bennett, his interest in takeoffs and landings constituting one reason he appreciated anything that soared.

Bees, for example, served special purpose in Sam’s outlook on life. Marveling at honeybees and fat striped bumblebees, Sam loved the way they worked together, getting pollination done while maintaining their sacred place in the ecosystem. But humans were killing them off, too. Humans were killing off everything, including themselves.

Sam loved gulls best. Gull beauty made Sam think of his youth when he believed anything possible. The world seemed fresh and he did, too. Laughing gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls – the particular gull species mattered little. Sam embraced the birds as his best friends.

Later on this hot summer day Sam sat on a bright green painted stool at the center of RayRay’s Elbow Room beach bar and raised his forefinger as he always did when he ordered a drink.

“I’ll have a martini, please,” Sam said.

“Coming right up,” said RayRay who owned the joint, a popular establishment young tourists on social media now called a dive bar. That appealed to a special breed of locals who hated tourists and dove into anything you put in front of them – smoked fish spread, steamed clams or stone crab claws with hot salted butter, a pitcher of red sangria or low-rent life itself.

RayRay considered Sam a fixture and always gave him special attention. He felt sorry for the old-timer who always wore a cheap white sea captain’s cap with yellow string braiding and a cracked black plastic brim. Sam also wore scuffed brown wingtip shoes with no socks, telling RayRay he sported wingtips because the “wing” reference reminded him of gulls and birds in general.

“The gulls are in danger,” Sam once whispered to RayRay at closing time. “Developers don’t care about our environment.”

A man of somber principle, RayRay hated real estate developers, too. That’s the kind of guy RayRay Gagliardi was, a no-nonsense, good-natured fellow with a blue collar social conscience who loved hockey and rock music. A former professional puck enforcer from Buffalo, New York, RayRay now only wanted to have fun. With a tribal beat forever pounding through his DNA, he played drums with the bar house band every Saturday from 11 to closing at 3, banging out Stones songs mostly with the occasional surf solo classic “Wipeout” whenever RayRay got hyper-energized.

Wielding his varnished hockey stick he regularly fired empty shot glasses into a corner of the bar he set up to look like a goal. RayRay slammed those old-fashioned extra thick glass biscuits into the basket with all the intensity of Buffalo Sabres legend Gilbert Perreault launching a slap shot from center ice. When the glass sometimes shattered RayRay bought the bar a drink.

Sam didn’t like many people but he sure liked RayRay. He liked Kim Philips, too, another bar regular and struggling real estate agent who got Sam the annual lease at the Spyglass a few years back and often apologized profusely ever since they signed off on the paperwork.

 “I’m so sorry, Sam,” Kim said. “Had I known they’d let the place go like they have, I would never have steered you there.”

“It’s OK, young lady,” Sam said. “I’m the last man standing, the last tenant living at the Spyglass.”

Nobody ever called Kim a young lady to her face. Strong feminism would have responded quickly to anyone foolish enough to make that mistake. Sam was different, a gentleman cut from the cloth of a wrinkled brown Goodwill suit, taking politeness to the next level with traditional manners. Kim liked his style even if most people thought him odd.

“People call gulls ‘sea gulls,’ ” Sam said. “But there is no such bird.”

Kim cocked her head.

“Really?”

“They’re just gulls. Did you know they stamp their feet to imitate rainfall?”

Kim looked into Sam’s bloodshot eyes, the pupils reminding her of port wine drops glistening on the stained wooden bar.

“Why do they do that, Sam?”

“They imitate rainfall to bring the earthworms to the surface so they can eat them.”

Kim didn’t know that. Kim didn’t know what was going on in Sam’s head, either. Sam asked another question.

“If they did call them seagulls, do you know why they’d fly over the sea instead of the bay?”

Kim played along.

“I have no idea, Sam, why?”

“Because if seagulls flew across the bay, they’d be bagels.”

RayRay grabbed a wooden mallet from under the bar and hit the bronze Chinese gong he kept suspended from the ceiling behind the bar, making the hammered metal explode with a full resonant sound. Despite sitting calmly on medication, a soused senior citizen couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon jumped when the crash came out of nowhere, knocking over the bride’s margarita. When the groom stood to complain RayRay hit the gong again. Happy with the attention Sam clapped his hands. Kim bought him a fresh martini. RayRay poured himself a shot of Sambuca and sent a bottle of sparkling wine over to the golden agers. They immediately stopped complaining. Everybody held their glasses high.

“To the gulls,” Sam said.

Pointing at Sam’s mask, RayRay took the opportunity to ask a question that had been bothering him ever since the bar reopened after the COVID pandemic closures almost sent him into bankruptcy. With business back to a reckless normal only a handful of customers and staff chose to wear masks. Sam wore his even when he drank his martinis through a straw.

“When you going to take off that mask, Sam?”

“When Zorro takes off his,” Sam said.

“C’mon, Sam, I’m serious,” RayRay said.

“When the virus permits,” Sam said.

“I’m with you, Sam,” said Ruby, the college student server who had presented Sam with five N95 masks she bought online and hand painted to resemble a gull’s beak similar to the Dr. Plague masks physicians wore to ward off bubonic plague “germs” in the Middle Ages.

Sam loved the masks and wore one everywhere he went. Ruby felt sorry for Sam and had taken him under her wing, so to speak. With his cheap captain’s cap and long beak, Sam looked like a commodore on a floating mental hospital. Neither Kim nor RayRay wore masks. Ruby wore a mask and constantly worried about everybody’s health.

Now the center of attention, Sam gulped down his equal parts gin and vermouth with the vermouth an even split between sweet and dry with a dash of orange bitters. Reaching across the bar, he grabbed onto the wooden edge and struggled not to belly up to the bar but belly onto the bar. Standing unsteadily he took a teetering stance.

Sticking his thumbs under his arm pits he flapped, performing the trademark gull imitation he had been doing since forever. Rolling his eyes RayRay repeated the same mantra he spoke every time Sam got so loaded he had to show off by trying to take off.

“C’mon, Sam, get down off the bar before you hurt yourself.”

Sam now stood on one leg as regulars and strangers alike applauded, whistled, howled and hooted.

At the end of the bar, sitting beneath a stuffed marlin, 6ft 5in, 298lb Ivan Popov, the new head of the Russian Mafia in South Florida, watched the scene unfold and decided this Sam creature had to go.

One old degenerate drunk, the last Spyglass renter, posed the final obstacle at the beachfront property where Popov planned to build new condominiums for Russian mobster mistresses to sun themselves and their foofoo poodles free from worry and woe. Up the beach a mile or so his oligarch brother Boris planned to construct the tallest skyscraper in Clearwater Beach, a needle-like obelisk designed to draw international business magnets who appreciated unobstructed views of perfect sunsets and the self-absorbed lure of the American Way.

Da da, as Russians say, yes, right, Sam Bennett had to go.

All those dirty stinking seagulls, too.

Birds of a feather must die together.