Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Marriage Founded on Seagull Poop

Our marriage was solidified by a seagull.  More specifically, seagull poop.  Little did we know that when that bird flying overhead released his load of gray-green fecal matter and it landed, glistening like an oyster, in my new bride's hair, he was doing us one of the greatest favors we'd ever know.  Neither Jean nor I realized it at the time, buffeted by wind in that parking lot on the Oregon coast, but we'd just been handed a gift.

We were less than one week into our marriage, and exactly six months into our relationship in toto (look up "whirlwind" in the dictionary and you'll find our engagement photo), and enjoying a resplendent honeymoon day in Yachats, Oregon.  As Jean tossed breadcrumbs over her head, gulls swirled, a tornado of cries that cut the air like creaking doors.  More and more birds gathered.  Alfred Hitchcock would have been pleased.

I stared at my new wife and smiled until my mouth hurt.  She was still a bit of an riddle to me, but--truth be told--I couldn't have picked a more lovely enigma.  We'd fallen hard and fast for each other since that day we met in June, got engaged in July, and were married during a record-breaking blizzard in Jackson, Wyoming that December.  We did everything fast and furious; our first pregnancy came one month into the marriage.  But when it's right, you just know, y'know?  And we knew we were made for each other.  It's like we were two Canada geese at a crowded cocktail party; when our eyes met across the room, we branded each other "mate for life."

And here we are thirty years later, still discovering new territory in each other, and expanding the boundaries of our love.

But the seagull--you want to know about that catalyst, Mr. Gull, right?

If you'll indulge me, I'll give you the story via a section of Fobbit which was left on the cutting-room floor.  I've told the story before about how my editor at Grove/Atlantic wisely encouraged me to trim the original draft of Fobbit nearly in half.  An entire subplot about Sergeant Brock Lumley's difficult days in Iraq was hacked out of the pages, along with several other long-ish bits here and there.  One of those chapters involved Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret's longing for his wife back in the United States.  Near the end of the novel, he gets a letter from home and it triggers a series of memories...

Vic Duret used to think it was a cliché you only find in movies when soldiers sniff letters from home for traces of perfume.  But here he was, sitting on his cot in his hooch, that day’s mail call spilling across his lap, and just like a character from a World War Two film, he was sticking his nose against a card he got from his wife.

Jesus, was this the silliest goddamn thing a lieutenant colonel could do, or what?

But when he’s over here and desperate for even the slightest sensory reminder of home, a man will quickly succumb to the cliché.  Since the deployment began, Duret’s wife had been daubing her envelopes with perfume and now he found himself putting his nose to the triangle tip of the flap and inhaling deeply.  Something primal stirred deep within him, calling up a memory which felt like something from as long ago as childhood, but actually only dated back six months to their parting at brigade headquarters.  He now regretted not giving over fully to the emotion of the moment, not relaxing his rigid stance against Public Displays of Affection, not pulling her to him in a neck-breaking hug, not mashing his lips against hers as if it was the last time they would be mashed.  No, he’d held himself in check that day—his men surrounded him, after all, and what would they think of a lieutenant colonel blubbering like a baby into his wife’s hair?  He’d kissed her quickly, drily, and said the appropriate words (something like “Buck up, kiddo—I’ll be home before we know it”), then turned back to the business of loading his men onto the bus.  As they pulled out, he’d watched her run alongside the bus for thirty feet, had lifted his hand against the window, but then they were fully pulled apart as the bus belched diesel and lurched out of Fort Stewart.

As they turned onto the highway and headed for the departure terminal, Duret imagined his manic-depressive wife running a race with the bus, even as they were rolling along at 55 mph, her hair come undone and whipping around in the wind, traffic honking and swerving, her throat screaming his name.  He craned his neck to look through the window.  She was receding behind him, an ant-sized figure waving one arm at him.

He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.  The bus, full of unusually-silent men already missing their wives and girlfriends, accelerated as it headed north on the highway toward Hunter Army Airfield where the transport plane waited.  Duret was already going somewhere else in his head.

It was their honeymoon and they were on the Oregon coast.  Once they’d arrived at Yachats and paid for the motel room, they were down to thirty-one dollars and some change.  That week, they did a lot of sitting on the beach, visiting lighthouses, and staring mesmerized at the Devil’s Churn (was that the name, or did he misremember it as the Devil’s Punchbowl?).  They couldn’t even afford to go down into the Sea Lion Caves, so they stood at the top of the hill against the chain link fence and listened to the distant bark of the sea lions, standing on tip-toe and pressing their cheeks to the metal diamonds in order to catch glimpses of the dark bodies going in and out of the waves far below.  Once, after a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a rest stop, they’d fed the flock of seagulls wheeling overhead, tossing stale breadcrumbs in the air.  He had a photo of her, laughing and flinching from one of the diving birds.  Shortly after he’d snapped that one, the gull had crapped in her hair.  She held up the strands of soiled hair, said, “Ewww, gross!”  Then he laughed and she laughed and they couldn’t stop.  Back then, laughing came easy to him.  He’d taken her over to the restrooms to get a paper towel so they could wipe it out of her hair, but the dispenser in the men’s room was empty and he’d had to bring a small ball of toilet paper out to her.  Then he’d said something about “shit shampoo” and that had only made her laugh harder, so hard she peed her pants, and instead of being mortified at her darkening crotch, she laughed even harder, and he remembered that was the moment he knew they’d be together for a long time.  A long, long time.

Now, sitting in his wind-rocked hooch on FOB Triumph, he pressed the mail to his face and took her scent in through his nostrils, imagining his nose nestled against the hollow of her neck, his lips grazing the pulse of a vein.  He sat on his cot for a good five minutes sniffing this latest envelope, finding his wife somewhere in the fibers of the paper, before breaking open the seal and pulling out the card.

*     *     *
Oregon has been on my mind a lot lately--mainly because this time next week, Jean and I will be back on the Oregon coast, visiting our old haunts.  I've been invited to Coos Bay to give a series of readings as part of their Title Wave program.  I am so honored they chose Fobbit for their community-wide read and I'm looking forward to meeting those readers and talking about how I came to write the book and build the characters, like Lt. Col. Duret, out of my imagination and memory.
If you're in the area, I'd love to see you at any of these events:

May 13:  Coos Bay Public Library, 7 pm
May 14:  Lakeside Public Library, 1 pm
May 14:  Bandon Public Library, 7 pm
On the way out to Oregon, I'll be stopping at Boise, Idaho's Rediscovered Books for a reading this Friday at 7:30 pm.  And on the return trip home from the coast, I'll be in Ketchum, Idaho at the Community Library on May 16 at 6 pm.  That event is sponsored by Iconoclast Books.
This will be the first time either of us has returned to the Oregon coast since we moved away in 1987, four years into our still-fresh marriage.  Our relationship had its infancy in Eugene while I attended the University of Oregon, worked as a cook in a steakhouse, and together we birthed and raised two boys.  As a couple, we also managed a boat-and-trailer storage yard just to make ends meet (and, trust me, those ends barely met at times).  But, hard as they seemed back then, those were good years for both of us--hard, happy days full of rain, hamburger-patty dinners, and daytrips to the coast (carefully calculated with rationed fuel and homemade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches) where we walked along the damp sand and flinched, laughing, when the gulls cried their warnings over our heads.  This is the stuff love and dreams are made of.


  1. Seagull Hands might be a band name.

  2. Yes, or even A Flock of Seagulls.

    ....Oh, wait....

  3. I loved Fobbit; and you got married in my favorite place (other than the Oregon coast)... a man after my own great grandparents homesteaded in Jackson (South Park) and there are still family ranching there...
    I grew up in Eugene (dad taught Chemistry at the U of O) and know Coos Bay well, sorry I will miss hearing you,
    to heck with the poop, you are on the right track...