Synopsis: Rand Marshall and Katrina Reese are women who think they have it all: dream jobs in places they love, friends to rely on, families to care for, and a sense of purpose in life. A chance meeting in a national park changes what each woman knows about herself. Now they will have to determine if they can walk away from each other without losing what they value most about themselves.
“It's being willing to walk away that gives you strength and power - if you're willing to accept the consequences of doing what you want to do.” -- Whoopi Goldberg
Prologue: A Dork and Stormy Night
“For a lonely soul you're havin' such a nice time.” —Keane
I watched the rain lashing the night below my loft window, soundlessly silver against Houston 's mercurial orange lit darkness. Empty streets shone like rivulets of water on rock faces. The neat scotch in my hand burnt my dry lips, and warmed my insides as I tipped back another sip. The emptiness of the moment felt both sad and clean like a soft new suit at an elder distant relative's funeral. The reflection of my face stared back at me like a ghost imposed back from the window of night outside. The reflection showed an unexpected paleness edging my sprinkle of freckles and heavy lidded blue shadows haunting my green eyes.
I had friends, family, work I loved, a purpose for getting up every day, and a place I called mine. But something was missing and I felt like a heel for noticing, for not being able to consider what I had enough. I was tired in a way that sleep would not cure and scotch could not settle. I was alone. I wanted to go for a walk in the late September rain, to get away from myself for a minute.
I grabbed my field jacket off the coat rack beside the front door and walked down the hall of the old cotton exchange and hotel building that now housed all of our inner-city loft apartments. The carpeted hall was empty and silent.
I stepped into the elevator and one floor down was joined by my best friend Joey.
“Hey Rand ! Where are you going in this weather?”
“Ah, I just need to take a walk. You?”
“Me? Lobby to check the mailbox. With the kids clamoring I forgot on the way in.”
I worried about Joey and the kids. Her husband, a trust fund baby with an out of proportion sense of social purpose had been an emergency room physician who'd felt it his civic duty to serve his country in Afghanistan . Three months into his tour of duty, the wonderful John Gerald Jordan the Third, had been killed when a missile hit a tent where he was working triage. Joey and John were the kind of couple, who were simply meant to be, and Joey and the kids were tough, but the loss of John in their lives would always be apparent. She looked ok tonight though, and smiled broadly.
“Walking in the rain?” she asked. “Should I be worried about you?”
“Absolutely. Stark raving mad. A dork.” I teased.
She grinned wide. “A dork and stormy night.”
I gave her a smirk.
“See you at work in the morning? I expect you in my office for coffee young lady” she demanded.
“Ok, Dr. Jordan. Just because you're older and have that PhD doesn't mean that you get to be in command, but your request for coffee will be granted.”
We walked out of the elevator with little waves at each other until the morning.
I stepped into the steady, but placid rain and let it wash away my strange want of something more despite my life of plenty.
A plague of clouds rolled purple shadows against the phosphorescent orange glow of the city's lights. Car headlights ran over streets flowing through the canyons of skyscrapers like water in arroyos. The rain fell on like fat beetles sky diving, and beaded off the waterproof fabric of my field coat, sounding like a tiny tribal elder erratically beating a tom-tom drum on my shoulder, the soundtrack of my soul's dissonance. Rain and rhythm formed a premonition, an invitation to discover what I needed to be content.
“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” —Henry David Thoreau
I boarded the plane for Boston on a Sunday morning. The airport is the church of transportation and its few parishioners were just as meditative and sedate as any other congregation mid-sermon. I was banned from setting foot in my own office, or even in any company office until November 1 st by order of my business partners and best friends, Josephine (Joey) and Ben. We started an engineering consulting service specializing in oil and natural gas reservoir assessments and well completion in the petroleum capital of the United States , my home town, the space city, Houston , Texas . Ben Mick was the principal partner, and CEO, his sister Joey and I bought our way in by helping him finance the effort with our savings and labor at the start of things. Ten years later, Mick Engineering Services was a profitable employer of 722 warm, industries human bodies and around that many accompanying brains. But that last Friday, Ben and Joey banded together as siblings will sometimes, and plotted my banishment. Sure, I hadn't taken a vacation in ten years, but I'd taken a few hours for dentists and distant relative's funerals. In high school, I had a physics teacher, the tennis coach, who liked to say, “The only certainty is uncertainty.” I wasn't certain I wanted to be on any plane or that I needed a vacation, or why Ben and Joey were sending me really. Mostly, I wasn't certain why I worked so much, or why working so much was such a comfortable rush.
I was going to the nation's first national park east of the Mississippi River , because of my father. Dad's one wish, in the event of terminal illness or some ill-fated excuse to live out all the grandiosity of life in six months, was to visit every national park in the United States . He'd taken us to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon by saving up vacation and bonuses until he had enough to make the road trip for two complete weeks in a summer while Mom was off from teaching school. Acadia National Park on the rocky Atlantic coast of Maine was next on his list the year I entered college. But I'd spent my summer interning at a chemical plant and he'd spent it working a shutdown at the refinery next door to mine. The snowball was headed down hill after that and I got caught up in the avalanche of trying to found a career. My third year out of school I was promoted manager of east Texas well completions and I was determined to use my vacation to go with Mom and Dad to Acadia, but an oil recession had contrary plans. I was laid off two weeks before vacation time and a heart attack stole Dad four weeks later.
I'd come home from college and over a beer on the back porch, Dad and I staring up at the orange ceiling of city nights, I admitted that I had a crush on a woman. He asked me if it was a phase. I said I thought it was a choice, but not a phase. He said he and Mom had suspected it when I was younger, what with the way I could throw a ball and competed with the boys. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I went out dancing and cruising Main Street in Jonathan Culley's Camaro to make out two dozen times my senior year. Didn't that count for something? Dad laughed and said it attested to my experimental nature. I'd told him his urban redneck was showing and went inside to help Mom finish dinner.
To their credit, my parents had never voiced a complaint about their lesbian daughter or lack of grandchildren. They found enough to complain about in my choice of profession. Dad was glad I'd gotten a worthwhile degree and a job, but he'd hated that I'd sold my soul in labor to the oil companies. When the recession hit and I was laid off this was confirmation of my folly. Dad was terrified for my future. When I went back to night school after Dad's funeral to get an MBA in finance, Mom became terrified that I was headed toward a heartless, soul-eating corporate mercenary career. While continuous learning and academic achievement were values my parents stressed, this all-business “money-grubbing” focus was a moral betrayal of epic proportions. When I came over for dinner, Mom asked detailed and hopeful questions about my lesbian dating life, but grew tight lipped and shy-eyed at the mention of my career hopes. Once she suggested, “I saw a job in the Chronicle listings, some kind of director of fund raising for HUD. You could apply for that and use all that finance and engineering education to do some public good.” I think she thought I was like Jack with his magic beans when I told her I'd used all my meager savings to buy into a consulting firm start-up with a guy I knew from my old job and his sister. I was sure she watched the beanstalk grow with some satisfaction as my investment turned into a thriving business and we added pro-bono non-profit work to our yearly deeds, but I also knew she expected some corporate giant to come crashing down from the top of the beanstalk to a heavy landing on my magic beans.
Ben liked to tell my mother, when I drug her along to our company's black tie affairs, “To make enough money to feed lots of paupers you have to spend enough money to petition all the kings.” Mom always laughed him off, “You are more JR Ewing than Shakespeare, Ben.”
To some extent, I do believe that the ends justify the means. That part of me gets along best with Ben, but the other part of me believes that the means should always be reasonably honorable and socially responsible. That part of me understands and is understood best by Joey. Either way, they both keep me “in the family.” Ben has not told his debutant wife, Sandy, that his prodigy is a lesbian - she has enough trouble reconciling his prodigy is an educated woman that isn't like his sister, a woman who got a degree in a woman's field of study. Joey hasn't filled Sandy in on the actual percentage of female industrial psychologists, pretty slim ranks on the XX chromosome team - but for Sandy, a shrink is a shrink, and shrinks are mostly women now days.
When I was nine, I scraped my knee on the side of a pool. I went running across the playground to get a band-aide, tripped on a branch and feel face first into a clover patch. My right hand swatted a bee during my fight for balance and I was stung right in the palm. As I winced on the ground, I noticed a four leaf clover at the tip of my nose. I picked it up and ran off to show my friends. I told Ben once that story because that is how I explain to myself how Ben's marriage to Sandy works. Maybe that is how all love works. When you are on a long flight with no work to do, your brain starts to ramble like a fragmented hard drive. I peered out the window at the expanse of seawater, bogs, marshes and the harbor giving way to Logan Airport suburbia. The man next to me gave me an elbow nudge to wake me up for our landing, so that I could hurry out of his way as soon as the attendant had signaled we stopped our taxi at the gate.
I had wanted to rent the oldest, most reliable service truck possible-so I used my business travel rep to arrange for a plain white single cab pickup. I rolled down both windows, turned the FM radio on scan and let it scroll out its bits as I drove north out of Boston toward the wilds of Maine . The fall wind gusted out goose-bumps on my arms whenever the sun light lagged between the passing trees and its warmth sputtered out of the cab.
“To say “I love you” one must first be able to say the “ I. ”” —Ayn Rand
Shadows of clouds stretched over rolling blue hills and green marshes as I watched the blacktop roll away. I drove as far as Ogunquit, where I quit around sunset. I found a small motel a stone's throw from the inner banks of the shore and checked into a hard, clean tiny room and fell into the bed exhausted. Anonymous in the white noise of the slapping fan blades, I submersed. Twelve hours later, I woke up to a glare of sunbeam and dust motes traveling across the canyon of light spilling between the curtains.
After a cup of coffee full of decadent cream and real sugar (this was vacation after all) and a bagel, I was ready to be rolling north along the coast to Acadia again. It was past the prime of summer and so I was one of few tourists, one of the very few tourists not over fifty, and the only one not obviously on business travel wandering solo in a summer tourist town. It was as if I had an alternate reality all to myself within our normal world. Old ladies smiled and watched me walk down the street to where I'd left the rental truck as if they we surprised to see me, but not really all that much surprised. A black Labrador behind a white picket fence bounced along his yard as I walked by, but without barking of alert or recognition. I felt a pang of missing my own dog and cat. I felt guilty leaving them in Joey's care for an entire month, and guilty for also feeling free and somehow lighter just at being outside of my daily life.
The morning disappeared as driving distance ate time. I'd chosen to take the small seaside highway instead of the interstate to Bangor, and little tourist towns passed like a series of cheery multi-colored clay beads on one of the homemade necklaces Joey's kids regularly bestowed upon me. I passed a McDonald's, rare in these parts, and delighted that the too familiar Arches at least also advertised lobster rolls in concession to the quaintness of the surroundings. At least they were getting into the regional spirit of things. Soon after spying the lobster roll tributes, the signs for Acadian National Park , Mount Desert Island started to appear in that reassuring woodsy brown the Department of Transportation reserves for marking our dwindling wilderness reservations all across the nation. The road narrowed down to a two lane blacktop bridge between the cranberry bogs of Schooadic Point and the boggy edge of Mt. Desert Island, with a smaller island acting the stepping stone between and holding the little road aloft. Geese or ducks inverted into a missing man flight formation in the distance over the eastern coast and the wind rushing in the truck window became heavier, saltier, and chewier as it does over shallow waters. It reminded me of home, in that it was like driving along the northeast side of Galveston Bay heading toward the Trinity River .
My mind turned to home. I wondered how Joey and the kids were doing. How they would do a whole month without me and I without them. They'd become my surrogate family. The kids I had never had, wasn't sure I'd wanted, and the wife/ best friend minus the romantic interest that most people wanted. I was the closest thing to John that Joey had left. John, that socialist jerk, I missed him and our glasses of scotch and the way we would piss and moan over our misfortune to be avid fans of Astros baseball. You could see the love in his eyes any and every time he looked at Joey and his kids, even when he'd been miffed at them about something. He used to introduce me as his second, illegal wife or his sister by another mother. We'd had one last scotch, a bottle of stuff I'd brought back on an insider's tip from San Francisco, a rare fine American scotch whiskey, on the roof of our building the night before he flew to his staging base for duty in Afghanistan. It was near the apex of summer and we could still see the pinkening of sky on the horizon that marked the minutes between sunset and twilight even though it was already nine'o-clock in the evening. The bougainvillea vines rose above the brick planters screaming their pink blooms back at the sunset like firefly reflections of the sun itself. The wind on the roof was a great relief after the sweltering summer stillness on the downtown streets. I'd known it would be my best chance to say good-bye to him, but I hadn't known how final that good-bye would be for any of us. He was no one's idea of a soldier, standing there with his light brown mass of bed head hair and constant stubble in an expensively soft and shabby black t-shirt and frayed khaki cargo shorts—always shoeless once through the front door of our building. I could still see him, still smell his damn goofy sandalwood cologne and cigar smell. I had a little bit of a visceral understanding of how much Joey must miss him. He told me that night as we swallowed the last fires of our scotch that I had to promise him to look after Joey and the kids, that no one else would do it the way he'd want it to be done, and that there wasn't anyone else Joey would ever deign to accept as even a temporary substitute. I'd told him of course, and kidded him about hurrying home. He hadn't come home of course, only his remains, and I'd held Joey and then the kids as each one of them registered the idea that his physical presence was irreversibly gone from their lives. The first two months after the funeral I'd had to tuck Joey and the kids into one big king bed all together to get any of them to sleep. Joey holding onto Brianna curled under her chin, Ethan snuggled against Joey's back with one hand clutching my arm around him too, and the whole Jordan mass spooned into the circle of my other arm. Joey's heavy head put my bicep to sleep, one hand clutching my forearm like she was indeed falling into an uncertain rest each night. Eventually, I could just tuck them all in together and head upstairs to my own loft, and finally they could each sleep in their own beds so long as we all exchanged long hugs and did a check in with each other in the mornings. It had been a gradual healing. The first time after the funeral that I had traveled for work, Ethan and Briana had cried in fear. Ethan had actually pushed me, angry that I would think of leaving him, but unable to say why he was upset until I turned to go. Then he'd latched on to my back in a flying hug and wailed for me not to go. Joey stood by helpless, scared herself I think. I'd sworn to Skype with them every night at the same time the entire week I was gone, and that had helped. They were my first stop when I got home from any trip, even before I opened the door of my own place, I walked directly up to Joey's loft and hugged each occupant hello proving my solidarity and giving them more and more evidence that the people they loved would return. Joey's brother, Ben, did essentially the same thing and between us both the kids and Joey seemed to have blossomed back into a sense of security. We couldn't replace John, but we could convince them that life wasn't entirely unfair all the time about giving you more moments with the people you loved. But now here I was leaving them for an entire month, for something other than work, something unnecessary. Would the kids see it that way? Did Joey, some deep down, non-psychologist core part of her, think of it that way? Even a little? I so hoped not. I had a hot flash of doubt. What in the hell was I here for? Why was I doing this? What did I need? And why did Ben and Joey, and maybe even me, think I could find it playing in the New England leaves and north Atlantic shoreline?
I thought back to Joey's admonishments about how I needed to enjoy myself without working, without helping anyone, because I should know what else love was about—besides work and other people. That made no sense to me. Wasn't love always about other people? Didn't love require working to protect and care for others?
The confusion in my head bubbled on and on in juxtaposition to the smooth simplicity of the road in front of me, so that eventually, I realized I must let thinking go for awhile. I had a month to figure it out, to identify the question, which according to Einstein was always the bulk, the hard long slog, of solving any problem. Answering any question required first figuring out what the questions should be. Or you could end up like the denizens of the galaxy in Douglas Adams' novels, knowing the answer was 42, but not knowing what exactly 42 answered.
“All you have to do is look straight and see the road, and when you see it, don't sit looking at it - walk.” —Ayn Rand
I pulled into the town of Bar Harbor , a quilt of clap board houses and buildings sloping down to a little harbor full of battened-down toy boats. Bar Harbor was the roaring metropolis of Mount Desert Island , boasting near 5000 people, and it would be my gateway to the park all month. Joey had called ahead and arranged for me to have a month's stay at a Bed and Breakfast in a Victorian house just off of Main Street called the Red Maple Inn. The proprietor was a retired submarine commander, named Captain James Voss, who was a friend of Ben's from his time in the Navy. Apparently they had all colluded to arrange my housing, and my flight through Boston . Ben said Voss had recommended driving up from Boston and flying back from Bangor just to get in more classic New England experiences. Ben had told me this with a wink, twisting the little iron band he wore on his pinky (a symbolic reminder to engineers to design with safety in mind), as he does when he is secretly hoping someone won't hate some well planned gift. At the stop light, I picked up my blackberry to text Ben a thank you. They had been right about the experience, the drive, being good—and no matter how conniving brother and sister had been in their plotting to extricate me from the office it was obvious that it was done with love. But the blackberry had no signal. I'd have to find another way to call and check in. The traffic light changed and I drove further down toward the harbor along Main Street . Right before the edges of Main Street became hemmed in parking spots, tourist shops, cafes, and civic buildings I found my turn onto Roberts Avenue . Victorian homes in various states of remodeling lined both sides of the streets, but about three blocks down there was a small red wooden sign with gold paint letters marking the Red Maple Inn, James Voss, Proprietor. The house was a three story. The first two stories boasted freshly painted white clapboard siding. The top story sported Prussian blue gingerbread-siding and American red dentils around the window edges and eaves. A broad pedimented wooden porch in the same red, white, and blue color scheme wrapped from the front to the lawn side of the house, and an American flag hung cleanly from the post closest to the porch steps. Several blue wooden rockers and some white wicker chairs with patio tables sat on the porch and looked like very fine places to shrug off the day with an adult beverage.
I parked on the curb and left everything in the truck for the time being. I walked up the stoned path, went up the porch steps and stood in front of the screen door. The main door was open so that only the screen separated me from the inside of the house. Late afternoon light played over Jacobean wood floors and whitewashed walls. The furniture I could see, an entry table, an umbrella stand, and a couple of wing chairs looked like well preserved antiques. I called out a hello, and heard footstep approaching from the back of the house.
A trim man who appeared to be about sixty years old, with very short salt and pepper hair, maybe a receding hairline and very direct dark brown eyes appeared with a dishcloth in hand.
“Hello?” He pronounced with a bare hint of southern accent.
“I'm Rand Marshall. I think my friend, Josephine Jordan, reserved a room for me here?” I prompted.
“Yes, Dr. Jordan did reserve your room. Please come in and I will get you a key. My name is James Voss and I am the inn keep, but I also live here. I make breakfast every morning for all the guests any time you would like to eat between six and nine.” He paused and looked at me as I came inside the screen door. The sleeves on his blue oxford shirt were rolled up to his elbows from doing the dishes no doubt, but his shirt tails were neatly tucked into khakis that looked as if they were iron to a fresh crease that morning.
I squirmed a little; trying to straighten my drive bedraggled self up for inspection like a good ship hand.
He smiled at me with straight neat teeth, one top front tooth a tiny little bit snaggled in front of the other.
“Do you have any special dietary request? Dr. Jordan mentioned that you are vegetarian.”
“Oh no, I eat anything that isn't, or wasn't at some point, a mammal or a fowl. Thank you for asking” I quipped.
“I also hear that you are accustomed to a wee dram of scotch each evening?”
I think I flinched. How much had Joey told him about me? I didn't know near as much about him obviously.
“Yes, I do like scotch.” I affirmed.
“Good. Then you are most welcome to join me and I will share mine any evening while you are here. Now here is your key,” he said pulling a small iron key out of a wooden lock box on a cubby shelf behind the umbrella stand, “your room is the first door on the left on the second floor.” He nodded to the steps down the hall.
“The front door is always unlocked. There are some backstairs that lead you to the kitchen as well, but the kitchen door is kept locked after dark,” he explained.
“Welcome to Bar Harbor.”
He turned and left me to myself then.
I wandered back out to the truck to gather all my stuff. I was hungry, but I more wanted to settle in than eat right then. I hauled my assorted bags back inside and up the stairs into a narrow hall and eyed the freshly painted white wooden door with its little brass knob and old fashioned lock that was the first door on my left. The key went in and worked with a well oiled mechanical conclusiveness that I suspected was very similar to the mechanical efficiency that Voss had demanded on his submarines. He didn't seem like the kind of guy who would deliver less than what he demanded of others. The inside of the little room was simple, but luxuriously comfortable looking. A double four poster bed sat square against one wall, heavy unfinished oak posts worn dark and smooth enough to invite touch by the passage of time and light. It had to be an antique. The bed itself was piled high with fluffy pillows and a down comforter in varying shades of whitened cream. At the foot was piled a thick quilt of red and blue and butter colored colonial design. A bedside wicker table boasted no phone or alarm clock, just a sharply pressed cleaned Irish lace doily and a little blue and white china vase with boisterous sprigs of dried lavender and eucalyptus. The only other furniture in the room was a hand carved little dressing table and stool that looked to be from the 1860's, that could double as a desk, and a puritan plain but inviting wooden rocker with a fleshy cream fleece thrown over one arm. A couple of vanilla scented candlesticks in two silver sconces sat on top of the dressing table with a small packet of matches and a neat little place-name linen card with a calligraphy “Welcome.” A bay window covered half the wall above the table and white washed wooden shutters had been slatted open to show hints of the view beneath my room. Cream lace curtains further gauzed the fading autumn sun outside. A hawthorn bush climbed the walls beside and poked little branches along the window edges like a kid peeking and waving for attention from a new playmate.
I opened the closet behind the rocker to discover a small but empty space with a bare light bulb and a satchel of lavender potpourri handing from the empty clothes rod. I stacked my backcountry pack, box of camping goods, and two clothes suitcases in there, and flung my daypack and camera bag on top of the dressing table. Looking at the lumps of my stuff in the warm tiny room, even I had to admit, it looked like I had packed the kitchen sink. Next to the closet was a boat cabin sized bathroom that still managed to hold a small white claw tub with a handheld showerhead. Several plush cream towels and a navy blue robe hung on porcelain hooks along the wall behind the little door. The framed mirror medicine cabinet was maybe big enough to hold some aspirin, and a little dried and pressed lavender sprig was tucked deftly into the bottom right corner of the mirror. The soap waiting wrapped on a dish by the sink was proudly labeled “Maud Roses' handmade blueberry and lavender organic bar.” It exuded subtle sweetness even through its wrapper in the small closeness of the bathroom. Voss had installed a subtle but efficient and warming heat lamp directly over head that made the bathroom cozy enough to get naked in probably even in a blizzard. I thought that living here a month could be nice, soothingly simple, and wondered how much Joey had told Voss. I wondered if she'd given him directions on how to present the room. I wondered what the other rooms looked like, but I was growing tired and so soon gave up wondering much about anything.
I washed my face with the blueberry soap bar, shed my clothes like a snake shedding skin and just crawled into the bed until I felt like I was buried in a cotton swab. My head felt like a twenty pound sack of fresh kitty litter, too heavy to balance and hold. I don't remember falling asleep, only opening my eyes to the morning some twelve hours later naked and swaddled in bedding that was warm as a womb. On waking it became as distractedly apparent as things are at birth; I had to spend this month learning to enjoy the moment and to love myself in it, as part of that moment. I wasn't sure how I was supposed to do that, or if I even could be that good at setting aside worry and hope.
After crawling out of my cocoon and washing away all the stale grit of travel (why does travel smell like a coffee fart and crayon mixed together anyway?), I put on clothes I hardly ever got to wear. I pulled on olive green hiking shoes with a foot bed so wide and supportive they could anchor a girl through even the worst marathon shopping experience without causing flat foot pains (no steel toes like I usually had to clomp around in when required into the field for work projects). I reveled in wearing a pair of exceptionally soft and worn looking flat front khakis I'd bought without much thought at a GAP years ago (not tough enough for field work and too casual for office work they hadn't escaped my closet twice before that day). Best of all, I got to wear a bright green v-neck t-shirt I normally reserved for the gym, and a rich chocolate fleece zip hoody (that would have been sweltering warm even in the bitterest depths of a Houston winter). I ran a wide tooth comb through my wet hair and tried to gather enough of my strawberry blonde uncooperative curls together to make a pony-tail. As my hair dried it would whip out little escape artist tendrils that would eventually get in my face and tick me off, but even this inevitable inconvenience was a relief compared to having to blow-dry it all into a controlled semblance for work. I wasn't stuck in a suit or dressed for work rougher than I wanted to be and I wasn't even immediately destined for a work out, housekeeping, or other errands. The thought made me grin to myself, but then I found myself a bit off kilter because I realized I didn't have a plan.
I'm normally annoyingly organized. I need a plan, and a backup plan, so that I have something official to deviate from before I start any project. The good news it that once I have a plan I am entirely flexible. The plan can even become irrelevant and unused without ruffling my feathers any, but in keeping with me goal of living in the moment, I decided not to try not to plan today (at least not much). I wanted to see the infamous Thunderhole, where the ocean slapped the coastal rock so hard that it sounded like Thor's forge was in use inside your brain case. I wanted to feel the salt spray sent up like hundreds of Lilliputian missiles. Then, I'd go check in at the visitor's center to do all those normally sane plan-like things I would typically want to do...like register, get a map, find out what else was too appealing and time dependent to miss (what I needed to plan around, because old habits die really hard like that limbless knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie). I picked up my daypack and camera bag, because I am also a horribly geeky pack rat like that. I want all the gadgets I could possibly want with me at all times, and I'm not very good at narrowing down what the essentials might be—which isn't such a cool habit when airlines are charging extra for everything that doesn't fit in your pockets and half the stuff that does. I bolted down the stairs and out the front door toward the rental truck where it was parked curbside. Voss was reading the paper on the porch and I was past him before I realized he was even there, until he called out after me to have a good time and that he'd be glad to share some of his scotch with me if I was back at sunset. He was a little over a decade older, physically more stocky solid, and a far more soldierly version of civic mindedness than John would have been, but the way he used words sparingly and always for the benefit of others reminded me of John. I found myself wistfully thinking he lived in Houston so that he and Joey could at least be introduced to the idea of dating one another.
I opened the truck door; the white edges were already speckled with grey road dust, and tossed my bags squarely into the passenger seat so I could reflexively draw out my digital SLR camera and the exact right lens choice to capture any given scene. I wasn't a talented photographer, but I was a dedicated student of photographic equipment and the fun that could be had fiddling with it. It was already into mid-morning and I hadn't eaten anything in well over twelve hours. My stomach gave a long convincing whine, but I did want to waste any time eating. On the way through Bar Harbor I stopped at a convenience store and did something I hadn't done since college in Stillwater , Oklahoma . I grabbed a pre-packaged cream cheese Danish in all its enriched flour and lots of added refined sugar glory to munch as I drove, and topped it off with an equally artificially flavored and even sweeter orange slushy derived from a machine that looked as sticky on the outside as its inside contents would be in toddler hands.
Thunderhole would only boom during the right rise and fall of the tide, but given that yesterday afternoon had been low enough tide to see the land bridge to Bar Island , I calculated that the tide should be nearing high now. I reached the turnoff for the one-way park loop that would take me to Thunderhole, and the two lane black top gave way to a single flat of blacktop cloistered by leaves that were still mostly green but starting to show hints of gold where clusters of Aspen glittered and tinges of red where Maples edged the road.
Eager to get there, in case I missed the best booming sea show, I didn't take much else in after that. The only radio station I could both find a solid signal and tolerate was an A.M. station playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I did my best not to think of anything, and was amazed to find not one ugly chain of thought had formed by the time I'd pulled into the parking lot designated for Thunderhole.
I was a bit dismayed to find that the park service had steel-railed in the path to the best viewing spot. The man-made structures put in place for public safety made it hard to get a view of what the sea was crafting all by its primordial self. Being the first Tuesday in October, in the middle of a working morning not near enough any official holiday, I had the place to myself for at least a few minutes until the foursome of senior citizens I passed milling about in the parking lot made their way down to my rock face perch. I put one hand on the chill steel piping that made a handrail down the sloped and staggered rocks to a viewing deck. I slid the hand along the steels wet guide, not wanting to be the young one who fell by being to cool for school when those elders came along and tut-tutted my arrogance against safety devices. I stood at the closest pinnacle above Thunderhole with my stomach pressed against the corner of the railing and my rain jacket pulled tightly over me. From that point I could narrow my field of view to pretend I was dangling on the rocks into the wind alone with no surrounding human presence, and I was drenched in sharp salt spray each time a slapping wave clapped the rock pit and jetted over. A sea anemone in a shallow pool that probably only got water full at high tide like this waved its arms in rollercoaster joy as if to say, “Hello, hello big sea,” and I raised my arms too to let the wild water and wind wash over me. The ocean launched itself in a booming crescendo that shook the rock and fiberglass decking beneath my feet and reverberated as if I were standing on a Koto drum. The Atlantic stretched out forever blue and I wondered what it would be like to circle around the whole Gulf Stream just to come right back here to myself. Would it be monotonous? A lot of the same swimming in blue buttered light and smoky green kelp, suspended in perpetual movement and flow, but under the influence of vertigo seeming to go nowhere?
After a bit, I drove back north to the Hulls Cove Visitor Center . I got distracted by a slip of a sign reading Duck Brook Road that led to a short stretch of carriage road around Witch Hole Pond. The pond lay reflective blue-black and deafeningly still after the slap and crash ocean brassiness of Thunderhole. A sign near the pond indicated I could walk around it to a trail that turned out at the visitor center, so I walked on. Here and there a bright leaf in red, yellow, green, or some combined variant wafted through sky to land like a graceful boat on the black shallow edges of the pond. A whisper of a ripple would expand around each little leaf. Conifer needles and leaves still on deciduous trees waved and rustled little cheers waiting for the wind to christen and launch the next boat leaf. A last remaining red dragonfly stretched weary wings in a drift of circles over rounds stones and green scummy water, like the lone surviving flying veteran piloting his vintage Camel Sopwith over the healing fields of France . The sun warmed the woods and the world smelled of musky bark, spicy moss, and mineral rich dirt. I walked on in t-shirt, bared arms baking in a bath of sunlight. My feet crunched the old ground stone of the carriage road and then went stealth as padded fox feet on the beaten dirt of the trail that turned away from the pond toward the visitor's center. The light through the trees turned green and fluid in the shadows. My lungs spread wings and my head was afloat as if I was on the tail end of a perfect date.
The visitor's center was a brown boarded hulk smacked together by the Civilian Conservation Corp in its productive Great Depression years. Dead leaves littered the shingles. There was a lonely battered yellow Jeep in the far corner of the lot, parked with its top still folded down as if the occupants had wanted to let in all of today's sun. I wandered in through the single glass front door into the dimmer, cooler interior filled with that familiar smell of park publications, dusty interpretive exhibits, and office building carpeting.
I wandered up to the desk; a ranger was busily tapping at the computer off side. She glanced up and gave me a cheery, “Be with you in a moment.”
“Ok, thanks” I offered, signed into the register book facing open, and pulled a park map from the stack. I stood at the counter with an open map tracing over routes, paths, and roads from different perspectives. I like the feeling of getting to know a function of a map, the overview, the chunks...like looking at engineering project diagrams and documents. I revel in imagining and putting together the parts and forms, as I imagine artists and musicians revel in the act of creating. It is that act that brings a sense of flow, a complete occupation with just being in that moment.
“Marshall Rand?” the ranger had joined me at the counter and attempted to read my signature off the register.
“Oh, sorry.” She spared me the kind of glance a child would give cooked carrots.
My name is a source of curiosity I am well accustomed to clearing up. Elementary school teachers were determined to make me a “Miranda” or a “Randy.” High school teachers were convinced my name was mixed up in the roll and invariably called me Marshall and looked for a tall white geeky guy to answer.
I launched into my well practiced explanation, “My Mom's favorite writer was Ayn Rand, so she wanted to name me after her. Ayn was too ambiguous, since I could be named after any one of thousands of Ayns. So, she named me Rand . How are you? Ranger…” I looked briefly at her name tag, “Reese?”
She cocked her pony-tailed head, and tucked a strand of dark wavy hair behind her ear.
“Just fine, and you?”
I liked her.
The first time I saw Kat, her eyes were that emphatic Crayola Crayon's Cornflower Blue. She is the kind of beautiful you expect to see on top of an alpine ridge in the summer with her eyes and hair flirting with the camera in an All-Natural-Oats commercial. She is casually hard to miss, like some exotic raw plucked flower waiting on a farmhouse table. I would be lying if I said I didn't wonder what secrets she kept, but I dismissed that thought in the fluorescent flash of her administrative smile. It was a national park, she was a national park service employee, and I was another wound-up tourist.
“I'm here for a whole month, and I want to see and know everything about Acadia .” I gave the brief explanation of what I wanted.
“Any recommendations?” I asked.
Suddenly her blue eyes gleamed like a tidal wave flashing on the horizon, “Oh, yes.”
I waited for her to rub her hands gleefully together like the typical evil master villain parody, but it didn't happen that way.
“We need volunteers!” she enthused. “And the best way to get to know any park is to get involved with the various volunteer projects as you are able, and well, you picked a fabulous month!”
“Yay!” I played along with her enthusiasm.
“That was sarcasm?” she asked with one the corners of her smile suddenly flattened back like an un-flattered cat's ears.
“Not totally. I am excited about helping out, but well, your sales pitch lacks a little. You could make volunteering sound more like an in park adventure than work.” I smiled at her.
“Point taken.” She nodded and smiled back.
“So what adventure options do you have available this month?” I prompted.
“I thought you'd never ask” and she did rub her hands gleefully together then.
I'd spotted a town library, a quaint old stone building from the 1950s, with a large flag pole and a crisp flag waving in the Norman Rockwell Autumn morning. I ducked in to see if the was still a phone booth tucked in the lobby, like small town libraries once offered the public. Who used pay phones these days with iPhones and Blackberry's everywhere? Ok, besides me and immigrants who haven't bought cellular plans in this country yet? I tapped a dismissive finger tip against the useless Blackberry in my jacket pocket. No signals in Bar Harbor...and I knew that Joey said no developments would require my attention no matter what, but I still had a feeling in my waffle-full belly that I should call home for whatever status I could get. I was in luck, as there was small wood paneled closet housing a pay phone opposite the main doors in the lobby.
It was 7am in Houston .
Joey answered on the first ring. “Yes dear?”
“Ha. How did you know it was me for sure?”
“I know the local area codes from setting up your room at the Red Maple” she explained.
“Well, what are you up to?”
“Trying to marshal two vertically challenged slugs out of their sleepy cocoons and into school clothes.”
“Sounds good. Everything going ok?”
“Oh Rand , I shouldn't tell you. I mean everything is under control. But...” she rushed to hesitate.
“Well no harm in sharing, Joey. I'm doing fine ignoring work and getting to know myself again.” I tried to urge it out of her, as she sounded like she needed to talk about it, and I knew her psychologist self was never willing to burden anyone else with her own broodings.
“McNeese called Ben.”
I waited patiently. McNeese's firm was one of our earliest contracts. He was one of the first clients to trust and respect me as a consulting engineer in an industry dominated by older men with ancient fraternity connections.
“McNeese said he understood you needed and deserved some personal time, but that he would cancel all contracts with us if Ben didn't take over the deep well safety audit project immediately,” she continued.
I'd left Max with that one. It shouldn't have been a rough gig. McNeese needed someone to fly out to the ocean rig and act as an independent reviewer for operational safety practices at regular intervals during a short well-caping procedure. Max had done one before with one of Halliburton's small rigs, similar to McNeese's contracted rig.
“What's wrong with Max handling it?” I wondered out loud.
“Oh Rand . Ben had to terminate Max.”
“One of the safety test on the, oh, what is that sludgy stuff you pour in before easing out the bit?”
“Never mind, I know what you mean.” I answered.
“Well the tests weren't exactly kosher, but the foreman was anxious to continue anyway and Max told him that he would turn a blind eye to it. He told the foreman that it wasn't like anything happened when only a couple of safety parameters were off like that.”
Not exactly the paragon of safety mindedness that Mick Enterprises was known for, but sometimes violating parameters was less risky than the fixes, especially if you knew the test could have been compromised and there really might not be any parameters violated (just some bad sensors or readings).
“And?” I prompted knowing Ben wouldn't fire anyone without an in-depth inquiry.
“Max also told the foreman he would pass the safety audit, if the foreman would add him as an independent consultant instead of Mick Enterprises in the future.”
“Damn.” I knew that was a kiss of death, as it smacked of a bribe arrangement.
“McNeese visited the rig and overheard some of the guys talking about it. Max denied everything, but the foreman confirmed it when McNeese confronted him.”
“What did Ben say?”
“Ben gave one of his easier projects to Colleen and told McNeese he would cover it while you were gone. Then we had a meeting with Max. He claimed it was ridiculous the way you kept expecting him to handle such simple jobs, as if he needed mentoring through everything, and that he'd just been trying to get some independent work to help himself grow.”
“What? That is asinine! I've given him some of our most challenging contracts. Ones I wanted, and left him unsupervised unless he asked for help, just so he wouldn't get bored!”
“Yeah. No worries Rand , we know your style. You're the best mentor I've ever seen. Probably because you have less ego than other mentoring male engineers in the biz,” she reassured me.
“Thanks.” Joey was golden.
“But Ben maintained that Max had violated his employment agreement regarding conflicting business interests and that he'd violated Mick Enterprise consulting standards. So we terminated him for cause, and because we'd decided he was a snake in the grass.”
I grinned. Ben and Joey were bears when they needed to be, and that was reassuring.
“So you weren't going to tell me any of this?” I prompted in case there were deeper things to confess.
“Damn you! Yes, I wasn't supposed to tell you any of this and there isn't anything you can do about it anyway. You're required not to worry about it. I know Max was quickly becoming your protégé, and that is the only reason I mentioned it at all. Do you understand me, Rand?”
“I should be there.”
“No, you shouldn't. It wouldn't do any good.”
“It would make McNeese happy and it would free Ben up to earn us more money on projects where he is really needed, instead of babysitting my work.”
“ Rand , I mean it, I won't tell you another thing. Are you listening to me or are you already racing off in your own head? You're too damn centered on work. There are other aspects of your life you must enjoy before your work performance is compromised by the inevitable burnout that comes from ignoring your life!”
I sighed. “Ok, Dr. Jordan. You are the expert. I will try, but work gives me purpose and having a sense of purpose is good for the other aspects of my life.”
“Nice try. I'm not buying it. You haven't dated anyone since that loser musician.”
“Um, Joey, you haven't dated anyone.” I left out since John died. We both knew since when.
“ Rand , you can't refocus this on me. I'm still grieving a dead husband. At least I dated a complete cycle before my 35th birthday! And you haven't done anything besides work and help me take care of the kids. You need some new experiences and stories to bring back to us, or we're all going to get bored of you.” She tried to yank my chain in ways that she knew would get me to act determinately healthy. She might not be a clinician, but they must still cover some pretty swift persuasion techniques no matter what brand of shrink school you complete.
“Ok, Joey, I'm trying my best. I just...” I sighed, “I think...I can't believe I'm here without Dad. I can't believe that it has been almost a decade since he has died. And then, I'm worried that maybe he died disappointed in me and he was right! Maybe I sold my soul to the oil companies just like he did but in a different way and I haven't done anything to save the wild kinds of places he loved and wanted to belong to instead of industry. And in fact, maybe I've only made it easier for industry to take over more wilderness. And I haven't accomplished anything worthwhile except to help you and Ben and a handful of do-gooding businesses have slightly better lives in between selling my soul out...” I had to pause for breath and I was fighting tears and a tightness in my chest that didn't go well with the breakfast in my belly.
“Oh Rand, Darling, those are all negative doubts that don't have any basis in reality. You have accomplished so much your Daddy would be proud of and he would really want you to enjoy your time in the wild whenever you could. He'd want you to see the things he'd always wanted to see. And most of all, he wouldn't want you to work yourself to death because you feel guilty about not saving the world. He wanted you to have a life, right? That was his worry about letting the oil companies dictate what work you did, don't you think?” She inserted into my tight silence.
“I think I was a disappointment, and then he died, and that was the only shot I had to show him that I respected what he wanted and hoped for me.” You can't reason with those demons of self-doubt. Logic alone isn't enough to make your hurts heal. I'd let my parents down, and when I wasn't working I was also risking something bad would happen to the business my friends depended on because of my neglect. That was all I could see.
“I don't think that is true, Rand , but as long as you do that is what matters. Perspective is everything I know. I'm sorry you feel that way. Ben and I both think you're a dynamo and we wouldn't trade you for any other partner imaginable, but if you don't take care of yourself and learn how to recreate for God-sake... we're going to have to get you some clinical help!”
“Yes, Dr. Jordan . I'll work on it.” I knew better than to argue with Joey when she said anything in that level matter of fact voice.
“No! No working! You'll not work on anything, and just see what it is like to exist and enjoy!” She snorted a derisive laugh.
“I've got to hustle these kids to school now. Call me later? It is good to talk to you. I think I'm not used to being without you for so many days. I mean usually, even when you're working long project overseas you e-mail us.” She added.
“I miss you all too, and I will call you again. Have a good day, Joey.”
“You too, Rand .”
She hung up without good-bye. We didn't always say them. I don't think Joey liked saying good-bye to anyone important to her after John died, in case saying it made it unexpectedly true. I stared at the phone on its hook and the old wooden cubby that housed it in the muted hush of the old library. The weight of all my thoughts felt like a lead balloon growing to fill all the empty space of the small closet where I sat.
I walked out of the phone closet and into the library lobby, really just a broad hallway, and stared at the old doors. Thoughts like wild horses stampeding down my canyon lands of doubts and fears. I walked outside to let them roll away under the wider skies of the great outdoors. There would be plenty of time to worry. I paused on a bench to ponder what to do with the rest of my day. I tugged out the map and after a few minutes of staring things seemed to open up a little in my mind again. The “ Wild Gardens of Acadia ” caught my eye and I noticed a little dotted walking path on the map appeared to go from the edge of town right to it.
I set off walking without further debate, stopping by the Red Maple only to pick up camera and water and tell Voss my plan — I rarely went anywhere, even in the city without letting someone know where I was going and when to panic if I wasn't back. I'd seen a few too many horror stories where some independent dude had decided to work some project alone and then laid for days in a field or woods or basement wounded or thirsty until someone thought to look for his decimated carcass.
My legs stretched out into a rolling ramble like a cat stretching into purring sunshine. The black top road shone next to expiring green lawns near the center of town, but then was dulled in weed patches on the outskirts of town as the road dead-ended into a dirt trail. I couldn't help hearing strains of George Strait 's song, “Where the side walk ends, she had to go…” playing in my head.
At the end of the foot trail, I spent the day learning the flora of Acadia in the little labeled garden the park service put in place to educate the public. Hemlock, Hazel, Balsam Firs, Bunchberries, Foxtail Ferns, and a gardenful of native species proclaimed themselves amid loving mulch and raked paths. I watched small dun colored birds, Chickadees maybe or Nuthatches (I wasn't much good at spotting small birds, only the big showy coastal or migrating birds I'd grown up with). Squirrels flashed in and out of hiding, busily sorting and stashing tidbits for cold weather. The leaves were showing very few hints of color in the warm little hollow where the garden and a museum waited. Things were still more green here than any other color. I wandered into the Abbe Museum , an accidental discovery despite knowing it was there on the map. The museum's beautiful old stone work loomed in a pleasant golden aura underneath a gauzy filter of broad green oaks trees and bustling prairie-like grasses. If it was possible for a building to look like a pixie or faerie, as you would imagine them to be in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, then the Abbe Museum on that autumn afternoon would be the epitome of pixie buildings. The place, the gardens, seeped into my bones, a strengthening calcium infusion of geography and ecology. Inside the museum, shards of pottery and dioramas of bare-legged native peoples cavorting in fishing villages invited me to consider a simpler time and an echo of slow consistency that permeated the ground beneath my feet. Mount Desert Island would always be itself, by any name, with any peoples. The same pink and grey granites, shifting straggles of trees, and variants of seasons and waters would pass here for thousands of years, had passed here for thousands of years. And yet, the beauties, the visions of these things changed every second like a kaleidoscope in motion with wind and sun. As I'd promised Joey I would try to do, that day in Acadia 's pocket, I had at least found one way to make myself go away.
For my first VIP (volunteer in park) adventure, I'd agreed to meet a ranger at the top of Cadillac Mountain to count Peregrine Falcons and nests visible in the precipitous cliff faces south of the Mountain this month. Another volunteer was going to cover the morning, and I'd signed up for the entire afternoon.
I spread the park map out on the breakfast table. It was still dark outside. I made myself a cup of black tea and put in two cubes of sugar. I'd done a contract in the North Sea three years ago and I'd learned to like strong black tea like a punch in the face on early mornings. It gave you a warm sturdy start against the fierce wet winds, without any hyper jitters, and it wasn't the red-headed step child to coffee's prodigal son, as most of my office mates seemed to think.
Voss surprised me wandering by with a creased newspaper and an empty white ceramic cup as if he'd been up for hours. Although, I don't suppose that it took much time to make his customary crew cut look groomed for the day—and his shirt was always tucked in with the buttons lined up to zipper and belt buckle gig line like his uniform dress might still be up for a surprise Naval Command inspection.
“Morning Rand ,” he greeted me leaving off any opinions of the morning's actual quality.
“Appears to be. How are you, Voss?” I asked.
“Facile. You?” He returned.
“Dandy. Contemplating where to get in a long arduous hike before I help count birds on Cadillac Mountain this afternoon.” I flicked my eyes at the map, hoping he would offer his suggestions.
He tilted his head a little to one side and answered, “Easy. Take the South Ridge Trail up Cadillac Mountain from the Blackwoods Campground.” He jabbed one strong stubby finger at the campground on my map and traced the dotted trail line north from there to the peak. “It's a little over 3 miles to the top and about 1000 foot elevation gain. You could probably make the top with enough time to snack on lunch before your bird watch.”
He started whistling a light little jig and walked off, leaving me to myself with his advice, as wizened leaders usually do. After soaking up my cup of tea and a second cup like a sponge, I left the table and bounded off to follow Voss' advice.
I rolled down the truck windows and let the morning air and pink sky swirl in around me as I cruised by Thunderhole toward the trailhead at Blackwoods. North Atlantic salt and the slapping surf held an avid conversation to the left of the two lane black top road. To the right of the road, wood warblers woke up and mingled their busy trills and twitters into the old-man's beard lichen lining some of the wiser sea-facing spruces. I pulled into the campground parking area, largely deserted, and the sun was finally a visible globe of blinding light over the endless water beyond the hash marks of trees and rocks to the east. It was good just to be outside with the world to myself. I let everything else go. I pulled on my daypack and started up the trail.
One foot in front of the other for hours along the steep rock trail spent the morning as quickly as an old grandfather spends his pocket full of candy with his grandchildren. I marveled at the white spruces with their silvery bark and bluish needles growing speedy like a reckless weed and the sun-hungry brave clusters of aspens with their golden glitter leaves flashing beauty above my head on open slopes. Birch and Maple and Red Bunchberry clustered closer to the stream, where I stopped to watch a pair of beavers sunning their thick chocolate fur to workable temperatures safely across the water from me. A cluster of Scoters headed seaward passed above and made a quick slipping V of dotted shadows on the granite around me, sun sparking in the quartz crystal of the granite as if the earth was winking at me. The sun became high enough overhead that I knew I could not afford to linger much more and still make my volunteer duty on time. I was reluctant to give up this experience at all today, even for the privilege of gazing out over the glorious folds and buckles of this beautiful body of earth in all its dressings to count soaring falcons. I decided to stop where I was on a twist of the trail just short of the mountaintop parking lot. I could hear a few cars rolling slowly above, doors opening and closing as other tourists clambered around the surface for a mid-day view of the park from its highest point. The large luminous face of my buckle watch showed I still had forty minutes to myself. I perched on a chair-height granite boulder weather worn smooth amid a cluster of larger granite boulders and twisted dwarf spruce that blotted out my view of other people—so I could have this world to myself a little longer in direct sunlight. The rock was steamed milk temperature warm. No fog remained even in the still shadowed coves below. Autumn colored rolling hills in thick mottled splotches like a painter's pallet of warm hues, and the shifting blues of ocean and sky created contrast. Muave greys of ancient petrified mud-flats made rock and time congealed magma bolts of granite that peaked out in places wherever the soil had not yet eroded and thickened itself enough to grow anything tough enough to root past gales and snow. I rummaged through my pack and came up with some salmon jerky, dried blueberries, and a chunk of dark Belgian chocolate I'd picked up in a small tourist trinket store by the waterfront in Bar Harbor (a lunch fit for a hiking queen). Water tasted divine at this dry noon bare height of the park. I sipped from my water bottle between bites like I was savoring a pricey brut Champaign . Some small fast-winged bird dived at a screaming angle in the distance, and I caught a flash of its fierce shape in the corner of my eye, enough to know it was a falcon.
Suddenly, I was inspired and eager to start my volunteering. I finished my feast with a glob of blueberries and packed everything into my bag. My back was cooler as my sweat was drying cold from where my pack had kept my shirt too close to me on the hike up. It felt both good, to have the warm pack back on my slightly chilled back, and bad to have the restricting weight on my tired muscles. This wasn't the same kind of exertion as my three to four mile run around the flat downtown streets and blocked parks of Houston . I cultivated a different type of fitness than the kind I'd had to use so far today.
I stumbled out into the expanse of parking lot. A family clustered on the rocks to my right.
“Quick, Michael, you and Dad stand on that rock and look like you just scaled your way up here. I'll take a picture” a short thick woman in pink hiking boots and visor directed her middle-aged balding husband and her wind-breaker wearing father to pose.
To my left stood a ranger in hat with clip board, pen, binoculars and a pack resting against her leg. In front of the ranger, facing me was an old woman with cottony white hair whipped about by the mountain top winds despite the bucket fisherman's style hat that she had tied on with an old scarf. Her weathered face offered a fully fledged smiled that played out in her eyes. She held her own binoculars and a waterproof topographical map in one hand like a flag with little red sticky marking tapes prickling off of it. I walked over to announce myself and heard the threads of their conversation thinning in the winds and lulls.
“Thanks so much for your help, as usual, Maddie,” the ranger said.
“You betcha, Katrina. Always my pleasure to spend the morning with you helping the park. Best neighbor a girl would want” answered the woman.
She noticed me approaching and as she looked briefly at me I noticed her eyes were green and her eyebrows hinted at hair that had once been a pleasantly sandy brown before it had gone cottony with age. The ranger turned her head a tad following Maddie's gaze, recognizing somebody approached from behind.
As her face turned a little more toward me, I recognized Ranger Reese from the visitor's center. She'd braided tight her thick dark hair and had on the expected broad straight-brimmed hat the park service was known for. But even the cheap fabrics and goofy hat that made it evident the park service was a government-run enterprise couldn't diminish the ranger's fine features and naturally well-made appearance. This was a woman who undoubtedly attracted unsolicited attention from tourists even in the most scenic park spots minding her own dull administrative duties.
In my head I heard a snatch of steel guitar and Jackson Browne crooning, “She picked me up and she threw me down, I said please don't hurt me Mama,” and I thought to myself, ain't that the truth . The looks of this ranger probably inspired a plethora of painful little crushes among the populace. Well, at least for me, there were falcons to watch and this beautifully hardy sea salted old woman to focus on instead.
“Hello” I called.
The Ranger turned.
“Welcome, Rand ! Right on time!” she answered.
“Ranger Reese, hello again, I'm surprised you're in charge of this in park adventure,” I greeted her.
The woman she'd called Maddie tittered a little laugh.
“Please call me Kat” the Ranger smiled.
“And I am, Maddie, no need for formalities up here. The birds flee if you brandish big tittles normally reserved for obstinate tourists,” the woman explained and her face lit with another soul-deep smile.
I smiled back at her, “Nice to meet you, Maddie. I'm Rand .”
“Pleased to know you and it is no surprised that Kat ends up doing the falcon survey. Congress may have approved Acadia 's resource management office to have 15 employees, but it only funded them enough to fill ten of those jobs, ya ken? Makes Kat one of only two program leads available to guide us doddering volunteers well enough to get the work done as it should be anyways.” Her accent was like Kathryn Hepburn's only more thickly Northeastern. I'm sure we made a pair for Kat to hear, two women with thickly muddled accents of our extremely north and south reaching home states.
“It is easy work with gems like you to help out, Maddie,” Kat added.
“Well you may have your work cut out teaching me to help as well as Maddie does, but I'm an avid fan of the park and ready to give it a go.” I insisted.
“Great!” enthused Kat.
“Good Girl!” encouraged Maddie. “I'll be off to the afternoon of quilting then.”
“Good bye, Maddie. I will see you later.” Kat gave her a wave as Maddie turned to walk toward an older model maroon Mercedes a few yards off.
Maddie paused and said over her shoulder as she thought of it, “Yes, stop by on your way home and share a hot drink with an old woman.”
Kat nodded and called, “Ok, Maddie. Will do,” as Maddie walked away.
After watching Maddie get in her car, Kat turned to me. “I am really glad for the help, Rand. Maddie is a sweetheart and a big help, but I hate to ask her to do the more demanding parts of this survey. I couldn't stomach the thought of her miss-stepping on the rocks of the grounds just over the edge there with the best surveying views, so we end up doing some very diligent birding, but only from around the fringes of the parking lot here.”
I liked that she took care of the graceful old woman, and that she appeared to believe in the task enough to want to do it well. It is easy to lose sight of the aspects of your work that you believe in after you've been in a job awhile I think. Or maybe it is easy to give up in the aspects you believe in the most, as you get more beaten down by the day to day aspect of your job and the ignorance or indifference of the general population that makes up the rest of your life outside of work. I liked having work to believe in, even if it wasn't my work. I realized I was caught up in these thoughts of work and meaning, and tossed off that cowl to look at the moment itself again instead.
“So how do I help best?” I asked Kat outright.
“There is a spot just below the southern ridge, a rock outcropping, that affords the best views of all the surrounding precipitous cliffs where we can best look for new nests and see if known nests are still actively occupied compared to last month's survey.” Kat hefted her pack.
“Lead the way, Ranger.”
Kat looked quickly around the parking lot, as if to be sure no tourist was watching, and then stepped onto a pier of mountain rocks that were definitely not a trail. She picked her way over rocks, carefully avoiding lichen and other places where a foot could damage life or give away that anyone had traveled this way. I followed suit like a smaller timid shadow learning a new dancing etiquette. We crabbed over the apex of the mountain's bald spine and came to a short pocketed ridgeline that offered a panorama of everything except the narrow spine of mountain behind us. Kat dropped three feet or so from the top of the ridge onto the flat ribbon of ground in the center of the pocket, and turned to watch me progress.
“This is it. Need a hand?” She offered as I sat at ridge edge before dropping the three feet. I let the fabric on my pants take all the risk rather than my ankles or knees in the little jump, mostly because I'm sometimes accident prone.
“Thanks. Got it.” I confirmed with the smack of the flat feet to ground and a grin. “Now what?”
Kat rummaged through her pack to produce a couple of clipboards, laminated maps, assorted wax pencils, a hand-held GPS, a metal count clicker, and a pair of over-sized binoculars. She held a clipboard with laminated map out to me. I took the board and began trying to match the topographic lines to the visual features of the land in front of me. Kat stood a minute peering over my shoulder, explaining how to match the little blue circles representing prior nest sites to reality. Enthusiasm rang in her voice and the simple posture of her standing near at shoulder felt comforting like having the teaching assistant at your elbow during a complex organic chemistry lab assignment. The clean scent of her braided hair warming in the sun reminded me of how nice it is just to have someone attractive near your personal space every now and then.
She described my job of observing those spots for activity and then marking with a contrasting red shade any evidence of occupation with an X. I was supposed to write the number of birds spotted written atop the X and the amount of minutes I'd seen those birds linger in that spot in the bottom crux of the X. Suspicions of new nests could be drawn from a falcon or two leaping or landing from flight to the same place a few times. These suspicions got a circle with the number of falcon landings and take offs observed in a twenty minute space scribbled in the circle center. My map corresponded to a specific section of our view, and there remained six to seven other section maps by the look of the stack I'd seen Kat sort out of her pack.
“Any questions?” She finished the orientation, and turned away to pick up her own clipboard. I felt a small bubble of disappointment in my stomach as she drifted away from her towering closeness to me toward the work.
I went to work myself, but made conversation.
“So how do you know Maddie? She does seem to be a real gem.” I was curious, as usual, but more so because I genuinely liked both of these women.
“She is a bit like a mother to me here in Acadia ,” Kat confirmed my thoughts after seeing them interact. “When I was first hired here a decade ago I was dismayed to find that there was no housing I could afford on the island, and no park service housing allotted. Donnie, the chief, told me there was a nice room for rent in an old islander's family mansion. I went by to ask about it, and Maddie decided to keep me for free a whole year in her room if I would agree to help clean out the old duck cabin on the backside of her grounds. It turned out to be a pretty nice cabin and restoring it was pretty easy given a little aid from her nephew on his random visits. I'd been looking for a little place to buy in the meantime, and after Maddie and hear that she arranged to have my real estate agent show me the very cabin I'd cleaned out. She sold it to me at less than half its worth instead of a better paid artist who had his eye on it—and the whole time argued that the profit meant nothing compared to the privilege of picking her nearest neighbor.”
I liked the idea of the beautiful ranger and the gem of an old woman giving each other a semblance of community.
“I'm sure that you give each other great comfort and encouragement” I stated my thoughts.
Kat step back and looked up from her clipboard to give me a direct look.
“Not many would notice that so quickly” she said and gave a gentle smile.
And not many would be wondering what it would be like to be kissed by the lips involved in that smile, I thought to myself, and looked quickly back out at the surrounding ridges newly determined to do my job of spotting nests without taking distracted glances at her.
“So tell me about you” Kat requested.
“Ah, well, what would you want to know? I am not so good at talking about myself.” I gave a lame reply. I wasn't good at talking about myself without a little priming; it was too hard to cold start the right engines of self-disclosure.
“What do you do for a living that allows you to have a whole month to spend in the park before you're a respectable retirement age?” She laughed. “Unless of course you really are sixty odd years old and just look like you're thirty.”
I smiled and drew a wax pencil circle around the number two on the hidden tip of distant ridge where two falcons had passed in the last twenty minutes.
“Thirty-five.” I admitted.
“Ah well, you do have a baby face,” Kat defended herself.
“Thanks. I'm a managing partner in a small engineering consulting firm. We've managed to make ourselves securely profitable over the last ten years, and my partners decided it was downright bad business the way I neglected to take any vacations. They kicked me out for the month.” I explained.
“Good for them! Welcome to your in-park adventures, again.”
“Much better sales pitch.”
“I'm learning. So you're an engineer?”
“Mostly. I have bachelors of science in mechanical engineering from Oklahoma State University , and a business masters in financing from the University of Houston . I use both. Our company tries to give underprivileged businesses access to sound engineering advice for their projects and over-privileged companies, like big oil, a smart and reliable resource for auditing or reviewing their engineering projects.”
“And earn a profit.” Kat pointed out.
“Yes. I won't deny that part, but it would be good to meet someone who didn't want to make me feel guilty for trying to sustain jobs, including my own, and trying to do some good for society” I blurted.
Kat looked a little startled. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way.”
It was my turn to apologize, “I'm sorry. My mom, and my dad before he died, were a bit disappointed that I didn't just go to work crusading for a non-profit cause, so I'm more sensitive than I know to any accusations of profit.” I offered a little reconciliatory humor.
“What happened to your Dad?” Kat inquired softly, as if she were interested for some real reason rather than being conversational. I was surprised she'd asked that so directly. I chalked it up to regional cultural differences, as I would have been afraid to ask anyone that so directly in case she was still grieving.
“Ah, he had a heart attack about ten years ago, right after we'd started the business, but before there was any evidence we might be profitable or helpful to anything but our own pocketbooks.”
“I'm sorry” she said.
“Thanks.” I let it go without inquiring why she'd wanted to know that in particular or why she suddenly looked so distant and personally sad herself. Joey always says most people want to talk if you just let them, so I relied on that wisdom, not remembering that some personalities have to be directly polled for the sensitive things they want to but cannot bare to talk about on their own volition.
“How about you, how did you end up in Acadia ?” I pursued my curiosity by casting questions in fishing lines less likely to snag into any contentious tangles.
She tossed a shy look at me as if she didn't often get asked anything about herself, or didn't much like delivering anything but the basic information as needed. I thought she might not answer at first, or that she might just answer something dismissive offhand.
“I grew up in Berkley .”
That explained the accent I thought, or rather the lack of accent. She sounded as if she were from everywhere and nowhere at the same time the way folks who'd been in the Bay Area long usually did.
“My Dad is a anthropology professor at UC Berkeley. So I got in free and finished a bachelors' degree in biology, mostly because they let me play outside in the mud as a part of the coursework.” She grinned.
“I bummed around for several years after that as a SCA in the parks and then as a temporary seasonal employee with the park service all over the west. Eventually, I ended up at Shenandoah's resource management and managed to hang onto a job there long enough to finish a Master's in wildlife science at Virginia Tech. After a few more years ingratiating myself to the park service I managed to get a permanent position in resource management here. I always wanted to work someplace with seasons, lush flora and fauna, a wild ocean, imposing rocks, great bird diversity, and historical character. Acadia is all of that, and it is so surrounded by humanity but still so possible to preserve that it makes it easy to do resource management that really makes a difference. I've turned down promotions just to stay here. Most of the staff has. Once you're here you somehow get drawn to the place” Kat gushed.
You could tell she was trying to fully explain something that she felt so deeply that words seemed shallow and inadequate tools for the descriptive duties required of them.
“I understand. That is how I feel about my work, my home. I know it sounds odd, but I can't beat that experience of having my work make a difference to the people, the place.” I also tried to explain it, but also fell short. Instead I told her about Joey, John, Ethan, Brianna, Ben, and Sandy—the people who made up my life stories were a better explanation of what I meant.
She listened, nodding thoughtfully and spinning a few stories of her own with her eyes still surveying the distance, sharpening on any hint of Peregrine wing to sky. She swung her long legs lightly back and forth against the rock where she sat next to me, and it almost felt like we were kids learning to hold hands at a carnival. I felt ten years old and beautifully awkward, doing something new with someone nice for no real reasons besides that I wanted to be doing this right now.
The sign swaying in the bay winds on the sidewalk of Bar Harbor 's main street showed a perky blue whale proffering an empty beer mug and spouting beer in a suspiciously drunken humor. It looked like a good place for me. The interior was dim and warm like a gas light in winter. A man at the bar smiled a “what will it be” smile as I perched myself on a stool very near the muted TV. The American League Major League Baseball playoffs were on and his Red Sox hat spelled out his team pick.
“Hi. I'm Rand .”
“Short for Miranda?”
I shook my head no.
Another shake no.
“Just Rand ” I admitted.
“Well, hello Rand . I'm Charlie. Charlie Rose, Rose like Pete Rose, not the flower or the color-because that wouldn't be manly. Would it?”
“Hello, Charlie. Are the sox ahead?”
“Of course not, but it would probably be a bad sign if they were since they have no clue how to win a game from ahead.”
Charlie had the face and blond curls of a twenty-two year old college senior, but the devoted beer belly of a married middle-aged man. Crow's feet were starting to etch the corners of his chocolate eyes, but it was hard to tell if that was from aging or too much wind and sun on the open waters.
He turned to catch a glimpse of the game and then back to me. “Rain delay at the moment. What would you like to drink?”
“Something local. What's the whale on the sign tapping? He looks pretty excited about it.”
“Ah. I'd say a black and blue.” He didn't elaborate.
Northeasterners seemed kind enough to me, but they didn't extend many words unless they knew for sure you wanted them. I decided not to push Charlie for details. His sox were on, but then it occurred to me the game was muted.
“Charlie, I'll try your black and blue. How come the game is muted?”
“Band tonight.” Charlie nodded toward the back corner were a set of bongos, amps, and assorted guitar cases waited.
“Yeah, they play pretty well. All locals. You will see them watching the game as much as the rest.”
He pulled the tap of a blueberry ale coaxing forth a pre-prescribed dose into a frosted pint glass. I licked my Cadillac Mountain wind-chapped cracked lips. Bar Harbor was a coastal town but not warmly humid enough for my east Texas trained skin to keep itself adequately moisturized. Halfway into the pull Charlie popped the tap back and juggled the glass smoothly over to a local stout peg and topped off the glass with it. Obviously, the black and blue was a close cousin of the tourist popular black and tan.
I'm no stranger to barbeque and beer—it is a requirement to maintain your Texas residence, but I usually prefer my beer super cold, horse-piss yellow, and impossibly loaded with fresh squeezed lime in the traditional border-town fashion. I stared at my black and blue.
Charlie looked back and forth between me and the game several times.
“It is a treat” he explained.
“Thank you, Charlie Rose.” I took a big swallow. The first taste was strangely bitter like cold coffee then there was a yeasty middle followed by the faint outline of a blueberry.
Charlie raised his eyebrows into a question mark.
“Nice. I like it.”
Charlie nodded and leaned back arms crossed with one side of his profile open to me and the other still on the game. The teams were coming back onto the field as the rain delay ended. I swiveled around on my perch and surveyed the back corners of the darkened bar over the rim of my pint glass, blueberry alcohol wafting fuzzy sweet fumes into my nose.
A tall pleasing twist of a woman in a Californian gone cowgirl straw hat silhouetted in dim lights near a little staged area opened her case and pulled out a fiddle. I watched and let my visual appreciation pass in a muted sigh as I thought of my recent dating past, turning over stones at random to see what lurked underneath. I like live music, and in some cosmic misunderstanding musicians gravitate toward me like asteroids careening into orbit around a red dwarf star. I'm not a musician, but my last three girlfriends were all of the acoustic persuasion. The last, Marry, a “working musician” knew she could make it big if she could just spend all day focused on music instead of wasting twenty hours a week waiting tables. She was five handfuls of exuberant recklessness, like an old muscle car without powering steering, and she was ready to move in with me on the third date – as long as I was ok with her doing only music and occasionally bribing important contacts with one night orgies. The Canadian calm stoning up Mary's blonde tangles and swimming pool eyes made her explanations sound rationale, or at least, made my protests sound inartistically petty. Joey hated Marry, and in truth, I wasn't in love with her. One night I left work to go see her play at a local club. When I walked in the door she was making out with the bar manager on the dance floor. She smiled up at me when I walked in and waved me over to meet her friend. I smiled back, waved goodbye, and walked out. Marry made me laugh and the sex was fabulous, but it wasn't really worth it. After all, even if you are a straight woman, sex with another woman is usually worth it. Sex with a woman is always sensuous, even when it's awkward, but the appeal of even fabulous sex without any gut churning chemistry depreciates quickly. I wanted a fast car with power-steering and maybe even a seat belt. So with a sigh, I settled on just admiring the attractive fiddler from my corner perch.
Long fingertips made a flurry of notes swoon and leer into the sudden stillness of the Blue Whale. No one shifted in their seats. Light from the muted TV shifted overhead. Divots in the dark oak bar shimmered with a glossiness that mimicked drops of lemon oil.
Behind the fiddler, a drummer beat out a slow pulse from the earth of his palm laid flat on drum skin. The guitarist tapped out a slow rain running his fingers over the roof of steel strings, and the fiddle sang a hymn of sweat and joy. The fiddler's hands slipped over the neck, alternating pulling and swaying strings to her will, and her body pressed into the sound as if welcoming a loved husband home. In a voice the color of mesquite, the guitarist sang about the wandering soul of the ocean and the souls of men that mimicked her wander lust in desperate creaking wood boats.
The fiddler let the last note sing. Plucked high and alone, it hung.
The guitarist cleared his throat and rumbled into the mic, “Hullo Blue Whalers. I'm Donald Winsome, these are Fuzz Madson and Katrina Reese, and we're glad you're here tonight.”
I peered closer at the fiddler letting the names play around my black and blued brain until it caught up to the association. Kat? Or rather, Kat, just a biologist (as she insisted the Ranger handle was mainly used for law enforcement types) from the park? Kat I'd parted with at the top of Cadillac Mountain yesterday afternoon? I'd been hoping my body had come to enough of its senses to notice another attractive woman around here, instead of the same unattainable one, but I supposed it was no surprise I was consistent.
I waited out the set, and when the guitarist announced an impending break I moved to the empty table where his pint was waiting. As I moved closer, Kat recognized me and smiled and nodded a greeting as she played the final measures of the song, letting them fade out like fireflies.
“Hello” she said, lowering fiddle from heart-shaped chin and cheek to a chest-level cradled rest beside her bow.
“Hi. I would have thought that you would have mentioned you played here or at least that you played when you suggested this as one of a dozen good places for a drink and some music in Bar Harbor . Why didn't you at least put this on the top of your list or tell me which night to visit?” I prompted. I smiled into her eyes so she would know I wasn't really upset, only pleased and teasing.
We lost eye contact as her gaze fell to my shoes and a sheepish smile crawled out. “I didn't want to bias your choice, or make you feel obligated to pick Charlie's Whale because someone you met played here, but I'm glad to see you passed the test and picked the best one from my list without bias.”
“I'm glad I did too. You guys are fantastic. Better than ninety percent of the bands I've seen play the clubs in Houston and Austin.”
“Thank you,” said the guitarist.
“Ah, this is Donnie. He is my boss, chief of the park's resource management division, and the brain's of our trio.”
“And I'm the looks” the drummer chimed in.
“Kat's the brawn” conceded Donnie.
Kat flexed her right arm holding her bow like a barbell.
“And this is Rand .”
“Where are you from, Miss?” Donnie inquired.
“ Houston , Texas , Sir. I'm an engineering consultant by day, and a workaholic by night. My business partners insisted I get out of my office and develop a mild mannered alternate identity.”
Donnie stared down at me, a bear with a graying lumberjack beard, paw encasing his pint glass like a thimble. Without a smile, he said very slowly as if I might not be able to follow his words, “I thought everything in Texas was big, or at least bigger.”
I shrugged, “They make a few smaller, space-saving urban version Texans every year for the discerning consumers.”
The barest corner of his plateau lips heaved upwards a micrometer closer to a smile.
“I like her alright then” he admitted to Kat.
Kat laughed, “Never mind, Rand . Donnie is a classic New Englander.”
I liked him too. He looked slow to panic and quick to the truth to me.
“Hiya, I'm Fuzz” announced the beanie-capped drummer from behind his bongo outpost. Fuzz's clean shaven baby face hinted at the origins of his name. He gave me a 1000-watt Halogen lamp smile as he twisted the crystal on a hemp cord around his neck between a twitchy thumb and forefinger. I smiled back at him.
“Do you play?” he asked.
“I play some guitar. Mostly outdated hokey country songs that octogenarians still love, but I'm a big fan of music and musicians of all kinds” I answered.
“With our preferences for just reinterpreting assorted folk tunes, e have little room to criticize your pick of old songs” Donnie stated.
“Would you play some for us?” Fuzz asked.
“That would be like forcing you three to watch someone else's kindergartener finger paint” I explained.
“I don't think that is a no answer” Kat teased.
“No there wouldn't be any point” I refused more clearly.
“Sure there would be. We could learn new old folk tunes from somewhere else,” Kat argued.
“Maybe sometime then,” I would concede anything to a pretty woman who smiled at me like that and seemed to want me to smile back so regularly. The circumstances were happy. That is it was a happy circumstance to see a good local band in an interesting local place and end up chatting with interesting people about things that I liked.
Donnie unplugged his guitar and handed it out toward me. “Just one now” he prompted and sat into a chair, settling in with his arms crossed over chest and his head tilted back after Fuzz took the guitar and passed it to me. I took it in hand like a dead fish. I wasn't really that good and that was on a guitar I knew from hours of practice, but they only wanted one song.
“You can play anything you want. No one will hear very well but us with it unplugged like that and the game on now,” Kat tried to offer encouragement. Her hopeful look was encouragement enough. I didn't mind making a fool of myself really, but I did default to playing them the first song I'd ever learned all the way through. I bent the strings with bare finger tips, in my self-taught way using every finger rather than a pick to pluck out what should have been the fiddle part to the first refrains of George Strait 's “ Amarillo by Morning” in a key that I could hope to softly sing close to. I wasn't much of a singer and didn't like singing, but the song needed it. Kat sat beside me and joined in, her voice weaving better tones over mine, harmonizing a respectable contrast. I forgot I was playing for anyone and my hands did their work.
“Thank you” Donnie said when I was done and clapped a warm large hand on my shoulder and gave a squeeze of appreciation.
“You're welcome” I said and handed him back his guitar.
“That was great! I like singing with you,” Kat said in my ear as she stood back up from the chair next to mine to resume the stage. Fuzz beamed his sunny face my way.
“Will you marry me?” He asked with a wing, and then added, “Seriously, sweet stuff, Rand . Thanks for sharing.”
“My pleasure. Kat made it sound new,” I tried to explain.
“Hey, we are playing the country fair in Unity on Saturday with at least a dozen other local acts. Would you want to ride along?” Kat asked.
I didn't hesitate, “Sounds great!”
As if she didn't hear with her back turned toward me Kat continued, “The fair features organic produce and products from around here too, and it is a good slice of local life. I think you would like it.”
As they got ready to play their next set I reconfirmed a little louder, “I'm sure I would love it. I'll go. Thank you for the invitation.”
That seemed to satisfy Kat. She nodded and they began to play as I settled into my chair, stretching my leg in front of me to listen until they were through for the night.
Afterwards, I waited outside as Kat and the band packed up. After the warm closeness of the Blue Whale the outside air was a chest-opening, mind-clearing menthol kind of relief. The stars above were hard and small. The streets were still and silent. There were hints of the walls of snow that might come a little later in the season, only kept at bay a bit by the coastal influence.
Kat came out the door all honey and smiles in her tank top, jeans, and beach cowgirl hat like it was an Indian summer. Was she pleased I was still around or just hung-over happy from having played a great set to a receptive crowd?
“Where are you staying?” she asked as she came to a stop on the sidewalk next to me.
“At the Red Maple Inn, about six blocks up” I nodded my head back towards the south of where we stood.
“A six minute walk” I added.
“A two minute drive” she offered.
I nodded, conceding the point but not accepting the offer, “Thanks, but I'd rather have the walk. It is too beautiful out here to ride in a metal box and too still for car engines to follow me home.”
“May I walk with you?” she asked.
“Sure! Oh, wait! Who would walk back with you?” my habitual city paranoia squeaked.
“This is Bar Harbor, not New York City . I'll walk with you to enjoy the weather, not to protect you from sleeping inn keeps, and I don't think the raccoons are bold enough to threaten me on my way back even if I am all alone.”
“Right. Ok, then.” I grinned.
“Ok. I'll put this in my jeep first” she said holding up her fiddle case.
“Just around here” she waved me into the alley.
“So why aren't you camping?” she asked.
I watched her wrap the fiddle case in an old wool army blanket and stuff it into the dark, open, unguarded back of a battered Baja yellow jeep. That jeep was meant for Southwestern borders, not the North Atlantic regions. She must freeze on the road. I looked at her long arms in bare tank top and shivered for her.
“Oh, I am camping too, but when my business partners banned me from work for the month they also contrived to make sure I actually went somewhere too. My best friend, Joey called an old family friend who runs an Inn here in Bar Harbor and pre-booked the whole month as she couldn't bare the idea of me without a shower and in the cold north nights continuously, as she put it. So the Red Maple is my home base for the month.”
“Nice place in a pretty string of old houses” Kat said. “A good choice and good that you won't get tired of your starlit sleep nights too.”
“The homemade blueberry waffles and maple butter the good Commander Voss puts up are an important draw.”
“No doubt!” Kat exclaimed as we walked side by side down the dark deserted sidewalks of sleepy Bar Harbor . Windows glowed warm orange from the faces of some black shadowed houses in patterns like the jack-o-lanterns that would soon start appearing on porches. As we walked, we occasionally drifted close enough to brush elbows... and even this normal feinting touch of a human that happened dozens of times a day in the elevators at work felt shockingly personal, familiar, and pleasant now.
Kat gave me an intentional little elbowing for attention and I looked at her.
She nodded her head toward a sprinkle of stars, “Orion.”
“My favorite” she said.
“One of the few I know, and can find even at home” I admitted.
“Big city light pollution?”
“Makes the whole sky look dark orange on a good night” I confirmed.
“Horrible” she mused.
"Yes." I didn't defend my home. The city could do better for its inhabitants, not that most of them thought of over lighting things as an inconvenience or a thief of the nights jewels like I did. I'd always felt like I must have spent a previous life traveling the wilds, under blankets of stars, spinning stories over campfires. I had some inexplicable lure to languid nights on wilderness trails, and I realized walking on beside Kat, I had some inexplicable lure to sharing this with her.
Chapter 8: Calling Home a Walk Away
In the morning, rain was dripping from the silvered bellies of high flying clouds to shatter on the sidewalk like a bazillion little silver kamikaze pilots. I ducked my head further into my hood against the onslaught and walked on toward the phone booth beside the corner store. I'd been gone from home for a week or so solid now, I needed advice, and I wanted to talk to Joey again. My blackberry still slept useless, out of its network, in my jacket pocket. It was a quaint concept to use an outside glass phone booth, so I went to this one I had spotted on the corner lot next to some store instead of going to the library again. Thankfully, they still keep the antiquated things around in some towns. This one was clean, seldom used, and contained one dry freshly appointed phone.
I dialed Houston , and hummed to myself while it rang through to Joey's receptionist.
“Hello, Mick Engineering Services, Josephine Jordan's office. How may I help you?”
“Madu, its Rand. I'd like to talk to Joey if she is in her office.”
“Sure thing, Rand . She's in, getting ready for her meeting with Tandon Oil.”
A pause and a faint click of the transfer proceeded Joey by mere seconds.
“ Rand ! Where are you? What are you doing? How are you doing? Have you seen any whales?”
“Hey, Joey. I'm spectacular. I'm just calling to check in and to borrow a little wisdom.”
“Ok, you know Ben's rule. No details. We are doing great. Everything is fine, and you are on vacation.”
A laugh escaped me.
“Ok, ok, I get Ben's rule. I'm in recovery and he is a fanatic.”
“Yes, well you are a workaholic who makes things happen, and he is a wise old miser who wants to protect and preserve his resources.”
“Got it. So how are you Joey, and the kids? I'm getting details on that this time,” I asserted.
“You, young lady, have a lot to answer for there. Do you know where I found Ethan last night when I went to check on him? In your loft, sitting Indian style with Chivas as a back pillow and Cuervo in his lap. He was staring out the window like a zombie. When I asked him what was up, he said he was meditating on the structure of skyscrapers with “the gang,” because he figured they needed to remember your routine while you were gone! You are making my son a geek!” she giggled.
Chivas is my version of tall dark and handsome, an Irish Setter with melt in your heart brown puppy eyes, and his favorite occupation is being a pillow. Cuervo, my poof-ball of orange tabby cat is his best friend - even if he is not Cuervo's. Cuervo is usually more than willing to use Chivas as his personal pillow, unless there is a lap available. They look like they belonged together about as much as scotch and tequila look like they should be mixed, but they actually depend on each other more like gin and tonic. They let me be like a lime twist, mostly because I brought food and potty opportunities through the front door, but they adored Joey's kids.
“I'm developing Ethan's perceptual reasoning and sensitivity. You'll thank me when he hits 16 and aces his PSATs” I countered Joey's geek complaint.
“Sure, you just keep telling yourself that. The kids want to know what you are meditating on this week?”
They had a habit of sneaking next door to my loft to sit with me staring out the window at downtown. I drank my thimbleful of scotch, and let them down some shake-quality chocolate milk (that they believed Mom didn't know about).
“Rocks. Geology. The evolution of terra firma.” I explained for Joey so that she could perpetuate the tradition after work.
“I can't tell Ethan and Brianna that. They'll be looking for rocks in downtown garages and grocery store parking lots.”
“Ok, well,” I looked outside the booth at the oak standing sentinel in the rain above the booth with its green to red chameleon leaf tips touching the booth glass, “tell them trees then. There are trees outside our lofts they can spy straight from the window, and it'll do them good to meditate on nature a little.”
“I'm sending you to the first parent teacher conference I have to attend over the bullies smashing their glasses.”
“ Rand , I am fine, but we miss you. Ben, too. So dish now, before I have to go to my meeting. “
“Well, Joey, I met someone interesting.”
“A hopelessly straight park ranger with gorgeous eyes and penchant for recruiting volunteers into her orbit by embodying enthusiasm for her cause of preserving the wilds.”
“So slightly irresponsible, highly attractive thrill seeker?” Joey teased an old nerve by citing the only typology thread visible in my history of dating.
“I guess so” I shrugged noncommittally at my shoes.
“No problem, you have my permission to pursue a meaningless, but wonderfully lusty romp” Joey filled the pause.
“Don't need my permission, heh? Looking for my prohibition?” Joey asked.
“Ah, well, ok. This would be a do-over kiddo. She is straight, so there is no room to negotiate is there? When you have nothing to offer the bargaining party, said party will take you for every penny and sell you a lemon if you stand there and try to close the deal. My advice is that it is not worth the hassle it usually costs you. This is what we call a walk away deal… because you have to be willing to walk away from it.”
“I know. I resigned myself to that conclusion too, but I keep running into her. And we're becoming friends and I'm getting mixed signals. I know it is probably just me interpreting her behaviors to flatter my own ego, and I have to tow the line. But . . . I almost can't help but flirt.” I babbled it all out in a non-stop rush Joey was used to navigating.
“Well, I'm sure you're not misinterpreting, Rand . Every non-puritanical woman wonders what it'd be like with another woman-and you are a cute, responsible little spark. You're safe but exciting experiment fodder. I'm sure she is flirting with the idea, but she probably doesn't mean anything by it. You can flirt all you like, guiltlessly. Just don't expect anything of it, right?”
“Well that's my diagnosis and I'm sticking to it. Anything else you wanna divulge?”
“I saw a puffin, and I'm bringing you back blueberry ale.”
“That's my Rand . Now go frolic with a whale, while I conquer the big table in conference room A.”
“Knock it dead. Thanks, Joey.”
“Thanks, for calling Rand . Thanks for being family.”
“You got it, Joey. I'll ring you back with an update.”
“Good,” she said and the line closed.
I put the phone back on its hook and stared out at the rain clouds sailing over sky like a puffy Spanish Armada.
“…Gonna pick a lot of peaches”—The Presidents of the United States
I'd rode with Kat to the Common Ground Country Fair, just glad to have a little social sampling of the whole organic fair and market experience. It meant that I'd had to go earlier than their show but that appealed to me, and I didn't regret it as I listened to the band preceding the band that would proceed Kat's. I enjoyed a medicine show style band that finished their set with a bluegrass death metal song “about a taqueria” the band purportedly loved enough to immortalize in song. Only you couldn't really discern any of the screaming lyrics. I guess the bouncy rhythm on home-made instruments and squeals like squash squeaking against teeth did purvey some of the culinary joys the taqueria probably endowed.
Kat and Fuzz watched most things with me until the act right before their own. In between, I watched children painted like vegetables parade around and perused a tent line of folk art, munching on samples of organic fruits, cheeses, and breads. I was hydrating out of my refillable water bottle like all the other green citizens of this eco-minded fair. The crowd compared to a Texas State Fair but there weren't any deep-fried Twinkies or margaritas. I was mesmerized by a stone mason demonstrating his carving skill and only remember to run back to the stage area as I heard the distant thread of Kat's violin sounding out first notes.
I went to my observation spot in the back of the crowd clustered near the stage. A little old lady who could have been a wool-clothed folk-art loving cousin of the wicked witch in Disney's Sleeping Beauty stood beside me dancing a bit to the tune. At one point she looked up at me as I watched her. It was good to see an old woman, who maybe looked like I would one day soon, enjoying herself as I hopefully would then. She grinned, a gap toothed grin, but without dentures I noted, and said to me, “Young girlie, I can tell the music matters more to you than most.” She waited for me to dare to disconfirm her portent, probably so she could have a long social conversation about why she was right. I didn't want to disappoint her, but she was right.
“Yes” and I nodded. “Music and books are important to me too. They're my signs.” I added the last part because it seemed right to talk to this gnarled woman of signs and symbols, of a magic that could reside in black and white and even within science, a magic of deeper meanings.
She looked surprised I agreed so easily but smiled and danced on. “I could tell.”
“For you too,” I asked to make conversation in case she wanted to talk to someone.
“Yes, and weaving. I like to do some weaving, and dance to the music. Life is music, many tunes woven together, unraveled, re-woven until one runs out. Or maybe until they all run out. Each tune and fiber unique, but part of the beautiful incomprehensible whole.” She smiled and patted my hand. “I expect you know that.”
“Yes, ma'm, but it is nice to think that others feel the same.” And it was.
We danced companionably in place listening entirely to every song until the very end of the set and then I listened as the old lady chatted more about spinning and weaving in the stillness after the music had faded out in the grass. Later, I noticed Kat waving from the side of the stage at me as if she wanted attention.
“Excuse me. It was nice to talk to you.” I parted with the old woman. She waved and turned her attention to a suitable old man in overalls perched in a camp chair next to a young man in boots and a “goats make cheese too” t-shirt.
The fair had a few acts to go, but I'd seen enough and Kat seemed ready to be away from people. When she tossed the last of her stuff into the jeep, I went around to the passenger side to hop in and she jumped into the driver's seat with a thankful but inquiring look.
“You're ready to leave the fair?”
“Sure, I've seen a lot. Thanks for letting me tag along. Another experience I probably wouldn't have been smart enough to find on my own.” I reassured her.
“Well, if you're after the hard to find, insider sites, I do know a quintessential Eastern Maine beach we could loop by on the way back. If you want?”
“Sure” I enthused.
We headed out of Unity toward the Atlantic Highway I had taken most of the way to Bar Harbor, but just past one of the many little towns I had silently cruised called Lincolnville (and a plain sedate public swimming beach I was afraid might be our destination), Kat turned off on a little lain of crushed granite and gravel back toward the coast.
“Private property,” I asked.
“Probably soon. It has been a fishing spot known mostly to locals and summer residents, but they added this gravel and I think a developer is eyeing at least part of the beach front for a resort or something” she answered.
Eventually the gravel ran out, dead ended into a stand of trees, but when Kat cut the engine I could definitely hear and smell the ocean within a few hundred feet.
“On foot from here” Kat prodded me out of the jeep and swung long, confident legs through the minor shrubbery between the trees. About 500 feet from the jeep the trees gave way to granite bedrock and a wide spread view of the ocean, a myriad of beaten foot paths led to a long stony ocean front beach to our front and left, and closer to our right lay a tidal inlet.
I stared a minute at the sandy inlet with the low late afternoon sun making its still waters a gold pan, then I turned toward the stony beach in its bedrock pocket. I walked to edge of the most recent berm and sat on the high flat point with my legs in front of me following the slope of stone to water. My feet were safely above the receding water line. Kat sat beside me.
Her leg rested against mine. The sea rolled rocks up and down the shore line inside the rock bank bracket, large round grey stones like a giant ocean god playing with a trove of large marbles at our feet. The ocean rolled the big grey rocks smooth. Several feet away lay a miniscule dead lobster, a bright happy, impossibly red, lobster preserved on the stones like a specimen of lobster youth. I don't much like eating lobster, Maine lobster anyway. I guess I grew up too used to the Caribbean lobster on the edge of our Gulf of Mexico . They taste different. I tried to think of anything but the fact that we were sitting on a wide empty beach near sunset with no one else near, but her leg still rested lightly against mine as if we were in a crowd and that was casually appropriate. It couldn't be flirting, but it wouldn't be friendly intimacy yet hardly would it? Kat was outgoing and easy-going and all, but still, deep down, reserved. She was an inner stoic, like those Moai statues on Easter Island . I'd seen her rest a hand briefly on Fuzz's shoulder before pointing him to the right place on stage to distribute his drums, but she'd played in the same band with Fuzz for the last eight years, and he was like everyone's little brother.
The sweet brushing weight of her leg near mine as she laughed was distracting. Damn it. What was she saying? I'm a better listener than that. Usually.
She stuck her tongue out at me and rolled her eyes to emphasize some silly point. I watched the pink of her tongue disappear behind the silk ribbon of her lips. Her tongue looked like a pearl one would be pleasantly surprised to find at the bottom of a long kiss like the sweet mutable beads of tapioca at the bottom of a strong bubble tea on a tired afternoon.
I tried once again to get my brain to equate Kat with an unavailable, uninterested official player of a different team. It was enjoyable just to be sunning on this stony half moon beach in the glowing skyline with the companionable weight of a budding friend's leg resting near mine. It was enough.
Her laugh bubbled out around us again like bells.
“What?” she poked me in the nearest rib.
“What are you damning?”
“I said that out loud?”
“Oh, my stomach growled like a bear.”
“Well, that is easy to fix.”
She shifted as if to get up.
“Oh no, I'm good. I can wait. I want to see the sun sink into oblivion like a Maine Margaretville before we go. If that is ok?”
“Of course, as long as your stomach doesn't make any bear-like advances to feed itself” she said.
She pushed her sunglasses up banding in the dark willowing wisps of her wavy hair. Impossibly blue eyes smiled at me.
“So where'd you get those sweet sunglasses?” I inquired hoping for a safely distracting conversation as her leg settled next to mine again.
Her hands fluttered briefly back up to her glasses and then out again signing her explanation as she answered, “Ah, a gift from the occasionally convenient boyfriend.”
Boyfriends... darn. I briefly hated him, all of the possible hims. The glasses looked great on her. Polarized horn-rimmed Oakley's I didn't think she would have spent money to buy herself.
“Very nice” I grudgingly admitted like a good sport.
“Yeah? Thanks. I guess it is ok to accept a token gift from someone I've no intention of letting any closer.”
I tried not to brighten too visibly. Poor man.
She grabbed my left hand and tapped my ring finger. Again with the friendly flirtatious body language...like it was easy and normal.
“What about you, Rand? You're cute, successful, and not obviously psychotic. Why hasn't some good old Texas boy tied you up yet?”
I flushed a little.
“Aw, see that looks like a true strawberry flush,” she said, “Guys are a sucker for that sort of thing.”
“Um.” I couldn't lie, but I couldn't give her the blatant truth right now. It would have been too disarming given the moment and how close we sat. Men had tried before. I knew I wasn't unappealing, and I wasn't always completely disinterested. If I'd been as lucky finding a guy as Joey had been, I might have reverted.
“Ah, well, those good old Texas boys don't generally like it much when you work more hours and earn more money than they do. And the good guys with sturdier egos usually get taken in grade school.”
“Yeah. Few men are content to let you live your life as is. Even the adrenaline junkie, liberal men, want you to change your life to fit theirs. It is ok to be an active, smart woman but they want you to be interested in their interests, share their priorities” she expounded.
“Anyway, nice sunglasses” I smiled.
She laughed. I could do this all night I thought. Make her laugh. Say things that might let me drown in the deep blue wells of her eyes, feeling the uncommon understanding in those eyes like a rare sapphire discovery.
We left the beach at dark, because I was famished. I'd had to poll Kat thoroughly to get her to name a place with fantastic food nearby. We ended up in a “Pan-American Bistro” in Camden . We stood outside looking through shadow-framed plate glass windows into the modern Balinese tinged museum decor and table cloth swathed expanses where chi-chi AARP members ate food presented like it was art.
“Um. You're sure you want to try this place? I mean I heard it was great, but it looks way above my pay grade and like they might have a dress requirement we don't meet.” Kat tried to straighten and smooth her shirt over her jeans as she looked in.
“Well it isn't above my pay grade and I am buying. Consider it thanks for the outing” I added as she looked like she might balk at having anyone buy her anything. “Besides I am hungry enough to gnaw off my arm, and in my experience, even in the most chi-chi places, money overcomes any and all obstacles put between me and food.”
“Ok. Thank you. For dinner I mean.” Kat grinned. “You're going in first though.” She tried to appear incognito behind me, even though she is at least 5 inches taller and definitely super-model, stand-out quality looks. Good luck hiding behind the short girl-next-door I thought, and walked in like I was the ball-busting business woman I sometimes am.
The hostess looked me up and down and then up what part of Kat she could see shadowing me.
“Table for two.” I directed.
Something in everyone recognizes the money or strength inherent in clear concise direction, rather than inquiry, whether that person really wants to respect your direction or not. The hostess responded.
“Right this way,” and took us to a table near the back, more candle-lit corner. Sometimes your shabby appearance is rewarded with privacy. I wasn't one for dining in shadow box plate glass windows like I was on stage anyway.
The hostess left and a ubiquitous male waiter went gaga over us as if we were in opera gowns and left our menus.
One look and I knew I was in trouble.
“Crap. It all has meat” I muttered.
“You don't eat meat? You're from a cattle state, and you don't eat meat?” Kat looked genuinely shocked.
“Well, I eat fish once a week or so. You know, if the fish was raised or obtained in a sustainable manner.”
“You don't eat meat, in Texas ?”
“Well, I don't.”
She looked at me.
“You, a park ranger, are seriously gonna give me grief for being mostly vegetarian?” I smiled at the strangeness of the idea.
“Of course not. I'm just surprised. Why are you a vegetarian?”
“Many reasons. It is healthier for me. It is better for the environment. It makes me feel better.” I shrugged a little.
“Nice. My Dad and his partner are pretty hard core Vegans. I'd like to be a vegetarian too, but I've got a serious meat tooth. Will it gross you out if I eat meat like a lecher in front of you?”
“Gnaw away on whatever food substance pleases you.” I waved a hand over the table as if to shun any idea otherwise. “Your Dad is gay?” I had to know.
“Oh, ha, never thought how that sounded. No, he isn't gay. He just doesn't believe in marriage anymore—even though he has been involved with the same woman for the last twelve years.”
I wanted to ask what about her mother, but the waiter appeared wanting our orders.
“Ladies, beautiful ladies, what can I bring you?” he oozed verbally like his hair oozed gel.
“Wine?” I asked Kat.
“Red or white? Preferences?”
“Any. I'm a true lush.”
“May I suggest...?” began or oozing waiter.
“Oh, I know what I'd like. We'll have a bottle of the Coppola's Diamond Collection, Silver Label Pinot Noir, and I'd like the Saffron Rice and Pan Seared Atlantic Sea Scallops in Mango Sauce without the bacon wrapping please.” I wanted to stifle his oozing by keeping him busy memorizing.
Kat took the hint and started her order as soon as I'd stopped talking, a pan-Americanized interpretation of Thai Tiger Cry Beef with Asparagus and Blueberries.
“My pleasure” the waiter enthused and bowed as he turned.
Kat rolled her eyes behind his back, and the way her eyes never left mine as we laughed made me a little too warm for comfort. The food was a welcome distraction when it arrived, but my belly wanted more of something even after my hunger had been assuaged. My stomach knew, whether I would admit it or not, I had an unrequited crush on Kat. Somehow that only made the night, the dinner with its subtle not-flirting flirting that much brighter and sweet.
After dinner, Kat drove me back to Bar Harbor . The cold wind and bright stars prickled my skin in the open jeep.
“Cold?” Kat inquired over the rushing wind.
She reached behind her seat and pulled out an old wool surplus blanket and tucked it in my lap with a smiling glance.
“I haven't had fun like this with another woman friend ever, I think.” Kat said with her eyes intently on the road.
The cold night smelled like sea salt and I felt so much easy joy I think I was a bit drunk on it. “It was great, Kat. I did have fun.”
“Good.” she still stared straight ahead.
The road wound out another few miles, lights of fishing boats and occasional houses winking from the tree shrouded darkness as we sped by.
“I'm not ready to go home. You want to have a drink in Bar Harbor ?” she asked as if she was afraid of rejection.
“Damn straight!” I effused hoping to get a smile out of her, to get her to quit worrying about anything but enthusiastic acceptance with me.
When the bars closed, we were well doused. Kat looked at me as we walked arm in arm out of the last standing bar, a tourist place with pool tables and burgers and obnoxiously yellow flourishes that looked like they belonged in a subway in a big city rather that quaint Bar Harbor . She didn't say anything, but looked as if she wanted to and couldn't pull enough words together from the swimming merriment still wrapped around our heads.
I tried to focus enough to figure out what should be next. I asked her, “I'm pretty sure I can walk to the Red Maple, but I'm sure I couldn't drive anywhere... Are you safe to drive?” I was thinking of plying the streets for a diner or some place that would serve us coffee and a second dinner to soak up the alcohol before she tried to drive home.
“Nope. Can't drive, but I could safely sleep in the jeep here.” She pointed out, not at all worried about being cold or being uncomfortable—of course, she slept outside here a fair amount for work I guessed.
“Ah, well you're welcome to the other half of my queen bed at the Red Maple if you would rather...” I trailed off, wanting her to accept so that I could stay close to her and this friendly mirth a little longer, and wanting her to decline so that I would not be tempted or tortured by the attraction of trying to sleep next to her.
“Hmm. Clean warm bed in a quiet B&B versus the back of my Jeep in a noisy town center. You are fabulous to offer. Of course I would!” She saw no harm or strangeness in it.
Couldn't she tell I was crushing on her? I was glad I'd had a surplus of alcohol to help me sleep.
We made it to the Inn and silently tiptoed up the stairs to my room. As soon as we were in the door, Kat shed her jeans, unhooked her bra and slipped it off in a pile on the floor. She unbuttoned her shirt and stood there in black camisole and bikini underwear as if she were accustomed to being an underwear model and I was just a little sister. Her bare legs went on forever and the round bottom curves of her cute rear showed enough to invite wonder about what it was like to keep one teasing hand near there.
I beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom and turned on the tap full blast. Brush teeth, wash face, scrub out eyeball with rough towel...I considered all my options for distracting myself.
“Do you care what side I sleep on?” Kat called.
“No!” Good that she was thinking of climbing beneath covers were I wouldn't be tempted to feast my eyes and thus make things awkward. I did not want to ruin this friendship. Damn, I should have told her I was a lesbian before this. It didn't matter I argued with myself. I worked and was friends with plenty of super attractive women. There was no reason to pine after a woman who wasn't interested in me, it's not like I am a male or preoccupied sex maniac. I was starting to feel better.
I pulled on a clean camisole and my soft old blue pin stripe baggy pajama bottoms, and I went out of the bathroom in relative serenity. I almost bumped face first into Kat.
She caught me upright, her hands encircling my biceps, her face inches from mine.
“Whoa! You ok bolting out of there, Tex ?” she whispered and her blue eyes flashed their sapphire sparkle of mirth.
“Yuh.” I watched her lips like a thirsty alcoholic eyes fancy whiskey. Her own eyes traveled to my lips . Was she going to kiss me? Was I going to kiss her? Crap!
My body must have stiffened a little in fear. Her eyes traveled back up to my eyes, and she shuffled her hands over my arms as if to warm me.
“You're cold! Good thing that bed has that big down comforter.” She commented sanely, like another gal at a slumber party, and stepped around me into the bathroom.
I dove under the covers, closed my eyes, and started counting suspension wires on the Fred Hartman ship channel bridge I had memorized in my mind.
Kat tip-toed back in, shut off the light, and slipped under the covers beside me. We weren't touching but the heat she gave off was sweetly palpable and soon the lengthened lull of her sleep breathing lulled me to sleep too.
I woke up with my head in a hangover vise. Kat was lying on her back with limbs akimbo, her left arm flung backwards over my abdomen, giving off a girly little snore. Dawn was just changing the window shade from dark blue to pink blue tinges. Birds were still too cold to sound off.
Ugh. I'd never found a great cure for hangovers, but I'd found two that worked most of the time. I wasn't sure Voss' kitchen could provide either. A chemist in the refinery where I had interned in college had told me that a few swallows of pickle juice would replace my electrolytes enough to banish a headache, and this usually did help. The other secret remedy I had picked up while consulting at a refinery in the Virgin Islands last year. A strangely skinny cook at a seaside shanty had sworn that banana pancakes with coconut rum syrup would soak up any blood toxins imaginable and thus bury any zombie-ism inducing headaches. The island magic pancakes paired with the pickle juice warm-up did cure nine out of ten bitter post-bar mornings.
I took my time waking up, dreaming of going down to Voss' kitchen and convincing the old sailor to let me flesh out some banana pancakes and coconut rum syrup from whatever approximate stores he could offer. He probably knew a similar recipe from his travels?
I was thinking such harmless, innocent thoughts, when Kat shifted onto her side and threw her right arm over top of me. Her hand flexed itself around my ribs in a possessive sleep cuddle, and her slightly agape mouth now breathed warm air into my ear. My heart started banging around like a wild beast in its cage and I felt for sure the crazy energetic thump of it against her hand would wake Kat up, but it didn't. Eventually my heart settled out to a quirky but softer drum line. She was so warm. How wrong was it to enjoy an inadvertent sleep cuddle with a new friend? Probably not that wrong right? It wasn't like I'd solicited or even invited it, I just didn't pull away or move her over. That would've been rude to risk waking her, right? I wanted to wrap arms around her too, but that would have been pushing it I was sure. Her hand felt nicely flat and strong on my ribs, separated from my skin only by the cotton of my camisole.
I turned my head just a bit to look at her face. With those blazing blue eyes shut she looked completely defenseless and her skin was so pale in the blue light against her dark hair, none of the outdoor olive tanning visible. Her face turned up to mine like the silver flashing underbelly of a fish jumping in the bay as Frigate's whirled hopeful overhead. I wanted to swoop in for a kiss. Her lips looked like the pink coral slippery bliss on the insides of a fresh Gulf oyster. I wanted just one tentative taste. I was staring at them in a hypnotized wish when she shifted a bit and those blue eyes opened. Watching those eyes open so close reminded me of watching the sun come up through the high frosted window of an airplane on a transatlantic flight, feeling the plane wake up around you, with the smell of coffee blooming its agreement that you'll soon be some place new and exciting—the plane will touch down and a new culture will exist, birthed by a few thousand miles while you slept. She looked back at me unguardedly and I felt my heart start to hammer brass taps again.
She gave a slip of a half smile and flexed the arm that was over me a bit. “Sorry! I guess you were warm” but she didn't move away.
I felt myself staring stupidly like a slack jaw cobra in the grip of a snake charmer's lure. I was going to do something stupid like fall into a kiss and ruin this innocent closeness if I didn't move away soon. I slipped sideways a bit like I was stretching and fell clean out of the small antique double bed, bouncing on the cold floor like a racquet ball to an awkward stance with my pajama pants twisted low on my hips and my belly peaking out. I laughed.
“No sweat! I'm glad you're awake! I'm starving!” I rushed to explain my bolting out of bed. I didn't risk pausing my babble. “I'm going down stairs to see if Voss will let me fix some infamous banana pancakes to soak up this cursed little hangover.” I rubbed my temples for emphasis and tried to pat down the unruly mess of sleep ruffled curls I knew had to be sticking up everywhere on my head. Kat's hair lay like soft dark silk perfection spilled onto the pillows I noticed and thought how horribly unfair it was that she should wake up looking so put together even after a long day and night away from home.
I think I'd managed to recover without being conspicuous.
She grinned and stretched all her long limbs out in different directions shifting all the covers into quirky starfish points.
“Sounds good. Can I have some too?” She inquired.
“Of course!” I smiled. “Come down whenever you're ready. It'll take me a while to convince Voss and find everything, but I'm sure he has already got coffee going.” I grabbed the navy blue bathrobe off its hook and threw it on before racing out the door and down the narrow backstairs to the kitchen.
I trundled into the kitchen. Voss stood at the counter putting coffee into the restaurant-grade steel coffee maker, watching the dark nectar fill drip into the glass serving pot with patient satisfaction smoothing on his face like butter over pancakes. The flat wood panel cabinets and sea glass back splash gave off dull glows in the thin morning sun and sparse steel kettle kitchen lighting. My bare feet thudded like dog pads on the wood floors before I found a square of utility mat to stand on.
Voss turned his head but left his arms crossed and his torso facing forward to the coffee pot. “Good morning, Rand .”
“Missed you for Scotch on the porch last night.”
“I went to the folk music festival in Unity with a friend last night, and we came back late. But we got Scotch on a bar patio on Bar Harbor on the way home.”
Voss lifted one brow at me in curiosity. “Hung over?”
“Yes. Would it be ok if I made some banana pancakes with coconut rum syrup? My friend stayed over too.” I added as if I needed permission.
He smiled a very big toothy smile for me.
“Of course. There are bananas in the fruit basket out in the dining room. Flour and such is in that long pantry there, pans below the oven, and rum in the cupboard above the wine refrigerator.” He nodded his head at each object in turn.
“Would you like some too?” I asked.
“Yes, ma'm. You're the only guest here this morning, so the show is all yours.”
I eyed the second coffee pot he was filling. “What is all the coffee for?” I couldn't help asking.
“Me, and two hung-over girls.” He winked.
I rolled up the sleeves of my robe and went to work.
The first of the batter was going into the hot skillet when Kat came down the backstairs. The last three steps made creaks like old bones. I watched her. She smiled at me and her face looked like placid silk, as if she frequently woke up in a strange kitchen to breakfast, but her hands belied her calm as an act as they fluttered from hair to hips, before she tucked her fingertips into her jean pockets. She wore only her jeans and camisole, looking for all the world like a rock star sleepover Venus de Milo. She looked shyly down, back up at me, and then over at where Voss was propped up against the sea green marble counter watching me cook.
“Good morning! I'm James Voss. Like some coffee?” He greeted her.
“Good morning. Kat Reese. I'd love some coffee.” She smiled her 1000 kilowatt smile at him, the sincere one that crinkled the delicate skin at the edges of her eyes and gave her chin a tiny dimple.
He poured her a cup and handed it to her. “Sugar? Cream?” he asked.
“No, thank you.” She cupped the mug in both hands and held it close to her face taking in a long deep breath of steam and that reviving coffee smell.
“That is fantastic.” She beamed appreciation at Voss and he nodded back appreciatively. She propped herself up with her back to the counter beside Voss and they watched me in companionable silence. I felt a bit like a small circus with all that attention.
“Um, would you two please talk amongst yourselves or something? I feel like I'm being supervised, evaluated, and found wanting--and that is bound to deflate the magic of these pancakes,” I protested.
“You'll have to excuse her, James, this hangover seems to be making her a bit jumpy. She was so preoccupied with infiltrating your kitchen or maybe infringing on your hospitality with an unexpected guest, that she fell out of the warm bed onto the cold floor like a buck smacking into a tree before rutting season.” Kat looked at me as if she expected me to offer an explanation or additional commentary. I could feel myself blushing, and I wondered how much Ben and Joey had told Voss about me. Did he know I was a lesbian? It wasn't usually part of casual conversation, unless the question of marital status came up somehow. Did he guess better than Kat why I might have bounced out of bed with a warm friend on a cold morning like it was a leper colony of potential sin and horror? I focused on the pancakes, not daring to look at Voss.
“Well, some hangovers will command you until you remedy them” Voss said with blessedly matter-of-fact simplicity before asking her a series of conversational questions that took the focus cleanly off me. They chatted like two like-minded spinsters and I drifted out of listening until they chuckled together at something and Kat shifted closer to me as if checking my progress. I could feel her body heat as she peered over my shoulder.
Kat laughed a little near my ear before saying in reply to something I'd missed, “Well apparently some women are not coordinated enough to be both good cooks and good company simultaneously.” I gazed over to catch the playful lift of Kat's left eyebrow as she tossed her head toward me, pointing out she was teasing me specifically in case I somehow missed it in my fierce concentration on lifting golden fluffy banana pancakes flawlessly from pan to serving plate.
Voss said nothing, but smiled, and busied himself with mixing the right amounts of Caro syrup and coconut rum to top our pancakes.
“It is hard to be both a good cook and good company. Few can manage to be one or the other, let along both” I teased them.
Voss hurumphed, “Well some men are good cooks and good company.”
I blushed a bit, “Ah, present company excepted, Sir. And while I may be somewhat mad at John for putting his ideas about social service ahead of his family, and he was a horrible cook, he was usually good company.”
Kat looked quickly from Voss to me, as if she'd been left out. She looked down at the floor and clasped her hands in front of her like a wistful eight-year-old girl who imagines she is guilty of something, but can't yet figure out why or exactly what for.
“Speaking of good company, you should come meet my boyfriend, Zach, tonight, Rand” she said looking as if she'd just remembered, “We're meeting for drinks at the Blue Whale at 5pm, before our dinner date.”
She suddenly looked up at me, blue eyes inquiring something I couldn't discern. Did she want me to protest or endorse a date? Did she want a girl friend to help take stock of some potential mate? That would make sense, but it didn't really feel like that was what her body language was saying. She crossed her arms over her chest and forced a smile that didn't touch her eyes while she waited for me to respond.
“Well I do like the Blue Whale, and I'm sure I'd have a great time with anyone cool enough to be your friend, Kat...but I wouldn't want to interrupt a date” I said trying to negotiate some middle ground.
Voss looked from one of us to the other, as interested in Kat's response as I was.
“I've known Zach for over five years. We've pretty much covered every possible subject of discussion known to entertain either of us. It would be good to have a fresh voice to stir up new conversation. Besides with your love of photographic gadgets, you need to meet Zach. He is a professional outdoor and adventure sports photographer. So you'd be welcome to join us if you don't have better plans” Kat encouraged, and she did look at me then with a look that was more hopeful than any other emotion.
“Ok, I'll be there. Thanks for the invite. And now, pancakes are served.” I proffered the vast white stoneware plate with its mound of pancakes steaming sweet like hilltop fields of wheat in the summer wind.
“And so is the nectar that seals the deal” Voss said showing a small syrup pitcher of clear sticky sweetness.
“That would be the coffee. It is really good stuff, James. Thank you.” Kat said.
“My pleasure to have coffee with two beautiful women,” Voss said as he led the way to the kitchen dining table with two colonial benches tucked into a window next to the back door.
I was content to sit in good company in the warm sunlight streaming into the windows, looking out over the slopping hill at the Victorian houses and their fading green lawns and gardens that led to the bright blue harbor and its white toy chips of ships.
Kat smiled after a few bites and offered, “Ah, heaven. Thank you for sharing your most powerful hangover remedy.”
My mouth was full so I nodded and smiled back. Banana and coconut swamped my mouth with a rum-buttered sweet tide and I felt the hang-over vise on my head ease up and away.
Voss piled on a stack of six pancakes and put the whole stack away in about six precise bites like he might be notified of a command issue and end up with a cold breakfast if he didn't eat at about 40 nautical knots a minute. Then he laced his hands together over his extended belly and let out a little sigh of fulfillment with no other commentary to interrupt our slower progress to the same state of nirvana.
We lingered at the table over coffee and conversation for another hour before Kat declared she should be going. She stood up and said her goodbye and thank you. She took two steps away from the table, and then turned around to bend back down to my chair level to bestow a small shoulder hug and another thank you before hightailing it up the old backstairs to retrieve her stuff like a rabbit bolting out of the lettuce patch at the shadow of a red-tail hawk.
A few minutes later, the screen door banged and Kat's footsteps sounded out on the patio as she left.
Voss looked at me. “I think you like her and I think that is good.”
I looked at him, again wondering how much Joey had told him. I wondered if he cared if I was a lesbian, and if he meant that it was good I was interested in Kat. I wasn't sure how to answer him, so I didn't. It seemed like Kat was rattled by something. I hoped it wasn't me, that my crush wasn't plastered on my face like the flag of an unwelcome army every time she looked at me.
Chapter 13: Zach Jealousy Attack
I walked into the Blue Whale with my stomach a little knotted and the feeling of having a mouth full of marbles. I was unsure I wanted to meet Kat's boyfriend. I knew he was a reality and that was clear enough, right? But I knew better too. Part of being a friend was getting to know the people important to your friends and expanding the network's web until it was as strikingly strong and fine as spider silk.
The first thing I noticed was that Zach was a tall drink of water, as my mother would have said.
“Rand Marshall, Zachariah Linder,” Kat gestured one slender open hand toward the cutest specimen of man in the bar by far.
He leaned back against the bar, elbows resting against the bar top in a way that made his GQ chest and shoulder muscles apparent. Dark brown waves of hair fell across his forehead in a way that I'm sure the mother in most women wanted to brush back for him, and his brown eyes were a shade of warm honey that had probably already made it into many musicians songs.
He looked into my eyes so I had plenty of time to study the darker mocha browns in his eyes and the way they melted in your mouth into mellow Chai tea before they formed the lighter honey twinings around the centers. He knew he was a magician, but that assured charisma wasn't obnoxious somehow as it might have been on other men.
“Never mind her. I'm just Zach, and I'd love to buy you ladies a drink. What will you have, Rand ?”
I was almost putty in his hands, you know, if he'd asked I would have considered molding myself into the patterned forms of flirtation.
“Scotch. Neat. And thank you” I answered his inquiring eyebrows as they marked the question on his face.
“Make that two glasses of Glenlivet XXV” he asked the hovering bartender. The bartender was not Charlie today, but a brown-haired woman with full hips in a dress and she was not immune to him either.
“Kat? Same old schwill?”
“Bar Harbor IPA too please” he gave further direction to the bar tender like a man who was used to politely stating his wants and having them answered.
“Thank you. So how long have you two known each other?” I asked trying to make easy conversation.
“We've dated back and forth for years” Kat answered gazing over the edge of Zach's shoulder at me leaning on the bar.
“Ha! More back than forth” Zach winked at me.
“Zach has commitment issues” Kat explained.
“And Kat has boundaries that demand more space than a committed relationship would allow” Zach affirmed.
“True, but at least I've been honest and openly encouraged you to date whoever else you desire” she gave him a look to see if he would contest any of that.
“Trouble is ‘Nothing compares to you”” Zach broke into his own smiling rendition of the Prince song for emphasis.
Truly, a man willing to break into spontaneous song in public, had to be after my heart.
“Oh yeah, especially not that blonde with the three and a half feet of legs you were with here last week.” Kat rolled her eyes and retorted.
“A consolation, no doubt,” Zach admitted, “but not the grand prize.”
“How sweet!” Kat said and grazed his cheek with a kiss.
I'd say Kat was lucky to have so capitalized on Zach, but honestly, Zach was just as lucky to have any moments with a woman as naturally stunning and unassuming as Kat.
I felt equally jealous of both. Maybe a relationship of affectionate convenience was better than the wringers I'd put my heart through figuring out someone was not the long term love I was looking for. Maybe it was too much to ask one person to fit your capacity to love and be loved for such a long period, to change with you and adapt to your changes in complimentary ways. Maybe it was more sane and realistic to have boundaries that allowed you to take advantage of each other in whatever ways your love would fit while it fit.
Witch-hazel blooms formed diaphanous sun starlets in the bright early October morning. Dead trees, like particularly exploded matchsticks, pointed blackened limbs like boney accusing fingers into the blue bellied sky. Fallen oak leaves were scattered about like lawless apostles of autumn. The air smacked of a coldness that couldn't catch a hold just yet.
I realized I was gobs of tired. Not physically tired, but that deep down emotional, wrung out dish rag tired you get from chasing around your own inner demons. I'd been lost in my jealous haze a little since Sunday night with Zach and Kat, after realizing what was missing. I'd had that deep unspoken discontent I'd felt at home on that rainy night before Joey and Ben had redirected me to out here. I'd tried to take on a deluge of physical activities and abuse my body into forgetting what I lacked. I'd cycled over twenty miles of carriage roads on Monday. I followed an ornithologist supplementing his income as a rock climbing guide up the south wall of Champlain Mountain on Tuesday. I volunteered for back wrecking work splitting and clearing fallen trees from the Jordan Creek Trial with some other volunteers and one of Kat's resource management office mates yesterday. I'd turned down a beer of gratitude Kat had suggested last night, afraid my jealous haze would show itself like an unwelcome in-law seeking temporary housing.
I'd chosen the most punishing route I could find on the map today between the northern edge of Eagle Lake and the Jordan Pond House. I was hiking my way across the glorious geological curiosity known as the Bubbles, earthen hills covered in a colorful shawl of trees raising eight to nine hundred feet above the lakes like Mother Earth's hidden breasts. I would love the body of the world, a woman who never let me down. Once I reached the Jordan Pond House I planned to reward myself with an early dinner of their bay-leaf kissed crab cakes followed by their hand-made ice-cream for dessert. I would find contentment in the indulgences that were apparent, and do my best not to dwell on the indulgences I lacked—sharing life with someone I loved who wanted to share life with me too.
The sun above winked and I eyed a thin grey line of clouds to the northeast swimming closer like a circling shark. I'd packed rain gear and wasn't worried about anything else much except maybe the grip of my shoes on some of the wet bald rock portions that might loom ahead after a rain. I circled my way around Eagle Lake enjoying the cloud patterns and diamond knives of sunlight build and play over the surface of the long skinny lake face. Raptors soared and circled high overhead and then soared south on the broad shoulder of some upper thermal wind, retreating the hunt in front of shifting thunder. Frogs made distracted chirps from among shallow waters and thick tall dead grasses on the south end of the lake. I walked on toward the famed Bubbles, spying the mirror slips of Jordan Pond between the hills' cleavage.
I turned a bend in the trail around spires of spruces and firs and noticed an awkward Boo Radley type man towering over a Goldy Locks girl on the trail ahead of me. The wind was shifting. It's cold fingers tugged at their sleeves and turned their adamant conversation into a pantomime. He stood on one leg like a giant flamingo and wove two skeletal hands above her as if trying to express his anxiety from a pool of molasses. She put one foot forward and one hand on her hip. I wasn't sure who was supposed to be throwing a fit, but they both looked as if they were edging toward the border in a stolen van looking for a solid place to drop one off. I smelled cold and rain. Neither of them wore a jacket or had a pack of any kind. I shivered for them beneath my own breathable Gore-Tex layers and over-prepared geek pack. We were four miles from civilized shelter and ten minutes away from a fully feathered fall squall. Some part of my head said to hustle back down the trail and stay out of Goldy Lock's and Boo Radley's business.
“You can only help those who want to be helped,” the Joey in my head asserted, but then retorted, “You have to ask to find out if someone wants help.”
I hurried along the trail toward them singing out a hello. The girl turned to me with hope splashed all over her, and I realized she was much younger than I thought. Only eight years old or so. Boo Radley began to cry and moaned, “Sis-sis, stranger danger. Uhhh, stranger,” but both hope and fear were struggling for control of his bottom lip.
He was much younger than I thought as well. Not a man at all, but a permanent boy with a mind far less sharp than his razor elbows and shoulder blades.
“Please, Miss, my brother Bran broke his ankle or something and he can't walk all the way back and he is too big to carry back and Mom is going to kill me for being gone so long or even going down the trail at all,” the words came rushing out in breathy expectance as “Sis-sis” retreated to Bran's side to act as a crutch. He kept the flamingo pose but rested one engulfing hand on her shoulder for support. Hope beat fear into the closet and he turned two very blueberry eyes to me.
I smiled like I hadn't smiled in a board room in the last five years.
I unzipped my pack and came up with a small patch of water proof tarp I carried with me for instant picnics or emergencies, and offered it to “Sis-sis” as a blanket shield against the chill.
“We will all go back together guys. Don't worry. My name is Rand . What is yours?”
Relief was flooding over their panic. We wouldn't beat the rain back but I could half-carry Branson's boney hide if I had to. He was almost a foot taller though.
I took off my jacket and helped him put it on. His knobby wrists protruded three inches out of the cuffs. He was a human clothes hanger.
“You guys have to stay as dry as you can to keep from getting so cold, okay? I'm going to walk beside Branson. Branson, you put your arm around me and let me help you walk along, okay?”
Five or six nods convinced me they understood.
“One more thing, I need to know how bad Branson's ankle is hurt.”
Branson looked as if a long fly ball had fallen out of his glove at the edge of the outfield wall in a World Series game.
“It's okay Branson. We'll get it fixed up just fine. Can I look at it?”
He bobbled out a wide-eyed nod.
I gingerly felt around it as he held his flamingo pose. No bones bristled out and the skin beneath his sock was swelling but not yet bruising. He had a bad sprain, no doubt, but nothing that hoping back down this bunny trail would make worse.
“It must hurt Branson. I am proud of you for being so brave. We'll start on our way back down the trail toward your parents now and fix you up when we find them. Sara, can you lead us back the way you came?”
Sara smiled small against the water-heavy wind, “I think so…”
She pulled a crumpled park map out of her jeans pocket.
“We started from this parking lot here” she pointed at the lot closest to Jordan Pond House.
“Dad says I am supposed to note the trail markers as I go” she explained with official nature guide severity and turned to look for the last marker she remembered.
The rain tapped big spheres into the dirt as the first drops smattered down, and then the playful torrent of water drumming down became a shattering symphony. My fleece was soaked in seconds by the assault. I could feel the warm blood inside me shutting off the hatches and manning core battle stations.
We walked on in the cold with the chilling rain prickling my skin like needles even through the already chilly wet sponge of my shirt. The path was hard to see as we passed closer to the edge of Jordan Pond, grey water falling from sky steaming on gray mirrored lake as the icy drops hit warmer water and blended into a confusing mist. Our going was slow between the decreasing visibility and Bran's labored supported hops. His jacket coated arm over my wet shoulders chaffed with each additional exaggerated hop. Sara kept eyes on the ground following the trail on the ground itself as her best navigational line back, and I focused on her little blond head like a beacon signing me along. As we walked on the lake gave way to a muddy gray marsh corner of itself that hissed and splattered answers to the rain but held less misted steam close to its belly than the warmer, deeper lake waters.
I could see hints of a trail-head sign and parking lot through the trees ahead. Dreams of warm dry clothes and other adults re-assuming responsibility for these children were rolling into mind, when an adrenaline puffed middle-aged version of Goldy Locks erupted onto the trail waving her arms and screaming notification of her sighting to the five surrounding counties.
Bran started trying to stutter his relief.
“Tired of hoping, Randee”
“I know Bran. Just to the parking lot, okay.”
Sara ran into the woman's arms and the woman came bounding up to my face.
“You are dead meat, sister! Luring two kids down the trail like this without their parents!”
I was too cold to contradict her, but Sara was trying.
“Mom, Rand helped…”
“I will be pressing charges. You will be as scared and uncomfortable as my children have been!” She puffed down at me adding her own coals to the bellows of righteous anger she'd already prepared in the discomfort of doubt she'd probably been waiting in this whole time.
She peaked and trumpeted out “Ranger Reese! Over here! This woman tricked the kids out of my sight!”
Kat appeared looking like the town marshal at high noon on a black Friday. She spared me a small tight smile that spread across my insides like the slender sunlight warming up church pews in February.
“Mrs. Harver this is Rand Marshall. She is a highly educated business woman who registers each of her day's outings with the main office. And given that your son is wearing her coat and your daughter is wearing a tarp protecting her from the rain and holding a map, I think it more likely that Rand met them on her hike in from another opposite trail head. She probably saved both children from likely hypothermia at her own risk, given her blue, soaked appearance.” Kat explained in slow patient tones, drawing attention to the details that were likely to prick each balloon of Mrs. Harver's misinterpretations and relieve the hysteria like lancing boils.
Puffy Mrs. Harver deflated, but Sara, bless her heart was determined to defend her rescuer.
“It's true Mom. We went too far and Bran sprained his ankle. Rand helped me get Bran back.”
Mrs. Harver looked us over completely for the first time. Her hug on Sara tightened.
Bran spoke up, “No stranger danger momma. Randee ranger stranger!”
He shifted on his tired good leg and waved his free arm for emphasis.
I grinned for emphasis and tried to control my shiver.
Kat hollered out and another ranger took Bran in arm and escorted us the final ten or so yards to the parking lot.
Kat grabbed me and stuffed me into her Jeep, wrapped me in a dowdy wool emergency blanket, and buckled me in before firing up the engine and speeding out of the parking lot.
Mrs. Harver called out “Thank you, Mrs. Rand” from her woeful watch beside the park patrol car. Bran looked up and waved. Sara smiled at me through the car window. Mr. Harver stood in the parking lot like his own light house beside their minivan with the rain sloshing off his bright yellow slicker.
Kat was hollering something, but I couldn't hear it over the rain. She pulled into the shell and gravel drive of a clapboard cabin and hauled me inside like good lumber.
“Rand Marshall! Look me in the eye” she demanded.
“I see you Kat. I'm ok. Just cold. Need to get warm.” I chattered a little despite my efforts to speak clearly.
“I know” she stated and looked at me.
“What is it? Are you ok?” Kat raised both eyebrows.
“I'm ok, but I'm not coming in to stay, to get dry” I chattered more this time but got a more complete sentence out than my last effort to speak.
“What? Why the hell not? I don't give a damn if you leak all over the floor. You are miserable, blue, and borderline hypothermic. It's me or the hospital” she asserted.
“I don't have any clothes, or anything and I don't want to impose” I argued but the words falling like wet lumber in my cold mouth. I knew I was too cold, but there was some reason I couldn't let Kat take care of me. I worked to remember it.
“I wouldn't offer if I thought it was an imposition. What is going on with you?” Kat's long form stood straighter and peered back at me in the open door's rectangle of light.
I tightened my arms around myself and dug in like a donkey, obstinate about not trudging any further.
Kat read my body language and frowned in the wasting silence as I reached a point too cold to shiver off.
“Ok. Explain yourself.” she demanded moving close enough to inspect the small wet beads on my cold neck. “You're gonna catch your death by being so stubborn.”
I took a deep breath. There was no pretty way to explain it. I just didn't think it was right to get help from Kat. Honest blurts were the best I could manage now.
“Kat, I'm a lesbian. You're beautiful. I shouldn't be here. I have a raging crush on you. Not good of me, to be close to you, in your care...” I tried to say.
The air was thick with silence. I watched shadows of emotion and thought drift across her high cheekbones bringing wells of worlds into her eyes. Her breath held in the hollow cleft between her collarbones. She said nothing but kept her space two feet from me, one hand half-raised as if ready to direct someone to an aisle seat.
“Yeah, didn't think so.” I stammered. I wanted to let her off the hook guiltlessly-it was too much like shooting at Bambi. I caught the mixed smell of Kat's soap and pine needles and held it in as a souvenir-a better memory than making a fool of myself. I started to turn out the door forcing a smile, leading her out the door so she could have no doubts I was okay with being shuttled to the hospital instead.
To be continued in Part 2…
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