NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
I sat on the floor staring at the dying embers. The coals from the large fire I'd built earlier were coated with a fine gray ash ... as the exquisite thirty-four-year-old single malt was tinged with the same, more than faint, taste of ashes. The fire—gloriously hot with the popping, almost explosive sound of the pockets of burning resin—had been laughing at me, providing a jeering counterpoint to my pain.
Now the logs were only embers, their very soul sacrificed to provide me with a meager comfort; that sacrifice mimicking the sudden death of what I had falsely, foolishly even, believed and accepted—without question—had been a love for the ages.
Wait ... a sudden flare up of hopeful flame, flashing even as the structure of the fire collapsed, glinted off the fool's gold of the ring properly located on my third finger, left hand. I held that ring up in front of my eyes—that ring that had never left my finger in those twenty-six years of marriage. Where was the happiness so joyfully promised ... lo those many years ago? Where was the love implicit with the sliding oh so carefully onto my hand in that blessed sacrament of marriage?
With an anger I would have not believed possible six months earlier I ripped, ripped with a savage force the ring of betrayal off my cursed finger and threw it in the remains of the fire ... only to see it bounce off some hidden hard spot of what I thought had only been ashes—and roll slowly away through the wood consumed by fire, away from the dying, almost dead embers.
This was unacceptable; this I could not contemplate. My effort, a gesture really, had been refused by the Gods. I nodded, carefully, at the half empty bottle and made a heroic attempt to lower the level of that amber fluid of life. I slowly, oh so slowly, stood up, staggered to the kitchen and carefully grasped the tongs. Easing my way back to the fireplace I grasped the ring with a gentle care and dropped it into the heart of the ashes.
Like an owl wisely turning my head, this way, that way, I spied the papers lying carelessly strewn on the strips of contrasting Brazilian hardwood flooring. Ah, the papers. The papers that spelled out so carefully like that great Tammy Wynette song: D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Would that light my fire? No, no alcoholic humor now. Yes, the divorce papers would wonderfully bring light to the ashes of my life so I carefully centered them over the slight crater caused by dropping the ring in the ashes.
Yes, this was high quality paper. The fire now brightly flared. I grabbed two, four ... oh, yeah, one more of the resin filled logs and built a pyre—this is a good image, I muse; does a dead love deserve a sad funeral pyre? I carefully stack them, center them over the ring now hidden ... but not forgotten.
The heat was high now. A rhythm. A pattern. One log. Swig some scotch (such a beautiful word that, swig—to heartily, greedily even, take a big drink). Yes, I like that. Log, swig, log, swig. A nice rhythm going now. The fire a crucible for the ring as those hated D-I-V-O-R-C-E papers had proved a crucible of my love.
The embers are alive! No ash covered logs now ... a roaring, powerful heat pushing me back. A swig. Now the embers are coming to me. One here, on the hearthstone. One there—yes, that's on the carpet. The carpet glows—marches towards me with an evil glee. Another swig? Yes the last. The bottle thrown at the burning carpet, one bounce, two—the count so carefully noted—the bottle crashes. The noise of the breaking glass lost in the loud roaring of the flames. It's warm. It's hot. An idle thought—is a hot flash the same as a flash of heat?
Hot, fire, hell. Is that my destiny? To burn in the fires of hell? I laugh at the fire. I laugh at the D-I-V-O-R-C-E papers, those ashes of my life. I laugh at Jean. I laugh at each of those twenty-six years of my happy marriage. I laugh at the damn ring, hopefully laying there in a puddle of molten gold.
God, it's hot. I can't breathe. Some instinct, some primal call from an unknown ancient caveman leads me to the door ... out in that blessed coolness, out in to that icy cold snow. Loud noises—sirens blaring? A medic; am I okay? A uniform; a cop? Talking to ... me. Taking my arm. I'm in a car, smelly, dirty. The heavy aroma of vomitus permeating the air.
They take me away and now I'm here in this place of peace and they feed me, bathe me, talk to me ... I say nothing, never, not a word for months on end.
Two years later I was released. They told me I was "cured." What does that mean? Should I be happy? Should I be glad? No, cured or not I still felt nothing but sadness. I guess that's all there is to life.
TO LIVE AGAIN
It was another three years before I really knew who I was and what I was about. They told me my name was Sam Adams but it sounded rough on my tongue—like speaking a foreign language. I would sometimes stand in front of a mirror, saying the name over and over. My first trip to the store I brought some beer—I just grabbed some, didn't bother to look at the label. I laughed when I got home and put stuff away and saw the label. I was only a guy on a beer label.
I remembered all about Jean now. I had no idea why it happened but the what was forever burned into my memory from the many—altogether too many—sessions with my psychiatrist.
We'd had some problems—nothing more than any couple married over a quarter century. We started meeting with a counselor a couple times a month. Some stuff came out; hell, no one has a perfect marriage. It was mostly things related to passing the fifty-year mark and starting to question our lives and our commitment to each other. Jean would say at the therapy sessions that she felt old and used up, not attractive any more.
I think she mostly missed the kids now that they had both moved out and were doing their own things. For myself I guess I just felt tired. The sun rose looking a bit flat and washed out and the nights lasted longer than my body could lie down.
I guess our sex life was like most people our age. The spark that had made a bonfire of our early years of loving was flickering weakly by the time we sought help for our marriage. Maybe once a week at best we found time to focus on each other in a loving way. Even then it seemed at times it was more of a habit than anything else.
The guy we went to for counseling was a younger man, about thirty-five or so. I had to concede that he was good-looking. He had curly black hair and a complexion that spoke of Southern Italy. It did turn out that he was from Palermo. A Sicilian ... I might have known!
I never felt comfortable with him—somehow most of the problems seemed to be mine. He was always making googly eyes at Jean ... and she ate that shit up! If things weren't bad enough, we would go home and fight about the guy that was supposedly helping us. I should have picked up on things better when Arturo—yeah, that was the prick's name—suggested we have a few separate sessions ... once a week for each of us.
I was going in on Monday's and Jean on Tuesday's. He scheduled us at the end of the day, because, " ... that's the only time available on short notice." This went on for several weeks before I forgot my watch at one of the Monday sessions. Arturo always made us take our watches off so we could focus on our "feelings" and not what time it was.
After that session I was kinda pissed off. We always left our watches with the secretary and she would leave them on her desk when she left at five. As upset as I was, my watch was the last thing on my mind. The next day I missed it—it was a nice Rolex—so I called Janine and she said she would leave it on her desk and my wife could bring it home with her after her session that afternoon.
Jean had seemed distracted after her sessions lately so I was figuring she would probably forget the watch. It wasn't out of my way so I decided I could stop by on my way home—I was really attached to that watch. I knew Jean and Arturo would be in session but I could just grab the watch and take off. Arturo always closed the door for his sessions for privacy so there would be no interruption.
I got there to pick up the watch and I heard this keening sound. I recognized the sound immediately: it was the unique noise Jean made when she had a strong orgasm. No one ever said I was stupid; I figured out quickly what was going on. I tried the heavy oak door but it was locked.
Now I'm a big man—six-four and about 240. I'd been a heavy equipment operator all my life and now I owned a franchise in San Antonio for several major lines such as Caterpillar. Yeah, I'd gone to seed a little but not that much. A well-placed boot knocked the door in. Typically, they had a heavy-duty security door in a crap frame.
There on the couch Arturo and my wife were in a tight embrace, seemingly enjoying the down slope of relaxation after the physical exertion of sex. They looked up—stunned was the image that stuck with me.
I felt a murderous rage but I had no desire to go to prison for what I knew I could and would do to Arturo. I stared at Jean for a longish moment, letting her see my disgust and rage.
In a cold, dead voice I told her, "I'm glad to see you got more out of this counseling than I did. I'll go see Ed in the morning."
With that I turned and stalked away. I stayed at one of our construction trailers that night—we kept a cot folded up for occasional use, particularly at remote sites. The next morning I went to see Ed Terrell. Ed was my cousin but we had grown up together and had been closer than brothers. Ed wasn't a divorce lawyer but he had one on his staff.
"Sam, are you sure this is what you want to do? You've been with Jean for a long time and I think it's been a better marriage than most."
I looked at Ed a bit, making sure I had his attention. "I'm sure. After what I saw ... and, Ed? I want that asshole to lose his license over this."
"Okay, Sam. Let's get with Jerry and start the ball rolling."
I went to my office to call the kids. Susan was a chemist at an oil refinery down in Pasadena, southeast of Houston. She was engaged to a pediatrician about five years older than her. Ken was almost finished with his MBA at the University of Texas in Austin. We had lived all our married lives in San Antonio but we were both born in the San Angelo area.
Our friends that had gone through divorces said I shouldn't tell the kids what had happened. I thought that was maybe okay for small kids but ours were both adults and I felt they should hear the truth. I had a good relationship with them and I didn't want to be the bad guy in this. I knew Susan particularly would want to try to get us back together and I wanted to nip that in the bud.
I told them exactly what had happened and told them I had already started divorce proceedings and that since I was going after Arturo's license there was a good chance that everything could wind up in the newspapers.
They were upset but they did seem to understand how I felt. Ken agreed that I was doing the right thing. That didn't surprise me. Ken had somehow always been a moralist. Not in any religious sense but he had always been fascinated with philosophy and took as many courses in that area as he could. Typical of him, his Master's thesis was on Business Ethics.
It was hard—I can't say it wasn't. I'd been with Jean for a long time and our lives were intertwined by so many years and events. I thought I was dealing with it pretty good until I got the final copy of the divorce decree. I left it unopened on the small kitchen table in my tiny studio for several days.
Finally I got around to opening it. That was when things got hazy for me. Everything after that I got from my psychiatrist but the things he told me had more the texture of half-remembered dreams than of memories.
As best as I can reconstruct it I had gone to Arturo's office at closing time. I waited until his last patient had left then went in to talk to him. No one knows exactly what happened after that but clearly I did things to Arturo that led to a near fatal kidney injury and major reconstruction of his right cheekbone and his mouth. After I finished whatever I did to him I walked out in a daze and drove over to our—my ex's—house. I later had some half-remembered half-dream idea of talking to Jean and asking, why.
She wasn't home but there were some remaining coals from a fire in the fireplace. I rummaged around and found a full bottle of Bunnahabhain thirty-four-year-old Islay single malt Scotch I'd won as a door prize at one of Caterpillar's meetings for franchisees.
Now it was five years later and I was trying to bring the threads of my life back together.
I suppose I saw Jean while I was in the loony bin ... don't really remember. When I got out she was remarried and living up in Dallas.
Arturo was going to sue me and the police were going to charge me with grievous bodily injury (it was that) but both gave up on the prognosis that I was clearly nuts and could be put away for twelve months ... or years ... or maybe forever. Arturo went back to Italy and was never heard from again.
My kids—they still loved me but they had lives of their own now; both married with their own families.
Me? Well, for the last three years after my "cure" I bounced around, finding whatever job could keep my interest for a while. I got started again by one of my former customers I'd played golf with a number of times offering me a three month contract driving an earth mover at a new housing development in El Paso. I'd kept my union dues paid up with the Teamster's Building Material and Construction Trade Division—mostly because the local threw such great parties. I knew who needed help and made a lot of friends by making referrals.
After that I did a stint at driving a dozer at a garbage dump in Phoenix but working at a smelly place like that in the heat was no fun. From there I worked a year driving a Cat D9 on open coalmine reclamation in the southeastern part of Montana. That was okay. I did my work and lived alone. No one bothered me.
That wrapped up after six months and I went farther west and finally I found something I really liked. I started a great job with a timber company in the mountains east of the Prineville, Oregon area. I handled most of the heavy equipment: moving the logs around, loading them on trucks ... whatever they needed. I would occasionally drive one of the logging trucks but that wasn't something I particularly liked to do.
It was a small, family owned company that was easy to work for. Mostly I would work in the field but sometimes I would work at their lumber mill over in John Day or their lumberyard in Prineville when they were short handed. They had closed their mill in Prineville a few years earlier.
I found a place to live that I liked about ten miles northeast of Prineville. It was a bit over forty acres up a dead end canyon with a fairly new log cabin and horse barn and a couple of corrals. I had no plans for horses but I liked the remoteness and the beauty of the place. There was also a smaller, one bedroom log cabin that I used for storage. The valley was heavily forested and backed up to the Mill Creek Wilderness area. There was a pretty good horse trail going up into the wilderness area. I found out the previous owner led horse expeditions for camping out in the mountains. It turned out there wasn't enough demand to make it profitable.
The trees in my canyon were mostly old growth stuff with a number of pretty meadows. There was a year round creek that tumbled down the valley in a meandering fashion. I liked the tranquility and remoteness of it. I guess I had turned into somewhat of a loner. I thought about renting out the smaller cabin but I wanted my privacy more than I needed the money.
I did date Polly Chase a few times. She was the daughter of the couple that owned the company and ran the office for them. She was as close to pretty as you can get without actually being there with a cute upturned nose and short, curly dark hair the color of aged black walnut. Polly was just a bit more ... voluptuous than I cared for. She liked to do the bar scene—drinking and dancing two, three times a week. I had fun with her but she didn't seem a steady enough person for me to risk a serious relationship. I swore I'd never let another woman hook her tentacles in me.
I cooked some of my meals but my heart wasn't really in it; I wasn't a very accomplished cook. I ate mostly at a place in a small strip mall a couple of miles from the turnoff to my place. It wasn't much: the restaurant, a gas station with a first rate mechanic, and a small, non-chain drug store. The restaurant was called the Edge. It used to be The Edge of Nowhere but the bottom half the sign had broken off in a windstorm some years before and the owner didn't think it was worth fixing.
Carla, the gal that owned it was dating a guy I worked with, Dave La Rue. The food was pretty much "Mom's Diner" stuff, good, plentiful and cheap. I'd eat breakfast and dinners there most days and got to know Carla pretty well. We'd kid each other a lot and she would keep trying to fix me up with dates. Most of the people that ate there were locals and I got to know them all. A guy I got along with pretty good was the mechanic, Tom Wells. He was an older guy with a gift for keeping cars that were past their prime up and running.
My "car" was a good example. I'd driven a 1952 Dodge three quarter ton pickup while I'd been in the army. I was a radio-teletype operator and there was a metal hut on the back of the truck with all the radio equipment in it. Right after I'd moved to the Prineville area a guy had the misfortune to ski down the wrong trail and his widow was trying to get rid of one just like I'd driven.
It had a 318 cubic inch 5.2 liter V8, a two-speed transfer case, a 4-speed transmission with a power take off opening which would send power to the front and back of the truck for operating auxiliary equipment and big 9.00/16-8 ply tires on 16X6.50 inch wheels. I just kept slapping on more of that ugly brown paint to keep the rust at bay and Tom kept it running. There weren't many jeep trails I couldn't drive that thing on. It had a winch on the front that could pull me out of anywhere.
I called Ken and Susan pretty regularly, three or four times a month. I was trying to find a way to have them visit me for Christmas. I'd gone back to Texas a couple of times for brief visits. They never mentioned Jean and I wasn't about to ask. It was like having a boil lanced: you don't remember the pain; just how good it feels when it's gone.
TO LOVE AGAIN
Things would have drifted on like that for years but one rainy Saturday morning in early March I woke up with a hunger for some of Carla's rich coffee and her world's best sausage gravy over her homemade biscuits. About halfway down the long dirt track that I dared call my driveway, I saw a car partially blocking the road. I couldn't see anyone in it but I played it cautious. I'd had some trouble with a couple of rough looking bikers wanting to plant Marijuana up in the wilderness area. They offered to pay me a grand a month for access and to beat the crap out of me if I said no.
Dave and I were waiting for them when they came back. Dave, one of the guys I worked with, was just as big as I was and we had both worked hard all our lives. The details aren't necessary but they did walk out of there ... barely. I ran over their bikes a couple of times with my truck and then hooked a chain to them and towed them to the entry way to my valley. They still sit there, one on each side of the road, a monument to something.
Out of that, Dave convinced me to carry a rifle in my truck for a while. I never saw the bikers again but got used to having the rifle with me. When I saw the car I grabbed the rifle and edged around through the trees to come up to the late model Mercedes SUV from the rear. The windows were steamed up so I couldn't see inside and the car was heavily bogged down in a perpetually muddy spot in the road. It didn't even slow down my truck but this car was hung a lot closer to the ground.
I bent down and edged along the side of the SUV until I got to the driver's window. I tapped it a bit harder than I intended with the rifle barrel. There was no movement for a minute then the window came down a couple of inches and a tremulous voice squeaked out, "Go away, leave us alone!"
I could tell a lot from that brief sentence. This was a well-educated eastern girl that was plenty scared and had the sexiest voice I'd ever heard—Julie London singing, "Cry Me a River" was a close second.
I rapped on the window again, this time leaving a star like a rock hitting the windshield would, and said much harsher than I'd intended, "This is private property. Didn't you see the sign on the road?"
The window came down a bit more and the sexy voice responded with more of a mad snottiness than the previous tired timidity, "We got lost in the dark last night and it was raining too hard to see any goddamned signs and we're tired and..."
I was starting to get mad myself but her voice trailed off into sobs. Damn, all I needed was a weeping woman on my hands. And what was this we business?
In a softer voice I asked, "Ma'am, are you in trouble? Do you need any help?" I guess that was a stupid question; any fool could see the car was stuck in the mud. "Roll your window down and let's see what we can do."
Slowly, the window came down a bit at a time. I crouched down so my face was level with hers and found myself staring into the most beautiful eyes I'd ever seen. They were the steel gray of rain-swollen clouds that went from a wide-eyed innocence to a narrowed suspiciousness as I continued to stare at her.
"Do I meet your approval?" she spat out.
I leaned back enough to take in her silky rust-colored hair that framed her pale oval face with wild disarray speaking of a night sleeping in her SUV. Unthinking I reached my hand out to touch a silky strand of her capricious hair that, in the perpetual twilight of a dark morning under the forest canopy, looked almost burnt orange. She flinched and then jerked her head back—looking scared now.
Stuttering a little, I almost whispered, a soft voice, one used to gentle a scared animal or child, "You ... you are so lovely. I look in your eyes and I see my soul. Who are you?"
She smiled a little at that, but with a clear sadness. From the back seat I head a sleepy, "Mom, what's going on?" I turned my head and saw a young girl, maybe sixteen. She looked like her mom probably did as a young girl but with hair more red and eyes blue.
"I'm sorry, let's figure out what to do to get you on your way." I was all business now. "I can pull your van out of the mud and see if everything is okay."
She nodded—it wasn't like she had a lot of choices to pick from. I drove my truck around and hooked up the winch. It was but a moment to pull her out. The rain had let up and was only a heavy mist by now. I asked them to step out and I got in the car. I started it and pulled forward a little but I could feel the clutch in the automatic transmission slipping and the car was barely inching forward; the tachometer was topping out but I was hardly moving. I opened up the hood and pulled the dipstick for the transmission out and it had that telltale burnt smell.
Getting out I saw I'd got the leather seat wet. I started to apologize but she shook her head impatiently. Clearly this was a woman with troubles and a stain on her leather seat wasn't one of the more important ones.
"Did you rock your car back and forth a lot trying to get out last night?"
"Yes, until the gas was getting low and I started getting sleepy."
"Well, it's pretty clear the transmission is shot. The nearest Mercedes dealer is down in Bend, close to fifty miles from here. If money is a concern I know a guy can order a rebuilt one and install it for much less than the dealer would charge. What's your name, anyway?"
"Mary Kate, Mary Kate ... Danaher. I do need the car but I don't have ... well, I don't have much money."
I knew right away she was lying about her name. Mary, yeah, probably. Maybe even Mary Kate. Hell, she even looked like a Mary Kate. But with the hesitation on giving her last name and the fact that was the name for the role played by Maureen O'Hara in "The Quiet Man," with John Wayne, I didn't think so. How was she to know I was a movie buff, that I'd seen the movie countless times, and that the first—and only—redhead I'd ever fallen in love with was Mary Kate Danaher? Another Mary Kate Danaher in my life? No way, Charlie!
"I'm Sam Adams and, well, don't make any jokes about the beer. That's already been done way too often. Look, I'm cold, you're cold, and your girl is cold. I'm way past hungry so let's go get something to eat and I'll check about the car. Don't worry about the cost until you know what it is."
We piled into the truck and drove to the Edge. The woman and her daughter immediately disappeared into the restroom with a small bag they had brought from the SUV. I gossiped with Carla for a bit, drinking some of her great coffee. When they came back I introduced them.
"Carla, this is Mary Kate ... Danaher," here I hesitated exactly the way Kate did when she gave me her name. Carla gave me a sharp look of askance—I'd told her about my putative love affair with Maureen O'Hara. "And this is her daughter... ?"
"Colleen," Mary Kate provided.
Carla asked, "What can I get you ladies for breakfast?"
Colleen jumped in with, "Pancakes!"
Her mom looked uncomfortable, and said, "I'm not hungry; I'll just have some coffee."
Carla looked at me with raised eyebrows. I nodded my head.
I walked them over to a table, bringing a pot of coffee with me. I pulled the chairs out for both Mary Kate and Colleen, getting a surprised look from both of them.
I figured I'd start trying to find out what problems there were that might need my problem solving skills—at the same time wondering cynically if I'd be so concerned if it weren't for those gray eyes that seemed to change color each time the light changed ... and each shade seemed even more to take my breath away than the last.
"Where are you ladies headed to?"
They shared a nervous glance, and Mary Kate responded airily, "Oh, we were just wanting a change. Is it nice around here?"
Her accent called Smith or Amherst to mind—maybe rounded by a few years in California. Smiling at Carla, I replied, "Oh, we like it fine. Don't we, Carla?"
Looking back at Mary Kate, I dug a little deeper, "Where y'all from?" Sometimes that Texas accent slipped in on me.
With a slight vacuity to her eyes, she replied, "Oh, south of here."
Carla, eavesdropping as usual, pointed out, "Hell, honey, everywhere is south of here."
Seeing as how Colleen was wearing a Sea World sweatshirt I took a shot. "I've only been there once, but San Diego's a great place, isn't it."
With her first show of interest, Colleen replied, "Oh, yes, it's a..." her body jerked, like her mom had kicked her shin, " ... a great place to visit. They have the best zoo, they..."
Her mom cut in with, "We're from San Jose." With a nervous laugh, she added, "You know, that place everyone knows the way to."
Carla brought the food over, a big plate of flapjacks and a sizeable slice of ham for Colleen, along with a tall glass of milk. Mary Kate wound up with three eggs, an even bigger slice of ham, and all of the free space on her plate was taken up with country style potatoes. I got my sausage gravy liberally poured over three huge biscuits.
Mary Kate started to get up, protesting, "No, I just ordered, coffee. I ... really I'm not hungry."
"Carla, she says she's not hungry. I guess you'll have to dump this out."
"Mrs. Danaher," a little smirk here, "If you just won the lottery, would you buy me breakfast?"
Looking confused, she replied, "Well, I guess."
"Well, I just won the lottery. Eat!"
Carla went into the kitchen, laughing at me. I started in on my biscuits and gravy wondering if finding those sad gray eyes counted as winning the lottery.
Tom came in and I told him where her car was. "Tow it to your garage and check it out. Looks to me like a new transmission, but you're the expert."
"Yes, I am, ain't I?" Laughing, he walked out to his tow truck.
Mary Kate jumped right in with, "Wait a minute, I..."
"Mrs. Danaher, oh hell, Mary Kate, it's not going to cost you anything for the tow or estimate. We do things differently here than they do in ... where was that? San Jose? If I see something you need to worry about I'll let you know."
Carla came out with some fresh coffee and sat down.
Putting her hand on Mary Kate's, she told her, "Honey, we're good folks here. Anyone can see you got problems. It makes us no never mind if you don't want to talk about what ails you but if you want some help just ask. Now do you need money?"
"No, I..." Mary Kate started.
"Let me say that different," Carla continued. "I had a girl that quit last week to work at the Walmart down to Bend. She's getting married next year and needs more money than I could pay her. So I'm looking for someone to help me. If you need money I can't pay much but it would include any meals you want for you and your girl. Is that something you could do? I know it ain't what you're used to an' all that."