A pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds—a male and a female—were darting and hovering and dipping their beaks into the pink hollyhocks that grew against the brick wall. Up there inside Walt Duffy’s patio garden on Mt. Vernon Street at the crown of Beacon Hill, the June sun had sunk behind the walls and the late-afternoon city noises were far away and muffled, and I could actually hear the soft buzz of the hummingbirds’ wings.
Walt was sitting on his chaise with his useless legs sprawled in front of him, watching the birds through the long telephoto lens of his Nikon. He snapped a couple of pictures, then put the camera on the patio table and picked up his gin-and-tonic. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” he said.
I nodded. “They are beautiful.”
“Old habit,” he said, “taking their pictures. I like to frame them, bring them close, catch that iridescence when the sun hits their breasts.” He took a sip, held it in his mouth for a moment, then swallowed. Then he laughed. “Pretending I’m still the great globe-trotting bird photographer. Hummingbirds in my garden. Jesus.”
It had been a little more than a year since the drizzly May morning when Walt Duffy climbed a granite outcropping near the Quabbin Reservoir to photograph a nesting pair of bald eagles. He’d somehow slipped and crashed onto the rocks thirty feet below. It took him half a day to crawl out of the woods to the cell phone he’d left in his car, dragging his lifeless legs behind him.
And that, abruptly and irreversibly, ended Walt Duffy’s career as the country’s—maybe the world’s—best-known photographer of wild birds.
I’d handled his divorce nine years before his fall. I’d helped him organize his various business ventures. I’d vetted his publishing contracts, counseled him on tax law, and helped arrange syndication in forty-two city newspapers nationwide for his weekly “The Urban Birder” columns, which combined natural history, practical advice for city-dwelling bird lovers, and environmental polemic.
After his accident I helped him negotiate the medical insurance maze and did all the other things a jack-of-all-trades lawyer does for a client—including drop in for gin-and-tonics with him most Tuesdays on my way home from the office.
He, in turn, paid me a pretty nice retainer.
Walt Duffy, who had photographed birds on every continent on the globe and in every state in the Union, who had climbed mountains and traversed deserts and floated jungle rivers, was now stuck in his Mt. Vernon Street townhouse, and as far as I knew, aside from weekly visits from me and biweekly sessions with his physical therapist, his only companions were his son, Ethan, a freshman at Emerson College who’d come to live with Walt when he got out of the hospital, and Henry, his fat Brittany spaniel.
Well, he did have his birds. When Walt bought the townhouse after his divorce, the first thing he did was build what he called his “bird garden” in the little twenty-by-thirty-foot walled-in patio area that backed up to the alley. “If you build it, they will come,” he liked to say. He cleaned out the junk, dug the whole place up, trucked in yards of topsoil, laid the bricks, planted the bird-attracting flowers and vines and berry bushes, installed the water fountain and bird-bath pool, and hung the feeders. When he wasn’t on the road, he liked to sit quietly among his birds, photographing them and admiring them and writing about them on his laptop computer.
When it came to birds, Walt Duffy was a democrat. He liked the English sparrows and blue jays that came to his Beacon Hill backyard as much as the rare and exotic species he’d tracked down in Belize and Madagascar and Hudson Bay before his accident.
Now a robin was splashing in the pool and a downy woodpecker was jackhammering the suet. Three goldfinches pecked thistle seed from the feeder. The hummingbirds continued to buzz among the hollyhocks, and squadrons of chickadees and titmice were swiping sunflower seeds.
Walt drained his gin-and-tonic, put his glass on the table, then lay back on his chaise and closed his eyes. He was, I happened to know, forty-eight years old, just a few years older than me. He had once been a tall sinewy man with a ruddy sun-creased face, a quick smile, and boundless energy and enthusiasm. But in the year or so since his accident, his hair had grown thin and gray, his belly had thickened, and the skin on his face and neck had begun to sag.
Suddenly, the door in the back wall to the alley pushed open. All the birds whirred away, and Henry, the pudgy spaniel, came bounding into the patio. He headed straight for Walt and leaped onto his chest.
“Jesus,” muttered Walt. “You’re all wet.” He pushed Henry off his lap, and the dog came waddling over to me. I held my hand down to him, and he licked it a couple of times. Then he sat beside me and gazed into my eyes.
“I like dogs,” I said. “Dogs make eye contact.”
“They think if they look at you lovingly, you’ll give them something to eat,” said Walt. He snapped his fingers. “C’mere, you.”
Henry stood up, sauntered over to where Walt was sprawled on his chaise, and lay on the bricks beside him.
A moment later Ethan came in through the door in the wall and shut it behind him. “Hi, Brady,” he said. He came over and held out his hand.
I shook it. Ethan was a small kid, skinny and quick like Walt used to be and with the same lopsided smile. Even with his shaved head and the gold stud in his left nostril, he looked about twelve. He was studying screenwriting at Emerson.
“The damn dog got mud all over me,” said Walt.
“We went down to the duck pond,” said Ethan. “I told him to wipe his feet.”
“Get a towel or something. I don’t want him tracking mud all over the house.”
Ethan gave Walt a quick salute. “Aye, aye, sir.” He looked at me and rolled his eyes, then went into the house.
Henry had rolled onto his side beside Walt’s chaise. Walt’s arm dangled down so he could scratch the dog’s belly. “You see that fucking earring in his nose?” he said. “What’s with that?”
“One of my sons got an earring when he was in college,” I said. “Wore it for about a year, then let the hole heal up.”
Walt rolled his eyes. “You should see the kids he hangs out with. Purple hair, pierced tongues, girls dressed like boys, boys dressed like girls. You can’t tell one from the other. They all think they’re artists.”
At that moment, Ethan came back with a towel. “We are artists,” he said. “We’re just not very good at it yet.” He knelt down on the bricks, wiped Henry’s feet, then stood up and looked at Walt. “What do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t care,” said Walt.
“Pasta okay? I can make some pesto sauce.”
“Don’t overcook it,” said Walt. “Last time you overcooked the damn linguine.”
Ethan looked at Walt for a moment, then turned to me. “Brady? Join us?”
I shook my head. “No, thanks.”
“Stay,” said Walt.
“Nope. Thanks. Gotta go.”
He waved the back of his hand at Ethan. “Go cook,” he said. “I got something I want to talk to Brady about. And bring the damn dog with you. He scares the birds.”
“What do you expect,” said Ethan. “He’s a bird dog.” Then he whistled to Henry, and the two of them went inside.
“I don’t know how he puts up with you,” I said.
“Me, neither,” said Walt. “What kind of kid moves in with his crippled-up father, cooks and cleans the house and runs errands and takes all his bullshit?”
“A boy who loves his father, I’d say.”
“It’s not natural.”
I shrugged. “Count your blessings.” I glanced at my watch, then stood up. “I’ve got to get going.”
“Wait a minute,” said Walt. “I need you to do me a favor.”
I sat down again. “What?”
He pointed at a manila envelope that had been lying on the patio table. “I want you to deliver that for me.”
“What is it?”
“Take a look.”
I picked up the envelope and opened it. Inside was another envelope made of stiff transparent plastic.
“Be careful,” said Walt. “Don’t touch the paper. Keep ’em in the plastic. Your fingers will wreck them.”
Showing through the plastic was an unlined sheet of paper with a small pen-and-ink sketch of a bird’s head surrounded by handwriting. It was a letter. The ink had faded to a sepia color. The date was June 12, 1807. The salutation read: “My dear Mr. Wilson.”
I looked at Walt and arched my eyebrows.
“Meriwether Lewis to Alexander Wilson,” he said. “There are seven letters in that envelope. I picked them up at a little out-of-the-way antique shop in the Poconos about ten years ago. The old lady who ran the shop didn’t have the foggiest idea of their significance. She wanted to charge me a hundred dollars for them. I gave her five hundred and made her promise to contact me if she came up with any others. I suspect they’re worth a hundred times that.”
I whistled. “Meriwether Lewis. Wow.”
“Who’s Alexander Wilson?”
“He was the most eminent ornithologist of his time. An excellent watercolorist, a very precise writer, and probably the greatest authority on birds who had ever lived up to then. He was hoping to do a book about the birds of the American West based on the observations of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
I looked at the sketch. It appeared to be some kind of shore bird. It had a very long, curved beak. “What’s this bird?”
“Long-billed curlew,” he said. “The long-bills were unknown to science before Lewis discovered them near the Missouri River. He covered two sheets of paper, both sides, describing their appearance, their behavior, their habitat, and so forth. The other letters are also about birds. It’s great stuff. I want you to take these letters to Ben Frye. I’ve never had them appraised. You know Ben, right?”
I nodded. “Ben’s an old friend.”
Walt Duffy had been collecting bird-related artifacts—old documents, manuscripts, books, paintings, decoys and carvings—all of his adult life. His will stipulated that his entire collection would be donated to various museums and archives. His lawyer—me—had been urging him to get the whole business reappraised and adequately insured.
“I told Ben you’d be bringing them over,” said Walt. “It’s on your way home.”
“You just assumed I’d do this for you, huh?”
“You’re my lawyer,” said Walt.
I shrugged and looked at my watch. It was a little before seven. “Is he still at the shop?”
“I’ll give him a call, tell him to expect you. He’s very hot to see those letters.”
I slid the plastic envelope back into the manila one, put it into my briefcase, and stood up. “I better get going, then.”
“Ethan!” Walt yelled.
A moment later Ethan opened the door and poked his head out. “You screamed?”
“Brady’s leaving. Show him out.”
Ethan rolled his eyes, then jerked his chin at me. “Follow me. We don’t want you to get lost.”
I shook hands with Walt and left him slouched on his chaise pecking at his cell phone.
At the front door I turned to Ethan. “What’re you doing now that school’s over?”
“Oh, I’ve got a part-time job at a record store in Central Square. It gets me out of the house.”
“Well, that’s good. Getting out of the house, I mean.”
“Sometimes it’s necessary.” He smiled. “Sorry you’re not staying for dinner. I wouldn’t mind the company. Might steer the conversation to something other than my shortcomings.”
“Another time,” I said. “I promise.”