Author’s Note–this is chapter 5 in the ongoing saga of my trip to Washington in 2014 for a family emergency. Scroll down or dig through the archives to view previous chapters.
Bumping and bouncing along Sand Creek Road, I guide my doughty old CJ-5 along the rock-strewn ruts. The trail climbs the shoulder of a ridge, and soon we emerge from the shaded cool of the forest into a large meadow at the top. Through a few thin trees we can see the low, rolling hills of the Medicine Bow mountains, and farther on, glittering through the late afternoon haze, the Desolation Peaks and part of the Neversummer Range.
In the passenger seat, she grips the ‘oh-shit’ handle in fervent, white-knuckled prayer. Her thick, auburn hair, cut just shy of her shoulders, sparkles in the sun as it whips, without restraint, in the breeze. In a khaki-colored denim jacket and blue jeans, she flashes a broad grin at me while the wind rushes through the trees like the roar of a distant crowd at a football game. Occasionally a small, green offshoot thick with the scent of pine reaches in for a swipe at her cheek.
I bring the Jeep to a stop in the middle of the trail. No sense pulling off because, after all, who is around? Just us and the dark and lovely woods. The exhaust ticks as it cools and a fly buzzes through the space between our faces and the windshield. It circles a few times, maybe drawn by the smell of sweat, before flying off toward some fate only insects know. My long-time friend from fourth grade slides out of her seat and walks into the grass to climb a small hill. She holds a flattened hand palm out to her brow in a salute against the sun, looking, searching, admiring. When I see her turn toward me, expectant, I, too, ease myself from behind the wheel and walk to her.
“It’s so beautiful.” She whispers.
“Why are you whispering?” I ask.
“Shh. Don’t ruin it.”
We stand together on the hill in silence, watching clouds swaddle distant peaks like mothers caring for babies. Who is the elder? The wind carved and jagged upthrust of rock, or the ephemeral ever-present vapors, recycled endlessly from sky to land to sea and then back again?
If the mountains and the sky above have a lifetime of lifetimes to tell their story, we two humans on the hill have none. In the metronomic sway of branches we can see our clock is ticking. I lean over until I can interlock my fingers with hers and for a moment we stand together, united in the moment. But it is only a moment.
She sighs and wriggles free and hops toward the road in a weaving navigation between gopher holes and tussocks of grass.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. I already know.
“You know.” She is hiking back in the direction we came, not to return to her seat but down the trail by foot, soon to disappear from view behind a stand of trees at a bend in the road.
The truth is I never forgot the precious times in Sunday school so long ago, passing notes and seizing every chance at a touch, or a smile, or a few words together. Stolen, small moments of love and sin so delicious, yet so utterly laden with risk in our simple, fourth-grader minds. But, after a time, her parents convinced her she could do better than a trucker’s son, and so we drifted. She to homecoming queen, and I to, well…
“Where are you going?” Shouting so she can hear over the wind, but she doesn’t answer. With a final, sad smile thrown over her shoulder she is gone again, just like so many years ago. My stomach knots with the certainty I have lost her again and can never follow. I call out one more time.
“Where are you going?”
She is gone. But the mountains are still there.
The dream dissolves into the glossy pattern of wood on the ceiling of my little nook. I roll up on an elbow to slip my phone from the table. 5:10am, it says. I lay back and tap my way through a check of the weather. The dream plays over and over again in my mind, so vivid, and I find myself longing to see her once again. Hear her laugh and watch the shine in her eyes. Maybe an hour of internet will make me forget.
At six-thirty, I hear the creak of the floor and dishes clinking downstairs. After dressing, I pad down the narrow stairs in my socks. At the last step, I misjudge the depth of it and tumble into a heap on the landing with a bruised shin.
“Oh my goodness! Are you okay?” Jane, Frank’s wife, leans out of the kitchen doorway.
“Ugh. Yeah, think so. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. You had an accident.” She says.
“I was apologizing for the racket.”
“Nonsense.” She declares. Who uses that word anymore?
After I recover and stand up, I slip into the kitchen.
“Everything is self-serve in this house. Bowls are in that cabinet,” she points, “—and silverware in that last drawer there.”
“Oh, thank you so much.” I spot bags of cereal on a shelf in a small dining nook off the kitchen. Frank is already there. He pours cereal from two different bags into a bowl, and then tips a jug of milk into it.
“Morning.” He doesn’t look up from his milk.
“Good morning.” I sigh. I won’t wake properly until ten or so.
“Fantastic, yes, thank you.” The truth is, it’s the best sleep I’ve gotten in probably a decade. Long years of dogs that I married into, and a restless wife, and now children who wake in the middle of the night with nightmares or potty breaks has done its damage. I can’t remember the last time I slept as well as I did that night. I’ve been awake barely twenty minutes and can’t wait for evening.
Today we will drive across town to the apartments my parents had reserved. We are to meet a leasing manager there to see if they can transfer to a ground-floor apartment. A tangled mess of red tape and paperwork await, and since my parents may not be in full possession of their wits, I am tagging along to assure things go smoothly. This is akin to giving a man a second shovel with which to dig the same hole.
After breakfast I rinse my bowl and step onto the back deck. I just want some fresh air. Frank’s home is large and low, a seeming bungalow with a heritage from the ‘30’s. The eaves reach out to give shelter from sun and rain, and a front porch stretches the full width of the house. The front yard is lush and green and overgrown, and a long row of conifers borders the property on all three sides. There is barely a hint of neighbors or even a city on the other side. God, look at the trees. I have never seen trees so tall. If I smoked the butt would drop from my gaping mouth. Clouds set aglow with early morning sun scud by just over the treetops, and above those, sapphire patches of a perfect clear sky open outwards to infinity.
Frank, Jane, and my parents soon come bustling out the side door. Off the deck we’ll step, onto the driveway. I help Don wrangle his oxygen into the Jeep, and in the back my mother is alone after I wrestled the recalcitrant oxygen tank into the house the previous evening. Frank and Jane will lead us in their car.
Easing backwards into the street, I shift into ‘Drive’ and accelerate to follow Frank.
“Oh!” My mother grunts with alarm behind me.
“You’re gonna want a right at the stop sign, and then a left, and then it kind of curves around, like so,” Don gestures as he talks.
Frank takes a left at the stop sign. We follow him without turning again for five blocks. Then a right and downhill.
“Well, I guess he’s taking us a different way.” says Don.
After a ten minute drive, Don guides me into a near collision before I opt to gracefully ignore him and depend on my own intuition. Frank has bumped into the parking lot of the housing complex. With a hard left I follow and ease into a spot beside him.
The apartments are two-story buildings sectioned into two spaces on the ground floor, and two on the second. The ground floor is perfectly level with the sidewalk. The top floor, however, is accessed via a set of welded steel steps, thirteen in all. Unlucky. You can see this in pictures on the website. Why did they choose a second-floor apartment?
At the leasing office, the light is on. My mother turns the handle and enters first, followed by Don, then Jane and Frank. I bring up the rear. Introductions and handshakes ensue.
The leasing manager is Jessica Alba. Well, more accurately, her doppelganger. Possibly an alien clone disguised as the actress in order to catch us off guard. She returns to her desk to sit primly in a creaky chair and push a dark lock of hair behind her ear. I take a seat where I muse on the possibility of subduing this obviously nefarious nymph before she can kill us all and feed us to her pet. I let my mind wander for entertainment like that. It’s what I do.
“So, I understand you would like to switch from the lease you’re in now, to a new one?” Jessica begins.
“Ah-huh. That’s correct.” My mother, punctuated by the wheeze-click of Don’s oxygen regulator.
“Okay, so first we’ll need you to fill out and sign this Notice of Intent to Vacate, and also this Request for Exemption.” Jessica retrieves a few forms from a drawer of the desk and slides them toward us. “Once those are approved, then we’ll generate a new lease.”
It is at this time I become aware that Frank has not advised me he intends to press home the attack. I watch in horror as he swivels all his guns to starboard for a broadside. He is on the edge of his seat.
“Look, lady. We’re not gonna mess around with any of this bullshit. If you’re trying to pull something on us, I’m an architect and I know all the attorneys in this town and most of ‘em in the state of Washington. We will not be treated this way.” The muzzles of his guns erupt in fire and sooty black powder fills the air with an awkward silence.
Jessica Alba barely flinches under the blast wave. She meets Frank’s stare, then turns her gaze to the old lease on her desk. I can see her furiously tapping out a signal morse code. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. We have engaged the enemy. But outwardly she is a cool customer, and remains focused on the business at hand. She turns back to Frank.
“Mr. Densmore, I understand your frustration, but in order to handle this we have to first void the old lease before we can put you in a new one. And it has to be approved by my supervisor.”
“I’m sure there’s a process they have to follow. We just have to work through it. Let’s not get too fired up just yet.” I offer.
Frank relaxes in the chair. Jessica explains the process (for the third or fourth time, I’m sure of it). More uncomfortable silence interspersed with small talk while they fill out the forms. Finally, we leave Jessica in the smoking hulk of the gun turret while we exit to abandon ship. I’m positive whatever chance we had at a ground floor apartment evaporated with my distant relative’s fusillade. Send a damage control party and advise at once.
With the wreckage in our wake, we roll on. We’re off to WalMart to pick up sundries and a newspaper. While the oldsters wander the aisles, I feign a need to shop for souvenir toys, so I head to the back of the store. I pull Jessica’s business card from my pocket and dial the number. Maybe an apology will patch some of the holes.
“Abbey Drive Apartments, this is Jessica. How may I help you?”
“This is Commander Avenger of the Galactic 3rd Fleet. Power down your weapons and prepare to be boarded. Hey, this is the Irish Avenger. We just met at the office to talk about the Densmore lease transfer.”
“I will die before I surrender to you, Commander! Oh. Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I intend to take your ship as a prize, enslave your crew, and seduce you while we lounge on the pleasure planet of New Hefner. Surrender now or be destroyed. My relative Frank was totally out of line back there, and I wanted to apologize. I don’t believe in stuff like that and it was completely rude, given their situation. They should be more thankful.” I say.
“Never! You will never take me alive! Prepare to self-destruct! It comes with the territory. I know they’ve had a tough time. I appreciate you calling, though, Mr. Avenger. Thank you.”
Well, fine. If that’s the way you want it, then. Beam that woman to my quarters and destroy her ship! Also, someone call the galley and send up a nice Riesling, say a 2044 vintage. You’re welcome. Sorry again. Take care.”
Fantasy. Sometimes it’s the only salve that gets me through.
It’s afternoon already. We head toward home to eat a quick lunch of cheese and crackers. We figure it’s time to drive down to the marina to get some fish, so while the women stay home, Frank, Don and I pile into the Jeep again. Northward from the house, out onto the small peninsula beside Boston Harbor.
“Bah-ston hah-bah. We got to take the cah to Bah-ston. Where ah we, old man?” Frank jokes in his best imitation of an east coast accent.
“Why do they call it Boston Harbor?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they liked tea. Or hated taxes.” Frank says.
“I’ve always found the people of Washington to be very easygoing.” adds Don.
At the marina I park on the grass directly in front. A wooden ramp leads to a boardwalk and a large dock with picnic tables scattered on it. Ahead, the dock stretches into the harbor with boats tied off at either side. While Frank goes inside to assess the seafood situation, Don and I walk slowly toward the end of the dock.
People say the sea has an odor. The flavor of salt. I’ve never sensed anything besides a swampy smell which reminds me of old creature movies. Maybe the sea has the power to romanticize the senses. Certainly it commands us to dream. It compels us to wonder what is at the horizon. What is in store for us while we reef our sails and heave the wheel over? I could spend a million words on the sea, but they would still never broach the surface and form an island on which I could reason it all out. All too often we are flotsam at the mercy of the wind. Where does it drive us?
Don leans on a post while he watches the gulls swoop and dive in the harbor. I can hear him inhaling the air-steady breaths through his nose. Sensing. Remembering to the time of his youth and his childhood here. It’s as if every lungful is medicine he is desperate to take in. Maybe the moon’s ancient and inexorable pull can draw the poison from him like a poultice. Soak up the age and fasten once again the wrecked tissue inside. Let the water minister to you. Let the tide be your healer.
Beyond him, the water sparkles in the afternoon sun. I can see another spit of land over there, so close and yet I couldn’t swim to it. It rises green out of the water and I wonder if we can go there tomorrow. With a few more steps on the swaying dock, we come to the end. I perch the camera on the weathered wood and set the self-timer for a picture.
After a short rest I follow Don in a slow walk back toward the small fishermen’s shop and shore. Frank is there waiting, with a large plastic sack in his hand. Inside, encased in crushed ice, are two of the most beautiful and largest salmon I’ve ever seen. Caught that morning, he says. We’re gonna filet these and marinate ‘em. I’ve got a treat for you.
Through the wide open suburbs of north Olympia we cruise, waving to strolling retirees and children and other cars that pass by. We lose the sun when we drive under a canopy of huge stands of ash, cedar and pine. Past an old logging area, bare except for stumps that stick up like gravestones. Back down the avenue leading to his house and into the driveway. Now is when we will rest.
Old Sol has long passed the noon meridian, easing toward the western horizon and the vast Pacific Ocean that dodges our glance out beyond the Olympic range. I help Frank prepare the fish. He is going to smoke it and will rise every two hours overnight to monitor the process. So tender and sweet. Be the best fish you ever had. But I have to stay up to make sure it’s perfect.
With thoughts of salmon and survival swirling in my mind like eddying currents, I open the door to go in and leave Frank reclining in a patio chair. Inside, the lights are on in a warm glow that spills from the windows onto the driveway. Now is when we will rest.