Saturday morning, the forest ranger in the pea-green uniform sauntered into Ryan’s Diner as she did most workdays. She took a stool at the counter away from the other customers and sat staring at her raggedy fingernails. Seventeen year old Shawn Mariano, who worked weekends during high school and an occasional evening shift when one of the regular waiters called out sick, eyeballed the woman. Flaxen hair fell down over her forehead in tight, curlicue ringlets. The nose was broad and fleshy but not offensively so; the lips, thick and shapeless, eased quite naturally into an earthy, ever-so-slightly vulgar smile. The alabaster skin, perhaps her most disarming feature, was flawless with a translucent sheen. Strikingly beautiful or physically repulsive – which was it? Maybe a little of both.
“This one’s yours,” Trudy Falcone, a forty year old brunette who normally worked the counter and booths near the front entrance, muttered under her breath and disappeared abruptly into the kitchen. The twosome, Trudy and the ranger, had exchanged words earlier in the week and the waitress, who had a reputation for being a foulmouthed, practical jokester, came away on the short end of the stick. Since the verbal altercation, she treated the ranger like she had a terminal case of leprosy.
The day of the incident, the lithe blond ate breakfast quietly enough. But then as she was paying the tab she whispered something in Trudy’s ear causing the waitress to alternately flush scarlet then blanch a ghostlike chalky white. Still trembling noticeably, Trudy got the woman’s change and laid it on the counter. The forest ranger leisurely sipped at her coffee for a good ten minutes longer before scooping the money up, every penny, leaving no tip. “Stinking bitch!” Trudy hissed once the ranger was out of earshot. “Rotten, scummy whore!”
When one of the other girls tried to comfort her, Trudy ran off and barricaded herself in the bathroom. It was never made clear what the blond-haired ranger with the squat nose and platinum, Shirley Temple curls said or why the normally staid, middle-aged waitress blew a mental gasket.
“Can I help you?” Shawn asked.
“Cup of coffee and breakfast special.”
“How do you want your eggs?”
“Over easy. Whole wheat toast.” She raised her eyes but only slightly, never quite making eye contact. Shawn scribbled the order down and went off to get the coffee.
The diner was three-quarters full with townies and local merchants. They could get raucous and rowdy even this early in the morning, but when the food came the ranger ignored the local yokels, eating hunched over her plate. Ten minutes later, she paid her bill, swept all the loose change off the counter and disappeared out the door like a mirage.
“That weirdo gone?” Trudy had emerged from hiding. Shawn shook his head up and down. “What did Mrs. Rockefeller leave for a tip?”
“What she always leaves,” Shawn replied.
“Do you think she’s attractive?’”
“Her?” The heavyset waitress gawked at him as though the teenage boy had lost his mind. “That woman’s ugly as sin!”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme?”
Trudy’s lips twitched derisively. “If you’re into dykes or the unisex, Peter Pan look, she’s the real deal.”
The following Saturday morning the blonde forest ranger shuffled into the diner and eased down on a stool. As if on cue, Trudy ran off to make small talk with a waitress working the main dining room. “Coffee black. Eggs over easy and whole wheat toast,” Shawn said, repeating from memory her previous order.
She tilted her head to one side and studied him with a humorless expression. “Yeah, that’ll do.”
He went off to retrieve the coffee. “You’re with the forestry department?” Shawn arranged a napkin and place setting on the counter.
“Down in Pemberton.”
“What do you do exactly?”
Her eyes grazed his face like he was an inanimate object, part of the Ryan’s Diner bucolic décor. The ranger sipped at the hot liquid tentatively then added a spoonful of sugar. “Keep tabs on Mother Nature.” The terse reply wasn’t intended as a joke. Shawn didn’t know what to make of the odd creature.
When the food arrived, the girl never looked up. She ate with a focused intensity, pushed the plate away as soon as she was finished and reached for her wallet. “The Pemberton Wild Life Preserve,” she said when Shawn returned with the change, “that’s where I work. There’s a slatted walkway that extends three hundred feet out into the wetlands sanctuary with beaver dams, turtles, fox and small game, if you ever care to visit.” She swept the change off the counter and disappeared back out into the dusky, early morning light.
No, Shawn didn’t think he would care to visit. Not now, not ever. The woman unnerved him. The way she talked in that flat-as-a-pancake, gravelly monotone made his skin crawl. Her pretty-ugly face never offered up a shred of emotional warmth or human sympathy. As long as that woman was caretaker of the Pemberton Nature Preserve, he wouldn’t be visiting any time soon.
“I seen you commiserating with Pearl,” Hugh Duffy, the short order chef remarked when Shawn took a break around ten o’clock after the breakfast crowd had petered away. In response to the boy’s blank expression, Hugh added, “The knuckle-dragging Forest Ranger.”
“Where do you know her from?”
“Went to high school together.” Hugh sprinkled a generous dusting of paprika on a pile of home fries simmering on the grille. “Pearl’s father ran off when she was just a kid. Family lived in a ramshackle, sardine can of a house over by the railroad tracks - just her and the old lady. The mother dropped dead a few years back, so now Pearl resides there all by her lonesome.” The cook cracked a couple of eggs onto the grille and reached for a slab of Canadian ham.
“What was she like in high school?” Shawn asked.
“Same as now ... kept to herself. Didn’t hardly talk to no one, which was no great loss.” He chuckled evilly. “I don’t think the girl ever owned a bar of soap. Her junior year, as I remember, they sent her home one day, cause she smelled like a sanitation truck in late August.”
“Trudy can’t stand her.”
Hugh flipped the eggs and checked the ham which was browning nicely. “Don’t know nothing about that,” he returned, “but I do know the woman’s got a wicked, homicidal temper.” He shifted the eggs to a plate and spread a generous dollop of butter on two slices of cinnamon raisin toast. Stacking the toast together, he cut at a diagonal. “You’ll want to steer clear of that wild woman,” the cook cautioned. “Nothing good can come of it.”
“Thanks,” Shawn mumbled weakly and went back to his position at the counter.
Before his shift ended, Shawn stopped by the kitchen. “What’s Pearl’s last name?”
Hugh looked up from the hot surface. “Singleton. Pearl Singleton.”
“Did she have a boy friend in high school?”
The cook rolled his eyes and made a dramatic flourish with the chrome spatula. “Couple guys asked her out, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with the opposite sex. Probably a lesbian, judging by the woman’s edgy disposition around guys.”
Shawn rubbed his jaw. “You think she’s good looking?”
Hugh paused to rub the sweat from his face with the front of his soiled apron. “Pearl Singleton’s no Marilyn Monroe, but, yeah, she’s wicked cute in a slutty sort of way.” The cook’s head bobbed up and down and he smirked at his clever choice of words. “Not that it does us horny heathens any good.”
The next day it snowed all morning well into the afternoon. “Your father’s working late,” Mrs. Mariano announced as Shawn came through the front door. “Maybe you could tidy things up so he doesn’t have to kill himself when he gets home tonight.” “Okay.”
“It’s quite cold. Don’t go back outside like that.” She pointed to his flimsy jacket. “Always dress in layers.”
Shawn went to his room and draped a sweatshirt over a cotton shirt. Back in the foyer, he pulled his warmest winter coat from the hall closet. “Much better!” His mother shook her head approvingly.
Out in the shed, he primed the Ariens two-stage snow blower, adjusted the choke and press down on the electric starter button. The engine coughed, sputtered, belched, burped spastically and gave up the ghost. He primed the engine a second time with more gasoline and the bright orange machine fired up. Backing the snow blower out of the shed, Shawn cut a path toward the driveway hurling the heavy snow thirty feet across the lawn in a shimmering arc.
Always dress in layers during the winter months. He was perfectly warm despite temperatures hovering in the low twenties. Mrs. Mariano had dozens of clever maxims and cautionary injunctions.
You’ll have plenty of time for you-know-what with you-know-who when you’re finished with college. That was another one of her favorite dictums. You-know-what was an unambiguous euphemism for sex, lechery, debauchery, lust, wanton depravity, lewd and lascivious behavior. Shawn was unclear if his mother was speaking from personal experience or idle speculation. Every so often, he heard the bedsprings creaking unnaturally loud two doors over. There were never any accompanying noises, only the rhythmic rasping of the queen-size mattress. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. Kachunk. No groans, moans, whimper, sighs or passionate terms of endearment. In the morning his parents didn’t look or act any different.
The previous July, a friend from the varsity baseball team fixed Shawn up on a blind date with his seventeen year-old cousin. After the movie let out, they grabbed something to eat and, later still, went parking in the woods. The girl was passably pretty. She let him touch her privates. She had bad breath, a god awful, garlicky halitosis, such that every time she moaned in ecstasy, Shawn thought he might pass out from the stench.
At the top of the driveway, the snow blower busted a shear bolt on a scrap of lumber buried in a knee-high snowdrift. Trudging back to the shed, Shawn located a pair of pliers and a replacement bolt. Standing the snow blower on its side, he wiggled the broken pin from the auger shaft and inched the new one through the mating holes. He had to remove his gloves while tightening the nut and his frostbitten hands were burning. Putting his gloves back on, he brushed the snow off his pants, fired up the engine again and made the first pass down the length of the driveway.
Just before he left work earlier in the day, Trudy cornered him over by the cash register. “That obnoxious forest ranger’s got no class, no social graces.”
“Okay,” Shawn muttered. The waitress was pathologically obsessed.
“Come back here fifty years from now,” Trudy was pointing at the stool that Pearl Singleton had been warming with her derriere seven hours earlier, “and she’ll be sitting there wrinkled as a dried up prune and drooling into her home fries.”
Since the same could be said about any of the customers who frequented Ryan’s Diner, the gratuitous remark made no sense. Pearl Singleton never knew her father, grew up in grinding poverty and witnessed a mother die young. Social graces - it was miracle enough she crawled out of bed each morning. Of course, that wasn’t what Trudy wanted to hear. “What you got against her anyway?”
“She’s a hateful, vindictive bitch!” The middle-aged woman’s chest heaved with rage. “What else you need to know?”
“Nothing,” he said meekly. Whatever unspeakable atrocity Pearl had committed, Trudy wasn’t going to spill the beans.
The woman in the pea-green uniform was loutish and low class. But she was pretty as hell. Shawn would give a hundred blind dates with teenage babes suffering from chronic halitosis and loose morals for one romantic romp with Pearl Singleton. But that wasn’t going to happen. She had that ‘settled’ look of a twenty-something with a full-time job, domestic obligations and grownup responsibilities. About the time Shawn would be even remotely in a position to do you-know-what with you-know-who, Peal Singleton would have slipped inelegantly away into her early thirties.
A large truck with a V-shaped plow rumbled onto the street just as Shawn finished his final pass with the snow blower. Wheeling the machine back to the shed, he grabbed a shovel to clear away the icy debris that the plow left barricading the front of the driveway.
The first Tuesday in March, the teaching staff at Brandenberg High School took a professional day; students got to sleep late and do as they pleased. Shawn rose early and was moving briskly in the direction of the front door when Mrs. Mariano flagged him down. “Where’re you off to this early in the morning?”
“Down the Cape to a nature preserve.”
Mrs. Mariano turned to her husband who had just entered the room with a newspaper tucked under his arm. “In this weather, your son’s on his way to Cape Cod so he can visit a nature preserve.”
Mr. Mariano shrugged and glanced out the bow window. “The sun’s shining and it’s not really that cold out.”
“You see how he’s dressed,” his wife was not to be denied, “with that flimsy coat and no hat or gloves?”
“If it makes you happy,” Shawn countered, “I’ll go back upstairs and grab some extra clothing.” He disappeared and returned a moment later with a woolen sweater and stocking cap. “What’s down the Cape?”
“I already told you. There’s a wilderness preserve with a three hundred foot walkway that extends out into the wetlands.”
“Who are you going with?”
“Nobody. I’m driving down alone.”
“To look at trees and soggy marsh in the middle of winter?”
“The winter is over.”
“How much money you got?”
“I got a full tank of gas and plenty of money.”
Mrs. Mariano looked for support from her husband, but he was already curled up on the sofa perusing the sports section. “In case of emergency, do you at least have your cell phone?”
“Yes I have it.”
“Show it to me.”
Shawn fished his cell phone from a back pocket and held it up in the air. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.” He fled out the door before his mother could mount a rebuttal.
Shawn located Pemberton State Forest three miles before the Bourne Bridge spanning the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay. He followed a ribbon of asphalt another three-quarters of a mile until he reached a rustic parking lot then picked his way down a gravel path to a swampy bog. The air smelled of pine and acrid clay. The sun was shining but the temperature hadn’t drifted much above freezing. Remnants of the last wintry storm were evident in the murky wooded areas where snow and ice still lingered embedded in a spongy mat of decaying leaves and coppery pine needles. Only a small handful of diehard birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts were out on the narrow walkway that snaked into the chilly bog. A burst of frigid air cuffed his cheek as Shawn pulled his collar up around his neck.
“Should have brought a warmer coat.” On a granite outcropping near a rough-hewn cedar bench, Pearl was leaning against a leafless oak. She wore her wide-brimmed ranger’s hat and dark green winter jacket over her forestry uniform.
Shawn smiled. “Who’s in charge of tours?”
Pearl climbed down from the rocky ridge. “I can take you out on the bog, if you like.” The stony-faced woman didn’t seem any friendlier, just less remote. She moved off in the direction of the pressure-treated walkway leading out into the open wetlands. The harsh winter had beaten down all of the bright flowers and delicate plant life but Pearl pointed out some of the more robust species. “This rust-colored grass is called broomsedge. It grows all over the eastern United States in narrow clumps that can reach upwards of forty inches. In the summer, the young plants don’t look anything like this.”
“They’re bright green,” Pearl explained. Further along she pointed out some bishop’s weed, which was in the carrot family even though the leaves were quite flat and broad. Although the delicate ferns had, for the most part, died away by early winter, there were six species – maidenhair, ostrich, sensitive, cinnamon and royal – that Pearl could identify on sight and point out to visitors during the sultry summer months. They were halfway out in the water now. She indicated a woody pile of debris eighty feet away. “A family of beavers lives underneath all those muddy branches.” There was nothing to be seen. Either the beavers were resting comfortably, hibernating or foraging elsewhere. “Sometimes I come out here, especially in the spring, and watch them going about their business.”
Back on dry land, Pearl said, “Are you in a hurry to get back?”
Shawn glanced at his watch. It was still early, but a fast-moving bank of clouds had scudded across the sky obliterating the sun and carrying off much of the late morning warmth. “What did you have in mind?”
Pearl lead the way down a gravel path to the bottom of a ravine then headed up a steep incline. When they reached the summit of the ridge, a huge wooden structure about a mile away and still higher up came into view. “That’s the fire tower. In the dry, late summer I pretty much live in that rooftop villa.” She struck out across the rock-strewn ground. Fifteen minutes later they reached their destination. “It’s raining,” Shawn noted. He wished he had brought his sweater. The temperature plummeted ten degrees as soon as the thickening clouds arrived.
A set of stairs lead to the upper level, which stood comfortably above most of the surrounding treetops. The door was secured with a thick security bolt. Pearl selected a brass key from a chain fastened to her belt and undid the lock. But for the spitting clouds, from their vantage point they would have been able to see all the way to the Cape Cod Canal and beyond.
“What’s that?” Shawn pointed at a transparent disk fastened to a table in the far corner of the room. A topographical map of the Cape region was laid out across the flat face of the device with two sighting apertures mounted above the map on opposite sides of the ring.
“It’s an Osborne Fire Finder. Rangers use it during the dry summer months to estimate distance to suspected fires so we can call in a smoke report.” Pearl grabbed the circular rim and rotated it back and forth then bent down and squinted into an eyepiece fixed on a vertical rod. “You adjust the rods until you can peek through the nearer sighting hole and view the crosshair as it aligns with the fire. The degrees on the graduated ring tell the exact location.” She stepped aside. “Here, see for yourself.”