First Sam brushed the driftwood gently to remove sand and dirt. Then he softly blew on the wood from all angles to alert whatever unseen organisms might live on or in the wood, giving the tiniest specks of life a chance to move out or fly away. Then he soaked the driftwood in a pail of diluted bleach for two days and let it dry in blistering sun that burned into the windowsill above the kitchen sink.
Picking up his folding carving knife he started to pare, alternating between the two blades he lubricated after each use with a dab of vegetable oil he used to cook home fries on the greasy stove in his cramped quarters at the Spyglass.
Sam fashioned a gull a week.
At 13 inches tall by 9 inches long by 3 inches wide, the sleek gray, white and yellow gulls he painted with model airplane paint lined shelves he built from driftwood and bricks in the empty apartment next door he sneaked into and used as a workshop.
Sam sometimes sat cross-legged on the floor in the room like a Zen Buddhist monk and talked with the birds.
“You’re my babies,” he said each evening as he bid goodnight to his flock.
About 250 molded gulls with colorful seashell eyes stared back.
Sam Bennett loved his gulls. They represented peace and freedom. The birds symbolized love.
Nobody at RayRay’s knew about Sam’s woodworking talent. Of course the regulars experienced his obsession with gulls every time he performed his famous gull impression, but he never mentioned his art. The essence of the deepest art is private. Motivation often remains hidden. After serving 20 years in the Navy, he only started carving when he turned 65. With his monthly military annuity, meager savings from repair jobs tinkering with clocks and other mechanical gizmos and a monthly Social Security check, all his needs were met.
Sam Bennett survived comfortably.
More than enough pocket money jingled in his shorts to pay rent, buy food and drink daily martinis with a dollar tip. Sometimes he drank too much, sometimes until his face started to bleed. The porous blue broken veins in his nose pulsed while his skin cracked and oozed. RayRay stepped in about a year ago and told him, “Sam, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I won’t serve you when your face bleeds.”
Sam apologized, from then on watching his gin intake. Responsible, kind and loyal, Sam Bennett wanted to be liked, respected. But he only went out of his way to impress people he liked and respected. Sam could count his friends on the fingers of one hand minus his thumb and pinkie.
Shortly after Sam started drinking at RayRay’s a woman at the bar flirted with him, but he ignored her overtures. Pretty, gaudy and recently widowed, her exclamation mark-shaped rhinestone earrings glistened with rainbows in the overhead lights. Sam had seen her type before, Geritol television commercial material, a senior citizen who knew she controlled every eye over 60 in the room.
Not Sam’s, though.
The most beautiful living creature Sam ever saw was a single lone gull that put the woman’s beauty to shame. Perched on the railing behind Frenchy’s fish shop where the workers gutted grouper after the crew delivered their catch, the bird sat feather smooth and dignified, waiting for her dinner to be served with a view.
Sam named her Princess.
You could keep your dogs and cats and slinky widows.
Sam was for the birds.
On Saturday night when Sam took his seat in the middle of the bar at RayRay’s, he quickly heard the Russian accent thick as cabbage borscht with heavy cream.
“What do you mean you have no deep-fried Barbecue Gullps?”
“We have conch fritters,” Ruby said.
“No, Ivan want deep-fried Barbecue Gullps.”
“I’m really sorry,” Ruby said. “I never heard of Barbecue Gullps.”
Lying, of course, Ivan strung Ruby along with his tall tale he made up on the spot.
“These mouthfuls are great snacks in my country,” Ivan Popov said. “Better than boneless wings, tasty birdy bits to get you in mood for more vodka. You like to get in mood, American girly?”
“I am an American woman, mister,” Ruby said. “And you’re gross.”
“Gull meat not taste like wild boar or deer or alligator,” Ivan said. “Gulls are tastier than quail. Dainty meaty morsels like you.”
“You’re a wild bore,” Ruby thought.
Ivan licked and smacked his lips. Looking over her shoulder, Ruby called for RayRay.
Sam clutched the edge of the bar.
His face started to bleed.
A roadmap of blue veins in his nose started to pulse.
Adjusting the N95 mask with the hand-painted gull beak Ruby made him, Sam Bennett spun off his stool with surprising speed. Stepping toward Ivan Popov, slowly but surely he began flapping his arms, picking up speed as he stared into the dull dead pools of the Russian’s eyes. Leaning forward, head down and heaving upward, Sam made what experts describe as the “choking call” of a gull territorial dispute, repeating the long call yelping “keow keow keow.” The wild squawks resonated above the din of the Allman Brothers’ song playing on the jukebox, actually harmonizing with Duane’s slide guitar and Gregg’s Hammond organ as they howled their soulful southern rock growls.
Ivan Popov recoiled.
“Birdman crazy,” he said.
Growing silent, Sam Bennett turned, walked fast to the door, got on the red bicycle he built from spare parts and pedaled into the night.