(Driving towards the Stonefish bird refuge, which is beside the highway in a suburb called Elk Grove.)
ME: Where are we going?
MY FATHER (mystically): Heaven?
MY MOTHER: No, Elk Grove.
ME: OK. I hope it's not even remotely as ugly as the walk along the Sacramento River. It's amazing. We happen to live in the ugliest natural wilderness in the whole United States.
MY MOTHER: Oh, it's not that ugly.
ME: It is. It's nothing but half-dead brush and hemlock, and trees that don't seem to have any will to live.
MY MOTHER: What about the ducks?
* * *
(Fifteen minutes later.)
MY FATHER: Where do I park?
MY MOTHER: Right here.
ME: You mean we're already there? Oh Jesus, it's hideous. It looks like the morning after.
MY MOTHER: Don't bring Jesus into it all the time.
MY FATHER (mystically): Amen.
(We've gotten out of the car. I'm carrying the backpack. We are approached by an elderly volunteer.)
ELDERLY VOLUNTEER: Take these brochures. Give me a second to dig them out, I've only got about six blood corpuscles left. Have you been here before? (We haven't.) Well, they found over 100 types of birds last year, and that was just in one day. (Seeing my mother.) Who's the cute one? God, they just get younger and cuter each year. You see my bald patch? You know what they say about men who are bald in front: they're the lovers. Men who are bold on top are the thinkers. Men who are totally bald...think they're lovers. (Beat.) I'm also a flasher (opens his shirt to reveal a Frosty the Snowman tie).
MY FATHER (gamely): You could get arrested for that.
ELDERLY VOLUNTEER (pointing at Frosty's nose): Don't worry, it's only a carrot.
* * *
MY FATHER: What kinds of birds do you get out here?
ELDERLY VOLUNTEER: Oh, Northern harriers, great egrets, sand dabs, and coots.
ME: I egret nothing. (No laughter.)
ELDERLY VOLUNTEER: Lot of coots. One-legged coots. Irritable coots. Coots with nuclear families. Have you heard the song?
THE SONG (performed by volunteer chasing after us)
Oh ain't she coot
When across the lake she scoots
Well I ask you very confidentially
Ain't she coot?
ELDERLY VOLUNTEER: Well, what did you think? Haven't you heard "Ain't She Sweet"?
ALL OF US IN UNISON: No!
(But I have heard it. It was on The Beatles Anthology Volume 1, performed by John Lennon. I am tortured by guilt. The lie parches my throat.)
* * *
MY FATHER (to passing man with huge binoculars): Did you see anything?
MAN: Nothing except some coots. And a Northern harrier. And some egrets. And a red-tailed hawk. (He walks sadly along.)
ME: Man, that guy needs a better marketing team. You always open with the hawk. That's the hook.
MY MOTHER: Oh, well, we shouldn't judge. He seemed pretty disappointed with his life in general.
MY FATHER: Yep. I bet that's his six-word autobiography: "I saw some coots, wanted more."
ME: For sale: good binoculars, never used.
* * *
MY MOTHER (grabbing something that is clearly poison hemlock, and chewing on it): I love how this tastes.
ME: Yes, it's very popular with philosophers.
MY MOTHER: No, it tastes like licorice. It's fennel, not poison hemlock.
MY FATHER: Oh, thank goodness. We're all going to make it.
* * *
MY MOTHER: It's beautiful out here. Look at the water, and the reflection of the trees in the water.
ME: The film we should watch tonight is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about a guy going crazy. He's manic-depressive and his hallucinations keep getting worse and worse. He's also a musician making independent rock.
MY MOTHER (gesturing towards the natural beauty all around us): So peaceful.
ME: Peaceful, hell! The man goes completely nuts by the end of the movie!
MY FATHER: No meeting of the minds. None at all.
* * *
ME: Look! More sightseers.
MY FATHER: Well, it's only open Saturdays.
MY MOTHER: Do you think we should warn them? Tell them that they're about to be incredibly bored? The coots are hard to see and not very numerous.
MY FATHER: Do you think you could land a helicopter here?
MY MOTHER: A Medi-Vac?
ME: Yeah! A boredom helicopter. They would have emergency action movies and copies of The New Yorker in the cabin.
(They pass. We say hello.)
ME: They didn't say anything! They just sort of mouthed the word 'hello' as they went by!
MY MOTHER: Quiet desperation is getting quieter all the time.