Adobe House San Fernando Canyon, built circa 1849
Kate drank her morning coffee standing in front of the TV, transfixed by a boa constrictor crushing a small pig. The pig was suffocating, its little legs frantically rowing the air. When the struggling stopped, the boa moved into position, fitted its jaw around the pig’s head and began to swallow. Before long the shape of the entire pig was visible inside the snake. “This process can take several hours or even days. We have used time lapse photography so you can see the entire feeding cycle,” announced a detached male voice.
Kate felt a great deal of sympathy for the pig. She took several deep breaths before snapping off the TV.
Well, snakes have to eat.
A hot, dry wind was picking up out of the northeast. It was the miserable Santana wind she hated. Her skin was parched and her ears were ringing. She started whacking away at the first overgrown rose bush by the back of the house, pink petals scattering.
She struggled with a thick branch, leaning on the handles of the shears. It wouldn’t give. Suddenly she felt breathless, like there wasn’t enough air or her lungs were too small. The coffee she drank earlier pooled in the back of her throat. She gave up on the branch and sat down on the bench swing under the peach tree, sweating from the heat and her own thoughts.
She kept seeing a snake out of the corner of her eye as she sat there, her heart pounding. She told herself it was fantasy, trying to break the spin into a full-blown anxiety attack. She told herself it was the hot wind picking up out of the northeast, setting her nerves zinging.
But she knew what was happening. It was the flood of memories triggered by the picture of the boa constrictor and the pig. And she knew the power of it was that right now, at fifty-five, she was feeling trapped. Trapped and in danger of being crushed and consumed.
She picked up a peach that had fallen on the swing seat and ate it, willing it past the knot in her stomach, the juice dripping between her fingers and off her chin. The fruit was over-ripe, more thumping down from the tree. Yellow jackets whizzed over the ferment on the grass. The whole garden was a mess. Lavender and rosemary foamed out of their beds, sweet broom had filled a corner of the yard. The faded blue flowers of the plumbago and its leggy branches annoyed her, reaching out the way they did in all directions at once. Why didn’t she start on the plumbago? Why attack the poor roses out of season?
It was Clifford that had her so unhinged. She met him in a bar. Clifford, who was Clifford, not George, her husband. She’d been sitting in a booth, sipping wine, her nose running, tears streaming down her face. George, that bastard who was her husband, had just destroyed her last hope of funding for the Women’s Center. She’d given every shred of emotional and intellectual energy for the last two years to that project. No wonder he’d been getting home late and leaving early – he was afraid to face her.
Good, he should be.
She ordered more wine, but it wasn’t the bartender that delivered it. Clifford, smelling like sage or rosemary – she couldn’t decide which – brought over a bottle and asked if he could join her. She noticed him sitting at the bar when she came in.
He didn’t look like somebody who would make a pick up in a bar – he was far too composed. And she certainly didn’t look like somebody who was waiting to be picked up, not with her blotchy face and soggy handkerchief.
He introduced himself. He said he had seen her at a meeting a few years ago when she made a pitch for the Women’s Center for Social Justice. “…away on business in the mid-east for the last eighteen months…knew George because the two of them had been graduate students in anthropology twenty years ago…so impressed by the pitch for funding for such a worthy project…remembered how passionate George had been about the Adobe House project…”
That George fact was not a point in his favor. She wanted more wine.
Too much fast talk, she thought. George’s passion for the Adobe House was now ruining everything. Oh what the hell.
She asked him to sit down.
[to be continued…]
Sage, or Salvia officinalis , a wild undershrub, has long been credited as a charm against evil, snakebites, and more.
Clifford’s hands fascinated her when he filled her glass…strong and broad, with an odd scar on the back of the left one.
“Bad burn when I was a kid,” he said.
“Oh god,” she said. “I’m sorry for staring. It looks like that symbol for infinity.”
“Yeah, it does—or a lazy eight. You okay?”
What had made her reveal so much? Why did she feel she could tell him everything, anything? He must have listened for an hour, nodding and refilling her glass, and offering her another napkin when she started to cry again. Finally he ordered a cheese plate and some fruit, insisting she eat.
Kate picked up the shears again and started after the roses. Why had she felt so safe with him? He said they had met once before, but she couldn’t remember. George used to listen like that, but George had disappeared months ago. The dirty socks and dirty dishes were evidence that he was living in the house, but she rarely saw him, and when she did, they didn’t really talk.
That god-damned Adobe House had been the only thing on his mind. Even he must realize that the University gets more PR mileage out of the Women’s Center than anything else, including his precious Adobe House. When she learned he had voted against funding for the Center she was furious.
And to make everything even harder, the graduate students who had volunteered to help with fund raising were always just -- there. He was so kind, so concerned, so “fatherly.” Hah. She’d been there once, and it wasn’t anything paternal he was feeling then. She was a graduate student, he was a newly-hired assistant professor. He was so cautious about their relationship that they never appeared on campus together and he didn’t talk about her or their engagement to anyone. She would tease him about it after they were married.
He used to be so much wiser, and so circumspect.
The abandoned Adobe in a remote canyon was where they had first made love. How many of those eager young students had he taken out there recently -- to “assess” the place, do a little “inventory?”
She grabbed the clippers and severed an thick branch of pink rosebuds. A thorn caught her leg and left a long, painful scratch.
She went into the house for some band-aids and a glass of water. Standing at the sink letting the water run cold, she thought about the oasis she found on Thursday, at lunch with Clifford.
They had talked for over two hours, and between them finished the bottle of wine. Well, he had one glass, claiming he didn’t really care for white but remembering that she did. Again, he listened. She poured out all of the frustrations of fund raising, teaching, and the political intrigues of the University that were swamping the faculty, as he poured the wine. When his knee pressed hers under the table, she pressed back. The thrill was electric, intoxicating. She stopped talking. For a long time they sat in silence.
Clifford was an exciting, intelligent man, attentive and obviously interested. She reached out and traced the scar on the back of his hand with her finger. He leaned toward her and the scent of him – that clean, herbal something – went to her head.
When he asked if they could see each other again, she said yes.
[to be continued]
The term skeleton key perhaps stems from such keys' resemblance to a skeletel figure, with the circle at top..., resembling a stylized skull. Wikipedia
George pulled his hat off and sat down on the rotting wooden steps of the Adobe House. Gillian had gone off to find a bush or an Andy Gump. He was exhasted from the heat and the long walk down the trail from the road, and furious with himself for asking her to meet him here.
She was obviously one of the students that he needed to keep at arm's length. The powerful attachments these young women were capable of had become numbingly tedious. It was flattering, still, to have that kind of attention, but too risky at his age and stage to make it worth the trouble. Besides, if he had wanted the physical, Kate was always a willing partner. He was just too tired, too bored, too...old. Students were starting to morph in his mind -- he couldn't always remember names, something he had prided himself on in the past. Shit, he needed a sabbatical. Or a shrink.
Gillian came back, looking altogether too fresh, and all together too young.
"Want to start the inventory? Or shall we just sit here a bit?" she said.
"Why don't you start with the outbuildings? I don't think there could be much left in any of them, but we need to be sure. I'll look around in the house. We'll need to finish before too long -- there's no power out here and it will get dark early in this canyon. Take some pictures to support the list in case anybody has any questions later about what was really here and the actual state of the place."
"Okay -- how long have I got?"
"Let's give it about an hour, and then walk back to the cars."
Gillian headed off, her camera slung around her neck like a tourist. Those shorts weren't the best wardrobe choice -- plenty of weeds and cactus to scratch those long, tanned legs...
"Watch out for snakes and poison ivy!" he called after her.
"Yes, dad," she called back over her shoulder.
God, she wasn't any older than his daughter Jenny. Didn't they know how vulnerable they were? They walked around campus flaunting all that flesh and all that youth like they were invincible. Actually, most were, these days. Make a concerned comment about how they were dressed and you'd get a sexual harassment case slapped on you. And Kate would be the one filing it, in all probability. He'd never thought of Kate as a raging feminist, but lately all he was getting from her was rage, of one kind or another. Shit.
He got up and pushed the key into the lock. It jammed, and he had to force it and then the door to get it opened. Good thing he had found some skeleton keys at the hardware store -- he thought he had remembered that's what it would take. Why hadn't security been out here to lock the place up? Surely somebody must have thought about liability issues, if nothing else, even though the facility had been out of use for at least twenty years.
Phew. The smell was rank -- rodents, wood rot, and damp. The roof obviously leaked badly, and there were long streaks of mold on the walls. He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket to cover his nose and mouth. There wasn't much here to list. An old rocking chair in the living room, and a beat-up trestle table with two benches. One of the benches was missing a leg. Two kerosene lamps. A pile of rotting firewood, and some large wrought-iron tongs. That was it.
The kitchen was more interesting-- assorted dishes and pots, a wood-stove with the door broken off, and an old ice box. Suddenly he remembered that he and Kate had spent one weekend out here before they were married and that ice box had caused their first big fight. He couldn't even remember what they argued about, but she'd spent the night on the couch.
God, that felt like a hundred years ago. He should have known then that she was stubborn and unforgiving. But even if he had, he knew it wouldn't have made any difference. He still would have married her. And the fact was he'd marry her again, right now. But he doubted she'd believe it.
What had ever made him think there was any hope of restoring this place? It was going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he was going to have to raise every one of them. Shit, he'd seen how hard Kate had to work at that -- and she was an expert. But he felt driven to revitalize what had been so important to him, to make it whole and functional again. It would be like regaining some of his youth, some of the passion he used to bring to his work -- and his marriage.
The bedroom was empty, except for an old army cot and another kerosene lamp. A pile of old student newspapers and several stacks of anthropology journals were stacked in one corner. His throat was raw and his nose was running from the dust and mold in spite of the handkerchief. He should know better, with his allergies. He decied to give up on any further assessment until the place could be fumigated and cleaned. He'd have to organize a work party and get the health and safety guy out to tell them how to do it. Probably make a good field project for some enthusiastic undergraduates. Poor suckers.
He pulled the door tight and locked it, then walked several feet into the clear air before he took a deep breath. Gillian rounded the corner of the house just as he collapsed.
Kate tried to put Clifford out of her mind. She was determined to make some progress, make some difference, in the chaos of her garden. But she was so tired. The scratch on her leg was bleeding, and it had begun to throb.
She sank into a chair like she had some internal injury, not just a scratch.
“In many historical cultures, palms were symbols for such ideas as victory, peace, and fertility.” Wikipedia
The kitchen looked odd to her, as if she were a stranger in her own home. Everything seemed to have shifted, colors were dimmer, the herbs in the window box were wilting, limp with the heat.
Where could she go from here? The familiar had disappeared. After the fight over the Center funding, George had moved into the guest room.
The sexual energy they had shared for twenty-five years had leaked out of the marriage long before the latest war, in any case. All of his passion seemed to be directed elsewhere – to the revival of his precious Adobe House.
Or were her suspicions true – was he actually having an affair with one of his students, using the Adobe House as a cover – a reason -- to be “away?” Hadn’t she fallen in love with him when she was a student?
He was patient and thoughtful, witty, and now gave off that paternal aura that could be a powerful attractor of young women. The full head of salt-and-pepper hair didn’t hurt either. She had seen him with his graduate seminar. He was ever the enthusiastic and supportive professor – scintillating, confident.
But when the students left, he collapsed in on himself.
Why hadn’t Clifford called?
A car crunched the gravel of the front drive. Damn and damn! Charlotte. Kate suddenly remembered they were supposed to go to a University lunch together. Now she would have to keep Charlotte waiting while she tried to pull herself together. They would both be late. Charlotte would hate that: it was already clear on her face as she came through the screen door.
Cool and polished Charlotte – no pit stains or wild hair – even when the Santanas were pushing 100 degree heat in off the desert. Behind her a strong gust picked up the rose branches Kate had just clipped and tossed them like a salad. So much for lessening the chaos.
Char was dressed in white linen, with sandals that showed off her trim ankles and pedicured feet. Her short dark hair was brushed smoothly back from her face, and her gray eyes were moving over Kate like radar. “I can’t believe you aren’t ready! We have to be at the Club in half an hour!”
Kate wanted to kick her, but instead grazed Char’s cheek with a swift peck. “I’ll only be a minute. I totally forgot about the lunch. Have a drink or something – you know where everything is.”
If only she would have a drink and not follow her to the bedroom and bath. But there she was, right behind her, stepping gingerly over a pile of dirty laundry.
Kate grabbed some clean underwear from the basket on the floor and went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. That didn’t stop Charlotte. For one so fastidious, somehow privacy didn’t figure into the equation. She opened the door and said “I’m getting some ice water – you want some?”
“No, you go ahead.” Kate stripped and stepped into the shower, grateful that the glass was opaque. Char would be back, and the lock on the door didn’t work.
She turned on the faucet, and standing under the cool water was suddenly reminded of a day last summer when she had seen the green parrots sheltering in her neighbor's palm tree. Rain had fallen so suddenly, and the parrots had swooped up under the palm fronds chattering like crazy. She had felt such an inexplicable rush of joy when she saw those lovely parrots, so close together, pushing one another this way and that, as families will do on a park bench. She checked that palm tree often to see if the birds returned. She had not seen them again. And she hadn't felt that bubble of joy again, either, until Clifford.
[to be continued]
“Did you know you’ve got ants all over your kitchen?” Char was back, and had seated herself gingerly on the edge of the bathroom counter. “Do you have any bug spray?”
“Under the sink.” Good, maybe she’d leave Kate alone if she could go kill something.
Fact is Our Lord knew all about the power of money: He gave capitalism a tiny niche in His scheme of things. He gave it a chance. He even provided a first installment of funds. Can you beat that? It's so magnificent. God despises nothing. After all, if the deal had come off, Judas would probably have endowed sanatoriums, hospitals, public libraries or laboratories.
GEORGES BERNANOS, The Diary of a Country Priest
That woman was impossible. Who else would even mention the ants, let alone offer to get out the bug spray.
If only she could just stay in the shower and fantasize – about the parrots returning, about Clifford…. She was more fascinated by his presence, his genuine interest in what she had to say, than his appearance. Oh, he was pleasant enough to look at, but there was also an electric charge about him, a magnetism, that worked on her like a drug. What would he be like as a lover? Not that George couldn’t be good…but it had been a very long time. With Cliff it might be…well, she didn’t know what it would be, did she? She signed deeply and stepped out of the shower as Charlotte was coming into the bedroom.
“That’s done. I found where the little buggers were coming in on the back porch and sprayed all around the stoop. Now you’re out of spray, though.”
“God, Char – that was a new can!”
“Well, you probably won’t have any more ants in the kitchen for awhile. Hurry up – I thought you’d be dressed by now. Your very particular presence is quite necessary at this lunch.”
“Why? I’m not on the program.”
“There’s some big alum, and Warren thinks he is about to drop a bundle on the university, and this guy asked if you would be there. I promised I’d make sure you were.”
Kate felt a little shock in the pit of her stomach. She had to sit down on the bed.
“Clifford somebody…I think it’s Clifford Stewart. He’s in town to collect the rest of an impressive inheritance, which he probably doesn’t even need, and has been behind closed doors with Warren several times in the last two weeks.”
The bubble of hope was rising. She brushed her damp hair back and fastened it with a clip. She wished she had time to get it up off her neck, but this would have to do.
“Don’t wear that tacky clip! Use the silver one I bought you – it’s good with your red hair.”
Kate sighed, and did as she was told.
“And put on that white halter-top dress – you look fabulous in that.”
That dress was clean, but she couldn’t wear a bra with it. Oh the hell with it, she’d wear it – but not to please Char. She’d wear it to please Clifford.
She grabbed a pale green sweater to throw over her shoulders and slipped into a pair of flat sandals.
“Aren’t you going to wear stockings and heels?”
“I am not.”
“Oh well, come on then. Warren’s probably worked himself into apoplexy.”
Kate glanced up at the palm tree next door as they left the house. No green parrots there. Yet.
They were thirty minutes late. The University Club was freezing, the air conditioning cranked up to accommodate the number of bodies packed into the dining room. Kate was glad she had grabbed a sweater. The room was, as always, divided into factions. The fine arts and humanities people had the two round tables at the back of the room, the social sciences were, as usual, split between two tables on opposite sides, leaving science and math in the middle. Nobody had to assign tables, this was just how the faculty always sorted themselves. George was missing from his usual spot. Where was he, anyway? But she was glad he hadn't come.
“We’re at the head table.” Char was nudging Kate to move forward. President Warren Fordham, Char’s husband, was looking at his watch.
“Where were you?” he hissed as he rose to pull out Charlotte’s chair. “I was afraid you weren’t coming!”
“Kate wasn’t ready when I got there, so I had to wait while she made herself presentable.”
“And I’ll take all the blame, as usual,” Kate said, smiling.
Cliff pulled out Kate’s chair. “I was afraid you might not be here today,” he whispered.
“Oh, yes, I’m here, finally. But I had no idea you were on the guest list! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I should have called. I wanted to.”
Someone was putting a salad on her left. Cliff poured wine into Kate’s glass.
“Not for me, thanks,” Char lightly grabbed his wrist before he could fill her glass, looking up at him and smiling. “I’m driving! So, you two already know each other?”
Kate knew it wasn’t driving Char was thinking about. It was her waistline. She kicked off her sandals under cover of the long tablecloth, and sipped her wine. Damn. Now she’d have to cook up some response about how she and Cliff knew each other – and be grilled later about why she hadn’t mentioned this very salient point when they were on their way to the Club.
“I’ve known Professor Walding since my last visit. She was the speaker the last time I attended one of these events. How’s the Center going, by the way? You were just getting started and looking for funding, I believe.”
Pretty smooth talker, fast on his feet. She smiled at him and said, “Well, the Center is probably going to fold after this semester for lack of that very funding I was looking for. I’ve come to the end of all resources, personally and campus-wide. The trickle of support we did get from the University has been diverted, apparently.” She looked at Warren. “Right, boss?”
Warren cleared his throat and started to respond. But before he could, Cliff said to him, “Actually, that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. I have a proposal that might solve the funding crisis with the Center.”
Then he turned to Kate. “Would you be able to meet with me after this lunch today? I’d like to discuss my plans with you.”
Kate could feel Char’s eyes on her. “Sure. We can talk. But you’ll have to give me a ride home.”
Char cleared her throat loudly and said, “So, Mr. Stewart, is your wife with us today?”
“I’d prefer Cliff – and no, my wife is no longer with me at all. I’m recently – and happily – divorced.”
Kate smiled. Char was a real pain in the ass, but she did go right for the bottom line.
The salad was surprisingly good. Pears, blue cheese, and fancy baby greens with sugared walnuts. Disappointing to have overcooked salmon served up next. At least she was sitting next to Cliff, who was obviously bored stiff with Charlotte. She kept on and on about litigating some issue on behalf of the city against a radical environmental group. He was, however, attentively filling Kate’s glass. She sat in a kind of hazy glow, startled when he pushed back his chair and went to stand by Warren at the podium.
After the usual welcoming remarks, Warren turned to Cliff and said “I’m very pleased to announce that Mr. Stewart has generously donated a sum of money to the University which will allow four new, full scholarships for deserving students. I’ll let him tell you how students can qualify, and who has been selected to receive the first awards for next year. And, Mr. Stewart will be honored next June at our commencement ceremony with our first honorary doctorate degree!”
Kate snapped to attention. She’d been trying to get an honorary doctorate in place for the last five years. How, now, suddenly was it so easily accomplished? And why didn’t she know about it? Her fund-raising for the Center could have been so much more effective with that honorary degree as an incentive! Cliff must have made one whopping gift to turn the academic council around so completely.
George had to have known about this. He was on the council, and the university couldn’t award any honorary degree without approval from that body. Why hadn’t he told her? One more betrayal.
Kate slipped her arms into her sweater, and signaled a waiter for coffee. Suddenly, she was very cold.
'What lies beneath may be more treacherous than the surface chooses to disclose...'
from student notes, archaeological dig, California coastline circa 1921.
Cliff's list of requirements to earn a scholarship was succinct, and somewhat surprising. High school gpa of only 3.5, an essay not longer than three pages, and a statement to substantiate financial need.
"One scholarship will go to each of the Colleges: Fine Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Science and Mathematics," Cliff announced.
Hah. Good luck getting anyone to agree on who would get the one scholarship in social sciences. The two sides of the room were already glaring at one another. Good thing the decisions this first year were made only by Warren and Cliff.
Cliff took his seat next to Kate, lightly brushing her shoulder with his fingertips as he sat down. She shivered. Warren anounced the speaker for the afternoon, a member of the Board. There was a shifting of chairs, a few faculty whispered excuses, and left.
The pitch for an alliance between the corporate world and the academic in "these uncertain financial times for public institutions" was not a new one. The faculty had been subjected to a number of presentations from wealthy business owners who were looking for some academic credibility and students who would work for very little to earn credit and work experience as interns. Some did have a genuine interest in promoting career opportunities for graduates, and some did genuinely want to support the university, but some also were looking for name recognition in the community as a way to promote their own economic growth. Most of the time, in Kate's experience, when really big business got involved it was solely for corporate gain.
But what about Cliff? What did he stand to gain -- making such a huge donation? It had to be at least a million or more. What were his motives? She pushed her chair back a little and looked at his profile while he was focused on the speaker. He looked genuine enough. Still, there was a tenseness about his jaw. He was sweating a little, even in the chill of the room. He turned and looked at her, breaking into a sudden smile and whispering, "It's almost over. Then we can get the hell out of here."
Char gave the two of them a warning "shush!" and a glare. Kate knew she was jealous. Charlotte wasn't used to anyone but Charlotte getting the kind of attention Cliff was giving Kate. Screw her. She didn't care what any of them thought.
Kate was now chilled to the bone, both by the speaker and the air conditioning. She yawned, and pulled her sweater tighter around her.
The corporate giant was closing with a promise to support the University in the "shared goal of maintaining a standard of academic excellence that will promote lucrative career opportunites for graduates." Hah -- translate "excellent opportunities for students who are smart enough to major in science, math, or computer technology." Kate could see faculty at the edges of the room squirming in their seats and whispering to each other. They knew what this meant. Those "smart" students would be put on a fast track to a degree with a waiver for most required fine arts or social science general education courses. Only the athletic department used to get away with that for varsity team members.
Applause followed the speaker and then the room started buzzing. Science and math faculty descended on the corporate giant, and the fine arts and social sciences faculty left to fume elsewhere. Cliff took Kate's elbow, saying to Warren and Char, "I'm spiriting Professor Walding out of here. I've got a project going and I need some expert advice. Thanks for the invitation and the opportunity to announce the new scholarships. We'll be in touch."
Kate felt like he was pushing her out the door, but she didn't resist. She was more than ready to leave. Cliff held her door as she slid into the front seat of his convertible.
"I thought that guy would never finish! God, what a bore. You were impressive, though. Why didn't you tell me you'd become a big-time benefactor?"
"You seemed pretty intense and focused on other issues the last few times we were together. I don't feel comfortable blowing my own horn, anyway. Let's drive out to the beach. I need to get that fake air out of my lungs. You don't have classes this afternoon, do you?"
"No. And I'd love to get away from this place."
The canyon road that cut across the mountains was deserted. Cliff seemed to know it very well, driving with only one hand, laying his other arm across the back of Kate's seat. The air was full of sage and eucalyptus. Kate couldn't decide if it was Cliff's cologne or the real thing. It didn't matter.
The sun would have been too warm if she hadn't been so chlled, but it felt good to sit back and feel the heat warming her through as Cliff guided the car up the long, winding road. By the time they reached the top she was almost asleep.
Halfway down the mountain, Kate saw the turn-off for the Adobe House. George's beat-up station wagon was in the parking area as well as an old VW bug that belonged to one of the female graduate students who came to the house for his seminar. Suddenly Kate was wide awake. There wasn't anyone in sight, which probably meant they had hiked down the trail to the house.
"What's up?" Cliff asked. She'd sat bolt upright when she spotted the cars.
"Who knows -- that was George's car parked in the parking area for the Adobe House. And he's not there alone, apparently."
"Want to go and check up on him? I could turn around."
"Let's just go on to the beach. I'd like a drink right about now, and I'd like to stop thinking about everlasting George and what he's up to as well."
They pulled into the parking lot of an old restaurant that had a good bar and a spectacular view of the ocean from big, high-backed booths by the window. There were only three cars in the parking lot.
"Is it open?" asked Kate.
"It opens at noon. I've been coming out here since I was old enough to drive. Looks like we've arrived between the lunch and dinner crowds. Good. I like having a place to myself."
"I'm here too, you know!"
"Believe me, I know," he said as he opened her door. When she got out, he picked up her sweater from the seat and pulled it around her shoulders.
A huge snake, sunning itself in a corner of the lot, slithered into the brush.
Workmanship refers to the quality of the work of an artisan or craftsman. WIKIPEDIA
At the bottom of the canyon, Gillian took a swig out of her water bottle. Hell, who did he think he was. He was acting like a god-damned father, and that certainly wasn't the effect she was going for. She'd never known her father, and didn't care to. She lifted her long brown hair and pulled it into a rubber band high on the back of her head, giving her neck some relief from the heat. Her khaki shorts and tank top had been a bad choice She'd been bitten by something, and her legs and shoulders were getting sunburned. She was going for sexy, it had turned out stupid. George was not about to pick up on any signals -- he looked tired and just plain old today. He had something on his mind, and it wasn't her. She might as well get on with it so she could take advantage of the light.
The three outbuildings on the Adobe property were an odd assortment of structures. She'd seen a proposal and rough sketches for two of them in a pile of miscellaneous documents George had collected. They were built in the 30's. The handwritten memo outlined requirements for a greenhouse and a potting shed to propagate and study area plant life. But she never expected to see anything like this. An obviously gifted artisan had built walls for the potting shed out of local rock. The walls still stood, but the wood frames for the windows were eaten away. Broken clay pots littered the floor. Although the roof was relatively intact, several of the clay tiles had cracked and some were missing. What a find! She could get some great pictures here. Thank god she'd brought the Nikon, the Panasonic wouldn't give her the focus options she needed.
George was the only one she had told about the plan she had for her life. Her mother and her advisor thought she was committed to antropological research, but only the "art of the artifact" had kept her going. Anthropology was a blind. She'd get a degree financed by her mother because that was the only condition under which her mother would pay for it. But she'd also get plenty of opportunities to do what she really loved. Her portfolio was growing, and she already had two galleries interested. But she wouldn't let that cat out of the bag until she had finished her degree. Then she'd be free to do exactly what she wanted. And this place might just give her enough material for another series.
The greenhouse still had panes of glass here and there, and long tables with metal trenches. There were water spigots at both ends with rubber hoses curled like fossilized snakes. These shots would be best in black and white. She reached into her bag for the Nikon SLR. It wasn't there. Shit, she'd left it in the car. Well, she could get some preliminary shots with the Sony.
It was getting late, the sun was starting to slip behond the mountain, she had to move on. Always time to come back for another shoot. She needed to look at the last building before she went to find George.
This one didn't look nearly as interesting as the other two. It seemed to be nothing more than a tool shed. There were two little windows, high up on the north side. When she walked around to the south, she could see a black stovepipe poking through the roof. The door was closed, but not locked, and she stepped inside. There was very little light, but she could make out an old pot-bellied stove and a bunk bed. She waited a minute for her eyes to adjust. She could smell the remnants of a wood fire, bacon, and coffee. Someone had been camping out here, and recently. Through the gloom she could see a broom standing by the door. It had been used, the floor had obviously been swept. The glass in the windows was new, and a box of unused candles stood on the shelf. There was an inflatable mattress on one of the beds, and a sleeping bag. A blackened frying pan and a metal coffeepot stood on the stove. Mold on the grounds. So, whoever it was, hadn't been back for at least three or four days. This building could be shot when they came back, it certainly didn't have much to recommend it in any case.
The door was hard to close, but she managed it. One of the hinges was almost off, and it hung unevenly. She stood blinking for a moment in the light, then started back towards the house. She poured some of the water she was carrying onto her hands and wiped her face. The heat was oppressive, heavy. God, she was frustrated and she was tired. Who would be likely to camp out in this remote place? Surely a vagrant would have looked for someplace closer to the road. Maybe George would have some ideas. She rounded the corner of the house, just in time to see George fall to the ground under a big oak tree.
Horrified, she ran towards him. Was it a heart attack? Her own heart was pounding as she bent down to see if he was still breathing. He moaned. Thank god, he was conscious, at least.
"Shit, shit shit! I think I've broken my god-damn ankle!" His face was pale as he turned on his side and looked up at her. His left foot was at an odd angle from his leg. There were beads of sweat on his forehead.
She felt a panic attack coming on. What was she supposed to do with a 180 pound man who'd just broken his god-damned ankle? What the fuck was he doing to break an ankle, anyway? No, she wouldn't panic, she'd keep calm and do what any repsonsible grown-up person would do--but what the hell was that supposed to be? Why had she ever agreed to come out to this forsaken piece of property anyway! She'd have to do something, he was obviously helpless. Why did the real grown-ups in her life keep failing her?
"Oh my god! I left my cell phone in the car -- I'll run get it. No, wait, it wasn't working out here! What can we do?"
George moaned again. He'd have to tell her what to do. She was usually so competent and efficient -- but now she seemed immolbilized.
"Drive your VW down this road and get me back up to the parking lot. Can you do that?"
"I think so. Will you be okay until I get back? You look terrible."
"Just get me up to the road."
She left him there, after handing him her bottle of water and helping him sit up against the tree trunk.
She was drenched with sweat by the time she reached her car. She was terrified, and she was mad. Medical emergencies always made her feel helpless, and helpless was not something she ever wanted to feel. Why wasn't there any traffic on the road right now? She could have hailed a car to get some help. But there was nothing-- not even a motorcycle. She was shaking as she put the key in the ignition and started the car down the steep path.
'Alas, she who cannot see the bars of her own cage will find it difficult beyond measure to escape.' anonymous
George had managed to use a tree branch to get himself upright. Gillian pulled up as close as she could, set the handbrake, and jumped out to help him. It took some maneuvering, but they got him into the passenger seat. He looked like he was about to faint from the pain. She made three cuts to turn the car around, and finally got it headed back up towards the road. She had no idea what they could do when they got back there, but at least they'd be closer to some kind of help. The engine cut out again on the steep rise. She pulled on the emergency brake, and turned the key in the ignition. It caught. She eased out the clutch, giving it just enough gas to take hold in first gear. They moved slowly up the grade. She knew he saw how close to panic she was.
Damn him. She'd show him she could cope. His ankle was purple, and badly swollen. He looked like he was going to throw up. If they could only get to the road maybe they could find a way to get some help. Hopefully there was a first aid kit in his car with something that would help with the pain.
"You handle this car like a pro, Gillian. Where'd you learn to drive?" She could tell he was trying to make small talk to calm her down, and to prove that though currently helpless, he was still the adult.
"I've been driving since I was twelve, actually. Apparently my mother's main goal in life was to make me self-sufficient." He winced as they hit a rut. They inched their way up the path, finally pulling into the lot. The road was still deserted except for a couple of ground squirrels. A hawk sailed in circles above them, catching the air currents and keeping an eye on the squirrels.
She parked next to George's station wagon. "Do you think there's a first aid kit in your car?"
"Look in the glove compartment." They were in luck. There was a kit, somewhat banged up, but inside there was a packet of aspirin and an instant cold pack. Still no cars on the road, though.
"I'm going to pull up so your door is close to the back seat. Think you can pivot on your good leg and get in? Then you can put your leg out straight on the seat and get the cold pack on it." She'd been shocked by her ability to make decisions, now that they were up on the road. "I'm going to drive you to emergency -- there's no cell service here and we would have to wait for an ambulance even if we could call." She had to get the hell out of there and get to someone else, anyone else, who could take responsibility, before her courage failed again.
George managed to use his good leg to support himself and swung into the back seat of the station wagon. He swallowed the aspirin. Gillian activated the cold pack and put it on his ankle. He fumbled in his pocket, finally dragging out his car keys, and handed them to her. Gravel scattered as she spun the car around and skidded out onto the road. She snapped the lights on as the sun slipped behind the mountain, leaving the sky washed in a pale gold.
"I didn't realize how late it had gotten. My wife will be wondering what happened to me."
The resaturant was deserted. Good. Kate wasn't in the mood to see anybody she knew or who might think they knew her. That happened too often when she and George went out. She'd like to just sit and look at the sea and know that Cliff was sitting attentively across the table. God, when had she gotten so self-centered? There was a part of her that had opened, a yawning black hole, that was desperate for nurture, attention, sustenance. Or was it just sex she was missing? Whatever it was, she didn't want to have to analyze it or even think about it now. It was enough to be here, in a cool, quiet place, with no responsibilities and no agenda.
They chose a table in the corner by the window in order to have a view on two sides. Before she sat down, she said "I need to find the restroom."
She passed by a tank full of exotic tropical fish, and was caught by the carefully orchestrated world, complete with underwater castle and buried treasure. The fish darted back and forth, back and forth, in a pattern that led nowhere. Did she imagine their frustration, or was that projection? She never had been able to enjoy the zoo, even as a child, or to keep a bird in a cage. That was probably why those green parrots had filled her with such joy that day -- the fantasy that they'd escaped from some demonic pet store and found their own way into the wild, wild world. She wondered just how they had set themselves free. Did they have a liberator, or was it an act of nature -- like an earthquake, flood, or fire? Or did someone simply forget to lock the cage?
[to be continued - you can find the preceding chapters of INTO THE CANYON here.]